Making_Magic

The inside story behind the changes coming with Shards of Alara.

The Year of Living Changerously

  • Boards
  • Print
Author Image

The letter I!f you haven't yet read the official announcement today, there are some big changes coming to Magic with the Shards of Alara expansion. For this column I'll be walking you through what each of these changes means and why we feel they are important for the game.

The Play's the Thing

Before I start with the particulars, let me explain the big picture issue that was the impetus for all these changes. When you boil it all down, our job, as the people who make Magic, is to encourage people to play our game. Ultimately, there are two groups we need to focus on to accomplish this task. First, we have to retain the players we currently have. Second, we have to acquire new (or lapsed) players into the game. Both are essential to the long-term health of Magic. (For a much more detailed version of this issue, check out my article Assume the Acquisition.) As far as the current player base goes, there's always more we can do but right now we know the game is healthy and we believe there are things coming down the road that will make you even happier.

That means the key thing is to find better ways to grow the game by bringing in new players. The importance of acquiring new players has been a consistent theme this year on magicthegathering.com. Now's our chance to show you what we're doing in terms of the product to make it happen. My article today is going to walk you through each of the changes we're making, explain how it will impact the product, and walk you through our rationale for why we believe it is better for growing the game.

Rethink Think Think

One of the best ways to approach an established problem is to back up and treat the problem anew. Don't rely on conventional thought, because you are prone to make the same assumptions and thus end up in the same place. So, we started from scratch. How do we get new players into the game? What are the current handicaps that make starting the game hard? What about our game could be friendlier to new players?

As we started our discussions, we had a very important realization. Up until recently, we have tended to focus our acquisition efforts towards the core sets and our retention efforts towards the expansions, the idea being that the newer player will enter through our simplest product and the more advanced player will pay attention to the latest cards. We questioned this assumption (as we questioned every assumption) and tracked down the data. You know what we found? We were wrong. Basically, newer players don't follow a neat path. They begin with whatever Magic product they are first exposed to, and because most players learn from existing players, this first exposure is usually not a core set.

So what does this mean? For starters, it forced us to look at our expansions in the same light that we look at our core sets. And in that light, things look very different. I think it's time for me to start jumping into the changes and I'll explain a lot of our discoveries and observations along the way.

Change #1: We Are Printing Fewer Cards Per Year

Let me start this section by explaining some vocabulary. I am going to talk about "Magic years." What I mean by this is that I'm going to start the "year" with the fall large expansion and then include every expansion until the following fall large expansion. I will refer to each year by its fall set's name or expansion symbol.

With that out of the way, let's get to the point of this section. Starting with the Shards of Alara year, we are going to be printing fewer cards per year.

What kind of change are we talking here? Well, let's take a look at how many cards we've printed per Magic year, starting with Ice Age.

(Some quick technical notes on this chart because I know I'm already going to get enough email on this article as it is: Yes, I'm counting Homelands as part of the Ice Age year for this tally, I'm not counting basic lands for any of these, I am counting the "Starter" rarity from Eighth and Ninth Edition, and I'm not counting Un- sets or the various beginner sets like Portal. Finally, I am counting the basic snow lands from Coldsnap but not from Ice Age. Why? Because the Coldsnap snow lands showed up in the common slot for booster packs.)

Now let's take a look at next year. Click here to add it to the image above.

Not counting the core set, we will print fewer cards during the Shards of Alara year than we have ever printed before in any Magic year – 519. Even counting the core set, it is over one hundred cards fewer than the previous year. The reasons behind this change are twofold. First, as we examined the barriers for entry to the game, we realized that the speed of release of new cards was front and center. If new players quickly get overwhelmed they tend to walk away, never to return. A new player today trying to get into the game has the same hurdles that all new players have had historically, but one entering this July, for instance, faces a Standard environment of over 2,100 cards. One of the easiest ways of simplifying things was to just print fewer cards.

The second reason for the change was feedback from existing players. We were just printing too many cards. Even established players were having issues keeping up. As the graph above demonstrates, we've been ramping up the cards produced over the last few years. We simply went too far. We were printing too many cards for the new and established players.

This change is helping to adjust to the right balance. Why then did we choose a number lower than what had been our staple number for so many years? Because we wanted to give ourselves a little wiggle room for when we came up with interesting ideas like Time Spiral's "timeshifted" set or the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor mini-block structure. 519 cards is not our cap, but our new baseline.

Observant readers may have noticed that the official announcement listed the size of the next core set as unknown. Why then does my graph show a number for it? Because as a member of the team working on the set I’m quite confident in the 229 number, but since the set is not officially finished yet, technically the official number is still TBD. Nonetheless, even if the set shifts slightly we’ll definitely still be sticking with our new “print fewer” philosophy.

