This entry is part 6 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

Welcome back to part two of my retrospective about the lands of Magic: the Gathering. If you missed the previous segment, be sure to catch up on part 1, which covers the early expansions.

 

 

In the early years, Magic was designed somewhat on a whim by just a handful of amateurs. The game was such a massive success in its early years that it became clear to Wizards that a team of professionals was needed to work on the game full time and build it into an industry franchise. In the beginning, sets were released at irregular intervals and had dramatically different development cycles. To help develop the game, the decision was made to expand the in-house R&D department and to design sets around a single continuous story that would unify the different characters and themes showcased in each set. To ensure consistent sales and continued player engagement, each year would feature new product releases that were mechanically linked and thematically consistent. These annual releases would become known as “blocks.”

 

These blocks offered a set of cards that felt cohesive and played well together. This focused the scope of design and greatly simplified the task of playtesting new cards. It also facilitated the development of limited formats such as sealed deck, Rochester draft, and booster draft. As a marketing tool, Limited was the perfect idea. It required players to purchase sealed booster packs each and every time they wanted to play. Wizards quickly adapted this idea for use in Constructed.

 

The focus on playing with the newest cards would lead to a division in tournament formats. A new format called “Type 2” was created that would only include the latest releases and would rotate on a consistent basis to move older sets out of the format. By contrast, “Type 1” was the current paradigm for tournament decks: A format where all cards previously printed could be played alongside one another in the same deck, rewarding players for commitment and longevity in the game. These two formats would go on to become what we currently call Standard and Vintage. The expectation of designing sets with these new formats in mind heavily influenced the way cards were made. It was the mission of R&D to maximize the impact that new sets would make in these formats to help increase player engagement and grow tournament attendance and sales. The first set designed under the block structure was Mirage, debuting in October of 1996.

 

Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight

Mirage block came with an exciting present which would upend the conventional wisdom of building Magic mana bases. The first ally color fetchlands were incredibly important because they specifically referenced land subtypes instead of “basic lands.” For the first time you had a mechanism to search out your dual lands, thinning your deck and fixing your colors at the same time. The merits of this strategy would be debated for years, but nowadays the fetch/dual mana base is standard technology in Commander and every format where both types of cards are legal.  

 

Visions brought the awesome Karoo cycle, but the only multicolor land was Undiscovered Paradise. This was an update to Rainbow Vale, but not enough of an improvement to gain any traction. In the two intervening years, mana-fixing had undergone a massive escalation in power level thanks to the Ice Age Painlands and expectations were starting to climb.

 

Weatherlight expanded upon the Karoo lands by adding colorless and five color variants: Scorched Ruins and Lotus Vale. The most important contribution however, was Gemstone Mine which has been a favorite in fast combo decks ever since because it comes into play untapped and only has a drawback in the late game.

 

Tempest/Stronghold/Exodus

Tempest moved into bold new territory. It updated the Ice Age land cycles for a new combo-centric competitive environment. First, the depletion cycle received a spiritual reprint that cleaned up the templating and removed the need for counters: Thalakos Lowlands. Second, Tempest introduced enemy colored dual lands with a cycle of Ice Age-style pain lands that came into play tapped: Skyshroud Forest. Although this hindered the tournament playability of these cards, it was seen as a fitting design choice because, after all, shouldn’t enemy colored pairs be harder to play with…? Oh, how far we have come. Tempest also had the multiformat all-star Reflecting Pool which would accrue a high price tag as it waited for more than a decade for its first reprint.

 

The rest of the block had no other mana-fixing lands, but did offer tournament staples in Wasteland, Ancient Tomb, Volrath’s Stronghold, and City of Traitors. Notably, Stronghold has the distinction of being the first set with a card that is all five colors: Sliver Queen. Slivers presented a legitimate strategic reason to play all five colors and Tempest showcased their power by supplying a cycle of both allied- and enemy-colored dual lands.

 

Tempest was the first set for a budding designer named Mark Rosewater, who we’re all familiar with now because of his position as Magic’s Lead Designer. The internal procedure for how Magic sets were made began to more closely resemble the modern design and development silos. Also around this time, the Pro Tour was thriving and R&D thought that they could improve the game by bringing some pro players into the design department. Aaron Forsythe, Randy Buehler, Mike Turian, and others from among Magic’s early competitive years have become prominent members of the R&D department because of their insight into the upper echelons of Magic’s strategy.

 

Saga/Legacy/Destiny

Urza block has become infamous because of its uncharacteristically high power level. Several cards led to broken decks, degenerate strategies, and unfun game states. This was largely due to the compressed development cycle for the block. For Urza’s Destiny, Wizards needed a new set to meet their release schedule, but couldn’t commit a full team of designers to the task because of resource constraints. Mark Rosewater took on the Herculean task of designing all the cards himself and was primarily responsible for most of the design and development of the entire set. Because of the strict schedule, very limited testing was done to ensure the cards would play well. The result was that many cards would eventually be banned from competitively play and an entire season of competitive events would wear the ominous moniker of “Combo Winter” because of their lopsided tournament finishes.

