What Magic: the Gathering should learn from Transformers

Hello everyone, and welcome back to my blog. I know it’s been awhile since I last wrote about Magic: the Gathering, however after getting fully vaccinated, and taking care of other issues, it’s time to return to this blog.

While Magic: the Gathering has been my primary hobby, and interest, since I first played back in 1993 it wasn’t with my in my childhood. There are many players out there whose formative years, especially their teens, were filled with many games of Magic. For me by the time I was a teen I had already experienced Star Wars, Saturday Morning Cartoons, Shogun Warriors, and (among other things) Transformers. The 80s were a great time, in my opinion, to be alive. Witnessing the change from coin-op video games to the home console, and having a new product of some form or another come out every year was a blast. Due to the success of Star Wars, both culturally as well as commercially, companies were looking for the next big thing. Everything that came out in the 80’s was touching either sword and sorcery fantasy, science fiction, or both. These new products also had a corresponding cartoon, as well as comic book, to go along with the primary thing companies wanted you to buy: toys.

In my youth I was into Transformers a lot. Nearly every birthday or holiday season from 1984 to 1988 had at least one as a gift, and I would obtain others in-between those events too. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Soundwave (my favorite), Shockwave, Jetfire, the Constructicons, and so many more were mine. These came at the right time too as Star Wars had wrapped up the original trilogy with Return of the Jedi the year before, and something had to be front and center to grab the imaginations of the youth. It didn’t matter that the toys packaged with the Transformers logo were licensed copies of Japanese toys. They were Transformers, and were the official product of one of the leading companies at that time.

That company? Hasbro.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well you see Magic: the Gathering, and to be more correct Wizards of the Coast, are no longer just a subsidiary of Hasbro, but are now a division of it. There have been things Transformers has done that Magic can learn from, and today I’ll be going over that.

In the beginning

Ahh…fresh air.
Lazerbeak is a snitch.

While the toys that made up the Transformers were from pre-existing toy lines in Japan it wasn’t until Bob Budiansky, writer at Marvel Comics, was given the task of providing a name and background to this (then) new property. Each toy was going to be a character with it’s own unique personality, thoughts, and feelings. The foundations of the fight between good and evil were in his hands. It was an instant hit. Comic books were flying from the shelves, toys were in high demand, and the cartoon received enough demand that full seasons were in development. Within 2 years the cartoon had become a movie, and by the end of the decade the property was fading to the background. While there were many factors, such as the initial demographic growing up, some things happened within the franchise that can be seen within Magic: the Gathering. While Transformers has gone through many revisions over it’s near 40 year history, and is now seeing a resurgence after embracing what many fans have wanted by going back to their Generation 1 roots, Magic has been pretty consistent with it’s growth over their near 30 years of time. However there are some concerns I want to touch upon here.

Out With The Old, In With The New

Man I’m going to be around FOREVER!
…about that…

With any intellectual property there are going to be periods of change, but how often should that change be? Yes it’s understandable for a company to make money, and want to make money, but what happens if your favorite character from a story is written out in favor of new characters? What happens if a card you like playing in Magic is now playable in fewer formats, or perhaps without a place to be played at all? With the Transformers the push to constantly make more characters, and of course more toys, meant that older toys had to be discontinued. In the 80’s the way to do that was have an epic story where the older characters died in some fashion (often times off screen like poor Wheeljack above). While this did help the overall bottom line, and drive the need to obtain new consumers, it did make it difficult for the line to remain consistent. Not only did the first two seasons of the cartoon introduce new characters, but the animated movie also jumped ahead in time nearly 20 years. What happened in that time gap? What characters could have been introduced during that time? What stories could have been told? It was a gamble that some say did not pay off.

In Magic: the Gathering cards rotate out of the Standard format once a year, and players are accustomed to this. Wizards of the Coast has remained consistent with this, with the exception of one brief experimental period, and for the most part this behavior of cards cycling in and out of the premiere format in the game is universally accepted. However as the game has grown Wizards of the Coast knew that players wanted to still play with their older cards. Game pieces that had become fan favorites over the years. Cards such as Lightning Bolt, Mana Leak, and Thoughtseize (just to name a few) were reintroduced into Standard after a period of time. This allowed those who played with those cards to bring their older copies back out to play again, new players the ability to play these fan favorites, and introduce these game pieces into new play environments different from when they first arrived.

