I'm not one to use hyperbole just to make myself feel better, and I'd like to think that should a year go by wherein we fail to meet either our own expectations of ourselves or yours, I'd face up to it. But 2011 wasn't such a year. We had record sales and tournament attendance—again! More people played Magic in 2011 than in any previous year. We continued our digital success with the latest installment of Duels of the Planeswalkers and continued growth on Magic Online, and Innistrad and Commander led the way for what I consider our best year of releases ever.
I admit that, as one of the more public-facing Magic: The Gathering personalities here at Wizards of the Coast, I was not particularly thrilled with the way the last few months have played out from a PR perspective—both with the multiple changes to Premier Play and the published-then-repealed Infraction Procedure Guide—not just because I don't like the roller-coaster rides that such erratic behavior on our part puts you, the players, through, but also because I feel like it put a bit of a smudge on an otherwise wonderful campaign. Sure, there were other ups and downs—we had to ban cards in Standard, for instance—but 2011 was a year to be proud of, and I want to walk through the highlights, while also giving you a few hints about what 2012 has in store.
The Factions of Mirrodin Besieged
The first set of the year, Mirrodin Besieged, is currently the best-selling small expansion of all time. The set is excellent in and of itself, but the most revolutionary thing about it isn't a card or a mechanic but rather how we handled the Prerelease events. Every card in the set (save Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas) has either a Mirran or Phyrexian watermark; for the Prerelease, players were given the choice of one faction or another and given special "faction boosters" made up entirely of Mirrodin Besieged cards from their chosen side.
It was a great way to bring the story of the block to life in a way that got whole new groups of players—players who would never read a set novel or even flavor text—to care about the plotline. Beyond that, it was a neat way to play Magic for a day. The Mirrodin Besieged Prerelease was the best-attended Prerelease of all time (until Innistrad), and the novelty of the faction boosters was a big part of that.
For 2012: We’re looking to set new records for our Prereleases in 2012, from attendance to fun. We think the 2012 Prereleases will bring players into the story of the latest Magic set.
With Mirrodin Besieged came a change to the way Booster Drafts are run that was so perfect and simple that it blew me away that neither I nor anyone else in R&D for the past decade had suggested it previously: You now open the pack of the most recent set first instead of last.
We made the change to solve two problems. First, draft environments often got boring and repetitive after a year of first-picking the same cards, even with new sets in the mix. Second, it was very hard to add new themes to small sets that would be relevant to Limited because you'd always draft those packs after you had most of your deck already. Now, neither of those are true, and I've heard nothing but positive feedback from people who did a lot of drafts during the Scars block about how that change kept things fresh and interesting.
For 2012: You'll get to enjoy the twists that Dark Ascension adds to Innistrad limited, but after that we'll just be drafting single sets for a while. May's set—Avacyn Restored—is a stand-alone large set (akin to Rise of the Eldrazi), followed by Magic 2013 and the large fall set, codenamed "Hook."
Revealing the New Old Villain
The second set of 2012 was the culmination of the Scars of Mirrodin block and story arc, New Phyrexia. In order to keep the outcome of the Mirran-Phyrexian war in doubt in players' minds, we pulled a bit of a stunt by keeping the name of the set secret until just weeks before the release date, going so far as to create fake logos and packaging for the decoy set Mirrodin Pure.
The main purpose of keeping that information under wraps for so long was not to drive excitement for what would ultimately be New Phyrexia, but rather to allow the previous set—Mirrodin Besieged—to do its job. How compelling would a set and story about a war be if the outcome wasn't in doubt? That said, we likely dragged the stunt out a bit longer than we needed to. I was hearing stories of stores losing out on presales because some players were afraid to commit to purchasing a set they didn't even know the name of.
Live and learn, although I can't imagine this is the kind of gimmick we're going to need to attempt again for a very long time.
New Phyrexia, with its transgressive feel and dangerous hot-button Phyrexian mana mechanic, went on to become the best-selling small third set of all time (competing with the likes of Alara Reborn, Future Sight, Dissension, and Fifth Dawn) just a month after it released.
For 2012: Avacyn Restored, as mentioned previously, will be the third set of the Innistrad block. It is a large stand-alone set, although it ties into the story of the prior two sets very tightly and the mechanics of them to a lesser degree. More on that set as the year unfolds.
