Removed from Game – Ask and You Shall Receive

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Friday, June 27th – In a departure from his usual programming, Rich Hagon turns critic as he examines the bizarre and delightful information pouring forth from one of Magic’s best-loved columns. So join him for teasers aplenty, as he separates the wheat from the chaff, and runs the whole gamut of the wonderful world of MTG.

The one plaintive cry I hear from Pros and non-Pros alike on my travels around the wonderfully diverse Magic kingdom is ‘If only I had more time.’ What follows this could be anything from, ‘I would have made Top 8’ to ‘I would have known my foil Champs Mutavault was worth something’ to ‘I wouldn’t have gone between rounds to Abra Kebabra.’ At least one of those three would leave you feeling sick to your stomach, indeed potentially all three. And that’s where I come in. Just like Denzel Washington in ‘The Fallen,’ ti……i….i.ime……is on my si….ide. Yes it is.

Yes, it really is, and that means I’m on hand this week with something a little different. In point of fact, something very different. If you do entertainment for a living, one of the crucial lessons you learn very quickly is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Everything good you think of has been done many times before, but that’s okay, because it’s still good, and as Mark Rosewater recently pointed out, people love repetition. This is especially true if they are under the illusion that they’re being given something new, allowing them the excitement of the discovery coupled with the enjoyment and comfort of the old.

This week I propose to bring you something that’s never been done before, as far as I’m aware. It’s something that borrows heavily from an advertizement I saw on a recent transatlantic flight, where businessmen who certainly don’t have time on their side are encouraged to subscribe to business libraries, where hundreds of books are condensed down to their absolute essence, ready to be read and assimilated in double-quick time.

And so I come to my project. Over on the mothership, the Ask Wizards column is one of my first stops around the world of Magic journalism on a daily basis. Of course, there are lots of questions that are fairly time-specific, like rules interactions from Odyssey, why changes to Organised Play happened in 1947, or why a specific card had a specific creature type that used a particular font on the alternate foil art version in Chinese Revised. And when time is of the essence, you really don’t want to go trawling through. Thankfully, you don’t have to because, like I said, time is on my side.

I’ve read literally every single Ask Wizards from January 2002 to approximately yesterday. I’ve tried to boil it down to the best of the best, the quirky, the unusual, the creative, the spectacular, the majestic, the factual and the dumb, and the just plain funny. And here I present to you the fruits of those extensive hours of staring at the screen, weeding out the chaff to bring you the cream.

But I want to be honest with you. This is one of the hardest articles I’ve ever written, because although time etc… it isn’t on my side all that much. So if you’d rather I stopped this tedious bookmarking of irrelevancy, please come and say so in the forums, and I won’t bring you the last two and a half years of my research next week. If, however, this sort of pot pourri in bitesized chunks is right up your alley, now is the time to say so, and you’ll get more just like it seven days from now.

What’s that? Ah, the links. Or more accurately the missing links. Well, there’s two things to say. First, Ask Wizards is archived by month, so I can’t physically direct you to the precise entry. That’s the technical reason. The second is that I don’t want to. Huh? See, this all began because I was looking for a single piece of information that I was fairly sure was buried deep inside Ask Wizards. That I found well over a hundred great stories surprised even me. Now, I suppose I could share every single one of them with you, but what would be the point? I’d much rather you thought about the teasers I offer here which pique your interest, and then, like me, in the process of scratching the itch you might find some things that really appeal to you that didn’t make my cut. Nonetheless, if you’re going to do all that work, perhaps you need some incentive, something more than just a long list of my ‘greatest hits.’ In which case, I’ll offer you the unexpurgated story of five of my absolute favourites. Deal? Deal.

