A Song of Timmy and Spike or: How I Learned to Love MTG but Still Worry About It
Magic: The Gathering is the bomb. Well, it was and I am pretty sure it still is, but I have been struggling lately. You may have noticed that I took a break these last few weeks, and honestly I have been troubled by the state of the game. Some periods of reflection during this time have taken me back through a range of experiences, perhaps to try to gain some perspective before potentially becoming too reactive to what has been happening during the let’s say ‘Magic Arena’ era of the game.
Because frankly I am really upset by the seemingly constant bans and homogenous Standard metagames. I find myself questioning if it has always been this way. Are Tier 1 decks always so warped around a handful of cards? Were there decks so powerful back when Standard was called Type 2 that regular bans were needed to diversify the format? I find myself mortified by gimmicky cards like Godzillas and Walking Dead characters, and abuse of the Reserved List and a constant stream of ‘Masters‘ reprints that keep getting shinier and shinier is really starting to get to me.
My initial reaction was to get angry, shut down, and turn my back. But, I want to be fair to a game that has really meant a lot to me over the years. I decided it might be interesting and helpful to tell a story. This one begins about twenty years ago when I was a young Timmy. While this is just a singular story, I am imagining there are many common threads between mine and yours. My intention here is to build some context for understanding our current situation by revisiting some moments in the history of Magic: The Gathering. Some of you may remember back even further than me, while others might have been recently introduced to the game through Magic Arena without ever experiencing physical cards.
Still, I believe this journey will be relevant to anyone with love for this game and will hopefully spark some memories of your own. Perhaps you will think of additional examples that are even more appropriate than my own, and that is great. Ultimately I just want to build a nuanced perspective. It can be easy to blindly worship a great game or raise pitchforks and demand justice when it seems like it is being ruined. Maybe this is in fact a good time for pitchforks, but I think it is necessary to take a trip back in time before coming to a verdict.
Odyssey: Let’s Begin
At the end of the 1990’s I was an elementary school kid that loved Pokemon and Chess. I collected Pokemon cards (yes I too searched and found them in my Mom’s basement recently), but playing the Pokemon TCG didn’t really do much for me at the time. I liked the idea of it and did play infrequently, but I remember preferring Chess because it felt way more skillful and fair. The cards were fun to collect and show off to my friends, but that was about as far as it went. This changed when some older neighborhood kids introduced me to Magic: The Gathering just before Middle School. The cards were so much more mature than Pokemon, and had sort of a dark mysterious appeal to them. The first packs I remember buying were 6th edition, and the first sets I really got into were the Odyssey block. In my search for packs of the cards I discovered a local games store in a strip mall near my house and learned that they did Sunday draft tournaments that didn’t require you to have any cards to enter. Soon after, my parents would drop off me and my friends every Sunday at noon.
Older players at the LGS were so friendly and helpful. Oftentimes my friends and I had to be corrected when our interpretations of the rules from practicing at home weren’t quite right, but it was exciting to learn and importantly I don’t recall anyone getting upset with us during that time. Mind you, the rules and interactions were quite complicated back when damage went on the stack! Anyway, I quickly became obsessed and started working as a Caddie at the local country club so that I could buy more packs. One product that really sticks out to me from that time was the ‘Fat Pack.’
These cost just a little more than the six booster packs they contained, and came with several interesting goodies. You got a ‘spindown’ die to keep track of your life total with the symbol of the set, some basic lands and such to build decks with, and most importantly a book. Admittedly, I don’t remember specific details about these books, but I do remember quite enjoying the Torment one in particular and they opened me up to the world behind the game. Suddenly, the cards were part of a bigger story with heroes and villains and powerful Artifacts. Common creatures fit into the narrative and I started to understand how creature types played into larger themes.
