Ten and Gone: The Rise and Fall of the Old Core Set
By Daniel Rezendes on March 11th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
We've all seen the big news about M10 – Urza's sake, that sounds more like a vitamin than a set – and for once, the reaction to a major change has been largely positive. Not that there aren't naysayers – to quote one of our forumites here, Dr. Jeebus: "Wizards could put $100 bills in packs and people would complain about how they were folded."
But I'm not here to talk about M10. We only know the broad strokes, nowhere near enough details to really comment on the set itself. No, I'm more interested in the reasons why most people are so happy with the changes, and with why those changes became necessary. WotC has always done a good job realizing that just because things have always been done one way doesn't mean that way is right. It takes a lot of soul-searching and analysis to challenge base assumptions, and that's exactly how this change came about. Long story short, the old style of core set was innately flawed, and in several ways.
How did this come to happen? When did it start, and why did it take so long for anyone to notice?
Obviously, the very first core set had zero reprints in it, as there was nothing to reprint. In fact, due to printing errors, a few cards were left out of Alpha - Volcanic Island and Circle of Protection: Black, both noticeable gaps in cycles. Beta was not a new core set, but a second, larger print run fixing these and other printing errors - setting the early precedent that new printings trump old printings, though it took a while for the "play it as printed" idea to go away.
Limited Edition had no story and no concrete setting. Everything was steeped in a classic fantasy feel, with Minotaurs and Angels and Demons for minions, and spells any wizard would want in his repertoire. Lightning Bolt, Demonic Tutor (It's a demon with a book. How more flavorful can you get?), Animate Dead... everything was dripping with flavor. Heck, even the deck boxes looked like a spellbook. The color pie existed in a primitive form, but form trumped function at this point. And really, the game was so new and innovative, nobody expected or cared if it wasn't terribly balanced. The game was an immediate hit, and it was clear more cards were needed.
The creative (and ironically) named Unlimited Edition came out in December 1993/January 1994, less than half a year after Alpha and Beta, and was merely a white-bordered version of Beta. There were no new cards, but to be fair, WotC was probably shocked by just how big a success Magic had become, and
This card and Lord of the Pit
did a good job miffing the Christian right
at the beginning of the game. Demons
were phased out as a creature type for
many years because of it.
wasn't quite sure how or even if they were going to release new cards. The industry standard for board games and the like was that new material came out in "expansion sets," so once they decided to make new cards, that sprang immediately to mind. Thus, the same time Unlimited came out, so did Arabian Nights.
This seems natural now, and even at the time expansion sets seemed fairly organic, but think about this for a minute: there was no reason they couldn't have put new cards in the core set directly. Both print runs of Limited Edition sold so quickly they printed the set a third time as well as printing a new one, but they could easily have added the new cards to the core set and called it 2nd Edition. So, why didn't they?
For one, the first set was Arabian Nights. It had its own identity, very distinct from the classic fantasy feel of the core sets. Yes, there was Mahamoti Djinn, and the core set drew from Greek mythology, Tolkien, and basically anything else Dungeons & Dragons had drawn from, but a sudden influx of cards with an Arabian theme would have been quite distinctive. If you liked that flavor, you could buy the expansion; if you didn't, you could stick with the core game.
Plus, would they just have made the set larger, or taken cards out? What would they remove? When a second expansion came out, the setting returned to Dominia, the generic-fantasy center of the Magic multiverse. The set (Antiquities,) of course was again a small one, however, and had a very heavy artifact theme. Even more so than Arabian Nights, Antiquities's expansion status allowed it to explore a heavy theme with a small number of cards. If you liked it, great, buy the set. If not, buy one of our other fine products.
Thus, Unlimited was the same list of cards as Beta. This wasn't a revamp or even an update, simply an additional printing. The only change of note they made was the use of white borders instead of black so players could tell reprints from the original versions. This led to the policy that white bordered cards had to be reprints, which is why core sets through Ninth Edition kept the ugly things, as well as Chronicles.
Unlimited was a much larger print run than the previous core set, but even that proved insufficient. By the middle of 1994, yet another printing of the core game was necessary.
Magic may have been the first collectible card game, but there was already a thriving games industry that the new genre could learn from. With board games and RPGs and the like, if the initial product sold out, well that's easy enough to fix - make more of them. So far, that is what WotC had done, and it had worked. For a while.
Problem was, Magic isn't a board game. Board games are limited to the contents in the box, and RPGs require a stable core rules set to function. Magic proved expansive and expandable in ways Richard Garfield and WotC never imagined. The original idea was that it didn't matter if some cards were too good, there would only be a few of them anyway. After all, nobody would be collecting these things, right?
