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The Comboist Manifesto: Elk Need Not Apply [Article]


The Tentacled One
This is a long article. You’ve been warned. At the most abstract level, this one has been a long time coming. A very, very long time. But I don’t think I’d have made the effort to string these words together and come up with something coherent if not for the (relatively) recent article by Bryan Hawly about the “F.I.R.E.” philosophy. That can be found here: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/feature/play-design-lessons-learned-2019-11-18

It is probably required reading for what follows…

I envisioned a few different lofty titles for this piece and none of them felt right. Eventually I decided that I was really indebted to the excellent YouTube video “Humans Need Not Apply” by CGP Grey. I’ll link to that as well (
), but it’s not required viewing for our purposes. Not even close, really. It’s on a different subject entirely. However, I am kinda indebted to the video for making one crucial point. And so, lacking anything better, I’ll borrow from it for a title. The crucial point is that sometimes a new development is critically different from old developments and that dismissing it with “We’ve seen this before” is folly.

Someone astutely following along might reason at this point something like, “New changes might be importantly different from old changes, but it’s more likely that the new changes seem more drastic because they’re fresh, in contrast to the familiar changes we’ve grown accustomed to.” And I would concur. Good reasoning. Good job. You’re right. At this time, I do not ask for you to grant that what’s happening now is bigger, more dire, more drastic, or more important than past developments in the game’s history. All I ask is that you acknowledge that such a development is possible. I have the rest of this whole article I’m writing to support that thesis. It would be unreasonable of me to expect you to be on-board before we’ve even started!

And in case anything I’ve said so far has left the mistaken impression that this is about an “end of Magic” scenario, let me note that while the reasoning I’ve outlined above does apply to such a scenario, my argument is actually predicated on the continued long-term existence of Magic. I bring this up because doomsaying “this will be the death of the game” is a kind of popular quirk in rants about Magic. While historically such doomsaying was wrong, eventually it might be the case that someone points to a real sign of impending doom. Dismissing this correct observer because “We’ve seen this before” would be, nay, will be folly. But that’s not why we’re here. I suspect that we’re relatively near the beginning of a total upheaval of Magic, a process that might continue for many, many years. We’re not at the starting gate. It’s already underway and has been commented on in various terms. But what I want to try to do with this article is define what we’ve all been seeing and talking about lately (OK, not all of us, of course). I’m trying to crystallize the essence of the series of shakeups the game has been experiencing, particularly in the past year. When we try to make sense of what’s going on, try to categorize it, there’s a temptation to capture it as part of some established trend or to compare it to other events in the game’s past. And as I’ve hopefully driven home by now, nope, this time it’s different. But first, we’ll need to review some background information.

Some years ago, in discussions of other games (mostly video games), complaints about power creep in games would generally give Magic a pass, if not some outright laudatory comments. I saw this a few times without ever really looking for it and the circumstances varied, but the general story was, to paraphrase, something like this:
The company that makes Game X wants to sell the latest installment in its product line. If players already invested money into previous installments, they will need some special incentive to buy the latest installment instead of just continuing to use the older installments, which they’ve already spent money on. To sell the latest installment, the company can make its contents more powerful than the contents of previous installments. Then they’ll have to do the same thing with the next installment and the one after that. This is power creep, and it becomes unsustainable if not handled properly. An example of a game that has solved the problem of power creep is Magic: the Gathering. The Standard format, the game’s flagship format, rotates, so Wizards of the Coast can pull different levers, tweaking the power upwards in some ways but not others, and design new sets so that they contribute valuable new resources to players without making the previous set obsolete. Once sets leave Standard, newer sets can reset power levels to keep power creep held in check.

