Monday, July 14, 2014

kill reviews: early sets

kill reviews: introduction

This review is available in audio format.

Five expansions to Magic came out from 1993-1994: Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, and Fallen Empires. These sets are by far the most difficult to write about from a modern perspective, because the processes of designing, playing, buying, and collecting Magic were so dramatically different. The best reading on the subject is Richard Garfield’s piece on the design of Arabian Nights, but the most enlightening, to me, was the second issue of Scrye Magazine, available as reading material in my workplace’s lunch room.

Magic was a runaway success, as any history of early Magic has to note. The philosophy of printing cards was way different: they’d print cards, those cards would sell out, and they’d use the money to print the next batch of cards. They didn’t give much thought to how you’d get cards from the last expansion, because that was a few levels of thought beyond “let’s design some cards and print them.” Card availability was a legitimate concern, rather than its current usage as a Hasbro Legal-sanctioned euphemism for card prices. Packs of Legends were selling for several times MSRP before disappearing entirely, and that’s when it was the newest set.

People today have a much different view of expansions. Back then, the idea of a new expansion set was, in some ways to some people, actually surprising: ‘ANOTHER expansion set?! But I don’t even have all the cards from the last one!’ People genuinely did not know what to make of all the cards flying at them.

I’ll talk a lot about art and aesthetic in reviewing these early sets, for a few reasons: first, the art is much more varied and interesting, for better or worse, than modern style-guide-driven art. Second, most of the sets have very little mechanically unifying them, and most of the cards are rather dull to play with. Thirdly, I haven’t played with most of these cards as they were before my time, but I’ve certainly looked at them, seen decks they’ve been in, and looked at their long-term influence.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Arabian Nights, the game’s first expansion, remains the strangest oddball of an expansion ever. It has 78 unique cards, and one of them is Mountain. The main differentiation between common and uncommon is that common cards are ones that were more background in the original Arabian Nights stories, whereas the uncommons are from a specific story (or a few, in Sindbad’s case). It is, and probably forever will be, the only expert-level expansion based on extant fiction with names of real-world places. And how’s this for a horror movie setup: Dr. Garfield, assuming that players would mutually choose before games to either play or not play with Arabian Nights in their decks (like people do with expansions to board games), decided to be more adventurous with the designs… and they did not playtest a single Arabian Nights card at all.

I’m not making that last part up. I was shocked when I read that about five minutes ago, too. The fact that it didn’t end up as either incredibly underpowered due to lack-of-playtesting conservatism or incredibly overpowered due to, well, no one knowing what they were doing has to be one of the luckiest breaks in Magic history. In fact, the cards are actually fairly well-balanced, by the standards of early Magic, leading to most of them getting reprinted at least once. Some of them, like Serendib Efreet, Unstable Mutation, and Desert stand up really well even when surrounded by modern Magic. Of the cards that were too good, Library of Alexandria is the only truly egregious one, and even that creates some interesting gameplay. Bazaar of Baghdad was just strange at the time, and took years and years to even be taken seriously.

I really enjoy the aesthetic of the set. It really benefits from having a similar look and feel as Beta cards[1], and the art on Arabian Nights really matches the intended impression of springing forth from a gold-lettered leather-
bound book of stories. Art like El-Hajjaj is close-up and sinister in a way modern cards aren’t; Mark Tedin’s Juzam Djinn is one of the game’s most iconic arts for good reaso
n; and even Douglas Shuler contributes a pretty good painting with Oubliette (those shadows!). I’m a huge fan of the Foglios and Drew Tucker, and while Kaja Foglio was still finding her groove, Drew Tucker has five paintings that are five of the best artworks ever printed on a Magic card, with Dandan a candidate for my all-time favorite by anyone.

