It’s been more than six years since New World Order first reared its head in Magic design. For those unfamiliar with the principles of New World Order, I urge you to go read Mark Rosewater’s article on the subject (found here). Basically, Magic had a problem that the sets were becoming more and more complex, preventing the game from gaining new players. In the last six years, I’ve seen a ton of people still not quite grasp what New World Order means for the players, so today I’m going to break it down and explain, with examples, the impact that this shift has had on Magic.
Complexity is a Complex Issue
New players keep Magic in business, as they are the ones that become enfranchised players, so it was imperative that this problem was addressed. New World Order took Magic’s complexity and shifted it (mostly) out of common cards, the most common cards seen and played with by new players (not a coincidence). By “complexity,” I mean three types of cards:
- Cards that have comprehension complexity.
These are the cards that you have to read a few times to understand what they do. Suspend is the poster child for this kind of complexity, taking a whole six lines of reminder text to explain. Add on all the additional rules baggage suspend has (you cast the spell, suspended creatures gain haste, when you cast the spell, interactions with time counters, remembering triggers, etc.), and you have a mechanic that simply overwhelms new players. Remember that new players generally don’t understand spell timing, turn phases & steps, and other things experienced players take for granted.
- Cards that create board complexity.
These are cards that give you options when they are on the battlefield. The most common way is through combat math. Let’s take Prodigal Pyromancer as an example. Prodigal Pyromancer started at common, but creates a lot of problems during combat. If you’re going to attack, now you have to take into account that you can ping a blocker to kill creatures one toughness larger than usual. If you’re blocking, the attacking player now has to remember their creatures can be pinged and killed by a creature with one less power than usual. The “strategy” gained here is “who can do the most bookkeeping?”
I’ll let you in on a secret: if you’re trying to learn how a turn works, you really don’t care about combat math much. When people have no idea what they’re doing, they easily get flustered and overwhelming when new information comes their way. Board complexity is a big culprit here, as it’s additional information stacked onto the fundamentals of the game. As an example of the changes New World Order made, Prodigal Pyromancer is now printed at uncommon instead of common. The complexity and strategy of the game didn’t go away, it just moved.
- Cards that create strategic complexity.
This is the most difficult kind of complexity to understand, but it’s also the best kind. Strategic complexity doesn’t really affect new players, as they don’t know enough about the game to make very strategic decisions. Experienced players, however, can do much more with a simple common like this. Take Bitter Revelation from Khans of Tarkir for example. It’s a simple card to comprehend: you look at four cards, keep two, pitch two, and lose 2 life. It’s a card that does nothing to the board state, so it has zero board complexity. But oh boy is this a card that reeks with strategic complexity. A new player may look at those four cards and take the best two every time. An experienced player will look at them and generally pick the two cards that will become the best in the future. In addition, new players don’t always get that this card fills your graveyard for delve and can be used to pitch a huge creature to reanimate. This is the kind of complexity that New World Order seeks to foster at common.
But What Does New World Order Mean for Me?
Statistically, it probably means nothing. Most of you folks out there haven’t been playing since before New World Order took effect. But part of understanding today is looking at where today came from. Magic has had its biggest year ever five years in a row now. Khans of Tarkir is looking good too. New World Order’s changes to common cards is a big part of this, and now it’s time to look at why. We’ll do this by looking at how each type of complexity has changed in the last six years.
First, comprehension complexity is way down. Look at the last two years before New World Order really took effect in Shards of Alara. Suspend is the biggest culprit here, as both MaRo and I mentioned before. But the Time Spiral block didn’t get any simpler. By Future Sight, almost every single mechanic Magic had ever used came back and many more appeared (most only on one card!) That’s neat if you remember all those things, but what if you’ve only been playing for a year? The “old stuff” is actually “new stuff” to your brain.
Next, look at Morningtide’s kinship mechanic. The shortest one is five lines. An even bigger problem is that no two kinship cards work the same way! You always look at the same card, but each effect is wildly different. And this was in the same set as clash, another ability with 4-5 lines of reminder text that didn’t always work the same way on different cards. What resulted was that you had to constantly read your cards.
So what do mechanics look like today? First, ability words like kinship tend to be simpler. Rather than always doing an action, which takes up a lot of word space, most ability words look to see if a statement is true. Metalcraft asks, “Do you have three artifacts?” Landfall inquires, “Did a land enter the battlefield under your control?” Battalion wants to know, “Are three or more creatures attacking?” The question asked for these abilities words is the same across the board, pulling from the same set of data from card to card.
