Magic's next non-rotating format (background and speculation)
Speculation about a new non-rotating tournament format is reaching a crescendo this year in the Magic community. It's a very interesting topic to me (I'll explain why in a minute), and I think walking thru the idea would help folks learn a lot about Magic.
Background: What are we talking about?
Magic formats are defined by what cards are legal in them. Its marquee format, Standard, contains cards from the last 2 years. Every fall, a year's worth of cards "rotate" out of the format. A non-rotating format is one that uses a fixed point in time as the cutoff, and sets never leave. Both types of formats have upsides and downsides.
- Always a fresh environment; the metagame can't stagnate for extended periods of time.
- Accessible to new players, since all cards are readily available and the card pool is smaller (less overwhelming).
- Painful to stop playing for 6 months and have to rebuild your deck to get back in.
- Receives maximum support from Wizards.
- Still some freshness as new cards are added.
- Decks remain legal forever. Less pressing to buy new cards.
- As start date gets older, it is more difficult to obtain those cards, barring reprints.
- In general, more expensive to play competitively.
There are currently two non-rotating formats that follow normal rules: Legacy (all cards since the beginning) and Modern (cards since 2003's 8th Edition which debuted the new card frame). Before Modern was an official format, there was a second rotating format called Extended which included support for 4 years of cards instead of 2 (at various times, it was also tried as 3 years and 7 years). As Modern gained unofficial popularity (spearheaded, interestingly, by community member Gavin Verhey, now a product architect at Wizards), Extended was supplanted as an officially sanctioned format. The community generally feels like Modern is begrudgingly supported by Wizards, tho I think there is plenty of evidence that is no longer the case if it ever was.
Colloquially, the new speculative format is called "post-modern" which is just bad-clever, so that will be the last time I say it.
Why is it a big deal right now?
There's a sense that Modern is "collapsing under its own weight." It's grown by 50% since it was first sanctioned and now includes 60% of all Magic sets. Reprints aren't happening fast enough, so prices continue to climb on many tournament staples. Magic has grown tremendously in the last 5 years especially, adding to the upward push on prices. That said, the format is also more popular than ever.
But the giant elephant in the room is actually Magic's latest digital product, Arena. This coming fall (2019), cards will rotate out of Standard on that product for the first time, which will leave folks with a giant pile of unusable digital cards if a new format isn't established by then. While it's possible Wizards would create a separate non-rotating format for Arena, it feels unlikely they'd want to muddy the water with a separate digital-only format when they've pushed to keep them (mostly) unified.
Lastly, establishing a new format would likely cause substantial swings in the secondary market as folks evaluate what the new "staples" will be and buy them. While Modern isn't going away (possibly ever), it would likely cool that market significantly. Where prices are swinging, you get nerds speculating.
Where will the new line get drawn?
There's quite a few things to keep in mind. I'll start by laying out the top 5 candidates for where the line gets drawn and then talk about what it has for and against it being the line.
- 2014's Tarkir block.
- 2015's Origins (the last core set for 3 years).
- 2015's Zendikar (return) block.
- 2016's Kaladesh block.
- 2017's Ixalan block.
Tarkir: The mildly popular "Frontier" format has already tried to draw the line at 2014's Khans of Tarkir. But it contains "fetch lands", which has dramatically fallen out of favor with the Play Design team for causing excessive shuffling and longer tournaments. A new non-rotating format almost certainly wouldn't include them, although they could just ban them from day zero. Lastly, this set is cited as the beginning of the "sixth age of design" for Magic: The Gathering, but it should be noted that Modern starts right in the middle of the third age, so this isn't terribly compelling. This was the last 3-color themed set, which could be relevant. Lastly, the card frame was tweaked starting with this set, adding a black bar at the bottom of all cards. Not as dramatic as the Modern change, but notable and an easy way for beginners to judge legality.
Origins: The story of the Gatewatch (Magic's verison of the Avengers) started in 2015's core set, Origins, with their, well, origins. It was a very popular set that the design team put tremendous resources into to craft background stories for the five planeswalkers as a prequel to what was to happen next.
Zendikar 2: The set "Battle for Zendikar" kicked off the brief 2-set block paradigm that lasted 2 years. It saw the Gatewatch form and just sold like hotcakes. However, Magic's lead designer Mark Rosewater nominated it as the block that, from a design perspective, he'd most like to erase from history. The storyline in this block continued in the next one, Innistrad 2 ("Shadows over Innistrad"), making it unlikely they'd draw the line between them.
Kaladesh: Kaladesh marks the start of the current Nicol Bolas-centric storyline currently reaching a climax on Ravnica. It resulted in a few banned cards partially due to the Energy mechanic finding some degenerate deck uses. It's generally accepted that, while Arena debuted with Ixalan in 2017, the cards for Kaladesh and Amonkhet (the following block) have all been coded into Arena already. It's further rumored the the cards go back as far as Zendikar 2 from internal alpha, but I haven't found reliable sourcing for that. Lastly, Energy, while a bit problematic in its first iteration from a power abuse standpoint, is a parasitic mechanic that wants a ton of mechanical support. If they ever plan to use it again, cutting off its first use would be far from ideal.
Ixalan: This is when MTG Arena launched, so folks have these cards. It would be zero effort and minimal effect to simply launch a non-rotating format with the cards folks already have. If I believed that the format would be Arena-only, this is as good a bet as any.
Place your bets
My money is on Origins. Here's why:
- Core sets began Legacy (de facto, Alpha) and Modern (8th Edition).
- Wizards loves flavor consistency. Chopping off the beginning of the Gatewatch feels bad.
- Easier to sidestep fetch lands than ban them and keep hearing about it.
- Gives them a clean slate to try a new 3-color block without muddied waters.
- Rosewater hates Zendikar 2, but this is a play design decision, which he is apart from, and the set was well received.
- It's far enough back to create a unique metagame without being a herculean task to code back that far for Arena.
- Modern omits 10 years of Legacy. This would push us to 12 years removed from Modern, which feels right.
- My sense is that Origins is where Magic's general popularity really started to spike (again).
- Tarkir's card frame change is compelling, but I suspect play design, creative, and marketing would all prefer Origins.
In the end, no one can say for sure and I'm certainly not an expert on the play design consequences of where the line is drawn. Critically, no matter where you draw the line, there are tradeoffs to be made. You could make a decent argument for almost any set in the last half dozen years. My methodology was to simply identify the tradeoffs I think are most likely.
My own bias is that I started playing & collecting again at Origins, so I certainly would love a non-rotating format that coincides. I don't play Modern due to the cost of the decks, a lack of folks to play against, and the giant gap in my collection right where Modern begins - I'd quit buying cards just a year prior to 8th Edition. It would be a neatly poetic for me personally if the next format rose with my return to the game. It would surely help me onboard folks to a non-rotating format if I could access my entire "new" collection and not need to look up tons of cards I'm not familiar with.
Anyone else following this raging rumor mill? What do you think?