The process of designing Magic has evolved considerably over the game's nearly three-decade existence. Each part in this ongoing series will focus on a specific design era. The goal of the series is to understand the history of Magic design, so that we might better understand the present and future of the game, as well as the fundamentals of Magic design, and how those fundamentals have changed over the years. To do that, we will explore four questions:
- What was this era of design seeking to accomplish?
- How did they go about it?
- How successful were they?
- What design lessons can we learn?
Powering Down Standard
Starting in Battle for Zendikar, and up through Core Set 2019, Wizards of the Coast R&D, made a conscious decision to power down the Standard format. Bryan Hawley, the Play Design Team Lead, said in a 2019 article that "our primary goal with that direction was to open up design space, mostly in higher-cost cards and in effects typically not impactful enough for competitive play."
While it sounds like a good idea, in theory, the problem with powering down Standard, Hawley was quick to admit, was twofold. First, it reduced interest in premiere sets for players who didn't play Standard. Second, it made Standard more sensitive to cards and mechanics that missed on power level. Hawley cites Smuggler's Copter, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as cards too strong for a powered-down format. He does not mention how the inclusion of a parasitic linear mechanic like Energy in a powered down Standard can go on to warp the format and lead to bans, as we saw in 2018.
Powering Standard Back Up
The lackluster Standard, and the response from the community, sparked a response from Wizards R&D. Vice President of Design Aaron Forsythe delivered a speech to the members of R&D on working to generate more excitement in the cards. What came out of that speech was the FIRE Philosophy. Not to be confused with the Philosophy of Fire, the FIRE Philosophy of design stands for Fun, Inviting, Replayable, Exciting. It's about having cards contribute to more exciting gameplay. Play Designer Andrew Brown elaborated on what FIRE means in the article Fire It Up noting that Vision Design, Play Design, and Creative all have their own versions of the FIRE Philosophy. So what does FIRE mean for Standard, and for Magic in general?
While Forsythe's speech occurred during the tail end of War of the Spark development, the real effects of the FIRE Philosophy were felt beginning with Guilds of Ravnica, through to Throne of Eldraine. One of the big pushes, Brown discusses in his article, is raising the quality and power level of commons. He cites Cloudkin Seer and Accessories to Murder from Core Set 20 as examples of this improved power level.
Better Commons, Better Cards?
Improving the quality of commons overall is a great thing. It makes for better and more exciting games of limited, where commons and uncommons have the most opportunity to shine. It raises the floor of the power level of a set or of the Standard format in general, which is also good. If rares and mythics also increase in power level in relation to those common cards though, things can get problematic. We need to look no further for an example than with Throne of Eldraine.
Throne of Eldraine is the pinnacle of FIRE Philosophy. We can see it in the strength of all the commons, particularly in all the creatures with the adventure mechanic. Where Throne of Eldraine went wrong is in the pushed power level of its rares and mythics. This is true not just of actual mistakes like Oko, Thief of Crowns, and Once Upon a Time, but also in cards like Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp. Bonecrusher stifled format diversity in Standard to the extent that it is mindblowing it didn't wind up on the banned list with all the other Eldraine cards booted from Standard for their power level. If FIRE design doesn't make for good Standard sets, what is needed?
Striking a Balance
FIRE design sought to make cards in premiere sets more exciting. Raising the power level of common cards certainly accomplished this for limited, making games much more interesting and dynamic. Overall though, the FIRE design era was just as problematic as the powered down era which proceeded it. In pushing up the power level of cards of all rarities, not just commons, we reached a point where a number of the rares and mythics were too powerful for Standard, and had to subsequently be banned as a result. Standard can really hum if Wizards can balance premiere sets so the floor of commons is high, but the power of rares and mythics isn't off the scale as to be format warping.
The Purpose of Premiere Sets
Premiere sets have been the flagship Magic products since the earliest eras of the game. Their primary purpose is introducing new cards and mechanics into Standard, and providing fresh limited experiences for players. A secondary aspect of premiere products is introducing new cards into Commander, Modern, and other constructed formats outside of Standard. When looking at FIRE design, and the powered down era preceding it, it's important to reexamine what a premiere set is, and what it should be doing. If a premiere set is full of higher-costed cards not meant for competitive play, is that a premiere set, or a Commander product? If a premiere set is full of under-costed threats and powerful effects, is that a premiere set, or a Horizons set in the making?
Premiere Sets Moving Forward
The advent of the Casual Play Design Team, focusing on Commander and other casual products, and the existence of Horizons sets as an outlet to introduce cards into constructed formats while bypassing Standard, are steps in the right direction. It is less necessary for premiere sets to include Commander, Modern, or even Pioneer-specific plants, when there are other outlets for printing those cards. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is balanced in a way that makes for a fun limited environment, and adds interesting cards into Standard without warping the format. If Crimson Vow does the same, the future of Standard and premiere set design will be moving in a positive direction.
Thirty years of Magic design is a lot of history to explore. I chose to start with FIRE design, because it was relatively recent for us to look back on, with resources written by members of R&D to refer to. Would you like to see more articles like this? What other eras or themes in Magic's design history would you like to see explored? Do you agree with my analysis? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.