How many words have been written arguing that Set X is the Worst Set Ever™? How many hours of YouTube videos are dedicated to ranting about how Magic: The Gathering is dying and Wizards of the Coast sucks and the latest set is terrible? Too many. Inspired by a thread I saw on Twitter about criticism and negativity in video game fandom, I want to set aside "edginess" and cynicism to bring some positivity back to Magic content. If we approach a set with no preconceptions, no unrealistic expectations, we reach a simple conclusion: All Sets Are Good.
This is a special edition of All Sets Are Good. This week, to celebrate the release of Dominaria and Magic's return to its most storied plane, we're taking a look at Legends. Not only was Legends set on Dominaria, it was the set that introduced the legendary mechanic that features prominently in Dominaria.
Legends: The Bad
Legends isn't a bad set given the time of its creation. Legends was one of the first Magic expansions to be designed, back when Wizards of the Coast only had five employees. Steve Conard and Robin Herbert designed the set in Vancouver after being introduced to Magic by Peter Adkinson. Steve was one of the five founders of Wizards of the Coast, and he recounted the story of Legends design for magicthegathering.com in 2002. Legends suffers from the same problems that most of the early sets fell victim to: wildly unbalanced cards, an ill-defined color pie, and trying to do too many things at once. For every Mana Drain, there's a Touch of Darkness. The ideas used in Legends, however, would go on to define the game of Magic.
The Good: Mechanics
Legends was the first set to feature multicolored spells, cards that require more than one color of mana to cast. While these have become a staple of Magic, at the time this was revolutionary. Interestingly, the only multicolored cards in the set were the legendary creatures, making them stand out even more.
Poison was also introduced in Legends,though it only appeared on two cards: Pit Scorpion and Serpent Generator. This was the first alternate win condition in Magic and would go on to appear in numerous sets, most recently in New Phyrexia.
Legends biggest innovation, however, were the titular legends. These legendary creatures represented unique characters, and as such only one card with that name could be on the battlefield at a time. The Legend Rule has gone through a number of changes over the years, which I'll go into later, but the core concept of unique singular creatures in card form has persisted. Legends also introduced legendary lands representing unique locations.
World enchantments are enchantments that represent a spell so powerful it transports the battlefield to another plane of existence. As such, there can only be one world enchantment on the battlefield at a time. If any player plays a world enchantment, all other world enchantments on the battlefield are put into their owners' graveyards as a state-based action. The concept of world enchantments would later inspire the Planechase variant, with a deck of cards representing the battle moving to a different plane of the Multiverse with different effects on the battle.
The other mechanics introduced in Legends were less exciting: rampage and bands with other. Rampage N is a keyword ability that give a creature +N/+N until end of turn for each creature blocking it beyond the first. Bands with other is one of the most counter-intuitive abilities ever introduced to Magic. Bands with other is a variant of banding (itself a difficult mechanic to understand) that restricts banding to cards with the same bands-with-other ability. The Magic 2010 rules update actually changed bands with other to make it more intuitive: bands with other now means the creature can band with creatures that share the specific characteristic, such as Master of the Hunt's Wolves of the Hunt tokens being able to band with other creatures named Wolves of the Hunt.
The Good: Notable Cards
Legends brought a number of important cards to Magic that would go on to become key parts of the game. Mana Drain is one of the best counterspells ever printed. The world enchantments Nether Void and The Abyss see significant play in eternal formats. Chain Lightning is a Legacy Burn staple. The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, a key card in the Legacy Lands deck, is currently the most valuable non-Power 9 card in Magic, with copies selling for as much as $3500 USD following a recent buyout.
Of the legendary creatures in Legends, one cycle stands above all others: the elder dragons. These creatures would become the namesake commanders for a niche variant of Magic known as Elder Dragon Highlander (You might have heard of it.) One of these, Nicol Bolas, is the current Big Bad of the Magic story.
Being set on Dominaria, there are a number of callbacks to the people and places of legends in Dominaria:
- Cathedral of Serra: The Church of Serra has long existed on Dominaria. Two notable cathedrals of Serra are the Temple of Serra at Epityr (shown on Clifftop Retreat) and the cathedral at Sursi (shown on Isolated Chapel).
- Dakkon Blackblade: Though Dakkon hasn't been seen in centuries, his weapon, the Blackblade, has been reforged. Currently it is in the hands of Belzenlok's Cabal.
- D'Avenant Archer: The archers of D'Avenant are still around in modern Dominaria, as shown by D'Avenant Trapper.
- Tetsuo Umezawa: Tetsuo Umezawa, one-time Emperor's Fist of Nicol Bolas's Madaran Empire, betrayed the elder dragon. He cast the Meteor Hammer spell, destroyed the Imperial Shrine, and trapped Bolas's spirit in the Meditation Realm. Finally on even grounds with the Planeswalker, Tetsuo rendered Bolas mostly-dead (His spark survived in a nearby time rift.) Tetsuo's descendant, Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive, is the latest in a long line of Umezawas.