Reading the books and engaging with the lore really opened things up for me and I started to really appreciate how intricate the world of Magic really was. I remember getting so excited opening a Kamahl or Chainer not because they were worth ‘X’ dollars but because they were an interesting character come to life. Basically, I was a huge Timmy. But, I suspect most players had a similar experience at one time. Maybe you go back farther than me and it was Gerrard or Urza back in Weatherlight era, or maybe it was some iteration of Jace or Chandra. Regardless, going through that experience really imbued the game with something special. It truly felt magical and soon I was hooked.
Once I started accumulating cards and building better and better decks, the world of competitive Magic started to open up. I found out about Friday Night Magic, and my friend group started going to the mall to try our luck against other players. There was something about it that felt like everything that had drawn me to Pokemon when I was a little kid was suddenly realized. Other players were trainers, and instead of battling pocket monsters we did combat with the decks we had created. There was a natural progression from Casual Play to FNM to Regional Qualifiers, and there was even a Pro Tour! Suddenly it felt like I was a part of something really big and if I was crafty enough maybe some day I could take on the Elite Fou… I mean Top 8.
The deck that began my metamorphosis to a Spike had to be Goblins. I absolutely loved aggressive Red at the time and Goblins really opened my eyes to synergy and how great decks are more than the sum of their parts. It also embodied a Red deck that required a significant amount of consideration and math to work out which Goblins to sacrifice and when to do it. I started to realize how well this game could leverage skills I developed learning Chess to maximize each turn and and set up future plays. Having unknowns like your opponents hand and top decks made the game less predictable and more exciting. Less skillful? Possibly, but the added dynamics made any tradeoff completely worth it! I started winning FNM and it felt great to finally feel like I was getting good at the game.
The Wizards of the Coast
It was around this time that I started to actually think about the fact that there was a company somewhere creating these cards. I hadn’t really considered it much outside of having a general impression that they must be extremely intelligent and employ really talented artists. The first time I remember questioning their judgement was when they released Darksteel and printed Skullclamp and Arcbound Ravager. I recall being completely baffled by Skullclamp as it was so obviously too good. My utmost confidence in the game and its creators was suddenly shaken. How could they print a card like this, and at uncommon? I started snapping up every copy I could trade for as its price started shooting through the roof. By this time I had some understanding that Magic cards had investment potential, but this felt like trading penny stocks or something. Anyway, I was lucky to unload most of them before Skullclamp got banned. I didn’t even realize it was possible for a card to get banned! This was strange new territory for me.
It was around that time when Ravager decks had become ubiquitous. Affinity (a mechanic that reduced the cost of spells based on how many Artifacts you controlled) was already a strong archetype due to abundant synergy, but Arcbound Ravager really sealed the deal. There were even Artifact versions of basic lands in the format which made drawing Ravager a near auto-win when played on second turn. I started to get very frustrated because no matter how much I tooled my decks toward beating it, Ravager Affinity simply felt too strong. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way either, players either adopted the deck or hated on it incessantly. Surely if Skullclamp got the banhammer this card must be next in line?
Well, after what I remember being a way-too-long period of time Wizards went scorched earth with the deck and banned Arcbound Ravager along with the cycle of Artifact lands. For the next few sets players were always speculating what the next abusive/ban-able card might be but it never came, and over time the metagame returned to a peaceful complacency.
Lessons Learned and the Color Wheel
For the rest of my high school ‘experience’ and the beginning of college, Magic was feeling pretty good. There were always certain decks that got to the top of the pile, but there were sufficient opportunities to innovate and the metagame felt quite healthy. Individually powerful cards existed but none of them felt broken or outright obnoxious. Apparently this period lasted about six years, incredible! During this time I was getting more and more competitive with the game, and started attending higher-stakes events like Regional Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs). It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though, as there were some significantly meta-shifting cards in the middle of this time period.
Wizards had clearly been really careful to thoroughly playtest and not repeat the mistake of Arcbound Ravager and Skullclamp. Tarmogoyf was the first time since Arcbound Ravager that I felt they were lacking some foresight. I mean, I can sort of understand Tarmogoyf looking innocuous at first glance, but you would think from building around it and doing testing they would have noticed it could consistently be a 3/4 or 4/5 for two mana. At any rate, it was still a vanilla creature and I don’t remember it disrupting Standard to the point of needing a ban.