September 6th 2002

An Argentinian fan asked whether Magic would ever be included in the Olympics. This is the sort of tangential question that Ask Wizards is famous for delivering on. The Vice President of Brand Joe Hauck took it on, and did a pretty passable imitation of Mark Rosewater when he effectively said ‘never say never.’ Although that might have been a little disappointing, since it seemed to more or less close the door, it turned out that there was rather more substance to the possibility. At that time, the Olympic Committee for the 2004 games in Athens were seriously contemplating some kind of hook-up with the world of ‘Mind Sports,’ and, as so often the case in industry, someone knew someone knew someone who knew someone who was involved in exploring the project. As we know, that eventually came to nothing, but the drive towards the Olympics being a catalyst for a celebration of human endeavor, rather than purely physical sports, seems to be growing. Having been to Grand Prix: Torino in 2006 and found the venue next door hosting the World Chess Championships, it was clearly apparent that the intellectual rigor in both games bore easy comparison with the physical rigor of the mainstream Olympians. Sooner or later, this marriage of mental and physical competition will happen, although whether London 2012 can blaze a trail… ‘never say never.’

January 29th 2003

This was one of those questions that opened a real can of worms. Or even wurms. It’s a good example of what happens when people like us end up with too much time on our hands. It started out innocently enough with the question ‘Does the art description of ‘Creature – Angel’ state ‘female,’ the same way the art description for ‘Creature – Dragon’ states ‘quadruped, reptilian, bat winged?’ See, it all seems fine, we could even get away with a yes or no here. But then our interrogator starts taking things to logical conclusions, and ends up with, ‘… if they are (as far as I can tell) all female, how do they keep their population from dwindling?”

Yes indeedy, it’s the holy grail of pubescent teenagers the world over — the only lesbian reproduction reference on the mothership! Brady Dommermuth apparently suggested a model whereby there were male angels as well, with the females being the dominant gender, but that never came to fruition. Between you and me, I think they wanted more hot torso artwork. So, yes, all Angels are female, but that still left the whole race-disintegrating-to-nothingness problem. Turns out, they’re technically immortal, so although they can ‘die’ within a game, their essence hangs around, just waiting to be resummoned by another passing Wizard, and off they go again. My problem with this? Just imagine if you’re Serra Angel. You wait years to be reprinted, get yourself all spruced up, confident that Wizards around the world will be glad to see you, and then they summon you a few times and say, ‘Sorry luv, you’re actually not very good any more, are you? See ya.’

December 15th 2003

One of the constants about Ask Wizards is that you have to be a little bit careful about what you believe. There’s plenty of humorous answers dotted around, and sometimes even the questions are staged, coming from people like ‘Mark R, Seattle’ and so on. And as for a question on April 1st, forget it. So when I saw a question about Shichifukujin Dragon, I was suspicious. Turned out I was wrong to be so cynical. This Dragon appeared on a list of Promo cards, but I for one had never heard of it, and I suspect most of you haven’t either. As the go-to Wizards guy in Japan at the time, Ron Foster was the obvious teller of the tale.

When the DCI Japan Tournament Center was opened back in 1996, a special commemorative card was created, the eponymous Dragon. It seems that this 6RRR cost monstrosity was used during the opening day tournaments, and then all but one copy was destroyed. Under the current rules of the game, the Dragon wouldn’t have been much good anyway, since it had the ability ‘when this comes into play, put seven +1+1 counters on it.’ That would make it thoroughly dead, but at the time, this was all fine. The one remaining copy was encased within the Tournament Center for public view. Time moves on, however, and the Tournament Center closed in 2003, with the near-unspellable spell coming home to its current resting place at Wizards HQ in Seattle. So yes, the card exists, yes it got played, for one day only, and yes, it’s quite possibly the rarest of all rares.

July 26th 2004

One of the great strengths of our game is that it’s possible to create astonishing power levels within every format of the game. Even something as simple as Goldmeadow Stalwart into Knight of Meadowgrain into Wizened Cenn and a Sunlance can feel monumentally powerful in a Lorwyn Draft. Runes Of The Deus on a Morselhoarder, when you’re the one doing it you get that wonderful sensation that’s a mixture of power, the delusion that you’re good at Magic, and feeling really really dirty. But a lot of the time that illusion of power is just that, an illusion. For real power, when men were men and power was Power, we have to go deep back into the history of the game, and this question, for those of you who were around then and can remember the unalloyed joy of playing this deck, will utterly fulfil your Magic nostalgia quota for some time to come.