 

Urza block’s lands were more focused on acceleration than on fixing. There were several lands that produced multiple mana and the whole Academy/Cradle/Sanctum group has broken the game at many different points. Thran Quarry however, is an underrated five-color land that has no drawback, as long as you can keep a creature in play. Urza’s Legacy had colored manlands, which could break stalls and added inevitability to a variety of different decks. Although this cycle was modeled on the earlier success of Mishra’s Factory, none of them would equal the factory in sheer power level. Urza’s Destiny added only Yavimaya Hollow, which would become a Cube staple.

 

Mercadian Masques/Nemesis/Prophecy

After the debacle with Urza block, the fans demanded more internal testing and tighter controls on new products. Wizards responded by dramatically reducing the power level of the upcoming sets in Masques block and seeding them with answers for the powerful mana accelerators available in the Type 2 format. Where Urza block let you get ahead on mana, Masques block seemed to be more about putting your opponent behind. The griefer staples Dust Bowl, Rishadan Port, and Wintermoon Mesa joined a host of cards with the Rhystic mechanic, which would allow you to diminish the effects of your opponent’s spells by paying some amount of mana or forcing them to pay extra.

 

To help defray all of these extra costs, Masques included cycles of nonbasic lands at both common and uncommon that could produce multiple mana in a turn. However, these lands were quite slow and their power level was too low to be viable in competitive lists. Ultimately Masques block did little to correct the mistakes of the previous year.

 

Invasion/Planeshift/Apocalypse

Although Legends, Ice Age, and Mirage had toyed with the idea of multicolor decks, IPA was the first full block fully devoted to the theme of multicolor cards. Suddenly mana-fixing was showing up at every rarity. A cycle of commons that could be sacrificed to produce two ally colors of mana effectively updated the old “sac for two” cycle from Fallen Empires. There was also a cycle of uncommon dual lands that came into play tapped, but had no other drawbacks, something of a revolution at the time.

 

Planeshift would continue this trend, adding the uncommon “Lair” cycle and the limited all-star Terminal Moraine. It also had some truly horrid rare lands in Forsaken City and Meteor Crater.

 

Apocalypse focused specifically on the enemy color pairings and emphasised the three color enemy wedges. The breakthrough of this set was the determination that enemy color decks didn’t need additional drawbacks. The enemy color painlands now entered the battlefield untapped and unleashed a revolutionary wave of three color decks across Type 2.

 

After almost a decade following the ongoing story of the Weatherlight’s crew and how they fit into the larger scheme of Urza’s war against the Phyrexians, Magic’s creative department decided a change was in order. We would leave behind the plane of Dominaria and begin telling a new story on a different plane: Otaria.

 

Odyssey/Torment/Judgment

Odyssey featured some brilliant new cycles of color fixing lands. A common cycle which could sacrifice to produce any color was great, but kind of old hat given their similarity to the common cycle from the previous year’s Invasion block. However, at the rare slot the real developments were happening: Filter lands. The concept of trading one color of mana for another goes all the way back to the beginning of Magic, but unlike School of the Unseen, these new filter lands let you tap two lands and receive two mana in exchange–the definition of efficiency. There was also Tarnished Citadel, which is the opposite of efficiency. It is objectively the worst iteration of City of Brass.

 

Torment was “the Black set” and featured a cycle of uncommon lands that offered additional color benefits if you had swamps in play. The first: Cabal Coffers is well known to Commander players. The other four, the “Tainted” cycle, were subtly the best dual lands that had seen print since Alpha. If you put swamp in play they produced two colors with no drawback. Even if you had no swamp, they still came into play untapped and produced colorless mana. Despite their flexibility and power, they didn’t garner much attention.

 

In contrast to Torment, Judgment was the “anti-Black” set, dedicated to Black’s enemy colors: White and Green. It featured a G/W man land: Nantuko Monastery. A land that let all your other lands tap for White and Green if you could pitch it: Riftstone Portal; which wasn’t so hard because discard and Madness were primary themes in the block. And lastly, Krosan Verge which stapled together fixing and acceleration and allowed you to search for your dual lands. It was around this time that the thing that would be Commander started taking shape and Verge was a key selling point for G/W/X decks.

 

Onslaught/Legions/Scourge

Onslaught brought with it the single most important development in mana-fixing since the original dual lands, a monumental achievement which has since been equalled, but never surpassed: fetchlands. They entered the battlefield untapped and so did the land that they searched up. They were templated such that they could search out both basics and the original duals and only cost you one point of life up front. This was a huge discount over painlands, which usually stole 2-3 life per game. Additionally, Grand Coliseum finally gave us a spiritual successor to City of Brass that wasn’t a total embarrassment.

