This entry is part 5 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 the first two parts, “Alpha to Homelands” and “Mirage to Time Spiral.”

 

 

Last week’s article chronicled an emotional rollercoaster during the “Block Era” for Wizards. In the beginning, things were great. The game was growing at a rapid pace and massive demand for cards led to high sales and even higher spirits. However, one of the biggest design mistakes in the game’s history lead to a quick decline: Mark Rosewater designed Urza block almost singlehandedly, which lead to lax testing and a competitive environment filled with degenerate combo decks. It took a while for the team at Wizards to dig themselves out of that hole, but they managed to do it with a sweet multicolor block: Invasion. After which, of course, they immediately jumped off the deep end into the weird pool.

 

And so a three-beat pattern emerged, the “Endless Waltz of R&D if you will:  

 

  1. Cruise along with nominal success for a time until an internal testing debacle threatens the very existence of the game.

  2. Right the ship by pandering to the crowd with a high-selling multicolor block.

  3. Cash in your newfound success to release a wonky idea.

 

We saw the pattern repeat again with Mirrodin, which tanked tournament attendance and drove players away from Magic in…well, droves. Without skipping a beat (*cough* Kamigawa *cough*), the design team loaded up a golden bullet in their gun and gave us a shot to the heart with Ravnica. Of course, to follow up such a monumental achievement, they gave us a double dose of weird: Coldsnap and Time Spiral block.

 

This article is going to discuss how R&D slowly built their chops back up while accomplishing two important goals: learning from the design/marketing mistakes of the past and ensuring the game stayed accessible to new players. The implementation of these goals would have a dramatic impact on mana base technology.

 

Before I begin, if you haven’t see Aaron Forsythe’s awesome talk “Between Ravnicas,” take the time to watch it. I’ll be touching upon much of the same information and there is no better place to get it than straight from the horse’s mouth. As the head of R&D for Magic: the Gathering, he has a ton of great insight into how the game is made, as well as how it’s played.

 

Lorwyn/Morningtide

We lead off with the follow up to Time Spiral’s weirdness: Lorwyn. A dynamic block that truly had something for everyone, Lorwyn included the first planeswalkers, a unique two-by-two block structure, tribal themes, multicolor elements, iconic legendary creatures, a completely opaque storyline, and a fun, (albeit somewhat wordy) Limited environment. Lorwyn included a large wealth of nonbasic lands, but they weren’t as powerful as some from Magic’s recent years, so it kind of gets a bad rap from players who don’t remember just how bad things use to be in the beginning.

 

At rare, there was a strange assortment of dual lands that entered the battlefield tapped unless you could reveal a particular type of creature card. These creature “Tribes” were a key theme in the design of the set and each tribe had its own land to go along with it. This was much the same as the tribal them in Onslaught block many years prior, except that this time the lands actually produced all the colors of mana you needed to cast the associated creatures.

 

To go along with this there was a new mechanic called Hideaway, which let you tuck a spell under your land and then cast it later if some arbitrary conditions were met. Lorwyn also provided an uncommon cycle of Vivid lands, which blended the ideas of Tendo Ice Bridge and Gemstone Mine. These lands combined incredibly well with Reflecting Pool, which would make a comeback in Shadowmoor. This led to the rapid proliferation of four- and five-color Control decks in Standard. The sole common nonbasic land was a five-color filter land: Shimmering Grotto.

 

Morningtide had tribe lands that were consistent in theme, but not so much in mechanics: Murmuring Bosk was a three-color Pain land for Treefolk; Rustic Clachan only produced White despite the fact that Kithkin would later show up in both Blue and Red; Primal Beyond made any color, but only for Elementals; and Mutavault was a sweet, colorless manland that showcased the versatility of the Changeling mechanic.

 

Lorwyn was also a big step forward for casual decks, especially the budding Commander format. The Vivid cycle was a particularly big help because, as of yet, there was no true five-color land at uncommon. A critical mass of quality fixing did not yet exist for budget players who wanted a deck that eschewed the classic Fetch/Dual mana base that was already popular in eternal formats at this time.

 

Shadowmoor/Eventide

In the story, The Great Aurora washes over Lorwyn, transforming it into a twisted dark world, ala Lorule in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This idea from the creative team let the card designers reinterpret the themes from the previous set in fresh ways.

 

Shadowmoor contained the first five filter lands from the cycle previewed by Graven Cairns in Future Sight. They were quickly followed by five more to complete the cycle in Eventide. These lands were a huge leap forward in mana-fixing technology over the Odyssey filter lands.

