Today, I logged onto Star City’s site awaiting a new day of articles about Magic: The Gathering. I came upon Tony’s article regarding Wizards of the Coast and their practice of making the top tournament cards rare, regardless of whether or not they fit the definition of what a rare card should be.
I didn’t agree with a lot of his sentiment, and so I thought I’d present a perceived history of Magic, Rarity, and Wizards R&D. Keep in mind that the following is my interpretation of events past and present, and may not be 100% accurate. (But it seems to be pretty darn close from what I know – The Ferrett)
In the beginning, there was Richard Garfield, and the groundwork of the game came from his imagination. He envisioned a game where, among other things, the power level of people’s decks were kept in check by the availability of different tiers of rarity. He didn’t initially envision the game reaching a place where people would open ten or more boxes of product in one sitting just to make sure they had four of each rare. He thought that the fact that you only got one rare per pack would balance out the level of power for some over-powered cards.
Both of these cards were available within the same set. Except in a few strange circumstances (such as worrying about the opponent playing Hurricanes versus other removal), it would be advantageous almost every time to play a Granite Gargoyle over a Gray Ogre.
In retrospect, this theory didn’t really hold. The game almost immediately grew more popular than Richard had ever imagined, and people were acquiring four copies of rares with ease, due to the printing levels necessitated by demand. An examination of the Alpha/Beta/Unlimited set shows a pretty flexible rule set for rares:
1) Cards that do something that is out of flavor for its color (Red Flyers and Green Banders, for example)
2) Big ‘signature’ creatures (Mahamoti Djinn, Gaea’s Liege, Serra Angel)
3) Cards which have complicated or experimental mechanics (Raging River, Vesuvian Doppleganger, Balance)
4) Extraordinarily powerful cards (Mind Twist, Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus)
5) Cards that have a global, game-sweeping effect (Armageddon, Wrath of God)
6) Cards which change the fundamental rules of the game while in play (Mana Flare, Howling Mine, Dingus Egg)
7) ‘Fun’ cards and Ante Cards (Chaos Orb, Illusionary Mask, Contract from Below)
Originally, the boon cards (the cycle of cards that gave three of something for one mana: Giant Growth, Healing Salve, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, and Ancestral Recall) were all common cards. Very early in playtesting, which consisted of Richard Garfield’s close friends playing an early version of the game, it was revealed that drawing three cards for one blue mana was extraordinarily overpowered. Mr. Garfield was convinced to make Ancestral the lone ‘rare’ of the boons, and the rest is history.
I’d like to note a few cards out of the original release set, as examples of strange rarities:
1) The idea of cards doing something simple means they shouldn’t be rare: This has never been an issue. Typically (with the exception of two releases, and I’ll get to those later), the most powerfully advantageous cards were made rare, whether they were complex or not. A few examples would be Ancestral Recall (U, instant: Target player draws 3 cards), the Moxes (which were, in essence, basic lands that circumvented the one-land a turn rule), and Mind Twist (Target player discards X cards at random).
2) Some cards were the opposite: They were made rare simply because they didn’t fit the theme of the color. Compare Timber Wolves (G, 1/1, banding, rare) to Benalish Hero (W, 1/1, banding, common). Even within colors, there are instances of two creatures being identical in every characteristic except one (such as banding, flying, first strike), but one being made rare, and the other common or uncommon. The Granite Gargoyle example above is probably the most extreme, but other examples would be Cockatrice (rare) versus Thicket Basilisk (uncommon), Roc of Kher Ridges (Rare) versus Hill Giant (Common), and the dual lands (Rare) versus basic lands (Ultra-common).
3) Rarities back then would not have been the same as they are today. There was no consideration given to Sealed Deck or Draft formats back when the game was first created. Basic lands were even randomly inserted in rare slots in starters some 2% of the time! A lot of cards have changed rarity since their inception, including Hurricane (uncommon to rare), Power Sink (Common to Uncommon), and Pestilence (Common to Uncommon).
As sets continued, this trend did as well. The more-uncommon uncommon cards (rares disappeared for Arabian Knights and Antiquities) pretty much followed the seven rules listed above. There were a few exceptions:
1) Oubliette: Originally one of the ‘R&D rules’ of black is that black should not be able to deal efficiently with other black creatures. This common allowed black to not only remove other black creatures from the game, but in such a way that black (which also had a rule that it could not deal easily with enchantments) could not get rid of it without outside assistance.
2) Wyuli Wolf: This card went from common in Arabian to Rare in 5th edition. This jump in 5th was strange, because Wyuli Wolf doesn’t meet any of the above seven rules.
3) Bird Maiden: This was printed (and has been reprinted) as a common, even though it broke one of red’s rules (flying isn’t in theme). This began the trend of printing cards which were out-of-them for color (Rule #1 above), but making them very underpowered.
I mentioned above that each color had a set of ‘rules.’ These were mechanics that colors were not allowed to have; their built-in weaknesses to compensate for power-levels. Some of the color rules (and by NO means is this all inclusive) are as follows:
Black: Cannot deal with artifacts and enchantments. Can’t deal with other black creatures.
Blue: Cannot deal with permanents except to steal them. Powerful creatures have islandhome.
Red: Cannot bury things directly, must damage kill things with damage. Flyers are either dragons, or made intentionally weak. Red can’t deal with enchantments.