I think I’ve done justice to the original idea with that paraphrasal. And the people making the comparison were generally correct anyway. Power creep has evoked predatory business practices in the gaming industry, but Magic, for whatever flaws it does have, has risen above that particular issue. And that’s not by accident. Wizards of the Coast have gone on record stating that they deliberately emphasize whichever aspects of the game they’re increasing the power of with new sets, while quietly lowering the power level of other aspects, likened to an “Escher Stairwell.” It’s clever, perhaps even ingenious. The one aspect of this narrative that might be misleading is that it presents power levels in Magic design as smoothly oscillating. We might imagine a bunch of overlapping sinusoidal waves charting different types of card “power” over time. Actually, I’m pretty sure I saw someone depict it in just that way. And the reality has never been that clean. For one thing, it’s not generally sinusoidal. It’s full of plateaus as WotC left some things essentially the same for years at at time, and sudden, sharp drops where they found something to be too strong and then corrected or overcorrected. And it’s not periodic with Standard rotations either. Ask a hundred players to map out relative power levels of Magic sets over time and you might not get a hundred meaningfully different maps (depending on the granularity of your system), but you’d at least get a couple dozen irreconcilable discrepancies. Your average longtime Magic player would probably class Urza’s Saga or Mirrodin as overpowered, with Prophecy or Saviors of Kamigawa being underpowered. But where does Guildpact rate? Somewhere in the middle, right? But in which part of the middle?

I know I’m belaboring the point that this is subjective, but it’s also an area where we, as players, have a lot of common ground. And there are very real and important trends, even if they are tricky to capture. A comprehensive analysis of this subject would be interesting, but I’m afraid that sort of thing is beyond me. So let’s go back to about a decade ago. 2009. By then, we were already seeing a certain kind of permanent power creep already well underway. This power creep in Magic was different from the existing “Escher Stairwell” in which various game mechanics were deliberately made more or less powerful in each set. Instead, this power creep was meant to effect a lasting change, to correct a perceived problem with the game. Creatures were deemed too weak relative to noncreature spells. The poster child for this was the brand new Baneslayer Angel, a clear response to years of Serra Angel as a benchmark for the power level of a certain kind of creature. A shot across the bow in the new saga of ratcheting up the value of creatures. Now you could get more for your mana. This probably started before a decade ago, but it’s impossible to pinpoint, especially with the heavily experimental stuff in the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor megablock followed by Alara Block. Baneslayer Angel drove the point home in 2009 to anyone who wasn’t paying attention. And Sam Stoddard wrote about it explicitly in 2013: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/latest-developments/dealing-power-creep-2013-08-09. This wasn’t without controversy, but I think that the overall response by players was more positive than not. People were tired of weak creatures. Most players would have agreed with Sam Stoddard that it was important to find the right balance.


The Tentacled One
Every year has its share of developments in Magic: new products, format changes, rules adjustments, etc. I don’t know if backtracking to a decade ago is helpful here, but 2009 was a pretty big year for the game, finishing off the Alara Block with two sets that added a lot of useful tools for players to work with, introducing the “Duels of the Planeswalkers” series of video games, introducing Planechase as a new way to play Magic, introducing Commander Theme Decks on MTGO, changing the core set system with the first “Magic 20XX” set, implementing the Magic 2010 rules overhaul, introducing the Premium Deck Series, and of course there was Zendikar, perhaps the most innovative and dynamic set design at the time.

In 2019, we saw, as the first set of the year, Ravnica Allegiance, the followup to 2018’s Guilds of Ravnica, but not officially part of a block. While its power level seems mundane to me now, it had some extremely strong cards and would have been a contender for the most impactful set in most years before 2018. It only seems unremarkable in light of what followed. The next set was War of the Spark, with its unprecedented planeswalker theme and its planeswalkers with powerful static abilities. This was followed shortly by Modern Horizons, perhaps the most power-packed new set of all time. Core Set 2020 was probably the most powerful Modern-era core set. Commander 2019, uncharacteristically for this year, was possibly a step down in power level from last year. But then Throne of Eldraine closed out the year with another intense, power-packed set. This year also saw official support for Pauper as a tabletop format, the revival of Brawl as a format, the establishment of Pioneer as a brand new format, and the official release of the long-awaited “MTG Arena” computer game. 2019 has been a roller coaster, truly an annus mirabilis for Magic.

