I’m feeling old. I was checking my list of published articles and noticed that my first Magic-related articles were published almost a decade ago. That’s a perfect excuse to talk about where Magic is at, and what it is doing. A lot has changed — and a lot has stayed the same.
Let’s start with the perpetually repeated whine…
Magic is Dying.
Magic died, the first time, just before I started playing tournaments. A decade ago, people suddenly discovered just how good card drawing could be. They found that tightly constructed decks with lots of damage, backed by Necropotence, were extremely good. People were turned off by “Necro Summer.” So many people disliked the Constructed environment, and were sick and tired of everyone drafting White to get Empyrial Armor, that Magic just could not survive. The Internet, at that point, was just boards — but those in the know posted their obituaries and explanations of why Magic died on these boards.
They were slightly premature.
When I first started playing tournament Magic, Magic did indeed have a problem. Urza’s block was seriously unbalanced. In draft, Pestilence was a common, so everyone drafted — and won with — Black. In Constructed, Wizards had introduced brokenness, like a “free” Time Walk, along with a pile of broken artifacts and spells. Once the serious deckbuilders got their hands on these cards, they created decks that killed on turn 1 (sometimes games dragged all the way out to turn 3), and we had “Combo Winter.” Combo Winter had such a serious impact on attendance at PTQs and elsewhere, said the experts, that Wizards would have no choice but to stop printing cards. Magic was dying.
As it happened, attendance at Urza’s Block PTQs soared. Wizards hired some former pros to help R&D test decks and avoid the broken mess that was — to some extent — Urza’s Block.
What really killed Magic was the Sixth Edition rule changes. We went from Instants and Interrupts and the law according to Bethmo to the Stack and Initiative and the Comprehensive Rules — rules that actually let anyone figure out how Titania’s Song, Humility, two copies of Opalescence, and Mycosynth Lattice interact. As some many people foresaw, players could not handle the rules change, and Magic went under.
Well, not exactly. We found that the death of Magic worked differently under the new rules.
(Amusing note: At the Shadowmoor prerelease, I talked to a couple more players who had last played during Ice Ages, and were just coming back. One complained that there were no interrupts in his packs. Absolutely true.)
Magic next died during Mercadian Masques. Wizards was so shell-shocked by the broken combos coming out of the mind of Urza that they printed a set closely modeled after Homelands. The creatures were small and overpriced: I remember drafting an endless stream of 2/2s for three mana and 3/3s for five mana. The big mechanics of that block were Rebels and Mercenaries. Don’t remember Mercenaries? No surprise: Rebels was broken and Mercenaries sucked. Rebels messed up the Block Constructed Pro Tour, and drafts. If three or fewer drafters fought over Rebels, they won. If four or five players fought for Rebels, they lost. Moreover, in Standard, people were still tapping broken Urza’s Block cards and creating decks around cards like Replenish and Yawgmoth’s Bargain. The period was so bitter that players stopped playing, and the game folded.
Or not. Players grumbled, but they kept playing. I started drafting regularly during Masques block — that might be while I still am not that excited about draft. Of course, I have only once found a format that is actually less fun than drafting Masques. That is “ass draft.” A long while ago, we did not have a lot of money to draft, the store was selling 5th Edition, Homelands, and Fallen Empires packs really cheaply. We drafted that combination: 1 pack of 5th Edition, 2 packs of Homelands (combined, since those packs held eight cards each), and 2 packs of Fallen Empires (ditto.) Yuck.
Shortly after Masques killed Magic, Invasion Block came out. It had tons of fun cards in lots of bright, cheerful colors. Players rejoiced and Magic was saved. More or less. Invasion was a fun block, with a lot of interesting decks. Sure, Fires was a really good archetype early, and UBw control was potent later, and people whined about the few really good decks, and why those good decks were too good, and so on. Some people even hated drafting Invasion. (Personally… well, I have eight draft sets squirreled away. Someday I will host an Invasion Block draft. I doubt I will have any trouble finding eight eager participants.)
At the end of Invasion Block, a few people explained that Invasion was so good that anything that followed it would have to be such a downer that Magic would die. No question.
Odyssey Block came, bringing madness to the crowds. Once again, a few decks dominated. People foresaw Magic’s demise. Ditto Onslaught block.
With Mirrodin Block, Magic really did teeter on the edge of the precipice: Wizards made me a playtester. Fortunately for the game, I was not invited back as a playtester for Darksteel or Fifth Dawn. I still wonder if I would have seen some of the problems — but when my group was playtesting the cards, Disciple of the Vault cost 1B, and the sacrifice outlets like Arcbound Ravager didn’t exist. I did have one combo deck built around Vedalken Architect, but it was not broken, and another around Disciple, Myr Retriever, and Ashnod’s Altar — with Intuition to find the Retrievers. Also not broken.
