There’s a lot on the horizon for Magic in 2023, and Tom is here to take a look at what all the different moving parts may mean!
It’s a new year for Magic just as it is for you and me – and 2023 in particular stands as a tense cliffhanger moment in the game’s proud history. The narrative stands on a precipice, WotC’s approach to card and set design appears to be in flux, and even the underlying business decisions have come under recent scrutiny from mainstream outlets.
There’s a lot of desire and capacity for change. But we’re also still continuing the anniversary year celebrations which kicked off back at October’s Magic 30 event, so it’s not as though Magic will suddenly lose sight of its past. With that in mind what can we expect through the next 12 months of Magic?
I’ve already talked extensively about this unique remastered set – and what makes it so unique – in my guide to drafting it. This feels more like a Masters set or someone’s Dominaria-themed cube than a “remastering” of any particular expansion.
It shows WotC’s continued willingness to experiment with how Magic can be printed, packaged, and sold to players. This restlessness has brought us undeniable hits like Secret Lair and JumpStart, but also some historic whiffs like 30th Anniversary Edition or Innistrad: Double Feature.
It feels like the game is still looking for a new Commander-centric equilibrium which will keep the other segments of the player base happy, and I think this kind of experimentation is key to unlocking that. I’m sure that some at WotC/Hasbro are hoping that one of these experiments could even find their next Commander – some breakout way to play which essentially creates new demand for Magic.
Will that be a new multiplayer format, like the role-driven Treachery variant? Might it be a role-playing game ruleset spun off from Dungeons & Dragons, but with your deck instead of a character sheet? Best we just be ready for anything with curious minds and open hearts.
Phyrexia: All Will Be One
The tip of the spear for WotC when marketing their 2023 plans has actually been storyline – a surprising turnaround after a period of indifference to Magic’s ongoing narrative, but it makes sense when you look at how big this Phyrexia storyline has become.
Elesh Norn and her mechanical minions have assembled the means to send armies across the multiverse, and they seem to be consuming the iconic colored suns of Mirrodin to fuel that plan. Allied planeswalkers are traveling in to combine with the final elements of Mirran resistance and stop them before it’s too late!
Unfortunately, while Koth and friends seem due a couple of wins… and my best girl Elspeth will be right there living and dying on the frontlines… “too late” seems the most likely outcome. The following set is called “March of the Machine” after all!
I would expect this set to be the end of Mirrodin/New Phyrexia as a Magic setting, and probably the last hurrah for some number of beloved characters. In a way, it’s also the beginning of the end for Phyrexia, so WotC will be throwing in any and all remaining ideas for Phyrexian-related stuff: it’s been announced that over 100 creatures in this set alone bear the Phyrexian type.
March of the Machine
Similar to the way Nicol Bolas’s interplanar plots slowly escalated through years of expansions prior to the climactic War of the Spark, everything since then seems to have been building up to the events of this set. Even when Phyrexians haven’t been involved in the main story of a plane, WotC have done a good job of keeping them ominously omnipresent. This includes individual Praetors randomly showing up in places they shouldn’t, as well as more subtle nods like Fountain of Ichor, or their connection to the backstory of New Capenna.
March of the Machine seems to be where WotC plans to pay all that off, with a massive Phyrexian invasion of all planes simultaneously in an existential struggle for organic life!
For the writers, I’m sure half of the excitement here is the crossover potential between planes, but there’s also the implicit license to introduce new and intriguing elements to the grand Magic canon. If any event is going to become the foundation for the next 15 years of storytelling in this game, March of the Machines is absolutely it. This planar cross-section is also a perfect opportunity to introduce new heroes to replace those who will inevitably be lost in such an epochal struggle.
But if you’re terrified about what’s maybe about to happen to your favorite character – look, I’ve got an all-Gideons deck and a foiled out Jaya Ballard list for Commander. I know how it feels. I would be surprised if more than one other character gets “retired” during this storyline though, even including compleated ‘walkers like Ajani.
We have actual time-travel at play in the story, and any sort of conclusion to Phyrexia and Yawgmoth is going to release enough magical (and narrative) energy to cause basically whatever the writers want. So keep your chin up, even if these Phyrexia sets seem rough on our heroes. Good will ultimately prevail.
March of the Machine: Aftermath
This one is an enigma in both the product design and narrative sense. Mark Rosewater has confirmed that while not a full-sized set, it will be Standard-legal, referring to it as a “micro-set”. It is being sold exclusively in five-card “Epilogue Boosters”, which appear to be Set Boosters without any common filler. In some ways, this feels like WotC’s look at what Standard expansions would look like if Limited didn’t exist – which might excite or terrify you, depending on your tastes!
