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Nothing New Under the Sun


What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. —Ecclesiastes 1:9

In a matter of days, we'll move out of the 2010s and into the 2020s, ending what was almost certainly the most exciting and perplexing decade in Magic's nearly 30-year history. It was a decade filled with explosive growth, huge shifts in philosophy, and countless decisions that not only changed the game over the past 10 years but also will continue to drive the game's future over the next decade. 

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This decade in the Magic world is book-ended quite neatly by two sets. In 2010, the first set of the decade was Worldwake, a set that contained Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, two cards that were notoriously banned in Standard, foreshadowing the later part of the decade back during a time when bannings—especially in Standard—were an extreme rarity. Closing out the decade was Throne of Eldraine, a set that has become synonymous with brokenness and bannings, with Oko, Thief of Crowns and Once Upon a Time being banned in multiple formats, much like Jace and Stoneforge. While the similarities are striking—a planeswalker and a card that supports the planeswalker dominating Standard, to the point where a one-deck meta (a rarity in Magic's long history) develops—in some ways, things feel different today. Back in 2011 when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned, the feeling was "I'm glad that mistake has been dealt with." Today, in the post-Oko, post–Once Upon a Time world, the question in many players lips is "What Theros: Beyond Death card(s) will kick off the next decade of bannings?"

The first block of the decade was Zendikar. Although Zendikar itself was technically released as the last set of 2009, most of the block (a thing we used to have where a year's worth of sets would happen in the same plane, with three interconnected sets telling the story) was printed in 2010, with Worldwake and Rise of the Eldrazi following in 2010). Zendikar block is widely held as the set that kicked off a run of explosive growth in the game. Throughout the first half of the decade, tournament attendance, prices, and interest in the game in general soared. Meanwhile, the months since the release of Throne of Eldraine have left us with endless reports of struggling tournament attendance, at least in paper, culminating with a Grand Prix in Oklahoma City with only 348 players. While 348 players is extraordinarily small, in 2019, it's much more common to have a Grand Prix with less than 1,000 players than it is to have one what more, and numbers in the 500–600 range aren't uncommon. Back in 2010, the first North American Standard Grand Prix after Worldwake had 1,932 players in Washington DC, a number that looks shockingly large today but is actually fairly middling compared to many Grands Prix with over 2,000 players and a handful of special Grands Prix with over 4,000 in the heyday of the Grand Prix series between 2014 and 2016. Just take a look a the average Grand Prix attendance for Standard events held in the United States over the past decade.

*Note:* 2010 is a bit deceptive since there was only one Standard Grand Prix held in the United States that year, while most years have at least five, and some had as many as 10. This also only includes main events, and can't account for players in side events or playing casually, a group that seems to be on the rise.

The past decade pretty clearly makes the rise and fall of the Grand Prix, at least as far as main events are concerned. Numbers surged through the first half of the decade and peaked in 2016, before dropping off through the rest of the decade, until finally reaching historic lows in the past year. The very way we play Magic changed over the past 10 years. The first part of the decade was about making competitive paper tournaments (primarily Grands Prix) as big as possible, with 4,000 players showing up to play the main event at some Grands Prix. By the end of the decade, main events were often secondary to side events, Command Zones, and other social events, a shift perhaps hastened by the rise of Arena, Arena Mythic Championships, and Arena qualifiers. 

However, even here, there are parallels between 2019 and 2010. While Grands Prix have been around for a long time, the 2010s were the decade of the Grands Prix. However, 2019 marked the start of Command Fests—big, social, casual Magic conventions, which very well might be the Grands Prix of the 2020s. In a world where you can grind PTQs on Magic Online and qualify for Mythic Invitationals on Arena, combined with the rising costs of Grands Prix and regular bannings potentially decreasing confidence in the value of paper cards, huge paper tournaments might look like an antiquated relic of the 2010s not too far into the future. If you want to grind for hours and qualify for a prestigious event, you can do so cheaper and easier from the comfort of your home in digital form. Meanwhile, traveling to an event like a Command Fest is more of a mini-vacation filled with friends new and old, offering the social aspect that had made Magic so successful over the years, which neither Magic Arena nor Magic Online can offer.

