MTG: The New Mechanics of 2023

2023 saw a lot of new Magic product, and of it, a lot of it I disliked. Since I don’t like the Phyrexians as a villain type, and I don’t like the implementation of D&D in Magic: The Gathering and I don’t like Urza, and I don’t like Lord of the Rings and I don’t like Dr Who, that meant that the release of Wilds of Eldraine marked a point where I finally had seen a release I didn’t actively hate for over a year. After getting Kamigawa Neon Dynasty and Streets of New Capenna I was so happy for how Wizards were handling new and old places, so you can imagine how irritated I was to watch them drive the flavour bus into the ditch of ‘eugenics grandpa’s sad feels’ again and park there.

But that doesn’t mean these sets with their terrible stories and annoying characters and embarrassing fandom sycophancy are necessarily bad. After all, they have individual cards I can appreciate and they can also have mechanics that I can poach and play with like legos. Setting aside my personal antipathy though, what about those sets yielded toys for me?

Phyrexia All Will Be One

Mechanics: Oil Counters, Proliferate, Poison Counters, Rebels, Spheres, Corrupted, For Mirrodin, Toxic

Banner art for Phyrexia: All Will Be One by Martina Fačková, depicting Elesh Norn surrounded by a crowd of statues.

Oil Counters is just bookkeeping stuff. Saying ‘we did a whole set without +1/+1 counters,’ like sure, yeah, you just used Oil Counters and had the cards say ‘they get +1/+1 for the Oil counters on them.’ Poison and Proliferate already existed, and Spheres is a footnote for one card. And like, I don’t mind that card, Monument To Perfection is a lovely riff on Journeyer’s Kite, a card I’ve liked for a long time (jesus, almost twenty years). Corrupted is fine, and it is worth considering that it does need a mechanic like Poison to work – and that Poison needs to work properly, where players can’t readily get rid of it and it’s something your opponents impose on you. And you know, Toxic works as a riff on Infect, but I don’t like it as much as I like Infect. When you’re clobbering an opponent for four to six damage, leaving behind a Poison counter isn’t nearly as interesting to me. It does work with the Proliferate ‘sit back and bleed’ vibes though so you know it’s not all bad.

For Mirrodin is the best mechanic of the set, but it’s flavour-locked to Mirrodin with like, the name. I’d definitely be okay with stealing it and renaming it, and it’s got some nice and obvious design space. It’s just a Good Boy version of Living Weapon after all.

Overall: Who cares.

March of the Machine + Aftermath

Mechanics: Backup, Convoke, Incubate, Battles

Banner art for March of the Machine by Magali Villeneuve, depicting Elesh Norn surrounded by coiling bone-roots.

Convoke has always been awesome. It’s got to suck to be Selesnya sometimes, where your best mechanic was designed the first time you ever showed up and then they just gave it to everyone else. Still, no point complaining about near-perfection.

Incubate is a really good mechanic. It encourages board presence, it gives artifact removal something to do in limited, and it can relate to Transform effects and Proliferate effects. I like Incubate a lot. Shame it’s limited to the flavour of the Phyrexians, but at least it’s doing a bang-up job there. I like playing with Incubate cards and I like the unifying mechanical space for them. Can’t use them for my own designs without just straight up renaming everything, which feels very weak to me.

Backup on the other hand is an all-star mechanic. Just an incredible banger. I didn’t like it at first because I felt the ‘gains this ability’ had so many ways for people to intuitively confuse it. Like, does the original creature lose its abilities (no)? Does it gain everything in the text box after the backup (yes)? Can you make it so the Backup doesn’t give some of the creature’s abilities (yes)? It’s a different kind of mechanic to one we see. Buuut it encourages aggression, it puts bodies on the board and it relates to existing mechanics like +1/+1 counters. I like Backup a lot.

Battles also kick ass, but I feel very tired of them, because as soon as they were spoiled at first, I saw the custom subreddit lose their mind over how to make more Battles and it mostly showed me that a lot of people can make very bad cards and not understand the point of a mini-game in the game. I like the idea of them but part of the joy of Battles was that they had a deep well of flavour to draw from and a really fun effect. They need to be balanced so that they’re not dud draws late and not overwhelming early.

Lord Of The Rings I Guess

Mechanics: The Ring Tempts You, Amass update

Banner art for Magic The Gathering Lord of the Rings by Yigit Koroglu, depicting some Nazgul or other.

For a set with exactly two meaningful mechanics it’s kind of impressive that one of them is so awful while the other is so good. The Ring Tempts You is a mechanic that ties into a specific flavour and then botches the execution on it. The ring is meant to tempt you to put it on, and this mechanic just encourages you to get more and more tempted so you can reap the entirely positive upside benefits of having this sick ring, then let you win the game with it.

