New Dogs, Old Tricks
Mark Heggen talks us through getting back into Magic: The Gathering, old favourites returning, and the triumph of dogs over hounds.
Words by Christopher John Eggett
Art courtesy of Wizards of the Coast
Magic: The Gathering occupies a forgotten slice of a lot of people’s brains. Many played it when we were younger, and left it behind when university, jobs, or the other flotsam of life bobbed before us. Core 2021 is designed to blow the dust off some old and familiar cards, and for new players, provide the perfect leg up into the mysterious and beautiful world of Magic: The Gathering.
Mark Heggen is the product architect for Magic: The Gathering tabletop, and he’s hoping this is the set is the one to bring you back into the fold.
“Magic is a beautiful game, but it can be intimidating. There’s a lot of moving pieces.” says Heggen, “Core 2021 a set built both excite our base players – the people who have been playing forever – it’s got a lot of cards that they love and know and recognize, and it’s our chance to bring back all the favourites, get them all off the shelf again and let people play with them. And we’re doing it with an eye towards brand new players. We’re asking ourselves ‘okay, if a brand new person walks in the door and we put these cards in front of them, what will their experience be like, will they have the tools they need to fall in love with the game in the way we have?’”
Magic is a lifestyle, it’s not a game that people play, ramp up to a point and then leave behind forever. They come and go as life interrupts their hobby, or as their group moves away or breaks up. With this new core set, there’s a very clear goal when it comes to speaking to players who have ducked out for a few sets, or indeed, a few decades.
“We can literally give them what they remember,” says Heggen, “we can bring back characters, cards, mechanics, play styles. We can print those again, give them new kind of new life” What Wizards of the Coast are hoping is that players at home will look at cards from Core 2021 and say, “hey, I used to have that card!”
Which is exactly what we did while opening our first packs in 15 years.
Of the classic cards returning, there’s a range – from standard classics that have been out of rotation, to high-powered cards, to the plain weird and obscure. Heggen takes us through a few of his favourites
“There’s cards like Ugin the Spirit Dragon, which is a very powerful card and character. He’s this dragon that does colourless, spirit magic. When we printed it last it was a very powerful card that was very impactful in standard. And so people remember the era of when you’d see Ugin cast against you, or see it in your opening hand and will be living out that power fantasy,” says Heggen, “and then there’s cards like Baneslayer Angel, which is just a very charming, very lovable, very powerful card in her era. Times have changed a bit – and she plays a little differently than she used to, but she’s a great card. Baneslayer is almost a colloquialism in the community.”
Other cards return from less well known origins, like Grim Tutor, a card that allows drawing from the library with only the cost of a little health to the caster.
“Grim Tutor is another fun example. So grim tutor is a card that we printed once in a very odd set a long time ago. And so for its total existence, it’s kind of lived at this as a quirky, hard to find card that was printed in very small numbers,” explains Heggen, “it was kind of legendary for its scarcity.”
“We print these cards once and then they kind of go out into the world and live their own life. They have their own adventures, they build their own mythology. Grim Tutor is one that had a very interesting life and they were able to welcome it back.”
Magic is a game that belongs to its community. There’s only so far that the designers can plan any reception of a card. Once it’s out in the world, it belongs to those who play it.
“We try out best to guess how stuff is going to go,” says Heggen, “and we’re always surprised.”
GETTING THE MAGIC BACK
So then, how does someone a little rusty with the cards and the mana curve learn? And what about if you’ve never played before? Should we spend days head down in a rule book?
“So we have called the Arena Starter Kit,” says Heggen, “Arena is our latest digital offering. It’s really changed the game. It’s this is the best, most accessible version of a Magic tutorial experience we’ve ever had. So this year we’ve, we went all the way. We’re looking at the numbers every day and we’re realizing almost everyone who learned Magic will learn from either a friend or a digital experience. And in this case Arena. That’s basically it, very, very few people are learning any third way. They’re not reading the rules on line. They’re not sitting there with a rule book.”
“And frankly, I’ve been working on acquisition for Magic for a while. For a long time we said, ‘well, maybe if we write better rules’ or ‘if we come up with better diagrams’. Honestly, for decades we’ve been taking runs at how do you teach someone Magic with paper? And about a year and a half ago, we did some soul searching. We realized: let’s not. Let’s not try.” says Heggen, “Let’s not pretend it’s ever going to work. And instead let’s embrace the way humans do love play this game. And it’s from your friends or someone at a store, or it’s from a digital experience.”
It doesn’t have to be digital of course, but the honesty of simply accepting the ways people want to learn a game like Magic is refreshing. We’ve all taken time to watch a quick playthrough video of a board game before teaching it to our friends, why would a game that can become your ‘one game to rule them all’ be only for those who are lucky enough to have someone around to teach them?
“If you’re playing with your friends, we have things like Planeswalker decks, or they might lend you a deck.” Says Heggen. Alternatively, when stores reopen, there’s more than enough people willing to teach Magic.