 

First, they produced mana on their own, which is crucial in the early turns. Secondly, they could conjure up any permutation of their two colors of mana. They did require that you pay in at least one of the two colors, but you could do some weird tricks like turning one Red mana into two Blue mana, which was a bit of a shocker. The flexibility in these lands has made them a favorite for tournament players and they continue to command high price tags due to the frequency of their inclusion in Modern and Commander decks.

 

Shards of Alara/Conflux/Alara Reborn

As I noted in my article on Command Tower, Alara block represented a shift in tone for the design team. They had done the market research and found out players like multicolor, so by gummit, they were determined to give us as much multicolor as we could handle.

 

As part of their “New World Order” initiatives to revamp the design of Magic sets, R&D declared that each set would now have at least some multicolor cards and sweet new lands with which to cast them. Time Spiral block had a smattering of isolated multicolor elements and a preview of the flavor of lands to come. Lorwyn had tight dedication to a select group of two-color tribes, along with wonky Elementals and Changelings that crossed those color boundaries. Shadowmoor had a concentration on hybrid mana and a full complement of incredible rares to showcase it.

 

With Alara block, though, we were about to see Wizards push multicolor cards into overdrive. They’d show up constantly at every rarity and there was going to be more fixing than we’d ever seen before, with the possible exception of Ravnica. You have to understand, though, that Ravnica didn’t get plopped into the middle of a bunch of other multicolor blocks. It was still a rarity at that time and players had been waiting a half-decade since Invasion. By contrast, Shards of Alara was the design equivalent of Xzibit memes.

 

Shards delivered on the promise of powerful mana bases in a big way. At common, we have Panoramas: a cycle of fetch lands that can search for a selection of shard-centered basic lands. At uncommon, we have Shard lands that come into play tapped and produced three colors with no drawbacks, which is still the gold standard for uncommons. At rare…strangely nothing, but that was the whole idea: the theme needed to show up at lower rarities if it was going to be noticeable to players when they crack their first pack. The revolution in mana-fixing lands wasn’t just that they were getting more powerful, but they were becoming readily available at lower rarities.

 

In Conflux, there were a handful of additional lands: Exotic Orchard, a Reflecting Pool that worked off of your opponent’s lands; Ancient Ziggurat always came into play untapped and gave you any color as long as you were casting creatures, quite an upgrade over Primal Beyond; Rupture Spire set your tempo back by ten years by not only coming into play tapped itself, but also requiring you to tap another land in addition; finally, Unstable Frontier called back to the Invasion era mechanic of changing a land’s basic land type as a way to fix your own colors and potentially disrupt the mana of your opponent.

 

Alara Reborn was full bananas. Every single card was multicolor. Unfortunately, this meant no lands, which are actually colorless, but instead there were border posts, which functioned much like common dual lands if you had a basic land to use with them.

 

Alara block was an auspicious beginning and would herald in a new golden age for Magic. 2007 and 2008 would be bountiful years for the game and the player base grew dramatically all around the world, in spite of tough economic times that put downward pressure on purchases of hobby games.

 

If you were playing Standard around this time, you’ll likely remember that the dominant deck was Jund: Black/Green/Red midrange deck that was packed with value. Powerful multicolor spells like Bloodbraid Elf dominated the format for two full years. People weren’t very fond of this deck at the time, but it was significant in that three-color decks really weren’t viable in Magic before Alara block came around. Despite the saltiness of some competitive players, this was a big moment for Magic mana bases.

 

Magic 2010

Core sets had gotten old. Tenth Edition had an unprecedented amount of juice added to it, including all ten Pain lands, but sales were still flat. To try and spice things up, Wizard’s R&D decided that going forward core sets could include new cards as well as old favorites. This lead to a breakout year full of Baneslayer Angel and Check lands. The M10 duals come into play untapped as long as you have an appropriate basic land type to pair them with. Combined with Terramorphic Expanse, this was easy to accomplish. These Check lands would reappear as part of every core set release for the next four years until Magic Origins bucked that trend.

 

Starting with M10, R&D started to focus on using more top-down designs, where you begin with an established creative idea and then build the mechanics to match. This lead to cards like Gargoyle Castle that successfully emulated iconic fantasy flavor concepts like a gargoyle coming to life. Borrowing established creative ideas like this let Magic leverage the familiarity players have with other fantasy genre properties into design concepts that helped a set resonate more deeply with players and made the mechanics of a card feel more intuitive. The successful implementation of this practice has lead to a meteoric spike in the number of vampires, scarecrows, equipments, etc.

