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My Thoughts On Mark Rosewater’s State of Design 2022

Join Sheldon Menery as he analyzes the 2022 State of Design and shares his thoughts on what’s good (and bad) for the future of Commander.

Wedding Ring, illustrated by Olena Richards

In Mark Rosewater’s State of Design 2022, he posits that it’s been a good year, with lots of innovation and flavorful design.  He breaks down each new-content booster release, discussing the highlights and lessons of each set from the big picture sense. Before getting into the individual sets, he has comments on overall Magic design, pointing out the highlights and lessons learned.  It’s no secret that while Mark and I have tremendous respect for each other and have been friends for more than two decades, we don’t always agree on design issues when it comes to Commander.  I’ll take a look—assuming the most charitable readings possible—of what he has to say regarding Magic design as it touches Commander spaces, offering up where I agree with him and were I don’t.

Highlights

Mark’s three overarching successes were that Studio X pushed the boundaries of what Magic can do, experimented with how to properly readjust the color pie, and adapted design to customer feedback.  The first is undeniably true.  Magic design has gotten quite a bit bolder over the last few years and I’m here for it.  From the possibilities of Universes Beyond to just making compelling cards, more design space is going to equal more success.  Designers have broken the dogmatic chains and find themselves quite a bit freer to explore.  The net gain there is that we get fewer cards that are just generically good and more that explore compelling places.  For example, a card like Horn of Valhalla goes into the Adventure space to take an updated look at Decree of JusticeLulu, Loyal Hollyphant goes somewhere we haven’t been before, with a blanket “permanent left the battlefield” trigger.  Being bold means having the freedom to do both variations on a theme and something that’s never been tried before. 

As far as the color pie is concerned, while I’m happy with the attention that white has gotten over last year’s releases, I’d like to see more attention paid to other colors.  He calls the work on other colors “a little subtler,” but it doesn’t need to be.  We can zero in on the kinds of things that the other four colors like to do and focus on them doing things that are different without breaking the pie.  Red’s look at rummaging and bottling (what we called exiling the top of the library and being able to play the card(s) later) have kept it fresh without the need to devolve into raw destruction and abject chaos.

The biggest point about adapting design to customer feedback is the willingness to listen.  For the longest time, there was a kind of “we know best” elitism that exuded from designers in general, a closed-minded, from-the-top approach that threatened to stagnate the game.  I do believe that designers do know best—but that’s in how to do things; there is, after all, value in expertise.  The welcome change here is opening more up to the what, taking a fresh view on which things they’ll apply their considerable skills.  My biggest takeaway from the Overall Magic Design section is that there’s no longer a monolithic “this is what Magic is” philosophy.  The design gates have been opened to a legion of possibilities and I think we’re never closing them again.

Lessons

As far as lessons learned, Rosewater points to needing to be more aware regarding backward compatibility, treading carefully with complexity, and being more conscious of how they talk about their products.  To all three of these, I’ll point back to listening to customer feedback.  These are all lessons that have remained unlearned previously, so forgive me if I’m skeptical.  I’m going to hold out some hope and cross my fingers that I’m not the Charlie Brown in this scenario. 

Especially when it comes to understanding communication, and while this might be drifting some from specifically what Mark is talking about, we’re in the midst of what I see as this year’s greatest comms failure—namely, releasing Double Masters 2 hot on the heels of Commander Legends:  Battle for Baldur’s GateSomeone—paid marketing professionals, in fact—had to look at the release schedule and say “Yeah, this is fine.”  I don’t know where that team’s failure to understand the landscape may have fallen.  The net effect is that an extremely well-designed, healthy-for-the-format set got obliterated by something much more shiny.  Even knowing that every set is not specifically designed for Commander and it’s fine for them to make stuff without us in mind, having a grasp that every set is a Commander set whether or not it’s intended that way has to be part of the marketing team’s calculus.  I’m not even saying that Commander Legends:  Battle for Baldur’s Gate needed to include some of the bombs of Double Masters 2 (it’s probably healthier if it doesn’t, in fact—but that’s a different conversation).  Someone simply needed an awareness that they demonstrated they either didn’t have or didn’t care about.  Either way, I hope that in the long run, Commander Legends:  Battle for Baldur’s Gate will stand the test of time and will be remembered as a set that was a big positive for the format.

Innistrad:  Midnight Hunt

I’m a little less confident than Mark is regarding Innistrad: Mightnight Hunt’s successes.  I will agree that the introduction of multicolor flashback and the new land cycle—one of the year’s great triumphs—were quite well-received.  The rest was kind of shrug-worthy.  There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the new mechanics (with an exception), the addition of the folk horror elements, and revisiting old characters, it’s just that they weren’t anything to get all that excited over either.  That exception of course is day/night, a mechanic that is great in theory and ends up awkward in practice. 

In his lessons, Mark recognizes that a major problem is that the mechanic isn’t backwards compatible.  I get that introducing errata to a bunch of cards is high effort to low reward (and one of the reasons the Commander RC doesn’t issue format-level errata).  Cards that are extremely similar playing differently is simply a major fumble.  We saw it when the RC did Innistrad Plane Constructed and every time there was a day/night change, it took a while to figure out who was affected and how (if at all).  The thing is that I don’t want to be too critical, because I don’t see a really elegant solution.  You can’t really just hand-wave it and make it work. 