However, it was interesting that Tarmogoyf appeared in the set ‘Future Sight’ which was meant to preview some mechanics and cards that would show up in future sets. I thought this was a cool idea, but in hindsight Tarmogoyf may have been a little too on point for previewing a future of the game where outsized cards keep the power level creeping up higher and higher. In this era of the game though Bloodbraid Elf was actually even more disruptive to the metagame a couple years later. But, I think everyone was sort of okay with it because it enabled aggro/midrange in a time which was so dominated by control decks. And just because cards weren’t getting banned during this era didn’t mean it was lacking in incredible ones.
Cryptic Command comes to mind immediately as an amazing spell that pushed the limits but not quite too far. For one thing, the mana cost made it fairly prohibitive even though basically every Blue deck would run it (assuming you could afford copies). Dual lands were always ‘money cards’ but perhaps this was a signpost for them becoming absolutely essential for Tier 1 decks, driving prices even higher. Anyway, Cryptic Command had another thing going for it, flavor (and it didn’t even need the text). This card is the epitome of Blue, doing classically Blue stuff like generating card advantage and controlling the board in highly efficient ways.
Now, I had gained an understanding of what each color did in terms of style and mechanics, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I started thinking a little deeper about the essence of the game. The image below is I think the best way to gain insight into this:
Reflecting on the color wheel gave me a newfound appreciation for the game. The scope of it really encompasses civilization as we know it. I see it as a cycle, beginning by coming out of nature (Green) and forming order and authority (White). With this newfound order we are able to gain knowledge (Blue), but this knowledge can be used to obtain power and control (Black), often for ends that could be considered evil. Red embodies the spirit of Freedom and Revolution, but when order (corrupt or not) falls apart, we are left with Chaos and as society crumbles we then return to nature (Green) once again. It makes sense that colors next to each other would be ‘allied,’ as they precede/follow one another in the cycle, and colors that aren’t connected would be in conflict. In truth, all of the entire color wheel exists simultaneously in our world and although we cannot really break this cycle perhaps we can escape it by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each ‘slice of the pie’ while remaining in the center, balanced.
Whatever the intentions of its creator were, the Color Wheel is a powerful framework for understanding individual cards on a deeper level. Pondering this helped me identify something which made the game so compelling beyond just having a great ruleset and interesting strategic interactions. Once the flavor and mechanics of each color (and color combination) soak in, it is a beautiful thing. Sure, sometimes individual cards felt a little off in terms of flavor, but it was easy to ignore (at that point) since over 99% of cards were spot on and brought this conceptual framework to life.
The Shape of Magic to Come
The first chunk of the 2010’s were a great time to be an MTG player. So many iconic cards were printed during this era, but perhaps none loom as large as Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Wizards had to know what they were doing when they printed Jace. There are a lot of advantages to creating a card like this. Powerful planeswalkers are a great way to attract players to the game and expensive cards build a tremendous amount of excitement around opening packs. Jace is the epitome of Mythic Rarity, something Wizards started doing a little before Jace if I am not mistaken but surely it was done to drive sales. Mind Sculptor took this to such an extreme though, basically warping the game to a point that essentially any deck needed to have it in order to be a contender.
