The Future’s Past: A Study of Magic Rarity, Part 2

The Dark through In the last part of the article, I examined the beginnings of Magic: The Gathering from inception through Legends (which would be considered the ‘last’ of the classic sets). The first expansion set after Revised (which would mark the beginning of ‘modern’ magic via the Pro Tour and Type 2) was The…

The Dark through Weatherlight

In the last part of the article, I examined the beginnings of Magic: The Gathering from inception through Legends (which would be considered the ‘last’ of the classic sets). The first expansion set after Revised (which would mark the beginning of ‘modern’ magic via the Pro Tour and Type 2) was The Dark, and it broke almost all of the rules about what each color could or couldn’t do.

To review: Up until the point of The Dark, Wizards followed a pretty stringent set of rules about”what makes a rare.” They were:

1) Cards that do something that is out of flavor for its color (White Direct Damage or Green Card Drawing)

2) Big”signature” creatures (Teeka’s Dragon, Crimson Hellkite, Leviathan)

3) Cards which have complicated or experimental mechanics (Necropotence, Celestial Dawn)

4) Extraordinarily powerful cards (Hammer of Bogardan, Tornado, Sacred Mesa)

5) Cards that have a global, game-sweeping effect (Inferno, Apocalypse Chime, Shimmer)

6) Cards that change the fundamental rules of the game while in play (Zur’s Weirding, Forbidden Crypt)

7) Fun cards and Ante Cards (Timmerian Fiends, Chaos Moon, Malignant Growth)

In addition, I’d like to introduce that each color had a theme that most of their creatures followed. This was the basic map Wizards used in order to determine how to build a creature for a color:

Black: Creatures that involve sacrifice (life, cards, permanents) for a powerful effect. Small to medium sized flyers allowed in the common and uncommon slots.

Red: Creatures with haste, and creatures that interact in a negative fashion (dealing damage, destroying, etc) with other creatures. Small uncommon flyers allowed.

Green: Large creatures with few to no drawbacks. No flyers allowed in common or uncommon slots.

Blue: Flying creatures, utility creatures (tims, card drawing/ discarding/ bounce/ color changing). Islandhome creatures. Small to large flyers allowed Common/Uncommon

White: Creatures that enhance other creatures or work together (Infantry Veteran/banders/creatures that give each other defensive bonuses). Small and medium flyers.

The Dark:

The Dark was the set that broke the rules on pretty much everything. Each color was given several abilities that wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with their abilities, and not always in the rare (u1) slot. For instance (With the colors ordinarily associated with each ability in parenthesis):

Blue Land Destruction (R/B) and Mana Acceleration (B/G): Erosion (C) and Apprentice Wizard (C)

Black Artifact Removal (W/R) and Black-Creature Creature Removal (Color Rule): Curse Artifact (U3) and Ashes to Ashes (C)

Green Artifact Removal (W/R) and Regeneration Prevention (B/R): Scavenger Folk (C) and Whippoorwill (U3)

Red Mana Acceleration (B/G) and Direct, Non-Damage Related Creature Removal (Color Rule): Sisters of the Flame (C) and Fissure (C)

White Creature Kill with no Drawbacks (B/R) and Direct Damage: Holy Light (C) and Fire & Brimstone (U3)

In addition, the Dark was the first appearance ever of cards that had opposing colors in either the casting or activation costs, without a bridge color. In the past, a creature such as Palladia-Mors would have both Red and White in the casting cost, but only because they were both allied with Green, the main color of this Dragon. In the Dark, the range of opposing color cards swept from common to uncommon to rare. There seemed to be no trend set for opposing color cards to be kept in a specific rarity (a theme revisited years later in Apocalypse), and the rares were no more powerful than the commons.

These included Dark Heart of the Woods (C), Electric Eel (U3), Elves of Deep Shadow (U3), and Wormwood Treefolk (U1)

It should also be noted that The Dark contained what is universally considered the worst rare ever: Sorrow’s Path.

Sorrow’s Path


T: Exchange two of opponent’s blocking creatures. This exchange may not cause an illegal block. Sorrow’s Path does 2 damage to you and 2 damage to each creature you control whenever it is tapped.

