Sunday, May 10, 2020

Creeping Off a Cliff

All ends of the MTG Internet spectrum that I can see, from Twitter banter to the content creators on YouTube to the speculation Reddit to the casual forums, have been pretty in unison on two particular topics the past year and a half or so about the state of the game, those items being “wallet fatigue” and “power creep.” The various factions and cliques may occasionally be at each others’ throats online about a wide swath of other aspects of the game, from speculation on cards (the #mtgfinance wing of MTG), or signaling the death(s) of certain formats whenever a new influx of cards hits them or we see attendance numbers for certain tourneys, or debating the merits of things like play style (and how, say, land destruction in EDH is for monsters who are comfortable with that moniker or don’t yet know how much they are one) but it really feels like there’s a lot of crying out in unison that a) new cards are coming out in such great volume that it’s both making it hard to keep up financially with the shifting landscape of multiple scenes and b) this volume is pushing the design teams to find new outlets for creativity and “freshness” that the power and complication of the cards is rapidly drowning cards in obsolescence or formats in bannings. And it’s really hard to argue that either of these things is not happening, but the extent and ramifications and tolerance level of these concurrences leaves a lot of wiggle room for debate to the veracity of their affect on the game. It’s undeniable that the game of Magic is rapidly changing due to the popularity of it and the capitalization thereupon, but how dramatic these changes are moving and how detrimental, devastating even, they will be remains to be seen, though more in a “when not if” capacity. 

Let’s take “wallet fatigue” for an example. I have been buying MTG for what the kids would call a “soul-dissolving eon” (so, y’know, since the mid-90’s, give or take a couple years time off) and for a lot of that time we got three sets of new cards a year in block form, a reprint-based Edition set, and usually some sort of gift box reprint set. Last year alone we got, what, three expansions, a Core set, a set designed specifically for a competitive Eternal format in the form of Modern Horizons, the annual set of Commander pre-constructed decks, a set of four Brawl decks, a Signature Spellbook deck full of reprints, and we saw the kickoff of the Secret Lair series and Collector Boosters as well. Hell, did we get an Anthology set as well in there? I’m not even going to look that up, all that there more than proves my point. We got a metric butt-ton of product, that cannot be denied, but how much of that did you really need to partake in as a player? How invested are you really in the game of Magic: The Gathering that you had to participate heavily in all of that? I’m a Commander first and only player, I love having a big collection, I enjoy cracking packs, and, yes, I move some cards on the side. I participated in probably 75% of those products last year because they either had cards I wanted for decks immediately, had cards I could see my having a use for in the future and wanted to get in while they were at their cheapest, or I saw the potential for them to grow in the future and they could be turned into cards I needed (or a car payment) down the line. I participated a lot, and in all honesty it was probably three times as much as I could/should have if I were just getting stuff for the decks I needed to work on at the time they arrived. 

If a good chunk of us were being honest with ourselves, and I know a lot of us don’t want to hear or admit this, we’d admit we’re participating in the game more than we really NEED to, but that we WANT to at these levels. Because Magic cards are cool and they make you cool and all the cute nerd girls and handsome nerd boys want to impress each other and lavish in each other’s company with our cool spells and monsters in our decks. But if you are a Modern-only player, all you probably needed to pay attention to last year was Horizons, and maybe a dozen cards each from the expansions and Core set. Even myself in my Commander-centric hording with sixteen decks these days built two fresh decks out of what we saw in 2019 and changed a total of may thirty cards in the remaining fourteen. And even just that is a pricey proposition to a LOT of the player base for the game. I totally get that and even just needing a new three dozen cards totaling a few hundred bucks in new cardboard for the year can make someone feel financially worn out in this game, so seeing nearly a dozen retail products for it in a year can be downright exasperating. 
Don’t get me wrong, even if we’re being a little honest with ourselves that we are more invested in this plethora of product than we really need to be from a deck-building and collecting standpoint, it is a ton of product and there’s always a little allure to it all because, as we establish, Magic cards are what the hot people have. And this is where I’m going to get to my ultimate point, long way around (sorry, it’s a habit of mine to take a nice, luxurious hike before getting to my destination) that even if we’re more invested in each set than we need to be for our decks, we ALWAYS need to be as invested as we are because of what this breadth of fresh cardboard means in the overall picture. 

