When I read Randy Buehler announcement about Coldsnap, the “long lost” third Ice Age set, I can say without hyperbole that my head exploded. He answered all the questions I’d had in spectacular fashion. Theme decks with Ice Age and Alliances cards! A prerelease! Available online! And Standard-legal?! Who saw that coming?
All that, and an obviously fishy story to back it up.
I’ll be honest. At the time, I accepted Buehler’s story, fish and all, for the simple reason that I am a sucker. It wasn’t until I saw a posting from WotC’s Ministry of Truth (known in happier times as “Ask Wizards”) on November 10 that I realized the truth. In it, they all but admitted that they didn’t find it in any “lost vault,” and that gives them some room to maneuver.
A Side Note To Those Of You Who Have Read My Previous Articles
Thus far I have developed a small reputation as a humor writer. I have also, I hope, developed a reputation for side notes, because I really like the way they disrupt the flow of an article. [Boy does that sound familiar. – Knut, just sayin] Anyway, this article is a little different from my previous ones. Heck, I promised in my very first article at the tender age of 20 that one day I’d write a serious article. Sometimes a guy has something serious to say. Well, kind of.
Now Then, Where Was I?
I think this is just something they always wanted to do, and that’s fine. If they want to use their apparently abundant spare time to cook up weird little sets for the Core Set off-years, that’s awesome. I’m all about having more cards, more releases, and more reasons to give Wizards my money. I mean, it’s that or save for retirement, right? Booooooring.
Of course, their sideways almost-admission of falsehood also leaves a lot of questions as far as the contents and nature of the set, questions which Robert Lesczinski raised quite satisfactorily- but, to my thinking, failed to answer- in his recent article, “Coldsnap – Will Wizards Build It Correctly?”
I’m writing, then, not a rebuttal, per se… that’s such an ugly word. I’m writing a response to Mr. Lesczinski’s article, trying to address the questions he raised. I thank him for writing, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten off my metaphorical laurels and written about Coldsnap ’til the set actually came out. In actuality, of course, I’m still on my laurels, I just happen to be in front of a computer.
Buehler said in his Q&A that the development, templating, etc. would be modern, and since the authenticity of the story of the lost design file is in serious doubt, I would expect that the same applies to the design. Essentially, it’s as if they’d sent a modern design and development team back in time to do it right (though I’m reasonably sure they didn’t). As such, I’d argue that there are certain things that they almost certainly will not, quite possibly cannot, and in any case should not include.
As Mr. Lesczinski points out, banding is confusing. I was having an argument with a friend and fellow Rules Nazi about this, and he was saying that banding is easy to understand. The creatures attack together, and if either one is blocked they’re both blocked, and you get to divide the damage between them. Duh. I said, “Okay, what about when you’re blocking?” And he said, “You can use banding on defense?”
The sad truth is that banding isn’t actually all that complicated, but confusion regarding it has become almost legendary (for instance, the only legendary creatures with banding were Ayesha Tanaka and Soraya the Falconer, both of which are so awful I find it confusing). I’d explain exactly how banding works right now if I thought anyone gave half a poo. But you don’t, do you?
Banding confuses everybody, especially folks who started playing anytime after 1997. It can’t be cleanly reminder-texted (seriously, try it). Mark Rosewater has even, as Mr. Leszcinski mentions, basically vowed that it will never see print again. I don’t expect to see banding in Coldsnap. I don’t expect to see it on any of the cards in the theme decks. I don’t expect to see it again on newly printed cards, ever… nor do I wish to. Banding and I are no longer on speaking terms.
Rampage certainly didn’t have the problem that banding did. It was pretty straightforward once you got over the fact that it didn’t do anything at all if your creature was only assigned one blocker. That made it, yes, probably the narrowest combat ability ever printed (well, other than bands-with-other), and above all else, dull. I played countless games of casual Magic “back in the day” with cards that had rampage, and you know what? Gorilla Berserkers was the only one I ever saw even come close to getting bigger because of it.
