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Why Ninth Edition Will Suck (At Least For You)

I have two unique qualifications, both of which allow me to tell you exactly why Abe Sargent’s proposed “Abeth Edition” Core Set would be disastrous for the future of Magic… and why, despite the fact that it would be a disaster, Wizards may have to follow Abe’s lead in the next Core Set anyway.

I have two unique qualifications, both of which allow me to tell you exactly why Abe Sargent proposed “Abeth Edition” Core Set would be disastrous for the future of Magic… and why, despite the fact that it would be a disaster, Wizards may have to follow Abe’s lead anyway.

But first, let me show you a sketch from The League of Gentlemen. Do me a favor and read this as fast as you can, as if someone was actually reading it out loud to you at a quick pace.

(SCENE: Mr. Best and Mike are attempting to play a game of cards with their friend Doc.)

MR BEST:
Don’t you know any card games, Doc?

DOC:
Yes — whist, knock-out whist, rummy, Pontoon…

MIKE:
Oh, come on! Let’s have a game of Go Johnny Go Go Go Go!

DOC:
I don’t know that one.

MIKE:
Oh, everyone knows Go, Johnny, Go Go Go Go!

DOC:
Well, I don’t!

MR BEST:
You do! It’s like a cross between Hoover and Eight Men Down!

DOC:
Well, I don’t know how to play those either!

MR BEST:
It’s all right. We’ll just have to explain the rules to you, then.

MIKE:
It’s very simple…

MR BEST:
Jacks are worth ten, kings are worth three —

MIKE:
— apart from one-eyed jacks, which are wild cards —

MR BEST:
— we’ll come to those in a minute —

MIKE:
— round one you get a hand of nine, round two a hand of seven…

MR BEST:
Now, two’s a wild card —

MIKE:
— but we’ll come to those in a minute —

MR BEST:
— Apart from diamonds, which retain their face value —

MIKE:
— except the king of diamonds, obviously.

MR BEST:
Obviously! We play in sequence unless you can match a pair… or play a card in ascending or descending order.

MIKE:
And that’s a Go, Johnny, Go Go Go Go.

MR BEST:
You stand up, pick up all the cards on the table and shout “Go, Johnny, Go Go Go Go!

MIKE:
The winner is the man with the most tricks after fifteen hands…

MR BEST:
You’ll pick up the rest as we play. Shall we say….a pound a round?

DOC:
I’m not really sure how to start…

MR BEST:
Well, just put a card on the table.

Now, obviously the point of this sketch is to show how ridiculous and annoying it is when people assume that a game is easy just because they know it. Even Poker, a fairly tame game compared to Magic, frequently intimidates people because they can’t remember whether a straight beats a flush, or whether either of them beat three-of-a-kind. I know more than a few people who’ve gone to Vegas and never played at the card tables because they didn’t want to look like an idiot.

The problem with Abeth Edition is this: The new players are all Doc.

Abe is Mr. Best.

When Abe designed his set, he playtested it with some friends to make sure it didn’t break Standard (which is more than most people do)… but I can guarantee you that he didn’t sit down with someone who’d never played Magic and said, “Here are the cards. Build a deck.” Because if he had, he would have seen the problems with his set right away.

But I have. I have two teenaged daughters, both of whom I’ve taught to play Magic on long card trips — which is my first qualification. I have taught Magic to intelligent people who know nothing about Magic.

And if, say, teaching my daughters isn’t enough, I also spent three years deciding which “Ask The Judge” questions should get published. It may come as a surprise to you, but we publish maybe 40% of the questions that get sent in. The rest of the questions are so basic that they are, frankly, embarrassing to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the rules.

That’s right: Despite the fact that we have a whole searchable archive and a Top Ten List Of Most-Asked Questions, our noble judges still have to handle no-brainer questions like “Does my Black Knight die if my friend plays Wrath of God?” and “My friend Shocked my Frostling before I could sacrifice it. Is there a way to play that correctly so I can do the damage?”

The Core Set has three basic functions, and the most important is — or should be — to introduce players to the game of Magic. Abe did a fine job for tuning his set to provide a reasonably-balanced Standard environment… but that’s probably the least-important aspect of the set.

Having witnessed a number of first-time players trying to walk their way through a game, I can tell you how complicated just the basic stuff is for them. Sure, you have the “untap, upkeep, draw, first main phase, attack, second main phase” engraved on your cerebellum… but new players can barely remember what an attack is, let alone the several different steps of the attack phase. You know instinctively that the 2/1 means a two power and a one toughness, but new players keep forgetting which is which. And how come you don’t choose what creatures block your attackers?

All the things you take for granted are not clear to newbies. When can you cast an sorcery? What’s the difference between a sacrifice and a destroy? And what happens if you block a 2/2 with a 1/1 and your opponent casts Giant Growth on the 1/1? What do these “land” cards do again, and can I use them more than once?

The answers are all obvious… to you. You’re hip-deep in this game, and God bless you. Our site runs on people like you. But to a new player, simply remembering that you can’t block multiple creatures with one guy is high frickin’ tech.

