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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.
shadows side 1The 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.

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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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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.