[1] Early Magic cards are gorgeous. I’ll even include Unlimited cards in this, as much as the border offends the snobbier individuals. I never got a chance to really hold these cards until I got a job that required it, and the difference between the printing of Alpha/Beta/Unlimited compared to Revised/Fallen Empires/Ice Age is incredibly stark. The colors are saturated, they feel good and sturdy, whereas Revised, god damn do those just look awful. I will stand by a claim that the printing and feel of early Magic cards contributed to them feeling mysterious and, well, Magical. We think of old-frame cards as having white names, which was only a later modifaction; they started as a very pleasant (though more difficult to read) gray. Hold an Unlimited card next to a Fifth Edition one sometime. Fifth looks cleaned up and snappier, but it loses the impression that these are mystical objects that could have fallen out of a spellbook. That part is definitely not nostalgia, as I started playing with Fifth Edition cards.

Most of the set has slipped into nostalgia, obscurity, and trivia answers, but Arabian Nights was successful in printing 5,000,000 cards without destroying the game, and that’s about all it needed to do.

Antiquities, a set with actual playtesting but without Garfield’s designs, came a little closer to the “destroying the game” thing. Its 100 cards only had 35 colored spells, and basically, players at the time didn’t really get it. Sure, they understood the concept that they could use these cards in any deck, but artifacts weren’t really what got people going back then. They wanted huge monsters, and to play them, they would play lands until they got the mana. An environment where Mana Vault is thought of as a crap rare isn’t a conducive environment for an artifact-based set.

The biggest failing is that, while every single colored spell in the set says “artifact” somewhere on it, it didn’t give players much of a reason to play artifacts. The set printed as many ridiculous artifact hosers as it did enablers. The designers still weren’t sure what they were really doing with expansion sets, and it really hurt them this time more than it did with Arabian Nights. It was a valiant effort at making a set that was about something, but they didn’t seem to have very many ideas for making a set about artifacts beyond making a lot of artifacts that could have been in Alpha and saying “artifact” on all the other ones.

Visually, it might be the nadir of Magic. Some of the most embarrassing art is present here, with classics like Onulet, Clay Statue, Candelabra of Tawnos, and the pair of probably the worst artists ever to see print: Amy Weber is all over, (including illustrating Argivian Archaeologist with not only strange proportions but glasses, khakis, and a t-shirt) and Justin Hampton introduces the Magic canon to cartoon nipples. Even Kaja Foglio isn’t at her best, other than when Phil gets his first Magic credit on their lovely Mishra’s Factory collaborations. I do like Julie Baroh, and Goblin Artisans deserves more recognition art-wise. The low overall quality of the art is probably a nostalgic point for a lot of people, and I admit, I can’t totally hate Triskelion because it’s just so unbelievably goofy.

Legends is, as far as I can tell from documents of the time, the expansion that people truly freaked out about. Those creatures are huge! They’re so cool! People had never seen multicolored creatures before, and they were practically hacking off limbs to offer them in trade for Nicol Bolas. The aforementioned teeny-tiny supply of the set added to the mystique, but there’s no taking anything away from the legends of Legends: they looked amazing.

I think a huge reason for the success was the aesthetic. Magic was still primarily a game for people who were into D&D and related games, and the evocative names, borders that were gold, and spectacular Richard Kane Ferguson art really sold people. These were cards that people could fall in love with, and if you ever come across a pile of original Legends, it’s not hard to see why.

Mechanically… well, we’re still in the era where we have to find good, influential things it did rather than getting bogged down in what doesn’t stand up to modern standards. Yes, those legends probably could have knocked a couple mana symbols off here and there, and yes, having only one common red creature that could attack for damage isn’t the basis of a great limited format. But no one was even considering what it was like to play limited, let alone design the set around that, so that really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Legends was the first set to have gold cards or legendary creatures, and it combined them in a way that defined what their roles were. While Arabian Nights had lots of guys that would, if printed today, be printed as legendary (Aladdin, Sinbad, etc), Legends laid down the law: a generic thing was just a creature. A specific person, monster, or entity was a legend. That’s held fast twenty years later, and all that’s changed are some marginal rules updates.

