MTG complexity issues could be over

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the complexity of Magic: the Gathering skyrocket. Whether it’s the addition of new game pieces or unique mechanics, there’s undoubtedly plenty more to follow. Thanks to the recent acquisition of Stickers, players are concerned that MTG’s Complexity Creep has been taken too far. Fortunately, Wizards of the Coast is fully aware of the problem.

State of Design 2022

Design by Klothys | Theros Beyond Death

In a State of Design 2022 blog post, Magic lead designer Mark Rosewater detailed the highs and lows of the latest sets since September of last year. Throughout the article, Rosewater recounted lessons learned from beloved themes and mechanics and those that didn’t quite hit the mark. This included analyzing the complexities introduced and how this controversial topic will be handled in the future.

During the article, Rosewater singled out the much-loved Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty as the main problem child for complexity. With the new “Reconfigure” keyword and several old feedback mechanisms, there was a lot going on. For example, Rosewater said that “many players have reported being confused about certain creature card types at times.” Despite the cards sporting different borders, it wasn’t always clear what a creature, artifact, or enchantment was. While these new mechanics were ideal for creating an exciting draft environment, they made it difficult for new players to keep up.

While each set tends to feature a new mechanic or two, this complexity issue wasn’t as pronounced in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Despite the presence of four new mechanics, Decayed, Disturb, Day/Night and Coven, there was not an overwhelming complexity. Rosewater notes that instead of being confused, “players enjoyed how each of them took a mechanical theme we’ve done before and found a new space to play.” While these mechanics weren’t all perfect, Rosewater notes that Day/Night didn’t play well with old Werewolves “was considered a big mistake”, this familiarity kept players from getting too overwhelmed.

Likewise, the next set, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, also helped to alleviate potential confusion. For the first time since 2019’s War of the Spark, Innistrad: Crimson Vow featured many thematic and mechanical overlaps with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Players were already familiar with many of the set’s mechanics by being placed on the same plane as its predecessor. For better or worse, the new mechanics of Cleave and Training weren’t very well received. This prevented these new mechanics from dominating formats and confusing players.

A necessary evil

Dungeon descent
Dungeon Descent | Adventures in the Forgotten Realms

For better or worse, MTG’s complexity creep is somewhat of a necessary evil. Previously on Blogatog, Rosewater said “the same things that add complexity also add newness and excitement.” For example, a new set wouldn’t be inspiring if it only featured evergreen mechanics. Part of Magic’s charm is that it keeps reinventing itself; however, this cannot be left unchecked.

After almost thirty years of development, it’s only natural that WotC would start exploring different design veins to exploit. As Rosewater explains, through a new design philosophy, they’ve “increased the complexity we allow in each set.” Despite this, Wizards are still vigilant about how much they let into Standard at any given time.

However, as sets roll out of Standard, Wizards know they can’t just keep increasing the complexity. Before too long, Magic might start to become inaccessible to new players. “A new player will always start the match in the same place, recognized Mark Rosewater. “We have to be careful not to leave them behind.”

To an eternal world

Eternal Taskmaster
Eternal Task Master | spark war

The increasing complexity of Magic sets isn’t just a problem for new players, as the effects are felt across all formats. A strange and wild new mechanic may have far-reaching ramifications in Eternal formats like Commander, for example. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast isn’t ditching Eternal formats. Instead, the opposite is true.

As Rosewater pointed out in the State of Design article, WotC is now designing for an “eternal world.” According to this philosophy, “the core of the Magic game involves the full story of the game. This means we need to better understand how current designs play with older designs.”

Rosewater said that “it’s not enough to make something cool in a vacuum.” Instead, new designs should be fashioned in a way that complements what came before them. As a result, “it is probably the current force most likely to change the immediate future of design”.

Previously, WotC caused all kinds of problems in Eternal formats thanks to the introduction of new cards. Double-Sided Modal Cards (MDFC) as Valki, god of lies for example, wreaked havoc in Eternal formats thanks to Cascade. After being exiled via Cascade by a card like violent explosion players were able to play Valki, God of Lies in either of its two modes. This allowed players to cast the seven-mana Planeswalker Tibalt, cosmic impostor incredibly early in the game. It was an unintended consequence that Wizards of the Coast had to fix with a reluctant rule change at Cascade. While that solved the problem, it’s not something wizards should force themselves to do if they can help it, as frequent rule changes will likely make things even more confusing.

Change takes time

dominaria united art
Wizards of the Coast

While Wizards is supposed to “change the immediate future of design,” we shouldn’t hope for a quick turnaround. Rosewater previously confirmed that the design team got their hands on a set about two years before it was in print, so we might be waiting for things to change a bit. In the meantime, things may get worse before they get better.

As we recently pointed out, 2023 should have Magic’s “most ambitious” set yet. It’s unclear if this ambition focuses on set mechanics or lore, but regardless, Rosewater claims it will eclipse both War of the Spark and Future Sight. If this currently unnamed set is mechanically ambitious, we might be dealing with Magic’s problematic increasing complexity for longer than we’d like.

Sharon D. Cole