Hello everyone, and welcome back to another article here on Strictly Average MTG. It’s the end of 2018. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? It seems like it has taken forever to get here; however here we are. Let’s take a look at a few things that have happened in the world of Magic: the Gathering this past year.
However before I start I do want to thank you all for reading my articles here, and for the folks at Strictly Average for bringing me on board earlier this year. While I may not be grinding out my weekends for a shot at being a pro, or even do well playing, I enjoy the game of Magic: the Gathering. So much so that I have taken my enjoyment to writing about it, and speaking from my point of view. Not everything in this article may match your feelings, but every year we look at our own lives to see what we have done to figure out what we can do to be better in the new year. Looking at our favorite hobby this way can, at the very least, give us hope as we turn the calendar over tomorrow.
- Magic Arena
For years Magic has been behind other Collectible Computer Games (because they aren’t cards you can hold) such as Hearthstone. Blizzard realized that printing paper cards into oblivion would always compete with Magic: the Gathering so they went around them by making Hearthstone. For those who wanted to play Magic in between days they would go to their local store, this was an avenue to get some “Magic-lite” games in. It also didn’t help that known players like Brian Kibler helped lead the way to game, and suddenly Magic was second fiddle to something in the gaming community. With the release of Magic Arena we now have a way to play, FOR FREE, the game we enjoy even if it may not be the format or specific cards we want to play with.
Since the release of Guilds of Ravnica the game has been presented as an Open Beta to many more people worldwide to test their mettle via their PCs. This version of the game shows a lot of promise, and gives a lot of us hope that we have a solid way to play the game if the options for paper play are not available to us.
Too far from a store? Play Arena. Sick? Play Arena. Simply don’t want to go out? You get the drill. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is also not doing anything to hamper paper play, nor Magic Online. Having another option to play this game is an absolute bonus for all of us regardless of how you wish to play, or what your goals are for the game,
Now, can we PLEASE get codes for online booster packs in paper booster packs? Can we also fix the 5th (or in my case 6th) card problem? Please?
- Modern Changes
It was around this time in 2017 when I felt the need to do something. I lost my Sensei’s Divining Top earlier in 2017 due to pressure from the community to have it banned. A portion of what I enjoyed from Legacy died that day, and it’s been hard to get back. I still loved Modern, and even though some of my favorite cards were not allowed I figured I would do something to help bring something positive to all of us. I got the idea by visiting my parents.
Mom always decorates for Christmas way too early (in my opinion), and she has this shelf that, while small, can hold a winter motif and still have room for an elf. The idea came to fruition on that day: Get Bloodbraid Elf off the shelf. Banned in Modern before WotC realized that Deathrite Shaman was the card that should have been banned in Modern instead it was time to have the cascading elf back in the format many like myself love to play.
So we took some pictures, and made a Christmas card. Sent to Melissa Detora, Mark Rosewater, and Aaron Forsythe I pleaded that she be released. Here’s the card I sent.
While there was no immediate response our time came when the Banned & Restricted update occurred on February 12th we finally had a response. I remember seeing it come up and mention Jace, the Mind Sculptor my reaction was not as strong as the news about our beloved elf being free. My reaction to this was akin to known meteorologist Jim Cantore being outside during a snowstorm while it was thundering (aka Thundersnow). Jund was back on the map, and no matter how many of you may dismiss it, I feel like I had a hand in it.
The hyperbole flew fast and furious. I remember seeing people asking for Jace to be immediately banned 11 hours after the announcement. I felt like the little boy putting his finger into the damn to keep it from breaking. So many of these people were already complaining about the power level of these cards, and currently call them unplayable. They focus on only Top 8 results but are somehow blind to results that contradict their strict point of view.
No matter though. We had great cards back in the format, and I was very happy. I even smiled. A lot.
