Core Set Comes Home – A Perspective

ajanis-welcome-core-set-2019-art
Art by Eric Deschamps

Core Sets used to be the set every couple of years that allowed the game to do a few things: reset the story, help with the metagame, reprint cards from years past and offer an easier entry point for newer players. The frequency then ramped up to once a year in the summer when WotC wanted to print four sets a year with their three set blocks, then disappeared when the decision was made to make two set blocks.

The Core Set was missed.

But now, like all things, it’s back.

With it comes a deepening of the story, help with the metagame, reprint cards from years past and offer an easier entry point for newer players. The more things change, right?

And maybe that’s the whole thing here. For over 25 years, WotC makes a decision and that’s the norm until it’s not the norm any more.

Core Sets will only have white borders starting with Unlimited.
Core Sets will have black borders starting with 10th Edition.
Core Sets will only have reprints starting with Revised.
Core Sets will also have new cards starting with Magic 2010.
We’re going to be creating three set blocks starting with Mirage.
We’re going to be creating two set blocks beginning with Battle for Zendikar.
We’re doing away with “standard” blocks altogether starting with Dominaria.
We’re going back to a three set block for Guilds of Ravnica.
Core Sets will be every two years.
Core Sets will be every year starting with Magic 2010.
No more Core Sets after Magic Origins.
Core Sets will be every year starting with Magic 2019.

These are just set construction. Magic is a game that’s all about change and it should come at no surprise that almost everything surrounded with the game has changed in one way or another. What once were rules we no longer abide by anymore. Even the one constant unchanging concept of the Reserved List has been changed a few times (But this is not the place for that). There’s been tons of changes from design and development of cards to the department themselves.

To be a fan of Magic design is a futile game to play; you are always behind. Design for sets start up to two years before the release date. This means that something was designed, developed, played for a while and decided it wasn’t the way to go all before you have a chance to dig into it. We’re always experiencing a past we can never catch up to.

We eventually figured out what we a monster we’d created during that dark period during when it was too late to change, but way before the set hit the streets. We knew there was going to be a train wreck, and all we could do was sit back and watch.

The most recent example of this is Prowess, which first appeared in Khans of Tarkir block. It was rated the lowest mechanic of the five but by the end of the block, it was one the highest rated. It looked like Blue/Red was finally going to have their keyword combat mechanic. But then more time testing revealed that it was hard to get the numbers right for a set (the P/T and the spells needed to trigger it) and it looks like the mechanic might just not see print anymore. Prowess was last printed with a new card in Unstable and the last black bordered version of the card came in Hour of Devastation, over a year ago.

This is fine, this is normal. By playing it out and experimenting with it is how you find out what works and what doesn’t work. Things have to change. The Core Set was thought of (unoffically) unneeded and a (rumored) not as a profitable set as a fourth “Real” set. With Core Sets coming back, WotC has learned that they’re needed and actually missed by the enfranchised players of Magic. It gives that pallet cleanser of a draft format before you go from one complicated environment to another. In fact, the largest swing of released products’ complexity might be from the Spring set, to the Summer Core Set to the late Summer Commander release.

It also allows cards that need or want to be printed that don’t fit into any of the planes that we visit or that ran out of room. It’s in the Core Sets that we should see Crucible of Worlds and Pithing Needle, and other cards that should help control Standard and Modern. If WotC is worried about certain mechanics ruining an environment, the Core Set allows them to print solutions without destroying the sets that they spawned from (We’ll see how Play Design handles this). Maybe there were a few extra cards that might have worked in Kaladesh but didn’t have the space, see if they fit into the next Core Set (WotC did this with the Knight subtheme from Dominaria and it seems like it works just fine).

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What about the design of the Core Sets? Is there something I’m truly hating and wishing wasn’t there? No, not really. I haven’t had the chance to play it much (only one match of a MTGO league at the time of this writing), but there’s nothing here that screams “bad design” to me. Even the possibly problematic Meteor Golem allowing Red and Black to have access to enchantment removal isn’t all that bad. I mean, artifacts in the past have had access to it, like Nevinyrral’s Disk and Oblivion Stone, and those are cheaper and blow up the board. I’m not for advocating that you can have effects at larger mana costs, because that’s not how it works. Artifacts can do almost anything, as long as they aren’t efficient at it (it takes a bunch of mana, it’s slow, you don’t get a huge effect). Scour from Existence cost the same amount of mana as Meteor Golem, is an Instant, and exiles the card (even land). Meteor Golem is not a concern.

It could be that I’m getting older, or the design of Magic has been changing recently but I’m more interested in seeing how all the pieces fit together and how they work with the future. One bad card that was developed does not ruin a set. There can be overly complex cards, or niche cards that only fit into one type of deck, or overly simple cards. Sometimes, these can all lead down the path of bad set design.

But not in Core Sets. They’re pieces of the multiverse that allow you to open up and see that it’s all just the beginning of the game. There’s only one Demon in M19 but Liliana’s Contract calls for four different ones to work. You have Dinosaurs (the proper first time in a Core Set), you have cards from Kaladesh (which the set will rotate out in a few months), to referencing the Eldrazi in Infernal Reckoning, to Kightly Valor a card we saw last time we returned to Ravnica, to old Elder Dragons not seen in 20 years to a Satyr from Theros.

Core Sets, much like cubes, have been a mix and mashup of cards from all over the game of Magic. And it’s delightful.

Maybe it’s nostalgia rearing it’s head again, and this is how I remember playing when I first started in Revised. Obviously, cards and concepts were much simpler back then as a War Elephant was a force to be reckoned with. As with back then you have different styles of art and, if you didn’t have the knowledge, it could seem like modern Core Sets are a mashing of cards like the early sets were 25 years ago. Now, with the emphasis on drafting, it’s no surprise that the more enfranchised players will pick up on themes and concepts easier than beginners who might think that Magic is one big complicated game and lore.

It is. That’s why we love it.

Welcome back Core Sets.

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