The Magic 2012 Intro Packs are out, and the verdicts are rolling in. Depending on where you go, and whom you listen to, they vary anywhere between best-things-ever to steaming piles sealed inside a cardboard box. Although the former might be a shade overoptimistic, the latter is typically expressed by those who misunderstand what an Intro Pack is and what it's supposed to do. There was a very interesting article this week on magicthegathering.com from Mark Rosewater on the objectives of core sets, and it's safe to say that core set decks have comparably modest goals. Indeed, previous core set intro decks have proven to be a bit underwhelming, but this most recent bunch have a few new things going for them that we haven't seen before.
We're now in our third year of the Intro Pack Era, which began with Shards of Alara, and Magic 2012 is now the third core set series of decks we've seen. Longtime readers will be familiar with one of my principal (and oft-repeated) beliefs: once the theme decks died and were replaced by intro packs, intro packs plummeted in quality but have been steadily improving as R&D looks to tune more finely the intersection between playability and instruction. Today we'll be looking at the modern core set releases to see how the product has evolved over time. What sort of changes are we seeing? Are the core set decks improving alongside the other intro packs? And how do these decks reflect the desire of R&D to use them as 'teaching tools' to guide new players in deckbuilding?
Before we jump in, I'd like to briefly explain two metrics I've employed before in looking at precon decks. The first of these is the Unique-Cards-per-60, or U/60. This measures the deck's overall consistency of card selection. A 60-card deck with 36 nonland cards can have at most a U/60 of 9.0, or nine unique cards (naturally including four copies of each). This makes for a very consistent play experience: you can quickly understand what the deck is trying to do, and rely on seeing the same cards game after game. On the opposite end would be a 'highlander' deck with a U/60 of 36.0. This would offer a highly variable gameplay experience every time you played, and you could never count on seeing any particular card with any reliability.
Generally speaking, because one of the objects of Magic is to minimise variance, a lower U/60 score tends to yield a better overall deck (outside of Commander and similar formats, of course), though go too low and the deck can become less effective or uninteresting. Maybe you don't want to have them look like constructed decks, with a large number of four-of's to provide maximum consistency, but some variety in the card pool is preferable. There's a fair balance to be struck between offering some diversity in play experience (high numbers of unique cards, as found in Duel Decks) and consistency of deck performance (which gives the deck some personality, a 'voice'). That's not to say that Duel Decks lack voice, as they are able to draw upon all of Magic's history, but they offer consistency not through multiple copies of a given spell but rather through analogues, multiple copies of similar spells.
The second metric is the "vanilla card count." Vanilla creatures have their roles, but too great a concentration of them can also lead to uninteresting gameplay. For our purposes, we'll be considering a 'vanilla' creature here to have either no additional rules text, or having only flying. Creatures like Skywinder Drake with a blocking drawback will not be considered here, as the drawback adds an additional layer of intricacy and complexity.
With these yardsticks explained, we now turn to Magic 2010:
Magic 2010 was a watershed moment in Magic's history, completely revamping the core set tradition and execution. Widely credited with a central role in Magic's modern renaissance, it released with the following five decks:
- Death's Minions (Black-green)
- Firebomber (Red-blue)
- Nature's Fury (Green-white)
- Presence of Mind (Blue-black)
- We are Legion (White-red)
Despite the expected variations, there were a number of commonalities between them. For one, the primary color was heavily dominant: in each deck the secondary colour was limited to only five lands, and each contained a Terramorphic Expanse for color-fixing. They were virtually mono-colored decks save for a few splash cards which often felt rather crammed-in, such as the Enormous Baloth tucked in amongst Death's Minions' host of undead. Another intriguing threat was that with one lone exception, each deck contained exactly 20 unique nonland cards (Nature's Fury had 21). This gives M10 a U/60 score of 29.56, tied with Rise of the Eldrazi for the highest of any set in the modern intro deck era. For recent comparison, New Phyrexia's U/60 score was 23.40.
