Op-Ed: Magic the Gathering block format fine the way it is

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Changes are coming soon to Magic the Gathering. Namely, the block system is being rewritten to eliminate blocks altogether. I, for one, see this is an overreaction to past mistakes in Magic the Gathering design.

Traditionally, Magic had three-set blocks, usually with a large fall set, followed by two smaller sets, then a summer core set. There were some exceptions, such as Avacyn Restored and Rise of the Eldrazi, but for the most part, third sets were often considered the weakest in a block, and by that point, the block felt played out. To change that, Wizards of the Coast trimmed blocks down to a large and small set, starting with the Battle for Zendikar block in fall 2015. Core sets were nixed to make room for four regular expansions per year, and to maintain products for new players, Planeswalker duel decks appeared.

This system felt fine. Small sets are an opportunity to deepen the worlds and draft environments created by the large sets, and with only one small set per block, there may not be as much block fatigue at that point. Combining the second and third set of a block into one created a balance between the freshness of a large set and the depth of a full block. What would Shadows Over Innistrad be without Eldritch Moon? Or Amonkhet without the massive plot twist of Hour of Devastation? Small sets are a compact conclusion to two-set blocks, finishing the story while adding new mechanics and draft archetypes.

The new system, to be implemented after the Ixalan block finishes, will consist of three large sets per year, along with one summer core set. The reasons for this, from Mark Rosewater himself, are: 1) eliminate any possibility of block fatigue, 2) create stable draft environments by making each set a stand-alone, and 3) bring back the core sets. I can understand that third point, but block fatigue after just a second set? Even with the fairly unpopular Battle for Zendikar block, having two sets felt like a proper balance. Oath of the Gatewatch deepened the block with the brand-new colorless mana symbol, alongside expanding the Eldrazi tribe and bringing in the new Kozilek card.

Also, I, for one, find that having one small set to deepen the large set’s draft environment is vital. Yes, I agree with part of Mark Rosewater’s data analysis that having three packs of the same large set for draft is wonderful. I greatly enjoyed triple Amonkhet draft, and triple Khans of Tarkir and triple Shadows over Innistrad. But three months, the time between a large and small set’s release, felt like adequate time to soak in a large set’s self-contained draft. Small sets, especially Aether Revolt, revitalized the large set’s draft environment without needing to form a whole new block. Granted, the new system promises to have mechanical overlap between large sets whenever appropriate, but in the two-set block paradigm, small sets are an expansion to the large set and integrate seamlessly into it. I can’t imagine Aether Revolt being a large set that happens to overlap with Kaladesh, as would be the case in the upcoming paradigm. Aether Revolt only needed to deepen Kaladesh, and I enjoyed the blended draft even more than standalone Kaladesh. The draft felt both fresh and familiar, and the small set did its job perfectly. This is my main point, in fact. Small sets compliment larger ones and rejuvenate a block before it gets stale. I can’t imagine large blocks without them.

It seems that Wizards of the Coast wants more flexibility and a snappier pace of plot development and exploring new planes in Magic the Gathering with this new paradigm. But the two-set block system already accelerated the game considerably from the old three-set block system, being able to explore two planes per year. How much more acceleration is needed? Just how many planes, old and new, does Wizards need to explore per year? This new change feels like going too far in that direction, and the two-set block system is only five blocks old, counting the in-progress Ixalan block. It only spans the fall of 2015 to January 2018, when the Rivals of Ixalan small set finishes the block. That’s only about two and a half years for an entire paradigm of set releases, compared to the many years of the three-set block system. Give the two-set system a chance.

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