Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday Magic - Modern Masters and You

Last week saw the release of the highly anticipated Modern Masters set, which reprints a couple hundred classic cards from the last several years of Magic.  Priced more aggressively than a normal set, Modern Masters reintroduces some of Magic's most powerful and sought-after cards, which contributed to the hype of its release.

I met Friday's release with mixed feelings.  On one hand, since I had taken a long break from Magic, including the entire span of these cards' original printings, Modern Masters gives me a great chance to add some of these cards to my collection.  On the other hand, the increased cost and limited release (Wizards is strongly restricting the number of packs floating around the world) make it more difficult to get my hands on the cards that I'd like to include in some casual decks.

The Reasoning
To get the full picture, it's worth looking briefly at the official philosophy behind this set:

Wizards decided to reprint these cards precisely because many of them have become staples of the Modern competitive format.  New players will find it difficult to compete in Modern events simply because they don't have access to cards that can compete with some of the powerhouses of the past (a similar problem exists with the Legacy format, although it's much less extreme here).  Modern Masters puts more of these cards in circulation, opening the Modern format to a wider audience.

However, Wizards also feels a lot of pressure from collectors, as introducing new copies of older cards will naturally devalue those already in existence.  This pressure led to the modest release that we're seeing with Modern Masters.

Furthermore, the powers-that-be don't want these cards to become Standard legal, so the Modern Masters set isn't considered part of a normal Magic release cycle.  The restricted release and increased cost help in that sense, too - new players are less likely to pick up a few random packs and think they can use their newly-acquired cards in a Standard tournament.

The Frustration
I can certainly see that Wizards needs to worry about each of these concerns: They want to grow their relatively new competitive format (Modern), they need to keep the old guard happy (the collectors), and they need to keep things relatively simple for new players (Magic is already a relatively complex game for newbies to learn).  But this limited release seems like a half-assed approach to all three of these concerns.

Let's start with the devalued collections.  Yes, a limited release will have a smaller effect than a normal set would, but they're also appealing to a smaller audience.  If these cards aren't legal in Standard play, only collectors and Modern and casual players will care to buy them.  Casual players aren't likely to spend tens of dollars on single cards, so you're left with collectors and Modern players who determine the price of these cards, a group significantly smaller than the pool of all Magic players.  When dealing with a smaller audience, even adding a small fraction of the total copies already out there could have a noticeable effect on the secondary market.  Of course, we'll have to wait and see how prices stabilize a few months from now, but it seems like it has the potential to do more damage than they'd like.

As for growing the Modern format, I can't see this limited release doing a whole lot.  I imagine that there are two types of players approaching the Modern format - those who have been playing for the last decade and picked up several copies of these powerful cards in their heyday, and those who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to construct some competitive decks with older cards.  I find it unlikely that a limited release at a higher MSRP will bump many more players into one of those categories; I imagine that the only changes we'll see are more powerful decks among casual groups, not a considerable change in Modern competitors.

I think that the deterrent for new players will prove to be the most effective of these strategies, as higher admission costs will likely keep new players away, but the hype around the set ("some of Magic's best cards!") may present new players with an odd dilemma.  New players tend to be drawn to particularly powerful cards with crazy effects, so the overall strength of this set may overcome the increased cost for new players.

And caught in the middle of it all - the casual player.  People who like making fun decks with interesting cards, but not for competitive purposes, might miss out on these reprints due to the limited release.

To be fair, these concerns are primarily interested with constructed Magic formats.  One of the stated goals of the Modern Masters set is limited design - it was apparently put together with drafting in mind.  If the drafting is good, then all the constructed concerns can be reasonably dismissed as it's a set that supplements the usual release schedule, which by itself can maintain good casual Magic and draw new players.

The Draft
Having participated in a Friday Night Magic draft last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Modern Masters in action, and I am disappointed.  The biggest complaint that I listed above (that the set appeals to a smaller set of players) bears its teeth in drafts.

Yes, the set has much more powerful synergy than in most other sets, with much more tightly designed archetypes appearing here than in any other set in recent memory, so you could build a very powerful and coherent limited deck that might even rival some constructed decks.  Unfortunately, doing so requires that you draft very well.

Here's the problem: strong synergy also means weak flexibility.  If you're not careful with your picks throughout a draft, or if you get hit by a particularly barren third pack, you'll end up with a jumbled mess of effects.  Each card you include that doesn't fit with a specific theme brings an exponential loss of power, and trying to include two deck archetypes will undoubtedly hurt your performance.

So, the Modern Masters set seems great for high-level drafters, but it's awkward, confusing, and ultimately disappointing for less experienced planeswalkers.

I'll happily admit that my complaints may be skewed by the unusually flexible Return to Ravnica block, and maybe this increased difficulty is part of the plan (the set does have "Master" in the name).  Putting all these features together, though, makes Modern Masters a very frustrating release.

The Verdict
Modern Masters presents a drafting format that is tricky for anybody but the best drafters, but it is also the only way that many casual players will ever have access to some of Magic's biggest bombs for less than $20 apiece.  This setup encourages casual players to join drafts for a chance at opening a Tarmogoyf (which is currently going for over $100) or even something more modest like Doubling Season ($20), but their experience won't be nearly as good as if they'd drafted Dragon's Maze.  At the same time, those casual players are diluting the player pool, making the draft less competitive for the best players, which cheapens their experience, too.  Combine that with collector concerns and a potentially minimal impact on the Modern population, and I find Modern Masters to be a generally disappointing set.  I hope that Wizards hones their execution for any future "best of" sets.

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