They covered what rampage was supposed to do with the “neo-rampage” ability on cards like Rabid Wolverines and Spined Sliver, and what it actually did with cards that can only be blocked by one creature, like Charging Rhino. In short, that ship has sailed, that train has left the station… rampage would have a hard time even catching a rickshaw at this point. Maybe they’ll include “neo-rampage,” maybe not, but the actual keyword will stay in the dustbin, and mercifully so.
Cumulative upkeep was interesting. It was cool. It wasn’t mind-numbingly complicated and has been successfully retemplated to be compatible with modern rules. And it allowed them to print some cards that blew my mind at the time, like Illusionary Forces and Illusionary Wall. Moreover, although it wasn’t strictly an Ice Age ability, Ice Age introduced the mechanic and made more use of it than subsequent sets. The only really memorable non-Ice Age cards with it were the pseudo-“growing” enchantments from Weatherlight like Heart of Bogardan. All that, and I don’t expect to see cumulative upkeep in Coldsnap. Why?
Well, Coldsnap is going to be Standard legal. Even though they’ve made cumulative upkeep work with the addition of age counters, I don’t think for an instant that they want to see it in Standard tournaments. It doesn’t provide much new design space, it adds a new type of counter at a time when they’ve become increasingly conservative about such things (compare 10 types of counters currently in Standard with 15 in Ice Age and Alliances alone), it can get confusing even with the counters, and… well, this is a little thing, but I don’t think they want it to coexist with Chisei, Heart of Oceans in any format where that could possibly matter.
I’ll concede I could be wrong on this one. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cumulative upkeep cards in the theme decks. But new permanents with cumulative upkeep… well, I just don’t think it’s in the cards.
Double Strike and Indestructible
The previous three abilities I’ve mentioned weren’t “block mechanics” as we know them today; rather, they were new game terms used across multiple blocks and eventually abandoned. In fact, until Tempest, it wasn’t at all clear to me that mechanics would be retired from block to block. I eagerly envisioned a world run rampant with keywords… but there are some boyish fantasies that are never meant to come to pass, like the one I repeatedly entertained concerning Linka from Captain Planet.
Um, anyway, the point being, part of the reason I think the previous three abilities won’t show up is that they weren’t integral to what made Ice Age what it was. They are artifacts of their time (in the technical sense, folks, not like Baton of Courage) that aren’t actually needed in order to make the third set of the Ice Age block, and therefore they shouldn’t be bothered with. They were left by the wayside with good reason.
Meanwhile, what about the new kids on the cross-block-new-game-terms block, double strike and indestructible? Short answer: No. Freaking. Way. It would ruin the old school feel they’re going for. Of all the things they must not do, this is paramount. To be fair, I don’t think for an instant that they’ll consider it. But do I feel any compunctions about spending the last three paragraphs saying so? No. Go figure.
This… is ugly. My gut reaction is hell, no! Equipment in an Ice Age set? No, no, no! But they’ve changed their thinking on this. Some stuff that used to be an Aura (né Enchant Creature) would now be Equipment, like Treetop Bracers, as would junk like Living Armor and Acidic Dagger. This is an overall flavor decision for the game. And yet, again, Equipment just wouldn’t feel right. I fervently hope they do the right thing and just pass on the issue entirely. No Equipment, but none of the old-style stopgap measures to represent it, either.
Slowtrips (a.k.a, Draw a card at the beginning of the next turn’s upkeep, unless you forget)
It’s my assumption that once upon a time they didn’t let cantrips like Arcane Denial and Infuse give you the card immediately because this could prove degenerate. Since Urza Block we have a much clearer picture of what exactly constitutes degeneracy, and this sort of thing doesn’t worry us quite so much. Memory issues, unnecessary rules text, archaic templating, and weakness compared to more recent cards… Your powers combined, I am… quite sure they’ll just use normal cantrips.