Magic could have very easily gone about without legendary cards at all. It’s not that difficult to imagine, especially since the rules for legends don’t matter almost any time they’re played. We could very well have a game that cared not whether someone had more than one Lady Orca, just like it doesn’t care if we have more than one Root Greevil.  We’d have no more ‘Legends matter’ blocks, no Commander… okay, maybe that last one wouldn’t be so bad. Anyway, the point is that Legends chose the course of the creature type, and the game has gone along with it since then. That’s a powerful bit of influence that’s bigger than anything in the last two sets.

Before we get to The Dark, let’s address something hanging over every one of these sets, something I’ve mostly glossed over: these sets had cards that were really, really bad. This is a common topic of humor for those of us with the benefit of hindsight, but anyone who played even a little bit of the original Magic should be able to take one glance at cards like North Star, Great Wall, and the infamous cycle of uncommon lands that gave legends of one color bands with other legends, without tapping for mana. Because that might have been a bit too powerful in the tournament halls, they made Shelkin Brownie, a two-mana 1/1 that tapped to remove "bands with other" from a creature. You could spend good money on a booster and get Sorrow’s Path as your rare.

I think of these bad cards similarly to racism in early-20th century literature. Yeah, it’s really bad, but it was the era, but they should have known better, but no one had shown them the error of their ways, but they’re still terrible people for thinking those things, but they still did some good stuff… there were all those other good cards!

Once you start getting into The Dark, though, the excuses start to fade away. The quality of the median card stays about the same from Legends through Ice Age, but the main difference is that the truly remarkable cards just… aren’t there. The Dark’s commons and uncommons were about in line with previous sets, but there was just no mechanical or thematic hook. It was just some cards. This leads to The Dark being probably the most obscure of any expansion; any of its notable cards have been reprinted to death, and even those, most people will probably think they’re from Alpha. It had Ball Lightning, Maze of Ith, Goblin Wizard (yes, I’m really grouping those together), but that’s pretty close to it.

It’s something of a shame that they couldn’t find a mechanical way to express darkness, because the creative team really held up their end of the deal. The cards bring to mind 50s EC horror comics in a wonderful way, especially Quinton Hoover’s unmistakable linework. Preacher by itself brings a more sinister edge to white cards than any halfhearted attempts at making a white-aligned villain in Magic-themed novels no one reads; Grave Robbers is a perfect bit of black comedy; Drowned looks like it could have been a panel from The Black Freighter.

The white cards specifically are worth looking at. Anyone can illustrate, say, Gross Dripping Zombie to make it scary, but how about a white card that kills Goblins (Tivadar’s Crusade)? A blue card representing water (Riptide)? Some green guy (Lurker)? Even Jesper Myrfors contributes by far his best pieces in Elves of Deep Shadow, Banshee, The Fallen, and Witch Hunter. Everyone has an aesthetic they work best under, so it seems, and he tries to go for horror even when it doesn’t work. Here it does.

Last up for this installment is Fallen Empires. Unlike The Dark, Fallen Empires does attempt something mechanically: it’s our first tribal set, sort of! Each color has its tribe, and while Thrull and Fungus might not be iconic types today, the framework is there: a bunch of random dorks with the same creature type, then some cards that justify your decision to play nothing but Goblins in your pile. Fallen Empires might not be completely terrible front-to-back, but it has an extremely small number of truly great cards. Basically… Hymn to Tourach. High Tide doesn’t even count, since combo decks only made it decent years later. Related to this, it has a comically small number of reasonably-sized creatures: specifically, seven that have power more than two, and three six-power creatures are the largest. I guess they just hated their players who still just wanted to play huge dragons, and wanted them to play other games? I don’t know, exactly. It wasn’t for a while that they realized that if players like big dragons, they should probably print more big dragons.