Keywords too are now much simpler. Prowess has barely three lines of reminder text, and does one simple thing: give a creature +1/+1 when you cast a noncreature spell. That’s it, on every single prowess card. “When this happens, do this.” It’s a similar story with evolve or undying. The best part is that this still leaves room for complex mechanics to exist. Miracle is kind of confusing, but it appears on exactly zero common cards. It’s probably the easiest thing about New World Order to forget about: it’s all about designing commons.
Kinship and clash created another nightmare: runaway board complexity. Kinship always showed up on creatures, while clash showed up on many as well. In total, it was a lot of triggers and type lines to keep track of. Bookkeeping out your buns. Wither and chroma didn’t help either. All of a sudden, within one year, a new player would have to be keeping track of counters, colored mana costs (on hybrid cards!), creature types, upkeep triggers, and all sorts of other crap that got in the way of the core of Magic: attacking with creatures and playing spells.
So now did mechanics work to reduce board complexity? Unearth and scavenge can only happen at sorcery speed. That means that you don’t have to watch out for cards in a player’s graveyard during combat. No surprising counters or blockers making math more difficult in a high-pressure situation. Unleash and monstrosity use +1/+1 to mark when the abilities have taken place or not. But mostly, the big shift here is that fewer mechanics significantly affect the board state. Cards that do might be individual designs rather than whole mechanics. Recently, twenty additional uncommons were added to sets to help accommodate these kinds of complex cards.
Like strategic complexity itself, the way in which it changed is also complex. More situational commons make draft more strategic, as you’re not always just taking good cards. You have to take the right card. Even sealed tests this more. With more situational commons in the game, you have to be more aware of how your cards interact with each other to get better. Instead of just putting Counterspell into your deck, you have to weigh the pros and cons of Disdainful Stroke vs. Stubborn Denial. Can I afford to run Dead Drop? These questions become more important in the wake of New World Order.
This is also the place to address the “dumbing down the game” complaint a lot of people have when they hear about New World Order, as it ties directly into strategic choices. As I mentioned before, Bitter Revelation is a very strategic card, but it’s still a common! In fact, another Black draw spell drips with strategic complexity: Sign in Blood. Since it targets a player, Sign in Blood can also be used like a burn spell to make an opponent lose when they have 1 or 2 life left. New players don’t get that right away, but experienced players do.
Sign in Blood
Context is also important for strategic complexity. Let’s look at Spark Jolt for a moment. It’s an innocuous burn spell that most new players see and go, “Meh” because it only does one damage. But there are a ton of layers here. First, you get to scry 1. Scry, like most card selection abilities, is a frontrunner in the “mechanics that offer strategic complexity” race. Better players select their cards better. But this card gets even deeper. The 1 damage is sometimes an asset when playing with heroic triggers, as it offers an instant-speed way to get a heroic trigger on your own creature while likely not killing it.
Another way to look at the “dumbing down” issue is through the lens of card draw. There is currently a debate in Standard that revolves all around strategic complexity. In one corner there is Divination. The other, Weave Fate. Each card only contains three words of text, “Draw two cards.” It hardly gets “dumber” than three words. But the question of which is better is a difficult one to answer. Divination is a sorcery, but only costs three mana. Weave Fate is an instant, but costs four. How important is it that you have Cancel mana open on turns three and four? How important is it that your draw spell doesn’t sap one extra mana from your tempo?
It’s not an easy answer, and that’s just one deck construction question in one color between two cards (For those curious, I side with Weave Fate.) When you get to an actual game, knowing when to cast your draw spell is equally important. Nothing “dumb” about it.
The Final Reminder
It’s getting its own section, as I can’t stress this enough. New World Order is about limiting complexity at common. Not eliminating, limiting. There are still complex commons (We have a whole bunch of them in Khans of Tarkir because of how complicated morph is.) And this is all only for commons. Not uncommons. Not rares. Not mythic rares. In fact, the additional uncommons sets now have? That’s all set aside for mechanically complex cards! Those extra uncommons now exist to help limited formats with archetype support. We still have hella complex rares too (Hi, Dig Through Time.)
I’d Like to Order One New World, Please
Don’t worry, folks. Magic is still the most complex game on the market right now. Every new release makes it more complicated too! New World Order has limited this complexity in common cards, the ones most seen by new players. By reducing comprehension complexity and board complexity, commons make it easier for new players to learn the game while still retaining the strategic complexity that keeps the veterans coming back for more.
Until next time, planeswalkers, don’t fall off your magic carpet.