However for some reason some players were not happy with this. Thinking that old cards introduced into Standard were “too powerful” the designers at Wizards of the Coast shifted from providing reprints to players in order to make them accessible for play (especially in new formats such as Modern) to printing mostly new cards into their premiere sets for Standard play. While this has provided new cards, and designs that we may have previously not seen in eras past lately they have started to feel like reskins of older cards.

Megatron? No…I’m Galvatron. Completely new. He had a Fusion Cannon, and I have a Particle Cannon.
Two very different things. There’s no similarities here.

The danger with this is that the game eventually becomes stale. Even if they take parts of two or more cards, and mash them together to make one card then call it a new design it will eventually catch up to them. Let’s take a look at Witherbloom Command.

It’s first ability has been seen multiple times in some fashion. Namely Brain Freeze, and Dream Twist. The second ability reminds me of Abrupt Decay. The third reminds me of Last Gasp while the fourth is a Brush with Death.

Sure using a modal card as an example was probably poor on my part, however this is done with Planeswalkers too. Many in the community feel we have too many of them as it is, and yet more keep coming out with every set.

What? It’s not like I caused another card to be banned or anything. Oh…wait…

I would like to see Wizards of the Coast go back to reprinting old cards for Standard, and mix them in with the new cards. Giving players a chance to play with cards they were not exposed to, while bringing older players into the current era of play only benefits everyone. While there have been some reprints that have appeared in Standard prior to Core Set 2021 they have mostly had low to no impact on player excitement, or any constructed deck builds.

Too much too fast too soon

If we stop running we become irrelevant.

New cards are exciting. Often times it’s the first thing we talk about with a set over reprints (if any at all). The same can be said when seeing a new character on our favorite show. We then look forward to obtaining the toy, and making our own stories through play. However there comes a point when too much is simply too much. For as great as the Transformers line was having to overhaul your collection after two years was a big leap. For us kids it didn’t phase us. We accepted it, but did we have to? Sure our parents did everything they could to keep up. Now image how hard it is to keep up with Magic.

This is just in 2021 folks.

We are only three releases into 2021, and many players are feeling overwhelmed. With how much effort was put into metal bands promoting Kaldheim it feels like we were not there long enough to really immerse ourselves within the story of the plane, and know the important characters there. Before you can finish saying Tyvar Kell you were whisked away into Time Spiral Remastered previews, and the attention of nearly the entire Magic community was on that reprint set. Don’t get me wrong. Their releases this year have been viewed as great by the majority of players, but it feels like we are rushing through our meal instead of savoring every bite. Before we know it what we are consuming is gone, and we don’t remember if we truly enjoyed it or not. If we take a look at the list above keep in mind this is not counting the number of Commander decks with each booster pack release, and those Commander decks feel like a release of their own only compounding to the problem. By the time you build one Commander deck you may be two sets behind with releases, and thoughts of not only being behind your peers kick in, but so does Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). On top of that there are the Secret Lair products released directly by Wizards of the Coast which only compounds things further.

With Transformers their push for new characters, and new toys, eventually lead to a collapse of their Generation 1 line. The characters kids grew up with were no longer the central part of the story, and if you did not see the animated movie you were lost when season 3 came around. That, along with the poor and rushed animation, lead to this generation of Transformers coming to an end. A Generation 2, which was simply repainted figures, and yet another new Megatron, subsequently failed. With the reboot of the franchise into Beast Wars many who were left from the original days moved on.

While I don’t think the same things would happen with Magic: the Gathering the near oversaturation of new product has left us with some issues that, at least for now, seem to have been addressed.

Starscream, thief of Crowns?
Wait…is he Oko???

With the push to produce as much product as quickly as possible, and to provide nearly 100% new content with each release, it provided some issues with a number of game pieces that made playing…well…absolutely miserable. Even though data is flowing a lot quicker now thanks to the advent of Magic Arena members of R&D within Wizards of the Coast were slow in addressing blatantly obvious design problems. Oko, Thief of Crowns, and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath were chief among the many problems in recent years. The attitude of “if it becomes a problem we’ll ban it” is akin to looking at an obvious error in animation and saying “oh well”. Shrugging ones shoulder at a problem doesn’t acknowledge that there ever was a problem, and gives off a sense of not caring that the problem happened at all. We’re fortunate that with the aforementioned cards being banned that format health started to return, but what’s preventing this situation from happening again?

