Magic Works on Its Core with the Great Core Set 2019Art courtesy of Wizards of the Coast Games Reviews Magic: The Gathering
Core Set 2019 is this year’s Magic: The Gathering core set, and it is a welcome change-up to the past couple years of the game’s design. As a trading card game, Magic operates on a larger time scale than most other games. They are planning moves in the broad structure of the 25 year old game years in advance, and decisions made several years ago, especially if they were bad ones, have a way of haunting the game’s play formats and community for a long time. Magic 2019 is a course correction to one of those bad decisions.
In 2015, Magic Origins was intended to be the last “core set” for Magic. Put as simply as possible, core sets are the “core” experience of the game. If you open some packs of any given core set, you are supposed to be able to both learn the game and see, in the broadest possible strokes, what each color and card type is meant to do. Red creatures are aggressive, they often have haste, and some deal direct damage to players or creatures. Blue sorceries draw cards and give their players more options. White enchantments make creatures beefier and tougher. The yearly core set provides a bird’s eye view of the standard Magic experience, and it’s up to the more regular expansion sets to play with that standardization in weird and fun ways. And in 2015, Wizards of the Coast abandoned them.
2019 is the restoration of that order. In the years since the release of Origins, it has been hard to figure out how to introduce new players to the game. It certainly wasn’t with the excellent-but-complicated card type counting mechanics of Eldritch Moon or the deep artifact synergies of Kaladesh. Without something that acted as the baseline standard to point to, it seemed harder to demonstrate why a new set was more interesting or had new pieces that players might want to dig down into and explore. Instead of a norm that you could measure changes against, Magic became a set of rolling changes that didn’t feel very stable.
From this course-correction perspective, 2019 is excellent. It’s a format that is rewarding for those new, learning players and for veterans that have been in the game for more than a decade. Cards like Dragon’s Hoard and Chaos Wand are part of a classic mold that gets people excited about the game, and powerful cards like Arcades, The Strategist open up strategies of play all the way back into the Modern and Commander formats.
Critically, and it’s strange this comes at this point, but the set is also fun to play. It is more than a reprint set or an excuse to get some baseline power level cards in the Standard format. It drafts well, with each color and color pair having a clearly defined identity that they enable. Red and black have “sacrificing creatures for selfish benefits,” blue and white have fliers and artifacts, and white and black have some amazing life gain synergy cards.
If none of this makes sense to you, that’s ok. Core Set 2019 has cards that enable you to build awesome zombie decks and goblin decks. You can play strange enchantments that put cards in your opponent’s graveyard and let you draw cards for yourself. There is as wide and varied of an experience that you could expect from a set of cards that are teaching you about the world of Magic, and you can safely use this product to teach the game to others, to give to friends who like the game, or learn to play the game yourself.
I mean, I drafted this set and was able to craft the most ridiculous deck humanly possible, and I had some truly rad games where I was running giant dragons into giant spiders just like Richard Garfield intended.
2019 is a necessary return to form for the game of Magic, and I’m looking forward to what the designers are going to be able to craft over the next couple years now that they have the solid foundation of a core set to build on again.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.