Mark Rosewater, head designer for MTG, has been writing a yearly column about the previous year of Magic since 2005. This is when the sets that Mark Rosewater oversaw as the head designer first started coming out. Today, he released his statements regarding Magic last year as a whole and with regards to each set, from Dominaria United to March of the Machine: the Aftermath. For each set, he tries to go over the good and the bad, especially with regards to how the community feels overall.
The purpose of these columns for Rosewater is to try to summarize and reflect on what worked well and what didn’t. From there, he can give some additional insight and try to improve on areas that received criticism.
On a similar note, it’s important to keep track of what things really hit home with the MTG community so they can be implemented in future sets. To start off, here’s what Rosewater had to say regarding the positives from last year.
Some things Magic did definitely worked for the community, but other items were not things that players were pleased about. Fortunately, Wizards has heard the call and taken notes.
Set Identity and Lore
One of the biggest takeaways from last year’s group of sets is that, despite each set being focused on furthering the main story which in this case was centered around the Phyrexians, they all managed to have their own identity. The decision to move away from blocks has forced sets to be designed in a way to balance unique set mechanics and lore with the overall story meant to be portrayed across multiple sets. Rosewater stated that each set did a good job utilizing the Phyrexians in different ways mechanically, which helped a lot with this balance.
In this sense, it didn’t feel like there was too much overlap between main Standard-legal sets, despite Phyrexians being the main focus. Many of the mechanics in each set that helped set the sets apart were also highly praised.
For example, Prototype as well as the use of Powerstones in the Brother’s War were generally well received according to Rosewater, as were oil counters in Phyrexia: All Will be One and the introduction of Battles in March of the Machine. The mechanics of each set played decently well overall and made each set feel unique.
Of course, even with a decent storyline across the sets, there were bound to be some flaws. Perhaps the biggest qualm players had regarding the story’s portrayal in MTG sets throughout last year was with regards to how March of the Machine: the Aftermath handled the fallout of the most latest Phyrexian war. Not only did Rosewater state that many players were frustrated with the way Planeswalkers lost their sparks, but there was very little substance beyond this that truly highlighted the cards individually. The good news is that rosewater recognized this and other disappointments with regards to this set.
Nostalgia Plays a Big Role
Another major selling point of these sets was that players could look back towards previous sets and see references to the past. Dominaria United specifically referenced lots of characters from years past, especially with the inclusion of the Legends Retold promotion. These Commander-focused box toppers redesigned multiple legendary Creatures introduced far back in the Legends set itself. The Brother’s War then revisited one of Magic’s greatest stories. Rosewater stated that players enjoyed seeing older characters take their own forms on MTG cards.
Phyrexia: All Will be One only further enhanced this by focusing on Magic’s oldest villains that premiered in Antiquities, the second oldest expansion. Player feedback suggested that many players enjoyed how the Phyrexians were portrayed not just mechanically, but also in their artwork. From there, March of the Machine took a somewhat bold approach and references tons of Planes and characters from across those planes, providing players with Easter eggs galore. Players really enjoy the lore of each MTG set both individually and collectively, and Rosewater is taking away a lot of positive feedback regarding the storyline and how it applied throughout last year as a whole. Of course, gameplay matters a lot to players as well, and Rosewater had a lot to say about that too.
A Limited Mixed Bag
One of the most important environments for gameplay and learning the mechanics of the set is Limited. Both the Draft and Sealed formats add a unique experience for players to focus on playing cards exclusively from one set against each other. Some sets like Dominaria United received mostly positive reviews regarding Limited gameplay. Dominaria United Limited was generally on the slower side, and the ability for players to splash colors relatively easily made Limited enjoyers happy for the most part.
On the flip side, Rosewater states that the Phyrexia: All Will be One Limited environment was frequently called out for being too fast. This made it difficult for players to utilize specific mechanics and archetypes built around those mechanics. Perhaps no archetype was affected more than the Izzet oil counters theme. This archetype focused on generating long-term value by generating oil counters across different permanents, but players were not given enough of an opportunity to maximize these oil counters before simply getting run over.
Then we have a set like Unfinity that was largely designed for Limited purposes. The set did feature some cards that were legal in Eternal formats that sparked some controversy, but the mechanics were largely meant to provide a fun Limited environment. According to Rosewater, this was successful for the most part. Rosewater states that the set pushed boundaries in a fun way that players tended to enjoy. The use of stickers and specific minigames led to unique gameplay that wouldn’t be featured in a Standard MTG set. On the other hand, stickers proved to be a bit of problem, as they were easy to lose and could become a logistical nightmare. These sticker cards being legal in Eternal formats led to further complaints as well.
Beyond the Limited environment, one of the biggest takeaways for Mark rosewater regarding constructed, especially Standard, was that some of the themes were a bit to linear. As mentioned, sets were largely designed to have individuality even when acting as part of a long-term story. This made things a bit difficult for Constructed players to utilize some of these mechanics effectively, given their lack of overlap across multiple sets. Poison and Toxic, for example, were only heavily supported in Phyrexia: All Will be One. While a deck built around the mechanic saw a small bit of Standard play, it was forced to utilize cards almost entirely from that set alone, greatly reducing its playability over time and ability to improve with the introduction of additional sets to Standard.
This lack of synergy between sets does create an interesting dilemma from a design perspective, however. With each set having its own unique Limited environment since blocks went away, there’s an importance for each set to maintain its own identity. Rosewater states that this issue may be difficult to solve, and it will be interesting to see what adjustments are made going forward.
Overall, Rosewater believes last year was a pretty good year for Magic. Lots of fun mechanics alongside a mostly well-supported storyline made a lot of players happy as a whole. As a Magic fan, I’m excited to see what improvements and adaptations are made going forward.