Intro decks were conceived as a way to give players a deck based on the set that showcased the set's characteristics and mechanics while subtly guiding them towards deckbuilding. Prior to Magic 2012, one of the major ways this was accomplished was to seed the deck with obviously 'bad' cards which would then prompt the player to upgrade once they saw better. This need let the Goblin Piker cash a pretty steady paycheck for a time, at least until the player stumbled across the clearly-superior Goblin Shortcutter. This was an easy step to take that caused no anxiety or uncertainty for our aspiring deckbuilder, worried about taking out the wrong thing, but indisputably improved the deck (and built confidence). Again looking at through the prism of a 60-card standard, Magic 2010 had a vanillas-per-deck count of 5.27, leaving plenty of room for safe customization.
A look at the decks themselves shows some of their more apparent shortcomings, particularly in theme and flavor. We Are Legion was a smattering of "white weenie" creatures (Knights, Soldiers, Angels, Lions, Griffins, and Pegasi) without any real unifying thread outside of their color. Death's Minions did the same for black, although it's probably safe to say that an army of undead feels a little more thematic because we associate their types (Spirit, Wraith, Zombie, and others) more closely. None of the five have what you might refer to as a voice. They're just collections of creatures that fit on a curve along with support cards you'd expect to see from each color (combat tricks in green and white, counters in blue, etc). We wouldn't start to see movement in that direction, however limited, until the following year's core set.
Magic 2011 took the groundbreaking innovation of Magic 2010 and added another: each year, the core set would bring back a 'returning mechanic,' one retrieved from Magic's past and given new life in new cards. For this set, Wizards lifted scry from Fifth Dawn, and its inclusion helped give added spice to two of the five decks. Those five were:
- Blades of Victory (White-black)
- Breath of Fire (Red-blue)
- Power of Prophecy (Blue-white)
- Reign of Vampirism (Black-green)
- Stampede of Beasts (Green-red)
Once again we see five decks, three of them with enemy-colored pairs and two with allied-color, just as with Magic 2010. The similarities didn't stop there. These decks maintained a similar color imbalance, favoring one heavily and splashing the lesser. They, too, relied upon the "bad cards" method to spur deck building, with a vanillas-per-deck count of 3.40, though this was a dramatic reduction from before. Still, if you looked closely you could see some very encouraging signs of progress towards making these better decks than the ones before it.
For one thing, the number of unique cards was down, from 29.56 to 24.00. This meant that greater use was being made of multiples, and the decks would be that much more consistent as a result. While you still had some uncomfortable bedfellows, such as the green component of Reign of Vampirism had virtually no synergy with the predominant black, some of the decks really felt as if there were the beginnings of a theme to them. These were no longer just collections of cards thrown together, but cards that actually belonged in that sort of deck.
Synergies between cards became more than just an afterthought. Power of Prophecy was very solid, focusing as it did around a core of flying creatures powered by the new scry mechanic. The Conundrum Sphinx offered strong card advantage if you knew what was at the top of your library, which scry empowered you to do. And all those creatures were perfectly positioned to take full advantage of the deck's other rare, Stormtide Leviathan. Or how about Stampede of Beasts and its Garruk's Packleader, which made even your vanilla fatties exciting to play? Cards that interact with one another within the same deck help make the sum much greater than the whole of its parts, in both its power level and entertainment factor. They're just more fun to play.
Although Reign of Vampirism can be singled out above for having the worst inter-color synergy (Congratulations! You can go get your Captivating Vampire back with your Nature's Spiral.), it did foreshadow the direction that Wizards would soon take with encouraging deck building: it provided a core to work around. Sure the "bad cards" strategy was fine, but wouldn't it be better if you moved the imagination and not just the analytical mind? "This is better than that" is an important skill to cultivate, but it's not the sort of thing that prompts someone to imagine an entire deck concept. By appealing to the imagination, Reign said "come build a better Vampire deck," rather than "replace a few cards." It would be this strategy that would come to the forefront a year later.