 ‘Oh, but being more true to the flavour would be bad play patterns,’ then maybe you shouldn’t fucking use that flavour for a game mechanic.

Anyway, Amass was a mechanic I liked enough back when I first saw it but the update to allow Amass to pick up new creature types is a huge improvement, and opens up a lot more flavour. It’s still limited to mono-black Amassing, but I think ‘Amass Orcs’ is a much better line of rules text than ‘Amass Red and Black Orcs.’ I’m okay with compromising there.

Wilds of Eldraine

Mechanics: Adventures, Food, Roles, Bargain, Celebration

Banner art for The Wilds of Eldraine by Christina Krauss, depicting a perfect little otter with antelope horns.

Celebration continues the ongoing problem of Wizards designing things in the Naya wedge and giving them ability words to compensate for how they very clearly have no idea what they can possibly do for those three colours that isn’t just, you know, ‘play creatures on to the board.’ Celebration lives in Boros colours, but it’s in the same space as Coven and Alliance: “Please don’t mind that you’re the footnote.”

I like Roles a lot. I also don’t feel like I’d do a lot with them unless I was making something in a space like Eldraine. I don’t like the idea of inventing more Roles – I think the six we have is very close to a  maximum, as indicated by the seventh one being kinda unnecessary, but whatever.

Bargain is another iteration on ‘why isn’t this kicker,’ but I get it, it’s fine, it doesn’t matter and kicker’s sins are infinite.

Wilds of Eldraine didn’t have to do much to be great, and if they had introduced no new mechanics and just done those obvious iterations on Adventures and Food, I probably would have been happy. Though shout out to the Menacing Food stuff, that was great.

Doctor Who

Mechanics: Cascade, Doctor’s Companion, Paradox, Suspend, Time Travel, Villainous Choice

Banner art for Magic the Gathering Doctor Who by Justyna Dura, depicting some Doctor or other doing something that I'm sure is very important


So one of these things is a thing we’ve kind of wanted in the rules for a long time? Villainous Choices aren’t very deep, but having a standard mechanical rules space to reference for ‘and now something bad happens’ so they can be repeated or fed off. There isn’t that much depth to it, but it would have been nice if that was a more generic effect.

Suspend, Cascade, they’re old, familiar effects. Paradox is fine, I guess, because it’s an ability word and nothing references it, so those card effects can just be reprinted.

Doctor’s Companion is a variant on Partner and I don’t mind it, because I don’t mind most Partner variants. Mechanical opportunity missed here, by the way? Why weren’t the doctors planeswalkers? Anyway, Time Travel I might steal – its relationship to Vanishing and Suspend, and subsequently anything else that relates to ‘Time Counters’ is pretty useful and the name is pleasantly generic meaning I don’t have to tie it to Dr Who.

Lost Caverns of Ixalan

Mechanics: Craft, Descend, Discover, Explore, Maps

Banner art for Lost Caverns of Ixalan by Francesca Baerald, depicting a map, near a decorated skull

Thank you for the bangers, for these, they are nothing but bangers.

Discover is a Cascade variant with more controls on it and doable as an action. That means spells and creatures can have ‘Discover’ as an effect, which makes it more useful than just Cascade and can create an incentive to do things with Discover that aren’t just finding the best broken spell to work with. Like that. Explore is and has always been good, Maps are just an obvious mechanical way to relate to Explore, and Descend’s effects are all just ability-word variations on threshold. Same basic idea: Look at the graveyard, pass a number and if you pass that number, good job, you get the effect. I see complaints about it because it’s just another graveyard tracker like Undergrowth and Threshold and yeah it sure is.

Craft is the real gem of it. Craft is full of details like you can craft out of something’s remains, but you don’t have to have the thing in the bin to get started. It’s a dual faced card technology that gives room to make sorceries into artifacts. It’s got flavour options of cursed and haunted things, or technological things or carefully cultivated and grown things, and those three different forms of ‘craft’ all work for different flavour combinations.


I like Incubate and For Mirrodin but they’re both choked on their flavour, limiting them to basically this point in time. I like Time Travel as a generically useful term. In terms of stuff I’m likely to use, Backup and Amass are both absolutely top tier tools for designs, and Craft may not happen any time soon, but it is a great mechanic I want to work with in the future.

I treat Magic sets as airdrops of new mechanical bundles, little toys I can use to make my own littler toys. It wasn’t until November last year that I finally got onto Magic: The Gathering Arena and played a game of Magic against another person I didn’t know for something like seven years, but I still tune in for new sets, and still regularly look at sets and spoiler.

I have, for many years now, participated in Magic: The Gathering as a game the way a composer reading sheet music participates in that.