- Standard set releases
I will admit that it’s taken me a long time to even look at Standard in a positive light. When the format became 4-color decks incorrectly labeled I stopped playing. I missed a lot of sweet cards after Battle For Zendikar came out, but trying to juggle Legacy, Modern, and Standard was too much. Besides hearing names like “Jeskai Black” instead of (the correct name) Yore-Tiller was like nails on a chalkboard, and honestly lazy. There was already precedent to use the Nephilim names when describing 4-color decks so just like the Guilds, Shards, and Wedges this should have been used. Besides we don’t call Jund “Rakdos Green”. Why? Because that’s C-Lo’s broke-ass cousin.
However in the last year or so Standard cards have drawn me back in. From Approach of the Second Sun, and Search For Azcanta there were some excellent cards for my favorite play style. It even became better in 2018.
- Dominaria: We finally returned to where the Magic (literally) began. Characters such as Jaya Ballard, Jhoira of the Ghitu, and Teferi himself all appeared for the first time since Time Spiral, and it was great. While I personally did not play a lot of Standard then it was still great to see the excitement from afar, and enjoy the story. I wish we had more time there, but it was the best thing to happen out of the events highlighting Magic’s 25th anniversary (more on that later).
- Core Set 2019: CORE SETS ARE BACK! YAY! Core sets were always meant to be the bridge for new players and existing players to meet. Giving new players a chance to jump on board with a new set, and existing players a new set of cards to try until the fall set release (and sets leaving Standard) was always great. I’m glad they finally reversed course and brought this back. If Mono Red did not dominate Standard as it did when Amonkhet, and Hour of Devastation were in Standard I think Core Set 2018 would have been more explored. I am excited to see what the 2019 Core Set will bring.
- Guilds of Ravnica: Returning to Ravnica for a third time, especially during the year we celebrate Magic’s 25th anniversary, was a good move. The world of Ravnica is beloved by the overwhelming majority of Magic players, and FINALLY we were able to properly cross the streams between Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons with Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica! If I had to pick one single moment that was great in 2018 it would absolutely be this. Both brands help emphasize “the gathering” in Magic: the Gathering by bringing people together to play a game. I hope there are more moments like these in the future. As far as Guilds of Ravnica is concerned this set has reinvigorated interest in Standard due to the balance maintained between the guilds and possible deck archetypes. We have two more sets based in this plane before we get to next summer so things will be getting more interesting going into 2019.
There was one other product released this year that helped Standard players a lot. That was The Challenger decks. Four decks that could be played either against each other, or even at your FNM, and upgraded over time. However with the rotation of any set released before Ixalan that happened when Guilds of Ravnica came out that left some of these decks unplayable in Standard, and any store with product left watching them sit on the shelf. With that said I hope they do this again.
The hiring of the Play Design Team has had its impact on the game, which has been felt as 2018 progressed. If this is what we have early on, we should all be hopeful for a greatly designed game going forward.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I was not a big fan of the eSports announcement. Don’t get me wrong; Magic Arena is a great addition, and helps put the brand above other Collectible Computer Games (again, they are not actual cards) such as Hearthstone, Artifact, and Eternal just to name a few. The re-branding of professional tournament play that came with this announcement is also a good thing as it addresses issues that we’ll touch on later. However there are other issues that seemed to have been glossed over from my point of view. If I had a category for “Concerned” I would put it there instead of “Bad”.
With this push Magic: the Gathering is entering into a world where it feels as if the online/streaming aspect of the game, by using Arena, is more of a focus than what got them to their 25th birthday: the actual card game. Yes I understand technology has played a giant role into the evolution to this, and I am not one to not embrace technology (so don’t think it’s that). This push, to me, seems to have left those of us who have been playing since the very early days (in my case 1993 with the release of Revised) out to pasture. It feels that the portion of their customer base that I am in matters less now than it did since the release of Khans of Tarkir, and even then it did not seem like us older players mattered much when it comes to marketing or design of a set.
Yes we are already invested, but we can look at other intellectual properties (IPs) to see that re-branding to make their audience larger can also cause others to drop off, feeling like they don’t matter. Yes I know I’m not grinding for the Pro-Tour (now called Mythic Championship) so this may not have an impact on me either way. However it just feels a little out of balance from my point of view. We now have a game that promises the youth “play this well, and you don’t have to work for the rest of your lives.” Millions of dollars are up for grabs here, and to me the message this is sending doesn’t make this game feel a lot like a hobby. Magic: the Gathering can still be played in many ways though, and we’ll see if they are able to provide everyone a little something with this new cash cow loose on the world.