Obvious and “it goes without saying” disclaimed, I’m not a designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that more sets means more designers trying to push the boundaries of what the game of Magic are and can be, and/or less time for teams to really vet exactly what they have birthed into the game. That’s not an inherently flawed concept; in fact we should always applaud those lovely and creative folks who produce our favorite game for working tirelessly to innovate it for us. Magic is a game long in tooth that has many times tested its boundaries before for to enthusiasm-bursting highs and patience testing lows. Before, there was the simple truth that the game was so new and rife with potential within its fledgling mechanics to run wild that you couldn’t help learn some harsh lessons on this new playground. A quarter century later, though, you can practically feel that a lot of these sets and some of the pushed cards within them are a product of, well, all of the Magic-related product being printed and how Wizards of the Coast as the game’s publisher needs to differentiate these items in a (self-inflictedly) crowded release schedule in order to not only both make each set stand out but to poke at some aspect of card design to use and build off of when designing sets further down the line. And I don’t think there was a better example of a warning that some of this may all be coming to a very concerning head than this past year of 2019 was to Magic.

Around late September I was enjoying a week of Throne of Eldraine spoilers and really digging, at the least, the feel and the flavor of what we were seeing. That was after a very tumultuous summer where people seemed annoyed at how much the Planeswalkers of War of the Spark were running a little rampant in multiple formats, Modern Horizons had created (Hogaak) more problems (Hogaak) in that format (HOGAAK!) than it was there to help solve (oh and now probably Urza), and the Commander decks were a tad on the disappointing side featuring new generals that were pretty niche and bland in what they did. But regardless, buoyed by some great Arthurian flare being worn by delightful fairy tale archetypes, Throne was feeling like a set that would make a little impact but be a flavorful breather in Standard and not much else – which is where I would argue standard sets should be in general - which would be a welcome distraction from that brutal summer and give people something to enjoy aesthetically more than anything. And then I saw Once Upon a Time. Once Upon a Time that serves no purpose as a card than to be pushed. Once Upon a Time that follows the exact “free spells are dangerous” lesson of broken and bannable Magic card to a “t.” Once Upon a Time that was so egregious I think it probably distracted us by being a quick “jab to the nose” that didn’t let us see the haymaker that was Oko, Thief of Crowns coming, because his brokenness took a few weeks to disseminate but in hindsight, man what were we thinking. 

And here’s, finally, where I’ll start re-entwining the two main concepts I brought up at the beginning of this back together. Because even though I firmly believe that “wallet fatigue” is a wound that is more than a little self-inflicted by Magic fans, it’s obviously something that WotC and, more importantly, Hasbro are pushing the limits of as they blur the lines of what new sets are supposed to mean for whom. Once Upon a Time serves no purpose but to be a pushed card that could be an auto-staple in multiple formats, even Eternal ones that I feel like I continually see the designers say they “don’t plan for” when making standards sets (and I honestly believe this is probably true with like 99% of the cards they make) but come on; we knew OUaT was an instant, multi-format add there to catch the eyes of Eternal players. And obvious Commander staples are weeding their way into these sets as well. Not that the big, seven-mana-to-the-sky’s-limit bombs that make Commander the loveable, battle cruiser format that it is were never seen in your usual expansion set, but these things have become blatantly more laser-focused in their “auto-include” bombness the past couple years as Commander has flourished to become the most popular format in the game. 

Sure, it’s only a couple of cards per set. A Nyxbloom Ancient here. A Smothering Tithe there. An entire cycle of Horizon Canopy-like lands out of a set that was supposed to be specifically for Modern but was loaded with high power and Vorthos filled bombs like Urza and Yawgmoth that the set developers had to have known casual and Commander players would have fawned over as well. If you’re a Commander player – and there’s a good chance of that these days – you’re looking at not only a set of precons a year dedicated to your format, but a few dozen cards custom crafted to be EDH playable out of each new set. If you’re one of the Legacy players that have been left for dead for years, you’re seeing spillover from all of this. Look at how much has bled into Modern the past handful of sets as well, given the pushed nature of newer cards beyond the aforementioned OUaT and Oko. Assassin’s Trophy. Dovin’s Veto. All of freaking War of the Spark. Wallet fatigue starts becoming a real thing if you bother to care about an eternal format and new sets keep making pushed cards and casual bombs alike in every single product Wizards puts out in a year, and now they make five, six, seven of them annually. And then you factor in the reprint aspect of collecting, and having to start caring about every new product just because an old, expensive set of cards will see new life in it and make the price on them more affordable, yes, fatigue starts to sound like the word. 

