Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Magic and Planned Obsolescence, Revisited

Last week, I wrote an article about how Hearthstone’s copying of Magic’s strategy of obsoleting old cards will probably result in very good things for Hearthstone.  One of the things that I forgot to mention is that Magic, themselves are changing the rules.  They are SPEEDING UP the obsolescence pattern.  And players are thrilled.

Magic used to ship a core set, a big base set and 2 smaller sets every year, and only cards shipped in the last two years were usable.  For a long list of reasons, they are switching to only two-set blocks (a large set and a small set), and every year they will ship two blocks.  And here’s the important thing: they are moving from a 2 year obsolescence pattern to one that is 18 months.

However, what’s notable is that people are thrilled not just because of the addition of new cards, but the removal of old cards that had caused the game to stagnate.

Development was trying to tackle the metagame problem of Standard getting stale too quickly. This new rotation would shake things up a little but it wouldn’t have enough impact to solve the problem. You see, a metagame is more shaped by what leaves the environment than what enters.

Put another way, currently everyone who doesn’t play with a card named Siege Rhino hates the card named Siege Rhino.  It’s so dominant a card that the entire format warps around it – either you play it, or you have to play cards specifically to deal with it.  Before the format change, players who were sick of this 18-month old card would have to endure it until this Autumn.  People at my gaming store are dancing a jig that it will rotate out this April instead when we return to Innistrad.  Magic routinely has had trouble selling their spring sets – most people instead choose to play less until the ‘big set’ comes in the fall if they don’t like the current metagame.  Clearly, they are hoping this changes.

Meanwhile, another format called ‘modern’ is completely fucked.  And the new set released a card that created a new deck so powerful that 44% of all magic games in that format now run that particular deck.  People are talking about this like it’s the armageddon.

Now is the part of the show where we have to understand that, logically speaking, the decks that are coming out of the woodwork to beat Eldrazi will not always beat it, and the decks that Eldrazi already has a very healthy matchup against (like Burn for instance) will still lose to it. This places Eldrazi in very terrifying company, because it means that it’s one of the most powerful decks in Modern that can still beat the decks dedicated to stopping it.

Modern will likely only get fixed by banning something – a path they are generally loathe to do, but likely will have to do in order to stop the collapse of what is normally a very popular format.

As for Standard’s move to 18 months – one interesting part of this shift in business strategy is that Magic announced this… in 2014.  I.e. they announced it before the cards they were about to ship would shorten to have only an 18 month lifespan in standard, in case that affected anyone’s purchasing decision.  I only call this out because it underscores how the Wizards of the Coast team is, and has been for some time, one of the class acts of the game development industry.

(And while we’re at it, Mark Rosewater’s weekly column is perhaps the best game design column there is).


  1. I guess it’s a sensible step to take if one of the release sets has a low uptake. A shame to think of that creative cycle wasted on a product that has little market appeal and thus low uptake.
    If it ups the profit margin it’s win-win.

    One aspect of games I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over is the need of change. In your example it’s the planned obsolescence of cards. In MMO PvP it is the addition of new maps and game modes.

    And yet in the traditional games and sports environment most of the attention is spent standardising the rules rather than expanding playstyles.

    Not sure where this mulling is taking me, I’m just curious over the survivability of games like Chess and Monopoly or sports like Football (soccer) and Tennis… and yet if a computer game, roleplaying game or collectable card game doesn’t reinvent itself every cycle it’s deemed a failure.

    • Well, Chess doesn’t have to maintain a server farm the size of a small city. Hasbro doesn’t have to recoup development costs on Monopoly anymore (actually, I don’t think it ever did).

      Another aspect is that only a few games have such inherently good design that they’re still fun to play in their original state. Chess had a lot of competitors and alternate styles before collapsing on the game we know now. Most computer games haven’t hit that sweet spot. Heck, most games don’t.

      • I would suggest that it’s a simpler consideration of the wider audience.
        Lots of rules and variances appeal to those that are invested enough to play the game/sport, but to appeal to a wide paying audience you need to keep the ruleset as simple and as standard as possible so the audience know what’s going on and have an easily accessible awareness of the jeopardy involved.
        This audience starts to transition to the consumer when it comes to traditional board games and computer games. You need to appeal to the widest market possible… I would suggest that there are many great games of an esoteric and niche market but they viability as a profitable business model is flawed.

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