By the time Revised came out, it was clear that people were indeed collecting cards, doing everything they could to make their decks as powerful as possible. Unbalanced cards could no longer be ignored if they wanted the game to be accessible to new players. Thus, things like the Power Nine had to go. And while they were at it, some standardized templates and streamlined rules were introduced, setting it up for core sets to be the opportunity for rules revision, much like in RPGs.
But WotC couldn't just shrink the core game, could it? Balance was well and good, but they had to replace those cards with something. Hey, we've printed two expansions... why don't we port over some of those cards into the core game? Hence the name Revised: this was still the core game, but now it's been changed. Many of the reprints were setting-vague, making the flavor drift fairly minor. Still, cards like Aladdin's Lamp and Bottle of Suleiman stood out.
Thus, 35 cards were removed from the set, while 39 were added, making Revised slightly larger than the previous core set. Oddly, though, not all the ported cards retained their rarity. This is partly because of the weird rarity system of the time - small sets didn't have rares, but had several tiers of common and uncommon. But it did create the occasionally-used precedent of changing a card's rarity with reprinting.
Revised was the first core set printed in sufficient quantity to be available for a full year. In its time, it made a heavy impression, as there was finally enough of a core set to get a good look at. It wasn't much
Really, can anyone tell medifferent from Alpha, and while a lot of the power cards were gone, it still had a classic fantasy feel, with just a few more specific tidbits thrown in.
what the heck is going on here?
While the idea of a standalone expansion had been fermenting within WotC for a while, the design technology just wasn't there yet. It's pretty fine testament to Richard Garfield's accomplishment that it took two years for the company to make a set that could be playable on its own, and even that wasn't out by the time the next core set came around. And since "Re-revised" sounded pretty flipping silly, they just started numbering the blasted things.
Like Revised, it was clear that some cards were simply too good to keep printing, and some of the rules needed some tweaking too. However, while Revised was four cards larger, Fourth Edition grew by seventy-two cards, bringing it up to 378. While they were tweaking the core set, some of the ports from the first two expansions were taken out as well, in favor of new reprints from the massive set Legends (a large part of why so many cards were added was the sheer size of Legends) and a few cards from The Dark and even the two previous expansions. Some cards, however, stayed in, making it possible for cards to graduate into the core game (Millstone, for example, a core set staple, came from Antiquities) if they were unique and popular enough.
However, certain types of cards were noticeably absent - multicolor and legendary cards and world enchantments. That's right - the new mechanics from Legends weren't brought into the core set. This was an important decision that got little attention at the time. While some of the Legends mechanics were kinda lame (bands-with-other, I'm looking at you), multicolor cards was a simple concept and instantly popular. It might have been that, for some reason, every gold card from Legends was a legendary creature, and that the idea of reprinting something legendary (and, by definition, kinda rare and awesome) in something so basic as the core set was counterproductive. It might also be that, honestly, almost all of the legends really sucked. The one mechanic that did get ported didn't have a keyword and spelled itself out on the cards it was on - poison. Marsh Viper and Pit Scorpion brought the popular mechanic back, such as it was, showing that they would bring in new concepts, but were perhaps a little hesitant to bring in full-on keywords and terminology.
It also could be that Fourth Edition was simply not as well-made as previous core sets. This isn't to call it bad, but it certainly was busy. There was still a standard fantasy feel, generally, but reprints maintained their original art. As more reprints came in from expansions, the tone diffused a bit. Legends slowed that down a bit - if anything, Legends took that visceral sense of fantasy and went even further with it - but each card from an expansion brought a chance of slight tonal dissonance.
Fourth Edition had a large print run, and packs were on sale for some time after Fifth Edition came out. Like Revised, quite a few of the ports from expansions changed rarity, but while most cards in Revised became more rare, a good number in Fourth Edition were demoted. Carrion Ants (believe it or not, thought to be quite powerful at the time) went from a rare in the ridiculously-underprinted Legends to an uncommon in Fourth. This caused some grumbling, which foreshadowed what was to come in Chronicles.
Speaking of which...
Ah, Chronicles, how misunderstood you are. From Fallen Empires on, print runs were large and stable enough (not to mention professional enough - the rampant misprints of earlier sets finally subsided here) to support a wide player base, and a huge number of players (including myself) started around the tail end of Revised or when Fourth was out. Many of these players missed the chance to get some of these now-famous cards, and some of them attained an almost mystic quality. In a way, the primitive printing process of the early sets contributed to this. I mean, even brand new cards from Revised or Legends looked old.
