What do Rise of the Eldrazi, Innistrad, and Khans of Tarkir all have in common? They were among the best Draft formats of all time, and were triple-set formats. When Innistrad and Khans of Tarkir had a second set added onto them, almost everyone agrees that those subsequent Draft formats were substantially worse.
There were 5 big changes announced earlier this week, starting with the Spring 2018 set.
Change #1—The Fall, Winter, and Spring Sets Will All Be Large Sets That Are Drafted Alone
Change #2—The Summer Set Will Be a Revamped Core Set
Change #3—A Different Approach to the Gatewatch
Change #4—The Masterpieces Series Will Revert to Being in Fewer Sets
Change #5—We're Changing Things Behind the Scenes
I want to talk about the advantages of moving to the new model using these ROE, ISD, and KTK as case studies, and how properly implemented single-set blocks can bring about a more enjoyable Draft experience. Then I’ll conclude with my thoughts on core sets coming back. Sound fun? Let’s go!
Novelty is More Important Than Continuity
Part of the problem with Draft formats of the past was that lots of holes needed to be filled. Everything had to be stretched across 2 or 3 sets, and that demanded a lot of filler while demanding an adherence to continuity. Thus, what was cool or new got lost in the shuffle. Storytelling and continuity were based more on sets than external features, such as the cool article-based Magic fiction now populating DailyMTG. Fate Reforged’s purpose was to explain a time travel story and link from Khans to Dragons of Tarkir. After that it then had to be the best set it could be. This was just too demanding and created a complexity issue in that it couldn’t just be an awesome set with its own mechanics. That lack of focus was compounded when it also had to fit well with the other sets and we ended up with a product that was arguably worse than skipping it altogether and just having two sets drafted independently, Khans and Dragons.
Dragons of Tarkir would have been imrpoved as an immediate followup, as well. You would immediately see the alternate world that the first set promised. Sure, you’d need some story explanations, but there would be two good ways to do this. First, story cards like Crux of Fate could go in either set to set up or explain the change. More importantly, the things that actually matter would be the only focus. The clans and the Dragons would pull all the focus in their respective sets and place the importance of novelty over continuity. MaRo also stated that this exact thing could happen: “Sets will share worlds on occasion, but the preset structure of a locked number of expansions being played together is no more.”
Constant change between sets can create more dynamic environments. Without an obligation to prior sets there can be more creativity. Dragons of Tarkir could have had all the awesome Dragons and Dragon mechanics without insisting on some evolution of the morph mechanic. Part of the reason why megamorph was so bad was that it had to be in the set. I think if WotC had the option to leave out a morph twist they would have concluded that enough was happening without it. The Dragon mechanics would have felt even more resonant and with more importance placed on them, could have created more intrigue through their differences.
Build-Arounds Become More of a Focus
Innistrad was one of the best sets of all time. Part of that was the incredible depth delivered through the set’s build-arounds. Burning Vengeance was one heck of a Magic card and required you to draft a completely different deck. Spider Spawning was an entire archetype, but required you to go even deeper. Among these were all the normal archetypes, and with that you had a set that almost couldn’t get boring. After a couple months of the set’s existence, new synergies were still being explored, metagames continued to form, and there was a good balance between figuring out new ways to draft versus more simple game plans.
Then Dark Ascension showed up. As a set, it was totally serviceable. Fateful hour wasn’t exciting, but undying was quite good. But even if these mechanics were both slam-dunks, the set still would have been a disappointment. It pulled from what Innistrad built up, and didn’t have enough of its own identity to improve on it. You couldn’t draft a Spider Spawning or Burning Vengeance deck anymore, and on top of that you had already been on Innistrad for 3 months. Sure, some of these new cards seemed cool, but it was just more of the same.
You want to feel different with a new expansion. Resonance is so important in this regard. Cards and sets should have a tie-in with the player base that excites a player on an emotional level.
This is what Eldritch Moon did well. The divergence from a classic Gothic horror world to a Cthulhu-based environment proved that a shift in emotional resonance could provide a fresh perspective. But the two-set structureEldritch Moon had to adhere to hurt both itself and Shadows over Innistrad. The new format wanted to be all Eldritch Moon, but it couldn’t be. A shorter time frame and solo set drafting allows new sets to dive deeper on themes and also ensure that awesome build-arounds remain awesome the entire time they can be drafted.