While I can’t speak to the colors being balanced in Limited formats since I didn’t play any, I’ll strongly agree with Mark’s other two lessons, namely Werewolves not getting their due and Double Feature being a big miss.  I’m all for trying out different treatments and letting artists really indulging themselves, but there are two issues at play here.  The first is that I’m among many folks for whom the Double Feature style simply doesn’t resonate.  This is not inherently bad; I want there to be art in the world that’s of a more selective appeal.  If something’s not up my alley, I don’t want it to go away, I’m just not going to dive into it.  The second issue isn’t just Double Feature’s fault.  It’s sometimes getting really difficult telling what cards are on the battlefield these days.  With various treatments (which again, I find excellent in theory), we can have multiple versions of the same permanent that don’t resemble each other in any practical way.  Recognizing cards by their art is an important part of Magic’s game flow.  By having so many radically different versions of them, we put a stumble into something that normally progresses briskly.

As far as Werewolves not getting their due, I don’t think there’s much more to be said and I don’t want to just pile on.  Tovolar, Dire Overlord was great.  After that, things really fell off.  Werewolves almost seemed like and afterthought in their own set.  There are nearly as many Vampires (15) as there are Werewolves (19), with no other Legendary ones.  I don’t know if we’re visiting Innistrad at some point in the future, but if we do, I desperately hope that we can rectify this one.

Innistrad: Crimson Vow

I agree with all of Mark’s highlights.  The mechanical overlap between sets was good, Blood is a nice alt-Treasure idea, the Dracula overlays are cool, and the wedding theme was fun.  The theme allowed for some top-down design that yielded positive results.  Wedding Ring, for example, is a big design success (instantiation problems with less socially-aware players notwithstanding).  I strongly agree that the design trajectory helped Innistrad: Crimson Vow get some distance from the other Innistrad sets in a positive way.

Once again recusing myself from commentary on Limited formats, I mostly agree with Mark on the lessons.  My disagreement comes on the first point, that the wedding theme took over the set and ruined its horror feel.  Sure, it’s more What We Do in the Shadows than Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula, but this kind of juxtaposition can serve to enhance the horror of the other sets.  Training and Cleave simple felt written on top of the set instead of integrated smoothly with it.  From a flavor perspective, they simply didn’t work.  They belong more on a plane that focuses on the hordes roaming across some vast and dangerous steppe.  My other point of departure here is that exploit does indeed work and from a Vampire-themed set makes perfect sense.  Vampires exploit other people in order to survive.  Sacrificing the uncool mortals is well within flavor boundaries. 

Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty

I’ll keep this section short because I’m in agreement with Mark on most things.  His first point, that it was the home run set of the year, encapsulates the rest.  When I had first seen early versions of the set, I was worried that the conflict of tradition versus modernity wasn’t going to work.  What ended up in print disabused me of that concern in very short order.  Nearly everything worked extremely well.  I was particularly happy with Ninjas and Rogues and the inclusion of Sagas, which I know are difficult to design but I still want to see more of in sets. 

I think it’s hard to criticize one’s self for only going back to Kamigawa for a single set.  While it’d be nice, I’d hardly call it a failure.  Especially if we’re going to keep up with this release schedule, doing two sets on one plane could work relatively well to explore all the great world building that Doug Beyer and his team do.  While also also disagree that for me the complexity of the set wasn’t too high, I get Mark’s point that beginners might struggle with some of it—but then again, not ever set has to consider beginners as its top priority.

Streets of New Capenna

Once again, I’m in strong agreement with what Mark has to say about the successes and failures of this set.  Going back to a three-color plane excited me, as I felt like we had over-focused on the two-color ones.  I’m particularly fond of the fact that we explored the allied shards.  What he didn’t list as a success here is that this set could have gone horribly wrong from a flavor perspective.  They could have played into some really bad Italian-American stereotypes (which somehow TV and film writers have trouble getting away from) and they avoided them quite deftly.  As an Italian-American, I appreciate it a great deal.

Unfortunately, while the whole thing was flavorful, the families weren’t distinct enough from each other to make a difference.  My big thing here was that they are crime families, but without law enforcement and/or government, they basically become the ruling bodies—so they’re not actually crime families at all, they’re the establishment.  It’s a minor criticism in the face of an extremely well-designed set, but it’s distracting enough to notice.  Also, what was up the Angels?  They’re one of my favorite tribes, but I’m still scratching my head on what the heck they’re doing on the plane in the first place.

Commander Legends:  Battle for Baldur’s Gate

My comments regarding communication and the set release schedule above aside, once again my disagreements with Mark’s assessments of successes and failures are minor—much to my pleasure, since we’ve occasionally strenuously disagreed in the past on Commander things. 

As I’ve said, it’s a great Commander set, and one of the reasons is that it doesn’t have the kind of game-warping bombs that are easy for designers to both make and justify.  We’ve settled into this great power level place in Magic design and I’m all for continuing it.  The legendary creatures from this set provide builders and brewers with numerous options that let them explore previously-hidden areas, which is great from a fun perspective and outstanding for format health.

Once again, I don’t want to pile too aggressively onto to something that Mark has identified as a lesson learned.  Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate is a great D&D set.  I’m left wondering where the Commander part got off to.  While I vehemently disagree that it needed reprints of more staples (which I view as in the balance unhealthy), the D&D feel just overran the Magic part. 

The Year That Was

While Mark and I have some disagreements on the past year, there’s nothing so significant to want to go to war over.  We disagreed far less than I thought we might, mostly just having a difference in assessing how things played out.  The communication issue is the only one that I’d want to hammer home.  Something needs to change in that regard, because it feels like they keep making rookie mistakes.  Otherwise, it was a very good year for Magic in general and Commander in particular.  The attitude and vision of the folks in Studio X is well in alignment with what I think will continue to provide positive, compelling, and sometimes heart-pounding design for us now and well into the future. 

As always, we have a channel on the Commander RC Discord server dedicated to discussing my articles.  I’d love to hear about features that you’d like to see, material you want more coverage on, or even things that you think just aren’t working.  I’m all ears.  Join more than 7,000 friends for discussion of not just this piece, but on a wide variety of topics—both Commander-related and not.  Hope to see you there!