This also feels like WotC is searching for anyone who streams, and has an audience, to play their game to push their brand. The danger of this is having people stream Magic who either are toxic people for the gaming community as a whole, or who have cheated playing Magic in paper tournaments. Granted the percentage of these people is going to be small, and currently there is no option to chat on Magic Arena (thank goodness), but as places like YouTube and Twitch become more popular entertainment outlets for children the more exposure to negative behaviors (through interest in a product being streamed) can happen.
I know we can’t keep kids away from negative things their whole lives, but the possibility of this happening just does not sit well with me, a person who has supported Magic: the Gathering (and Hasbro for that matter) for nearly all of his adult life.
As I mentioned above this point is one I don’t feel as strongly about as the two below, and would be more of a “concern” if there was such a category I could put this in.
- Supplementary Products
From Masters 25, to Battlebond, Signature Spellbook: Jace, Commander 2018, and Ultimate Masters this year has been filled with non-Standard sets that can provide much needed reprints. Until Ultimate Masters though it felt like Core Set 2019 had more impactful reprints in Crucible of Worlds, and Scapeshift. The quality reprints were few and far between.
- Masters 25: To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Magic: the Gathering this set was released to showcase the game’s history. However instead of providing hit after hit we got a lot of duds, and the focus (continued from previous year’s sets) was focused on them and DRAFT! Why? Honestly drafting with a theme should be a secondary thought when the cost of a booster pack is $9.99 MSRP. Your drafts, at least at a store, are approximately $40 per draft, and if they are single elimination games you burned $40 almost as fast as just setting two twenty dollar bills on fire. Oh, and the cards you drafted might not be enough to get your money back either. If you want to see a “feel bad” for Magic players this is where we should look first.
- Battlebond: To push the “theme” and “draft” aspect of Magic more we had Battlebond released this year. A set designed for players to draft in a Two Headed Giant (2HG) style provided a unique multi-player casual draft experience. With new cards not legal in Modern, there was a focus on casual drafting and potential reprints for EDH/Commander. This was definitely a good thing for players overall, but it had maybe 6 weeks of time to itself as its release date was set between Dominaria and Core Set 2019. With booster packs at $3.95 MSRP this was the perfect way to have a draft with reprints in a set outside of Standard. This should be the model going forward, but something happened later to squash that possibility. It’s a shame that this did not have more time in the sun. Casual Drafting should be the way they go when pushing Drafting packs. A group of friends chipping in for a box (or multiple people in a group buying a box each) would be a better target to present draft experiences than expecting players at store to spend $15-$40 (depending on set) to draft.
- Signature Spellbook: This unique set was designed to replace the From The Vault series. After a series of complaints from the player base, and a forced revision of the reprint policy (insert eyeroll here), the From The Vault Series was ended and a new product focusing on characters in the game was made. Signature Spellbook:Jace provided players 8 cards, which were all reprints, featuring Jace on the art. Many cards received new art, have unique borders, and you could get a random one of the 8 as a foil. Oh. You forgot about this product too? I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. Sure this is a nice product for collectors; however, when it’s placed in the middle of other products coming out (or ones players are saving their money for) it seems like effort could have been placed elsewhere to make another product better. Kudos to WotC for trying, but I’m not sure about the future of this product.
- Commander 2018: While I have not played much EDH/Commander in recent years, the things I enjoy about this product are the playability out of the box, the new cards (especially the new general/commander to spark new ideas), and reprints. The more cards that are reprinted the more accessible they are for other players (and the cheaper the original versions will be for me). With previous releases I have focused on either 1 or 2 decks, opened them up to play, and then started upgrading them with cards I want to play. I currently have 2 Commander 2018 decks still sealed in their box, and on my shelf. Not played. That’s a bad sign for the product overall honestly. If this product is not drawing interest to buy & play then things need to be done to bring that back. They did raise the price $5 on the MSRP, and we’ll get to that later, but the best thing they could do to help this product is put it back to it’s November release. This is THE PERFECT Christmas gift for a Magic: the Gathering player, and…stay with me here…it is one of the few products where the recipient can open it up and play right away. Getting booster packs, or some other product that is not a complete deck can not do that. Please WotC, move this back to November (and provide something in regards to reprints). Please!
