A couple of months ago, when I first started talking about Eighth Edition, I mentioned that the set had to have some cards that we knew most of our audience didn’t want simply because we needed those cards for the Magic Starter game. Eager Cadet, I explained, was going to suck up a common slot because some completely vanilla 1/1 creature has to be the first creature that a brand new player ever puts onto the table.
Since then, a surprisingly high number of pixels have been devoted to this issue on various other websites, and it’s been interesting to read all the articles written on the subject. R&D really didn’t expect this to excite such strong opinions. But it did. That’s why I asked last week’s poll question:
Should Starter-level cards be in the base set?
The poll confirms what R&D had been starting to suspect: it’s not just a vocal minority of players who are upset by the way we’ve set things up. Instead, a much larger chunk of the Magic community than we originally expected has weighed in on this issue, and the widespread attention it’s gotten has lasted much longer than we expected.
I’d like to spend this column taking a more in-depth look at the issue. There are some complaints I think are reasonable and others that I disagree with. The short version of the story is that we have been listening and we have decided to do things differently for Eighth Edition.
The misguided complaint
Some people have argued that Magic doesn’t need cards that are that simple. Those people are just wrong. I’ve watched from behind the one-way mirror as new players are handed the starter box and told to try to figure out how to play. Although a majority of new players learn from someone who already knows the game, not all players are that lucky. And if you’re trying to learn from just words and pictures, Magic can be baffling.
We’ve spent years trying to figure out how to teach new players. And with the Seventh Edition starter materials, we felt that for the first time we actually had a good product for beginners. We got to that point by removing more and more information and by explaining the most basic concepts only when we absolutely had to.
Creatures with power not equal to their toughness, for example, can be a total stumper. The guy with the 2 beats up the guy who’s only a 1 is relatively easy to understand. Hello, Eager Cadet and Knight Errant. (Knight Errant actually caused us problems because not every 12-year old kid knows how to pronounce “Errant.” In fact, sometimes a kid would even get stuck on “Knight.”)
Things that cost more than one colored mana can also be a sticking point so we don’t use anything but single-colored spells. Of course, we still want fatties in the game so we can squeeze in as much of the fun and flavor of Magic as we can. Voila -- Trained Orgg and Vizzerdrix get smacked down on the table and dominate the battlefield.
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t honestly expect anyone to want to acquire more Eager Cadets. Everyone figures out pretty quickly that Eager Cadet isn’t very good. We don’t expect people to fall in love with Trained Orgg either (though many players continue to like it for quite a while). Even if no one has ever wanted to acquire more of these cards, though, they still play a vital role in the Starter game. That very first game that a potential new customer plays is crucially important to turning them into an actual customer. Besides, why would we be tormenting the established Magic community with these cards if we didn’t believe they’re really necessary for the overall good of the game? And we have years worth of focus groups and other market research to back up those beliefs.
Anyway, that’s why the Starter game box uses the cards it does (and will continue to in the future).
The more reasonable complaint
Some people have also suggested that we completely separate the Starter game box from Eighth Edition. When we were putting together Seventh Edition a couple of years ago, we did realize that people would complain if we put cards like Eager Cadet into the base set itself. However, it was really important to us that the cards in the Starter game be tournament legal. It’s quite common for new players to show up for a tournament at their local store -- especially Friday Night Magic -- without any understanding of what “Standard” means, much less which cards are allowed in it. The easiest, most elegant way for us to make sure that no kid gets kicked out of FNM for having a Vizzerdrix in his or her deck was to do exactly what we did: put the cards into the base set.
We did briefly consider having the Starter game count as its own (small) set, thus adding an extra dozen cards to Standard. However, we were still getting over the disaster that was Portal, and we were afraid that if we did a stand-alone starter product it would be stigmatized as “just another Portal.” In other words, we wanted the beginner stuff to be parasitic on Seventh Edition so the new players would get to play with “real” cards. We also thought it would be weird if some cards people wanted for their tournament decks (like Volcanic Hammer) required them to buy copies of the Starter game.
Like I said, we were expecting a little bit of negative feedback, but we though it would be small enough that, on balance, putting the cards in the set was the right thing to do. Now that we realize we underestimated the drawbacks to our 7E plan, we’re going to change our approach for Eighth Edition. (Judging by your emails, the thing that is particularly grating is opening one of the newbie cards -- like Trained Orgg or Vizzerdrix -- in your rare slot. Well . . . fair enough. Sorry about that.)
Our new plan is to treat the Starter game as an “extension” of Eighth Edition. All the cards that appear in the Starter game will be considered to be part of Eighth Edition and will be legal for play in Standard tournaments (as long as Eighth Edition is legal, of course). However, some of the cards in the starter box won’t appear in booster packs, and they won’t count against the total number of cards in the set. For example, Vizzerdrix might be in the starter box, but you’d never get one in a booster pack and Vizzerdrix’s old spot in Eighth Edition will be filled by some other blue rare.
The Eighth Edition development team and I just finished going through the beginner game and deciding whether each card in it would add value to the main body of the Eighth Edition set. Anything we think might have an impact on constructed tournaments, for example, will definitely be part of the main set. On the other hand, Eager Cadet and Vizzerdrix won’t be. A couple other cards make for interesting anecdotes:
Giant Octopus is kind of a strange case in that it’s actually too good to put in Eighth Edition and will therefore exist only as an “S-series” card. (I just made up the name “S-series” to use as a placeholder until we decide what we’re actually calling these cards -- we haven’t yet worked out details like terminology and collector numbers yet.) Giant Octopus worked out amazingly well for the comic book guided game we did -- the artist who drew the comic book was able to teach people that they attack their opponents (not their opponents' creatures) by showing the Octopus strangling the player. However, blue just isn’t supposed to get a “Hill Giant.” When people draft blue in Seventh Edition booster drafts because it has good creatures, that really bugs me. Simple cards that we just needed for the Starter game shouldn’t throw off the “flavor” of what the various colors can do or what they’re good at and I’m glad that our new plan allows us to make sure that, in Eighth Edition, blue’s ground creatures won’t be as good as the other colors’ creatures.
Vengeance is another card that wound up in Seventh for weird reasons. “Destroy target tapped creature” isn’t a very white mechanic, but it was a simple sorcery that fit the Starter game quite nicely. Next time around it will still fit the Starter game, it just won’t be throwing off the flavor of the set itself.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast
R&D isn’t going to reopen every issue that gets debated all over the 'Net, so don’t get too used to this kind of reaction. Sometimes we’re going to decide that our reasons for doing the thing you hate are just better for the game than your reasons for wanting us to stop. In this particular case, however, there was a way to accommodate your concerns while still accomplishing the things we needed to accomplish. I can only hope that whatever issues come up in the future will be this easy to solve.
I know I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dealing with some special interest issues that not all my readers actually care about. Both the Reprint Policy and the Starter game are important issues to some people and I’m glad they’ve been dealt with. Now, however, I promise to go back to more generally interesting stuff, like development war stories.
And now for something completely different…
Do Squirrels belong in Magic?
Randy may be reached at email@example.com.