Power Creep!!1

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


blatant thievery

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.


history of benalia

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 …

… Downhill.


narset, parter of veils

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.


veil of summer

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


questing beast

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.

Wizards' Plan

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?

In Summary

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.

18 Comments

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TeamPoggio2(2019-11-14 10:32)

A side note: I think the obvious main goal for introducing Adventures has been to print poly-functional cards, in order to push Bo1 by lowering the need of a sideboard. This trend is clear from this year, just by looking at all spells with choices or multiple effects (Questing Beast, Angrath's Rampage, Drown in the Loch, Goblin Cratermaker, Charming Prince, etc.) that have been printed. But when poly-functional cards become multi-functional, allowing for 2-1, it's not so hard to go too far... Moreover, planeswalkers if not answered are n-1 cards. Since Wizards doesn't seem to slow down their importance in the game, they tried instead to give players some other options that can compete in that direction. Yet, what we need are just clean answers to them.

Gabbobaldo(2019-11-13 08:57)

The veil of summer's ban is absurd.

Ferrambo(2019-11-11 20:58)

I totally agree with your conclusion. Very nice read.

JaminK
jack(2019-11-18 12:15)

Ferrambo Thank you :)

AvatarOfWrath(2019-11-11 20:16)

Thank you Jamin for your insightful article.
There is actually a great complementary article out there by Brian Braun-Duin about the power level in current standard. He mainly seems to blame the color-pie-inconsistencies (green having the best removal, the best card draw, card selection and haste creatures) and -imbalances (green being very powerful in Eldraine, while white got almost zero support).
I also agree with your observations concerning a rise in general power level from War of the Spark forward. So called eternal format were used to be "eternal", in that sense that they had a relatively stable meta-game, a pool of staples and a significantly slower rate of evolution. Sets like Modern Horizons on the other hand are like landslides - suddenly "eternal" and "stable" seems more like "brace yourselves" for every new set. Even Pauper got hit by the Arcums Astrolabe, which tells alot.

However, I would not just blame Wizard's notorious "greed". It's also partly on us. We, as a group of enfranchised players, like powerful cards, as you said. But we are also bad at evaluating cards. As an example, Tarmogoyf and Jace the Mindsculptor were written off as junk when they were first released. More recently, it was a huge percentage of people joking and complaining during spoiler season of Modern Horizons, about it being "Commander Horizons" and that it wouldn't actually contain Modern playable cards. Well, you can see how that turned out.

What I want to say is that Magic is the most complex game in the world. When even pro-players sometimes have a hard time evaluating sets, cards and formats, then why should Play Design be better at that? We should acknowledge that.
On the other hand, such huge amounts of bannings and shake ups, in addition to all the other things going on in the franchise (Commander-product avalanche, I am looking at you...), make it a rocky ride for us hardcore players and fans, who spent 50-100€+ a month on the game. Wizards need to adress these issues and seriously, SERIOUSLY slow down the pace of products and cool down the rise in power level.

For now, we have to sit out the storm. The coming sets have already been designed, developed and tested, and only now they will see that people get worried with the power-level pushes. I will hide in my Commander cave, and hope that the next day will be brighter and calmer.

JaminK
jack(2019-11-13 09:32)

AvatarOfWrath Your point is an important one. The job Wizards does is a tough one. Designing cards so that they're neither too good nor too weak is incredibly challenging. Still, I don't think we can blame all cards in Eldraine on being hard to evaluate, there are too many for that to be the case.
Thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts :)

Silenus(2019-11-11 18:02)

I don't know if Wizards does itself a service with this power creep. As I player since 2001 I like a little stability in my metagame (mostly Legacy, sometimes Modern). I'm feeling frustrated, because some decks I liked to play are not viable anymore (RIP, my beloved Maverick, for example).

skecr8r(2019-11-11 16:04)

I don't think including Modern Horizons here really makes sense - it is a set threading new ground, having to compete with the history of Magic, not just what is in standard currently. For Modern Horizons to be any good it had to have cards that could compete with cards people play in commander, legacy, cube and even vintage.