- Ultimate Masters: Now we get to the elephant in the room. Ultimate Masters was a surprise to many of us, and I personally think this was moved up from 2019 to be released during the holiday season. While this set should be what we expect in Masters sets when it comes to reprints, the price for this set (and packs) were increased to an MSRP of $13.99/pack? All of those things I said about draft above are now worse! Why not make a Masters set with key reprints and price the packs at $6.99 MSRP? Make the print run high but not unlimited, and then enjoy the profits? More on this in a moment. It’s nice to have key reprints, but this time of year stores are trying to be mindful of their inventory to make sure they don’t have product on the shelf that won’t move, and become dead product as the calendar turns to 2019. The timing of the release of this set alone was bad, and how this product was provided to us was worse. The cards in the set are helping the secondary market so there was one thing good about this.
How these sets have been received has caused WotC to decide that Ultimate Masters was going to be the last Masters set “for the foreseeable future”. What this means for us remains to be seen.
- Events, pricing, and you
Going to an event, such as an SCG Open or a Grand Prix (now named Magic Fests) can be a great experience. You get a chance to play Magic against people you don’t normally see at your local store, buy cards from vendors that may not be local, meet artists and cosplayers, and obtain unique items just for attending. Some of those things may not be as readily available now as they were (one of which we’ll talk about later).
Looking back to nearly 4 years ago at GP Cincinnati 2014 let’s review what you received just for registering:
- A Batterskull promo card.
- An exclusive playmat by attending artist Steve Prescott.
…and honestly that was enough. You got this, and as many rounds of the main event that you could play, for $40. That sounds like a steal nowadays. For example GP Oakland coming up next week has a main event for Modern where $70 gets you in the main event, you get a promo card for attending, but the playmat is an extra $15. Why?
Perhaps it’s because some players immediately took their playmat to a vender to trade it in for credit? Perhaps some even didn’t pick up their mat from the tournament organizer? Who knows. One way to fix this is not even have the add on cost and provide players an option of “yes or no” when asking about the playmat while registering. This should give them an idea in the future of how many playmats to print to keep costs down. If cost is such an issue the entry could have been raised while still providing the items like we got in Cincinnati in 2014 with no additional cost. That’s a little easier to swallow for most players. With the increase in price we started seeing smaller attendance. The events themselves also started to feel less special, and if formats are “figured out” already there is less of a desire to compete as it becomes more about the deck than the player. In a game where skill is a big factor in determining lines of victory, even through variance, having the focus be on “tiers” and “archetypes” definitely doesn’t feel like there is a focus on “players” or “skill”. Money and time are huge factors to consumers in this day and age, and if GPs/Magicfests are going to eat up a lot of that then one should not be surprised if consumers choose to spend those things elsewhere.
Now we get to some of the main issues I had with Magic: the Gathering in 2018, and these issues in the second half of the year really left a mark on the game and it’s community.
- Artist boycott: In late November an article appeared on CoolStuffInc by Vorthos Mike (whom you should follow on Twitter btw) about how artists are being treated at big events. It’s definitely worth the read. What is odd is that these issues have been building for the last four years (at least), and that was a point of reference I used to describe the GP experience as “good”. Issues like this show us what little many of us truly understand behind the scenes. Artists are not treated as guests, and more like vendors. If you are familiar with the “pay to play” aspect of musicians and FM radio this has some (in my opinion) similarities. One of the things that kept me involved with the game in recent years was seeing this side of the game that did not involve playing: the artists. Meeting them, asking for cards to get signed, and having a few moments to chat with them about many things not only is a memorable time, but just a good social experience while being a good person overall. It makes them feel welcomed, and everyone walks away with a sense of appreciation. They don’t have to attend these events. Ever. However they do this for a mutual benefit: theirs and ours. If artists stop showing up then a big reason to attend these events is gone, and the tournament organizers need to wake up to that fact. The response has been…to put it bluntly…bad. Mentions of “we’re losing money” and other factors that don’t feel the tournament organizer (CFB Events) understands the issues at hand are not the way to respond to this. What they should do is go back to truly treating them as guests, and then we can move forward with things to make the events better for EVERYONE.