There’s plenty of new stuff in Core 2021. From a new Planeswalker debuting in the set, to striking a victory for our old four legged friends.
“We have a brand new Planeswalker,” says Heggen, “there’s actually a total of six Planeswalkers in this set, which is a lot. Five of those are characters we’ve seen before.”
“Basri Ket uses white magic, is white mana aligned and they’re from a world called Amonkhet – which players will be familiar with. It’s an ancient Egyptian themed plane – so though we’ve not seen this character before, we have seen their homeland. They’re a devout follower of Oketra – who is a cat and god from Amonkhet.”
Planeswalkers are hero cards played like a creature that allows special abilities depending on the amount of tokens on it in a turn. A Planeswalker deck, which is a popular fast track into constructed play, is a themed deck around a Planeswalker. They have powers which can be activated by adding tokens.
“Basri Ket’s power is to use a lot of tokens, and generate tokens that make your other creatures bigger. So over the course of the game you’ll get an army out, play Basri Ket, and then Basri Ket goes to work building up and powering up all your creatures with +1/+1 tokens over the game,” says Heggen excitedly. It’s hard not to be taken with his excitement, and drift off into daydreams about the deck archetypes that you might end up constructing.
Core 2021 is notable for settling one of the longest running arguments within Wizards of the Coast, and indeed, the world at large. Cats vs dogs. While cats have been a staple creature type of Magic for a number of years, dogs have finally become a fully-fledged member of the club. Previously, only the strangely archaic ‘hound’ had been used in the game. Naturally, they offer a pack mentality to the decks they’re played in.
“We’ve had cats for a long time and in Magic,” says Heggen, “And we’ve had hounds forever. So, going way back, there were creatures, which you or I would look at them and you’d look at the art, that’s a dog. And then when you look at their typeline where the rules care about what kind of creature it is, we’ve always called these things ‘hounds’ and it goes back to decisions made a long time ago. And once we locked that in, there’s a tendency to just leave things alone. Since forever, we’ve just been arguing about hound versus dogs, it’s this kind of epic struggle at Wizards. It comes up like once a month in one part of the building or another, and for forever the hounds have won.”
“And with this set, we, team dog, finally won. We said, ‘no, these things are dogs. Come on. Like show them to ten people on the street and ten out of ten people are going to say they’re dogs.’ So that’s what they are now,” says Heggen triumphantly.
“And so we have a bunch of new dogs. We’ve also gone back and errata’d the old card. So now officially those old cards are counted as dogs. There’s a lot of great dogs in the set. It was super fun for the team to get a chance to kind of go all in. We haven’t printed that many of these over the years so this is a good opportunity to kind of up those numbers and get us all closer to what we really want, which is a top tier tournament level of dog deck. We are, we are now a little bit closer to that with the set.”
Those interested in a ‘dog archetype’ for their next deck can make the most of these very good boys. Selfless Saviour is a sacrifice cards that give the card it’s protecting indestructible until the end of the turn. Pack Leader, a heroic dog lord, will give all your other dogs +1/+1 stat bonuses and when they attach, will also prevent damage to your other dogs during the turn. They are indeed, very good boys, oh yes they are.
Core 2021 is a great place to start your Magic journey, but with the recent release of the huge monsters in the Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths set – which included the real Godzilla – some players might feel like they’re missing out from the wild and highly technical play that comes with mutations (a way to improve a monster in a specific way) and companions (kind of like hero monsters). Heggen things there’s still enough for everyone here – especially since you won’t have to learn as many terms.
“One of the great things about core sets is they have everything. Because they don’t take place in a singular world or tell a singular story they this kind of expansive view across the whole of Magic. There’s all kinds of stuff in there. It’s a great place to either get more of what you know, if you’ve seen stuff elsewhere, or to dive in for the first time.”
“There’s huge monsters in Core 2021, there arecreepy vampires, there’s hilarious goblins, there’s dramatic spells, there’s brave Knights, there’s … dinosaurs and you know, all kinds of things,” he continues laughing, “We’re able to point the camera all around the multi-verse around all of the different worlds that we show. Sometimes we’re pointing it back to a place like Ikoria or a place like Amonkhet – and we can kind of get all of it. Whatever you’re looking for – I bet there’s something in there for you.”
Which of course, there is. We’re already thinking about some kind of graveyard cycling synergy deck that lets your creatures endlessly rise from the dead.
We can’t let an interview about a card game go by without asking, what’s Mark’s favourite card?
“There’s a card called Man-o’-War,” he says “it’s a jellyfish that when it comes into play you return to one of your opponent’s creatures to their hand. It’s been around for a long time. And I remember, I still remember seeing it for the first time when I was young and like the fact that it was a jellyfish, I don’t even like jellyfish in the real world, but the idea of being able to put a jellyfish in my deck and have this kind of tempo based stability, it just spoke to me. I said ‘this is a card for me.’”