Jodah, Archmage Eternal
30, Nov, 22

MTG Lead Designer Laments Designing for Eternal Formats

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When looking back over the last year of Magic, an MTG Lead Designer briefly discussed Magic: the Gathering’s new design philosophy. Dubbed the “Eternal World,” by Mark Rosewater, this philosophy understands that “the core of Magic play involves the full history of the game.” After all, Commander is now arguably the most popular MTG format. As a result, new card designs need to consider all those which have come before, which isn’t all too easy. In Rosewater’s own words, “it’s not enough to make something cool in a vacuum. We have to shape it such that it complements what has come before it.” 

When it was announced, this new design philosophy was commended by MTG fans online. Given Commander‘s popularity, this wasn’t all too surprising. After all, since it’s arguably the most popular and influential format in the game, it makes sense that it should shape card designs. While Wizards was quick to adopt this new design philosophy, Mark Rosewater attests that it hasn’t been without issue. Speaking in a recent Drive to Work podcast, Rosewater discussed how difficult it can be designing for this “Eternal World.” 

The Eternal World

Zur, Eternal Schemer
Zur, Eternal Schemer | Dominaria United

In the opening of their latest Drive to Work podcast, Mark Rosewater made sure to note that challenges aren’t necessarily bad. “I like to say restrictions breed creativity. […] There’s a lot of good that comes from trying to figure out and solve problems. So I want to first before I get into my challenges, say the fact that there are challenges are not inherently a bad thing.” After this caveat, Rosewater went on to explain that thanks to the Eternal World, Wizards “have some challenges that we have not had for a long time, or have never had in some cases.”

The first issue Rosewater went on to highlight in their podcast was that “nothing really leaves the system,” anymore. While this is one of the biggest selling points of non-rotating MTG formats such as Commander and Modern, Rosewater notes that it causes difficulties with design. “One of the things that rotation did for us, was it allowed RnD to have a lot more control over the environment.” This control allowed RnD to “push the pendulum” and dictate the flow of the game throughout each rotation cycle. “We could make an environment that was really aggressive, and then start leaning it more towards control or towards combo. Certain colors could be a little bit stronger, so we could lean toward other colors. […] In the system where Standard was king, we had a lot of flexibility to change things,” Rosewater explained. 

When designing for an Eternal World, pushing the pendulum in this way is much more difficult, since nothing rotates out. Thankfully, Eternal MTG formats like Commander aren’t destined to stagnate, as Rosewater pointed out “we can add things to the system. By adding things we can change things and make new things, maybe strengthen old things, but we’ve got a lot less ability to affect it by far.” 

Problems Problems Problems

Smothering Tithe
Smothering Tithe | Ravnica Allegiance

As Rosewater notes, it is still possible to push the pendulum of design in non-rotating formats, however, this isn’t easy. Not only can power creep be a problematic factor, but overpowered cards will continue to define formats like Commander. Without a rotation to remove mistakes, problematic cards are allowed to fester and warp the format. Subsequently, during the podcast, Rosewater stated “Eternal formats are defined by RnD mistakes to a good extent. They’re defined by power level mistakes, they’re defined by color pie mistakes.” 

After this declaration, Rosewater asserted that “I think we make better Magic now than we did 30 years ago.” Despite this, however, Magic is still defined by cards that are now deemed mistakes. Alluding to Smothering Tithe as one such problem, Rosewater mentioned “white really isn’t supposed to be making Treasure.” Unfortunately, however, since Smothering Tithe is one of the best Treasure-producing cards in MTG, players don’t see it that way. In Standard, Smothering Tithe was a mistake that could be learned from. In Commander, however, Smothering Tithe is a mistake that isn’t ever going away.

Unfortunately for Wizards, there are even more difficulties when it comes to creating new cards. Developing new recourses, for instance, is also significantly more of a challenge in the Eternal World. Compared to the 60-card four of format of Standard, Commander’s 100-card singleton format requires “six times,” the cards to make a new resource viable. This makes it very hard for Wizards to make a single set’s new mechanic interesting for Commander-focused MTG players. 