Whether or not this is in actuality the worst Magic Rare ever printed, it should be noted that The Dark also contains the more overlooked candidate for worst creature ever: The common Squire.



Summon Squire


One final note about The Dark: While the set pretty much broke a lot of rarity rules across several color lines, one new type of card was established as a rare mechanic: Mass nonbasic Land hosing. Blood Moon began this type of card, and it continues to this day including cards such as Ruination, Back to Basics, and Primal Order.

Fallen Empires:

If the Dark threw out all the rarity rules, Fallen Empires threw out the idea that rares should be playable. The boon cycle from Alpha (Healing Salve/Giant Growth/Lightning Bolt/Dark Ritual/Ancestral Recall) were reprinted as rare artifacts, and watered down. Large unwieldy theme creatures ruled the roost, while their more playable minions fell in the common slots. Nearly every staple card from Fallen Empires, with really only a couple of exceptions, was a common or uncommon.

Commons and Uncommons of note: Hymn to Tourach, Order of the Ebon Hand, Mindstab Thrull, Necrite, Initiates of the Ebon Hand, Thrull Retainer, Breeding Pit, Night Soil, Thallid, Thallid Devourer, Thelonite Druid, the five comes-into-play and sac for two mana lands, Dwarven Catapult, Dwarven Soldier, Goblin Grenade, High Tide, Deep Spawn, Homarid Spawning Bed, Seasinger, Combat Medic, Icatian Infantry, Icatian Javelins, Order of Leitbur.

Rares of Note: Derelor, Icatian Town, Hand of Justice, Aelopile, Ring of Renewal, Goblin Warrens, Orgg, Vodalian Knight

Fallen Empires didn’t really offer very much new to the game, instead bringing a ‘flavored’ theme to each color (Dwarves, Saprolings, Knights, Soldiers, Thrulls, etc.). It was a very unpopular release, not only because of the multiple copies of artwork for each card (relegated to the common slots), but because almost all of the good cards were common, giving people very little incentive to buy packs to try to get four of any particular rare.

Ice Age:

The first modern-day stand-alone set. While the idea of a”block” (a standalone plus two expansions using the same mechanics) didn’t evolve until Mirage, Ice Age began the idea of a set introducing new mechanics (in this case, snow-covered lands, cumulative upkeep, and cantrips), and carrying it over to the next set (Alliances). After two straight sets of jarring breaks in rarity, things settled back down to normal for a while. Cards pretty much conformed to their usual rarities, following the seven rules. From this point onwards, I’ll throw out points of note set by set, and resort to long drawn-out dialogue only when necessary.

Balduvian Shaman


Summon Cleric


T: Permanently change the text of target white enchantment you control that does not have cumulative upkeep by replacing all instances of one color word with another. For example, you may change”Counters black spells” to”Counters blue spells.” Balduvian Shaman cannot change mana symbols. That enchantment now has Cumulative Upkeep: 1

The Shaman was literally supposed to be printed as a rare, but was put on the wrong commonality sheet at the printer. If it seems a little too complex for a common, that’s because it was supposed to be rare.

The pair of Jester’s cards (The Mask and the Cap) established cards that allow you to search through your opponent’s libraries as a rare mechanic. While later cards would include this mechanic in the uncommon slot (Lobotomy, and the cycle of Lobotomy-style cards in Urza’s Destiny), cards which do not interact with anything other than actually looking through your opponent’s library remain rare (Extract, Bribery, Denying Wind)

Necropotence continued what Greed has begun: Black rare card drawing in exchange for life. To this day, no other card has topped Necropotence for sheer power in card drawing for black, and this mechanic has been spread to include all rarities. However, the schemata seems to be as follows:

Life/card exchange, one time/one card: Common (Phyrexian Rager).

Life/card exchange, one-time/multiple cards: Uncommon (Necrologia).

Life/card exchange, multiple times/multiple cards: Rare (Phyrexian Arena).

The flip side of this was Oath of Lim-Dul, which allowed you to draw mass cards, but penalized you for losing life.

While the first mass-green pumper (Stampede) was a Rare, the mechanic would later become an uncommon one (such as the case with Stampede Driver or Overrun).