This is where mixing powerful cards from Standards past can help provide the oomph these sets may need when introducing them into Standard play. Instead of a new card needing banned being printed there could just be powerful interaction between cards that we already know, and accept, as being powerful. Sometimes the thing we know is better, and healthier, than the new thing we don’t know.

Greed

Look! A group of gamers I haven’t collected yet. Let me grab them!

The old adage of “greed is good” should come into question now. While the motivations that cause greed can be healthy greed itself is those motivations left unchecked. In the case of the Transformers it was pushing new product all the time which eventually lead to their downfall. Without the reboot into Beast Wars, and the fanbase waiting for a return of their favorite Generation 1 characters, who knows where the franchise would be now. Sure it survived, and made money all of these years, but it definitely wasn’t the same as it was in the 80s. A lot of people also think Magic isn’t like it was back in (insert any decade or era here), and they are right. However unlike Transformers through it’s period of growth, and rebirth, Magic is on this constant upward trajectory of making money. A lot of money.

What this has lead to, which has been good, is the creation of not only the Collector’s Boosters (a booster pack that’s all foil cards), but also the Set Boosters (booster packs that are made for obtaining cards to play with rather than drafting). These product lines have helped inject enough cards into the secondary market to meet the continued demand of new, and existing players. These products can often times contain reprints of cards outside of Standard, and even new treatments with different art from the one within the Standard set allowing players to express themselves through individual card choices during deck construction. However this progress doesn’t come without a cost.

You had a good run. RIP

What used to be a primary product type for stores to purchase now has grown to three different product types. The Draft Booster boxes, the Set Booster boxes, and the Collector Booster boxes. This doesn’t count the Commander pre-constructed decks. Just as it’s difficult for us to keep up with all of the product it’s also difficult for your local gaming store to do the same. They not only have to gauge interest in the product before it’s release to have enough on hand to meet demand, but they also have to order a certain quantity from their distributors to remain in business with them, as well as order enough to meet the demands of Wizards of the Coast and maintain their Wizards Play Network (WPN) status as a store that can host events. That’s a lot to juggle, and if a store is in an area where the player base is always changing (such as near a college or military base) that can be very difficult for the store to remain open. They may have to branch out into other products, such as video games, comic books, or sports cards, or they may choose to close. Decisions like that can impact their local players in some manner, and it’s not fair for them to have to go through that involuntarily.

“…but that’s the name of the game” some will say.

While that may be true there has to be some ownership, or at least understanding, of the possible negative impact a new business approach would have. Maybe I care too much for the well-being of others to truly understand this, but seeing game stores close (regardless of a pandemic) in a period of record growth is alarming. No not all of the fault should be placed at Wizards of the Coast, or Hasbro, as stores need to be smart about their operation. However if your goal is to get the product into as many hands as possible the closing of stores goes contrary to that goal, does it not?

While I know we are still, sadly, in a pandemic I hope Wizards of the Coast finds a way to work with stores to help promote in store play when it is safe to do so. Perhaps highlighting a store, and interviewing the owner or manager could help provide some new eyes to that local gaming store, and showcase the overall growth of Magic’s in store play programs.

In Conclusion

One of the unique things about any franchise, be it Magic: the Gathering or Transformers, is that nearly every single product has some meaning to the consumer. They will identify with a certain character, be it Planeswalker, or Autobot, and know that character’s story inside and out. With us hoping from plane to plane I wonder if we are getting that same connection to characters? Perhaps it’s time to shift down a gear, and enjoy what we have before rushing us into the next preview season for new cards we still haven’t figured out how we will afford. It’s a shame the holiday catalogs aren’t around anymore. I would still circle every item in the hopes Grandma would get them for me.

Thank you all for reading. What are your thoughts on this current era of Magic: the Gathering? Have you noticed things moving a lot quicker than normal? Also who is your favorite Transformer? Make sure to leave a comment below. You can also reach me on Twitter, and Facebook. Also check out The Astrolab Podcast where Joe Dyer and I discuss Magic: the Gathering, and our favorite shows.

Next Week

With Modern Horizons 2 coming in June next week I will talk about the cards currently legal in Legacy that I think will be coming to Modern.

Until then…

TAP MORE MANA!!!

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