Merfolk and their undersea pals
R&D no longer supports merfolk for flavor reasons, and they’re not going to change that to satisfy nostalgia. Sad but true. Note further, that there was actually only one merfolk in Ice Age or Alliances to begin with (Benthic Explorers), and it should be clear that this is a non-issue. Even Homarids, which had a (very minor) resurgence in Alliances via Viscerid Drone, Viscerid Armor, and the flavor text on Floodwater Dam, fall prey to the same flavor concerns. Sea creatures can’t fight land creatures. Ape does not kill ape. It just has to be this way.
The old-school color pie
Times have changed, folks. This set is going to include variants on Naturalize, not Disenchant. Sure, it’s totally weird to have Naturalize variants in the same block as Disenchant itself, but not nearly as weird as having Disenchant variants in Standard alongside Naturalize. Besides, this whole color pie thing isn’t something that changed. It’s something that was wrong before and has been corrected now, in sometimes Orwellian fashion. There is no Disenchant. There never was a Disenchant. There has always been Naturalize. Players bellyfeel Naturalize doubleplusgood!
They’re not going to print a new card in the old color wheel any more than they’re going to print new cards in the old card frame (other than, yes, thank you, Old Fogey and Blast from the Past, whose exceptional nature should be obvious). This will make Ice Age block weird, but let’s face it- with the third set coming a full decade after the second, Ice Age block is going to be weird no matter what they do. And yes, this means Blue will be stuck with crappy modern-style cards like Gifts Ungiven and Meloku, the Clouded Mirror. Unplayable jank, am I right?
On The Other Hand…
So that’s the stuff I don’t expect to see in Coldsnap. What do I expect we will see, or at the very least might see? That’s a very good question, and I’m glad you asked.
This is an issue as slippery as the lands themselves, folks. On the one hand, this was one of the defining elements of Ice Age block, the one thing that one can truly point to as a block mechanic. Further, in concept, they were solid. I know I was entranced. Making Coldsnap without reference to snow-covered lands would be like not having artifacts in Fifth Dawn or spirits in Saviors of Kamigawa. It just wouldn’t be right.
And yet… And yet… How do I put this? In execution, snow-covered lands were awful. I mean, really awful. They were like… let’s see, great idea ruined by flawed execution… they were like Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. If you want the pop culture reference, they were Magic’s Star Trek: Enterprise. You follow?
There were more cards punishing you for playing them than rewarding you, and even the cards that rewarded you for running them were mostly lukewarm. Look at Woolly Mammoth. I can’t name a single card that really made it worth your while to run snow-covered lands, so nobody did. Well… actually, I did, but only because I ran out of regular Forests one time.
Great, then! This is a chance to do snow-covered lands right! And it’s exciting to think that they could print cards that were actually powerful if you had snow-covered lands. Except… let’s think about the practical problems here.
The idea of simply allowing snow-covered lands as basic lands in Coldsnap gets ugly fast. Where do they come from? Coldsnap is very unlikely to have tourney packs, which means… what? Separate packs of snow-covered lands? One snow-covered land in each booster? There’s no good answer. To be Standard legal, they’d have to actually appear on Coldsnap’s set list, which seems unlikely. I just don’t see any way of getting the snow-covered basic lands into this cleanly.
Which leaves, of course, snow-covered nonbasic lands. Let the basics fall by the wayside (unless you’re actually doing Ice Age Block Limited), and print, at common, a cycle of snow-covered nonbasic lands. Maybe they could have basic land types and be functionally identical to the basics. Maybe they could be snow-covered duals (no, not real duals), which would help out the block as a whole. Maybe you could do a cycle of them at common and at uncommon. Whatever the case, this gets them cleanly into Standard and Limited alike, in numbers that should be sufficient if the cards referencing them are actually decent. The more I think about it, the more this seems like the likeliest option, or at least the best.
But whatever they do, the treatment of snow-covered lands is likely to be the issue regarding Coldsnap that receives the most speculation and scrutiny (well, okay, aside from reprinting Force of Will in the theme decks). I hope they kept that in mind.