Anyway, Mirrodin brought Affinity to Standard and led into Pro Tour Tinker. Bad times, which were terminal for Magic.
For some value of “terminal.” Just like 2+2=5, for sufficiently large values of 2.
Actually, I think the Affinity mechanic did kill off one thing. I suspect that Affinity was what finally got Wizards to stop pushing mechanics really hard. In sets leading up to, and including, Mirrodin block, Wizards would create a mechanic, and would create enough cards to support decks built around the mechanic in Block, Standard, and sometimes even larger formats. Thus, in blocks with
Rebels, Rebels was a dominant deck. That happened with Madness, and Affinity, and cycling, and so on. In effect, Wizards was building our decks for us, and we hated it. With time — and Affinity — they learned a better way. Instead of having a handful of Tier 1 cards in each set, they aimed for more balance. Sometimes they have achieved that balance. Sometimes not. (Faeries? Seems like “not.”)
After the problems with Mirrodin, Wizards decided to do an Asian-themed block. As many people pointed out, that was the death knell for Magic. Personally, I didn’t much care for the block, but then I have never developed a taste for sushi either. It’s a matter of taste, and Kamigawa tasted good enough that people consumed a lot of packs.
After Kamigawa, Magic was once again saved by an exciting multicolored set. Ravnica really was the new Invasion, and proved to be the boost that people were looking for. Once it ended, some people once again said that Wizards could never follow it up with anything as exciting, players would get bored and leave due to backlash. Magic was doomed once again.
Actually, as it happened, nostalgia and Time Spiral proved to be more than a match for ultimate doom. Time Spiral was powerful enough to plow through that problem, and even the dreadful Coldsnap that froze our draft tables during the summer.
Now Magic is going to die from a non-card source — it is doomed because we lost a Pro Tour, and States, and so forth. And because we are moving into a recession, and recessions are really hard on companies that produce luxuries. As a ton of forum trolls will tell you, Magic cannot possibly survive.
First of all, I have to point out that a ton of forum trolls is actually a pretty small number. Forum trolls, like many Magic players, a not light-weights. They have bulk, and often tip the scales at more than an eighth of a ton apiece. More seriously, Wizards has survived economic downturns before. Most importantly, to Hasbro, the parent of Wizards, economic downturns are old hat. Hasbro was a game company throughout the stagflation in the 70s, and the crashes in the 1980s and later. Being a subsidiary of a big game company causes some concerns, but it also has some advantages. One big advantage is that the corporate owners have expert knowledge in how to weather economic downturns. Wizards will come through this easily. The big question is whether all the little, local stores can do so as well — but Wizards seems to be targeting their support heavily to store level play, so I’m optimistic.
As I mentioned, I have been drafting and playing Shadowmoor Sealed for a couple of weeks. I have also listed to the podcasts and read the coverage of Grand Prix: Brussels. Shadowmoor looks quite interesting. It appears, at least for now, that both fast, aggressive weenie rush and slow hold-on-until-the-fatties-come-online strategies can work. The format has bombs, but the bombs are not unstoppable. Overall, it looks pretty good.
I have been drafting regularly since Masques Block. I think I like this block, so far, at least as well as any other block I have drafted. However, keep in mind that although I have been drafting for a decade, I am not a Limited specialist, or even particularly competent at Limited. Take what I say with a grain of salt.
Still, it looks good.
Pro Tour: Hollywood is coming soon, and the format is Standard. I expect that Hollywood will be full of Faeries. No, that’s not some stupid, offensive homophobic joke — Faeries is a very potent deck.
We don’t know exactly what the Pros may unveil at the PT, but we have seen a preview. StarCityGames ran $5k and $2k Standard events over the weekend. The result — the exact same Faeries deck won both events. The main page, and Standard side box, has links to the event coverage. Here’s the breakdown of the two Top 8s.
Mono-Green Aggro: 1
Fiery Justice: 1
RG Land Destruction: 1
Red Deck Wins: 1 (Go Evan Erwin!)
GB Elves: 2
Here’s the breakdown of the decks playing in the finals.
Faeries versus Faeries.
Does this mean that Faeries is going to dominate Hollywood? Maybe. It is very good. On the other hand, if people have great tech, they may not have brought it to the SCG event, but are saving it for the PT. Actually, it seems that people may have played what they knew — only a couple of decks played any Shadowmoor cards at all. Evan played Nom Nom and some Shadowy rares in the sideboard, and the Dragonstorm deck played a few new cards. Daniel Samson’s Mono-Green deck had Kitchen Finks and a bunch of G/W dudes. Fiery Justice had a land, Merfolk had Mirrorweave and Cursecatcher, and R/G Land Destruction had Fulminator Mage. Not a lot for sixteen decks.