As eventful as 2019 has been, the defining characteristic for developments this year has been the sheer power of single cards. From Standard to Vintage and everywhere in between, new cards have rearranged the landscape of competitive decks in every format. And that simple description might loosely apply to other time periods in the game’s history, but that’s where the similarity ends. Once the details get more specific, this stops looking like something familiar and starts looking, by comparison, bizarre. For comparison, let’s jump back by yet another decade to 1999 and the infamous “Combo Winter.” I’ve already written some extensive historical analysis on this topic in “Magic Memories” threads at the CPA, but for our purposes here I don’t want to inject any of my own bias. So I’ll attempt to outline this in a generic, neutral manner…
  • By late 1998, the Standard Magic environment already had some powerful tools for mana production and card selection. This included Brainstorm, Mana Vault, Sylvan Library, Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, Ancient Tomb, Intuition, City of Traitors, and Mox Diamond.
  • The most recent block of sets had introduced multiple enchantments that allowed players to manipulate resources in unprecedented ways. With the available mana production and card selection in this same pool of cards, it became possible to build decks based around using enchantments to bend the normal rules of gameplay. Examples included Oath of Druids, Recurring Nightmare, Dream Halls, Earthcraft, Mind Over Matter, Aluren, and Manabond.
  • Both Urza’s Saga and Urza’s Legacy had an arsenal of novel, efficient artifacts. These included Grim Monolith, Claws of Gix, Memory Jar, Copper Gnomes, Phyrexian Colossus, Smokestack, Worn Powerstone, and Defense Grid.
  • The new Urza’s Block sets had blue cards with the “free” mechanic. These cards untapped a number of lands equal to their converted mana cost, effectively giving players a rebate on mana. In principle, the idea was that they would cost a bit more mana initially, but give it back if they resolved, making them nice for tempo plays. However, most of these cards didn’t really come with such high mana costs that they offset the advantage of a mana rebate. Notable “free” spells included Time Spiral, Great Whale, Cloud of Faeries, Frantic Search, Palinchron, Snap, and Peregrine Drake.
  • When paired with basic lands, dual lands, and most utility lands, the “free” spells were generally innocuous. However, this environment already contained lands that could tap for more than a single mana and would quickly get more of them.
  • Some new cards had extremely powerful effects, either because they were new takes on powerful old cards, but not costed to mitigate their obvious potential, or because they were doing new things that were poorly understood at the time. These included Tolarian Academy, Windfall, Tinker, Yawgmoth’s Will, Exploration, Karmic Guide, and Crop Rotation. All were novel and some would go on to be merely strong cards, but others were severe mistakes.
The confluence of these circumstances was the infamous “Combo Winter.” It might only have taken a few of them to make things get out-of-hand, but all of them combined to make history.

I picked “Combo Winter” not because it was 20 years ago (although that is a nice, round number for our purposes), but because it represented an extreme in Magic’s history, with old archetypes being overthrown by new ones and heightened tournament ban list activity. Although our current situation in 2019 isn’t so extreme, we do have some of both of those. Furthermore, we’re seeing something of a throwback in terms of what happens to formats with larger cardpools. In 1999, the cards being banned and restricted were the new cards, like Dream Halls and Voltaic Key. In the intervening years, it was more typical to see an old “enabler” banned or restricted due to an interaction with something new, as happened with Survival of the Fittest after Vengevine was printed, or with Eye of Ugin after Thought-Knot Seer was printed, or with Sensei’s Divining Top after Terminus was printed. What’s striking about the powerful cards in recent sets isn’t necessarily that there are so many of them or even that they’re causing bans/restrictions. It’s that the new cards are the ones being axed. Much like 20 years ago, instead of seeing changes to balance a format by removing a card that has shown strength for several years, or one that just gained power from some new printings, it’s the new cards themselves that are being targeted because of their inherent power (they did try banning Bridge From Below in Modern to deal with a new card, but then ended up banning Hogaak anyway shortly thereafter).

Well, it’s not 1999 anymore and Wizards of the Coast have learned a lot about designing cards. There isn’t really a common thread between the various powerhouse cards that have been shaking up Magic recently. This isn’t like when Wizards of the Coast failed to appreciate the synergy between land-untapping spells and lands that produced multiple mana. Seeing the new powerhouse cards, culminating in Oko, Thief of Crowns, I noticed that something was different, but I couldn’t quite be sure how to describe it, except that it seemed different from anything else. Force of Vigor, Wishclaw Talisman, Collector Ouphe, Arcum’s Astrolabe, Dreadhorde Arcanist. New cards appear in all sorts of archetypes. About the only real commonality that we saw was a preponderance of powerful cards with static abilities on planeswalkers, and even that was just one set. We’ve been getting power-packed set after power-packed set. The “Philosophy of F.I.R.E.” document has been illuminating. Get it?