Change #2: We're Adding a New Rarity Called Mythic Rare

Another important part of attracting new players is understanding the environment they come from. When Magic first began, it had the luxury of defining itself because it was the first of its kind. That is not the world we live in today. TCGs are now an established game genre. It used to be that the majority of game players getting their first exposure to a trading card game did so with Magic. With the explosion of TCGs, particularly ones aimed at lower ages, this is simply no longer true.

We came to realize that we don't have the luxury of defining Magic solely against itself. The trading card game genre has created some standards that evolved from decisions made after Magic's creation, rarity being one of the best examples. The idea of a TCG with only three rarities is antiquated. (And before I get letters, I do understand that technically basic land is a fourth rarity; for these discussions I am not going to count it.) Magic is the only major trading card game currently printed with only three rarities. If we want to stay competitive in attracting new players we have to keep up with the industry standards.

What is it about this "industry standard" that helps acquire new players? Two things. First is the issue of expectation. The majority of players are going to come to Magic having already experienced this standard, and they are going to expect any new trading card game they try to function like the games they already know. As I often talk about in this column, meeting expectations is very important. Second, there’s a reason things become an industry standard. They work. Knowing that you have the potential to open something you can show off to all your friends is very compelling and helps draw new players into the game.

The good news is that we found a way that allowed us to increase the number of rarities without having to print cards at a rarity higher than we currently print. To elaborate, when you crunch the numbers it turns out that Magic has used the word "rare" to stretch across an insanely wide band of rarity. To put this in context, here’s a graph of every Magic set currently available in Standard showing how many rares are in each set.

As you can see, there is a giant spectrum of what "rare" means. The high end, for instance, is over three times greater than the low end. The important discovery for us was that we could add in a new level of rarity without having to print cards at a higher rarity than we already print. The best way to explain this is to just show the old and new system side by side. The rarity of the set on the left is equal to the new rarity listed on the right.

Old System New System
Tenth Edition Rare Mythic Rare, Large Set
Shadowmoor Rare Mythic Rare, Small Set
Future Sight Rare Rare, Large Set
Planar Chaos Rare Rare, Small Set

Now that I've established the scope of the rarities, let's look at how many cards of each rarity Shards of Alara will have.

Commons – 101
Uncommons – 60
Rares – 53
Mythic Rares – 15

How often do each of these show up? Commons appear ten per pack (yes, this is a change which I will talk about in the next section). Uncommons appear three per pack. Rares appear one per pack, except roughly one in eight packs, when you get a mythic rare instead. The one in eight packs, by the way, might make it feel as if mythic rares are seven times as rare as rares. They're not; they're twice as rare. (It's complicated, but it has to do with how the sheet is laid out and the fact that there are more rares than mythic rares.)

Now let's take a look at "Paper," an example of a small set in this new world.

Commons – 60
Uncommons – 40
Rares – 35
Mythic Rares – 10

As with Shards of Alara, the rarities have the same number of cards per pack, including the frequency that you'll get a mythic rare in that rare slot.

This now leads us to the next question: How are cards split between rare and mythic rare? Or more to the point, what kind of cards are going to become mythic rares? We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells. They will not just be a list of each set's most powerful tournament-level cards.

We've also decided that there are certain things we specifically do not want to be mythic rares. The largest category is utility cards, what I'll define as cards that fill a universal function. Some examples of this category would be cycles of dual lands and cards like Mutavault or Char. That also addresses a long-standing issue that some players have had with certain rares like dual lands. Because we're making fewer cards per set, in the new world individual rares will be easier to acquire because each rare in a large set now appears 25% more often.

Which leads to the next question: Will mythic rares have premium (foil) versions? Yes. In fact, not only will they have a normal version and a premium version, but the premium versions will show up at a slightly more frequent ratio. (The number of combined premium rares and premium mythic rares you will get starting with Shards of Alara is higher than the number of premium rares you currently get.)

The final mythic rare question: Will mythic rare have a new expansion symbol color? Yes. What is it? I promise I'll show it off before we're done.

Change #3: All Booster Packs Will Have a Basic Land Card in Place of a Common

This is a change we made in the core set starting with Seventh Edition. The reason for it was rather simple: beginning players were having problems getting land. Without land, you can't play the game—the very definition of a barrier to entry. Before Seventh Edition, we had the attitude that there were plenty of products that provided basic land. The flaw in our thinking was twofold. First, there was no way for the new player to know which product had basic land, and few people buy a second product when the first one isn't usable by itself. Second, not every venue sells every Magic product. There were stores, for example, that only sold booster packs, which meant a player buying exclusively from that store had no way around this problem.