The set certainly has its defenders. It was far more innovative than The Dark, pushing players to think of creatures in a different way, and innovated in how green and black make tokens, then use them as a resource. Thallids are just cool, and even if one every three turns is a bit slow in retrospect, it was necessary to get fun, late-game token-making on commons at a reasonable casting cost. There was even a long period of time when Thallid was the one-mana creature that won the game by itself fastest against a goldfish.

The aesthetics of Fallen Empires are messy, to say the least, because every common had three or four different pieces of art. I’m torn on whether this is a fantastic idea because more art is better, or terrible because it makes discussing a certain card’s art more difficult (and recognizing it during a game, of course). There’s a lot more Ron Spencer in this set than previous ones, and he starts to take shape as the instantly-recognizable all-eyeballs-and-green-shading Ron Spencer we come to know and tolerate. There’s a bunch of fine art from always-fine artists, but no one is at their absolute best, other than Drew Tucker, who is always at his best.

A bit of an inside scoop on what happened behind the scenes: back then, they were pretty much doubling the print run with each set, since everything sold out, and stores kept demanding more and more. For Fallen Empires, for the first time, they listened to how much of the product stores were requesting, and had that much printed. So… they started printing a lot. A LOT. Fallen Empires went past 350 million cards printed.[2] According to some you-hear-it-around-Seattle rumors, it was exactly one phone call saying “stop printing right now” that prevented it from being twice that.

[2] Wizards used to release these numbers.
Alpha and Beta combined: 10 million
Unlimited: 40 million
Arabian Nights: 5 million
Antiquities: 15 million
Legends: 35 million
The Dark: 75 million
This means that there are about twice as many cards printed from Fallen Empires as all previous sets combined. And people wonder why Hymn to Tourach is so cheap.

This led to some absurdities, like the first tournament run by Brian David-Marshall having, as its grand prize, a choice between one box of Legends and ten boxes of Fallen Empires. Keep in mind these sets were released five months apart. (The winner went with Legends, and sold it to someone immediately.) You can still find sealed booster packs of Fallen Empires in stock at any retailer with a large back catalog, and I’m sure if you ask nicely they’ll give you a further discount, because there’s no way they’re moving those fuckers otherwise.

The saddest part is it’s probably two or three good rares away from being worth $10-$20 a pack. Revised was printed even more than Fallen Empires, but ungodly demand for the dual lands has pushed those packs up to $40. While Magic will always be a game of outliers, it’s even more noticeable in these early sets: a handful of decent cards is all that’s needed to change people’s reactions from wanting to throw a binder in the garbage as soon as they see what set it is to gasping that someone has a complete set of those incredible cards.

Fallen Empires is the first set that is printed with a completely different color tone to the borders, and a different feel to the cards. Anyone who’s used Ice Age lands in decks a long time ago knows what I mean: the cards look faded and worn straight out of the pack. Because the sets this applies to (Fallen Empires through Alliances) correspond with some of the great creative doldrums in the design of the game, I’ll term it the “grey-bordered” era, and I’m exceptionally proud of this phrase. Please join me next week, when I dive into this extremely underwhelming group of sets.

Including Alpha/Beta/Unlimited as distinct sets, there were nine sets printed within the first 15 months of Magic’s existence. After that, there were no Magic cards made for six months, when 4th Edition came out, and no new cards for another month with the release of Ice Age. The initial hype around the game was in full swing in 1994, then the bubble seemed to burst with the string of mediocre releases, culminating in Fallen Empire’s massive overprinting. If you talk to anyone who sighs wistfully about quitting the game in 1994, well, try to understand. If I had been playing then, I probably would have quit too.


John said...

I started playing right around The Dark, and as a ten year old kid I was completely oblivious to the whole fallen empires overprinting thing. All I knew was that I thought homarids were cool, because I could kill people with glorified lobsters. Lobsters! I actually quit around ice age, before homelands came out, because my middle school banned magic (for being gambling, maybe?). Would that I had continued and built up a collection of duals!

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