- Gerry Thompson: As The World Championship event grew closer this year a post on Reddit by Gerry Thompson took the entire community by storm. His decision to boycott this event was applauded by many, and while I feel the eSports announcement may have overshadowed his concerns they are still quite valid. To see someone take a stand when enough is enough was quite refreshing to see, and while he impacted his own personal finances by doing this the purpose of it was for the betterment of all. While this can be seen as a good thing in Magic for 2018 it is the fact that this had to happen is why I list it here. Someone needed to know, and it took someone of the caliber of Gerry to do it. To echo back to my comments about events not necessarily being about players and more about “tiers” and “archetypes” this is a primary issue to many players who compete at the large events. Coverage issues, being soft on cheaters, and communication issues were also among the items mentioned, and honestly even though I am not impacted by things that occur in the professional end of the game I agreed with a lot of what he mentioned. Let’s hope 2019 brings forth some change we all need.
These issues should be paramount when going into 2019 to help further promote the game for all players, new and old, professional or not.
- The 25th Anniversary, question mark?
Speaking of promoting the game…
Nearly the entire 25th anniversary celebration fell flat. Dominaria, and Richard Garfield helping design it, was a great thing however it feels like the only good thing.
- The Silver Showcase: Are you kidding me? What in the Hell was this going to do again? You paired known Magic tournament personalities (because we all know until eSports came out you dodged calling them “pros”) with players who play Computer Collectible Games (because they are not actual cards). To add insult to injury The Silver Showcase was a Rochester Draft, and with how hard it is (for some) to follow along with that cards are on the screen you leaned REALLY HARD into just that. I’ve played since Revised and even I forget what many of the cards I encountered in those early years do. Also a lot of those cards have had template updates in the official rules which made playing them worse. You also should have had this set up in a bracket to make sure that in the end you had a known Magic player vs a known streamer, but you failed their too. What you should have done is use this to highlight Magic Arena, and bring these two entities (paper Magic players and CCG players) together through Magic. Isn’t that what “the Gathering” part of your game is all about?
- No GenCon? No Origins? No HASCON even?: Magic: the Gathering is 25 years old. That’s a long time, and over that time it has made its mark on the gaming community at large, spreading to tables across the world to millions of people. During that time it’s made many connections, and apparently has lost some too. It debuted at Origins 1993 in Fort Worth, Texas and released Alpha the following month. While Origins is in a central location now (Columbus, Ohio) the presence of Magic has lessened over the years. The same is said for other conventions, including GenCon (which is odd based on the number of MTG artists present). There wasn’t even a HASCON event this year which had its first ever event last year to see all things Hasbro related. So that leaves me with one question: CAN YOU ALL KISS AND MAKE UP ALREADY? Damn. Seriously this past year GenCon should have been the place to hold a large event to showcase your past and future, and yet you somehow managed to mess that up. You would have had an arbitrarily large audience to present Magic Arena to the world, and perhaps even revealed some cards for an upcoming set to drive up the hype. Heck come back to Origins and have a presence again. Currently Magic (and TCGs overall) feel like an afterthought there over the past few years which honestly is sad. DO BETTER WotC!
- The push for profits
I don’t want to begrudge a company wanting to make money. Without profit we have no more product, but the last 3 months have felt like a giant push to maximize profits regardless of the impact on consumers. Making profit regardless of the long term effects is never, ever, a good tactic.
