From the Director's Chair: 2012

Posted in Feature on January 2, 2013

By Aaron Forsythe

Another fantastic year in the books... Are you tired of hearing me say that yet? Because I'm certainly not tired of saying it. You all turned up in record numbers to all kinds of events, and you made the sets we released in 2012 the most popular of all time.

As a nod to you, gamers extraordinaire, I decided that I wouldn't focus this review on the things I found most important or impressive in 2012, but instead I'd open it up to your input. So I went on Twitter and asked my followers for their highs and lows of Magic in 2012. (Don't worry, the "high" list was way longer than the "low".)

The Twitter crowd is a highly invested, hardcore bunch in general, so keep that in mind as you read the list below. After tallying the pages and pages of replies, here are the Top 12 of 2012 High Points of Magic:

#12: Cube

In April, we brought the popular and long-awaited Cube format to Magic Online (read Worth Wollpert's recap of all the 2012 Magic Online goings-on), and in the time since have iterated on it a couple times, including the recent first implementation of the fabled "Power Nine" online.

Moat | Art by Noah Bradley

Additionally, we were able to use Cube at a high-level event for the first time—it made up three rounds of the inaugural Magic Players Championship (more on that later).

The format is a ton of fun, allows for a controlled environment in which to enjoy some of the most broken cards of all time, gives us an avenue to show off contemporary illustrations for old classics, and keeps things fresh in the lag between when new sets come out in paper and online.

We're constantly looking at ways to tweak the online Cube experience (both the card list and the prize structure), but rest assured you'll be able to Channel out Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre or Tinker up Blightsteel Colossus many more times over the coming year.

#11: Dark Ascension

Yes, the set that brought you Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger, Falkenrath Aristocrat and Huntmaster of the Fells, Lingering Souls and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben was a popular one to be sure—it shattered all previous small-set sales records.

Dark Ascension not only powered up Standard, but it put some unique twists on the already-amazing Innistrad Limited format and gave up a Pro Tour Top 8 in Honolulu that was one of the most exciting of all time.

#10: Current Standard

Standard at the beginning of 2012 was dominated by Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage, but with the rotation of Ponder, Mana Leak, and the hyper-efficient Phyrexian mana spells with the release of Return to Ravnica, the format has opened up quite a bit, and has been getting lots of kudos.

Sure, there are some polarizing cards and dominant archetypes, but in general there are a wide variety of decks winning that feature all five colors, cards from every set in Standard, and the gamut of play styles from beatdown to control—with a dash of Reanimator combo thrown in. There are Zombie and Human decks showing up that rely on Innistrad block themes, finishers like Thundermaw Hellkite from Magic 2013, and high-profile cards with almost every guild mechanic in Return to Ravnica.

Thundermaw Hellkite

I did get a smattering of tweets claiming the current Standard environment belonged on the "bad" list for this year, but they were just a fraction of the "good" list votes. It's impossible for us to make everyone happy, but your tweets—as well as recent event attendance—show we're doing right by most of you.

#9: The World Magic Cup

The World Magic Cup is the first of two halves that once made up the World Championships. We split the old tournament into two with the hopes that each new replacement would do its job better than either half did before.

The goal of the World Magic Cup was to give all the countries that play our game a somewhat level playing field on which to play against one another—and make it a spectacle that the people back home watching would really enjoy. The team competition at the old Worlds was always a bit of an afterthought, which is a shame really; I played on the US Team myself one year and it was one of the most defining experiences of my Magic-playing career. The World Magic Cup gave this type of competition the stage it deserves

We watched big countries fall (the US losing to a topdecked Bonfire of the Damned in the deciding game was one of the most memorable moments of the event), great countries fail to get started (Japan had to take a cab to Indianapolis from Washington DC the night before the event), and smaller countries come up huge—we heard great stories of communities from places like the Philippines, Croatia, Puerto Rico, and eventual champions Chinese Taipei rallying around their countries' players, reinvigorating the Magic scenes in those nations.

In short, it felt more like "the Olympics of Magic" than anything I'd seen prior—and we're going to keep making it better. We've figured out how to have team play on Day One going forward, and we've upped the prize money on the event significantly.

Of course, not everything associated with this event went off without a hitch—the qualifying system shows up later in the "bad" list.

#8: More Grand Prix

When we made the controversial move of making the Pro Tour private (no public events) late in 2011, it was to reallocate effort to broadening the reach of Premier Play. Instead of focusing just on the couple thousand people who could physically be in the event hall, we really upped the amount of video coverage we were doing at all levels (more on that later), and we doubled the number of Grand Prix events we held, which let us bring large events to more people.