Magic 2012 isn't universally acclaimed as a step forward in the Core Set evolution, though few view it in any way as a step back either. Unlike the year previous, there isn't any great leap in innovation. Rather, it simply adhered to Magic 2011's winning formula by retiring scry, dusting off bloodthirst from Guildpact, and adding a number of new cards to the mix. Of course, the seeming lack of innovation doesn't take into account the great strides made in their intro decks. They are the following:
- Blood and Fire (Red-black)
- Entangling Webs (Green-red)
- Grab for Power (Black-blue)
- Mystical Might (Blue-white)
- Sacred Assault (White-green)
The first thing to note is that each of the deck pairs are allied colors, a break from the trend of the past. The decks also carry a significant number of improvements. For one, they've scaled back the land content. Decks in Magic 2011 typically carried 25 lands, and there was little reason in the decks themselves to run a richer mixture. Instead, it's probably safe to consider it a hedge against mana screw, and another subtle prod to tinker with the deck.
Magic 2012 has no such 'freebie slot,' and instead dials in to the customary 40% mark (though Entangling Webs runs 25, but has a very bloated mana curve that justifies it). The U/60 score continues its welcomed downward trend, moving from past year's 24.00 mark to a healthy and hale 21.40. Scars of Mirrodin somewhat anomolously carried a U/60 just a fuzz lower, but you have to go back to the days of the almighty theme deck to consistently get scores that low (Eventide was a U/60 of 21.20; Shadowmoor 21.40.). And while the vanillas-per-deck count saw a slight uptick (up 0.20 points to 3.60), the decks heaviest in them take pains to make them feel a part of the overall theme.
And it's there we have the real innovation of Magic 2012: theme. Far in excess of any previous decks discussed here, these decks have an identity. For some time now, I've been chronicling the slow return of intro decks to the fold of the theme decks, and this is yet another encouraging sign. Indeed, several of Magic 2012's decks carry more than one, but each is fleshed out sufficiently enough to be readily identifiable.
- Blood and Fire: The mechanic-based deck, carrying bloodthirst creatures with enabler support
- Entangling Webs: Spider tribal deck
- Grab for Power: "Quest deck" that looks to have you assemble a trio of artifacts for a massive power gain
- Mystical Might: A flying deck with a tribal subtheme of Illusions
- Sacred Assault: Aura-based deck with a tribal subtheme of Griffins.
Aside from Blood and Fire and Grab for Power, which being mechanic-driven has only lateral room for improvement (mainly through improvements to consistency by tuning the bloodthirst creatures, the bloodthirst enablers, or more copies of the Throne of Empires, Scepter of Empires, and Crown of Empires), each of the other three decks offer a springboard to a deck design. Want to build an all-Spider deck? Start with Entangling Webs. Or how about a tribal deck based on Illusions? Go with Mystical Might and adjust the creature mix. Like the Aura subtheme of Sacred Assault? Add some more of the cards that support it and cut out all the Griffins.
In short, rather than make a functioning deck that's seeded with inferior options to compel a player to try their hand at deckbuilding, Magic 2012 looks to 'provide a core to work around' much in the way of Reign of Vampirism, only on a larger scale.
Is this the face of things to come when Magic 2013 rolls around? I'd say it's almost certain. Given their role in keeping the game simple and 'grokkable,' I believe that the vanillas-per-deck ratio won't move much, especially if pains are taken to make them integrated into the strategy of the deck rather than being simple throw-ins. As for the U/60 scores, those are unlikely to witness any significant impact, though R&D may continue to fiddle with the card variety within the decks. It seems certain that 'three-of is the new four-of,' because it makes little sense to include a full playset of any card in a deck (after all, what incentive is there then for the player to acquire more and so modify the deck?). But if it's R&D's aim to help spur deckbuilding by giving us the core of an idea in the decks, that marks a significant departure from the past and is further evidence that Wizards is continually looking to fine-tune the intro deck experience.
So what was your impression of the newest precons? Any stand out as being particularly interesting (or ones to avoid)? Do you like the direction Wizards has taken with them, or are there additional changes you'd like to see? Let me know in the comments below!