- Guilds of Ravnica: Mythic Edition: This product, announced with other things related to Guilds of Ravnica, was a special Draft (*sigh*) product where the only things different from a regular 36 pack booster box were that this had 24 normal packs, and 8 packs where each had 1 of the Mythic Edition planeswalkers with borderless art. For $249.99 through the Hasbro Toy shop (which is not available worldwide) you could buy this box of “32” packs. The website was not ready for the incoming traffic, and honestly they should have just sold the 8 planeswalkers in a subset like a From The Vault or San Diego Comic-Con package. It would have been fine, however this loudly states that WotC wants to bypass the middleman to gain a profit directly from players. THE ONLY THING that was good about this was that the cost of singles from Guilds of Ravnica are a lot lower than they probably would have been without this product. I also feel that this was an answer to those who disliked the “Masterpiece” subset from Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation causing the apparent cancellation of that. No one has heard if they are doing this with Ravnica: Allegiance yet or not, but I’m sure we’ll know soon. I honestly think we could have done without this product.
- Too many products: Are you ready for this? Here we go. Based on month of release we had:
- Rivals of Ixalan
- Masters 25
- Challenger Decks
- Duel Decks: Elves vs Inventors
- Global Series: Jiang Yanggu & Mu Yanling (did you forget about this too?)
- Signature Spellbook: Jace
- Commander Anthology: 2018
- Core Set: 2019
- Commander 2018
- Guilds of Ravnica
- Ultimate Masters
This does not include other things like Game Night, the Gift Pack, or the Guild Kits. That’s a ton of product, and that’s just 2018. It’s way too easy now for consumers to have product fatigue, and honestly WotC needs to slow the Hell down. If they make sets that overall sell well, but upon review are just average, aren’t they doing themselves a disservice? Do we really want mediocre product, or do we want something that is, at the very least, above average from them? Ultimate Masters, and it’s MSRP were the final push for more profit before 2018 ended, and I hope they don’t push for more profit next year like this. That balloon will burst, and the ramifications from that would impact everyone.
I do want to end on a good note, and again this may be controversial, but Wizards of the Coast selling directly through Amazon, Walmart, and others is actually A GREAT THING for us. Yes our local game store (LGS) should be the primary place to buy Magic product, however we should not look at this deal from our perspective, but from that of those who buy gifts for us.
No matter how you slice it there are still billions of people who have no clue what Magic: the Gathering is, where an LGS is, and why this product is on our holiday wish list. You could provide an in-depth list of what Magic items you want, where to get them, and even a price, but still wind up with a short sleeve t-shirt that’s a little snug or a size too small. While the holidays are definitely not about receiving helping your loved ones find the things that you like not only helps them, but reduces any stress and/or anxiety levels when it comes to buying gifts. Amazon is something already known worldwide, and accepted by many consumers. This is a great way for those members of your family to purchase sealed product, or perhaps even individual cards if the seller does not have their own site.
You may still be confused by my take on this so let me describe it another way: Have you ever gone into a store for a product a loved one wanted, and had no clue if you were purchasing the right thing? Did you receive no help? Did you feel out of place? This is what our loved ones may experience when they go to our favorite places to shop. This deal helps circumvent that for them, and overall helps you. Embrace this change.
Still don’t like this? Well I recommend finding stores that have an online presence where you can set up a “wish list”. I used CoolStuffInc for this, and it worked flawlessly. So for that person in your family that does online shopping this may be a route to take for specific items (example: singles), so keep that in mind.
When people talk about balance (not the card) sometimes they are expressing where everything is of equal value, however in my opinion true balance is achieved when you have good and bad. It’s something one can learn from as well when they see what worked, and what did not work. If everything was great it may wind up being bad, where obviously everything being bad would be detrimental to others. Also it’s ok to be passionate about something you love especially when it’s something you enjoy, and want others to enjoy it as well.
2018 has been full of things full of promise for the future, and issues that can be a learning experience to be better going forward. This is for both Magic, and the world as a whole.
I hope you all have a safe and happy New Year celebration. Next week I will return with my predictions for 2019 for all of us to look forward to.
Until next time…
TAP MORE MANA!!!
Scott Campbell, better known as MTGPackFoils, has been playing Magic since he was 17 (which was in 1993). He’s known for loving decks such as Azorius Control, Jund, and others (especially in Modern). He is a husband, father, and a former nightclub DJ.