 

Legions had nothing. Literally. The first Magic set to include no lands, but not the last.

 

Scourge included fan favorite Temple of the False God. This card has never produced any color and sometimes produces no mana at all, but it has consistently showed up in casual formats like Cube and Commander as a fair and inexpensive land that produces multiple mana. The templating of the drawback prevents it from functioning as an accelerator early in the game and this wording became the model for how to adapt broken lands for modern play. You can see it implemented on cards like Tectonic Edge and Shrine of the Forsaken Gods.

 

Mirrodin/Darksteel/Fifth Dawn

As a primarily artifact based set, Mirrodin decks had very low color requirements both in limited and constructed. As a result, people often played four or five colors of cards, but would usually only have one or two cards of each color, so if they couldn’t cast them, it wasn’t a gamebreaker. Mirrodin’s only multicolor land was Glimmervoid, essentially a Thran Quarry for artifacts, which paired well with the cycle of common artifact lands. Darksteel contained Mirrodin’s Core, an excellent budget option that came into play untapped and was able to produce all five colors later in the game.

 

Like Legions, Fifth Dawn also had literally nothing, but it doesn’t even get the distinction of being first. What a disappointment.

 

Mirrodin has become an infamous block for the damage it did to the game’s reputation and tournament attendance. The utter dominance of the Affinity archetype nearly killed the game, with players leaving by the thousands every month. Eventually, the DCI instituted an emergency ban, which axed several key cards, and called for another reform in the testing processes used by the development team. Unfortunately, by the time they got a handle on the Affinity problem, the damage had been done. The game entered into something of a dark age as it slowly worked to earn back the trust of the fans. As a result the following year’s Kamigawa block went largely ignored by many players.

 

Champions/Betrayers/Saviors

With the release of Kamigawa block came a new version of the “Legend rule” and Wizards included legendary cards to promote the set and cement the new rules change in player’s minds. Although the set featured several legendary nonbasic lands like Hall of the Bandit Lord and Minamo, School at Water’s Edge, the theme fell flat with players. In order for the theme to be noticeable, a critical mass of cards supporting the theme is needed, but it is tough to meet that threshold using only the top rarity. Rares appear rarely by definition. To compensate, all of the rare creatures in the set were retooled to carry the legendary supertype, but this was an awkward solution. Legendary characters were supposed to be unique and scarce. If they showed up too much, they lost some of their luster. The cross purposes underlying this theme held the block back from being a commercial success, but it has long held a deep cult appeal among players who stuck out the dog days between Mirrodin and Ravnica.

 

There were of course some standouts: the Vintage staple Forbidden Orchard, casual favorite Mikokoro, Center of the Sea, and Tendo Ice Bridge. The latter ended up being a poor imitation of Gemstone Mine, but it has seen occasional competitive play. There was also a cycle of “slow duals” that was nothing more than a thematic rebranding of the same cycle from Tempest.

 

Ravnica/Guildpact/Dissension

Ravnica was Wizards best hope for salvaging Magic as a gaming property. Sales were dwindling and event attendance was at the lowest point since the inception of the Pro scene. Wizards R&D turned to the only idea they knew would get players excited: a multicolor block. It had worked several years earlier to energize the game after Masques block and luckily it got the job done here too. Ravnica block was the spiritual successor to Invasion block: a full dedication to multicolor decks and mechanical themes which united multiple colors in a fresh way. Ravnica’s shtick was that all the cards fell into a Guild, a two-color association. Ten guilds, one for each two-color pairing, all with equal status and standing in the design of the set.

 

Across the three sets were spread three cycles of lands: Shocklands, bounce lands, and the guild houses. Shocklands, so named for their drawback of causing a two-damage Shock, were a modern update of the original dual lands, but with a reduced power level to match the more refined state of the game in 2006. Although they included a drawback, they kept the subtyping of the original duals, which was the core essence of why they were so good. As time went on, we’d see that paying two life once was a small price to pay for such a powerful mana fixer, so it wasn’t much a drawback after all… unless you’re Conley Woods.

 

The second cycle was the famous “bounce lands.”This was an update to and strict upgrade of the the Karoo cycle. No longer did you have to sacrifice your land and the land you returned didn’t even have to be untapped. The best part? These cards were commons and they continue to be a driving force for consistent mana in Pauper decks and budget lists to this day.

 

The last cycle was a set of utility lands which represented the club house for each of the guilds. Although these lands produced only colorless mana, they had activated abilities which coincided with their guild’s themes.