And that brings us to Ikoria, in all its Companioning, Mutating, fetchable trilanding glory. It’s not that I think two-thirds of all that is broken, honestly; always coming into play tapped will limit the Commander-drool inducing Triome lands from really seeing much competitive play and Mutate is just a better version of Bestow, meaning it’s a better version of a mechanic no one would play on its best day, so you’re just multiplying by zero. But it’s the ramp up of all that. We’re just a handful of years removed from Wizards making fetchable dual lands in Battle for Zendikar and Amonkhet that had come into play restrictions, and here we are now just saying, screw it, add a land type! And again, mutate (or “Mewtate” and I started doing while drafting the set since I would make monstrous Cat monsters with it so much) is just a new version of putting creatures on creatures in some way like the much maligned Theros mechanic, except for a whole week I got to watch people stumble over exactly how the damn thing worked. What happens if the mutate creatures are blinked? Do they come back separate or together? So the mutate card on the stack still hits the battlefield normally if the target dies? How do multiple mutate stacks work? For a mechanic that is probably not going to see any real serious play, it sure raised a bunch of awkward misunderstandings at first, which is another drawback and variant of all this creep: More power on cards means more words on cards and potentially more interactions with all these mechanics which means creeping confusion to go with the power. 

But then let’s get to the real Dinosaur Nightmare Beast in the room: Companions. As soon as we all saw them the “oh, shit, we’re in for it” cries went up across the Internet about what the ramifications of a “free” extra card in hand could mean, even if it came at a price. Hell, we saw some of that feedback day one when one of them was banned in Commander from jump because there was no actual constraint to play it. And in the weeks since I’ve seen Legacy and Vintage absolutely dominated by one of them, I’ve seen streamers rage at the idea of just having some of these just sit there, at no real cost, waiting to come down on turn six (or sooner) and just combo you out on the spot. And you can tell they’re a product of this constant push t put out, y’know, product. Design is constantly having to meddle with different zones in Magic to squeeze new mechanics out of existing space. “Companion” is so on the nose as a nod to “Commander is the most popular thing we have going, so we decided to make Commanders for constructed play” that it hurts. There was pretty much no middle ground as to what was going to happen with Companions once we knew they existed; either their restrictions were going to be so sever they were going to be worthless and never touched, or the “drawback” was never going to really be one in the right deck design and you were going to just have a free card and an effect to your deck which is both terrifying and frustrating to face down. The worst part is, it’s not even that much of an original design; I remember over fifteen years ago watching the WWF Raw Deal TCG go into the gutter because they introduced “Stipulation” and “Championship Belt” cards that layered Pre-game effects that dictated the pace of the game before it even started and how that resigned that from a game I genuinely enjoyed as an alternative to Magic to something I left in the trunk of my car until a couple years ago when that vehicle was shipped off to become a large paperweight in a scrap yard. 

Any one of these things occurring in the world of Magic wouldn’t be so much of a big deal. A couple extra sets a year isn’t exactly a deal breaker; it feels bad to not add to your collection as much with all these hot new cards but if you focus on the decks you have sometimes it’s not the wallet buster it looks to be sometimes. Except when the push for so many new sets and new flavors and mechanics in design is constantly forcing old stuff into obsolescence. And especially when the vast bulk of these new sets are made to make new cards, not get reprints into the market, which Wizards is trying to capitalize themselves now. Also power creep by itself isn’t a game-destroyer, the game has ramped itself forward too far too fast before, but that is usually met with some sort of pull back to an emphasis on something else beyond loading the cards up with rules text. Right now, though, there hasn’t been a pull back in almost two years now and its exasperating if you look at and care about the greater picture of the game, especially because the way it is published these days really forces you to absorb it on a much larger scale than in the past. Hell, I’ve gone all this time and still haven’t talked freaking Godzilla cards! Magic is still a phenomenal game with a rock solid core – I have personally had a blast playing some Ikoria limited, outside my run-ins with the generally powerful and boring Cycling builds you run into once or more a draft- and the new plane is fun and mutate cards are cool and it’s sweet they finished the Ultimatum cycle (even if these ones are, of course, significantly more powerful than their predecessors). But we’re looking a “death by a thousand cuts” situation here if we don’t see a reining in on something here soon, whether it be the power levels, the increased publishing cycle, the variants, something. Altogether it’s just too much and unabated it’s just going to lead to an dearth of enjoyment in the game that runs converse to breadth of it being produced. 

No comments:

Post a Comment