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Magic: The Gathering’s top designer talks word creep, ‘jokey’ sets and possible future Archenemy support

Along with a lengthy discussion on the impact Play Boosters will have on common cards and the Pauper format.

Artwork for the Wilds of Eldraine Magic the Gathering set, showing an adult fairy holding a huge crystal.
Image credit: Dicebreaker/Wizards of the Coast

Top Magic: The Gathering designer Mark Rosewater dumped out his mailbag one last time in 2023 to address comments and questions from players. The resulting nuggets provided some keen insight into the popular trading card game’s future, including the correct tone for premiere sets, how common rarity cards will be affected by Play Boosters and whether fans of Archenemy will see the multiplayer format ever return.

Rosewater has long been the de facto Voice of Wizards of the Coast to MTG players through his tumblr blog (aptly named Blogatog) but also through detailed design breakdowns and his regular Q&A style blogs on the mothership website. Many view him as a die-hard designer amongst a den of corporate wolves - as true or overblown as that characterisation may be, Rosewater regularly opens a direct window into the cardboard sausage making factory.

One low-stakes but ever-present issue has been the “word creep” on MTG cards as premiere sets have become increasingly complicated, packing the rules text box with tiny font sizes and a wall of words. Rosewater said MTG’s relatively recent shift to support Commander and other eternal formats has forced the teams to “revaluate complexity a bit” and admit the issue needs addressing - The Lost Caverns of Ixalan apparently ranked high on the word count per card scale.

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What is Wizards plan? “R&D is aware of it, and it's a topic we've been talking about. Inertia tends to push us toward complexity, so it's important to stop and take account from time to time,” Rosewater said. This isn’t the decisive win against headache-inducing screeds below a card’s artwork (not to mention the loss of important flavour text real estate), but it can be difficult to nail MTG’s creators down on admitting a problem in the first place. Perhaps those unnamed sets slated for 2025 onwards will cull their paragraphs.

Universes Beyond sets have increased in number over the past couple of years, introducing worlds both wondrous and wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey to MTG’s rules. With some major exceptions, these crossover projects have been a hit, but some players worry the Overton Window of tone is shifting too far towards silliness and dragging the premiere sets along with them.

According to Rosewater, a majority of MTG’s audience enjoys “the jokey stuff”, which apparently accounts for the softening tone of the TCG as compared to its somewhat more gritty and edgy ‘90s and ‘00s eras. Wilds of Eldraine’s living candy abominations proved a bridge too far for the writer but apparently fits the current audience expectations - all sets have an appropriate level of humour, even the ones centred on a universe-ending invasion.

Key art for Magic: The Gathering x Doctor Who set.
Image credit: Wizards of the Coast, BBC

February 2024 will bring Murder at Karlov Manor, a premiere set built around a murder mystery storyline, but it will also introduce the Play Booster - MTG’s new unified product for sealed formats and pure collection. Amongst the proposed changes is a reduction to the number of common rarity creatures in each pack with the upshot being each will apparently be more carefully designed. This has sent some ripples through the Pauper community, which breathes newfound importance into the TCG’s humblest cards.

Play Boosters will “absolutely” reshape how MTG’s teams design common rarity cards, says Rosewater, but not because they are looking out for the health of Pauper as a format - it hasn’t earned a seat at the same table as Standard, Commander and (checks notes) Oathbreaker? Regardless, expect common cards to pack a bit more of a wallop and serve as a juicy draft choice more often, but not official Pauper preconstructed decks any time soon.

March of the Machines’ multiverse spanning conflict touched on dozens of beloved and historical planes from MTG’s lore, so it made sense for odd multiplayer format Planescape to come along for the ride. Each of the four preconstructed Commander decks for the set delivered 10 Planescape cards that could be used to introduce even more unpredictability to the kitchen table.

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What about that other Commander-adjacent game mode - Archenemy. Pitting three players against an overpowered baddie with their own deck of unfair schemes and a bloated health pool, Archenemy was supported with two official products in 2010 and 2017 but has yet to enjoy its own modern return. When one player asked Rosewater about it directly, the designer remained coy: “The plan is to use them where appropriate…If we come across a set where Archenemy fits, we're very open to using it.”

Capping off 2023’s last look into Rosewater’s head was a small list of the best keywords from the premiere sets MTG published throughout the year (sans The Lost Caverns of Ixalan for recency reasons). The full list is worth a look, but some neat pulls include Toxic and Corrupted successfully rehabilitating the divisive Infect and Wilds of Eldraine’s Bargain breaking the mould on keywords that ask players to pay an additional cost - Rosewater said these are historically unpopular.

And it turns out MTG players like consistency - the most popular keyword in each set was an old mechanic returning under new contexts. You just can’t beat the classics.

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