 

The Dissension set included Pillar of the Paruns to help push a multicolor-only strategy in constructed and also Ghost Quarter to help rein that strategy in. Eventually, both cards would become important in the Modern format for completely different reasons, although at the time Modern wasn’t even a twinkle in Helen Bergeot’s eye.

 

So R&D pulled off a miracle. They saved the game with their beautiful golden dream of a set. And how best to capitalize on this newfound prosperity? Well, just like they did after the success of Antiquities, R&D flew off the rails.

 

Coldsnap

For whatever reason, Wizards decided a throwback was in order. Coldsnap returned to the setting and story of the Ice Age block to tie up some loose ends in the plot and shine the spotlight on some characters that would appear in the upcoming Time Spiral Block. Wizards is a relatively small organization and the personalities of the people working there really shine through in the decisions of the company. Especially in the early days, those quirky personalities led to some moves that would seem strange today.  I am not privileged to know why exactly Coldsnap was greenlit, but I favor the narrative that the design team had earned a little leeway after hitting a homerun with Ravnica and Mark Rosewater decided to cash in that goodwill immediately to pitch a whacky idea. Classic Rosewater.

 

The selection of nonbasic lands in this set was limited, but it did include a cycle of two-color snow lands modeled off of the uncommon cycle from Invasion, a personal pet card in Scrying Sheets, and the tournament staple Dark Depths.

 

Time Spiral/Planar Chaos/Future Sight

Time Spiral’s story was the wet dream of a revisionist history author. The timelines of every previous Magic set are smashed together in a giant comic book style crossover of mismatched characters and themes. This would ultimately play out as a disastrously complex limited environment which was much maligned for its excessively wordy text boxes and widespread use of onboard tricks. For players who could make sense of what was going on, the set did gift us many important lands: a budget fetchland for basics: Terramorphic Expanse, a storage land cycle that was designed for unprecedented flexibility and power, and Vesuva which would go on produce all five colors in conjunction with Lorwyn’s Vivid cycle and massive amounts of colorless mana by copying Mirrodin’s Cloudpost.

 

Planar Chaos added only Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth whose primary purpose is to power up Cabal Coffers, but it also enables fetchlands to tap for mana which is occasionally important. Even though there weren’t many exciting lands to play with, this set was still a hit because of the strange color pie inversions it enabled. Color-shifted versions of classic cards like Damnation built demand for the set and drove up prices in the secondary market.

 

Future Sight was supposed to represent a vision of the future. A possible path which the timeline could take. In the set were certain “timeshifted” cards that were said to be brought directly from upcoming releases to give us a super-spoiler about the future of Magic. Among these were a cycle of lands that was quite radical. Players hoped that each member of the allied color dual land cycle was actually just one member from a different future cycle. After all, Graven Cairns showed up the very next year in Lorwyn block. Players were very disappointed when it was revealed that this dream wouldn’t come true. These lands are all quite popular, but sadly their matching cycle mates have yet to see print: Grove of the Burnwillows, the un-pain land; Nimbus Maze, a callback to the Torment tainted lands; Horizon Canopy, a land too strong to print four more of; and last, but not least, River of Tears, a land that seems to have been cut straight from the design file for Zendikar’s Landfall mechanic.

 

Lamenting the list of Future Sight cards that haven’t yet been given their own sets is a quadra-annual festival that takes place during every spoiler season as we all hope to see Tarmogoyf and Tombstalker be granted “legit” printings, but are constantly disappointed. The truth is that, at the time, all of these ideas were just shots in the dark and didn’t represent fully designed future sets. As the years have gone by, the design team has re-evaluated all of the timeshifted cards and decided that some of them are manifestly unfit for a current set release. None of the sets releasing in 2016 had even begun their design cycles when Future Sight went to print, so we can conclude that any remaining timeshifted designs have either been shelved or discarded.

 

At the conclusion of the competitive season following Time Spiral block’s release, Magic still found itself in pretty dire straits. The design team had moved massive amounts of product by pandering to the player base with a multicolor dreamland and then a block based entirely on nostalgia. The real trouble was that, despite revitalized sales figures, the game wasn’t growing. Ravnica and Time Spiral were both complex limited environments and they were tough sets for new players to digest. R&D needed to come up with a new design paradigm what would be embraced by new players if the game was to endure through the coming decade. In next week’s entry we will take a look at the solution they came up with: the so-called “New World Order.”

 

Did you love drafting Invasion/Planeshift/Apocalypse and Time Spiral/Planar Chaos/Future Sight because dense textboxes are your jam?! Was Mirrodin-Kamigawa Standard your guilty pleasure? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

 

Series Navigation<< [Actually Technology]: “In General” – A Less Brief History of Mana Bases, Part 3: Lorwyn to Innistrad[Actually Technology]: “In General” – A Brief History of Mana Bases, Part 1: Alpha to Homelands >>