Rescuing Modern Horizons from the sins of Legacy

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Legacy has always been a format of extremes.

From combo decks capable of ending the game on the very first turn, to prison decks, well, also capable of ending the game on the very first turn, a lot of Legacy games… end on turn one or two. Sometimes “extreme” things are cool, like snowboarding, Monster energy drinks and the revolution that will bring about the inevitable end of capitalism. But as a connoisseur of fine games of Magic, I’d rather something a little more moderate. Historically, Legacy has been just fine despite the existence of a lot of these decks, thanks to the presence of powerful, universal answers like Force of Will. Modern features a similar set of powerful linear decks, but the format’s restrictions slow them down enough to make them easier to interact with, despite the absence of Force of Will, Daze and Wasteland. A new set, however, stands to threaten this balance: Modern Horizons, slated to add new cards to the format, ostensibly shaking up the metagame. I’m worried about this set. Let me tell you why.

I’ve played a lot of Legacy over the past few months, thanks to a StarCityGames Open in Syracuse and a Grand Prix in Niagara Falls, and I feel confident saying that the balance of power has shifted enough to cause a significant disturbance in the quality of the average game. Fair decks tend to make for better games of Magic, with more interactions, more back-and-forth and less deterministic outcomes resulting in more impactful, and more overall, decision-making. If winning is the most fun thing to do in Magic, then making the decisions that get you there must be the most satisfying, and the trend in Legacy these days is to remove as much player agency as possible. This has happened through bannings, taking cards like Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe out of Delver and Czech Pile decks, all but pushing these two Force of Will archetypes out of the metagame, but also through something much more insidious: supplemental product design.

Wizards of the Coast releases numerous products a year beyond the flagship Standard-legal expansions. While new booster pack releases sell themselves through an established gameplay ecosystem, with people buying up new product for Standard and tearing through it for Draft and Sealed, the myriad of supplemental products need to provide something special in order to meet sales metrics. They’ve tried all kinds of ways to sell this stuff: Un-sets have unique full-art lands in each pack, and reprint sets are full of powerful staple cards and fan favourites with brand new art. However, when they want to try something new, like the first few Commander pre-constructed decks, Battlebond, or Conspiracy, the need to have every product at least break even requires a tried and tested strategy with unforeseen consequences. Printing new Legacy-legal staple cards in these supplemental products ensures that they have value not only to their target market of casual kitchen table players, but significant value to a different casual market: Legacy players.

They’re then faced with a difficult problem, however. How do you make sure that the handful of cards planted in Conspiracy 3: Retake the Crown to appeal to the Legacy market are actually going to see enough play to pad your sales numbers? Simple, you make sure that they’re ubiquitously powerful and impactful. You can’t achieve this as you would in Standard set design, by just printing a powerful card that operates above curve, as Legacy requires much more than that. Instead, you have to run out something truly obscene, like Sanctum Prelate or True-Name Nemesis. Something that breaks the rules of the game, threatening to end it purely by virtue of being put into play, something that you’d have to be a fool not to put in your deck.

While this is almost definitely intentional as a sales strategy, I am surprisingly not interested in going off about how capitalism ruins culture and games and art, and how the Battle of Winterfell was an example of how safe, focus-grouped writing destroys everything I love, and… well, maybe I am interested, but I’ll stop myself here, for your sake. I’m seeing Endgame after writing this, and I honestly would like to enjoy it, despite Marvel movies being the poster child for this soulless capitalist mockery of art. In short, this stuff sucks, but it’s inevitable so long as any entertainment product necessitates a return on investment, and my goal in writing this is to provide social commentary, and hopefully a useful framework for design decisions were anyone from WotC to stumble across it. As such, I don’t really blame them for trying to maximize profits under this economic system.

I have a better universal argument against these kinds of cards: they suck, and they’re bad to play with. Everyone, from the staunchest capitalist to Ross Merriam, wants their games of Magic to be good. Sanctum Prelate, Palace Jailer, True-Name Nemesis and Archon of Valor’s Reach all feature replacement effects or triggers to the tune of: “Choose your opponent’s deck. If you chose correctly and they don’t already have a specific set of answers in hand that they’re forced to play in order to interact with this over-powered design, you win the game.” These cards all suffer from the same problem as Chalice of the Void and similar prison cards, in that they end all meaningful gameplay until they’re destroyed. When a Death & Taxes player Vials in a Sanctum Prelate, and a Delver player doesn’t already have the equally-obscene True-Name Nemesis, the outcome of the game is decided. When Stoneblade resolves Palace Jailer against Miracles, the outcome of the game is decided. None of these cards enable interesting decision-making, and as such, should not exist. Unfortunately, their presence has shifted the balance of Legacy away from interactive games just enough that I can’t honestly say that I enjoy the format anymore. I loved Czech Pile mirrors, and I have a great fondness for the days of Canadian Threshold, but those days are behind us. Much like the evolution of Modern away from the noble Pod/Twin matchup towards the vile Tron/Scapeshift matchup, Legacy has drifted away from what makes Magic fun to me.

Rather than a web of complicated decisions deciding fair mirrors, we’ve entered a broken card arms race.

Instead of engaging in this kind of design and printing obviously-powerful cards to meet sales numbers, I want to get my hands on some more powerful reactive cards, not prison pieces that deny both players any chance at a good game of Magic.

The most frustrating part about all of this is that they got it right the very first time: Commander 2011 featured an obvious Legacy plant in the form of Flusterstorm. An essential card for defeating unfair strategies. This card is powerful against the majority of popular decks, and encourages wise, interactive gameplay. I was working in a card shop around the card’s release, and it sure as hell helped sell the product. It turns out everyone can be a winner, so long as we do things right and keep in mind the aspects of competitive Magic that actually make it enjoyable.

Flusterstorm art by Erica Yang.

Modern Horizons hits shelves in just over a month, and I can only pray that WotC realizes that this isn’t a product that requires this kind of cheap gimmick to sell in droves. I praise them for their willingness to shake up the rusty, stale core of Modern, but I’m holding my enthusiasm in check until I’m sure that True-Name Nemesis isn’t in the set list. Legacy died for its sins.

Don’t let its sacrifice be in vain.