MTGS Mini #12: Old Frontiers: Alpha/Beta/Unlimited

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.

Set: Limited Editon (Alpha and Beta)
Release Date: July/August 1993
Innovations: Collectability, Customizability, Resource System, Color Pie, Cycles... basically, the entire bloody game.

And lo, Richard Garfield spake, and brought Magic into the world.

It was 1993, and the mathematics professor and game designer hit upon one of those rare, genuinely new ideas -- why not make a card game where the cards used are different each time? Where players can customize their decks, to work in different ways? It was a watershed idea, that gave birth to the entire TCG industry.

I've always loved +1/+1
(head) counters.
While the idea of a game with collectible parts was novel, Magic would not have persisted this long if not for stellar gameplay. The two innovations of the original core game that make Magic a classic are its system of resource management -- the system of lands -- and the primitive color pie.

Land Management
Incorporating the resources used to forward your strategy into the same deck as the resources was a master stroke so fundamental to the game it is difficult to see how important it is. The one-land-per-turn rule guarantees that the development of each player's game plan will not exceed a certain rate, allowing for the possibility of disruption and interaction that makes gameplay fun.

Pie in the Sky
The other main reason the game has so much staying power is the customizability of decks and strategies, and the basis for this is the concept of the color pie. Each color has its own strengths and weaknesses, and using all the colors introduces a shaky mana base. What this means is, there is no one perfect deck or strategy, as every one has its weaknesses.

The original model of the game's distribution was far different from what was anticipated. The initial developers knew many of the cards were overpowered, but did not expect people to buy more than a handful of cards apiece -- if there was only one Ancestral Recall in an area, it would be legendary. Indeed, this was a time before online spoilers, and information on the game in general was hard to come by. Moreover, cards that did not fit the idea of a color, but worked for flavor reasons -- like Roc of Kher Ridges and Timber Wolves -- were printed at higher rarities than versions in the proper colors, like

Have you heard of that card
that punishes you for playing
your cards too close together?
Phantom Monster and Benalish Hero.

The color wheel was a lot more fast and loose back then -- there wasn't the specifically defined psychological profile of each color we have today. White was order and goodness, blue was water and knowledge, black was evil and death, red was fire and destruction, and green was nature and growth. Abilities were not clearly assigned to any one color, and could thus appear wherever designers saw fit. The first 1 mana 1/1 flier was green, Blue got both spot and repeated direct damage, and White got the best spot removal. Most of these color misassignments came from overemphasis on flavor, though a few -- most famously, Dark Ritual and other burst-mana effects being Black instead of Red -- would only be deemed missasignments after years of design and development.

The game was much more popular than anyone anticipated, which caused the makers not only to reevaluate the size of their print runs, but also their design strategy. Many cards from Alpha/Beta/Unlimited were inspired by the high fantasy setting or general flavor, like Prodigal Sorcerer, Vesuvan Doppelganger, and Rock Hydra, that were popular, but set precedents that would be difficult for the game to overcome. Other cards demonstrated that the rules, while broad, had difficulty adapting to certain concepts, as shown by cards like Illusionary Mask, Raging River, and Word of Command, not to mention the legend-making Chaos Orb. While flavor-heavy cards would continue to be printed, concepts that didn't work so well in the rules would not be printed in such density again.

Other lessons learned were to not print such powerful cards as those now known as the Power Nine. The rules of the game itself were changed to limit the use of any cards other than basic land to four per deck, after expensive 20 Black Lotus, 20 Channel, 20 Fireball decks took all the fun out of it. The original Dual Lands (eventually including Volcanic Island, which missed the bus for Alpha) showed the danger of printing cards fundamentally better than staples like basic lands. And even from the beginning, things such as full cycles (the 3-for-1 boons, the Laces) and symmetrical cycles (White Night/Black Knight; Red Elemental Blasst/Blue Elemental Blast) were already there to help define the colors.

Next time: Arabian Nights


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