And most of these power-creep cards from Throne of Eldraine are good, and some of them will stick around, but most of them are not miles better than many other cards of the past. The problem is probably what happened with the artifact theme of Urza's block, the modular mechanic of Darksteel (which is what caused all the bannings, not really the artifact lands or affinity), energy from Kaladesh: Wizards introduced a new mechanic (adventure) which gives you in this case, essentially, a free card, and they somehow always manage to fuck-up balancing mechanics that gives you anything for free, or more precisely, gives you advantages for no cost just by playing the cards. This seems to happen every 5-6 years or so, nothing new.

Creatures are still leagues below the best spells historically in the game, some planeswalkers are up there and Oko is definitely a serious card, but look at how vintage cubes have evolved - they have added more cards this year in the last few, for sure, but its not like we are throwing away most of the past of magic, nor are the new cards just trampling the cards of the past. In my opinion, you cannot really evaluate power level by looking at the short-term effect on Magic, you really need a few years of history and hindsight to do it properly.

JaminK
jack(2019-11-13 09:36)

Skecr8r re: your last point
"New cards don't trample over old ones", might be true but in my opinion to a large party only because players fail to realize how good new cards are. Even after the printing of W&6, it took Modern Jund lists ever so long to adapt and cut Dark Confidants from their deck.
Only time will tell how good our newest tools really are (and in the case of Oko, it's already trampling all over old cards)

skecr8r(2019-11-13 22:18)

Jack Hmm, how long did it take for W&6 to spike 500%? A few weeks? I picked my copy up for €15 (incredibly) just around release date, and it then went to around €75 I guess mid-July. People probably underestimate planeswalkers as they are harder to grasp than many other cards, but to me a month is *not* a long time. Oko is a good card, but if you take the entire year of 2019, I think having two new cards (planeswalkers as well) be defining is not that many. I think if Magic should move forward as a business and as a game that is probably around the rate we should be at, really.

Left-Hand-Path(2019-11-11 15:34)

Good article, agree with pretty much all of it (Ravenous Chupacabra isn't that much more powerful than Nekrataal and that came out in Vision).

I think Wizards need to be more ready with the ban hammer and whatever happened to the R side of B&R announcements. We used to have restricted cards back in the day, time to bring that back if you don't feel like fucking your customers over with a full ban.

Oh how I long for the days of Black Vise vs. Ivory Tower and Disenchant actually being a card...

Wilecoyotegb(2019-11-11 12:13)

Really enjoyed the article and a well written thoughtful piece.

Block constructed bit the dust because of the small card pool, maybe Standard has the same issue now as not enough cards to have the answers if a card is pushed too far ?

FallSilently(2019-11-11 11:27)

A standard banning used to be a rare thing. The Urza bannings were a cautionary tale told to new players. The Mirrodin bannings were a bizarre exception aimed at one R&D slip-up. Zendikar was a tiny, forgivable incident. But WotC were careful now. Standard didn't really need to ban cards, ever. It used to be the format with no bans! Now sets are released like video games, beta-tested by the player base and patched up later. And nobody seems to mind.

JaminK
jack(2019-11-11 14:46)

FallSilently I think a lot of people actually mind, It's just not discussed as much. (Kind of why I wrote this article)

FallSilently(2019-11-12 13:25)

Jack yes, that's true, it was hyperbolic of me to say "nobody." But it's fast becoming the norm amoong the player base that bans are fine. I've always noticed a tendency for people to get ban-happy in the wake of bans, but it used to die down. After the Urza bans, people were demanding that Morphling needed to go, that Masticore was too backbreaking. After Affinity was wiped out, people asked why Tooth & Nail wasn't being banned as well. Apparently it needed to be. But after a while, these cries calmed down and once cards stopped being banned, banning stopping being the reflex expectation. Yet now we're in a dark age where bans are frequent in successive years, which means that the state of being ban-happy among the players never ends. It's now normal to want and expect bans permanently. Rather than expect higher design standards from WotC. Whatever happened to Maro's often-described shame at R&D being called into the boss' office and yelled at during the Urza era?

xemwox(2019-11-11 11:16)

Same for me.
I don't play competitive anymore, but even in commander, the first time i met oko, slammed on T3, was disgusting, no one could play his commander, and after a few turns, the guy who played it proposed to removed it from the game and pretend he never played it, because even for him it wasn't fun at all.

RJGiel(2019-11-11 11:05)

Excellent article Jamin!

eternalphoenix(2019-11-11 09:31)

Amen.

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