So, the idea of an all-reprint expansion came to be. Each card retained its original expansion symbol (except for the misprinted Wall of Shadows), but had a white border since they were, after all, reprints. New players didn't mind - we could get our Elder Dragon Legends now! Ernham Djinn! City of Brass! Sure, there was an awful lot of chaff in there, and as it had no unifying thematic element it's an unholy mess as a set, but as a chance to get old cards it was totally keen to the max. Or whatever we said in 1995.
Problem was, not everyone was a new player. Some people had started earlier, and invested quite a lot of money in some of these cards that Chronicles reprinted. The collectors then found out, much to their chagrin, that the values of those cards wasn't based on playability, but merely scarcity. Once supply went up - and boy, did it - demand evaporated. The secondary market for all the reprinted cards shattered, and even other cards took a hit with the prospect that they could just be reprinted at any time. Vendors and collectors raised a furor, which led to the creation of the Reserve List (mutter...) and the general consensus that Chronicles was an abject failure.
What's that have to do with core sets? Simply this: there would be no further "reprint expansions." Any cards they wanted to come back would have to come back in the core set, which meant anything that deviated too strongly from the core set style would be stuck at one printing. Ice Age had reprinted a few staple cards, so you could arguably reprint in expansions, but they shied away from reprinting anything but the most basic cards that way for quite some time (though they ignored the "reprints are white bordered" rule, because it didn't make sense for only some cards in the set to be white bordered. This turned out to be an increasingly silly rule). Partly from the Chronicles effect, but even without that, reprints would have to fit the new set. Efreets on frozen Terisiare somehow didn't seem like a good fit.
Two years after Fourth, and though it wasn't yet policy to my knowledge, two years seemed like a good time for a new core set, and would become the official schedule thereafter. Other than that, though, here's where things started to go really awry.
First of all, the size. Fifth Edition was a mammoth 449 cards, with 132 separate rares. That's right, there were nearly enough rares in Fifth to make a full set. They kept adding more cards than
DEAR LORD, Fifth Edition! they took out, and even taking out such "beloved" cards as Cyclopean Mummy and all five Laces, the set ballooned with reprints from every set through Homelands. It wasn't that core sets were allowed to reprint cards; they were obligated to, and from each expansion that came out since the previous one. This had become one of the central aspects of core sets.
That is not an Ankh! That's a windmill!
Allegedly, the artist thought the card
THAT'S NOT AN ARK EITHER!
Fifth removed a lot of crap, and like earlier core sets, removed cards that were proving overpowered. While nobody lamented the loss of Strip Mine, Channel, or Mind Twist (all of which were already banned), some staples like Serra Angel, Swords to Plowshares, Hypnotic Specter, and Lightning Bolt were taken out as well, while the eternal question of "will Wrath of God get the axe" reared its head for the first time.
What came in, then? A few popular or staple cards came in, like the Ice Age painlands and pump knights, Boomerang, Caribou Range, Johtull Wurm, Arenson's Aura... there was no rhyme or reason to it. It was just stuff. Wanna reprint this? Sure, why not. Wanna reprint Necropotence? Alright, what's the worst that can go wrong?!
WotC really dropped the ball on this one. Fifth Edition was not a set. It was a pile of cards. It had the staples, but they were watered down between Repentant Blacksmiths and Carapaces. There was new art for some of the old cards, but it was largely fairly bland and uninspired, lacking any sort of mystical feel. Finally, over half the cards at this point had originated in expansions. There was no general fantasy feel. The flavor was just as scattershot as the card list.
The problems didn't end there. Fifth Edition rules (which actually came out with Mirage, because trust me that set needed a rules update to deal with it. Phasing...) had some tweaks like any core set, that much is natural. But while care had been taken to maintain functionality within new templating in all the previous core sets (save for the possible exception of Relic Bind, where the reprint enshrined one of the rare power-level erratas Magic has done), Fifth Edition's templating was just sloppy. It apparently gives Mark Gottlieb fits to this day.
Also, Fifth Edition brought back the hugely popular mechanic, rampage. Remember Rampage? Neither did many people then, and it was only on two cards. And while reminder text existed for new mechanics as of Mirage, it was assumed you had all existing mechanics memorized. Oh, speaking of new mechanics, Fifth gave us the first retroactive-keyword - that is, taking an existing mechanic and giving it a keyword. That's cool, right? What was it? Haste? Vigilence? Fear? Nope. Islandhome. Remember islandhome? Yeah, good times.
