- Jamin Kauf
Have Magic cards become too powerful too quickly in recent times—or is Jamin just another player rambling on about how things were much better when he started playing? Jamin looks at the power level of sets both past and current, identifies a trend, and speculates about the plan behind it.
Disclaimer: The power level of cards is always relative. A card can be the "best" card in Standard, yet see no play in Modern. Context matters—keep this in mind when reading this article, especially when I say something such as "Set X was (not) very powerful." I'll try to provide context where it matters.
Power creep is a buzzword thrown around a lot. It's often used in the trading card scene when a game introduces significantly more powerful cards quickly, which then makes older, less powerful cards obsolete. This is usually a pretty blatant move to drive sales: powerful cards sell product. As such, the phrase comes with a lot of negative connotations and some players will view any powerful card as a game-ruining cash grab.
But new powerful cards are not necessarily bad. They're fun! They're even necessary to keep Magic fresh. It only becomes problematic when power levels rise too drastically, because this leads to balance issues. In my opinion, this is something that has happened with recent sets. We have been experiencing balance issues for most of 2019.
The Power Level of Recent Sets
Before we get into the sets that started the trend of outrageously powerful cards, let's look at the opposite: Ixalan block. Ixalan was incredibly weak—much to the disappointment of players. The community was let down by a block that couldn't compete with the prominent Temur Energy deck that had already dominated Standard for a while by then. Players were complaining about the lack of new cards in Standard, which was due to the higher power level of Kaladesh and Amonkhet. Even after Rivals of Ixalan introduced more powerful cards like Ravenous Chupacabra and Rekindling Phoenix, we still didn't see a big shift in Standard.
This is to remind everyone how low power levels aren't any fun either. They can easily leave a format feel stale and repetitive and boring. This is especially true for Standard with its smaller card pool and smaller selection of viable decks. It does not necessarily apply to formats like Modern or Legacy, where a balanced metagame often allows more decks to flourish.
Then, Dominaria introduced History of Benalia, Goblin Chainwhirler, and Karn, Scion of Urza to Standard, all of which I consider reasonably powered cards for Constructed play. While the resulting metagame was purely Red-Black Midrange, I don't see an issue with power creep here, though I want to highlight a trend here: high power level hidden behind complexity … History of Benalia was a great card in Standard, but being a Saga, players couldn't immediately grasp that. This inherently is not a problem and keeps the game fun to explore, but I'll come back to it in a second.
Then came an unexciting M19 followed by Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance. All of these sets were perfectly reasonable in my opinion. They included some powerhouses like Arclight Phoenix, but Standard remained enjoyable and featured a fine mix of old and new cards. When Wilderness Reclamation came around, the sky came down a bit, but this had nothing to do with power creep, it simply was a badly designed card put into the wrong hands.
I wrote all this to put things into perspective. Recall past metagames, think of past power levels, and call to mind past set releases. With this, let's get to the point when things went …
War of the Spark was the first release after the Mythic Invitational was held on MTG Arena. It was released during a time period that felt like a promotional phase for the new platform. As such, it is understandable that Wizards wanted to provide us with an exciting set, and what easier way to create a cheap thrill than with powerful cards? When Standard, Modern, Legacy, and even Vintage all receive cards that revolutionize the format at the same time, hype is bound to overflow.
I thought to myself that this would be a one-time thing; that Wizards would know better than to push overpowered cards onto us every expansion. Teferi, Time Raveler was fun, but let's return to normal power levels.
Nope, we didn't. Modern Horizons was pushed beyond belief (Urza, Lord High Artificer, Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Force of Negation, Wrenn and Six, the list goes on) and once again, the hype was big and loud. After all, powerful cards are fun for a while. I was starting to get worried. Cards like Narset, Parter of Veils, Karn, the Great Creator, Plague Engineer, and Wrenn and Six are tools that you inject into a format with a permanent effect. They negate older cards, they invalidate strategies and they fundamentally change the format they're in. You cannot take these back.
Along came M20 and with it some more powerhouses. Go look at Veil of Summer, Risen Reef, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, Marauding Raptor, and Knight of the Elbon Legion and tell me I'm wrong. The whole Ixalan block hadn't been enough to make a proper Dinosaur or Vampire deck viable in Standard; now we suddenly had both, plus Elementals.
Remember how I mentioned hiding power behind complexity and mechanics? This is the case with many of our latest staples. Planeswalkers with passive abilities and/or no plus ability are a completely new design. Veil of Summer has a text box worthy of a Yu-Gi-Oh! card, and the Force cycle from Horizons can only be cast for free during the opponent's turn. They're all examples of hidden power.
There's another approach Wizards has been using to hide power level: synergies. Marauding Raptor, Risen Reef, Sorin, Urza, Lord High Artificer are all so good that it takes away from deck building. While this is not directly related to power creep invalidating old strategies, it has a similar taste to me. It's Wizards selling us the thrill of playing with this enormously powerful card, as long as we also include all the other cards from that tribe.
Throne of Eldraine
This brings us to Throne of Eldraine. Many of the cards in this set are so blatantly overpowered. When following the online discussion of previews, I always assume that all the people on Twitter claiming that the newest cards are broken must be wrong, simply because Wizards used to balance cards. I was wrong. Once Upon a Time, Questing Beast, Wicked Wolf, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Murderous Rider // Swift End, Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft, Emry, Lurker of the Loch, the Castles, Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp. All these cards seem like obvious attempts to push sales.
You're obviously going to play the Hero's Downfall stapled onto a creature. Stapling a creature onto a spell is already like casting a free pseudo-Divination. Same goes for Disperse plus 3/1 flier and Shock plus 4/3 Giant. A 4 mana 4/4 with haste and every other available keyword ends up in every deck? They're not even hiding the power spike on the Beast. A free cantrip with card selection in green? Sure, that could in no way turn out badly. The 1 mana 1/2 that tutors a card from your graveyard when tapped? I'm sure it will be fine.
I have to admit, I didn't grasp Oko's power at first glance. But after playing with/against him for five games, it's hard to miss how powerful he is—and I promise you, Wizards knew this too. They hired good Magic players.
The following is what I imagine to be Wizards' reasoning behind all of this. Wizards need to keep Magic interesting. In the past, they accomplished as much by slowly adding new cards that transformed metagames over time—letting the game evolve. Now I think we're moving into a direction where generating big hypes is the goal rather than sustaining a game like they did before. Switch things up quickly again and again by announcing new formats, banning cards, printing the next supplemental product.
Simply put: keep the customers busy and they won't complain. Who has time to realize Standard's broken when Pioneer, Omniscience Draft, and Brawl decks demand your attention?
While powerful cards are not a bad thing per se, the amount of pushed cards has been alarming in recent months. Formats don't evolve anymore. Instead, powerful cards push them from one extreme to the next and Wizards tries to keep things interesting by banning cards and creating new formats. To make up for the jump in power, we get cards that are overly complicated or only fit into very specific archetypes.
Personally, I dislike this new way and hope it won't continue, but I am no expert in game design. The road that Magic and Wizards have taken might be a legitimate one to create a game of hype, maybe even necessary to compete in the esports business, I don't know. The only thing I know is that current formats often seem unfun due to the power level of single cards.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.