Flying. Blocking. Tapping. Life gaining. Double-mana symbols. That’s all a hell of a lot to take in… and that’s assuming that they get it right.

Here’s the biggest bulletin you’re likely to get today: Most of them don’t.

Merely by coming to a site like this, you are in the top 20% of all Magic players. Sure, the difference between you and Kai Budde or Gabriel Nassif is gigantic… but most Magic people have a deck they play once or twice a month with pals, and that’s it. They don’t go around trying to scope the metagame, and they’re certainly not motivated enough to read 4,000-word articles about high-level Magic concepts on non-official sites in their spare time. If there’s a rules dispute, the best solution for them is not the right one, but the one that gets them back to playing the game the quickest.

Statistically speaking, by arriving at StarCityGames.com, you are a freak. A good freak, to be sure, one who can mop the floor at most casual tables – but your zeal to learn more about the game puts you so head-and-shoulders over everyone else who doesn’t come here that you can’t even see it.

But once you start hanging out with other like-minded people, even the casual guys, your vision starts to narrow. Since these are the only people you see, they must be the majority of people! Everyone must know Magic as well as we do!

And so you forget about the silent majority who just frickin’ play.

These guys buy a few packs from the new set when it seems fun, and don’t have a collection of all the cards they need — in fact, the idea of “buying cards to build a deck” is laughable to them, because who takes this game that seriously? Most of these people have no clue that you can play tournaments professionally…

…and there are an awful lot of them. They don’t show up here, but to forget their very existence is a critical failure.

And confusing them is a bad, bad idea. They’ll accept the fact that the Advanced sets might have some weirdo cards they don’t understand, but if the beginner cards raise heated debates where the outcome of a game hinges upon it, they’ll quit. Why the heck would you want to play a game where it’s not clear whether you lost or won?

And Abeth Edition is packed with cards that cause weird problems. First, let’s look at the protection ability, which Abe threw in because it’s not that difficult to understand. But if it’s not that difficult to understand, why were about 10% of our raw “Ask The Judge” questions about protection when I was in charge?

The reason Wizards leaves “protection from X” out of the main set is very simple: “protection from X” is not one, but four mechanics, wrapped up in a deceiving key word. The four mechanics are:

1. All damage dealt to the protected card by sources of that color is reduced to zero, no matter where that damage came from.

2. You cannot target the card with any effects or cards of the protected color.
3. You cannot block a protected creature with a creature that is of the protected color.
4. You cannot enchant a creature with a card of the protected color.

Each of the first three mechanics, if introduced today, would be a keyworded mechanic… but thanks to the wonder of old templating, “Protection from X” is a bundle of complex interactions.

And even that’s not an accurate picture of everything “protection from X” does, because it doesn’t mention what protection can’t do. It can’t save you from global, non-damage threats like Upheaval or Wrath of God. It can’t save you from sacrifice effects, either.

Now, that’s complicated enough for people reasonably familiar with the rules… but do you think that people who are struggling to remember that mana doesn’t carry over from one phase to another are going to grok that you can block with a protected creature, but you can’t block a protected creature?

They can’t. I’ve tried. I know it doesn’t work. And the deeper problem with Abeth Edition is that it wants to have these complex interactions that a) actually matter, and b) are just going to confuse the heck out of — and, ultimately, drive away — people who are just starting out.

Heck, let’s just traipse briefly through White to see some of the questions I know will come up:

  • Does Congregate count the number of creatures I have when I play it or when I’m done?
  • I Shocked my friend’s Voice of All before it came into play, so she can’t attack me. Right?
  • Good thing my Absolute Grace cancels out my friend’s Engineered Plague!
  • I Humbled my friend’s critter, and it had +1/+1 tokens, so they went away, right?
  • Tempest of Light. Does that touch my enchantments, too?
  • I waited for my friend to pay the mana for my Ghostly Prison, then tapped it with Master Decoy once he paid it. I’ve got a combo that can’t be beaten!

This is not to say, of course, that the Core Set shouldn’t be without rules questions — you’re going to have to learn what the “all” part means in Tempest of Light sooner or later, and Congregate’s probably not a bad way to show people how you can do things in between announcement and resolution — but the thing that struck me about Abeth Edition is how much it was designed for people who already knew the rules. And that’s a major problem for an entry set.

Plus, there are other issues. Abe scorns the Rolling Stones/defender combo, but the very reason these stupid mini-synergies are in the Core Set is because they’re the first strategies — however bad they are — that people take. Yes, it’s stupid that people want all of the Lucky Charms (“Gain 1 life whenever you cast a (color) spell”) in the set, and it waters down the draft environment… but the point is that beginning players love lifegain, and you have to let them play with it for awhile to find out how stupid it is. Likewise, the Goblin King combos. Likewise, the “Put four of each Circle of Protection” into a deck combo.

(Also, there are some terrible ideas in there. I love Serrated Biskelion, but I also remember trying to keep track of which counters were +1/+1 and which ones were -1/-1. And you’re asking beginners to do this?)