Ah, landhome. The only mechanic to be given a keyword, then have it taken away again. Good job. (For those of you with no idea what landhome is... don't worry about it. Seriously.)
The next set after Fifth Edition was the beginners' set, Portal. As it was made up mostly of new cards - other than the large number of reprints, *cough* - it was black bordered. But because it was for beginners, it had really weird templating, different terminology, lacked half the card types, and wasn't tourney legal. The other beginner-level sets all shared some of this wackiness, but Portal: Three Kingdoms and Starter were both white-bordered for some reason, despite being almost entirely new cards. I only bring this up to show how completely defunct the white bordered = reprint rule became. Yet core sets remained white bordered for ages. Why? Inertia. Nobody liked white borders, but nobody thought to change it, or if they did, dismissed the idea because, well, core sets are white bordered. Obviously!
Classic (Sixth Edition)
Contrary to popular belief, Sixth Edition is not the worst core set ever. I give that crown to Fifth. But oh, oh did Sixth piss people off.
Let's get the most important thing out of the way first: Sixth Edition rules. After six years of cobbled-together interactions and "I guess that's how it works?" explanations, the rules of the game were given a full-on makeover. And judging by the fact that, by and large, we're still working under Sixth Edition's rules set, I guess it worked out pretty well. Not that you'd know at the time - die hard old players were incensed, and for a while there nobody was entirely sure how things worked anymore.
Sixth also began the long process toward mechanical playability in favor of style. "Summon Whateversaurus" became "Creature - Whateversaurus". That simple change, putting the card type on the card, pissed off people to no end. First we get reminder text, now they get rid of "summon?" They're dumbing down the game!
That wasn't the case overall, but they certainly were dumbing down the core set. They introduced three tiers of set difficulty, with the nonlegal Portal "beginner" sets, "advanced" core sets, and "expert" expansions. The idea was that new players would graduate up that scale, thus tasking the core set to be as beginner friendly as possible while still contributing cards to Standard. I'm sure they realized at the time that decreased complexity will almost inevitably decrease the power level of a set, but what I don't think they realized is that when players tried to move on to "expert" level they'd find the bulk of their "advanced" cards were essentially worthless in comparison. But that's easier to see in hindsight; at the time, the critical thing in WotC's mind was to make the set an easy entry port for new players. Thus, reminder text for everything. Also, no more trample or protection.
Yes, no cards with trample or protection appeared in Sixth Edition. The abilities were deemed too confusing for beginners, and they hadn't figured out (or cared to figure out) a reminder text to properly explain the abilities.
There are several problems with this, more clear in hindsight. For one, obviously, this made it even harder for core set cards to compete with those in expansions. Other than staples like Birds of Paradise and Wrath of God, there was no reason for existing players to buy core sets at all if the cards they don't have in the core set were lousy. But ironically this also wound up being downright counterproductive. Yes, new players didn't see these abilities to be confused by them in the core set... but when they tried to graduate up to expert level, suddenly there was trample and protection. It's kinda like shielding your kids from any knowledge of sex, then shipping them off to college a few states away. How's that gonna work out?
Also, as an aside... trample and protection are too complex, but regeneration isn't? It taps the creature and removes it from combat. Why? It just does. Seriously, I hear way more rules questions/mistakes involving regeneration than involving trample.
There were few, if any, new arts, and while they brought in reprints from a bunch of new sets, the overall size of Sixth Edition was down to a more reasonable 350 cards. None of which were good. Okay, that's not fair, but while Fifth was a far worse set, Sixth had a pathetic power level by any standard. Nearly all the old favorites were gone (we said goodbye to Dark Ritual here, too), and few of the new cards were nearly as evocative. The art styles were all over the place, and there was a big push for real-world literary quotes as flavor text. The game was still here, but the magic was gone.
But you know the real reason everyone hates Sixth Edition? They called it Classic. They stop printing nearly all our favorite cards, change the rules out from under us, and they DARE to call this set CLASSIC?! Oy! But one thing even the haters must admit is that it was a set - which is more than I can say of Fifth Edition.
Sixth's rules were going strong, so no need for any changes there. The Weatherlight Saga was limping to a conclusion, and the hugely-popular Invasion block was renewing interest in the game after Urza's and Masques blocks had eroded much of it away.