Highs and Lows Are Shorter Lived
This final piece of single Draft sets is pretty obvious upon first glance, but is still more of a positive than negative. Rise of the Eldrazi was an incredible set, but I’d argue that it was fantastic because it could be its own thing. The reason for its existence was that Zendikar and Worldwake were trying something very new with a heavy lands-matter theme. As a hedge, a 3rd standalone set was created with its own mechanics and themes. As a result, we got a refreshing new set all about casting 8-mana creatures after a set all about playing a 2-drop every turn. Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi were both fun, but what made them even better was how diametrically opposed they were. This shift is an example of how constant shifts set to set could feel if implemented correctly.
Big standalone sets aren’t always triumphs, though. Avacyn Restored is the consensus worst set in modern design history. It also was a hedge after Innistrad-Dark Ascension against the constant doom and gloom environment, for an alternate feel. The light and hope from all the Angels flying around was great. I enjoyed that environment change. The problem was that the set pushed non-interactive themes too far. The idea was that when your soulbonded creature got Doom Bladed and you got 2-for-1'd, it wasn't very fun. Thus, the designers cut any good removal and interaction, and the entire set became about who could curve out better. That, and 40% of the commons were unplayable. The good news was that the set only lasted 3 months! After that, we got to move on.
You can always relive the good. I can go buy a box of ROE and draft it with my friends, or play it when it’s a flashback Draft on Magic Online. Great things from the past can continue to provide meaningful experiences in the future. Short times for these great sets is the cost you pay for short timelines with bad sets. And while WotC does a fantastic job designing Draft sets, there will be bad ones from time to time. They’re only human. This shortened time frame will make bad Draft formats much more palatable.
Core sets were revamped after Tenth Edition and then discontinued entirely after Magic Origins. They served as a good bridge for the new player into more complex Draft environments, but as an avid and constant drafter they were always the least exciting part of the year for me. I’m sure that will remain true when they return, but they still have positives. First, they provide a stable place to put Standard staples that are detached from a specific environment. Hero’s Downfall might be a card WotC wants to reprint for Standard, but it’s rather hard to do because of its story elements. Who is the hero that is dying? That has to fit within a specific context to reprint in a block set (though it would be awesome to see in Hour of Devastation!). Reprinted in a core set though? No problem! Just come up with a hero from any setting and have them dying. After all, the main theme of core sets is resonant cards from various Magic settings. You could show Brigid from Lorwyn, depict Elspeth’s downfall, or any other iconic character facing an unfortunate end.
I also liked the individual card designs of core sets. I spoke earlier of resonant themes within worlds, and the importance of that shifted over time, but you can see that even more clearly on a card to card scale. Hornet Nest does exactly what you think a hornet’s nest would do. Grave Titan has Zombies literally falling out of its body. These cards are awesome and deliver on individual flavor because they only have to live up to their own expectations. Compare this to something like Samut, Voice of Dissent. This was supposed to be a legendary runner on Amonkhet. She had to fit within that context. I’m sure if Usain Bolt were printed in a core set you might get the sense of an insanely fast creature without all the keyword soup.
Finally, core sets represent good old-fashioned Magic. The colors do exactly what you would expect and when you throw any two together you get a classic color pair combination. U/W will have a bunch of flyers. R/G plays big creatures and burn things. These expectations are nice to lean on and a return to them is a good palette cleanser, even if the formats themselves become stale more quickly than block sets.
Obviously, we won’t know the full implications of these changes until we start to see the sets themselves in action, but I, for one, am a huge fan of them. There are so many potential positives even just looking at these changes in hindsight. Imagine how good they’ll be when they’re actually planned for.
- New sets only have to focus on their own strengths. Secondary sets had to fit into larger contexts awkwardly and that facet is gone now.
- New environments offer more opportunities for novelty. Change is the new constant and that leads to exciting new formats all the time.
- Small sets won’t dilute new themes. Powerful build-arounds will be important for their entire Draft life.
- Faster change allows more opportunities for great sets that can be revisited later. If bad sets ever come they have a mercifully short lifespan.
- The return of core sets allow for more Standard staples to be printed when they’re needed.
- Core sets are good for their card to card resonant designs.
- Core sets have an expected feel you can lean on year-to-year.