Mark Rosewater once wished that writers would review sets from a more holistic perspective rather than going card-by-card,* and it’s an interesting enough idea until the issue of how much Magic sets differ from other forms of art that are reviewed. He’s definitely right in that sets should be looked at through the lens of whether they’re well-designed sets instead of just useful; if these were music reviews we’d all be talking about how useful the bass it as driving away squirrels from our houses and giving it a de-squirreling score out of ten (with ten being Wonderful Rainbow by Lightning Bolt).
Partially because of Mark Rosewater’s call to action, but mostly due to people trying to get jobs at Wizards following the focus on player designs with Great Designer Search 2, masses of people have crawled up offering card-by-card reviews of new sets from a design, rather than playability, standpoint, which to me seems to miss a thousand points at once. The idea of designing a set is that the pieces fit together as to add up to something better than a bunch of Grizzly Bears and weird designs by themselves. Cards aren’t played by themselves; a clever design isn’t going to do anything unless it’s in a set and then it’s played with other cards (from that set or others). This also unleashes that ever-present monster of the terrible traditional set review, that all the opinions are entirely knee-jerk backed up by no playtesting or anything like that. Design reviews are just looking at the card and giving hypotheses of how things might play out in real games without doing any actual work and trying to find out for themselves if that clever design works in practice. Let’s do a holistic set review, then.
The logistics of a holistic set review are nightmarish.
When someone reviews a movie, they watch the entire movie, just like most people do when they go to see it. When someone reviews a set, they look at the entire set, but how many people genuinely care about and/or play with Every Last Card In The Set? Drafters, maybe, but a review aimed at them would focus just on how things play in Limited and then we’re not doing a design review any more. The issue we’re running into here is that while people might view/read works of art differently, it doesn’t come close to how diverse the experiences are for a new Magic set, and as such, any review of it is going to be hopelessly artificial in the way it attempts to approach it. No one puts the entire new set in their deck, they pick and choose; this is exactly what makes Magic such a deeply personal experience to play.
To review a set from the lens of whether its design is good or bad, there needs to be some sort of ideal that sets need to be capable of accomplishing, or some combination of them. Reviewing from a perspective unrelated to playing the cards in actual games, sets can attempt to convey some sort of high concept like Time Spiral block, or they can do a little bit of that while creating a coherent world, like Ravnica block. But Magic is a game. At some point, we have to play the cards and whether that card properly conveys the set’s theme of post-modernism in a Latvian-influenced agrarian magical realism ends up being mostly irrelevant if the game isn’t fun any more. All the way on the other end, a set with randomly-collected cards that make games more fun won’t stand up too well as a holistic design.
Which brings us to M12.
M12 attempts no grand statement, builds no complex worlds, and pushes no boundaries. It is the continued realization of Wizards’ strategy/ideology of acquisition, giving new players something immediately accessible while still selling enough packs to experienced players that newer ones won’t feel like losers for playing with it. Accessibility, in this case, partially means that nearly every card stands on its own without raising other questions of what else is in the set or what role the card plays (excepting the bland obviousness of the cards that specifically name others in their text, as well as the admittedly more interesting way that bloodthirst is used but I’ll get to that shortly). M12, due to this, stands up to holistic reviewing extremely poorly. It’s not supposed to, sure. That just puts it, design-as-art-wise, on the level of an instructional film shown in junior high schools. Does that make it a bad set? No, it’s a useful set with little artistic merit as a cohesive work. The two are quite different.
M12, Scars of Mirrodin block, and the doctrine of acquisition combine to form a bleak picture of the future of holistic design as art. The high point was certainly Time Spiral and Future Sight, with cards that are more fun just to look at and deconstruct than cards from any other set. References upon references, ideas that would fit in no other set but make perfect sense, it’s the Magical art house movie that gets a cult following and critical praise in the form of overjoyed experienced players (including the current director of R&D). Yet now, it’s mostly used as an example of Wizards going too far alienating new players, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. Instead, we get nostalgia sets that only reference a very small subset of previous cards in a much less artful way than Time Spiral’s obscure homages. Scars was an attempt to make the moderately-experienced player feel like an old timer, part of the in-crowd. This is the sort of block design we’ll see in the future, especially seeing as the set following Innistrad will be Ravnica 2 (even without this rumor leaking about lately, I’d be stating that as fact because it just feels so obvious).
Another way to have artful set design is to make players reevaluate a fundamental aspect of the game. Odyssey block did this the most successfully on a large scale, with card advantage being turned on its head in several ways (and implementing itself differently in different formats, with some of the same cards being used differently in each context). Innistrad is looking graveyard-themed once again, so we'll have to see how Wizards solved the problem that newer players didn't want to put their cards in the graveyard when it was right to do so. Chances are, we won't see concepts turned around like Odyssey any more. Good art is challenging, whether it's relearning basic concepts in a game or a particular scene in a movie being tough to get through but sticking in one's brain for weeks or years afterward.
Not every card is for everyone. Since Magic design has over time always pulled further back to look at the bigger picture, not every set is for everyone. Players that understand the game well enough to have a bigger-picture view of sets are in the smallest of minorities, though, so we’ll never see inaccessible quality block design like we did previously. Enjoy the incoming sequels.
[Post-publishing note: this is neither an anti-Rosewater screed nor a "Magic is dying" rant. Magic is not dying. I fully expect Magic's sales to continue to rise as a result of these business decisions, and for Magic to continue for many years happily and healthily. But good business and good design are not always the same.]
*“New set coming out? Let's have eight thousand people tell you what they think of each card. As the Head Designer, I would love to see more writers actually talk about the design. Look at the set holistically and talk about what's going on or look historically to understand what this set is bringing to the game overall...
“I would love to see a set review that isn't about cards but about the set as a whole. I'd love to see the equivalent of movie review for sets where it isn't about the pieces but the entirety of the thing. To continue the metaphor, I feel like current set reviews would be like a movie review that goes like this:
“‘Okay, let's start with the first scene in the movie. Beginning with a wide shot and then cutting in to an interior. I've seen that like a thousand times. And then the first line is voice over from an unknown character. I was a little intrigued. I like voice over narration when it's not too heavy handed, but then we cut to see the person who's talking and I'm like – that's the first shot of the character? Couldn't it have been a more striking composition?’
“How about a set review that talks about whether it's a good set overall and why? Or even an article that talks about what parts work for them and what parts don't. Also, like a good movie review, it would put it in context. Anyway, number one – I'd love to see more writers talk about the game in a more macro and less micro sense.”
-Mark Rosewater from Conversations pt 2