From July 2015 to July 2018, there were no core sets released for Magic. In 2014, Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic, correctly identified that core sets were underwhelming and that their intent was unclear. Three years later, he acknowledged that perhaps core sets served some necessary functions. The one that got the most lip service from Rosewater was that core sets allowed R&D to slot cards into Standard more deliberately, with the added benefit of not having to worry about flavor or function inconsistencies within the context of a set. Core sets are the Ellis Island of Magic ("give me your tired, your poor, your Duresses, your Negates…"). To quote Mark Rosewater, "[core sets'] looseness in theme allowed it more flexibility to create the exact card Standard needs."
On October 21st, Field of the Dead was banned in Standard. A card from a core set hadn't been banned in Standard since 1996 (Mind Twist).
In Metamorphosis 2.0, Mark Rosewater classified core sets as "an opt-in experience." This is demonstrably false; as a Standard player you don't get to opt out of any Standard release, and if you were playing Standard last fall, you certainly couldn't opt out of dying to endless strings of 2/2 Zombies.
WotC's approach to core sets didn't change between Magic Origins and Core Set 2019. None of the conclusions drawn in the first Metamorphosis column were wrong. They are still confusing and unexciting, and pushing the power level of their cards in an effort to make them matter spawns new problems.
Sales data for Jace, Vryn's Prodigy for the entire time it was legal in Standard. Orange bars are quantity sold and the blue line is the average price it sold for on that day. The red bars denote when Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged rotated out of Standard.
From October 2015 (when Battle for Zendikar pushed Theros block and M15 out of Standard) to April 2016 (when Fate Reforged and Khans of Tarkir rotated out of Standard), Jace, Vryn's Prodigy's average sale price came out to roughly $65. To be fair, the context around Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was bizarre. The flexibility offered by the Khans of Tarkir fetch lands plus the Battle of Zendikar duals meant that players just played all the best cards in their decks, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is an obviously powerful card, especially alongside fetch lands that ensured quick transformations.
While a $65 Standard-legal card isn't quite as damaging to overall consumer confidence as a ban, they impact players at the local level very similarly. If players need four copies of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy at $65 a pop in order to play Standard and have a shot at winning, that's an opportunity cost that will really narrow the playing field. When Magic becomes "play the chase mythic or lose to it," players who don't have a ton of experience under their belt become harder to retain.
The best argument I can think of for having WotC design metagames with multiple viable decks is that if all the decks in a given format are different but equivalent in quality (or at least close), the more entrenched players at an LGS can loan their spare decks to the less experienced ones and get them hooked on competitive Magic that way. That's a difficult environment for a tournament organizer/LGS to foster when ~40 out of 60 cards in any given deck in a format are predetermined.
The bigger issue is that the existence of core sets seem to have no impact on whether or not that will hold true for a given Standard format. The other sets dictate the terms. WotC's not going to come out and admit that they print a couple overpowered cards in each core set in order to drive sales, but that's a thing that happens (and that your LGS is very grateful for, by the way). It then becomes a question of how favorably those pushed cards interact with all the other stuff that exists. In other words, core sets are just normal sets that get intentionally tied to the negative stigma that core sets carry.
Core sets, with their drastically simplified commons, are an ideal beginner product (more space than this column has room for could be devoted to why beginner products absolutely need to be Standard-legal at the time of their printing) despite all their issues. The problem is that Metamorphosis' observations about core sets—if they're really for beginners, why are they only released once per year?—are apt, but haven't been addressed. The commons are much simpler, but rares and mythics and their applications have as much complexity as the rares and mythics in any other expansion. In other words, the things that core sets currently accomplish could be just as easily achieved by a set that lacks core set branding. I suppose maintaining the core set branding is a way to save money/resources on world-building, but don't be fooled into thinking that the phrase "core set" is at all intuitive to a new player.
Hanged Executioner is perfectly core set in its execution, which is a nice way of saying that it's not very good. It's kind of reminiscent of Lingering Souls, but with a Mangara of Corondor attached. It's not good enough on rate to see Standard play, and it's not splashy enough to get a real look in Commander. Next.
We'll dive deeper into Golos, Tireless Pilgrim when (spoiler alert) Field of the Dead comes up, but its price/sales trend chart tells a pretty succinct story all by itself.
It's kinda hard to see, but the thin red bar in early October denotes the release date for Throne of Eldraine and the subsequent rotation of Scapeshift from Standard.
