In recent years, we’ve seen the complexity of Magic: the Gathering sets soar. Whether it’s the addition of new game pieces or unique mechanics, there’s undoubtedly a lot more to keep up with. Thanks to the recent acquisition of Stickers, players have been worried that MTG’s Complexity Creep has been pushed too far. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast is keenly aware of the issue.
State of Design 2022
In a State of Design 2022 blog post, Magic’s lead designer, Mark Rosewater, detailed the highs and lows of the latest sets since September last year. Throughout the article, Rosewater recounted the lessons learned from the adored themes and mechanics and those that didn’t quite hit the mark. This included analyzing the complexities introduced and how this controversial topic will be addressed in the future.
During the article, Rosewater singled out the much-adored Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty as the main problem child for complexity. With the new keyword ‘Reconfigure‘ and several returning older returning mechanics, a lot was going on. For example, Rosewater stated that “many players reported being sometimes confused about the card types of certain creatures.” Despite cards sporting different borders, it was not always clear what was a creature, artifact, or enchantment. While these new mechanics were ideal for creating an exciting Draft environment, they made it difficult for newer players to keep up.
While every set tends to feature a new mechanic or two, this complexity issue was not early as pronounced in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Despite featuring four brand new mechanics, Decayed, Disturb, Day/Night, and Coven, there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of complexity. Rosewater notes that instead of being confused, “players enjoyed how each of them took a mechanical theme we’ve done before and found new space to play in.” While these mechanics weren’t all perfect, Rosewater notes that Day/Night not playing well with old werewolves “was seen as a big mistake,” this familiarity prevented players from getting too overwhelmed.
Similarly, the next set, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, also helped to alleviate potential confusion. For the first time since 2019’s War of the Spark, Innistrad: Crimson Vow featured a good deal of thematic and mechanical overlap with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Players were already familiar with many of the set’s mechanics by being set on the same plane as its predecessor. For better or worse, the new mechanics of Cleave and Training weren’t too well received. This prevented these new mechanics from dominating formats and confusing players.
A Necessary Evil
For better or worse, MTG’s complexity creep is somewhat of a necessary evil. Previously, on Blogatog, Rosewater stated that “the same things adding to complexity are also adding novelty and excitement.” For instance, a new set wouldn’t be inspiring if it only featured evergreen mechanics. Part of Magic’s charm is that it keeps reinventing itself; however, that cannot be left unchecked.
After almost thirty years of development, it’s only natural that WotC starts exploring different design veins to tap. As Rosewater explains, through a new design philosophy, they’ve “upped the amount of complexity we’re allowing in each set.” Despite that, Wizards is still vigilant about how much they let into Standard at one time.
Nevertheless, as sets come and go out of Standard, Wizards know they can’t just keep ramping up the complexity. Before too long, Magic could start becoming unapproachable to new players. “A new player is always going to start the game from the same place, Mark Rosewater acknowledged. “We must be careful not to leave them behind.”
Moving Towards an Eternal World
The creeping complexity of Magic’s sets isn’t just a problem for new players, as the effects are felt in every format. A new weird and wild mechanic can have considerable ramifications in Eternal formats such as Commander, for instance. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast isn’t forsaking Eternal formats. Instead, the opposite is true.
As Rosewater outlined in the State of Design post, WotC is now designing for an “eternal world.” Under this philosophy, “the core of Magic play involves the full history of the game. This means we must be better about understanding how current designs play with older designs”.
Rosewater stated that “it’s not enough to make something cool in a vacuum.” Instead, new designs have to be shaped in a way that compliments what has come before them. As a result, “this is probably the current force most likely to change the immediate future of design.”
Previously, WotC has caused all manner of problems in Eternal formats through the introduction of new cards. Modal double-faced cards (MDFC) like Valki, God of Lies for instance, caused havoc in Eternal formats thanks to Cascade. After being exiled via Cascade by a card like Violent Outburst players were able to play Valki, God of Lies in either of its two modes. This allowed players to cast the seven mana Planeswalker Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor incredibly early in the game. This was an unintended consequence that Wizards of the Coast had to fix with a reluctant rule change to Cascade. While this solved the issue, it is not something Wizards should force themselves to do if they can help it as frequent rule changes will likely make things even more confusing.
Change Takes Time
While Wizards is due to “change the immediate future of design,” we shouldn’t get our hopes up for a quick turnaround. Rosewater has previously confirmed that the design team has their hands on a set roughly two years before it sees print, so we may be waiting a while for things to change. In the meantime, things may be getting worse before they get better.
As we highlighted recently, 2023 is due to have Magic’s “most ambitious” set to date. It’s unclear if this ambition is focused around the mechanics of the set or the lore, but whatever it is, Rosewater claims it’ll eclipse both War of the Spark and Future Sight. If this currently unnamed set is mechanically ambitious, we may be dealing with Magic’s problematically growing complexity for longer than we’d enjoy.