Core Set 2019 Conundrums

It’s a Fact or Fiction triple play as Ari Lax, Ryan Overturf, and Patrick Sullivan debate all things Core Set 2019!

[Welcome to another edition of Fact or Fiction! Today, Ari Lax, Ryan Overturf, and Patrick Sullivan are here to render their verdicts on five statements about Core Set 2019. Don’t forget to vote for the winner at the end!]

1. You’re happy to see a new crop of planeswalkers in Core Set 2019, as Chandra, Gideon, and Nissa were getting a bit stale.

Ari Lax: Story Fiction, Cardboard Fact. I thought the Gatewatch was actually being developed as interesting characters. Part of the reason that the Battle for Zendikar story sucked is it was the Avengers 1. Wow, look, they do stuff and it’s cool! Your Tony Stark doesn’t have PTSD, hasn’t made Ultron, and so on. Duration allows nuance, and I’m afraid this shift means we will get less of it over time. If you return to Sarkhan or Ajani after a year or two, do you spend too much time reintroducing them to go deeper? Possibly.

Game mechanics, though? There are only so many Chandras you can make. Wow, it minuses to kill a thing, pluses to ping. Wow, new Jace’s trick is it makes an Illusion while drawing cards. Nissa number 47 makes a creature out of a land.

This rotation of characters lets you play with planeswalkers that do something different. Even if they weren’t largely build-arounds, they aren’t stuck with the same ability archetypes. Ajani just wouldn’t ever have a card that is the same as a Gideon, and for Magic to be more dynamic over the years, exploring that is important.

Ryan Overturf: Fact. Honestly, I don’t so much care about any one character being overdone. A lot of what I found endearing about Magic when I first started playing was the deep lore around Gerrard and the Weatherlight, and it never much bothered me that these characters were referenced a ton throughout the history of the game.

Still, introducing more characters allows more opportunities for different players to find characters that resonate with them. Sarkhan isn’t anybody new, but I’m sure there are players that are jazzed about Vivien Reid, and that’s awesome.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. Magic has a deep world of elements, characters, and locations to draw from, so there should be no shortage of characters to rotate in and out to keep things fresh. Even for more generic card types—artifacts, for example—Magic’s creative team does an excellent job of communicating distinct styles across different thematic identities, so the artifacts of Kaladesh look, feel, and play differently from those in Amonkhet. Variety is a good thing, from the top-level world being constructed all the way down to the more generic card and creature types that compose a set.

Diversity is even more necessary when deciding which planeswalkers to feature. They all have storyline and mechanical identity and they all have at least three abilities. It is very difficult to make the fifth Chandra feel like Chandra while being distinct from previous versions of the character. I understand the desire to make the most prominent characters appear as regularly as possible, but in recent years the same planeswalkers have been repeated a bit too frequently, dealing damage to the novelty and excitement those characters should bring. A little breathing room isn’t the worst thing.

2. Nexus of Fate as a Buy-A-Box promo is a horrible idea.

Ari Lax: Fact. I dabbled in World of Warcraft TCG when that game existed with a high-level scene. There were cards that were only available through the equivalent of Standard Showdown packs. Access to these was always a nightmare, and the peak was a card worth over $100 and basically unbuyable even at that price point.

I’ve done some back of the envelope math based on released Magic gross revenue numbers. Buy-a-Box promos are, at best, rarer than mythic rares, if not multiple times rarer. If any of them is ever good enough for serious play, it is a nightmare.

I was over it last time, and Firesong and Sunspeaker was pushing it even less.

Ryan Overturf: Fiction. “Horrible” is really strong. The card is definitely pushing it in terms of power level for where I want a Buy-a-Box promo to be, though I actually disagree that the issue is Standard playability. It is absolutely true that Nexus of Fate is at a power level that would be excellent in many different Standard formats throughout the history of the game. I’ve been playing a lot of Standard lately, and I don’t believe this to be one of those formats. There’s just too much pushing mana efficiency in Standard right now. Mono-Red Aggro beating you up, Duress, Negate…it’s difficult to even find a window to get a Glimmer of Genius in these days.

I believe that Approach of the Second Sun is a generally scarier card and that it’s not particularly good right now. Not to mention that taking extra turns tends to matter only in situations where you have an established battlefield and get to do more than drawing a card and playing a land. For the blue decks in Standard, that generally means controlling a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or The Scarab God. These permanents don’t need help. When you untap with them, you just win. Rotation could change things, and maybe I’m just a big old dummy, but I’m betting against this card being widely played in Standard.

I will say, though, that this card very clearly will be played in Commander decks. I’m going to wait and see where the price settles, though an exclusive release obviously limits the supply. My biggest objection is actually that I strongly dislike having cards that only exist in foil, as I’ll likely be looking for a copy or two for Brawl. I’m on board with saying that Nexus of Fate is not where I want a Buy-a-Box promo to be, though my reasoning and expectation for the degree to which this is a mistake is different from most.