Commanding New Cards
Following on the successes—great and modest, respectively—of the Planechase and Archenemy multiplayer products we'd released in previous years, 2011 marked the debut of the Magic: The Gathering Commander set. This product was remarkable for two reasons. First, it built on a player-created format, the former "Elder Dragon Highlander." We partnered with the guys who run that format to make the product better, tighten up our online rules, and unify messaging in support of the format. We even left control of the Banned List and the format's rules in their very capable third-party hands, something that can be difficult for a bunch of control freaks like us. Second, Commander was the first product to introduce new black-bordered tournament-legal cards in a non-randomized fashion since, well, ever.
We knew the format was going to be a big hit—heck, it was way before we made a product for it. The big win for me was the high level of acceptance—and excitement!—for the new cards we made for it. The creation of new cards in a non-traditional product was not a Rubicon we crossed lightly. There was significant trepidation in the department about how we imagined they might be received, but to date it has been overwhelmingly positive.
For 2012: We're taking the "new card" idea and applying it to one of our previous successes with the latest Planechase (several of which will work very well in the Commander format). Additionally, we recognized the continued demand for Commander-related decks and cards, so keep your eyes out for that kind of stuff in 2012 and beyond.
The Banhammer Falls
In June, the DCI had to do something it hadn't done in years—ban cards in Standard. The format had grown stagnant under the weight of Worldwake's Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic to the point where something drastic needed to happen. The decision was a very difficult one, and I can't do it any better justice now than I did in my article on the topic from June, so I'll merely quote myself:
I have seen many arguments flying around the Internet that nothing needs to be banned, as the format is very interactive and skill-testing right now... a far cry from past Standard environments containing ban-worthy cards, wherein you might get decked by a Tolarian Academy–fueled Stroke of Genius on turn three, or die from 20 on turn four to a combination of Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and Cranial Plating, both frequently at the hands of less proficient players. Those games felt more random and less satisfying, and the outcry to do something about it was loud and clear.
It was less clear this time, so we were willing to see if players were in fact tolerant of a skill-rewarding one-deck metagame. The ultimate goal is player enjoyment, and if most people were enjoying themselves, we weren't going to take any rash actions based solely on the math of deck lists.
But then the formal complaints began pouring in, followed by a drop in attendance... that we can't ignore. If people don't want to play the game, we need to fix it.
I am still 100% confident in our decision. Interest in Standard spiked following the bans, and the format's metagame has been relatively diverse and balanced ever since.
For 2012: I look forward to restarting another long streak of years in which we don't ban any cards from Standard. That said, with our player base constantly expanding, our increased number of Grand Prix events, and the continued growth of third-party tournament circuits, our internal playtesting skills will be put to the test in 2012 more so than in any year prior, and if we screwed something up, as confidently as I feel that isn't the case, I am comfortable acting upon it.
2012 in 2011
The third installment in the annualized Core Set series was released in 2011—Magic 2012. The set was remarkable to me for a couple reasons, the most important of which was how completely it revamped the tempo and methodology of Core Set limited. By focusing on the bloodthirst mechanic (which was executed here far better than it was in its Guildpact debut), M12 moved away from the Divination-and-Gravedigger-fueled grind-fests of previous Core Sets into a one-drop-led aggressive beatdown format, all while retaining a very natural Core Set vibe. Seeing how something at that end of the tempo spectrum could work well in a Core Set environment gives me great hope for our ability to iterate on Core Sets in an interesting fashion for years to come.
The biggest lament players had about M12 had to be the fact that we brought back the mythic Titan cycle for a second go-around when they had already dominated Standard for close to a year. Believe me, we did that with the best intentions! We were trying to send the message that just because we had the ability to rotate out powerful mythics for new cards didn't mean we were going to do it—in fact, we wanted people to feel like their favorite Core Set cards were as likely to stick around for another year as not. But there are a lot more tournaments now than there were even when Magic 2010 was released—and the Titans are incredibly powerful—so everyone got their fill of them sooner than we had anticipated. The allure of new things is powerful! We have taken this feedback into account and will be looking more closely at how quickly and often we rotate key cards out of Core Sets.