Early on, White and Green were more problematic. I could write up some rules about what white couldn’t get (direct damage, discard, etc)… But in the beginning, white could do pretty much anything. They had direct creature removal (Sword to Plowshares), indirect creature removal (Wrath of God, Balance), land destruction (Armageddon), Good weenies (White Knight), Good flyers (Serra Angel), and the best color hosers available (Circles of Protection). On the other hand, Green didn’t seem to do anything especially well. This would be a problem for green for many blocks, and even to this day green’s main themes (except for efficient creatures, which wasn’t fully realized until Urza Block) are not entirely clear.
In Antiquities, every card in the set (except for Strip Mine and the Urza Lands) either dealt with artifacts, or was an artifact itself. This meant that black got some out-of-theme cards. Each color had one ‘more-uncommon’ card. The following wasn’t it:
Gate to Phyrexia: BB, enchantment. Sacrifice a creature: Destroy target artifact. Use this ability only during your upkeep. (Uncommon, as opposed to rare-uncommon)
Clearly, more than any other black card in the set, this allowed black to break one of their rules, and should have fit into the ‘rare’ slot. Like Bird Maiden before it, Gate to Phyrexia started a new trend: Cards that broke the themes of a color, but at a high price. Unlike the shifting of commonalities earlier for banding (Benalish Hero/Timber Wolves), there was no direct comparison to Gate to Phyrexia in other colors. Basically, it allowed the player to trade a creature for a Shatter-style effect, but only during a narrow window (their upkeep).
Legends introduced the first new major mechanic changes to the game, and reinstated the common/uncommon/rare scheme. Unlike the first two expansions, Legends included a wholesale introduction of several new abilities that weren’t just permutations on previous themes. They included gold cards, which were cards that used two different colors of mana to cast (and therefore bridged the color gap on restrictions for what each color could or could not do), rampage and bands with others (which were pretty useless), Enchant Worlds (allowing black and red to kill other enchantments, but only if these other enchantments were other Enchant Worlds), and legends (cards that could only have one copy of themselves in play at any one time).
In addition, for the first time, commons were printed that solely interacted with a specific rare. Rohgahh of Kher Keep (2BBRR, Rare) gave a specific bonus to Kobolds of Kher Keep (0 casting cost, common). In the past, there were ‘lords’ for certain races (Lord of Atlantis pumped Merfolks, Goblin King for Goblins, Zombie Master for Zombies), but never before did two cards interact directly in such a fashion. This would not be the last time this mechanic was used, though the situations would be reversed: The common cards would encourage you to get the rare card (such as Keeper of Kookus/Kookus, and the Feral Shadow/Urborg Panther/Breathstealer triumvirate which could seek out Spirit of the Night).
A few note about oddities within the set of Legends:
1) Moat should have been an Enchant World. This would have allowed the other colors to deal with it a little more easily, as the effect of Moat is comparable to that of other Enchant Worlds: It changes a basic rule of the game (Abyss, Nether Void, Field of Dreams, Storm World), by preventing non-flying creatures from attacking entirely.
2) Blue was given leeway in dealing with permanents in the form of Boomerang. In the previous set, the ‘rare’ uncommon for blue had been Hurkyl’s Recall, which allowed the blue mage to unsummon all artifacts target player controls. In this set, blue was given spot permanent control for the first time (unlike the creature-only Unsummon of the past, or the type-specific steal cards in Control Magic and Steal Artifact). In the rare slot, Blue was given a reusable Boomerang in the form of Time Elemental.
3) With Greed, black began a theme of paying life to draw cards. This would become in-flavor for black, eventually becoming a common mechanic in Apocalypse (Phyrexian Rager). At this point, though, it was still considered out-of-flavor, and therefore made rare.
4) Wizards has never really made up their mind about which color should be the color of ‘untargetable’ creatures – Green or Blue. The first ‘untargetable’ card ever appears in Legends (the enchantment Spectral Cloak), and is bandied back and force between Green and Blue over the course of the next few years, in no discernable pattern. Green untargetable creatures have been common, uncommon, and rare (Elvish Lookout/Jolrael’s Centaurs, Hawkeater Moth, Autumn Willow/Blurred Mongoose). Blue’s untargetable creatures and spells have been common, uncommon, and rare (Mistfolk/Mystic Veil, Spectral Cloak, Morphling). In Odyssey, untargetability has been made common for blue (Aboshan’s Desire), while it is uncommon for Green (Nimble Mongoose/Crashing Centaur).
5) None of the Legends really broke rules of any of the colors they were in. Most often, they duplicated pre-existing effects or conditions within one or both of their colors. In addition, there were no opposing-colored gold cards (excepting those that had three colors, which were bridged by their common ally). The one notable exception to this would be Xira Arien (BRG 1/2 Flying: BRG, tap: Target player draws a card), as none of those three colors were in-flavor for non-penaltied card drawing.
Still, though, the”Seven Rules of Magic Rares” were intact. This was about to change with the introduction of the next set. With The Dark, everything that had been established before was thrown out the window. In my next installment, I’ll take a look at the lasting impressions made by the Dark, and begin to explore the transition from creating sets purely for Constructed, to a world where cards were made rare or uncommon to balance Draft and Sealed play.
UP NEXT: The Dark through Exodus