 

Zendikar/Worldwake/Rise of the Eldrazi

Zendikar really had it all. Common nonbasics, uncommon duals, a cycle of rare legendary lands, full art basics, and to top it all off: enemy-color fetchlands. It’s pretty easy to sell a set when you’re running the fan service machine on all eight cylinders. At this time, the new fetchlands didn’t have anything interesting that they could search for in Standard, but in Extended and Legacy the dominant decks immediately adopted them. This was also a big boon to EDH players, many of whom had entered format long after the release of Onslaught and didn’t have have those cards in their collection.

 

If Zendikar blew the roof of the mother, then Worldwake shot it up into the sky. There was a second set of common nonbasics even more powerful than the first, there were two-color dual lands that could activate to become creatures and wreak havoc on empty boards, and there was even Tectonic Edge which is the closest thing to Wasteland that we’ve seen since the original.

 

Rise of the Eldrazi brought Eldrazi Temple, a double colorless land in the vein of Ancient Tomb that wouldn’t become relevant until the 2015-2016 Modern season and Evolving Wilds–a gift horse that no one looked in the mouth long enough to ask why we needed a second Terramorphic Expanse in Standard.

 

Scars of Mirrodin/Mirrodin Besieged/New Phyrexia

Scars had a somewhat forgettable cycle of dual lands that entered the battlefield untapped if you played them early, but would enter tapped if you had too many lands. Eventually, these cards would pick up the moniker “fast duals or “Scar lands,” but it’s a bad sign if people can’t think of a nickname for a new cycle, because that usually means no one’s interested in playing those cards.

 

Mirrodin Besieged added two new colorless lands: Inkmoth Nexus and Contested Warzone, which were joined by Phyrexia’s Core in New Phyrexia to round out a block that was wholly unexciting by the New World Order standards of dual land diversity.

 

If you’ve been following along through this retrospective from the beginning, this is where I declared the “dark times” to be officially over. The directional change in 2007 had finally taken hold and sets from then on have all the trappings of a modern Magic set design. This was also the final tipping point for me in Commander; I had become spoiled. After Scars, I’d find myself cutting quality dual lands from my decklists just to make room for a couple extra basics to power up cards like Cultivate. A critical mass of premier mana-fixing had finally accumulated and, no matter what colors you were playing, no matter what your strategy was, no matter your budget, you could make a viable deck because the pool of talent had just grown that deep. This–combined with the massive spike in new players–meant that the old days of terrible fixing were soon to be forgotten.

 

Innistrad/Dark Ascension/Avacyn Restored

By now, the M10 duals were getting pretty tiresome. Every year they were reprinted and every year we’d yawn and ask if Rosewater had finally run out of ideas. And then Innistrad came in like a hurricane. Instead of making their own cool card designs, Wizards R&D decided that they should just rip off adapt horror classics! Even better, rather than try to reinvent the wheel with a brilliant new dual land cycle: they just gave us the enemy-colored compliment to the M10 Check lands. No one complained. Not even me.

 

You can tell from that description that the era of entitlement, instant gratification, and constant overstimulation was in full swing by this point and the reach of that social phenomenon touched upon the Magic world too. Of course, we hadn’t started blaming these changes on millennials yet, (because we hadn’t even started calling them millennials), but we were about to.

 

Throughout the block, there was distributed a set of ten colorless utility lands, keyed to activate with a specific two-color pair. These cards continue to show up in most Commander decks, but not really anywhere else nowadays. Avacyn Restored also brought Cavern of Souls, an incredibly broken five-color land that can also make your creatures uncounterable.

 

At the conclusion of Innistrad block, Magic had gone through the best half-decade of its existence. The game was growing, the landscapes for both casual and competitive players were vibrant, and the widespread adoption of mobile devices and the expansion of the internet allowed the player community connect globally at instant-speed. The sorrow-filled early years were behind us. Egregious design mistakes, limited card availability, endearing misprints, and limited environments full of whacky on board tricks–these things had quickly and silently become nothing but a memory. Aaron Forsythe had finally drawn us out of the existential funk of the early 2000s. But how best to celebrate such an achievement? With a multicolor set of course! The time “between the Ravnicas” had come to an end. In next week’s article, I’ll be back…to talk about more sweet throwback set action.

 

Are you thrilled that America’s cultural obsession with vampires has fully assimilated into Magic? 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 4: Return to Ravnica to Shadows Over Innistrad[Actually Technology]: “In General” – A Less Brief History of Mana Bases, Part 2: Mirage to Time Spiral >>