Magic: The Gathering's most recent expansion, Ixalan, is complicated. It features factions of merfolk, vampires, pirates, and dinosaurs vying for control of an island in a plot of treasure hunting, vampiric colonialism, and spell slinging from plane-traveling wizards. As I said, it's complicated, and now developers Wizards of the Coast have created a completely new type of game to add into the mix: Explorers of Ixalan, which puts the complex, card-based mechanics of Magic into conversation with tile-based board game gameplay. Explorers is due out November 24, 2017 for $64.99.
Magic: The Gathering has a lot of moving parts these days. There are the cards that make up the game. There is also a large, world-hopping story of planeswalkers called the Gatewatch and their universal struggle against intradimensional creatures that try to bend worlds beneath their will. Then there are the actual ways that people play with the cards, "formats" like Standard (the most recent cards), Modern (cards since the early 2000s), or Commander (a multiplayer mode with decks made of exactly 100 different cards).
It might be hard for the average person to locate themselves as a player within the large ecosystem of the Magic experience, and Explorers of Ixalan seems to add yet another axis of possible enjoyment to the very wide array of what one can with with, and around, Magic cards.
Explorers of Ixalan is billed as a "standalone Magic: The Gathering experience that combines board game elements with the excitement of multiplayer Magic." It pits up to four players against each other, each with their own deck that corresponds to one of the factions of merfolk, vampires, pirates, and dinosaurs. In front of the players sits an island made of tiles that can be explored to create events, quests, and sites that augment gameplay. The result looks a little like a Settlers of Catan board, but with a much more modular island.
As the announcement trailer explains, the play of the game is a strange hybrid of good old fashioned Magic and new mechanics that have players competing over the island itself. From what we can see, there are "quests" that players can receive that encourage certain behaviors (such as attacking certain other players), "sites" that give specific permanent effects to players, and "events" that contain a one-time global effect.
All of these encourage what Magic tends to call "political gameplay." The officially supported multiplayer formats such as Commander or Conspiracy will often contain cards that encourage players to lobby one another to take certain actions. For example, a card like Orchard Elemental is meant to encourage players to strategize together. It's a giant tree monster that can either heal its user or grow in strength, depending on how the rest of the table votes. Multiplayer Magic depends on these ad hoc alliances to keep it moving forward.
Explorers of Ixalan is not Magic's first experiment in combining board game mechanics, Magic itself, and specific designs for how players are meant to react to one another. Both Planechase and Archenemy were re-released during the past couple years, and each of them are specific ways of warping the (traditionally) intense single-player gameplay of MTG into a multiplayer-friendly format. While both of those experiences are packaged like board games, each plays very similarly to normal Magic.
The balancing act that Explorers has to perform is a hard one. It has to play close enough to Magic to "feel" right for returning players. It also has to make sure that the people who purchase it as a board game don't feel like they have been tricked into buying a box with four Magic decks in it. It's a delicate maneuver, and the only way to know will be to play it; it's not something that can be understood in the abstract.
Wizards of the Coast has spent the last few years developing Magic: The Gathering as a platform through which other things can happen. The card game is a platform from which longform storytelling and worldbuilding can launch. It's the launchpad of multiple digital experiences, the most recent of which is the forthcoming Arena. And now it is the starting place for three different board game-adjacent projects.
Explorers of Ixalan appears to be both a step away from traditional Magic, but it is also clearly a part of a larger brand strategy of broadening the potential audience for Magic and Magic-like experiences. However, we'll have to wait for the release itself to see if it is merely Magic dipping its toes into a board game or if it is a truly unique and interesting way of experiencing the unique interactions that Magic creates.