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction. This question is a bit vague, so I’m going to assume it’s referring to having gameplay-exclusive cards tied to promotions like Buy-A-Box. Full disclosure: I have worked on games in the past that have used distribution models other than booster packs to give out cards that were legal in our equivalent of Standard-level play. In large doses, it is a nightmare—lower-investment players regularly encounter cards that they’ve never seen before in games and don’t know how to acquire them, and higher-investment players are tasked with tracking down a bunch of different cards from various distribution channels, which is laborious and can feel like an inauthentic way to shake up formats or drive sales/organized play behavior.

With all that said, we aren’t talking about dozens of cards. We’re talking about a handful. And we aren’t talking about a ton of distribution channels, but just one: your local game store. And while Nexus of Fate is quite a bit more powerful than Firesong and Songspeaker, it seems unlikely to impact Constructed-level play very much. As long as Wizards of the Coast doesn’t overdo it and is judicious about how powerful they make the promo cards, it is likely an exciting—but ultimately harmless—way of boosting sales on the local level and giving players one more thing to talk about during preview season.

3. Reprinting high-priced mythic rares like Scapeshift in Core Set 2019 is a good idea and something we should see more of.

Ari Lax: Conditional Fact. Mythic rare in a normal set is a good spot to put a chase card to buffer the reprint value loss a bit, which is important. Just listen to the horrors of Yu-Gi-Oh! players to know oversaturated reprints are bad.

The conditions I impose:

The card should seem mythic. Crucible of Worlds definitely is. Scapeshift is close enough I won’t argue (think The Great Aurora). Thoughtseize isn’t.

It must be fine for Standard. Again, Crucible and Scapeshift are, Thoughtseize isn’t.

It must be set-appropriate. In this case Thoughtseize would be, but Fulminator Mage or Sliver Legion would be weird.

I keep using Thoughtseize as an example because this isn’t a new process. Wizards has been careful here because they were burned in the past including high-desirability reprints. This is a good execution, but it is narrow in scope.

Ryan Overturf: Fact. Core sets tend to be nuts-and-bolts and have historically not been great sellers. Because of this, when a particularly powerful card ends up in a core set, it can become very expensive. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy once pushed a $100 price tag, and Goblin Rabblemaster was consistently $15+ while it was in Standard despite being the Buy-a-Box promo. The idea of reintroducing core sets is that Wizards believes sales will be better now, and reprinting cards that are already sought-after is a great way to accomplish this. I don’t know how coherent Scapeshift will be in Core Set 2019, but I’m here for it.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. Reprints are a powerful tool for generating excitement during preview season. Many players are pessimistic, or at least take an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach to buying into a card or mechanic for Constructed-level play. Having a few choice reprints increases the perceived value of the set and guarantees everyone has something they hope to crack when opening up packs at the Prerelease. Alleviating the financial pressure in Modern and beyond is a nice bonus for players, and this is accomplished much more effectively by reprinting cards in boosters that cost $4 instead of $10.

A few minor quibbles with Scapeshift and Crucible of Worlds. One, I think it is nice when you can reprint cards in sets where they make mechanical sense, and those two cards have nothing to do with the mechanics in Core Set 2019, as far as I can tell. As of right now, not a single land that has been previewed has any meaningful interaction or synergy with these cards, and there isn’t a keyword like landfall that can give them some texture. It feels much more like reprinting for the sake of reprinting, and I’d rather take an approach that appreciates the structure of the set in question.

Two, I wish Crucible of Worlds had new art. Some players will prefer it, and it helps preserve the collectability of the older versions. These are minor quibbles, though, and I still support the general idea of reprinting some high-value cards.

4. Cards like Amulet of Safekeeping and Suncleanser should be uncommon, not rare.

Ari Lax: Fiction. I shouldn’t have to read a thesis on energy counters at uncommon. A dead uncommon for Limited is fine, but jeez.

I probably shouldn’t need to read it at rare either. These cards feel underwhelming and ham-fisted. Picking it up to read is bordering on assured slow play.

I feel like there should be more of a reward for getting to the end of that text box. When I spend all that time on The Scarab God, there’s an “oh crap” moment. Half of Kaladesh had a million words, but the end result was “That sounds cool to see happen.” This has neither. Take a page from Solemnity’s book and keep it clean on hate cards.

