Prehistoric Pie: The Enduring Influence of the Original Recipe

Magic design has come a long way since 1993. It has become more streamlined and, yes, elegant—but a surprising amount of modern design traces all the way back to the very foundational sets of the game. With the lens of the modern color pie and power levels, the old sets hold up quite well—but not perfectly. This is to be expected, of course. What is interesting, however, is the precedents these early cards set—and how R&D continues to be influenced by them.

I'm not here to say what they got right--which was an astonishing amount. I'm not here to point out what they got wrong, either—not exactly. I'm here to point out what they got wrong... but continued to repeat because those 'mistakes' had become part of the game's design vocabulary.

Many of the modern design tropes have existed from the very beginning of the game. Either because of Garfield’s foresight, or the later organic growth from the original sets, things like common mana elves, cheap burn, etc. have been around since the beginning, and are critical in defining not only the various colors, but the very way the game is played.

Now several of these design tropes contradict modern design philosophy and color definitions. What is interesting about these, however, is that while they should no longer apply, they continue to turn up. New cards are designed to emulate them, cards that would not be designed for any other reason than to emulate the famous precedents. Some of these have been rehabilitated, while others remain odd throwbacks, which inevitably pale in comparison to the originals.

The first group is the easiest to recognize, and really has two categories: cards that were the wrong power level, and cards that were the wrong color. It’s actually rather arguable whether any of the former group—cards originally too strong or too weak that have since been redone more fairly (by modern standards)—should count. Would Counterspell fit here? Probably not—it’s certainly in flavor for blue, simply undercosted by civilized standards. However, Lightning Bolt could be considered here. If Shock had been printed in its stead, would we have Sonic Seizure, or Fiery Temper, or Lava Spike, or Strafe? We certainly wouldn’t have Rift Bolt. Without the memory of Lightning Bolt, R&D wouldn’t have the extra impetus to squeeze one more damage into the R burn spells—usually with situational or downright debilitating drawbacks. However, that sort of tension—more power with less reliability—is a simple design leap to make. I’m sure we’d still see cards like this… but not as many following the 3 damage for R formula.

The second group of rehabilitated early cards are the ones that were simply in the wrong color. These are easy to spot now, but because they had existed since the beginning of the game, have been very hard to spot or admit to. The easiest example here is Disenchant. I always wondered, if White was so otherwise focused on enchantments, while Red easily killed artifacts, and Green could kill both, why Disenchant was white. But because it always HAD been, it continued on as a white card, in all of its various permutations, until WotC finally copped to its mistake and shifted to Naturalize in Onslaught (though White still gets less efficient versions from time to time). Also starting with that set, the Tim ability shifted to Red from its original (and befuddling) place in Blue. But how did these cards start in the wrong place to begin with?

Most of these mistakes came from the more flavor-based design of Alpha and the other early sets. While Garfield had a good idea of color definitions, cards were designed on a concept-by-concept basis, and considering that, you can make sense of how the cards came to be. “Disenchant”ing something falls into the ‘purification’ category, so of course it would be white. Prodigal Sorcerer was a wizard, and wizards are blue… so who cares what its ability is? (This reasoning, by the way, is why, for a long time, blue could do anything it wanted.

Now, those two are easy examples, but there are much fuzzier ones. Consider Dark Ritual, which was designed to complete a cycle, under the reasoning ‘what would Black get three of for one mana?’ Dark Ritual was an astonishingly defining card, leading to some of the most terrifying openings of early Magic. Ritual==>Necropotence. Ritual==>Hypnotic Specter. Heck, even Ritual==>Black Knight + Unholy Strength was pretty darned strong. And that’s not getting into the horrific double-ritual starts. Black was so defined by Dark Ritual, many wondered how the color could even compete, or continue to function when they stopped printing it. But few, at the time, asked—should the card even be black? It had been a defining feature of the color for so long, few asked how it fit into Black’s slice of the ‘color pie’ (which was really more of a nebulous concept at the time, without any official name). WotC emulated it as much as they dared – with Basal Thrull, Culling the Weak, Priest of Gix, Lake of the Dead and the like, but were quick enough to realize multiple cascading ritual effects could lead to bad news. Once they stopped printing Ritual, though—and it’s offshoots—they were able to consider the flavor of the effect, and realized it was much more in line with Red’s immediate-gratification flavor.

So, why was Ritual in Black in the first place, and why did it stay there? Much the same reason Blue got away with Timming for so long. Blue had Wizards, and Wizards could do anything; Black had Evil, and Evil can do anything, too. These two reasons alone are why Blue and Black took up so much of the original color pie. And continue to. Consider the card at right:

Why is this card black? Other than the “Diabolic” in the title. Because black does Tutoring effects, and always has? If you thought that, you’re missing my point. Where does Tutoring fit into black’s philosophy? It seeks personal gain at any price—and so far as cards like Vampiric Tutor and Grim Tutor are concerned I can buy that. I mean, hurting itself for gain, THAT is Black. But a straight one for one Tutor effect, without life loss or any sacrifice? What makes that black, besides the negative adjectives before the word Tutor?

Am I arguing that Black should no longer get Tutor effects? Not exactly. But I AM saying that Tutor effects without an additional cost don’t actually fit with Black, whatever tradition may say. Tutoring is just one of many effects whose color definition was originally dictated not by the effect itself, but by the simple name it was given. Hopefully, we'll see mostly self-destructive tutor effects in the future.

Another category of cards many consider in a similar vein is Wrath of God. White is the #2 creature color, so why would it be so good at killing them all? WotC answers this by saying that White is the color of balance and equality, though it doesn’t so much mind if it can swing balance in its flavor. I’ll leave this one up to debate, as to whether it truly is in favor for White, or simply so entrenched by tradition it just seems to be. (That's what forums are for, after all, right?)