The deck? Necropotence. Just let the names of the cards roll off your tongue, and remember how utterly unbearably savagely you kicked people with this lot:

Necropotence — Was there ever more fun drawing cards?
Hypnotic Specter — Hard to imagine a 2/2 for 3 getting it done, but this was a turn ONE 2/2 for 3.
Black Knight / Pump Knights — Look at them go.
Sengir Vampire / Ihsan’s Shade — Because sometimes big is beautiful.
Hymn to Tourach — Ever heard the phrase ‘Hymn, Hymn, I win’? This is the Hymn bit.
Dark Ritual — A hideous pain in the backside for R & D, a thing of beauty for Black mages.
Drain Life — The card Mike Long didn’t need playing Prosperous Bloom.
Demonic Consultation — For when 4 just isn’t enough.
Icequake — How much fun was proper Black Land Destruction?
Paralyze / Weakness — Your monster, nullified.
Lightning Bolt — Nowadays we’d probably call this ‘reach.’
Nevinyrral’s Disk — Wrath on steroids, and colorless too.
Black Vise — in addition to being an awesome opener, this was the most famous bug in the Shandalar computer game, triggering twice every upkeep!
Zuran Orb (restricted) — So you never ever die.
Ivory Tower (restricted) — Now a Wizards meeting room.
Strip Mine — Even more foolishly good LD.
Mishra’s Factory — the archetypal man-land.
Swamps — the second best basic land, admittedly a distant second to islands. Obviously.

April 1st 2005

For my final example, I couldn’t resist pointing you to a big shiny red button, because who wouldn’t like to press something with such potential for destruction? And with it being April 1st, you could expect something entertaining on the other side. The actual question was one of the most straightforward the column ever gets — ‘Who chooses who answers which questions?’ And the answer is about as mundane as it gets too — the most appropriate person. It’s a design question? A designer. A development question? A Developer. An art question? Exactly. You might even think they were being intentionally dull. And then you got to click the red button. If there’s one entry I really want you to go and find out about for yourselves it’s this one, because what’s lurking behind the red button is so gloriously, viciously cynical it deserves a really wide audience. But in case you can’t be bothered, I’ll give you the closing line:

“As a premium member, let me be straight with you. Never believe ‘Ask Wizards’. It’s always lies. Always. Just remember when you read it to invert it into the exact opposite. I think you’ll see that Wizards isn’t exactly the company you think it is. It’s actually the exact opposite. Except for the .4 percent (you know the guys who post on the boards). For you guys, it’s exactly like you think.”

And with those parting words of advice, please find below teasers for dozens upon dozens of great stories from 2002-2005.

My voyage of discovery began on January 3rd 2002 when I discovered what cards were missing from the first print run of Magic. Since I was already 30 years old, I supposed that an age limit for being a Judge wouldn’t apply to me, but was there one? I found my answer on the 16th, and less than a week later on the 22nd I was reading Henry Stern talking about how the Tolarian Academy combo slipped through R&D…

Not being terribly observant, I hadn’t realized that there was a Masticore in the artwork of Deep Analysis, one of the best cards ever. But after February 7th 2002 I knew this unmissable fact. Bury is a small northern town here in Britain, but without the capital it’s a word gone forever from the rules of the game. Feb 28th told me why…

With the arrival of Spring, on March 21st I discovered why Rancor was a right pain in the backside to play against, unless you had a Phyrexian Furnace in play.

April brought me the astonishing news of the Magic arcade machine on the 5th, and something that I thought was a joke, but turned out not to be, about the letter ‘h’ on cards. Well, it was the first of the month.

May had lots to offer me. On the 3rd Richard Garfield taught me a bunch about the Power 9. Ten days later my lack of observation came to the fore once again. I’ve seen the film ‘Spiderman’ a few times now, but never really had a good look at his bedroom wall. I did however wonder why the number for Threshold was set at 7, and I had to wait until the 23rd to find out. And then on the last day of the month, somebody just had to know why red doesn’t have a tutor.