- Nicol Bolas: Speaking of Bolas, he appears on two cards in Dominaria: The Eldest Reborn, which shows his return from the Madaran Rift just before the Mending, and In Bolas's Clutches, which shows the consequences of Liliana destroying her final demon and defaulting on her contract.
- Torsten Von Ursus: Torsten was the founder of Benalia. His Lost Edict would, after his death, leave the care of the nation in the hands of his seven lieutenants, who became the founders of the seven clans. Torsten is depicted in the stained glass window shown in History of Benalia.
- Tolaria: Though the island of Tolaria itself was destroyed when Barrin cast Obliterate at the end of the Phyrexian invasion, the name lives on in the Tolarian Academies.
- Urborg: When the plane of Rath overlayed onto Dominaria at the opening of the Phyrexian invasion, the Stronghold, seat of power for Rath's Evincar and source of the flowstone that made up the artificial plane, materialized in Urborg. Belzenlok has taken over the ruins of the Stronghold and made it the headquarters for the Cabal, as shown on Cabal Stronghold. Urborg is also home to the frog spirit Yargle, Glutton of Urborg.
The Good: Flavor and Story
Legends didn't have a story, per se. The set was filled with fantastic places and powerful heroes and villains, but with a few exceptions the characters and settings of Legends existed in a vacuum. Many of these characters would appear in early Magic comics, but for the most part they weren't expanded upon until the Legends novels in 2001-2002. The first trilogy of Legends novels (Legends Cycle I) retold one of the old comic stories but expanded it to three novels (Johan, Jedit, and Hazezon, named for the legendary creatures Johan, Jedit Ojanen, and Hazezon Tamar). The second trilogy (Legends Cycle II, consisting of Assassin's Blade, Emperor's Fist, and Champion's Trial) focused on Nicol Bolas and his Madaran Empire. These stories, both the pre-revision comics and the Legends Cycles I and II, firmly established that all of the places and people from Legends were located on Dominaria.
Even though it lacked a cohesive story at the time of its design, Legends was one of the most flavorful sets of early Magic. The designs were mostly top-down and captured Steve and Robin's vision of a greater world of powerful individuals. Even the wonky bad cards were flavorful. How would you stop a group of creatures who could travel the open plains? You build a Great Wall. How do you turn an unfavorable battle around and save your army? You blanket the battlefield in Darkness.
Much of what we take for granted today about Magic came from Legends. The idea that a spell could be cast using multiple colors of mana? The concept of historic figures and places as cards in your deck? The idea of alternate win conditions beyond life total and decking? All because of Legends.
Do you have a particular card from Legends that you love? Have you built a The Lady of the Mountain Commander deck you'd like to share? What set would you like to see get the All Sets Are Good™ treatment next? Let us know in the comments or tweet me at @_kaburi_!
Bonus Content! All Rules Are Good: the Legend Rule
Legends introduced the Legend Rule, or at least the first version of it. The rules surrounding legendary permanents have been changed twice now. When Legends was released, the legendary supertype only applied to lands (This would later be expanded to artifacts in Stronghold and enchantments in Betrayers of Kamigawa.) All legendary creatures had the creature type Legend, which gave us such fun text as Ertai, Wizard Adept's "Ertai, Wizard Adept counts as a Wizard" because the rules and templates of the era didn't allow for Legends to have other creature types.
The original Legend Rule stated that there could only be one Legend or legendary permanent with a given name on the battlefield at the same time. If you drew a second copy, that card was dead in your hand—you couldn't cast it. This didn't just apply to permanents you control—if you opponent had a copy of Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero on the battlefield, you couldn't cast your copy. This was never really a problem until the Rebel decks of the Mercadian Masques block, when games often came down to races to see who could cast Lin Sivvi first.
Interestingly, when Legends was first released, all Legends and legendary lands were immediately added to the Restricted List—the justification being that since they were unique places and people, you should only be allowed to have one copy in your deck (That policy, thankfully, didn't last very long.)
When Champions of Kamigawa was released, the Legend Rule was changed. The legendary supertype now applied to creatures, the Legend creature type was discontinued, and the Legend Rule itself was rewritten. Now, playing a second copy of a legendary permanent caused all other copies on the battlefield to be put into their owner's graveyards as a state-based effect. The Legend Rule still looked at permanents controlled by both players, which meant that redundant copies of a given legendary permanent now acted as pseudo-removal spells.
The current version of the Legend Rule was implemented with Magic 2014. Two important changes were made to the Legend Rule: now, rather than destroying all other copies of the legendary permanent when it enters the battlefield, the player may choose which copy to keep; in addition, the Legend Rule only applies to permanents that player controls. Two players may each control one copy of a legendary permanent with the same name. A slight tweak to the Legend Rule would come with Ixalan: the Planeswalker Uniqueness Rule was eliminated and all planeswalkers were given the legendary supertype.