For 2012: Look for the aforementioned feedback to have impacted the next iteration of the Core Set, Magic 2013, due to release in July 2012.
The Extended format was flagging. On the flipside, the Legacy format was booming, but growth of it is constrained by our reprint policy, which was making card availability a bear. There was audible public desire for a smaller, nonrotating format, highlighted by the work done by now-intern Gavin Verhey on "Overextended."
Hearing all that, we took the ball and ran with it, creating the Modern format, which does not rotate and includes all sets from Eighth Edition and Mirrodin forward. We debuted it at the Magic Online Community Cup and made it real by changing the format of September's Pro Tour Philadelphia to Modern (on very short notice). This weekend will begin the inaugural PTQ season of the format.
Without a doubt, the biggest talking point of the format has been our liberal use of the banned list. To date, almost 30 cards have been banned from the format, including some unconventional entries such as Blazing Shoal, Wild Nacatl, and Green Sun's Zenith. Why so many cards? Will it ever end?
Our stated goals of the format are as follows. (1) Most games don't end before turn four. (2) There are a variety of viable decks. Looking at things through that filter, it's a lot easier to understand the vast majority of the banning decisions. Additionally, if you look at the deck lists floating around the web just prior to the PTQ season, it's evident that we're pretty close to having a format that meets our goals, which means the bans will slow down and likely eventually stop, happening only when something degenerate "breaks" the format.
Legacy went through similar growing pains in its early years, and we've slowly been peeling cards off of that format's banned list as opportunities present themselves. I expect the life cycle of Modern to follow a similar path. In the meantime, the format looks quite interesting and fun to play.
For 2012: We're all-in on Modern. The previously-mentioned PTQ season will be joined a handful of Grand Prix. Additionally, we've promised to start reprinting some of the format's important cards in some fashion, so keep your eyes peeled for more on that front as the year goes on.
In September, we announced Planeswalker Points, a new ranking system for Organized Play that replaced the long-standing Elo system with a more straightforward point accumulation system.
I was no fan of Elo for several reasons, many of which have been voiced on this site previously, but I'll gladly go over them again. First, it doesn't make great business sense to codify for the large number of low-level players that they lose more than they win at the game. Second, Elo often encouraged people to not play Magic and "sit" on their rating. Third, Elo's strength is supposed to be in its ability to be a predictive system, something it failed at due to the inherent variance and ever-changing nature of Magic. Fourth, the highest-rated players under Elo were often fleeting and meaningless to the point that we never bothered publicizing them.
Instead, we opted for a system that gives every player—no matter how new or bad they are—goals to strive for and a clear picture of their "body of work." The driving philosophy of the system is "Playing is better than not playing; winning is better than losing," and those are definitely the right motivators.
There were some flaws in the initial deployment of the system, specifically around the high-end rewards we were giving out for earning a bunch of points. Giving out Pro Tour invites to the top 100 players was an incorrect call—Planeswalker Points in general should give out rewards that many, many players can achieve, not just a freakishly dedicated few. For now, that is limited to Grand Prix byes and invitations to play in World Magic Cup Qualifiers, but we're always looking for more. Over the course of the next year, as we get more data and wrap our heads fully around what we've created and what it is capable of, I expect us to have a system that is enjoyable to participate in and gives each player goals and rewards relevant to his or her level of involvement in the game.
For 2012: The Planeswalker Points website is currently under maintenance as we sync it up with the recent Premier Play changes, but it should all be fixed by month's end. We'll be deploying new fun functionality on the site later in the year, and we'll constantly be looking at more ways to reward people's points (How do byes at PTQs sound?).
Oh, the Horror
The crown jewel of 2011 is, without a doubt, the Innistrad set. To me, Innistrad is the total package: robust limited environment, great additions to constructed metagames, and incredible resonant top-down flavor. It should be the gold standard of sets for years to come and looks poised to break all records as the most popular and best-selling set of all time.