Into June, and on the 7th I found out where the Gathering bit of Magic: The Gathering came from, and how it could so easily have been something else. Showing that things can change if you keep hoping, one guy plaintively wanted to know why there was no love for Hawaii. Chris Galvin explained how things were back then on the 11th. And although the origin of the species is still a book I’ve yet to read, June 27th did at least tell me the origin of Flashback.

I have a soft spot for assorted Knights and Paladins in the game, but largely because of what the cards do rather than how they look. I certainly hadn’t twigged that Northern Paladin had an eye missing. Turned out on the 10th July that was only part of the story, and two weeks later there was a pretty comprehensive explanation of how to shuffle.

August had plenty to say then, but not that much that’s relevant now, although I did find an intriguing answer from Randy Buehler about cards with lots of colored mana requirements on the 13th.

September 6th was very exciting. I’ve always been interested in the Olympics, especially as I represented Great Britain at Archery at the Seoul Olympics of 1988 when I was just 16. The idea that mental sports might become attached to the Olympics in some way sounded awesome. Shame nothing’s happened with that. At least, I don’t think it has. London 2012 anyone? Also that month, I learned a bit about really situational cards on the 17th.

I guess it was no surprise that Elaine Chase was the person to educate me about women in the game. That was on October 17th, and things got very anachronistic on the 28th, with rocket launchers and lasers and all sorts going on.

I guess I knew most of the relevant stuff from November, but it’s still nice from time to time to get a lucid response to a pretty basic question on the 22nd like why many Pros play the same deck archetype at a given Pro Tour.

The year rounded out with a tale of Urban Legends and utter chaos on the 19th. And then we were into hibernation mode until 2003 rolled around…

I’ve truly never got to grips with the Onslaught expansion symbol, but at least I now know a lot more about it, thanks to January 10th 2003.

One of my favourite techniques in photography is something called a lens flare, and this rather unusually appeared on a Magic card, as discussed on Feb 18th.

Is Magic a mainstream product or activity? Whatever your answer now, it’s interesting to see how the game was being positioned on the 19th of March. And in the same month on the 3rd, Demons were given their place in the sun, specifically their rather unhealthy relationship with barbed wire. And not the card Barbed Wire either.

Truthfully, I love the occasional card that has no flavor text. Indeed, I love the occasional card that has virtually no text at all, like the cycle in Future Sight (Nessian Courser and friends). But why didn’t Wrath Of God get any flavor text? There was plenty of room after all. This I now know, courtesy of April 28th.

‘Let’s Call the Whole thing Off’ is a great song, but the lyrics don’t work very well in printed form. ‘You say either and I say either, you say neither and I say neither’. See? But wurm, wirm, werm, werem, wyrm and, for all I know, whryiml get a good going over on May 12th. Then on the 29th people like Denzel Washington and Will Smith get a look-in, as someone wants to know where all the black heroes are.

As a Blue mage I love to draw cards, which is why things like Urza’s Bauble are so appealing, or the Wisps from Shadowmoor. They may not do much, but they do get you further into your deck. But where do cantrips (as they’re known) come from? I got my answer on June 3rd.

July brought me a very useful list of artist ‘horses for courses’ on the 11th, and a thoroughly disappointing answer about Zombie Prescription Pills on the 23rd.

August 13th brought a query about not Rares in general but about genuine rarity, specifically a quest for the rarest of them all. As for the 29th of that month, I’ve always been someone with very strong views about Intentional Draws, and mostly conversations on this issue go around and around the same entrenched positions. So it was nice to find a slightly different perspective on things from Chris Galvin, who once again opened my eyes to new possibilities. He’s quite good at that it turns out.

September was a fairly fallow month, but on the 4th I learned a bunch about the flavor of basic land.

Of the many things I hadn’t really considered back in 2003, the number of spheres among the artifacts in Mirrodin was definitely up there, but it turns out that there were too many, something October 28th taught me.

I love Angels, and so the story of Platinum Angel was a welcome tale on November 21st.

Into 2004, and for a comprehensive list of the Weatherlight and Predator crew I looked to January 13th.

