Thursday, July 16, 2015

kill reviews: core sets (alpha through tenth edition)

Alpha is basically the Bible of Magic. It came out a really long time ago, people are constantly referencing it, and anyone can make it mean anything they want depending on what ideology they want to advance.

Alpha(1) has been by far my most-requested set to review, and by itself, it’s a rather difficult subject. I started this series with Arabian Nights because I just didn’t think I had anything to say about Alpha. It invented Magic, so everything in it is something it did first.

(1) Unless otherwise noted, I’ll be using “Alpha” to really mean Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, because it reads better this way. Yes, there were a few differences, those being some errors in Alpha (Circle of Protection: Black and Volcanic Island being missing being the most notable), but for review purposes, I’ll be discussing it in the corrected form.

It’s still possible, though, to talk about the things Alpha did well, and the things it did poorly. On the positive end, the best part of the set is something I can only summarize as the “vibe.” It’s not about it having a dragon and an angel, or creepy-looking art, or evocative text… it’s all those things coming together, combined with more subtle things like (relatively) high-quality printing and dark shading. If you’ve never handled these cards in person, and only seen pictures and Revised-era reprints, it’ll jump out just how magical they look and feel. The cards seem like they emerged from a wizard’s leather-bound spellbook.

I wasn’t playing during this era, but I can certainly see myself getting caught up in the magical-ness of these cards. The period’s chase rares, like Lord of the Pit, just look amazing, and nothing can take away from that. No subsequent version of Lord of the Pit has ever looked as good as the original, and that’s not just nostalgia talking, nor is it because that version happens to be the most expensive.

As expected from Magic’s Bible, though, Alpha contained Magic’s original sins.

Alpha’s colors were ill-defined, arbitrary, and unbalanced. Why does green get a 2/2 for two while other colors get it for three mana? Why are ante mechanics seemingly a large part of black’s identity? What the hell is white supposed to do in a game of Magic?

All that is peanuts compared to the big color question in Alpha, though: why is blue so much stronger than every other color?

I don’t think the Alpha developers were dumb enough not to realize that blue’s cards were better than the others’, so the question becomes why they thought it was acceptable. Even looking at the rarities, it’s clear that blue was the best: in Alpha’s most famous cycles, the “boons,”(2)  Ancestral Recall is several hundred times more powerful than the others. The set’s solution for this is to… make it rarer than the other ones in the cycle, rather than giving blue a different card that was more in line with those power levels.

(2) Healing Salve, Ancestral Recall, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, Giant Growth.

It goes beyond simple number tweaks, though. Blue was given way too much in the color pie. Let’s review things that blue could do in Alpha:

counter any spell (Counterspell)
bounce any creature (Unsummon)
control any creature (Control Magic)
copy any creature (Vesuvan Doppelganger) or artifact (Copy Artifact)
draw a ton of cards (Ancestral Recall, Timetwister, Braingeyser)
take an extra turn (Time Walk)

No other color was doing these things without restriction. Black couldn’t just destroy any creature, whereas blue can take it permanently. White’s removal was tied to either a disadvantage (Swords to Plowshares) or “fairness” (Balance and Wrath of God). Red and black are entirely unable to deal with enchantments, and black with artifacts, whereas blue doesn’t care what kind of spell is getting cast when it has counterspell in hand.

Some of these color pie oddities have been corrected over the years, but many others have stayed in the game mostly Because Alpha. Counterspells have gotten weaker, but few people have suggested that maybe the problem is that countermagic is just too broadly powerful to restrict to one color. Blue still gets to copy anything that any other color can play, which seems like a fundamental problem if colors are defined by what they can’t do.

I wrote a while back about why blue shouldn’t be the only color that gets to draw cards without restriction, and I stand by that. Basically, “draw a card” does not need to be flavored as something relating to the mind and brainpower. It is a fundamental game action. Cards in hand are equivalent to the ability to do stuff. What color wants to do stuff? All of them. If drawing cards isn’t red, then why does red draw a card every turn?

Similar to my issues with blue being able to do anything, I take issue with black being able to do so little. If black is motivated by greed and self-interest, shouldn’t it be able to do… well… anything it needs to?(3) Can’t black feel greed over someone else’s magical trinket, and want to steal or destroy it? Isn’t the greedy, selfish wizard trying to do this the basis of about half of all fantasy stories ever written?