It is not without controversy, however, as many players are not fans of the marquee components of the set—the transforming double-faced cards. Let me be clear that such controversy was anticipated and was part of the appeal of doing them for me. I realize they put a logistical strain on the game and throw a hand-grenade of public information into the otherwise pristinely private world of Booster Draft. But their goal was not to be the next great innovation in good gameplay. They were meant to be what they are—a gimmick. A conversation starter. A shocking development that makes you sit up in your chair in disbelief and then compels you to check out the set. They aren't meant to be the future of how Magic will be played—they'll be gone in a few months, replaced by the next cool thing. But in the meantime, they give Innistrad a centerpiece, an identity, because they fit so well. Transformation is a huge part of horror. The double-faced cards tell stories better than any cards before them.
To those of you who like them—thank you. I'm very proud that we managed to pull them off. To those of you who aren't fans—thank you for playing along.
For 2012: You get more Innistrad-flavored goodness (including more double-faced cards) with Dark Ascension previews starting Monday. Stay tuned!
As you can see from the preceding list of goings-on, 2011 was a bold year for Magic, but nothing that we attempted during the course of the year was as bold as the changes we (attempted) to implement to Premier Play, highlighted by the removal of Worlds. The initial suite of changes were covered in a series of three announcements throughout the year, beginning with the innocuous-sounding increase in Grand Prix events and culmination in November with the bombshell that we were getting rid of the World Championships. Somewhere in there, the future of the Pro Players Club became murky and the narrative surrounding the Pro Tour shifted to tales of grinding Planeswalker Points.
We had noble intentions with these changes. We hoped to increased the reach of the Premier Play system by shifting money from Worlds into the Grand Prix circuit. We were trying to solve the problem of stagnant markets in small countries by shifting their focus away from Nationals and National Qualifiers and toward the growth of in-store play that has done wonders here in the United States. We wanted Planeswalker Points to matter with a capital M. We wanted to make the Pro Tour more exclusive by reducing the size of the events.
Noble intentions don't always pan out, however, and our aggressive timelines and insular thinking led us to some unpopular decisions, and you guys let us hear about it. Player backlash against many of the changes we made was so great that we resolved to correct as many issues as we could as quickly as we could. The result of those changes were announced right before Christmas.
I am willing to stand tall and shout the praises of the system we debuted in December—something that wasn't necessarily true for the interim changes we made earlier in the year. It was a rocky road to get to where we are now, but I like the current system a lot more than even what we had at the beginning of the year.
The combination of the World Magic Cup and the Magic Players Championship do a better job individually of doing what Worlds was trying to do in the old system—crown the best player and make a compelling National team competition. Four Pro Tour invites with paid airfare at each Grand Prix strikes a good balance of letting us expand the number but still give people goals worth striving for at the events (and should add some drama to the quarterfinals). The new three-tiered Players Club greatly rewards the game's best and adds an almost reality-show-like vibe to the quest to reach the highest rung. We're keeping Pro Points, so the game's historical record stands. And all told, we're injecting quite a bit more money into the entire system.
We learned quite a bit about effective communication along the way as well. The fact that we didn't have all the details of the interim system ready as we were making announcements was a source of dissatisfaction and unease, and we're redoubling our efforts to get everything buttoned up ahead of time for any such changes in the future.
For 2012: I'm looking forward to seeing the new system in action beginning with Grand Prix Austin this weekend. I also expect more tweaks as things pop up for the first time. And, as always, I want you to know that we are listening—constantly—to player feedback. Feel free to offer it at any time.
That's a Wrap
Like I said, it was a heck of a year. We're enjoying success, but we aren't resting on our laurels. We're innovating new play experiences, slaying sacred cows, and challenging long-held beliefs, all with the goal of making Magic more fun and engaging.
And that's not everything that happened in 2011. We created the Magic Celebration event, which allowed players the chance to play Mini-Master with free Magic 2012 boosters. We created a new intro-to-Limited experience with Booster Battle Packs. We launched a partnership with IDW to create a Magic comic book. And more.
And there's plenty of other stuff happening in 2012 that I didn't touch on, either. Did you see that we're putting out a mobile phone app? The long-awaited update to the Magic Online client is on the horizon. The debut of the Friday Night Magic Championship will happen at Gen Con. And lots of other surprises to boot.
We couldn't get there without you, the players, and for that I thank you. We all love the game here and want to make sure you keep loving it, too. Have feedback? Use the email link below, or hit me up on Twitter at @mtgaaron. Here's to another great year!