For comedy lines I was very impressed with a question regarding the number for Threshold, and why it wasn’t three or eight. That was on the 3rd of the month, while an in-depth guide to the design of Tangle Golem was most revealing on the 12th.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know of the existence of the Magic Storyline page, which I guess marks me out fairly comprehensively as a non-Vorthos. I didn’t know about the Unglued secret message, but the secret was revealed on the 12th.

Now the next one actually was on April 1st, but gullible fool that I am I hadn’t noticed this. I found the setup of the ‘essential’ Magic namechange highly creative, and funny too.

May 14th brought a question keen observers of the Pro Tour ask a lot – what are the little stamps on the cards for?

Into June, and I got a step by step explanation for the Great Machine combo on the 21st. Blimey, it’s complicated. Less complex but still very welcome was the clarification on the 24th of exactly what a TCG is.

One of my favorite Magic words is ‘cantrip’ , and on the 13th I found the origin of the word, and for another delightful history lesson it would be hard to beat the 26th, when the awesome Necropotence was explored.

August was a great month. On the second, I couldn’t believe that someone had genuinely written in about cleaning methods for their cards. A full list of the different expansion codes were given on the 12th, and a lucid explanation of the term ‘metagame’ followed on the 24th.

At the start of September, the 1st brought a query about a set based entirely on Dungeons & Dragons, while the then-new Legend rule got a thorough airing on the 14th.

Do you know what MODO stands for? Or at least, what it stood for? If you read the 1st of the month, you will.

With the nights closing in, the 2nd of November showcased the best decks from the Berlin World Championship.

To wrap up 2004, we got an insight into the dedication of some players as December 8th showcased the most active players of all time. The 17th brought us a list of the R & D codenames for various sets, but my favorite that month was on the 16th, where the question ‘Is Magic Online doing anything special for Christmas?’ was sadly not answered with, ‘Yes, it’s having close family and friends round for a party on Christmas Eve, and then it’s going to the mother-in-law’s on Boxing Day. Pity.

What about 2005 then? Surely people were running out of good questions to ask? Nope. January got us going with the deadly rivalry between Mark Rosewater and Mark Gottlieb on the 5th and the 6th.

Valentine’s Day in February was allegedly penned by a young lady, but I have my doubts, and so should you.

On March the 4th I discovered the origin behind the initials DCI. The 16th highlighted the multiple use of mural artwork through the history of the game, and the 29th reminded me that at least three Tomes in Magic were named after people.

April 1st 2005 had a really dull answer, until you pushed the shiny red button, but there was nothing dull about the 15th, where the picture left me frankly speechless, and quite possibly mentally scarred.

May 11th brought an avalanche of information in the form of contacts for hundreds of Magic artists.

June 30th gave us a list of all the planes so far explored in the Multiverse.

On the 5th of July the outcome of using Gatherer to search for ‘oboro’ caused some unusual results, while the 15th was a trivia buff dream, listing 83 countries where sanctioned Magic tournaments have been played. Do you think you could find ten countries that haven’t had one? It’s tricky, despite their being a bucketload to go at.

The use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ on Magic cards has always been an issue to some, but at least we now know the reasoning via August 3rd. The 15th was all about Footsteps of the Goryo, while the 26th focused on the flavor text of Invitational winners.

On September 1st there were rumors of a Super-Secret Promo card, which turned out to be, well, what it turned out to be. The fallout from that was addressed on the 22nd.

A great question turned up on October 12th, asking what great names had been used on rubbish cards.

Everyone has a favorite piece of flavor text, and we heard about R&D’s choices on November 28th, the day before we got at least a partial answer to why Pros tend to shuffle the cards in their hand so compulsively.

And, pulling no punches in the season of goodwill to all men, we heard exactly why the Urza’s Saga ‘free’ mechanic was rubbish. Happy New Year.

That’s where we leave it for now. I truly believe that even the most knowledgeable, the most hardcore, the most rabid, the most Timmy, Johnny, or Spike of you will have found out things you never knew before, and that you wanted to know. But however strange you’ve found this journey, it stands testament to the massive diversity of the world of Magic.

See you next week, when there will either be a follow-up, or there, er, won’t be. In either case, as ever, thanks for reading.