Seventh is not remembered for... well, much of anything. The first core set with foils, I guess. They
These guys were at war with these continued the simplicity tactic from Sixth, but realized some card re-evaluation was in order and some old campaigners like Serra Angel were safe to reprint. They brought the old girl back and promoted her to rare, with much hullabaloo. Nobody particularly noticed. Poor Serra Angel, finally back in town and no one at the station to meet her. It also didn't help that they took simplicity to the point of simplistic, including cards like Eager Cadet for the sake of not being confusing. Ugh.
two other guys... somewhere... for
The set contributed a few things to standard - Opposition and Duress spring to mind - but Invasion and Odyssey blocks had such powerful, block-specific mechanics that the core set contributed nothing to that it was largely just a list of extra cards that could be played. Which is unfortunate, because Seventh made a conscious effort to have... not exactly a plot but at least strong hints of one. The Northern and Southern Paladin were at war with the Eastern and Western ones, and that ran throughout the art and flavor text of the set. There was no book or story written of it, and it's not clear where this took place or who won or what the stakes were, but it did give the set a nice unifying motif that made it feel more like a cohesive unit and less like a pile of reprints.
The January before Eighth Edition came out, an article went up on magicthegathering.com about how the card face was going to be dramatically changed with the next core set.
Nobody noticed or made much comment. Either nobody noticed it, or the change was so drastic it simply didn't compute.
Then the set came out.
This is one of the classic backlashes in the history of the game, and the change was pretty darned huge. The new card face was such a huge departure from the old, nobody could help but have an opinion once faced with them. Once all was said and done, the world didn't end and the game didn't die, and we've all at least gotten used to the new frames. I even personally prefer them, though I would have liked them to be a little more stylized.
As for the set itself, there were some rules tweaks - basic became a supertype, fear was keyworded - and there were a few winning gimmicks that made it stand out. First, there was "Selecting Eighth Edition," which allowed players some input as to what cards made it into the set. (Before Fifth, there was a poll for what cards to cut, but never about what to put in. The game lost Counterspell here, as well as Merfolk in general - it was deemed kinda crazy that you could have Merfolk fighting land-based creatures, or that simply standing on a hill should make it hard for them to get at you or something. It was a bizarre flavor-based decision in a set that was largely without any.
The other neat aspect here was, since it was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the game, they reprinted at least one card from each expansion that had ever before been in a core set. That was, really, all the core set has become - a repository for reprints. A greatest hits album. A mere collage of older cards.
But you know one thing it particularly wasn't?
Ninth Edition and Tenth Edition
Ninth and Tenth Edition both went much the same way. "Selecting" features for the set, cards rotated in and out. Birds of Paradise left with Ninth, never to return. Except it did in Tenth. Enchant creature became a keyword instead of a card type, which everyone got onboard with almost immediately. Creature types were streamlined. The new evergreen keywords from Future Sight
I almost hope they stop printing thismade it in, and some legendary creatures as well. Tokens started showing up in packs. Tweaks and gimmicks, all for the good of the game, but the sets themselves caught nobody's interest.
just so I can stop hearing people ask
if they're gonna stop printing it.
WotC attempted to make core sets more palatable by increasing the power level, and while more core set cards crept into tourney decks, nobody really cared about the core sets. None of the reprints were so old or obscure that copies from earlier sets couldn't be easily traded for, so the packs just sat on the shelves. Ninth Edition's black bordered foils led to Tenth's "temporary" shift to black borders (which fooled nobody who was paying attention) got some attention, letting players get black bordered versions of cards like Hypnotic Specter for the first time in ages... but by and large, nobody cared. They looked at the checklist once it was spoiled, wondered how it would effect their standard decks, and saved up for the fall expansion.
The old core sets are gone, and the sweeping changes announced to change their function and mandate have had one of the most positive responses from the Magic community that I can remember. This wasn't a change people were clamoring for. I was as blindsided by the depth and scope of them as anyone else. But while many of WotC's other changes of late have seemed like stirring the pot or leaping desperately into something unknown, this is different. We know what new cards mean. And from the flavor of the few cards they have shown, this is more a return home, to what core sets could have been all along. Older core sets failed because they lacked the very things that made the game great in the first place - the innovation, the sense of discovery. Instead, core sets fell into easy patterns, repeating things because no one saw any need to change them. Maybe this new strategy won't work out as well as I expect, and maybe it will, but looking back at the last five or six core sets, I say a change was sorely needed.
By Daniel Rezendes on March 11th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Daniel Rezendes
Journeyman Wordsmith and Magic player for over a decade. In recent years, I've stopped sucking at writing, which is always a plus. Would certainly not say no to a job offer from WotC's continuity department.