The Tentacled One
From Brian Hawley’s article, we’ve learned that the consistently high power level is on purpose. And he also outlines why they’ve made this change. This philosophy seems coherent and sensible. Magic should be fun, inviting, replayable, and exciting. And with the strong cards we’ve been seeing lately, I don’t think it’s hard to envision how those cards were made with this philosophy in mind. It seems to be a success. Really, the only jarring aspect of it is that this is essentially the same idea that a lot of people, myself included, have been saying for years. Oh, I never made up a silly “fire” acronym for it and I don’t think anyone else did either. But the complaint that WotC pushes power levels down too far too often, that Standard sets are dull or disappointing because of underpowered cards, has been a popular refrain. I know that on a couple of occasions I’ve pontificated on how even some of the most egregiously overpowered card design mistakes settled into relatively innocuous places in time, while underpowered sets stay underpowered forever. But back when I said that, I never expected Wizards of the Coast to actually agree with me! Well, here we are.

And then we come to Oko, Thief of Crowns. Up until that point, reading what Brian Hawly wrote, I agreed with almost everything and kind of thought, as a fan of the game and of good cards, that it was everything I could ever hope for. But Oko was a pretty glaring “broken” card and I was curious how Wizards of the Coast would respond to that. I mean, having a higher average power level was one thing and I could sort of see how the article was leading into “but this particular card overshot the mark.” And the article did do that. But suddenly, in the paragraph where we’d expect to see some insight, instead we got a most perplexing sidestep. Brian Hawley basically told us that the mistake with Oko happened because Play Design is a design team, not a playtesting team, the implication being that while there was playtesting, it wasn’t sufficient to catch the problems with Oko. They worked with a different concept for the card that had its power tied into stealing other people’s things and then the card was changed, but they couldn’t devote enough time to catching how overpowered the new version would prove to be. Wait, what?

Since practically the beginning of the planeswalker card type, they’ve followed the general formula of making the + ability be something modest, the - ability something strong, and the ultimate something much more powerful, but more difficult to reach. The mana cost and starting loyalty have been additional variables that they’ve tweaked to fine-tune the power level of planeswalkers. A planeswalker with an ultimate that takes several turns to reach can have a more game-breaking ultimate, while one that can do so quickly needs to have a weaker ultimate. A planeswalker with + ability that is very strong on its own shouldn’t be able to reach its ultimate too quickly. A three-mana planeswalker should have weaker abilities because it can hit the board so early in a game, while a six-drop can have much stronger abilities and higher starting loyalty because opponents should be equipped to fight it. A particularly low-impact ability could be a +2 or even +3, while a strong ability should probably take away more loyalty in order to balance its effect. And so on. They’ve certainly deviated from the formula, such as with most Gideon planeswalkers, but those deviations have generally been properly tuned and not problematic. And then, in this new set, they made a very strong ability, made it +1 instead of -whatever, let it tick up to its ultimate after just a turn, gave it enough starting loyalty to survive most cheap attackers and spells, and made it cost only three mana. They broke all of their own rules in designing this planeswalker and the excuse for it being overpowered is “Well, we changed it and didn’t have time to fully playtest the new version”? I contend that Oko isn’t a “more playtesting would have caught this” kind of design mistake. All it takes to know that it’s an extremely powerful card is some general background knowledge of how planeswalkers have worked historically in Magic.

The incongruity with Oko as a design mistake is reminiscent of the response to Felidar Guardian. With so many different possible card interactions and so much complexity, it’s obvious that millions of Magic players building decks will quickly find things that Wizards of the Coast, with their much smaller pool of playtesters, failed to find. But in both of those cases, we’re not talking about some intricate, innovative whole-deck engine or some elusive combo. These mistakes were spotted by any competent players and were pointed out by many players within seconds. When Wizards of the Coast is trying something new, sometimes they overshoot the mark and the extent of this only comes to light after players have been using the cards for some time, as was the case with Skullclamp or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Not so with Oko, nor with Felidar Guardian. Both were recognized as overpowered from the moment they were revealed to the public.