We more than doubled the number of Grand Prix we held in a year, from twenty in 2011 to forty-three in 2012. We had hoped the higher number of events would diffuse some of the attendance—those of you who have played in any of the events with nearly two thousand players in them know what a long, crazy weekend that makes for—but we've been adding so many players to the game that we just have more huge events now (a fine problem to have)! And even if you couldn't get out to play in one, our expanded coverage team brought the tournament to you with live streaming video from many of the events (yes, more on that later, too...).

Grand Prix spanned not just locations but formats as well in 2012, with everything from Innistrad Block Constructed to Modern to Legacy to the rebirth of Team Limited (more on that later).

There's more to come in 2013 on the Grand Prix front as well, with a couple more events and an increase in the number of Pro Tour invitations given out—from four to eight—in events with 1,200 or more competitors.

#7: Magic Players Championship

Just as the World Magic Cup gave the national team competition the venue it deserved, the Magic Players Championship gave the best players in the world the spotlight they deserved, with sixteen of them—including all the year's Pro Tour champions, the best players from every geo-region, and the winner of the Magic Online Championship—fighting it out in an exclusive and intense tournament for piles of cash and Pro Points and the title of Player of the Year.

The tournament looked to be Japan's Shouta Yasooka's to win as his Æther Vial–fueled Modern deck tore up the Constructed rounds, but he ultimately fell to his countryman Yuuya Watanabe in an epic finals that marked the beginning of Jund's dominance in Modern. Impressive performances by Hall of Famers Jon Finkel and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa rounded out the Top 4 and made the entire weekend a can't-miss affair.

Magic Players Championship Winner Yuuya Watanabe

We'll be doing it again this year, with a slight increase in the stakes: the winner will now fittingly be called "World Champion" (with the event being renamed to the World Championship), with the Player of the Year title reverting to being awarded to the player with the most Pro Points in the year-long Professional Season.

#6: Team Limited Grand Prix

I'm an unabashed fan of team formats in Magic, so when people kept bugging me to bring some kind of Team Grand Prix back after a many-year hiatus, I got the ball rolling.

There was a lot to work out. We didn't want to use Team Rochester Draft again because almost no one ever played the format outside of PTQs and GPs, whereas three-on-three team Booster Draft is a widely enjoyed casual format. Unfortunately, the three or more hours needed to run a three-on-three booster draft was too unwieldy for a Grand Prix, so we had to get creative.

Holding the event in San Jose the weekend before Pro Tour Return to Ravnica meant we'd likely get a bunch of pro players to show up, which was important since they were the ones asking for the format the most. And we needed good numbers if the format had any chance of catching on—the previous Team Limited Grand Prix in North America—Chicago in 2004—had only 158 teams.

Grand Prix San Jose Winners: David Williams, Matt Sperling, & Paul Rietzl

But, wow, did people show up. Part of it was Return to Ravnica's popularity. Part of it was there was a pent-up demand. But part of it was that players enjoy the game socially and want to hang out with their friends. There were a lot of more casual players there as well, which I attribute some of to not having a Team PTQ season feeding a Team Pro Tour—this was just a fun one-off event, not a stop on a grind.

Team Limited is the best expression of team play in my mind—you can show up empty-handed with two buddies you pulled out of bed that morning and still have a great time, and the infinite on-the-fly decision making of Team Sealed deck building is some of the most fascinating time I've spent with Magic cards.

To that end, we've added three more Team Limited GPs to the upcoming year: Utrecht, Netherlands, in March; Providence, RI, in June; and Kyoto, Japan, in November. Should the events remain popular, we'll keep running them!

#5: Modern Support

Modern may have debuted in 2011 at the Community Cup and Pro Tour Philadelphia, but it came into its own in 2012, with an entire PTQ season, a second PT, numerous Grand Prix, and play at the World Magic Cup and Magic Players Championship. Events in this format are firing regularly on Magic Online, and in-store play numbers are growing—so much so that we're allowing stores to sanction it as a Friday Might Magic format now.

The biggest news regarding the format, however, was the announcement of Modern Masters, an all-reprint set that should help make many of the format's staples easier to acquire. That product comes out this June and will be accompanied by a Moderns Masters Limited Grand Prix in Las Vegas—a veritable Tarmogoyf party!

We've been searching for a highly supportable second Constructed format—Standard's "backup" if you will—that resonates across all types of players and, despite the cries of an inevitable handful of vocal critics, we look to be well on our way to cementing Modern as exactly that. The positive feedback on the format from all corners has been encouraging, to say the least.

We'll keep tuning the banned list to address format speed and stagnation, subtracting as well as adding as opportunities present themselves. Players generally seem to have accepted our philosophy on those matters, which was a key part of making Modern a permanent fixture of the tournament Magic landscape.

#4: Return to Ravnica Prerelease

I had one old pro player stop me at an airport and say, "People didn't like that Prerelease thing, did they? It was terrible! It added so much variance!"