Subsequently, Rosewater stated “one set can’t make enough cards with a new resource that Commander could play with it. […] We can make something relevant in Standard in one set. It takes us like, five to six sets to do that in larger formats, especially in Commander.” Rosewater went on to explain that this difficulty has already changed how sets are currently being designed. “That has shaped us doing more batching, doing more of like leaning into themes that are just larger themes. It’s why we’re revisiting things a little more often.” 

An Understanding Audience

Captive Audience
Captive Audience | Ravnica Allegiance

With Commander being one of the most popular and staunchly defended formats in MTG, the reaction to Rosewater’s comments was somewhat surprising. After being summarised by Reddit user u/DaymanDeluxe, many players actually agreed with the points Rosewater was making. Reddit user u/jestergoblin highlighted, for instance, that “this is the Planar Chaos problem cranked up to 11. […] People use the color-shifted cards as precedent that the color can or is supposed to do something.” 

Alongside agreeing with Rosewater’s many points, several players, such as u/CammyGently suggested that Commander shouldn’t be the most important format in MTG. “All of these are reasons why Commander really shouldn’t be the game’s primary format. People hate standard, but WotC needed it to be the primary entry format – it’s way simpler to play, it guarantees WotC makes money, and it doesn’t create perverse incentives for so many of the unhealthy things we’re seeing in MTG today.” Similarly, u/Jermainator asserts that “rotating formats (Standard) SHOULD have stayed as the primary format, with Modern right behind it and Commander as the fun casual alternative.” 

Following these criticisms of the Eternal World, many players pointed out this design philosophy doesn’t have to exist. Commander, after all, rose in popularity because it was a fun and enjoyable format, not because it was being designed for. “What bugs me most is the constant reference to Commander,” u/TheBig_blue commented. “the format we really good fun when it wasn’t designed for. Just make a good game and EDH players will find the playable cards.” 

Furthering this point u/myowngalactus stated “I’m a fairly casual player so maybe I’m completely wrong about this but wasn’t Commander better when they didn’t design for it? I understand it’s a popular format so designing for it means more money, but I liked it in the early days when cards just happened to be useful in Commander and not created just for it.”

What Can Wizards Do? 

Naru Meha, Master Wizard
Naru Meha, Master Wizard | Dominaria

Thankfully, if Wizards wants to fix the problems with designing for an Eternal World, there is a simple solution. Admittedly this is a rather bold solution, but Wizards could simply stop designing for Eternal formats first. By returning the focus toward Standard and rotating formats, Wizards would be free to develop the most enjoyable sets possible. Since Rosewater states that “we make better Magic now than we did 30 years ago,” that shouldn’t be a problem. Even with a Standard focus, Eternal formats would still flourish, since they’re still getting new cards. Products like Modern Horizons or Commander Legends could also fill the void in design space. 

Unfortunately, while this bold strategy may solve Eternal World’s design problems, it’s likely not a good financial decision. The popularity of Standard on paper has seriously waned in recent years, after all. As players recently attested, however, this lack of interest in Standard, according to the player base, is predominantly Wizards’ own fault. By gutting the competitive system which supported Standard, the format has now been left without a home on paper. This has pushed players towards other, arguably more enjoyable, formats such as Commander. Following the money, Wizards has wisely begun better supporting these formats, further pushing Standard into obscurity outside of MTG Arena. 

While Standard’s outlook is currently grim, it needn’t be that way forever. With a more robust tournament system supporting the format, players would likely return en masse. For better or worse, Wizards may be about to see the effects of this. With the next round of Regional Championships being played in Standard, these tournaments could be a case study for interest in the format. If there’s enough of a spike in players, maybe WotC will take notice and finally support Standard again. At the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to Wizards to make that decision. We can only hope they make the right one. 

Read More: Wizards of the Coast Showcases Insane New MTG Arena Spoilers!

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