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A Good Year Overshadowed by the Dominance of Eldraine: MTG State of Design 2021

Once per year, Magic: The Gathering’s head designer Mark Rosewater writes up a reflection of the past year of game design in Magic. The piece is meant to provide an overview of how new card and set designs have gone over from the perspective of Wizards of the Coast, taking player feedback and sales data into perspective.

On Monday, 2021’s State of Design was posted; see the whole article on the official Magic site. In it, Rosewater gives a synopsis of some of the biggest “highlights” and “lessons” to be learned from the year overall, and also for each individual set that was released over the past year. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the main points and what their effects have been on players of MTG Arena specifically.

In spite of the global situation which shut down nearly all in-person events, something which Wizards assumed would slow down sales and expansion of the game, Magic broke records in terms of both sales and play in 2020. This is something that Rosewater understandably lists as one of the year’s major successes. He also notes that the design teams seem to have done very well creating mechanics that capture the flavor “resonance” of the setting for each set. As an example, mechanics like Foretell and the modal double-faced God cards from Kaldheim were very well received by players, fitting the Norse mythology theme of the set into mechanics that also function well in terms of actual gameplay.

On the more negative side, Rosewater notes that many of the new sets from the year didn’t fully create a sense of cohesion from set to set. He notes that although players get excited about the mechanics that are introduced in each set, many feel that they are quickly abandoned as the next set brings a slew of new mechanics. According to Rosewater, players often feel that set-specific mechanics are never fully given a chance to shine, and he wants each of the new Magic worlds to “come together to create something larger.” He specifically mentions the modal double-faced cards as a mechanic that was meant to tie the year’s sets together, but that they “didn’t give the year the cohesiveness [Rosewater] was hoping for.”

Rosewater does also address an issue that some may see as the elephant in the room concerning all of the new sets that were introduced to the Standard format in 2020- Throne of Eldraine. Although Rosewater says he “wasn’t sure if [he] should” discuss the negative impact that the notoriously overpowered set has had on Standard since its release, he also notes that it was the “number-one” complaint that players had about the year’s sets.

Bonecrusher Giant (ELD) Art by Victor Adame Minguez

Anybody who has been invested in Standard over the last two years knows how much Throne of Eldraine warped the format. Despite the fact that a whopping five cards were banned from Standard in the months that followed the set’s release, other cards from Eldraine have continued to dominate the format. The adventure mechanic, where a creature card also has a spell attached to it that can be cast first, has been an ever-present force in Standard since its release. Many players have held any new creature card released since then up to the “Bonecrusher test,” wherein the card is considered nearly unplayable in competitive Standard if it can be killed by the Stomp spell on Bonecrusher Giant. Many players also consider Edgewall Innkeeper to be too strong of an enabler for the mechanic, often drawing multiple cards off of a one mana play.

According to Rosewater himself, Throne of Eldraine’s presence in the format “kept many of this year’s fun mechanical themes from seeing as much play as they normally would in an average year.” While the sets that have been released over the past year were well-received by players who enjoyed the design spaces and new mechanics, many of the cards never got a proper chance to shine in Standard because the power level of Eldraine, and to a lesser extent, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, pushed them down.

The playerbase’s desire to have a proper chance to play with more of the cards from more recent sets is something that has obviously been clear to Wizards of the Coast for some time now. The release of the most recent set, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, was also accompanied by a new format being added to MTG Arena: Standard 2022. The Standard 2022 format brings an opportunity for players to experience what the next Standard format will look like after scheduled rotation happens in the fall. Standard formats often feel stale as rotation draws near, and this isn’t the first time that Wizards has taken the step of offering players an early rotation of sorts. It was, however, added much earlier before rotation occurs than it was in the past, as interest in Standard stagnated and the Adventures in the Forgotten Realms set was projected to have little impact on the Eldraine-driven format of the present.

We’ve already discussed Eldraine more than Rosewater did in his original post, but the fact that he mentioned it at all shows the significance of the problem. The rest of his article breaks down each set that was released in 2020 and highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses. What follows here is a brief synopsis of Rosewater’s thoughts on each Arena related set.

Zendikar Rising Key Art

Zendikar Rising- Rosewater notes that the double-faced cards that had lands on the backside were very popular. The return of Landfall, which is cited as “one of the most popular mechanics of all time”, was well-received by players. Equipment cards like Maul of the Skyclaves that provide a free “snap-on” equip when they enter the battlefield were popular. On the negative side, while the Party mechanic was popular in the Limited format, it “didn’t live up to its potential” in constructed Standard. Rosewater also says that players were disappointed that certain aspects from previous Zendikar sets- such as trap cards, the Ally creature type, and Eldrazi creatures- didn’t make their way into the new set. Players also complained that the latest visit to the Zendikar plane didn’t add much of anything new to the setting.

Kaldheim- The Foretell mechanic received the most positive feedback from players, and the return of Snow and multicolored Saga cards were also well-liked. The flavor of the world was generally enjoyed by the Magic players, but feedback indicates that there was too much flavor being condensed into one set when it probably should have been two. Rosewater also notes that there should have been more cards that work against the snow mechanic, as there is little reason in Standard to play regular lands over snow-covered lands.

Strixhaven: School of Mages- One of the biggest successes Rosewater mentions from this set was the Mystical Archive. Players loved the Mystical Archive in general, especially its impact on draft and limited, and they enjoyed having the Magecraft ability which feeds into the set’s “spells matter” theme. Rosewater also says that players enjoyed the “lighter tone” and whimsical design of Strixhaven. However, criticism was directed at the fact that many of the school’s factions were too similar to their Ravnica counterparts, with Lorehold being the one exception. Rosewater also believes that the double-faced cards from Strixhaven were too wordy and lacked “thematic cohesion.”

Adventures in the Forgotten Realms- Rosewater states that the strongest positive feedback about this set was how well it was able to adapt the feel of Dungeons & Dragons into Magic. However, he also mentions that the set was a polarizing one- many players still don’t like the idea of Magic’s original worlds and settings being mixed with other IPs, even one that’s relatively similar like D&D. While the “flavor words” on many cards in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms were mostly liked by players, the mixing of these flavor words with actual ability words such as Pack Tatics was confusing to many, and Rosewater says they will be “much more careful about this in the future.”

That’s all we have to discuss about this year’s State of Design as it relates to MTG Arena. If you’d like to see what Rosewater had to say about sets that impact other formats such as Modern Horizons 2 and Commander Legends, check out his full article. What was your favorite set from 2020, or your least favorite? What criticisms or praise do you have about the design of recent Magic sets? Let us know in the comments!

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Dude from Vermont who likes to play Magic and Escape from Tarkov. Musician, writer, and gamer. Submit feedback or corrections to @Paul on the Discord.

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