(3) A running joke, originally from a Magic Lampoon article, is that black can do anything because black will do anything to win.

If I twist my brain a little, I can understand red not being able to deal with enchantments: they’re incorporeal, so red doesn’t “get” them. That doesn’t really gel, though, with the fact that red can play its own enchantments. Does it forget they exist as soon as it creates them? If red is supposed to be the color of impulsiveness and emotions (like, for instance, love), then it certainly has at least some concept of these things.

Alpha also had a lot of cards that were bad. Not just bad meaning they’re underpowered, but cards that made next to no design sense, such as the rare “lace” cycle that did nothing but change something’s color. In the intervening years since Alpha, all the badness that was in the set has just drifted into nostalgia and trivia. The good stuff we hold up as evidence that Alpha was a bit of once-in-a-lifetime brilliance, but the bad stuff we just look at jovially without holding it against the set.

One of the set’s recurring motifs, compared to the sets to come, is how much it cared about color. Alpha really, really, really wanted color to matter: hosers were everywhere, especially in ones in mirrored pairs, such as Red/Blue Elemental Blast and White/Black Knight. The set wanted to emphasize which colors were at war with each other colors, and putting these mirrored cards in helped people to remember.

From a gameplay stance, though, color hosers are a really bad time. Especially for an era before sideboards, your White Knight was a pretty good card against non-black decks. If you happened to go up against a black deck, they had basically nothing that could deal with it. That’s not interactive gameplay. Even worse are the cards that do nothing but hose a color. How were these intended to be used? Specifically play your anti-green deck against the guy with the best green deck? Play every color hoser except for the ones that were good against the cutest guy in the room? It’s unclear.

One of the most difficult parts of Alpha to analyze is the power level. That is: the wildly varying power of a set that contained both Grey Ogre and Black Lotus. The canonical explanation is that the designers didn’t expect players to get many packs, so cards like the Moxen would be few and far between; however, this doesn’t do much to explain the uncommon Sol Ring, and more importantly, it gives no reasoning as to why it was good for a few players to have absolute blowout games with Moxen whereas others never got that opportunity.

Let’s begin with the original Magic assumption: people will buy six packs each of product. We have a modern-day equivalent for this: sealed deck. Personally, when I play sealed, the worst experience possible is running into some absolutely unbeatable rare when nothing in my pool approaches it. At least in modern Magic, this is usually some huge creature that one removal spell can deal with. But in Alpha, you’re up against Black Lotus instead. Or worse yet: the dude with two Sol Ring.

While it wasn’t good design under those circumstances, Magic has found ways to evolve around those stupennously powerful cards. Namely, by creating the Vintage format where they’ve been crafted into something resembling parity (because nearly every good deck has all the power it wants). I’ve drafted a bunch of different cubes, including Legacy and Vintage cubes. While it’s certainly a different feel than more “fair” drafts, Vintage cube is a ton of fun, since you get to draft some pretty broken combo decks in an environment where they don’t just automatically steamroll over everything.

Am I happy that Alpha power exists? Tentatively, yes… but only this many years later. If I was making a new Magic-esque game, I would not put power cards like those in my game.

For those of you reading that see a short blurb about what made Alpha good followed by many paragraphs about its flaws, you may see this as meaning that I thought Alpha wasn’t very good. That isn’t the case. Alpha was a good set, and it would take many years for any of the expansions to rival it in quality (I’d argue that Alliances was its first challenger, and somewhere between Mirage and Tempest is when the game’s expansions, taken together, surpassed the original game). But everything that was good about Alpha has been repeated ad infinitum not just by players of the game, but by the game itself. It’s hard to imagine a modern Magic set that does not have “Alpha was good” as a base assumption.

As we move from Alpha/Beta into Unlimited, we start the trend of people at Wizards getting Bad Ideas About Core Sets.

Bad Idea About Core Set #1: White Borders

I do not know who decided that, starting with Unlimited, all reprint sets would be white-bordered. I don’t know whether they genuinely thought that white borders looked good, or if it was a deliberate attempt to make reprints look worse than the originals.

White borders look bad. There’s a reason that most painting frames are dark, or at least, not a big white box around the thing. They’re distracting and make the whole piece look washed-out and cheap.

