2023 has been a wild year for Magic: the Gathering. Despite the iconic trading card game’s long 30-year history, players were subject to the some of the best and worst sets that Magic has to offer within the course of a few months.
The best set, at least as far as sales are concerned, is soon to be Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth. It is only a matter of time, according to current trends, that Lord of the Rings takes over Modern Horizons 2, the current best selling set in MTG history. In fact, Modern Horizons 2 may have already been taken over as of the writing of this article, but we have no way to confirm this.
2023 also introduced to Magic players one of the worst sets in the game’s 30-year history: March of the Machine: The Aftermath. According to a recent article from MTG designer Mark Rosewater, MTG Aftermath is reportedly one of the worst MTG sets ever. As a result, micro-sets may be history for Magic: the Gathering, at least for the foreseeable future:
“Rather than just doing poorly, March of the Machine: The Aftermath, is reportedly one of the worst MTG sets ever. That’s according to the data collected by Wizards of the Coast following the set’s release. Here, March of the Machine: The Aftermath received the lowest “top-two-box score” ever. In 25 years of Wizards collecting data, no set has ever been this poorly received.”MTGRocks
Revealed recently by the same Mark Rosewater was that a major design step was skipped with March of the Machine: the Aftermath, which, if not ignored, could have made the mini-set a lot better.
It was revealed just a few days ago on Blogatog, a Tumblr page managed by MTG designer Mark Rosewater, that March of the Machine: the Aftermath did not have a vision design.
Vision design is one of the core steps in designing the MTG sets that players know and love. Thanks to Rosewater’s forthcoming clarity on the subject, players have access to multiple copies of a core design document from the vision design process: the Vision Design Handoff Document.
The purpose of the handoff document itself is as such:
“The point of the document is to crystallize the vision of the set and explain where the set is mechanically to allow a smooth transition to the new team.”Mark Rosewater
The Vision Design Handoff Document includes a ton of information, including things related to story related to the set, card designs, mechanics, cycles and more. A series of Vision Design Handoff Documents are available for players to peruse with added commentary from Rosewater himself. The following sets have Vision Design Handoff documents for those interested in reading them:
- Throne of Eldraine (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
- Zendikar Rising
- Original Zendikar (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Strixhaven: School of Mages (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Future Sight
- Original Innistrad
- Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Phyrexian: All Will Be One (Part 1 and Part 2)
- March of the Machine (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Wilds of Eldraine (Part 1 and Part 2)
(From The Lost Caverns of Ixalan vision design article)
When one considers that this monumental process wasn’t done for March of the Machine: The Aftermath, it almost seems doomed to fail from the start.
What is Included in the Vision Design Handoff Document?
The Throne of Eldraine Vision Design Handoff Document is incredibly detailed, offering insight into early stages of the set’s lore, mechanical structure, and even ideas that didn’t quite have solutions during that step in the process, and were eventually abandoned. Did you know that a keyword representing knights fighting and Quests were actually considered for Throne of Eldraine?
As stated by Rosewater, the handoff document itself was 7000 words, which is quite lengthy. Here is a quick (and not at all detailed) highlight of many of the things touched upon in the Throne of Eldraine Vision Design document:
- Introduction to the five courts of Eldraine
- Multiple card/mechanic cycles
- Pitched mechanics (some did not make it to the end of set design)
- A series of Camelot tropes that were turned into cards
- Themes for enchantments, artifacts, and non-human Typal that appear in the set
- Power in relation to mana value/casting restrictions by color
- A concept with multicolored cards with completely different mana values that got abandoned
- Fairy-tale tropes that were turned into cards
This isn’t everything, but gives a strong highlight as to what is captured in the vision design of a set. Without vision design, mechanics, and cards could be lacking cohesive themes or be attached to an overall story or background. March of the Machine: the Aftermath definitely suffered in this department, as it haphazardly closed the biggest MTG story arc ever in a rather lackluster fashion.
If the content of this document sounds interesting to you, you can read it here.
Other Sets Lack Vision Design (But it’s Rare)
Rosewater also mentioned, as suggested by the question posed by egr220 on Blogatog, that not every set has a Vision design. March of the Machine: the Aftermath was a rather egregious example of what can happen with that step lacking (don’t get me wrong, it had other issues too), but there are some other sets that had a lack of vision design.
That said, this seems to be a piece reserved for the smallest of sets. Even sets that did not have a direct impact on the current MTG canon, like Commander Masters and Modern Horizons, got vision design.
While we do not exclusively know which sets lacked vision design, it’s clear just how important of a process vision design is for a successful MTG set. Sure, Commander Masters and Modern Horizons did not have a massive setting or story impact, but, even these sets need a vision design to make the mechanical complexities and lore-based references as solid as possible.
The Real Problem?
Ultimately, the larger issue with March of the Machine: the Aftermath, at least from a customer perspective, is that the product simply did not make sense:
“As a set to buy packs of, it made no sense. The cards that are in it, though, are some great cards for older or seemingly upcoming sets. Pia sparked a new pioneer archetype for a while, Nissa fit into a few decks, Coppercoat Vanguard was a boost for humans, Calix made Selesnya enchantments in standard, and Sarkhan might see a surge after the next Tarkir set. And that’s only the 60 card formats, not even considering commander applications for the cards. It was a variety set, which was cool, but poorly marketed.”no_shoes_are_canny
players drew correlations with the Hearthstone mini-sets that aren’t sold in a pack-opening fashion, but instead as a bundle that includes all the cards added to the game. The likely solution to March of the Machine: the Aftermath, aside from fleshing out the set to a fully-fledged one, is likely one that Wizards simply did not have. It is clear that selling these cards in booster packs did not work, so what’s the proper solution to the issue?
Of course, they could have done a series of Commander decks with Standard-legal cards, or something similar to a large From the Vault product, but whatever the answer is, it’s not one MTG has traditionally seen too often.
Either way, if mini-sets do return, which looks unlikely at this point but not impossible, the solution to making these sets tick is likely something we have not seen before. If mini-sets do make a return, however, skipping vision design for a second time may not be a wise choice.