MTGS Mini #13: Old Frontiers: Arabian Nights

MTGS Mini is the format that will be going up on Friday night/early Saturday from now on. MTGS Mini is a far more easygoing format. So sit back and relax while we relax... our standards. If this isn't your thing, take a break and we'll see you on Sunday night with Cranial Insertion!

Old Frontiers is a series of minis dedicated to exploring what each new set brought to the game. After all, what we take for granted today was yesterday's innovation.

Oldest Frontier

Set: Arabian Nights
Release Date: December 1993
Innovations: expansion sets to a core game, expansion symbols, cards representing unique characters, different flavor, lands with non-mana abilities, coin flipping, bands-sharing abilities, cumulative upkeep, spirit link, cantrips, expansion hosers, pain for cheapness, abilities usable by anyone, bringing in cards from outside the game, elephants.

Magic premiered at GenCon in 1993, and was a smashing success. Alpha sold out immediately. Beta sold out immediately. There were only ten million magic cards in the world, only 302 distinct ones. People craved more. But, instead of simply reprinting the same core game (which they did as well, with Unlimited, also in December), they printed an expansion set to that same core game. Board games had had expansions for years, but those were always optional rules – but for Magic, players could not simply choose to ignore cards and rules from an expansion, if their opponents chose to use them. The worry of an ever-expanding cardpool eventually collapsing under its own weight wore on the game’s early developers – still headed by Richard Garfield himself – but the game’s success demanded new cards.

To combat this, the original idea was for each new set to have a new card back, and be playable separately. To make sure opponents wouldn't be able to tell the top cards in your deck were going to be spells or not, basic lands were going to be included in each set as well. Luckily, this idea was scrapped after intensely negative reaction from surveyed players, and a last-minute decision by Richard Garfield. Garfield decided that the use of expansion symbols would allow players to regulate what sets they play, without having to reinvent the card back with every new set. But because of the lateness of this decision, one of the basic lands – Mountain – was included in the set, as rare as an uncommon but in a common slot.

Arabian Nights introduced 78 new cards to the Magic card pool – less than half the size of a modern ‘small’ expansion. Like the original set, the cards were of varying rarities – far more varied than in Alpha, in fact. Cards came in 8 card booster packs, with two cards from the uncommon print runs, and six cards from the common. Further experimentation with rarities would be done through Mirage.

Trial and Erorr
Looking at Arabian Nights today, it is immensely primitive, but the makings of future expansion sets was already present. Most noticeably, the setting, based on the stories of the 1001 Arabian Nights, differed greatly from the standard, Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy of Alpha and Beta. Important characters from the stories were made into cards, allowing players to control famous personages such as Aladdin and Ali Baba. While these stories were intentionally based on existing literature, the setting would later be reverse-engineered into the evolving Magic mythos as well.

But flavor alone does not the modern expansion make. Arabian Nights introduced new concepts to the game, as modern blocks do. The most important one by far is the utilization of non-Basic Lands for something other than mana production. Exotic locales from the Arabian Nights setting inspired a diverse assortment of lands, from the ubiquitous Desert to the powerhouse Library of Alexandria, as well as funny places like Elephant Graveyard and Island of Wak-Wak. Early on, it was a crap shoot as to whether non-basic lands would tap for mana – Desert, which one would think would be barren, did produce mana, while Oasis did not. This would continue through several expansions, until it was decided that mana production was the primary definition of the card type “Land,” and everything else would just be extra.

I Dream of Djinni (what would Freud have to say about that?)
In addition to the non-basic lands, Arabian Nights also introduced several other new themes and concepts to the game – though, to be fair, it would be hard for the first expansion NOT to have been innovative. Most noticeable and prevalent of these were the Djinns and Efreets, two cycles of four creatures (in every color but white) whose power was offset by effects harming their controller. The concept of trading drawbacks for power was a fundamental one, and of these eight creatures, three – Juzam Djinn, Serendib Efreet, and Ernham Djinn – saw a heavy play (and last I checked, if 37.5% or more of a class of cards see heavy play, it’s a good group of cards). Many other cards in Arabian Nights expanded on this drawback => benefit idea, probably proportionately more than in any set since. Consider the following list:

That’s over a fifth of the set, and its only the most direct examples. Cards such as these taught players that drawbacks can be worked around, or even made into benefits (as Brass Man’s often was), or in many cases, paled in comparison to the benefits (as with Juzam Djinn and City of Brass)

Another theme widely explored in the set is cards outside of your control – most famously coin flipping cards, which have been consistently popular with a segment of players. Drop of Honey and Cyclone were recurring, difficult to control effects, while Ifh-Biff Efreet went further and allowed your opponent as much control as you had. The most drastic example of shared-control has to be Shahrazad, to this day one of the most annoying cards in the game.

Besides all this, Arabian Nights introduced a huge array of new mechanics for such a small set. It brought about spirit link, cumulative upkeep, expansion hosers, creature-type hosers, the first variant on landwalk, using cards fromoutside the game, goes-to-graveyard triggers, situational drawing, power and toughness resetting, banding creatures that share their abilities, cantrips, and of course, the tournament-defining elephant tribe. Not to mention experiments with conditional effects (and political incorrectness to boot).

As I said before, it would be hard for any first expansion not to be highly innovative, but even so, the amount of design space just barely touched upon was staggering. Numerous cycles, such as Mercadian Masques’ Mongers or, most famously, Judgement’s Wishes were inspired by cards in the set, while entire mechanics such as Fading and cumulative upkeep have obvious roots here. Not all mechanics touched on took off – expansion hosers and band-sharing abilities would vanish about the same time as ante cards – but that does not lessen the innovation.

Turns of the Color Wheel
The idea of each color having its own identity is fundamental to the game, and was clear in Richard Garfield’s mind – the analogy he used was, if all the colors were the same, it would be no different from choosing your pieces in Sorry. This is why there are only not any self-destructive Djinn and Efreet in White, but is in fact a Djinn and Efreet hoser. Further, considering the adventuresome setting, White was given some more aggressive cards, like Eye for an Eye, Army of Allah, and Jihad, giving room for white to be a far more aggressive color than it was originally. The precedent was set to give Green the most interesting symmetrical effects, though this part of its identity would be more of universal benefit than universal detriment. Islandhome was expanded as Blue’s disadvantage of choice, and would remain around for some time – and it was also given some aggressive cards that seem out of place today. Red was set as the coin-flipping color, while Black was set along a path of cheap creatures that hurt, which would end up combining rather well with Dark Ritual. There were a few strikeouts in placement – most notably, Ali from Cairo, which must make sense in Red if you know his story (or something). Interestingly, Ali from Cairo was on the very first banned list – shows how far the game has come in 12+ years, doesn't it?

Notable Cards
Library of Alexandria – Power Ten for a reason. The only memory I have of this card is using it on the old Micropose computer game… and it was very good. Good enough, in fact, for Strip Mine to be printed in the next set. One must wonder though… with the speed and non-basic hate of Vintage and Legacy, would the card have much of an impact if unrestricted/unbanned today?
Kird Ape – Good before Gruul Beats, and good today. Some classics can withstand the test of time. The idea, however, was not entirely original, considering Limited Edition’s Sedge Troll.

Vest of Show
Island of Wak-Wak – besides having one of the most amusing card names of all time, this card is surprisingly good in my favorite format, mental magic—most of the good creatures fly! So bizarre.

Next time: Antiquities


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