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'Mix and match' makes many kinds of Magic: The Gathering

The latest expansion set for Magic: the Gathering is all about reinvention. Fitting for a game that needs to recreate itself every few months.


Aether Revolt, the 73rd and latest expansion set released for Magic: the Gathering is themed around creativity and invention. That makes sense given Magic's 20-odd-year tradition of reinventing itself.

The card game is mostly kept fresh with continuous releases of new cards, like Aether Revolt. But even these releases play with the core game, building on and twisting rules to make something players haven't seen before.

At its most fundamental, Magic is a card game where players use creatures, weapons and spells to hit each other until only one is left standing.

"Magic has a lot of strong building blocks that you can mix and match," says Ben Hayes, the lead designer on Aether Revolt. You can compare it to something like Chess. Pieces all move in the same way -- there are some immutable (or at least, inflexible) rules, but you can change victory conditions, board layouts, number of pieces, number opponents or countless other things to play the same game in new ways.

One of the new mechanics in Aether Revolt is cards that generate "energy," a secondary resource that can be used to pay for specific powers. Almost every card or effect in Magic is paid for with mana, so the secondary resource shakes up the core game far more than some of the new mechanics introduced in other sets.

"Mark Rosewater [Magic's head designer] has been trying to get energy in the game for eight years," says Hayes. "Energy is pretty ambitious. It definitely pushes on the design space." It's that kind of design and reinvention that designers need to chase to keep the game fresh. But it's not all new mechanics used in the same way.

While most players will play the common "regular" version of Magic, which revolves around bringing a pre-built deck or building a deck out of available cards in the moment and then sticking to the basic rules, the game's history has seen dozens of creative new ways to play pop up.

You can break Magic down into two main styles of play. There's Constructed, where you build a deck from your collection in advance, and there's Limited, where you use cards available at the time and throw something together in the moment.

Prior to his work on Aether Revolt, Hayes headed up design on Commander 2015, 2016 and Conspiracy: Take the Crown, three sets that really show off Magic's scope as a game.

Conspiracy was a set designed around Limited play. You draft cards, with a group of players selecting one card at a time from the available pool in secret, but it shook up the existing Limited two-player model with multiplayer matches and game-altering Conspiracy cards.

Commander took things even further. Originally based on a fan-designed ruleset called Elder Dragon Highlander, the Constructed format included rules like only being able to use one copy of any card and a powerful "commander" creature that sat outside of your deck that you could summon multiple times. Huge community popularity saw Wizards of the Coast, the company behind Magic, adopting it as an official format for the game.

This isn't even touching on things like Two-headed Giant, a variant where pairs of players share a life total, playing off against each other with their own decks. Or Cube, a Limited format where you make your own restricted set of cards to play with. Or Planechase, which, in my experience, devolves into infinite goat summoning.

Magic tends to embrace all that house ruling, making it official when it catches on. Commander started as a fan-created format, after all. "There's always parts of the community looking for the next interesting way to play magic," says Hayes. "If people are having fun with it, we'll keep making cards for it."

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