Yes, people liked it. They loved it! With activities like the "guild packs" at the Return to Ravnica Prerelease (which learned a lot from Avacyn Restored's Helvault, which learned a lot from Mirrodin Besieged's faction boosters), we've been pushing certain events—Prereleases specifically—farther away from "only winning matters" and more toward an overall immersive experience. This one in particular went over like gangbusters.

It captured the flavor of the set, it made deck building quicker and easier, and it gave players something very cool and very tangible to remember the event by. Its success has enamored us so much with the idea of "experience design" for our events that we've created a special position here in R&D called "experience designer," occupied by Dave Guskin. You'll get to see Dave's handiwork throughout the Return to Ravnica block and in the years to come.

As expected, the Gatecrash Prerelease event will follow the exact same model (we have tweaked how much product we're sending to stores to make things run even more smoothly). And speaking of Gatecrash, now seems like a great time for a preview card! (It is preview season, after all!)

Imagine getting this guy in one of your packs at the Prerelease:

As you can see, Gideon v2 keeps his "becomes a creature" ability—that looks to be his shtick going forward—with a slight twist. The new Gideon isn't locked in at a permanent 6/6 like the last version was—this one's size scales with his loyalty! And his loyalty can go through the roof—look at that +1 ability! Plus, he's indestructible when you animate him! (He won't be paying the Ultimate Price any time soon.) Additionally, unlike Gideon Jura, this Gideon has a bona fide ultimate ability—protect him long enough and he does an impressive Worldslayer impersonation. Now that's a man with many talents!

I'm sure some of you expected Gideon to be red-white after seeing him pictured next to Aurelia, the Boros guild leader. Well, we believe he still has some tales to tell as a mono-white Planeswalker before he starts migrating into other colors. Besides, he fits into Boros decks just as easily being only white!

Back on track...

#3: Magic 2013

There's a lot to like in the most recent installment of Magic's core set—from the addition of Nicol Bolas as a sixth Planeswalker to the cycle of Intro Pack–fronting legendary creatures, from Rancor to the exalted mechanic, from the allied-themed Flinthoof Boar cycle to the removal of the cycle of Titans.

Doug Beyer did a bang-up job with his first set design.

The bulk of the compliments regarding the set, however, call out the Limited format as the best thing about it. Core sets have often been derided as simple or boring to draft, but Zac Hill and his development team took Doug's strong design to the next level, making Magic 2013 perhaps the most robust core set Limited experience ever.

Zac has since left the company to pursue other dreams, but he's certainly left us with a great model of what core sets are capable of.

#2: Event Coverage

As mentioned earlier, one of the end goals of making the Pro Tours private was to spend that effort increasing our video coverage to bring the events to the largest audience possible. It has worked, and it's clear to me that you guys love it. The highlights:

Video coverage at the Pro Tour went from just the Top 8 to live streaming matches every round on all three days.

Streaming video coverage at North American Grand Prix was formalized; once purely a labor of love by Rashad Miller and his crew at, it is now an official part of the show.

Streaming video coverage at European Grand Prix has begun, with rave reviews coming in regarding the quality of the commentary from the likes of Simon Görtzen, Frank Karsten, and Matej Zatlkaj.

Placement on, one of the best eSports viewing sites in the world, has given us lots of exposure that we otherwise wouldn't have received.

Other websites continue to grow their coverage as well, and personal Magic Online streams keep getting more popular as players strive to learn from the best.

Putting on live webcasts is a complicated job, but we've been getting better at them, and will continue improving in 2013. Hats off to Greg Collins, Rich Hagon, Brian David-Marshall, Rashad Miller, and the rest of the crew that fills up my weekends with so much Magical action (my wife does not thank you, however, as she constantly has to tear me away from the screen).

#1: Return to Ravnica

No surprise here! Return to Ravnica was probably the most hyped and most anticipated set in Magic's history, and it has certainly delivered!

I originally thought putting this set together was going to be easy—a year in which we could all take it easy, as we had the blueprint for success all ready with the previous Ravnica block. But that was far from the truth—our standards have gone up considerably in the years since Ravnica: City of Guilds was put together, on everything from block structure to format development to art. We worked long and hard balancing new with familiar, trying to figure out how to be derivative without being a copy, fixing problems with the first set many of you didn't realize were there, and making Ravnica every bit as cool the second time around as it was the first.

It certainly helps that we've added tons of new players to the game in the year since—players who may have heard of the majesty of Ravnica but never experienced it firsthand. (It also didn't hurt that we reprinted the shocklands.)

Kudos to Ken Nagle, Erik Lauer, Doug Beyer, Jeremy Jarvis, and the many others who made this set what it is. Gatecrash and Dragon's Maze will be excellent sequels to this smash hit!