With our new understanding of how players approach the game, it became clear that if we wanted to guarantee that new players got land, we had to include it in the main product they were buying. Thus, starting with Shards of Alara, every booster pack will have one rare (replaced occasionally by a mythic rare), three uncommons, ten commons, and one basic land. This new rarity distribution will be applied to every core set and expansion (large and small) moving forward.

Change #4: Theme Decks Are Becoming Intro Packs

Since the introduction of preconstructed decks, the theme decks have had to serve two masters. They were designed both as an intro-level product to help new players get into the game and as a sampler product to allow established or lapsed players to experience the themes and mechanics of the new set. The problem with this execution was that it didn't allow us to maximize the decks for either group. The importance of acquiring new players has finally ended this stalemate.

When we looked into how product was being placed in stores, we realized that we were having gaps (some very long, particularly in the mass market stores) when no intro level product was available for sale, a potentially huge barrier for new players. we needed to find a way to ensure that an intro-level product was always available. The answer, which came after much searching, was to let theme decks embrace their intro-level product side. Since they accompany every set, they would guarantee that such a product was always on the shelves.

Starting with Shards of Alara, the theme decks are changing into a new product called "intro packs" aimed specifically at helping beginners get into the game. To do this we rethought what an intro product needed to have, which resulted in a substantial change to the make-up of the product. For the existing theme deck buyer, the intro packs will still have a preconstructed deck that samples the new themes and mechanics of the upcoming set and we’ve managed to raise the overall value proposition of the product (more on this in a moment) while keeping the same price. That said, this product is going through some significant changes.

To refresh your memory, here is the make-up of a theme deck for Shadowmoor:

2 rares
13 uncommons
45 commons / lands
1 premium land

Now here is the make-up of an intro pack for Shards of Alara:

1 premium rare
1 non-premium rare
7 uncommons
32 commons / lands
1 Shards of Alara booster pack

There are two very important differences. First, the intro pack's deck has 41 cards compared to the theme deck's 61. Second, the intro pack also includes a booster pack (bringing the intro pack up to 56 cards). Taking into account the cards from the booster pack, the intro pack has three fewer uncommons, two fewer commons, and no premium land. In turn though, it gets an extra rare and a foil one at that.

Why the change? Let's start by talking about the booster pack. One of the concerns we had with the preconstructed decks for beginners is that they are a little misleading about what the product actually is. A self-contained deck doesn't convey the scope of a trading card game. We wanted to show the new player the potential of what his or her deck could become. To do this, we felt strongly that we needed to get a booster pack into their hands. Only by ripping open a booster of random cards did we feel we could give new players the best taste of what Magic is truly about.

In addition, we felt strongly that the intro pack approach better encouraged you to further tweak your deck. This was accomplished partly by including the booster but more importantly by making a deck smaller than sixty cards. The smaller size encourages players to add cards to get up to sixty (yet another lesson we've learned from the core sets).

The intro packs have also been changed so that they now have two inserts. One insert has all the stuff you're used to reading about with theme decks (how the mechanics work, deck lists, etc.) but now there's a second insert included that's written to help players learn how to play and how to adapt their deck, which allows any intro pack to also double as a first-purchase explanatory product.

The transformation of the premium card from a land into a rare came about because we rethought the packaging. We wanted to create a see-through box that would allow the player to see one of the cards. With that technology, the obvious choice for the slot was a premium rare card (and a good one at that) and as such, one was added to the product. Once we looked over the mix we felt that we had both upped the overall value of the product and made it much more accessible and attractive for new players.

Filling Up

I understand that I am throwing out a lot of information at once but I wanted to make sure you had the chance to hear the reasoning behind these changes. Ultimately, the changes I discussed today were made because we firmly believe it's in the best interest of the long-term health of the game.

Now, it's your turn. We would like to hear what you think about all these changes. Please use today's thread to give your opinion both on these particular changes and on other things that you feel might address the new player issues I've brought up.

Join me next week when I talk about something a little less substantial.

Wait a minute... I have a nagging feeling like I forgot something. Oh, yes. Click here to see what the new mythic rare expansion symbol will look like.

Okay this time I'm really done.

Until then, may you understand the necessity of change.

Mark Rosewater

  • Planeswalker Points
  • Facebook Twitter
  • Gatherer: The Magic Card Database
  • Forums: Connect with the Magic Community
  • Magic Locator