It’s easy to tear down. It’s not as easy to build up.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve cast an eye towards the state of White in Magic. One might think from these articles that I’m wholly unhappy with how the game has been developed. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As far as I’m concerned, Magic is healthier than it’s ever been before, and the person who deserves the most credit for surge of vitality the game experienced from Invasion forward is none other than Randy Buehler.
Urza’s Saga was released in October of 1998, and the set began a two year period of rapid decline in Magic’s health. Saga block ushered in the Combo Winter, a period of time in which Tolarian Academy and Memory Jar based decks reigned supreme in Type Two, and cards couldn’t be banned fast enough. These decks were capable of killing on the first and second turns with regularity, and turned Magic into a solitaire affair. Players quickly became disillusioned with the game, and fled tournament play in droves.
Mercadian Masques block came next, and instead of making things better made things worse. R&D, paranoid at what had happened with Urza block, ramped the power level so far down on Masques block that the cards were genuinely unfun to play with. The cards were not too exciting, the block Pro Tour was dominated by a single deck type (Rebels), and players were quitting the game left and right, as two years of problems had left them weary of the long term health of the game.
Enter Randy Buehler. Over the past week, I had the opportunity to speak with him in a series of e-mail interviews. I wanted to get the straight skinny on just what had been going right with Magic since Masques block. What many of you might not realize is that Invasion was Randy’s first set in Magic, and while I don’t want to downplay the absolute importance of each and every R&D member who has worked diligently over the past years to ensure Magic be a well designed game, I am not at all hesitant to point out that the turnaround in the health of the game came with Randy’s arrival in R&D.
"My start date was October, 1999 which was early in the development period for Invasion. I started out as a dev team member," Randy told me. "I think when I got here there was a general nervousness (both in the public and inside Wizards) that Magic might end in a couple of years. R&D had essentially dropped the ball when it came to the Saga block, and then the Masques block was deliberately weak in an effort to make sure those mistakes didn’t happen again (and also to flush all the crap out of system, [especially in] Standard). The idea was to reboot Magic’s power-level with Invasion and then set it at a power-level that R&D could maintain going forward so the game would be fun, but not broken. I didn’t think up that plan, but I guess I was a big part of the execution of it."
I’d have to say that R&D was successful on many levels with Invasion – it remains one of the most revered and popular blocks in Magic history. People loved the design of the set: the ability to play any combination of five colors they wanted, or sometimes all five at once. The mechanics were popular, the Block Constructed format thrived with literally dozens of viable decks, and the individual cards were both interesting and useful.
And then there was Limited.
Invasion marked the beginning of modern Limited play. Modern block formatting began with Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight, where a main set would be released, and then it would be followed with two expansion sets over the course of the year (Ice Age/Alliances were developed together and were more of one set broken in two, then a true block pairing). Tempest/Stronghold/Exodus, Urza’s Saga/Urza’s Legacy/Urza’s Destiny, and Mercadian Masques/Nemesis/Prophecy followed over the next three years, but none of them had the design philosophy for Limited play that became evident with Invasion/Planeshift/Apocalypse.
This might not seem like a revolutionary concept, but take a step back and look at the past few blocks. I know that I’ve enjoyed drafting all of these past few sets (granted, some more than others), so I sat down one day a few months ago to figure out why. Then it dawned on me: R&D had done everything possible to get rid of mana screw in Limited play. Take a look at Invasion: There are dozens of mana fixing spells (from Harrow to Quirion Trailblazer to Sea Snidd to the cycle of common comes-into-play tapped lands in Invasion.). Kicker allows you to play a spell for less mana if you are short on land. Many spells had a reduced mana cost which was substituted for a more color-intensive cost (Galina’s Knight, Goblin Legionnaire). Gating allowed for powerful creatures that were costed aggressively. Split cards could still be cast, even if you were missing one of their colors of mana. Domain cards took advantage of different land types, but didn’t necessarily need a full compliment of basic lands to function.