Three Things on My List

As I said above, the Twitter audience is an experienced and entrenched one, and may not fully appreciate some of the things Magic did last year to help bring the game to the widest audience it's ever had. Here are three important items that would be on my personal list of "2012's Best":

Duels of the Planeswalkers on iPad

The Duels of the Planeswalkers franchise is likely the best acquisition product we've ever had—what better way to learn that hands-on in the comfort of your own home against a very patient AI? Throw in the go-anywhere ease and touch-screen fluidity of the iPad and you have a great recipe for teaching Magic to a whole new generation—and a way to re-engage hordes of players who have drifted away from the game over time.

Avacyn Restored

The Angels-and-miracles set gets a bit of a bum rap with the hardcore crowd, but it was an amazing performer in casual circles (and in general—it is the third-best-selling set of all time behind Return to Ravnica and Innistrad). The themes resonated, the game play created epic, unforgettable moments, and it was great to end a block on a positive note—we can't destroy the world every time!

Walking the Planes

Nathan Holt and Shawn Kornhauser made a fun short film about Pro Tour Philadelphia at the end of 2011, and we liked it so much we hired them to do more! Their Walking the Planes series does a fantastic job of showing off Magic's Premier Play offerings in an accessible, engaging, and often hilarious fashion, and they are one of the best ways I know of to show friends and family what Magic tournaments are all about.

What Didn't Work Quite As Well

In the interest of full disclosure, and to show that we do, in fact, pay attention, I'll also quickly address the Top 6 vote-getters in the Worst Things About 2012 category. Again, from my Twitter followers:

#1: Avacyn Restored Limited Play

Like previous large third set Rise of the Eldrazi, Avacyn Restored was a bit of a bold experiment in crafting Limited environments. Unlike Rise, this one didn't work out as well as we'd hoped. The set was intentionally light on removal, which meant some games became hopeless quickly. Black had an ambitious "loner" theme in lieu of miracles and soulbond—a theme very difficult to execute on, which ultimately imbalanced the color.

Rest assured that we've heard all the complaints and will be doing our best to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

#2: Commander's Arsenal Distribution

Like From the Vault, Commander's Arsenal was intentionally produced in small quantities so as to be a collectible. Unfortunately, those quantities were likely too small. It's cool to excite your customers, but not cool to frustrate them.

We took this reaction into account when finalizing the print size for Modern Masters; we have no interest in a repeat performance.

#3: World Magic Cup Qualifiers/Lack of Nationals

I feel you on this one a little bit, people. Nationals was a cool bunch of tournaments, but they just don't make business sense right now, so we're sticking with World Magic Cup Qualifiers for now. Those can be run by stores in locations all over the world with little oversight and subsidy from us. We are adding a few more incentives this year to make playing in them more attractive, but they do their job, and in the meantime we're continuing to explore ways to make a system everyone can love. Maybe that's tweaks to the WMCQs, maybe that's a version of Nationals down the road, or maybe it's something new.

But for now, check out your Planeswalker Points to see if you've earned enough to qualify for this year's WMCQs.

#4: Trigger Rules and the IPG

With the best intentions, we tried to adjust the penalties in tournaments for missing beneficial triggers, both yours and your opponent's. Warnings that escalate to game losses seem like the wrong punishment for a course of action that is already likely to lose you games more often, and we've heard repeatedly that the pressure to remind opponents when they've missed things was one of the most frustrating parts of tournament play.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, and although the jury is still out on the most recent version of the rules, we have noticed an increased number of complaints on the subject. We'll be playing close attention and will, if necessary, make another series of changes to get things correct.

#5: Magic Online Issues

Complaints about Magic Online are varied, but we are aware of most of them and are doing our best to get ahead of as many of them as we can. Worth Wollpert talked about many of the issues the program faces in his recent "Executive Summary," but the takeaway for me from that piece is how successful the program is despite the imperfections. And I don't mean just from a number-of-customers standpoint, which is obviously great, but from a technological achievement standpoint—the fact that the game continues to deliver card set after card set in sync with the paper game, and they all work with all the myriad thousands of other existing cards, is an amazing feat, and one I don't take for granted.

#6: That Card You Hate

Whether it's Thragtusk, Pack Rat, Sphinx's Revelation, Cavern of Souls, Bonfire of the Damned, or something else, some card in the environment is always going to be everyone's least favorite. Sometimes these powerhouses are intentional on our part, other times they're oversights, but it is inevitable that something is going to be the best and get under people's skin. We'll try to keep making the game as varied and interesting as we can, and we hope that the sum total of all the other cards out there provide a great enough experience to overpower your dislikes.

And that's it! It should be clear that 2012 was an amazing year for Magic—the fourth "best year ever" in a row! As we've done over the past few years, we plan on building on that success and making Magic even more incredible in 2013 and beyond! Stick around, it should be awesome!

Hit me up on Twitter at @mtgaaron with your thoughts. Maybe we'll chat, or maybe you'll give me the seed for my next article...

Thanks, everyone, and Happy New Year!

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