As for the narrative Aftermath of the Phyrexian arc: it’s hard to say. Having concluded the stories of both Bolas and Phyrexia, the only extant major villains are the demonic planeswalker Ob Nixilis, and – potentially – the Eldrazi. Emrakul is imprisoned within Innistrad’s moon, while Ulamog and Kozilek had their physical forms incinerated by Chandra on Zendikar, but their mysterious origins still leaves room for any of them to return – or for new, heretofore unknown Eldrazi Titans to emerge!
I expect Ob Nixilis to take center stage, however. He has never before been positioned as an interplanar threat quite on the level of these others, but his entire storyline has been about slowly and selfishly gaining power. He regained his spark to escape Zendikar, absorbed much of the power of Bolas’s army during War of the Spark, and has now personally seized control of New Capenna in his guise as The Adversary. He also bears the increasingly rare distinction of being a pre-Mending planeswalker, which could be used to bolster his villainous credentials.
I also don’t think it’s coincidental that Obby’s fellow “demonic” pre-mending ‘walker, Geyadrone Dihada, was suddenly re-established in the main storyline as of Dominaria United. Demons in Magic aren’t the kind of unified force that Eldrazi or Phyrexians are, but a team-up between Dihada and Nixilis (and possibly Davriel Cane) would be believable and entertaining as a new kind of supervillain dynamic we haven’t seen in previous arcs.
Wilds of Eldraine
While this is our second visit to the plane, Wilds of Eldraine is going to feel like a beginning in nearly every way. It will be the first set of a new Standard rotation, and the first to be out from under the narrative shadow of this Phyrexian mega-arc. Instead, we return to Eldraine, to draw deeper from the rich well of inspiration that is European folklore and fairytales.
We have yet to really cash in on one of the most significant tropes of that genre – the wicked witch – and while the backstory for Throne of Eldraine did feature such a character, there’s still room to have a powerful Morgan le Fay-type enchantress pop up as a single-set antagonist.
Incidentally, Magali Villeneuve posted this splash art to her portfolio with the title “Eriette, Charming Witch”.
The other interesting thing for me is that while historically powerful, Throne of Eldraine failed to really establish a strong mechanical identity for the plane. Adventures are the only sure-to-return mechanic, and while I’m personally a fan of Food tokens, I’m sure WotC could just as easily take this chance to launch Eldraine in a totally new direction.
I personally hope that whatever the actual mechanics, we keep some of the mono-color emphasis seen in the Adamant mechanic and colored artifact spells of Throne. There’s plenty of planes which celebrate the two- and three-color combination identities every time we visit, and having more powerful cards which demand heavy commitment to a single color seems good for the game.
The Lost Caverns of Ixalan
Much like Wilds of Eldraine, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is our inaugural return to one of Magic’s newer planes – or is it? Almost the very first thing we’ve heard about the set is Mark Rosewater claiming it “is not a traditional return set”. It’s safe to say that he and WotC are eager to shift expectations that players might have after the mixed reception to the first Ixalan block.
Specifically, he seems to be saying Lost Caverns will not feature the same focus on creature type synergies as its predecessors. We also aren’t likely to return to the golden city of Orazca, at least for too long. Where Rivals was inspired by the legend of El Dorado, Lost Caverns seems to be a take on the “Hollow Earth” myth, perhaps best known from the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.
I really think this is a home run conceptually – WotC are free to keep the fun aesthetics of conquistador vampires, piratical goblins and tropical merfolk, plus any mechanics that worked the first time around (like Treasure tokens) while ditching some of the harder-to-work-with elements.
What will replace these elements? Your guess is as good as mine, but having two wide-open set concepts back-to-back is sure to be the launchpad for at least one new product idea, much like the inventive Explorers of Ixalan boardgame came out of Ixalan block.
Back From the Brink
Magic’s defining trait is its complexity – and as that complexity has never been higher, it’s impossible to sum up everything important about the coming year by just talking about the Standard sets.
In fact, one of the biggest tensions WotC has to manage is the position of Standard sets going forward. We’ve reached a point where they seem neither the best vehicle to sell players more Magic, nor the best foundation for thrilling competitive play – especially if they’re now being designed for Commander first anyway.
Speaking of competitive play, Wilds of Ixalan is also slated to release roughly around the time of the 2023 Magic World Championship. It’s been a tumultuous last few years for Organized Play, as the experiment with Arena esports and temporary lapse of tournament support shattered any assumptions about the Pro Tour being integral to Magic’s identity.
However, I think this time in the wilderness may have actually shown that those assumptions were right – to some degree. Having a well-supported tournament circuit is important for a competitive game where so much of what draws players in is the sense of learning and improvement.
I hope that by the time I’m writing this article for 2024, we have a much more confident and exciting idea for what Magic will look like during its fourth (4th!) decade.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.