Golos, Tireless Pilgrim is a cute yet powerful card with obvious Commander applications that ended up defining Standard on accident. The drastic spikes in demand for Golos, Tireless Pilgrim the day before Throne of Eldraine's release is a clear spec—buyers bought an average of 8.1 copies that day—likely based on the persistence of Field of the Dead decks post-rotation. Golos, Tireless Pilgrim isn't as efficient a Field of the Dead enabler as Scapeshift, but it didn't matter.
Ironically, Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and the capacity for Field of the Dead to go over the top of any other deck is probably what kept Oko, Thief of Crowns in check. As bonkers as Oko, Thief of Crowns is, he can't target lands, he can't stop enters-the-battlefield effects, and there's not much he can do about 50 2/2s.
The chart for Drakuseth, Maw of Flames is pretty funny.
The red bar at the end represents the day Grzegorz Kowalski revealed Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded. I have no idea what happened on November 28th.
It's more than a little bit of a bummer that the best thing to do in Standard with the second coming of Sneak Attack is Drakuseth, Maw of Flames. It's even legendary, so you can't even one-shot an opponent with two copies on the same turn. LAME.
The three-mana converted casting cost is an interesting design space, especially for rare creatures. Rare three-drops can do a lot without feeling overpowered. Tireless Tracker, Jadelight Ranger and Courser of Kruphix stick out in my mind thanks to how highly-regarded they were in their respective Standard environments, but powerful three-drops aren't a new thing. Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero was banned in Masques Block Constructed. Rampaging Ferocidon got banned in Standard (lol). Doran, the Siege Tower, Goblin Chainwhirler and Metalworker all won Pro Tours.
There are certainly more I'm forgetting, but those cards are all remarkable for their text boxes; Rotting Regisaur is noteworthy because of its text.
The red bar denotes the release of Throne of Eldraine, AKA the day Embercleave became Standard-legal.
Ever since Juzam Djinn, Magic has made regular attempts at black creatures that are really good on rate but have pretty drastic drawbacks. Rotting Regisaur doesn't evoke Juzam Djinn as much as it does Phyrexian Negator. Obviously Rotting Regisaur is orders of magnitude better than Phyrexian Negator, but when you don't have to worry about anyone summoning Rotting Regisaur on the first turn with Dark Ritual, you get to push the power level on black three-drops a lot more before they get oppressive.
For all the errors in design Magic underwent in 2019, Rotting Regisaur is worth celebrating. It's a win in both flavor and function, engaging competitive and casual players alike. To be clear, Rotting Regisaur is extremely pushed, but it's not broken by any stretch of the imagination. A higher density of absurd cards on rate would almost certainly be an issue for the health of Standard, but R&D correctly identified that the format could contain one 7/6 for three mana and be better off for it. Personally, I enjoy watching the average price of Rotting Regisaur on the chart double once people realized how good it would be in conjunction with Embercleave.
Core Set 2020 seems about the point when someone, somewhere determined that color hoses were going to matter again. Not since the aforementioned Urza block have there been color hosers as deliberate and powerful as the ones in Core Set 2020. Shifting Ceratops isn't even the best one in the Top 10 sellers.
Blame Teferi, Time Raveler and Oko, Thief of Crowns for this one. I can't imagine a Fry targeting anything else.
There's a Jamie Wakefield column from a year 2000 issue of TopDeck Magazine (RIP) that I can't get out of my head. After day one of Pro Tour Chicago '99, Wakefield has dinner with fellow Magic columnist Alan Webster and Mark Rosewater—a dinner arranged by Rosewater under the pretense of discussing why Webster dislikes him. The conversation begins with Wakefield wondering aloud how R&D didn't realize how broken Urza block was and continues as an interrogation. "How did Time Spiral see print? What about Morphling? What about Masticore?" The impromptu interview paints Mark Rosewater as someone with good intentions who attempted to pay homage to old cards (apparently Morphling was intended to be an allusion to Clone, which explains the art) but simply didn't have enough playtesters to ascertain that free spells, fast mana, and card drawing could all combine to make broken decks.
Eventually, Wakefield brings up that he died to a turn-two Hatred that day and asks why more cards aren't banned, citing that "by not banning some cards, you're banning hundreds of other cards that aren't as good." I appreciate Rosewater's response, even if it directly contradicts the preventable legality issues presented by Portal and Starter (sets aimed at beginners that were never legal for tournament play for no good reason):
"We really want people to be able to play with the cards they buy."
Prices and sales for Field of the Dead. The red bar in October is when it got banned in Standard; the light orange bar in December is when it got banned in Pioneer.
Field of the Dead has one of the most bizarre charts of this entire series. There's massive demand for Field of the Dead throughout July but the price never really takes off relative to the concentrated demand. During this time, Scapeshift decks featuring Field of the Dead were the thing to play in Standard, achieving enough dominance that the card's price could never really take off since it was so ubiquitous that it felt like a likely ban candidate.
