Wizards of the Coast announced this week that their next expansion for Magic the Gathering would be Shadowns Over Innistrad. The announcement has left some players wetting themselves with joy, yet other players are rolling their eyes. The reason for this mixed reaction is that Wizards is rolling one nostalgic revival set right into another revisiting of a past set that wasnt even old yet. We’re going straight into Shadows Over Innistrad when the indications from Battle for Zendkiar haven’t been that promising.
None of this would be an issue if Battle for Zendikar had delivered. If that set had been a slam dunk then I would have been right with those going “Fuck yeah! More Innistrad!” It could have been a highlight reel of its name-sake block by introducing new cards that fit into the style of the world. If Wizards is going to simply ape past successes then it should use those opportunities to really give fans what they’ve been clamouring for, and to build upon the design lessons learned in those original sets.
The problem with Battle for Zendikar isn’t that it’s revisiting an old set; the problem is that so far it’s done it really badly. In years to come we will look back on this as one of the big disappointments in MtG history. An iconic set reduced to an underpowered dud that statistically is one of the lowest-impact releases for large set in modern Magic history. Wizards of the Coast need to make sure Shadows Over Innistrad steps its game up.
The mechanics in Battle for Zendikar simply weren’t strong, and suffer from being parasitic; they feed of one another inside the set but have little synergy outside of it. In my mind this is a symptom of a lack of creativity and ideas. Mechanics like Awaken and Devoid are simply slapped onto existing cards with no real reason to be there. This isn’t merely subjective power level; it’s an issue with the core mechanical design of the set.
I know there is the perception that Magic the Gathering players decry the latest set as the death of the game, but I think that isn’t true for the majority. The internet gives everyone a platform, and the few loud doomsayers are always going to get notice; it’s just the function of a widespread audience and controversy garnering attention. Truth is, when many of us saw Return to Ravnica we recognised that the set was going to be incredibly powerful and impactful. Even if other parts of the block, like Dragon’s Maze,were underwhelming we still got great cards for Standard and Modern.
The two set block structure was supposed to eliminate those small-set blues and allow us to have two great sets instead of one great set, and two middling ones. But that simply hasn’t happened yet. You only get two chances to get it right, and in the case of Battle for Zendikar one of those is already gone. What we are seeing developed are sets trading on name recognition, and that raises the concern that evoking past glories is being used as a crutch.
It also raises the spectre that Wizards of the Coast might be using the “Expedition” style of re-printing in Shadows Over Innistrad. We’ve seen how little impact that has on base price, with the new foil versions becoming just a new tier of rich man’s toy; essentially reducing it to a marketing gimmick. Sets need to be able to stand on their own two feet, and should be evaluated on their overall content and not supplemental sub-sets meant to inflate a set’s perceived value. The main reason to revisit older sets should be to get desperately needed cards back into wide circulation. They’re hitting the two highest value and highest impact sets right off the bat with Zendikar and Innistrad, so you would think they would use that opportunity to its fullest.
We’ve come a long way from the glorious mess that was Time Spiral Block. For those unfamiliar, the Time Spiral block was absolutely insane. New mechanics were everywhere, some of which only featured on single cards like Frenzy, and future-shifted cards supposedly from sets of Magic the Gathering of the distant future. It was the most that Wizards played inside baseball with Magic the Gathering sets, and it was like Christmas for long time players. It also played along with the very core principles of Magic like the colour pie.
Why can’t we use some of those ideas again? I mentioned Frenzy because I think it’s a great keyword mechanic. It’s easy to understand, its colour identity makes sense, and it has lots of room for iteration. Time Spiral not only gave us mechanics, but hinted at entire planes, some of which were later fleshed out in Plane Chase. There is an wealth of riches in terms of a cache of unused ideas simply sitting there waiting to be tapped, and it’s embarrassing that Wizards isn’t tapping into this.
Couldn’t Wizards of the Coast have spaced out the release of two nostalgic revisits with an original idea? Some people were mentioning Muraganda as a possible location for the next set, and that a plane that has freaking dinosaurs on it. Freaking Dinosaurs! It already has some of its basic premise mapped out too. Going from one nostalgia trip into a second one has a whiff of desperation and stagnation about it. With the new block structure you dedicate a little less to each block and so more niche ideas are ripe for testing.
These places and mechanics already exist, and they are already canon in the Magic the Gathering universe. Why are we getting Shadows Over Innistrad already? I know people love classic sets, but they only became classic sets because they were full of great original ideas at the time. Simply revisiting what has come before gives us less chances to have new classic sets to revisit in future.
Eventually the nostalgia well runs dry. You have to create ideas and try new things to stop a game from going stale, and if you are going to go back to a beloved set you better absolutely nail it. If you’re making a sequel then it has to at least live up to the original, and that’s going to be a tall order in the case of Shadows Over Innistrad.
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