Ryan Overturf: Fact. If I’m being completely honest, cards like Amulet of Safekeeping just shouldn’t exist. It’s a disgustingly ham-fisted design that is actually worse at what it does than Damping Sphere, which was already not a very inspirational design. More to the point, though, Damping Sphere was an uncommon and these cards are more of the same. During preview season for Dominaria, most players believed that Damping Sphere was going to be a rare, and as such pre-order prices were kind of out of control. Hosers are pretty boring cards to crack open at rare and having these cards at uncommon helps reduce feel-bads when it comes to Draft, Sealed, or even just cracking boxes. Putting these cards at uncommon also helps control the price of narrow sideboard cards, which are the sorts of cards that many players have difficulty justifying paying top dollar for.

Patrick Sullivan: Fiction, most of the time. I’m guessing “cards like Amulet of Safekeeping and Suncleanser” is a proxy for “artless, inelegant hackery that befuddles and disappoints novice players while stripping away any sense of discovery or nuance from more established players,” and I’ll answer as such.

Not all these designs are created the same—Suncleanser sort of reads like a Magic card, and Detection Tower has a story so sweet and evocative that I don’t lump it into the same camp, even though I’m guessing the design was motivated by its Constructed applications. Amulet of Safekeeping is an indefensible abomination. But I’d rather not narrow down on a single design here, and just talk about the general philosophy.

The most compelling case against doing these sorts of designs at rare is that they are wildly disappointing to large swaths of the player base. That’s true, and a major cost. Many players see the rare as the motivating reason to purchase and open a booster pack, and while not every rare can be exciting for everyone, something as bizarre, dissonant, and unappealing as a weird, indecipherable sideboard card grades about as low as anything can. Start doing that with any frequency, and the message is clear—”Don’t open booster packs.” That’s a very dangerous message to send.

While I acknowledge the very real risk of frequently putting these designs at rare, I think two arguments carry more weight. First, as stated above, not every rare is for everyone, and while a novice player may really enjoy opening Shivan Dragon for the first time, competitive players know that card isn’t close to sniffing Constructed these days and counts as a “miss” when opening packs. The same can cut in the other direction—it’s a miss for some players, but a hit for others, and as long as every demographic is served across the aggregate, it isn’t the worst for a small percentage of rares to be deeply unappealing to a certain demographic. If you’re making sets with the appropriate range of designs at rare, it’s unavoidable, in fact.

Second, rarity is many things, including an ideological expression of what game events a player should expect to encounter frequently, and which should be infrequent. My sensibilities here run way more extreme than the current Magic design team—I generally think it’s a mistake to explicitly reference planeswalkers on commons like Vessel of Nascency, for example. Many of these types of cards reference strategies or interactions that occur irregularly across a random sample of all Magic games played (not just high-level Constructed). A hypothetical Grafdigger’s Cage at uncommon suggests to me that players are frequently playing spells and creatures out of their graveyard and deck, and there just aren’t a whole lot of Magic designs that facilitate that sort of thing.

I don’t think this is a question that is answered in absolute terms—it is more about volume, frequency, and the specific designs than anything else. The occasional Damping Sphere at uncommon might be a little strange, but it’s hard to argue it’s ruining anyone’s time. Amulet of Safekeeping would emit a low, long fart noise no matter what rarity you stuck it at. Wisdom and judgement matter. But I think these designs should typically land at rare, with infrequent and specific exceptions.

5. You’re excited about the return of Nicol Bolas in Core Set 2019.

Ari Lax: Fact. As I mentioned before, I like depth. Storywise, it felt like Nicol Bolas as portrayed in Hour of Devastation was hollow and uninteresting. Storywise, it seems like Core Set 2019 is setting out to give him a real pathos, and if it fails, it can’t be worse than the existing gap.

Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is also a pretty awesome card. There are only so many seven- or eight-mana ways to make Bolas. We get it: he wrecks all the stuff. The small-ball transform design is a great way to both change the scale of the card and keep it the same. It also feels like a measured approach to 2018 value-threat Magic, with immediate value but with the long-term runaway advantage tempered with a real cost.

Ryan Overturf: Fact. I’m already building a new Brawl deck. I’m pretty agnostic about most characters and don’t dance around the fact that I just like good Grixis cards. So… duh.

Patrick Sullivan: Fact. The Elder Dragon cycle in Legends inspired me during my teenage years, and I love the callback here. Nicol Bolas in particular feels like a character that is from a 1997 Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and I love a design that captures the epic feels of the old designs while being at a more modest mana cost. Making Nicol Bolas the only flip card in the set is an excellent way to prop up his status and make the design stand out.

I really, really, really wish so much of the power didn’t emerge from having a Ravenous Rats trigger tacked onto an awe-inspiring Dragon. I’m not confident this is the best design to have among the most powerful in Standard (not that I’m saying I’m predicting that outcome). But you’ve got to pick something to be good, and a Nicol Bolas that’s exciting, splashy, and provides Grixis decks an incentive to be more aggressive isn’t the worst roll of the dice.