Jace saw enough Standard play to be forever embedded in our memories, but did get banned along with Stoneforge Mystic. These bans were quite the shake up, since those were the two primary cards driving the metagame at the time. It clearly needed to happen, but at this point the faith of players in Wizards of the Coast was tenuous at best. It really seemed like Wizards was going down a path of looking after their bottom line much more than their player base. They really needed to do something to regain our trust…
… And they did, gradually over time. In the wake of Jace, the Mind Sculptor years passed by without any cards needing to be banned. Wizards walked a fine line between printing powerful, box-selling Mythic Rares and maintaining a relatively diverse metagame for competitive players. I have to say, I was impressed with how well Wizards handled the game during this era. Unfortunately, something insidious was happening incrementally behind the scenes although there was relative outward peace. This subtle issue I am referring to is Power Creep. There have been a lot of good articles on this topic, but suffice to say cards had been continuously climbing in strength for some time and there has always been concern within the community about the sustainability of doing this. To be fair to Wizards, although the creep was real through the middle of the 2010’s, everything still worked. Cards were getting stronger sure, yet the game seemed to be handling it fine. This remained true for at least a few years after Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Likely due to where I was at in life at the time rather than anything else, I stopped playing competitive paper tournaments sometime in 2014. So I must admit 2014 – 2017 is a bit of a blind spot for me when it comes to Magic, especially Standard. I was still playing Magic Online and drafting infinitely (although infrequently), but I don’t think that experience is terribly insightful when it comes to this article. But, leading up to the beta of Magic Arena I started getting fully back into the game again, and boy was I in for it.
The Era of Magic Arena
First off, let me just say that there is a lot to like about Magic Arena. An online iteration of MTG finally had a modern interface that was very pleasing to use while also functioning well nearly all of the time. There have been hiccups, and some significant failures in regard to updates and integrating new features, but by and large I feel inclined to forgive all of that. Arena gave me the ability to actually play Magic regularly again. It came out right around the time of the birth of my daughter, and was the absolute perfect game for getting me through that tough period. I was able to jump on Arena and play games of both constructed and limited, in a fraction of the amount of time it would have taken in person. Without this ability to get in and out of MTG games quickly I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this right now, and so I am thankful for Magic Arena. Everyone has their own experience with Arena though, so I am sympathetic when some are less willing to forgive the technical blunders. From a video game perspective I would put Magic Arena on a pretty low tier in terms of bugs, feature implementation, and community outreach, but not the worst. Still, you can probably sense there is a but coming, AND THERE MOST CERTAINLY IS. The core gameplay and card design were about to be shaken up for a long time, maybe forever unless Wizards can do something heroic.
The first thing I noticed was Constructed on Arena was feeling really different. I attributed it to things like not playing regularly for awhile, the UI being completely new, or maybe I was just older and had a different perspective on the game. But after a couple sets I started to notice some things. Power creep was starting to get out of hand. It seemed like on average cards cost one mana less than they did than the last time I had really played Standard. Even worse, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria felt like the second coming of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and disgustingly overpowered Planeswalkers slowly became the rule instead of the exception.
Teferi, Time Raveler was the only one of these to actually draw a ban, and way later than it should have in my opinion. A 3-mana free card that bounces something while sticking around all the while limiting your opponent to sorcery speed is completely outrageous. But really all three of these cards helped sculpt decks that were as powerful as they were frustrating to play against. We were suddenly in the midst of a Power Leap, where it was difficult to even say which cards needed to be banned. There were strong arguments for Nissa, Who Shakes the World in particular as she was an absolute staple in so many decks. Other bans may have even been avoided if she were to have been taken out early on. And there have been so many bans. Up until Magic Arena my story spanned nearly two decades and there were only a handful of bans. In the last 2-3 years there have been over twenty. So what went so wrong?
Well, part of the problem seemed be ways to abuse the card/mana advantages offered by certain cards to cast obnoxious finishers.
Cards like these took some time to set up, but with all of the Ramp and control elements available they tended to end the game much more quickly than expected. Honestly, I don’t exactly blame Wizards for printing these cards, a 7 mana Time Walk and a bizarre combo Land weren’t exactly screaming ‘ban me.’ The fact that Nexus of Fate was an Instant and went infinite at the bottom of your deck was a big problem, though. With cards like Growth Spiral, Wilderness Reclamation, and Tamiyo, Collector of Tales it was just too easy to combo off. The worst part was how absolutely unfun it is to play against ‘Turbo Fog’ decks, especially on Magic Arena. The amount of time it took for opponents to get through their turns was downright exhausting, especially considering the Timer needed some serious work at that stage of Arena. It wasn’t like this was the first iteration of the archetype either, so Wizards had to have some idea of the danger of printing a card like Nexus of Fate. Unfortunately they gave it way too many tools this time around and didn’t seem give enough thought to how it would play on their Arena interface.
