Top 5 New Magic Mechanics of 2020

Mara Katz Design

The Magic of 2020 has been full of new mechanics that push the boundaries of the game’s design space. Over the last twelve months, we’ve seen a wealth of exciting and flavorful mechanics introduced that have made gameplay more exciting and changed the way we build decks. Here are our top 5 new mechanics from this year.

Escape

Theros Beyond Death told the story of Elspeth’s fight to leave Theros’s underworld and get revenge on the god who killed her. Her struggle to escape is tied into the set’s gameplay with the escape mechanic, which lets you cast cards from your graveyard. In addition to introducing a new kind of graveyard interaction, escape made room for a number of new kinds of cards, including spells like Chainweb Aracnir, whose enter-the-battlefield ability gets more powerful after it escapes; the titans Uro and Kroxa, who only get to stick around if they escaped; and Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis, which can only gain loyalty counters by leaving and reentering the battlefield.

Keyword Counters

Before Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, only enchantments could permanently granted a creature an ability like reach or trample. Instants or sorceries could only grant these kinds of abilities until the end of the turn – or until the caster’s next turn, if you were lucky. Ikoria’s introduction of keyword counters broke the mold by creating a way to get permanent abilities from non-permanent spells. Not only does this give you more play options by allowing more to happen at instant speed (upgrading Mantle of Webs to Sudden Spinnerets, for example), it lets you customize creatures like Grimdancer and Helica Glider to your needs by choosing their abilities as they enter the battlefield. It even gives you new ways to mess with your opponents’ creatures, using spells like Blitz Leech to remove ability counters.

Modal Double-Faced Cards

Zendikar Rising introduced another new way to give players options for how they cast spells with modal double-faced cards, which can be played as either face. All the MDFCs we’ve seen so far have included lands on at least one side, to fit Zendikar’s lands matter theme. But there’s a lot of design space here that doesn’t necessarily rely on lands. Wizards has announced that MDFCs will be a theme in 2021’s Standard sets, so keep an eye out for exciting new designs.

Party

Zendikar Rising also gave us a new way to look at tribal decks with party, a batching mechanic that encourages the use of multiple creature types in a deck. A party consists of up to one Cleric, one Rogue, one Warrior, and one Wizard – creature “classes” that you’d expect to find in a D&D adventuring party. Zendikar Rising was full of spells like Malakir Blood-Priest and Synchronized Spellcraft that got better the more party members you had on the battlefield, as well as spells like Squad Commander and Nimble Trapfinder which became powerful win conditions if you had a full party. Most party-matters spells were pretty good even if you only had one or two of the required creature types, which made them strong includes in a variety of Zendikar Rising Limited decks.

It’s a safe bet that party was created to get players excited for the 2021 summer set, Dungeons and Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Keep an eye out for it to potentially return there, with new D&D-flavored twists.

Encore

What’s better than casting a powerful creature in Commander? Copying that creature so you attack all your opponents at once! Commander Legends brought us encore, a mechanic that lets you exile a creature from your graveyard to make copies of it and attack each of your opponents with them. The copies may not stick around after they attack, but most spells with encore have triggered abilities that dramatically affect the board; Elvish Dreadlord is a guaranteed board wipe and Rakshasa Debaser can steal all the best creatures from your opponents’ graveyards. There’s even an encore-matters commander, Araumi of the Dead Tide, which gives any creature in your graveyard encore, letting ambitious deck-builders do some truly absurd things with decks that prioritize ETB or death triggers.

Honorable Mentions

There are a number of great mechanical innovations that didn’t make this list, but we wanted to highlight a couple of the cooler ones.

The first is mill. While it’s not a new mechanic, it was finally keyworded in Core Set 2021, and we think getting to replace ten words of templating (“puts the top card of their library into their graveyard”) with three (“mills a card”) is worth celebrating.

The other is less a mechanic and more of a new deck-building concept. Unsanctioned and Jumpstart were presented in small themed sub-decks, which players shuffle together in pairs to make full decks with randomly chosen properties. This fusion of Constructed and Limited revitalized the casual Magic play space during a year when social distancing has made most kinds of Magic difficult to play. Most importantly, it reminded us how much more there is to Magic than the most popular formats. The surprising synergies between Jumpstart packs inspired a lot of creative deck-building; some players have even started building 50-card half-decklists for Commander Legends’ new partner commanders!

In With the New

2020 has been a great year for opening up design space in Magic. We’ve seen new card types, keywords that recontextualize old card types, and even new ways to play the game. Let us know what your favorite mechanic of 2020 was, and what you’re most looking forward to in the year to come!