Bad Magic: Planeswalkers

It’s been a while since I’ve been as charged-up as I am recently, and there’s one reason: Magic. Not stage magic, not rituals, not alchemy. Magic: the Gathering. I haven’t played the game since a few matches played with friends at college, and that was over 10 years ago now. I was never that good but I was always having fun. I introduced my little brother to the game and my mom drove us to the local DCI tournament which was maybe an hour away. Back then, I played a blue-red deck that me and my best friend had worked on. It was a really annoying land destruction/bounce deck with a bunch of enter-effect kavus; if you played like 20 years ago this might mean something to you. I got stomped out early and my brother got a round further. I wanted to win but I didn’t play to win, I played — even competitively — because I was having fun.

Now I’d love to blame this resurgence for me on COVID… so I will. Being stuck inside meant I was watching more YouTube than usual and I came across videos by Spice 8 Rack, Alpha Investments, and Tolarian Community College. At first, I just wanted to buy a couple packs maybe, or a big pack, and just have some cards again. I actually had a short return a couple years ago when I bought some cards just on a nostalgia trip, but I didn’t play back then. This time, I fell all the way in. I started solo-testing decks while devouring videos. Right now I’m playing Magic Arena and I’m getting really interested in Commander so I’m looking for places online to try that as well.

You could say that I’m having fun.

The game is different now than what it used to be. Nothing stays the same, I get that. But as much as I still enjoy playing, when I look at the trends of the game I honestly ask myself if I will be playing for long. The trouble I’m feeling could just be wishing for earlier days, but I think it’s more than that. The way that the game is changing is honestly really alienating, but in the most neutral sense. There’s a wall being built between the player and the game. I’ll explain what I mean. The best way is to talk about the biggest problem I have with modern magic: planeswalkers.

Spice 8 Rack’s videos are mostly based around the current lore of Magic: the Gathering and I think that it’s fascinating. One of the very first fantasy books I ever read was Rath & Storm edited by Peter Archer. I’m not sure if I read the book before playing or vice versa, but I do know that the stories of Gerrard, Sisay, Karn, and the Weatherlight resonated strongly with me. They were some of the first things I was interested in when dipping my toes back in. Characters like these plus Teferi, Urza, Mishra, Yawgmoth, and others have always been at the center of Magic’s written lore. They have not, however, been at the center of the game itself.

When I first heard about planeswalker cards, I swore off playing the game again. Obviously I’ve broken that since, but I still don’t like them. I don’t play them in my current Arena deck. When I face off against a planeswalker it’s always tough but I’ve gotten past them. I say all that to say that I think they are very powerful, maybe even overpowered, but they are beatable. My issue with planeswalkers isn’t that they are overshadowing the game (well, not entirely). It’s that they change my relationship with the game, and that changing relationship does have echoes within the game.

Suspension of disbelief is a huge part of how I played Magic and, from what I’ve observed, it’s central to how a lot of other people play as well. We don’t just play the categorically best cards. We play cards and decks that speak to us personally. Back in the day, even 10 years ago when I had those few games using older cards, the feeling of being a planeswalker casting spells was a major draw of Magic. The stories of the Weatherlight and Yawgmoth and Karn and Memnarch were happening in the background of what I was doing, a totally unrelated battle between unrelated sorcerers who were the main characters of our own stories. These important characters did appear as legendary creatures, yes, but it was sparing and those creatures didn’t dominate play in the same way that planeswalkers do. Now, both planeswalkers and legendary creatures have become the centers of play.

Planeswalker cards were introduced in Lorwyn (2007) and for a while they came out somewhere between 3 and 7 per set by rough estimate. At that time, the levels of planeswalkers + legendaries was pretty steady, with comparatively few legendaries; the pre-planeswalker Kamigawa block was heavy on legendaries but this was an outlier, more of a block gimmick than a trend. It wasn’t until around 2016 until we saw a big upswing in legendaries being printed and it has absolutely skyrocketed since. Compare the 30 new legendary cards printed in Core Set 2021 or the 62 in Dominaria (2018) to just 9 in Magic 2015 and 19 in Theros (2013, still post-Lorwyn). A large number of these legendary cards are planeswalkers and creatures. We’re getting a Magic: the Gathering game that is much more focused on the fictional personalities than on the players.

I happened to come across an article written in 2013 by WotC R&D Sam Stoddard where he stated that they wanted to balance the spells of earlier Magic with creatures going forward. I can get behind the idea of making creatures a more exciting prospect than they might have been before. However, what I’ve seen since playing is that most effects that could have been spread around before are now directed straight at creatures. Abilities like hexproof (which is pretty prevalent, especially in black) completely prevent using spells to affect creatures and, in general, spells have been reduced in power such that creatures feel much more safe on the board. Instead of being a game about slinging spells and casting cool magic, a scenario where we as the players are powerful, we’re now entering a game era where we hide behind our monsters and call our A-lister pals in to help us out.