I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile my view that over the years Wizards of the Coast have become better at card design and tuning cards to fit what they’re trying to do with my view that they have repeatedly put out mistakes that any monkey can spot, but both things do seem to have happened. There are probably multiple causes. After all, Magic cards are still designed by humans and humans do make mistakes. In the specific case of Oko, the card represented an important character in the story for the set, and there may have been pressure on Play Design to make sure that the card was high-impact (actually, I was personally told just that, but I treat it as more of a rumor than a proof-positive statement). More importantly than why this particular mistake happened is the reminder that mistakes do happen and are inevitable. Mistakes will happen, and will not be happening in a landscape in which Wizards of the Coast is deliberately designing sets with a higher average power level and in which they are experienced at doing so.

In the past, when Wizards of the Coast accidentally pushed the power level too far, they were able to respond by correcting, usually overcorrecting, on subsequent sets, walking back the power creep with underpowered sets (think Urza’s Block being followed by Masques Block or Mirrodin Block being followed by Kamigawa Block). But those sets are pretty old now, and WotC have generally gotten better at making this process subtle, perhaps more sidestepping than walking back, although the method for doing this still isn’t very complicated. Time Spiral Block and Innistrad Block both featured heavily-pushed, sometimes broken spells, but their overpowered stuff was mostly non-creature material, so the subsequent blocks loaded most of their power onto creatures (Lorwyn/Shadowmoor did this with a tribal focus and Return to Ravnica Block did it by focusing on two-color combinations). With the new Philosophy of F.I.R.E. they can’t really walk things back in the way we’ve seen before. When you’ve announced to the world that you know players like powerful cards and that you’re happy with the newly established power level, that powerful is the new norm, you can’t just press “undo” on that. I mean, they could try, but it would be such a disaster that I don’t think they’d bring themselves to.

I’m trying to envision how WotC might respond to future power level issues as they come up, under the Philosophy of F.I.R.E. (and wishing they picked a better name for it), but I really don’t know and maybe no one does. Technically, it’s possible that they could just change their minds and decide the power level we’ve been seeing is too high, but I can’t see any basis for that or real reason to discuss it, so I’ll dismiss the possibility for now. It seems reasonable to suspect that Brian Hawley’s statements on intended power level in set design are earnest and representative of WotC as a whole: they were aiming for a higher power level, have found it (with the exceptional mistake of overshooting it with Oko), and will be attempting to keep approximately this power level moving forward. But where does that leave us? I have some notions on that, but to get at those, I invite a bit of a thought experiment.

For the moment, set aside the Philosophy of F.I.R.E. and everything we’ve just been told about it. And while Magic will eventually either die out or undergo some change that overwhelms current paradigms, let’s set that aside as well and consider the long-term implications for the game without regard to massive changes we don’t yet know anything about. With that in mind, as new sets keep being released, there are really only a few possibilities for the effects of power level on deck construction over time.


The Tentacled One
Scenario 1: the power level goes down (eventually) and the “old” cards from before a certain point are the best ones to use in your deck
This might seem like a strange notion, in light of everything else I’ve been presenting, but I list it for the sake of completeness. This is a real idea that players have had. In 2000, in 2003, and again in 2015 I saw players express the belief that this would happen, that all of the best cards in Magic had already been printed and that new cards would only be relevant in rotating formats. It’s never been an especially popular position to endorse, but I do think that it’s important to admit that it could eventually happen. Wizards of the Coast could decide to shift card design in such a way that new cards moving forward wouldn’t be able to compete with the strategies available to players using old cards. Since it’s so radically different from what seems to have happened historically and from what we’re seeing now, I don’t dwell on this one. But it’s worth remembering, especially if at some point we see WotC shift set design in some extreme way such that new cards don’t fit into existing strategies.