Why was this a necessary step? Why did it take them so long to think “hmm, we actually do not need to make our cards that we are trying to sell look this bad”? I don’t know. That’s a question for someone who actually does research instead of throwing loud opinions at a screen.

Speaking of looking washed-out and cheap, we get to Revised. This set only added 35 cards, while removing 39 from Alpha, as it was but a minor revision from that set. It included some Antiquities and Arabian Nights cards seemingly at random instead of a select few overly-powerful or bizarre Alpha ones. It left in Sol Ring, though.

The main things to note about Revised is that there’s a shitload of it, and it looks awful. Not content with making Alpha look worse by giving it white borders in Unlimited, Revised looks like the output of a printer that almost entirely ran out of ink. The art looks blurry and mushy, the black cards are more of a light grey, and Alpha’s pleasant (though difficult-to-read) dark grey names are replaced with white-on-slightly-offwhite.

What’s doubly unfortunate about how bad Revised looks is how much of it is out there. You have Revised cards, I have Revised cards, the local Legacy tournaments are filled with Revised dual lands, and the 45 year-olds next door who say they have “a ton of really old cards” have Revised cards.

The terrible printing quality continues with Fourth Edition. While it’s not quite as washed-out as Revised, it makes up for it with cards that feel like someone sweated all over them even when they’re fresh out of the pack. They stick to one another, and it’s awful (not quite as bad as Ice Age cards, but close). Fourth edition was another minor update in terms of design changes, rotating in some cards from the Legends era (but very few of the really cool ones like any of the legends; those went in Chronicles).

This set’s most questionable inclusion was Strip Mine. If you need me to explain why Strip Mine isn’t a fun card, you haven’t played with Strip Mine.(4)

(4) Okay, plenty of you probably actually haven’t played with Strip Mine, so I’ll be less of a jerk. There was a concern in those days that lands like Library of Alexandria were too good, and needed answers that anyone could use. The problem is that Strip Mine is much more widely effective at completely shutting someone out of a game, instead of just preventing someone from abusing Library. You know those sketchy two-land hands where you just need to draw another land to get back in the game? Well, how about we turn that into a one-land hand? Fun times with Strip Mine. Making it colorless makes it even more unpleasant, since mono-colored decks were both the most obvious places to put in the card, as well as relatively immune to the card being used against them.

Bad Idea About Core Sets #2: Restricting Reprints

The way the reprint policy worked back then was something like: rares got one chance to get reprinted, which was in the core set that they “belonged” to (for example, Fallen Empires belonged to Fifth Edition). If they didn’t get reprinted then, off to the reserved list they went. This means that developers couldn’t hunt for old, obscure-but-fun cards that players hadn’t seen before. They were basically held captive by whatever cards were in the two-year span of the expansions that fed into that core set.

Fifth Edition was fed by the latter half of the grey-bordered era. While this led to a lot of low-powered cards in it, there were a lot of reasonably interesting oddities in it, too. I’d invite anyone to go over that era and try to come up with 449 cards from nothing but that era and Fourth Edition.

This set was notable for a few other things, too: it dramatically increased the print quality from Fourth Edition, without being oversaturated like Mirage was. For the first time since Alpha, these were Magic cards that actually looked and felt like Magic cards were supposed to feel (and currently feel). There are various minor graphic design touches, too numerous to count, that make Fifth Edition look so much better.

The templating is also far ahead of the hodgepodge of earlier core sets; while Fifth Edition was still under the old rules (including “batch” timings), it was far cleaner than things used to be. If anyone out there is desperately looking to play under old-school Magic rules, Fifth Edition is the ruleset to use.

It was also the only core set to have Sue Ann Harkey as art director. For budgetary reasons, Wizards wanted to begin phasing out all art used under the old Alpha-era contracts, which paid artists residuals over time. Harkey commissioned a lot of new art for the set, and there’s maybe one or two pieces in total that aren’t dramatic upgrades over the originals. Earlier artists like Justin Hampton look awful juxtaposed with the higher quality of art from the Harkey era.

Most questionable inclusion: Necropotence. Players had just spent two years combating the card in Standard, and now it was reprinted to entirely reset that time and doom Standard to even more Necro decks. It’s certainly possible that by the time it was in the set, Necro hadn’t completely caught on, but still, it was a pretty bad call.

A comparison of Fifth Edition cards with new art and their original printings.