The Top 8s did not have any of the new trick or combo decks. No one placed highly by making everything enchantments and blowing up the world (or, harder but more fun, playing Spring Cleaning and winning the Clash.) No one played one of the infinite mana decks, nor made Top 8 with Reveillark combo. Zero Juniper Order Druids appeared in single elimination games. That may change once we get to Hollywood, but for now we seem to have the same old metagame once more.
Looking at the current Standard more broadly, however, I see one big difference between what Magic used to be and what it is now. Constructed is different. In the past, we always had serious control decks. I remember, in my first tournament ever, playing against Forbidian. That deck had a ton of counters, including Forbid, plus Nevinyrral’s Disk and, eventually, Capsize with buyback. The deck basically countered everything, then bounced all your lands.
That sort of control decks dominated Magic for years. I remember writing — at least once a year — about investment theory: the ideas that you could not pay more than four mana and a card for anything your opponent could counteract for UU and a card. Counterspell was king, and Wrath of God was the power behind the throne. Today, all that has changed.
It’s not just that Counterspell is gone. That level of control is gone. Land destruction, and decks like Ponza, are rare. (I would have said gone, but look at the Top 8s…) Control decks that intend to counter everything are gone. At best, Faeries can be considered aggro control — it is close to a card for card remake of Counterslivers, not Forbidian. Both Counterslivers and Faeries have a limited number of counters, some targeted removal, a bunch of creatures that combine well and the best card drawing they can lay their hands on. (Do Slivers have hands? Ah, never mind.) Neither deck strives for complete control — just enough control to keep from losing while small fliers kill their opponents.
The other difference is that creatures actually matter. People attack and block — really, people block — in Constructed. This is a huge difference.
Both BDM and Rich Hagon have recently commented that we see fewer pros that are “Limited specialists” or “Constructed specialists” anymore. Some of this may be due to the change in pro points, levels, and support, which make it harder to get on the gravy train if you only play one format. I think that a larger portion of the change is due to the fact that the skill sets for Constructed and Limited are unifying, because both types of games are playing out similarly. Once upon a time, combat tricks like Giant Growth appeared only in Limited. Now, they appear in Top 8 decklists in Extended Grand Prix (albeit Gaea’s Might, not Giant Growth itself).
Sure, Constructed and Limited have a few different skill sets (draft orders versus counting all the way to 60, to name just two), but the skill sets are closer than they ever were. We have more complex tricks in draft nowadays — and Constructed does not feature the hard, grinding Magic as a solitaire math puzzle that playing decks like Sabre Bargain and Trix used to be. Almost all Constructed games are now far more interactive.
Shadowmoor is here — but not online. MTGO still has some serious problems. No leagues, no PEs, bad interface, bad colors, trading is a mess, and the marketplace makes it really hard to buy cards. Wizards also announced that so-called “Service Pack 1” would not be ready, but that the fixes it would have to be rolled out in smaller bunches to allow QA to vet them.
The blog post describing that is here.
That’s the bad news. On the other hand, I have had Magic Online running all day today with no problems. Earlier this week, I built a brand new deck, went out and bought a few cards to fill in some holes, then played a bunch of games in casual play room. No problems at all. I finally have enough confidence to draft online again. I did a triple Morningtide draft earlier and had zero problems (except that I lost the die roll in the finals — we both won every game in which we played first.)
I have checked and verified my collection against the csv file I made before 2.5 went dark. I have all my cards, and everything I have traded for and opened since that time. Everything that is supposed to be there is there. (Unfortunately, the cards that I don’t own still are not there, but that’s a whole different issue — and not the fault of the program.)
I know people still talk about memory leaks and performance issues. I don’t see them. I have been running Magic Online 3.0 on three different computers, including a cheap laptop and a desktop machine that is almost 5 years old, and I have had no problems.
The blog post does include some interesting tidbits. Here’s one quote:
“…WotC didn’t have a core competency in developing a major online game title when this project was conceived in 2003, no argument there. We now have the right people in place to argue that we do have that core competency, but V3 is constrained by being designed and built in a time when we clearly weren’t there yet….”
People have wondered what that meant. People also wondered why the post ended with pictures of two 3D Avatars — the cross-eyed tiger from 2004 and the Reaper King from 2008. No explanation was given.
Personally, I think this is a nod towards the theory I presented two weeks ago — that many of the current and fixed issues (fonts spilling off cards, colors, textures, difficult in modifying the interface, etc.) are all due to the game being built on a 3D engine (e.g. World of Warcraft), instead of a 2D interface like a spreadsheet. That’s the “constraining factor” — and that’s what’s making the repairs more difficult.
Wizards, let me repeat my request. I want a 2D interface that shows me card faces and lets me play Magic. I have zero interest in dancing avatars, or even animated avatars sitting at tables shuffling cards. I play in spreadsheet mode wherever possible — because that’s all I need. That, a stable server, and a game that lets me play Magic online. We are almost there — but we would be there if the game were built on the right platform.
Having the right platform does improve performance.
“One million words” back on MTGO