When I think of Nexus of Fate it brings me back to Mythic Championship III where Matias Leveratto won it all with the deck. What was so intriguing about this is that he had ascended through the Qualifying process of Magic Arena. This was really exciting for me because I had played in the qualifier for Mythic Championship III and even though I didn’t make it through the system, the possibility of it was thrilling. The closest I ever got was 8 wins though, and as Qualifier Weekends came and went it was getting hard not to hate the system. It isn’t that it is so unlike the paper system, where you need to deck build thoughtfully, play flawlessly, and hope that you avoid screw/flood in important situations. I wouldn’t say you need to get crazy lucky or anything, but it is definitely important to dodge those garbage luck games that can very quickly drop you out of contention. Because it is incredibly hard to win so many matches while only dropping 1-2 against competent players.
Ultimately, I really like the concept of MTG Esports using Arena as a feeder. It brought me back to that excited feeling about being a part of something really big and having the hope of maybe getting there some day. But honestly the execution of it has been kind of frustrating. The production/advertising for the big events leaves so much to be desired. Much of the time I didn’t even know a Mythic Championship was happening, and sometimes when I did see it advertised I didn’t really feel like I was given any reason to care about it. Maybe this is my own apathy, but this is coming from someone that is often goaded into watching Counter-Strike or Dota events that I barely care about simply due to excellent production and hype. I think Magic entered an arena in this online iteration that Wizards simply wasn’t fully prepared for.
At some point I completely stopped caring about Standard. Luckily Arena had a nice string of great Limited sets so I ended up getting highly specialized in that area of the game. I think a big part of the problem with Standard was there always seemed to be ‘engine’ cards that were slightly too good.
Experimental Frenzy was never banned, but it was a heck of an engine for Red and kept the color competitive for a long time. This sort of card was especially frustrating, because it was not only overpowered, but there was a degree of randomness to it that made many games feel less tactical. It may be easy to point your fingers at big dumb Mythics, but often the underlying problem was engine cards such as Wilderness Reclamation and Fires of Invention. Reclamation was certainly a wet dream for Turbofog, but it was enabling nonsense decks long after Nexus of Fate. Maybe, like Nissa, it could have saved some other bans.
Fires of Invention was almost an interesting and balanced combo archetype a la Izzet Phoenix, but unfortunately it was a bit too abusable. To be fair to Wizards, they actually made a valiant effort to somehow balance formats with unprecedentedly high-powered cards. Sometimes they only missed the mark by a little with nifty combos they invented, such as Cauldron Familiar and Witch’s Oven (which incidentally was almost as annoying to play against as Nexus of Fate due to Arena systems). Other times the problem is Power Creep allowing high cost cards that weren’t overpowered on their own to enter play much earlier than the game had allowed in the past. Sometimes they even had combo potential, as was the case with Agent of Treachery.
By this point (present), Wizards has done nothing to slow the printing press on ridiculous cards though. I look at examples like Uro and Omnath and my mind goes blank except the occasional How?? or Why?? The amount of bans at this point is just… stupendous. In some ways it is starting to feel like a mockery of the game it once was. And judging by the direction the game seems to be going I don’t have a lot of faith in it right now. For one thing, I don’t think Wizards is listening enough. I have been a part of other game communities that have great engagement with their player base, and I really don’t feel that from Magic.
The blog updates throughout Beta and into release provided some degree of communication, but you got the sense that they were self-guided and only really listened to the community when the pitchforks came out. Of course they can’t listen to all feedback because gamers will complain about anything and everything, but it doesn’t feel like they are in touch with the pulse of their base. The pace has been and still is sluggish in implementing new futures such as Friends List, Human Draft, Mobile Play, etc. Even more egregious has been how slow to react they have been to banning and rebalancing. Companions were a particularly problematic example where they botched a critical mechanic of an entire set and although it was eventually fixed it remains quite a stain on their record.
