MTG delivers Mystery and Mayhem with Murders at Karlov Manor

Posted on February 22, 2024

The latest Magic: The Gathering set – Murders at Karlov Manor (MKM) – began life as a concept, a desire by the designers to develop a set themed around a murder mystery investigation.

This type of design is termed by the developers as “top-down design”, where you begin the process of designing a set with the flavour you are trying to achieve, and design cards to convey the theme and the story.

Murders at Karlov Manor is bursting at the seams with reminders of what the theme of the set is. In a set with 147 creatures, almost a full 1/3 of them have the creature type Detective, which was recently added as a new creature type with the Universes Beyond release of Dr Who.

There are existing keywords (surveillance and investigate, which creates clue tokens), as well as introducing new, set-specific mechanisms: suspects, disguises, and gathering evidence.

Wizards have used other mechanisms to engage the audience and draw them into buying more products. The story by author Seanan McGuire is quite possibly one of their best-written pieces in quite some time; it has plenty of action and plot twists, and utilises our recurring traveller Kellan quite well.

They’ve also set up an interesting alternate reality game – a series of of puzzles where one must gather clues delivered in social media, in the packaging and even in the art of the cards themselves. 14 puzzles or “mystery files” were released, at a rate of 1 per day. They are an interesting exercise, and reasonably complex if you want to solve them yourself, though the hints on the site are pretty pointed if you need some help, and there are plenty of spoilers available if you go looking for them.


First Impressions

My first play experience with the set was via a media event held at the old Melbourne Goal – an appropriate setting for a murder mystery-themed evening. It was a great night, but some issues started to make themselves apparent during play.

Magic is a product that has been around for over 30 years. In that time, well over 100 sets have been released. And it gets harder all the time for the producers to cater to all possible target sales demographics within a single set. The complexity of the product and the average word count on cards has been trending upward for quite some time now.

This is not a new problem – all the sets released in 2023 have had similar issues. But the complexity of the average common card in MKM was really driven home to me that night. There were lots of players who… aren’t necessarily the type to be reading card spoilers in advance of the release, and the venue lighting was set up more for ambiance than facilitating play. When every card being played needs some time to be read and understood by both players, and the complexity of the cards and mechanics is quite high, games can be quite slow.

Dressed to Kill

As per normal we have a range of different frames bringing variety to the set. Along with the usual Extended Art and Borderless variant, there are 2 showcase frames – Magnified and Dossier. The Dossier frames also have an ‘invisible ink’ sub-variant, where the foiling reveals other text on the card.

The Dossier frames are definitely the most divisive of this bunch. The concept is cool but two issues get repeatedly raised:

  • it’s quite difficult to differentiate the actual colours of the card, and
  • the ‘typewriter’ font used in the textbox.

I guess that’s one of the reasons why variants like this exist; there are still plenty of people who appreciate them, while those who don’t can stick with their preferred versions.

The small handful of guild leaders present in the set have variants with the Ravnica city border first introduced in the Multiverse Legends sub-set.  And the ‘Special Guest’ card series first started in Wilds of Eldraine also continues here.  There are no additional ‘subsets’ like Wilds of Eldraine‘s “Enchanted Tales”, or Lost Caverns of Ixalan‘s “Jurassic Park” cards though.

One interesting note is the volume of serialised cards has halved – instead of the usual 500 of each, there are only 250 in this set.  It will be interesting to see if this is a once-off or the new status quo.

The Final Verdict

Taken in isolation, I believe the set achieves the designer’s intent. It delivers the flavour of Murder Mystery. It isn’t without flaws though. The player base reaction to the set has been lukewarm at best, with much of the criticism focusing on the plane selected for the set, the set’s overall power level (low) compared to the complexity of the mechanics (high), and the increased cost of the product for draft purposes.

The decision to base the set on the plane of Ravnica was apparently only decided relatively late in the set design. Ravnica is a much-loved plane in M:TG lore, and has been revisited multiple times over the years. While the story was well executed, the idea of a new detective agency that exists outside of the structure of the Guildpact is a little jarring, and a lot of people feel as though the set would have been better suited to another plane (New Cappenna being the plane most often raised). In my opinion, the story epilogue that was recently released helps rationalise the choice of Ravnica though. Trying to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to read the story for themselves, but – the Omenpaths are really beginning to have an impact on the Multiverse.

The increased cost of drafts is an interesting bone of contention. Murders at Karlov Manor is the first set release with the newly re-designed “Play Boosters”. In 2020, Magic: The Gathering booster packs were split into 3 separate product lines: “Draft Boosters”, “Set Boosters” and “Collector Boosters”.  Focusing on the first two products here – Draft Boosters were an evolution of the traditional booster packs, where the cards included were optimised to try and give a better experience in limited play environments like draft and sealed. Set Boosters were priced at a slightly higher price point and were designed to give a more ‘fun’ experience when opening the product; by including stuff like showcase cards, foils, and increased chance to get higher rarity cards.

The problem with this is that Wizards have admitted there was a fair degree of audience confusion around the 2 product lines, and they were causing inventory issues for local game stores. Sales statistics showed that Draft Boosters were significantly underperforming, so this year draft and set boosters have been merged back into a single product line, the play booster. This retains some of the fun of the set booster while delivering a more focused card selection for limited environments. Welcome news for the vendors… but the packs have retained the increased price point of set boosters, hence the player discomfort.

Whether the decision will have a positive or negative impact is yet to be seen, but personally, I’m happy about the change back to a single product line. For the set itself though? Overall I feel that Murders at Karlov Manor is a weaker set than the past few that Wizards have released. I’m already finding myself moving past it and looking forward to the next Universes Beyond release, Fallout.

Murders at Karlov Manor is available now.