Poison counters were, let’s remember, not a huge factor in Ice Age. In fact, they were limited to a single creature in Alliances, Swamp Mosquito. However, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see poison in Coldsnap. Rosewater has said that they will bring it back someday, and this seems like a fine opportunity. Hell, they’ve been dropping hints on magicthegathering.com all year that poison was coming back. Moreover, this seems like a much better way than snow-covered lands to provide consistency with any hypothetical theme in “Snap” block.
Poison will come back, it’s just a question of when. It could be in Coldsnap, it could be in Guildpact or Dissension, it could be in “Snap” block… or, who knows? Maybe all three.
A new keyword
Common wisdom these days, apparently, is that every set should have at least one new keyword (or ability word… sigh), and usually two. This is in stark contrast to the earlier days of block design, when a single set of mechanics would generally be carried through all three sets. And Ice Age, of course, predates the time when keyworded mechanics were being added to the game at all (other than rampage, which was added in Legends). So as much as it might piss some people off- as much as it might piss me off- and as incongruous as it is given the set’s purported origins, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a random cool keyword in Coldsnap. In fact, this would be a great place to take one of these random little mechanics like Scry and get out it out of their system, because it really bugs me when they show up in the third set of a normal block and pretend they fit in. Posers.
They could, I suppose, use this opportunity to bring back a block keyword like they keep saying they will (other than Cycling, I mean), but since the keyword in question couldn’t possibly have existed when Coldsnap should have come out, this would raise serious questions of causality and temporal paradox. Or at least of plausibility.
Fear, Haste, Vigilance, Defender, Auras, and Enchant [stuff]
These abilities are just new ways of templating ideas that existed at the time. That makes them pretty much a given, along with the new card frames and Sixth Edition rules. I can only hope, though, that they’ll at least put Defender on some honest-to-God Walls.
Big Blue fatties
Not only are these still fair game, they never went away. Look at Tidal Kraken! Look at Grozoth! They won’t necessarily do one in Coldsnap (it’s a small set), but they easily could. Shiny.
Gold cards and off-color activations
This… is… perfect. You’re talking about a set that’s supposed to expand on the themes of the first two sets to truly showcase off-color activations and colors cooperating… and yet be able to slot nicely into the current Standard, which is (and will continue to be) dominated by two-color guilds featuring gold cards and off-color activations? Sounds freaking good to me.
Note, however, that unlike Ravnica, Ice Age and Alliances made a sharp distinction between ally and enemy color pairs. Allied colors got gold cards like Stormbind and Fumarole, simple perks like Essence Filter and Battle Frenzy, off-color activations like Bone Shaman and Soldevi Heretic, and weird little extras like Krovikian Sorceror. Enemy colors got a surprising amount of hosing. I’d expect that to continue (more the help than the hosing… they’ve backed off color hosers significantly), with the strange consequence that shortly after Ravnica block wraps up, ally and enemy will once again matter. Since we know that “Snap” block will have at least one multicolored card in it via You Make The Card 3 (and probably more, given all this talk of inter-block design), this would help Coldsnap play nice with the next block, as well.
The Point Being
If you ask me, the true measure of R&D’s success with Coldsnap- and certainly the way that they will approach it- has nothing to do with whether it’s truly the long-lost third set of Ice Age, nor with how faithfully they recreate the play experience of yore. I mean, what is yore, anyway? Magic today is better! It’s better balanced, better designed, better developed, and altogether more fun. I’m as nostalgic about the good old days as you are, but I feel very strongly that Magic is getting better all the time.
The real challenge they face with Coldsnap is to make a set that simultaneously fulfills the promise of Ice Age and Alliances while adhering to the refined design and development principles they have set since then, and, as an added bonus, fitting harmoniously into a Standard environment which, we have been promised, will herald a bold new age in which blocks mesh together organically.
That’s a damn big job they’ve set themselves. Are they up to it? We’ll see. But I for one will evaluate their success based on more than simple authenticity.
(Thanks to Robert Lesczinski for writing his article and to David Strutz for proofreading and logic-tweaking mine.)