With the imminent release of a new set, Dominaria United, players are moments away from enjoying a litany of new and powerful creatures. While most players are understandably excited about this, there are those concerned by one of MTG’s most significant problems; power creep. Brought about by the need to make every new set exciting, this problem threatens to forsake Magic’s heritage. Thanks to recent videos and Dominaria United, this problem is more apparent than ever.
The Battle of New vs Old
In a recent video, Magic: the Gathering icon, The Professor highlighted the evolution of power in Magic in a unique Standard game. Played between “once one of the greatest Magic: the Gathering players of all time,” Jim Davis and streamer Bloody, this Shuffle Up & Play match pitted Standard decks from across time against one another. In the match, Jim Davis piloted a deck from 2003, while Bloody utilized a deck from 2020’s Standard environment. The Professor also brought a deck from 2011, built around the original Innistrad and illusions.
Despite these three decks spanning 16 years, surprisingly, the matches weren’t as one-sided as you might think. This, however, may have had something to do with Davis bringing a handful of cards so powerful that they’re banned in Modern. Chrome Mox allowed Davis to accelerate their mana base efficiently. A mana base that was built upon similarly banned Artifact lands. However, things started to unravel for Davis when his deck faced an entirely unknown threat to him; a Planeswalker. First introduced in Lorwyn, Davis’ retro deck had no way to deal with this Planeswalker threat from the future effectively.
This is ultimately one of MTG’s major power and feature creep issues. As new card types and keywords get introduced, there’s no guarantee that old cards will remain effective. None of Davis’ removal spells could target Planeswalkers, for instance, leaving his deck defenseless against them. Planeswalkers may be commonplace now, but at the time, fourteen years of removal were useless against this new threat.
Bigger and Better
While the appearance of Nissa, Who Shakes the World sealed Davis’ fate, it was clear before then that Bloody’s deck had the upper hand. Cavalier of Thorns, for instance, demonstrated the apparent difference in power/toughness available to each deck. While Bloody had a 5/6 for five on the battlefield, Davis was stuck with measly 2/2’s for three. Despite this stark contrast, it’s important to note that Mirrodin era Standard did have some powerful cards. Davis’ deck, however, utilized zombie synergies rather than big stompy threats.
However, even the big stompy threats available in Mirrodinleave much to be desired compared to more modern threats. Mirrodin admittedly featured a 10/10 for just five mana. However, it did come with one hell of a drawback. After playing Leveler, your entire library was removed from the game, effectively ensuring defeat. Dominaria United, however, also features what can be a 10/10 for just five mana; Territorial Maro. While Territorial Maro’s Domain ability requires all five basic land types in play for that power/toughness, that’s nowhere near as bad as exiling your entire library.
Despite the lack of big powerhouse threats, Davis’ deck did have access to some potent cards. Phyrexian Arena, for instance, is still an incredibly powerful card that sees play in Commander. Similarly to Chrome Mox, this card wasn’t unequivocally overpowered at the time. This is thanks to powerful utility and card draw spells being viewed differently back in the day. In modern decks, consistent turn-on-turn card draw is a highly prized rarity that often costs far more. Eye of Vecna from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, for instance, requires you to pay two mana and lose two life if you want to draw an extra card.
In Wizards We Trust
With MTG’s 30-year history to pull from, countless comparisons can be cherry-picked to demonstrate power creep. Despite this, however, Wizards of the Coast indeed isn’t unaware of the problem. Instead, power creep in MTG is, unfortunately, just unavoidable.
To sate the whims of MTG fans and keep new sets exciting, Wizards is forced to innovate. Whether it’s new mechanics or more powerful cards, something has to be done. Otherwise, things would get stale fast. Thankfully, moving into the future, Wizards of the Coast may keep a better lid on things. This is thanks to their new design philosophy, which Mark Rosewater calls the “eternal world.”
Under this philosophy, “the core of Magic play involves the full history of the game.” This means Wizards needs to be “better about understanding how current designs play with older designs. It’s not enough to make something cool in a vacuum. We have to shape it such that it complements what has come before it.” It’s too early to tell whether or not this new philosophy will be practical, but we can at least hope.