Scenario 2: the power level stays high and new cards displace old cards in viability in all (or almost all) cases
This is the simplest form of power creep, and something I would have thought virtually impossible before 2019. Now I’m not quite as firm in that conviction. We’ve already seen some of this and it seems technically possible that the process could continue. Before you call me some sort of crazy person for thinking that Black Lotus will some day become obsolete, keep in mind that Black Lotus is a single, extremely rare, extremely powerful, extremely exceptional card. A world in which virtually all old cards become obsolete with a handful of special exceptions is essentially the same as a world in which old cards are entirely obsolete. And while cheap, mana-producing artifacts that can make more mana than was spent to cast them are now categorically avoided unless those artifacts have severe drawbacks, WotC need not print better versions of those cards to make the old ones, or most of the old ones, obsolete. Currently, artifact-based mana acceleration is so strong, and the oldest versions so obviously superior, that the cards remain powerful wherever they’re allowed. But it doesn’t take superior versions of those cards to replace the old ones. There are already a lot more old, formerly strong, cards made obsolete not by direct supplantation by a newer, better version, but by the strategies and archetypes they existed in become uncompetitive against the new stuff. We’ve already been seeing this with Dark Ritual and Mana Drain in Vintage: those cards were once format-defining staples, but have been increasingly relegated to obscurity. They’re still the best at what they do. You could still build the decks that were based around them. Those decks are just no longer good enough because the strategies are no longer good enough. Maybe it’ll never happen to the best of the old mana artifacts, but even if those hold their places, that’s all of ten or so cards in one of the only categories where the old cards might be immune to replacement. And new stuff like Collector Ouphe shows how even those cards might someday lose their staying power.

Scenario 3: the power level stays high and new cards find increasingly few places to displace everything that came before them
Ancient Tomb. Umezawa’s Jitte. Glimpse of Nature. Golgari Grave-Troll. Delver of Secrets. Monastery Mentor. Oko, Thief of Crowns. The history of the game contains a history of power level mistakes, cards that were overtuned or contained potential WotC failed to anticipate, and then became part of the game. As more of these accumulate, in a card pool containing them, all of the best strategies will utilize their own cards from the history of mistakes. For many years I thought this scenario was almost certainly the future. A new set could push the power level in some way or another, and it could either add its tools as support that enhances existing archetypes or provide tools that outright supplant existing archetypes. But if it succeeds at either, then it’s just a little bit harder for the next set to do the same. And the next one. And the next one. Not a problem for Standard (or in any rotating format of limited size), but as card pools grow in other formats, each new set is challenged to not only contribute something that complements or competes with the oldest available sets, but all of the ones since then, and all of the overpowered cards each of those sets has to offer. Oko proved powerful enough to revitalize control decks in Vintage and Legacy that could reliably access blue/green and defend a planeswalker. But the card was a mistake. New cards that might be designed to play in that same space will now have to compete not just with the old cards, but now with Oko too. “Remember when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was the best planeswalker in the game?” is something I’ve been asking players a lot this year.

Scenario 4: the power level climbs higher and new cards displace old cards except for in various best-in-slot niche roles
I’d rate this scenario as highly unlikely, but could imagine it happening eventually. But I’d better explain why it’s drastically different from the previous scenarios. In Scenario 2 I postulated that perhaps, given a very long time, almost any given card (with possibly the scantest extreme exceptions or maybe even none at all) might eventually become obsolete because it’s either replaced by something superior or unable to compete because the strategies it was incorporated into might be inadequate. In Scenario 3 I imagined that the accumulation of accidentally overpowered cards could eventually lead to competition becoming an increasingly exclusive club of cards: the most overpowered mistakes of all time and the various support cards that fit into the strategies used with those mistakes, with any new printings finding it increasingly difficult to present anything relevant to such a potent field. But what I’m saying could happen here is that new sets could keep on pushing the power level on everything except for the things categories that are set aside, probably deliberately so (but it could also happen incidentally). We’ve already seen this to some extent with some categories, such as “tutor” spells. Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, and Demonic Consultation are above the power level WotC wants to use for this type of effect. Since those cards have been released, we’ve gotten some weaker versions like Grim Tutor, Tainted Pact, Spoils of the Vault, Dark Petition, and Wishclaw Talisman, but nothing that threatens to oust the classics from their throne. But there are other categories for which the peak power level hasn’t been so firmly established. This would definitely sell a lot of booster packs. The reason that I don’t think WotC would push the power level on everything except for select categories is that it strikes me as unsustainable and something they’re smart enough to avoid doing. Even so, I could see this happening if WotC believed that Magic was going to end in five years or something.

