MTG won’t repeat Karlov Manor mistakes when returning to beloved settings

MTG won’t repeat Karlov Manor mistakes when returning to beloved settings

Magic: The Gathering is set to introduce more new themes to old worlds, but risks diluting what makes the game special.

Magic: The Gathering’s Omenpaths have taken the game’s worlds and storytelling in a new direction, one that’s brought with it a slew of changes, both good and bad. While seeing non-Planeswalker characters exploring the multiverse and interacting with new planes feels exciting and new, several recent Omenpath-era sets have missed the mark, even as others thrived.

MTG’s Lead Designer Mark Rosewater took to his personal blog recently, responding to a player asking about MTG sets taking place on existing planes, where the contents of the set are different from what the plane has been established to be.

Rosewater said:

“We’re experimenting with new mechanical themes on old worlds. It worked well with The Lost Caverns of Ixalan and less well in Murders at Karlov Manor. We’ll do more.”

“We’ll do more” is an encouraging sign. With such a small sample size of sets, It’s too early to say that this technique is to MTG’s advantage or detriment. That being said, it isn’t too early to point out that Murders of Karlov Manor was something of a letdown, diluting both its return to Ravnica and its murder mystery theme by trying to cater to both elements in one set.

But, while the set’s reception needs time to settle in, Outlaws of Thunder Junction’s Wild West elements have been better received overall. What’s more, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan received widespread praise for its worldbuilding and bringing something genuinely new to an old plane.

With Magic’s development team seeming aware that The Lost Caverns of Ixalan stacks up favorably compared to Murders at Karlov Manor, the right lessons should have been learned. Adding new mechanics to existing worlds should be encouraged as a way to keep those settings fresh, but the endeavor falls apart if the mechanics reduce or rewrite the plane’s identity. 

Old Worlds, new characters

The feeling of new sets feeling like characters playing dress-up rather than engaging authentically with a theme and story has been echoed by the playerbase, with many MTG fans being left cold by the direction of Murders at Karlov Manor, and to a lesser extent Outlaws of Thunder Junction. MTG’s planes are so beloved in no small part thanks to the care and consideration put into developing them as settings. These are huge, fleshed-out worlds, with history, culture, and unique designs that can inspire hundreds of cards.

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan benefitted hugely from its ‘hollow world’ theme, giving the set’s designers a blank canvas with which to take the plane in a bold new direction both mechanically and artistically, while still bringing along the elements that made players fall in love with Ixalan to begin with. This is a large part of why it succeeded where Murders at Karlov Manor did not. In the latter case, the set’s theme overrode that of the existing world and its history. While Ravnica’s guilds and their associated characters were present, there were suddenly so many detectives cropping up that it pushed Ravnica’s culture and style into the background.

New worlds, old characters

Another issue presented itself thanks to Murders at Karlov Manor and Outlaws of Thunder Junction releasing back to back. While Thunder Junction broke the streak of three returning planes in a row, it was also the second set to focus on returning character crossovers rather than a brand-new setting and story.

When a handful of cards from the upcoming Bloomburrow set were revealed at Magic Con, it looked, ironically, like Thunder Junction’s thunder had been stolen. There was more excitement for a sweet and simple return to form than there was for another crossover set. Thankfully, Thunder Junction’s major reveal happened soon afterward, allowing anticipation to build for the Wild West set once again.

The overwhelming popularity of connected universes like the MCU has completely reshaped the media landscape in recent years. While the MCU’s box-office dominance has started to wane, the popularity of crossovers and multiverses that have sprung up in its wake cannot be overstated. MTG’s varied settings and roster of popular characters are primed to take advantage of this but at the risk of losing some of the game’s soul and identity in the bargain.

Outlaws of Thunder Junction and March of the Machine have both been thrilling examples of disparate MTG characters working together, creating a fun mix that wouldn’t have been possible in years past. The Omenpaths make this type of crossover possible at any given time, but they should really be used sparingly. Without the time taken to flesh out new planes, or give returning, fan-favorite worlds their due, MTG runs the risk of hollowing out some of what has always drawn in fans, more spectacle than truly special.

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