The release of Iconic Masters has prompted a number of comments from professional players about the strength of the set relative to Ixalan. There seems to be a general consensus that Iconic Masters is a better draft set, and there are a number of interesting perspectives about why this is the case.
Mike Sigrist wrote an interesting article about the aspects of Iconic Masters that worked better for draft than Ixalan, and I agree with virtually everything he said; I wrote an article detailing what I consider the limitations of Ixalan draft, and Sigrist’s article reinforces my feelings on the topic. But I believe there is another aspect of this comparison we can explore, which is the difficulty of designing sets for different audiences, in this case highly specialized players and beginners.
One aspect of Ixalan that many players don’t like is how the low power level and high reliance on tribal synergies have reduced the number of interesting picks in each draft. Unlike many draft formats, Ixalan often prescribes your pick order within a few decision points in pack 1, which essentially simplifies your decisions for the rest of the draft. Because the power level of the set is relatively low, there is less value in switching colors later in the draft, and there are fewer meaningful signals to indicate which colors are most open. For professional and competitive players, this is a significant fault, as it diminishes the value of understanding the draft format and increases the variance they experience. While this is certainly a negative for this group of players, for newer players it is actually an advantage.
As most of us can attest, it is not very fun to play a game that you inevitably lose. Consequently, for new players it is important to introduce sufficient variance in the game that they are able to experience the elation of winning a match despite being less skilled than veteran players. Without this element, it is harder for a game to acquire new players and grow.
Ixalan seems to be geared primarily towards new players for this very reason; the tribes give clear indications to players that indicate what cards they should pick in draft, and helps to reduce the number of “unplayable” decks new players draft. This increases their odds of winning a match, and likely enhances acquisition of players overall. Of course, the comments of professional players indicate the fault of this strategy by WOTC, as it has diminished the incentive for veteran players to engage with and enjoy the format.
Not only is the draft format defined by tribal synergies, the gameplay also differs from other sets as a consequence. Ixalan gameplay is defined almost exclusively by combat; if your creatures are unable to bash through your opponents defenses, you will lose. This makes each game relatively uninteresting, as the winner will primarily be determined by who draws the most relevant combat trick or the removal they need to push through damage.
Iconic Masters, on the other hand, seems to have been a breath of fresh air for more seasoned players. The introduction of alternative strategies, a paucity of combat tricks, and a generally higher power level of cards has provided players with numerous draft strategies to pursue and multiple means of winning games of Magic. This enhances gameplay by producing a greater volume of novel board states and increasing variation in your opponents’ deck composition, both of which tend to lead to more complicated decision points.
Of course, these apparent advantages apply to more experienced players; for new players, Iconic Masters is a very difficult format to draft and play. There are fewer indications of draft strategy in the set itself, and the myriad strategies employed in-game make it even harder to learn the rules of Magic. An unfortunate effect of this is that sets like Iconic Masters cannot be used for televised, competitive events like the Pro Tour; it is important to advertise the sets with wider appeal (Ixalan), which unfortunately makes the gameplay and draft less enjoyable and skill testing for the pros.
Can there be a happy medium that ensures acquisition of new players while providing engaging gameplay for the pros? I certainly believe so, and I hope Ixalan is not a sign of sets to come. What do you think, can sets be made to be enjoyable by multiple player bases, or is satisfying different populations of players a necessary evil of set design?