While tournament attendance certainly looks a lot different today than it did earlier in the decade, it does seem that Wizards was hoping that Throne of Eldraine would mimic original Zendikar block in at least one way: by driving explosive growth. The difference is that the growth Throne of Eldraine is driving is in digital form, on Magic Arena, the new Magic client that was officially launched alongside the set. Hasbro's CEO is fond of touting Magic's growth over the past decade and has repeatedly claimed that he expects that the game can double in size over the next five years. This growth, if it does indeed happen, will almost certainly come largely in digital form from new players playing Magic Arena. In Wizards' perfect world, Throne of Eldraine will do in the 2020s what Zendikar started in the 2010s—grow the game exponentially—except it will do so with pets, cosmetics, and Mythic Invitationals rather than physical booster packs, sleeves, and Pro Tours.

Even if we zoom out from sets and take a bigger picture look at the game, the similarities between the beginning and end of the 2010s are striking. Back in 2011, Wizards announced Modern, which was almost certainly the tournament format of the decade, leaving us with record Grand Prix attendance, a string of Masters sets, and eventually Modern Horizons adding new cards directly to the format. The 2020s version of Modern was just announced a couple of months ago, with tournament support starting in earnest in the first weeks of 2020: Pioneer. Can the format be the Modern of the 2020s? That seems to be the goal, and the early returns are encouraging. Along with Players Tour events and Grands Prix on the horizon, it wouldn't be at all surprising if we eventually get to the point of having Pioneer Masters and then Pioneer Horizons after that, before a new post-Pioneer format is announced sometime around 2030 that quickly becomes the rage. It seems like there's a decent chance that, when we are looking back on the 2020s 10 years from now, Pioneer will be the Modern of the decade, while Modern shifts into a Legacy-like role as a secondary non-rotating format.

Back around 2010, we were just seeing the first glimpses of what Magic products outside of quarterly Standard sets could be. While technically the first Dual Deck came out in 2009 and the first From the Vault in 2008, the explosion of supplemental products really started in 2009–2010. From August 2009 to August 2010, we had Planechase, three Duel Decks (Garruk vs. Liliana, Elspeth vs. Tezzeret, and Phyrexia vs. The Coalition), Duels of the Planeswalkers, Archenemy, the first Deck Builder's Toolkit, and From the Vault: Relics. This trend of more and more products continued through the decade, culminating in a massive 19 products in 2019. 

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However, a more interesting parallel as we head into the 2020s is in the cards themselves. Back before 2010, we mostly had four Standard sets a year, along with maybe one or two supplemental products (at most). Ten years from now, we'll look back on 2019 and say that back before that year, we mostly just had two printings of each card (foil and non-foil), but then everything changed starting with Throne of Eldraine. Thanks to Deluxe Edition, Collectors Boosters, and various promos, many Throne of Eldraine rares have seven different versions. The game can only support so many different cards each year, so how do you keep the explosive growth of the last decade going into the 2020s? Print the same cards in a bunch of different ways in a bunch of different products. What supplemental products were in 2010 are what special borders and art seem to be as we head into 2020. The growth must continue, in one way or another. And since it's hard to see how much more products can fit into a single year than the 19 products we had in 2019, printing the same card in a bunch of different ways and distributing them through related products is a way to continue to increase the number of sellable products without making brand new sets and supplementals. 

It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun, and looking back at the past decade of Magic, that seems to be at least mostly true. There are striking similarities between 2010 and 2019, with many things that feel new and important actually mimicking things that felt new and important a decade ago but with a modern twist. Rather than Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic being banned, it's Oko, Thief of Crowns and Once Upon a Time. Instead of Modern, we have Pioneer. Where Grand Prix ruled the day 10 years ago, today it is Command Fests and Zones. Instead of a proliferation of supplemental products to reprint cards, we're seeing a proliferation of different versions of the same card within the same set. 

In many ways, the Magic landscape heading into 2020 looks the same as it did in 2010, and we all know how that turned out: despite arguments, bannings, mistakes, and all the other negatives of the past decade, there is no doubt that the past 10 years have been the most successful in the game's history. Despite all the worry of late based on all the upheaval of the past year, if you dig beneath the surface, there are encouraging signs that the 2020s actually could recreate the 2010s' success. Sure, maybe the biggest tournaments are on Arena, we'll have 17 versions of Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis, and if you're going to a Grand Prix, you'll be playing Commander rather than Standard or Pioneer rather than Modern, but you can argue that we've seen this all before, 10 years ago, with the huge influx of supplemental products, the advent of Modern, and the rise of the Grand Prix circuit. Fingers crossed that there really is nothing new under the sun and that thanks to all of the upheaval and changes of the past year or two, the 2020s can repeat the success of the 2010s in their own unique but strangely familiar way. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com


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