It is getting hard to forgive these transgressions when meanwhile Arena has adopted the model of paid cosmetics, season passes, and game modes that can require a lot of in game currency to earn money despite being ‘free-to-play.’ Clearly the priority is features that generate revenue. They practically invented lootboxes (and cosmetics really) in the form of Booster Packs and foil/promo cards, so it isn’t like this behavior is surprising. Wizards is a business, after all. But above all else businesses need customer loyalty, and right now there is more competition than ever. For a while Wizards was the best game in town and they knew it, so players necessarily had to put up with any shenanigans. After all, new players were flocking to their game in droves. But I think we have reached a point where Wizards can no longer take their players base for granted.
Magic Arena finds itself in new territory, where it is actually competing against video games in addition to card games. While this new platform has brought in a boon of new players, many of them will move on to the next thing at the first sign of trouble with the game. And boy have there have been troubles. I think Wizards needs to be really careful and remind themselves that the game is the foundation this whole thing rests upon. I think it is fair to say that Wizards should focus more on repairing that foundation and less on expanding the game to new theoretical audiences that may not even exist. But, between Promotional Sets and Crossovers Wizards seem more interested in trying to attract new players rather than shoring up their current ones.
These cards keep getting flashier and more expensive, but in my view they are cheapening the experience. At what point does this become gross? I have nothing against Godzilla, a lot of the alternate art was great and Mechagodzilla taught me the Japanese symbol for ‘counter’ just now, but… Why!? I even like the Walking Dead. I’ve read all of the comics and enjoyed them, and the show was uneven but had moments of greatness. But why on Earth do we need Rick and Michonne in card form? The color wheel and mechanics of the game are robust, and certainly could be applied to anything. Just like you could take essentially any character out of fiction and prescribe a Dungeons and Dragons alignment to them. But frankly these cards are flavorless (and not just the text). On some level it feels really forced, like ‘okay I guess Michonne coming with two friendly Walkers and being sort of indestructible is cute, but why is she Black and Green again?’
This is another example where I think the creative/card design team is doing their best within a certain framework. I don’t have any idea how decisions are made over there, but I can’t help but suspect profit is paramount and any creativity needs to be in service to it. Clearly Wizards wants crossovers to attract new audiences and they want powerful cards with ever more alt-art versions to sell their increasingly expensive cardboard. Is this model sustainable? Time will tell. But in the meantime I am certain there are plenty of newcomers and veterans alike that feel baffled and sometimes appalled by the state of the game as of late.
Farewell For Now
I wasn’t entirely sure where I would arrive at the end of this story. In many ways I am still not sure. Maybe this too shall pass, and a few sets down the road the dust will settle. I certainly hope so but the nagging feeling that it is different this time remains. At any rate, Magic has been a big presence in my life for two decades, and I am thankful for it. At the same time, on some level it feels like Wizards isn’t making the game for me anymore. There are certainly ways they could solve these issues. Standard could be shored up by reducing power creep and rigorously playtesting superpowered Mythic Rares. They could also tone down the crossovers and money-grabbing releases that fiddle with cards that are supposedly ‘reserved.’ But honestly, I have no expectation that any of this will be done. Wizards is an old dog at this point, and it would seem unlikely they would suddenly shift their behavior. So I suppose my options are to quit or accept it. For now I am still choosing to accept it I guess, and will be back to playing Limited again. Don’t expect me to start writing about Standard any time soon though, and it would be untruthful to say my enthusiasm for MTG in general hasn’t been slipping. Hopefully reading some of my takes and experiences have sparked reflections of your own. In November I will return to writing about MTG Strategy, but it was important for me to take this journey of reminiscence and I hope you enjoyed it.