These sorts of cards—or the ones people think might be—are the hardest to argue about, because there’s a natural tendency towards tradition and conservatism. Every little change WotC makes is heralded as the ‘end of Magic’ by the doomsayers of the world, though they don’t take a moment and ask why the change is being made. For the longest time, “Prevent all combat damage dealt this turn,” was predominantly Fog related, simply because it always had been and nobody thought to ask why the color most focused in the attack phase would be so good at nullifying it. That’s just how it is, and how dare WotC change it, eh? When they did, many players were annoyed, it seemed like Green was losing a strong part of its identity... but now that the dust (or rather, fog) has settled, it really does make more sense.

A final facet of the wrong-color group is the pair-cycles--two cards obviously designed to mirror each other, like White Knight and Black Knight or the Red and Blue Elemental Blasts. These two-card cycles--usually mutual hosers--started the tradition of colors being able to do things they normally shouldn't be able to, so long as it's against an enemy color. The Blasts are a fine case in point, as Blue is of course good at countering but not destroying things, while Red is the total opposite. With the Knights, both Protection and First Strike (and heck, even a 2/2 for 2) aren't something you normally see in Black but are common in White, yet you see this relationship appear again and again. However, the cycles where neither color is in its element--such as Lifeforce/Deathgrip, have mostly been abandoned, which is largely for the good.

Now, for the final and most interesting type of trope-setting cards—the Nostalgia set. These are cards so iconic and so defining that WotC remakes them as much as Disney remakes all its live action flicks once a generation (sideline: Just how many more versions of The Shaggy Dog or Freaky Friday can Disney make and still escape UN Sanctions?). The offenders here are obvious—Black Lotus. Moxec. Ancestral Recall. Strip Mine. Just to name a few. These are cards that are defined not by their mechanic but the presentation of the mechanic. If not for Lotus, would Lion’s-Eye Diamond exist? If not for Timetwister, would there be a Time Spiral, or Temporal Cascade, or Diminishing Returns?

Some of these effects are unfair at any reasonable price—such as the Draw 7 effect of Timetwister. Either the new cards inspired by them are overpowered, or they are overpriced. But others are memorable because of their costs. For example, Strip Mine: a land that can destroy lands! That was too powerful, but too iconic to let alone. They tried to fix it with Wasteland—also too good. Then came Dust Bowl—getting warmer, but still on the strong side. Finally came Ghost Quarter, which I think is as close as we’ll get to a balanced Strip Mine effect. And it’s pretty lame—because in the end, Strip Mine style cards can’t be strong and fair at the same time.

Let me segue, as I tend to do, into a short commentary on the Eternal formats. Color definition is a little different in Legacy and Vintage than in Extended and Standard, because most or all of these cards exist and are legal there. Ask any Extended or Standard player what the best creature removal color is, they’ll say Black or Red, and be right. But ask a Legacy player… and the answer is White. White?! Why yes, and just because of one little card:

Swords to Plowshares has no business being white—possibly no existence at all. The closest I can find to a fair ‘version’ of the effect is Vendetta. The fact that Swords can hit ANY creature (virtually), and outright remove it from the game… no other White card does that, without combat being somehow involved. And all of this for a meager W! Yes, and therein lies the trap—for no matter how many ‘gain life equal to it’s toughness’ kill spells R&D put out, none carried the Swords vibe… but any white spell that could kill a creature for W is (at least initially) heralded as “A new Swords!” The impulse is so strong that Time Spiral’s Gaze of Justice is often called a Swords variant, while it was really inspired more by Hand of Justice. That and most other new versions end up being a let down—Reciprocate hurt too much, Devouring Light was too situational. Condemn, however, has turned a rare trick, being tolerably playable as well as recognizably reminiscent of the original. It’s almost like somebody’s been designing cards for a living or something!

Not all of these Nostalgic trope-setters are overpowered, however; some would be perfectly reprintable, if not for that horrible document called the Reserve List. (For those who don't know, after Chronicles torpedoed the secondary market, WotC created a list of cards from each set which it promised, cross its heartstone and hope to die, never to reprint. Well, except the uncommons that used to be on the list, they didn't mean that. Really.) Many of these cards are still in the proper color, and still interesting enough to emulate, but if they were reprinted, wouldn't be worth a damn. The best example here, I think, is Juzam Djinn--once a terror, now a sliver. Because of the overall better creature (and removal) quality these days, and the lack of a certain unlight rite, Juzam would merely fade into the background of all his descendants. Proof of this concept comes in the lovely form of Serra Angel, once a terror from the skies removed from the Fifth Edition for power level concerns, only to return in Seventh Edition to much fanfare--and zero play. She's still the same angel, but how the world has changed. Sometimes, it's best to let the legend lie.

Anyway, instead of a closing paragraph, I think I’ll put a few more cards down for you all to ponder and discuss.

Wall of Stone and other Red walls – why would these cards exist? Red is the most offensive, balls-to-the… well, maybe not the best turn of phrase for this assessment. But the point is, why would Red have so many high toughness critters that just plain can’t attack?

Force of Will—Unfair at any playable price? Can R&D design a ‘free’ counterspell that is playable, but at the same time fair? Or have they already?

And, finally…

Healing Salve Ancestral Recall Dark Ritual Lightning Bolt Giant Growth

The celebrated Alpha ‘boon’ cycle happens to illustrate all the major categories I’ve discussed here. Which of these cards were mistakes, and what sort of mistakes? What new cards have been inspired by those mistakes, that wouldn’t exist if not for these original cards?

Please, share your answers in the discussion thread, along with any comments or other such cards I didn’t mention. Until next time (whenever that might be!)


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