The last three sets, I've written reactions to the streamer Early Access event. While I've never had access, I've always enjoyed seeing a lot of cards quickly and getting a sense of what is and isn't a potential player in the upcoming Standard (at least, in games without sideboards).
This time around, however, I watched the event and was… underwhelmed. The cards that I would expect did well: Cultivate, Solemn Simulacrum and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon all looked very impressive. Some strategies looked stronger than I thought, like (I promise I'm not memeing) Conclave Mentor. Selesneya's ability to grow creatures out of the size of red removal so quickly feels like it will actually force Temur Reclamation to respect aggro. Other cards looked unimpressive. Seasoned Hallowblade is fine, but probably over represented, and doggos, sadly, didn't get there. But nothing felt clearly absurd, except for maybe Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in long games.
Talking to a few people, the sense was that the set introduced some good cards but not great cards.
And that got me thinking… is that a bad thing?
It's definitely different than the last year of Magic.
Magic 2020 gave us a cycle of "sideboard" color-hoser cards so powerful that they see maindeck play, and Field of the Dead, a land that is both a long-game plan and a combo piece, depending on how the game has shaped up. Beyond that, it actually introduced several cards that were immediately impactful: Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord for Vampire decks, Risen Reef and the entire elementals strategy, Agent of Treachery, Golos, Tireless Pilgrim… the list went on and on. For a Core Set, it was a huge shake-up, and felt like a new direction for the Core Sets to have some teeth going forward.
Throne of Eldraine of course would go on to set a high bar for all future Magic sets to ever top. The flashy mythic rares weren't just good, they were busted, leading to the most skewed professional level event we've ever seen, with a nice 69% of attendees registering a card. Standard only recently rid itself of Fires of Invention, and Embercleave is a massive constraint, apparently, on the cards that Wizards R&D can print. And none of this even touches on the fact that there was another sideboard color-hoser cycle. Even if it wasn't quite as dominating as M20's, Mystical Dispute does a great Mental Misstep impression:the more of them start seeing play, the more need to see play to combat them.
And then there was Questing Beast, The Great Henge, Edgewall Innkeeper and its friends… the set had a lot of power built in.
Theros Beyond Death didn't quite shatter every format like Throne did, or like Ikoria soon would, but it introduced yet another dimension of ridiculous in the form of Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, yet another mythic rare that was dominant in several formats. Heliod, Sun-Crowned powered up some strategies in Modern and Pioneer, and Elspeth Conquers Death wrecked the concept of other end games in Standard.
And then of course, there was Ikoria. The set introduced so much power, in a way that Wizards apparently didn't expect, that they actually had to rewrite the rules just to make sure an entire cycle of cards didn't fundamentally break the game forever. Meanwhile, Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and Winota, Joiner of Forces got Agent of Treachery banned, because the hyper repetitive, fast and absolutely dominant endgame of multiple Agent of Treachery triggers was too oppressive for Standard to handle.
At the heart of all of this was a new philosophy: F.I.R.E. In short, the "New World Order" that we had lived under since 2010 was over, and a new set of instructions was in place. To briefly summarize: cards should be Fun (to play), Inviting (for new and less enfranchised players), Replayable (via balance and diversity) and Exciting (by making cards interesting from the first read and inspire new archetypes). There's plenty that can be said (and has) about this series of sets. But it's undeniable that Wizards got burned by their "F.I.R.E." philosophy, largely by over emphasizing "Fun" and "Exciting" and not emphasizing "Inviting" and "Replayable" enough. To use a bit of a cliche metaphor: eating ice cream every night for dinner might sound fun and exciting, but eventually it leads to stomach aches and other problems.
Multiple bans, rewritten companion rules and a Standard format that is basically a battle of Wilderness Reclamation and Teferi, Time Raveler are the metaphorical equivalent of Magic having a stomach ache.
For as many thousands of words have been written about how we got here and how to fix it, it's clear that there's a problem with the power creep in the last several Magic sets. This isn't the first time we've dealt with power creep, nor is it likely to be the last. Multiple of the last few times when Magic's power level got out of control, there was a bit of a hard reset on how complex or powerful cards became: Mercadian Masques, Zendikar, Battle for Zendikar and Ixalan would all qualify in my mind as times where Wizards followed up a slow build up in power level of Standard sets with a sudden, sharp drop in power. Fittingly, we even have another Zendikar-based set coming up this fall.
Personally, though, I would prefer not to live through another set focused on something like Benthic Infiltrator. Not just because it's not very fun as a set, but because it tends to lead to formats that feel decidedly smaller and less interesting. When the original Zendikar came out, Shards of Alara's Jund deck dominated for months and months because cards weren't being introduced that could compete. When Battle for Zendikar came out, outside of the fetch lands and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, there were almost no other cards that saw any significant play in Standard at all. It's a decidedly unexciting, uninteresting time period.
What I would prefer to see is something along the lines of what Core Set 2021 looks to be doing: a slower, more gradual decrease in power level. The set has powerful new cards, good reprints for Commander, and multiple new ideas that make players want to build around them, but not in a way that pushes out other cards and strategies that were recently printed. It will make an impact on Standard, even if it's not as significant as every set since Ravnica Allegiance.
In some ways, in fact, it's more interesting. The previous sets have had such obnoxiously powerful cards that they were immediately the entire focus of Standard, and sometimes formats stretching back to Legacy or Vintage. That might be "exciting" in one sense of the word, but in others it's decidedly not. Magic is at its best when it's an ever-changing puzzle, adding a dynamic element of letting players choose their chess pieces, rather than making every game the same sixteen pieces on both sides. Sure, strong cards shake up the format, but there's so much less sense of discovery than before.
Instead of exploring new cards and interactions, the goal of the last sets was to simply figure out which mythic rare was the best, then exploit it. Instead, making the power level a bit flatter and not pushing a few cards to be vastly better than anything else will let the format develop more organically.
While Standard for the next 15 months is going to still be defined by these powerful sets from Throne of Eldraine on, adding cards that are specifically intended to attack those strategies and boost new ones, without dramatically outclassing them, will lead to a Standard format that is still interesting, while still powering it down from where we've been. Every set shouldn't have a Lurrus of the Dream-Den, or an Oko, Thief of Crowns, or an Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath that sees multi-archetype, multi-format play, or we end up with the current fatigue we're seeing from constant bans and a feeling that players can't keep up with the constant swings in what can even compete.
So, Core Set 2021 isn't going to dramatically alter Standard, I don't think. It's probably not going to introduce any cards that see significant Vintage play, or more than one or two that see play in other non-rotating formats like Legacy or Modern. But it is, I hope, the first step toward returning to a more typical power level for Standard. One that's a little less exciting, and a little more replayable.
And maybe, if we're really lucky, they'll finally ban Wilderness Reclamation and Teferi, Time Raveler.