Not much happened in Sixth Edition as far as the inclusion or exclusion of cards. It’s almost entirely remembered today for its rules update. The complete replacement of the rules was one of the greatest successes in the game’s history, and deserves its own article to discuss it, but I don’t know enough about the old rules system, the new rules system, or how rules systems interact with design in order to talk about it intelligently. Sixth Edition seemed purposefully bland, other than replacing some not-very-noteworthy gray border-era cards with equally non-noteworthy Harkey-era cards. It didn’t have any original art, but it ends up as a relatively good-looking set just because of that.

Most questionable inclusion: Chill. It took designers several more core sets to realize that color hosers of this power level were braindead approaches to sideboarding, and made games more fun for absolutely no one without an interest in non-sexual sadism (the worst kind of sadism). There’s nothing blue about making their opponent’s deck completely uncastable, other than “making your opponent lose” being historically blue-aligned. A red deck against a blue deck should feel like an elemental battle, or an ideological one; it shouldn’t come down to whether the blue deck got their absurd hoser in their opening hand again, or if the red deck can cast a one-sided Armageddon at the end of the blue player’s turn (Boil).

Bad Idea About Core Sets #3: All-New Art

I mentioned that Sixth Edition isn’t very notable, but looks pretty good. Seventh Edition, on the other hand, is notable for just how awful it looks. Someone decided that Seventh needed to have 100% new art. This was part marketing gimmick, and partly because all the original Alpha art was a legal pain in the ass to continue to reprint, due to the contracts mandating that artists be paid royalties.

I’ll start off with the minor caveats: there are a few pieces that are pretty good. Marc Fishman’s Angelic Page is beautiful. Guay has some solid works with her Boomerang, and her Dark Banishing joins a long line of excellent art for that card. But aside from those and a few others, it’s just a wasteland.

Even the usually brilliant artists, like Terese Nielsen and Adam Rex, contribute work that just seems phoned in, like they were session musicians on someone else’s generic three-chord pop songs. This tells me that something went wrong in the art direction for the set.

What Seventh Edition will specifically be remembered for are the travesties of art used on iconic cards. Who could forget Maddocks’s sneering Llanowar Elves, its jagged background reminiscent of German expressionist film? And who wants to remember Tiritilli’s replacement piece, of a couple elves sorta-kinda looking at the camera without doing much else?

Is that worse than the new Counterspell? Is Pete Venters’s Duress the lowlight of his artistic career? Discuss.

Eighth Edition, similar to how Sixth is remembered almost entirely for the rules update, is known mostly for updating the frames.  Bucking the trend of only reprinting cards from a specific era, Eighth Edition had a gimmick where it reprinted at least one card that had never been in a base set from every expansion. Sure. Whatever.

Eighth was also during a strange little period when Wizards felt it inappropriate for the game to have Merfolk. Rosewater explained that, while they weren’t as bad as fish, Merfolk just didn’t make much sense in a land-based duel between two wizards. There are some issues with this:

First, people really like Merfolk.

Second, Eighth Edition had a goddamned eel instead of a Merfolk.

Third but also same as the first, no one fucking cares, because people like Merfolk. Removing Merfolk for not making sense is pointless, because Magic, as a fundamental aspect of the game, makes very little sense. We are some powerful wizards or whatever and this lets us summon other wizards to help us, and somehow locations give us power, and the DCI randomly pairs all-powerful wizards against each other in modified Swiss tournament brackets. Please try to come up with a flavorful explanation for how Ad Nauseam Tendrils works. Making sense of the flavor connections in Magic is ultimately pointless, because the purpose of the fantasy setting of Magic is to give people familiar, non-challenging fantasy ideas that they can easily connect to other fantasy, thus letting them use more of their brainspace on the play of the game.

Ninth edition may be the least-notable core set the game has produced. I was genuinely concerned that I would have nothing to say about the set other than that it existed. When I opened up the question of why ninth was notable, people suggested that it was because of how it included one non-reprinted card from previous expansions, or that it had legendary creatures. Nope.

What Ninth actually did was, for the first time, significantly reduce the power level of color hosers in the base set. Boil and Hibernation became Boiling Seas and Withering Gaze. Instead of all five Circles of Protection, only the red and black ones were in Ninth, to play up that white only hates some colors. (Personally, I thought that including all five helped white establish an identity of being an Equal Opportunity Offender, like a terrible stand-up comedian, and of being ⅗ useless.)