This fact distances me as a player from the game that I’m playing. One of the effects of putting these cards so prominently in decks is that I no longer feel as though I’m writing my own story. Instead, I’m a bit character in the wider story that I read in the books. This difference goes to the heart of what draws people to fantasy and science-fiction and what people don’t get out of sports. One of the greatest things about escapist fiction is the ability to put oneself into the scenario. In a lot of forms of fiction, we as readers do have to live vicariously through characters created for us. In games, we have the ability to embody a character who is, for as long as the game lasts, part of a completely foreign, fantastical universe. There’s a strong draw in sitting down to get immersed in a fantasy conflict. That part of the draw is being chipped away by the insistence of putting every story character directly into the cards and making those cards powerful. We’re no longer writing our own stories, we’re sort of acting in side-stories between the novels, things that are ultimately of no importance.

Why is sports relevant to this discussion? Recently, I did a tiny bit of searching around to try and figure out what draws people to sports cards. And you know what it is? Liking the sports. Shocking, I know. But what I’m getting at is that when you’re collecting sports cards, you’re looking at something that already exists — sports — and prioritizing those cards that are connected to the top players or the top moments in that sport. If you buy a card and you save it up because hopefully it’ll be worth something, you know that it will only end up being worth something if the card is of a star.

Unfortunately, that’s the model that Magic appears to be moving to. Watching Alpha Investments gave me a basic understanding of the fact that Wizards of the Coast (and their parents Hasbro) are likely trying to move into the sports card space. Stuff like the extra fancy VIP Masters set, full-border cards, extra levels of rarity, all of that is mimicking the crazy rarities and extra versions that sports are into. And what Wizards clearly believes is that in order to push this type of product, they have to push their story characters. The NBA is the canon for basketball cards. The MLB is the canon for baseball cards. The written Magic: the Gathering lore is poised to be the canon for Magic cards.

I want to go on a short tangent here. The financial argument is really secondary (or even tertiary) to my case here, but on the financial aspect, I don’t think that WotC’s methods — which I honestly believe are going to be harmful to the game by changing it too much from its core experience — are necessary to move into the sports card type production. The biggest value cards in Magic have never historically been character cards. They’ve been cards that were really good in the game itself. Instead of spicing up named planeswalkers, WotC could focus on doing exquisite-quality prints of cards that have performed well in tournaments, regardless of whether or not they are characters. Let’s make the game the main lore of Magic again so we don’t have to rely on half-assed novelizations to find cool things to latch on to. I think that if the game dies, these specialty versions are going to die with them, so they need to not put the cart before the horse.

MTG dying seems like a far-off possibility but these things tend to creep along very slowly for a long time then suddenly crash into hell. To (haphazardly) bring another idea from the MTG finance world, it feels a lot to me like WotC/Hasbro are trying to lock in the profits. Rather than trying to nurture a game for the long-run with fun and interactive spells and an immersive experience, WotC are trying to hike the prices on those already playing to squeeze everything they can out, not really giving a shit about attracting new players. They’re not on the brink or anything, but once your business model turns to putting pressure on the whales, you’re no longer thinking about what brought you to the dance: the game itself.

I believe that Magic is ultimately going to outlast Wizards. Perhaps not long. Perhaps only as a niche game. But there’s so much Magic out there that we could probably keep playing for at least a decade without needing new printings. People like the game far more than they like the company that makes it. People have largely accepted planeswalkers and the power creep of great creatures, but it seems like a pretty frequent complaint. For me, I know I got out because the sets were offering me less engagement, and even now I’m not sure if my burst of excitement for the game is going to last too long. I’ll be keeping my eye on Zendikar Rising for sure.

Do I think planeswalkers have to go away completely? I won’t lie, I’d love it if we only got story characters as an occasional legendary creature again. However, I don’t think the cards are too wacky mechanically. I think there should be a bit more planeswalker-directed removal and bounce, or other ways to get rid of them, but that’s just my preference. Planeswalkers are just a symptom of the problem. The problem is WotC putting the focus on the creatures by taking the focus away from the player. When the best way to win tends to be playing a bunch of strong creatures, we end up basically playing Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon with rules that aren’t made for that.

This is going to sound dumb, I know, but I want to be a wizard. I wish there was still a game that let me live that fantasy.

 

Okay yes I originally titled this article “Bad Magic: the Gathering” of course I did

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