"There has definitely been a conscious effort to attempt to give each block at least one mechanic that minimizes mana screw in Limited," Randy answered. "One way to do this is to allow people to play less land (by giving them cycling cards for example, or relieving the stress on their colored mana commitments). Another way to do this is to make it ok to play extra lands (because you need to flip your morph guys in the late game, or you need to sac your lands for some effect, or discard them to get to threshold) This goal will play out differently in every block, but yes it is a deliberate and conscious effort."
Look at Mirrodin, which is the most popular Limited format since Invasion. You have affinity cards, which reduce the cost of spells. You have five common Myr which produce mana, a lot of cards which play and cycle for one mana (the Spellbombs, Chromatic Sphere). You have Equipment, which are essentially tweaked colorless enchant creature spells. Hell, half the cards in Darksteel and Mirrodin are artifacts, which in turn heavily reduces the possibility of getting color screwed. There are five Talismen which produce two colors of mana. Green has mana fixers, the five Shards all can be activated without a colored mana if worst comes to worst – and the result of this is that people can play fewer lands in their decks (many Pros go down to fourteen regularly, whereas seventeen or eighteen land had been the established norm in the past), allowing more spells to be cast per game, which in turn equals more player involvement and more fun.
Constructed has likewise undergone a complete renaissance. Before Invasion, there seemed to be a kind of”rock-paper-scissors” metagame that would perpetually exist. First there would be a dominant deck, then a deck designed to beat that deck, and then a deck designed to beat the deck that beats the formerly dominant deck, but that loses to the formerly dominant deck. This is also known as aggro beats control beats combo beats aggro. Invasion broke this mold by giving the players a ton of good cards, instead of just a few ridiculously overpowered cards. Urza’s Rage and Flametongue Kavu were both good spells – you wouldn’t build a deck around either of those, but you would include them in any number of different decks. They weren’t limited in scope to one use (such as Stasis or Necropotence), but instead were the norm of the new R&D philosophy.
As a result, Standard and Block Constructed flourished. There was a brief hiccup during Odyssey Clock Constructed (when U/G Madness and MBC dominated), but since then there’s always been at least a dozen different decks sitting at Tier one and Tier two in Standard and Block Constructed. Today this legacy continues, with Affinity, U/W control, MWC, MBC, Goblins, Goblin Bidding, White Weenie, Desire-Combo, G/W control, Red LD, R/G LD, R/W Slide, B/U Zombie Aggro, Charbelcher, and other decks all existing as viable tournament winners in today’s Type 2 metagame.
Next time you’re playing Magic, take a moment to think about the state of the game, and realize that the reason you’re still having fun with Magic at this point is due to a number of factors – but in my mind, the number one reason behind the game’s current health is Randy Buehler, Director of Magic R&D.
Today is Randy’s last day writing the Latest Developments column for mtg.com. Please, if you’re happy with the state of the game today, if you’ve enjoyed these past few blocks or have fun drafting the newest sets, take a minute today to go to the message board of Randy’s farewell article, and thank him for the job he’s done taking Magic from the brink of disaster to the highest point it’s been at in the game’s entire history.
Afterword: In his interviews with me, Randy wanted to credit a host of other people regarding Magic’s current well-being. These included, in no particular order, fellow development members Brian Schneider and Henry Stern, current D&D developer Mike Donais, R&D members Bill Rose, Mark Rosewater and Mike Elliott, and all of the Wizards staff that goes into promoting the game, including the organized play division, the staff of mtg.com, and everyone else that has contributed to the game over the past years.
"Unlike when I got here, Magic now seems fully entrenched as an”evergreen” brand. It’s going to be around for years and years and years. Year 10 was Magic’s biggest year ever and I honestly don’t know why it would ever stop being successful. Whenever people ask me if I miss the Pro Tour, I always say that my goal is to do my job well enough that the Pro Tour will still be there for me when I retire. So far so good…."
– Randy Buehler, current Director of Magic R&D