It was a long-needed change. The removal of non-CoP hosers also helped highlight that CoP: Red was actually a pretty brutal card against red, as burn players had known for a long time. Tenth would remove that, as well.

Tenth would end a couple long international nightmares: it was the first core set since Beta to be all black-bordered, and it finally acknowledged that legendary permanents were an okay thing for a core set to have at rare. It would also reprint Nightmare, but that’s less notable. The ease at which Wizards could shift to black borders, and the lack of outcry from all but the most insane fans, highlighted how silly the policy had been.

Legends are a trickier topic. For many years, the logic keeping them out of core sets had been that they were too complex for a new player to understand; core sets were intended to be the first exposure that newer players have to the game, and therefore it should be kept as simple and streamlined as possible. Even a seemingly insignificant bit of complexity, they reasoned, would increase the overall barrier to entry, and should be avoided if at all possible.

This logic got overwritten by a more powerful motivation: they needed to sell core sets. An entry-level product is fairly useless if no one buys it. New players needed to not just have something that was made for them, but actually want that product. And no one really wanted core sets. The only tempting sales pitch I can remember for Ninth Edition was a Photoshop job made to fool MTGSalvation.

So how do they get people to buy Tenth Edition? Legends are cool! Throw some legends at the problem!

This didn’t really work. By the time Tenth Edition hit shelves, it was pretty obvious that the every-other-year, nothing-but-reprints format of core sets was tired, uninteresting, and only useful for making different older cards legal for play again.

Since Fourth or Fifth Edition, the unstated main purpose of the core set was to dictate what was legal in Standard. They shaped the environment a noticeable amount. They told players whether they could build around favorites like Necropotence, Intruder Alarm, or Zur’s Weirding; they set the default mana base for Standard decks via allied painlands, enemy painlands, comes-into-play-tapped lands, or none of the above. But letting people use their old cards wasn’t really moving product, and moving product is what really interested the bottom-line-oriented folks at Wizards.

Tenth was, therefore, the last of this long era of core sets. Two years later, Magic 2010 would reinvent it entirely. But that’s for the next review.


Unknown said...

Funnily enough, an SCG writer actually did a creative piece about a RUG Delver v ANT game entirely in flavor.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DrTandtheWomen said...

Great read. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. Looking forward to the Magic 2010 review!

Unknown said...

Yaaay, my obsessive checking of this blog at last isn't totally in vain! :-P

Your linked article on card-draw in all colors made me realize that Mentor of the Meek is the only Innistrad monster that truly scares me:

"Maybe it’s playing into the horror theme that teachers don’t teach you anything useful—only things that help the system as a whole."

AHHHH! It's horrible because it's so true! AHHHHHH!

Anyway, this was good, and finally cleared up for me the distinctions between these sets.

Unknown said...

The part of replacing merfolk with an eel had me laugh pretty hard. And while I didn´t particularly like 7th edition Llanowar Elves art either (it was just really bland), I´m glad that it got rid of 6th edition´s L-Elves art. That thing looked just terrible to me, not like an elf at all, but like a vampire with a kinda-sorta eyepatch where his eye is bulging out.

Eli Kaplan said...

A really solid discussion of the roles of core sets. Nicely done.

My personal spin on ABU is that the set's theme is really about the mutability of the cards. You can change any characteristic of a card, by altering its color, giving it an upkeep cost, giving a creature any number of abilities, temporarily or permanently, and so forth. There's so much 'metamagic' in ABU.

That doesn't mean that the set doesn't have problems, though. It doles out flying like it was on sale. To compare, 1995's Ice Age, the reimagining of the game at the time, had 19 to ABU's 23 fliers. That doesn't seem so disproportionate, until you realize that ABU has 250 cards to Ice Age's 383. That is an issue.

Garland said...

"What the hell is white supposed to do in a game of Magic?" lol

as for U and the Alpha color pie, dont forget direct damage: in Alpha, blue was even allowed to do 4 damage to a creature or player with Psionic Blast. Presumably the 2 damage drawback was meant to show it wasnt as good at that as red but in practice it just meant that blue could even do direct damage too

BILL GATES said...

Great read! Thanks you, very insightful.
I would literally kiss you on the face if the bible allowed it

John Keck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Post a Comment