The small spike in October correlates to Standard rotation. Once it was clear that Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and Circuitous Route would be more than adequate fuel for Field of the Dead, demand and (subsequently) price took off, but only briefly. It was immediately clear that Throne of Eldraine Standard lacked any way to stop Field of the Dead decks from going all the way over the top of everything else.
After Field of the Dead got banned in Standard, the price skyrocketed, quickly hitting triple its ban price. Demand didn't waver significantly despite the rising price; surely it wouldn't need to be banned in Pioneer too!
Modern Horizons is a set full of cards whose sole purpose seems to be either to get themselves banned or to get other cards banned. I don't think R&D set out to make that classification accurate, but outcomes matter, and that was the outcome. Field of the Dead feels like a card in the Modern Horizons vein—its textbox means that it's either going to be innocuous or it's going to need to get banned. Placing Field of the Dead alongside Golos, Tireless Pilgrim might've been harmless without Circuitous Route and Growth Spiral, but it wasn't. In less than six months after it was printed, the card didn't exist in Standard and Pioneer, the two Constructed formats with the lowest barriers to entry.
"By not banning some cards, you're banning hundreds of other cards that aren't as good."
I don't think that I'm leaking top-secret information when I tell you that bans and format shakeups trigger transactions. The other side of that coin is that stagnant formats disincentivize purchases altogether. It probably comes out to the same amount of transactions with or without bans, give or take, but when all the purchases are concentrated in one point in time, the potential for messy situations goes up. Sellers run out of inventory on big days; brick & mortar stores can't make payroll because they're stuck waiting for them. Put another way, the way cards are designed impacts real people's lives.
Wizard square lingo is so bizarre. Why do we all call them mono-colored decks? You wouldn't call Eagle-Eye Cherry a mono-hit wonder. The term "lord," taken from Lord of Atlantis, which is another term for "creature that pumps the creatures of a given tribe," is also weird. Empyrean Eagle is a lord for fliers and it's uncommon, which makes it a real double-whammy of "types of cards people are very likely to buy."
Spectral Sailor allowed for a brief second coming of tempo-oriented mono-blue decks before Standard rotation:
It hasn't really done anything since Tempest Djinn and friends rotated from Standard, but that's to be expected. Spectral Sailor is an incredible support piece for a blue tempo deck, but it's not a centerpiece.
I'll start this off by saying that it's probably better for Magic when color hosers are good. The color hosers of my youth are cards like Cho-Arrim Legate, which is more a red herring than a Magic card, just like most of the other cards in Masques block.
I started playing Magic competitively around Mirrodin, a time when Standard was defined by the $5 uncommon in a set. Sometimes, through a mystical convergence of demand and raw power, an uncommon gets up to $5 and stays there. Darksteel had three of them: Aether Vial, Skullclamp and Oxidize. Subsequent $5 uncommons include stuff like Eternal Witness, Sensei's Divining Top, and later on, Bloodbraid Elf, Stoke the Flames and Fatal Push.
Veil of Summer's price and sales history. Red bar is when it was banned in Pioneer, light orange bar is when it was banned in Standard.
Veil of Summer's sustained value, especially relative to typical uncommons, is surprising but not unprecedented by any means. Check out the chart for Fatal Push while it was Standard-legal:
At this point, the story behind the runaway success of Veil of Summer is well documented. Its printing dovetails nicely with green being the clear best color in Standard, and its utter lack of fail states is perhaps a testament to years of user feedback on Autumn's Veil. Veil of Summer's price chart is hilarious, ramping up all the way to its Pioneer ban, dropping sharply, and then leveling off after it got banned in Standard. Its price is on the rise again; it's in almost every Modern sideboard.
Cards like Veil of Summer typically don't get banned. It carries the dubious distinction of being the first color hoser to get banned, and will probably need to be banned in Modern within the year. It's all over Modern, Legacy and Vintage, and will probably go the way of Gitaxian Probe. In the recap of the July 2nd B&R update in 2018, Ian Duke conceded that Gitaxian Probe wasn't being banned in Legacy because it's in every deck, but because it's really annoying and it didn't engender the types of environments R&D desired, and Duke did well laying out why. Veil of Summer feels like it behaves similarly, at least in Modern. Thoughtseize is a pillar of Modern and Veil of Summer is a one-mana answer to it that also cantrips. And that's only one of its many dimensions. The card is flexible in terms of converted mana cost and in-game applications and it replaces itself.
Veil of Summer is one of many cards released last year whose impact seems to far outstrip what its designers intended its impact to be. This trend continues in Throne of Eldraine.