It’s not that I think Abe did a bad job — he set out to create a set that would create an interesting Standard environment and a good draft set, and largely I think he succeeded. (Barring obvious ridiculousness like Show and Tell.) He just had the wrong priority.

…or did he?

I mentioned earlier that I had two qualifications that allow me to speak on the topic of the Core Set. The other qualification is that I have bought more boxes of Magic cards than most of you ever will in a lifetime, because I used to be a buyer.

A “buyer” is the guy who decides what product goes on the shelf of your local store. Me? I worked for Waldenbooks for three years, and in that time I chose all the computer books that went in every computer section in all 960 or so stores. I wrote these huge invoices for upwards of $250,000, buying warehouses full of “Windows 95 for Dummies” and shipping ’em out.

And I bought the Magic cards.

Oh, it was a nice job. I liked getting all the cards for free. But the biggest problem I had was that these cards were non-returnable, and the buyer before me had decided that Waldenbooks’ customer base — who tended to be, shall we say, simple — would absolutely go nuts for a simplified beginners’ set.

So we bought tons of Portal, which was gathering dust on our shelves.

Wizards came back a couple of years later and said, “Wait. We made Portal too simple. It wasn’t like Magic. Here’s Portal 2, which will sell great guns!”

By the time I got there, our shelves were choked with unsold boxes of both Portal 1 and Portal 2.

Wizards then came to me — the guy who could buy literally thousands of boxes — and said, “Look, Portal 1 and Portal 2 sucked the moose behind, but we’ve learned our lesson. The new Core Set (or, as some would call it, Sixth Edition) is sure to be a bomb-tastic hit! It’s where people begin! It’ll sell by the boatload!”

I thought, “Surely, people will be interested in how to play this game!” And I bought heavily into 6th. And it did a little better than Portal, which is to say that Firefly did a little better than Greg the Bunny.

In the end, I was there by the time 7th Edition came a-knockin’, and I reduced our sales forecasts to something like “60% of a normal expansion pack,” and we sold about what we should have. But the lesson was clear for us Walden-folk:

The Core Sets don’t sell.

I’ve heard tell (not officially, just through rumors) that 8th Edition didn’t do all that swell either despite the 10th Anniversary hoopla, and the reasons are pretty obvious: If you’re making a set that’s simple enough for beginners, you’re not going to make it interesting to the advanced players who are your bread and butter.

The Core Set paradox is that it has to contain the “good” cards, but they are by their very nature reprints. You can go for powerful reprints, or interesting reprints in an attempt to get them to buy… but most people aren’t willing to pony up almost four bucks for a pack of cards with only one or two new ones in it.

Sure, maybe Saviors won’t be the greatest set – but we can guarantee that you’ll get at least thirteen cards you don’t already own in the first pack you open. Ninth Edition? Not so much. The tag line might as well be, “Yeah, you already have it.”

You can attempt to create a new Core set, as Wizards did with Portal: Three Kingdoms… but the problem you run into there is that all of the simple mechanics have been done. You either say “Screw the beginners” and make the new cards interesting — in which case, why not just make it a whole new expansion? — or you make them simple, in which case you have a bunch of underpowered Asian-flavored cards that nobody halfway skilled wants to play with.

But here’s the other paradox: If you don’t have a Core Set that sells, then people can’t be introduced to it. Sure, you can sell random packs of Betrayers, but eventually some new kid’s gonna have to learn it… and they don’t all learn from their friends. You have to have some sort of set that introduces you to the game’s mechanics on its own.

But since that Core Set is of little interest to the experienced players, retailers don’t want to sell it. And it’s very hard to convince any major retailer, “Yes, this product doesn’t sell that well, but you need it.” They look at raw numbers. That’s it.*

In the end, if the Core Sets cannot sell sufficient numbers, Wizards may actually have to abandon their beginning players in order to keep their Core Sets on the shelves… which, in turn, makes it harder to sell future sets. If they keep their Core Sets simple and accessible, then they get them into less retail outlets.

There was a rumor that 9th Edition will contain more of the “power” cards that people haven’t seen in awhile — cards like Rancor, Mox Diamond, and Tradewind Rider — and while it turned out to be a Photoshop job in the end, I wasn’t as skeptical as I could have been simply because Wizards has to find a new way to market the Core Set every time. The last time it was the big 10th Edition Hoo-Hah, and even that didn’t send them flying off the shelves. What’s 9th? Who knows?

I’m not sure how you fix the Core Set, or even that you need to. It may be that Wizards is wise enough to look upon the slow sales of the Core Sets as a loss leader, which I think may be the best course. But the Core Set is attempting to serve three masters at the same time — beginners, Constructed, and money — and that’s a nearly-impossible task. Somewhere, it’s going to make someone unhappy — and in this case, that person is Abe Sargent.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy

TheFerrett@starcitygames.com

* – Fortunately, most games shop suck so much when it comes to competent retailing that they keep it on the shelves not because it sells, but because they think they should have everything that comes out. Yay for stupmidity!