Earlier today, Mark Rosewater, lead designer of Magic: The Gathering dropped a bomb of an announcement on the Magic community concerning the future of the game. Don’t worry, Wizards of the Coast is not doing anything that drastic. Magic will continue to be otherwise be the Magic trading card game for the foreseeable future. The announcement really just pertains to the structure of how the game is released and the Standard format rotation. You can read the whole post here, but the short version is that over the coming year the following changes will go into effect.
– The block release structure will change.
– Blocks will be two sets, a large and small, instead of three set.
– Core set is getting removed entirely.
– The yearly schedule will be two blocks, before it was one core set and a block of three sets.
– Standard will be rotating more frequently.
Obviously this announcement has some pretty major and far reaching implications and I’m going to break it down here as I see it. As I mentioned in the news post, these changes do have the greatest impact on organized play. If you’re the sort that attends FNM every week or plays competitively you’re going to get more out of it than a casual player. But that said, I do think there’s potential for this to impact the kitchen table as much as the Pro Tour.
Two Set Blocks
Almost since the beginning of the game, Magic has released in a fairly predictable pattern. Each block consisted of three sets, a large fall set and two small sets coming out in the winter and spring. WotC has ventured off and experimented with this method a few times, like the Lorwyn and Shadowmoor cycle and occasionally changing up the order and size. A lot of this was due to a pervasive issue with this system, the third sets just weren’t typically very interesting. There were a number of contributing factors: most of the best design work for the block gets front loaded into the earlier sets, the mechanics start feeling stale that many months later, small sets don’t have much impact, and the list goes on.
The theory behind the two set method is that it will condense what was normally stretched thin into three complete sets. Now all the best ideas for that block’s mechanics can be cultivated into a tighter collection of cards. Every mechanic and archtype can be more carefully crafted and supported. This may even increase the quality of cards in general as less filler or design holes will need to be filled. This just means the potential for better environments in both constructed and limited. No more lame third sets fouling up an already interesting draft metagame and no more dud sets that barely even make a dent in Standard.
For the couple interesting third sets like Rise of the Eldrazi, I’m happy to make the cut for the likes of Dragon’s Maze. The three set structure might have better supported the natural story arc of beginning, middle and end, but personally I’d rather have better game first and work out the kinks in the lore second.
Core sets have been a bit of an odd beast for a long time in Magic. The original notion was that it was eventually going to be the perfect “core” set of Magic cards that wouldn’t change. Lately it’s been used more as a dumping ground to ensure that certain cards, especially those that didn’t otherwise fit in the blocks, were still available for the Standard metagame. As discussed in the post, there was also this conflicting notion that core sets were supposed to be a simpler, with fewer and only returning mechanics, in order to appeal and attract new players, but this was at odds with the fact that only more invested players were interested in the yearly release. I suspect that WotC was also finding that products like Duels of the Planeswalkers was also serving as a much better introduction and gateway into the game.
While there have certainly been some standouts lately, the burden was simply a little too much and something needed to give in order to make way for the new schedule of doing two blocks, each with two sets, instead of a core set and a block with three sets. I don’t think most are going to particularly mourn the passing of core set when it means more blocks or new mechanics. I do wonder what this means for staples and reprints. It’s possible we might see more of what M15 did where reprinted cards that don’t actually appear in boosters are technically in the set, and thus legal, or we’ll simply see more function reprints. Come on, we need another [mtg_card=Lightning Bolt], right?
Once you start hitting the point in Magic where the donation box gets more cards than your binder or finding out about bulk sell rates become a thing, much of the point of core set becomes a little moot. I certainly don’t need a hundred copies of [mtg_card=Pacifism].
The last major announcement has to do with how the other two combine and that’s the changes to how and when Standard rotates. While it draws on the other announcements, it’s probably got the biggest impact of them all, especially for organized play. Currently, Standard rotates once a year with the new fall set pushing out the previous year’s core set and the last block once removed. This results in the fall set being in Standard for 24 months, the core set being in for a little over 12 months and the other two sets falling roughly between those number. The new system will be a more constant rotation with twice a year the latest block’s first set will push out the block that proceeded it by 18 months. WotC made these nice little gifs that help to visualize what will happen.
We actually sort of got hints that something was afoot when it was originally announced that all the Pro Tours next year would be Standard. This had a number of folks guessing that a rotation change was in the works, since no one probably wanted to see the same decks again and again. As anyone that’s currently playing Standard will probably be quick to tell you, the format feels pretty stale. The speed at which Standard gets “solved” has been on the mind of WotC for some time now. With the advent of more tools, methods of sharing information, and streaming of major events every weekend, it takes less and less time for the Standard format to settle into the established best decks and there’s far less opportunity for surprises from rogue brews. Under the new system at and one time Standard is going to be touching three different blocks of cards and mechanics, making for a deep pool of cards to choose from.
Also as much as Standard rotation is really about new cards entering, the biggest changes to the format happen when cards leave and a big pool of cards needs to be re-evaluated. For instance, anyone that was around for the previous rotation know that cards like [mtg_card=Pack Rat], [mtg_card=Jace, Architect of Thought] and [mtg_card=Nightveil Specter] really only came into their own once Innistrad block was gone. This switch over is now going to happen more often, introducing a more dynamic environment to Standard. The increased flip over time also means that WotC can potentially be more liberal with card reprints or push the envelope. Lord knows I’m not particularly looking forward to another year of [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] effecting mulligan decisions, but powerhouse cards become a lot more stomach-able when they are not lingering around for two years.
Ultimately, Magic is a game that’s built on change. New cards enter the game constantly and its change that keeps the game fresh. This isn’t the first time that some major changes have shaken up the structure of the game, and I doubt it will be the last. In many ways these are just as important as whatever the new format defining card ends up being. All in all, I’m really excited for this future of Magic: The Gathering.