Scenario 5: the power level and the usage of existing cards tends to fluctuate in the long term
While this is the scenario I currently favor, I don’t want to oversell it: I didn’t particularly consider or espouse it in the past and I don’t remember seeing it described much by others either. We have seen it in limited scope many times. In Vintage, Bazaar of Baghdad, once a decent combo engine, fell into obscurity but then emerged as a powerhouse with the advent of the “Dredge” mechanic. In Legacy, the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top led to Miracles players exploiting Portent, a card that was about as forgotten by most players as a card can get. For my part, I had all but abandoned Anvil of Bogardan for fifteen years, and now that it has such a strong synergy in Narset, Parter of Veils, it has become one of my most reliable go-to cards. Anyone who’s been playing for a long time knows that sometimes cards make a comeback. Of course not every card is destined for a comeback, but I could imagine a future in which the usage of most cards waxes and wanes as the latest sets either help or hurt their performance. For some reason, I thought of these as isolated cases, but the revelation of the Philosophy of F.I.R.E. makes me suspect that this really could be the new normal. The best old cards to use alongside Oko might not be the same old cards as the ones that are best to use alongside whatever the next big mistake turns out to be.


The Tentacled One
There could be other outcomes I either haven’t thought of or ones that involve some major disruption (like the game being sold to another company), but if this goes on, I think one of those five scenarios or some mixture of them would come to pass. As I said, Scenario 5 is the one I’ve come to favor. The description offered for the Philosophy of F.I.R.E. and the way we’ve seen it play out over the past year would seem to indicate that things are moving in this direction. It’s been an amazing year for powerful new cards, but those cards have synergies with old cards and operate in systems with them. Elvish Reclaimer with Gaea’s Cradle. Wrenn and Six with Wasteland. Narset, Parter of Veils with Timetwister. Dreadhorde Arcanist with Lightning Bolt. Mystic Forge with Sensei’s Divining Top. Once Upon a Time with Birds of Paradise. Wishclaw Talisman with Lion’s Eye Diamond. My suspicion is that whenever a new card successfully breaks into competition in a format with a deep card pool, even if it pushes some cards out, it will empower others. We’ll see a lot of the same cards rising to prominence multiple times (they’re known as strong cards for a reason), but things will be in a state of flux. Kind of the way things have been for a long time, but, like, more than that.

This isn’t an indictment against the philosophy or an endorsement of it: the situation is more nuanced than that. Most players will probably find things that they like and things that they dislike. One could be forgiven for assuming that I’d only write so many words about this if I wanted to complain that about it being bad or celebrate it being good. Ordinarily a reasonable conclusion to jump to, but wrong in this case. My own outlook is moderately positive, but there are things to be happy about and things to be unhappy about. On one hand, the new philosophy is a move away from the thing I’ve most harshly criticized about Magic set design (blandness and overcosted cards) and seems like a step in the right direction. On the other hand, we’ve already seen an acceleration of a process whereby WotC continues to push the power level on things they like to push and makes some of my pet cards and strategies increasingly sidelined. Both of those are in the realm of opinion. I am not writing this to persuade you to share my taste. What’s important here isn’t how I’ve responded, but how you will respond. I just hope to provide some insight into what is happening. When Bryan Hawley’s article came out over a month ago (a week before I started writing this response, but I forgot to finish it, so here we are a few more weeks later), it was somewhat glossed over; it was a bit unfortunate that it had a bland “lessons learned” in the title of the article instead of something to indicate how important it was. I only happened to read it myself because of other player citing the bit about Oko in their complaints. But this is much bigger than that.

Whether you love or hate the cards that have been coming out this year, the one point of commonality that has pretty much united players has been just how overwhelming it’s been. In every competitive format, something from 2019 has made such an impact as to shake the format up more than it was affected by some entire year’s worth of past set releases, and for some formats this happened multiple times. As the months progressed, we knew something was different, but Bryan Hawley’s article with its unassuming title of “Play Design Lessons Learned” shows us why it has been like this lately. It’s on purpose. It’s the successful application of a new philosophy used by Wizards of the Coast. It’s the new normal. And there’s not really any plausible way of going back. So however you’ve reacted to 2019, this prospect should, I’d think, be rather daunting. We’ve only had about a year of this new paradigm. What will two years be like? Five years? Ten years? I guess we’ll find out!