As in Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, the dual lands came in the Rare slots (both pain and tap lands), but this time only came in allied colors. The taplands were later reprinted in Tempest in an improved form (tap for colorless without staying tapped) as uncommons, while opposing color pain lands were printed in both Tempest (comes into play tapped) and Apocalypse (identical to Ice Age painlands) as rares. Also, in Invasion, allied dual-lands were printed with the only penalty being that they come into play tapped, which allows us to make this rules about dual lands: If they are allied color, they are uncommon. If they are opposing colored, they are rare. If there are tri-color lands, they are usually uncommon (the Palaces from Homelands and the Lairs from Planeshift).

The mechanic of counting each and every permanent in play to determine a card’s effect appeared for the first time, as Chaos Moon and Chaos Lord. Thankfully, they were rares (so they didn’t show up often in sealed play), and thankfully the idea was scrapped until a later date, reappearing on Maraxus of Keld in Weatherlight.

Ice Age marked the first appearance of mono-colored Legends, all of which were rare. In the future, mono-colored legends would be printed as both uncommons and rares, but almost always were relegated to the rare slot post-Homelands.

Illusions of Grandeur started blue temporary life gain as a rare mechanic, though it would not often be revisited (Delusions of Mediocrity)

Ray of Command, previously coming from a rare Red mechanic (Disharmony), became now blue and common. Over the years, this ability would begin to migrate, and finally end up rare again (Reins of Power, Overtaker).

Sleight of Mind became the first card to be reprinted and have its rarity changed. Formerly a rare, it now was an uncommon. Cards that change color/land text on other cards bounced between rare and uncommon status (Mind Bend, Crystal Spray, Whim of Volrath), with the more recent examples being rare.

Reusable discard effects, such as Disrupting Scepter and Gwendolyn DiCorci, moved from rare to common with Zuran Enchanter. In the future, this mechanic would bounce between the common and uncommon slots, as in with Cat Burglar, Vodalian Hypnotist, and Cabal Inquisitor.

Red began the rare-oriented concept of blowing everything up at once with Jokulhaups. This still remains a red effect, reiterated several times with Wildfire and Obliterate. Previously, red could only blow up all the creatures at once (Inferno/Earthquake).


Alliances was the first set to be directly tied to a base set before it. The Ice Age mechanics are repeated, and a couple of new card types are introduced, most notably alternate casting-cost cards (all uncommon in this set, later expanded to all three rarities).

Alternate win condition cards: Generally these came in the rare slot, with the Millstone theme reiterated twice with Ashnod’s Cylix and Helm of Obedience. Future cards which allowed you a way to win besides reducing your opponent’s life total to zero were universally rare, with the exception of the poison mechanic.

Previous sets had contained cycles of color hosers that were uncommon (such the enchantment cycle in Unlimited, and the hosers in Ice Age), but Alliances introduced dual-color hosers as rares. These cards were designed to specifically target the two colors opposing whatever color the card was. For instance, Tidal Control (a Blue card) affected Red and Green (the two colors opposing Blue). Later cards that hosed two colors at once bounced between Rare (Paladin En-Vec) and Uncommon (a repeat hoser cycle in Mercadian Masques).

Phelddagrif and Varchild’s War-Riders were rares that forced your opponent to put creatures into play. Similar cards in later expansions would be rare as well.


Homelands was like Fallen Empires, but worse. Technically released before Alliances, it wasn’t a true part of the Ice Age block (although it has later been relegated there). Not much to note here:

As mentioned earlier, mono-colored uncommon legends were present in this set for the first time. Usually, from this point onwards, legendary creatures and permanents would be saved for the rare slot – because if they are legendary, they shouldn’t be seen that often, storywise.


Here begins modern Magic. While the Extended format goes all the way back to Ice Age, this is where things truly began to take shape. Mirage was the first block to be designed as a base set, with two expansion sets. Booster draft became a consideration, so rarities were closely scrutinized to make sure cards didn’t slip through which were too powerful should they appear several times in one draft. A few notes about Mirage:

Just like their cousins (the alternate win condition cards), the alternate lose condition cards also are usually rare. Following the steps of Lich, Forbidden Crypt lost you the game immediately through a certain condition (in this case, not being able to draw a card out of your graveyard). Final Fortune also lost you the game under a certain condition (this one being the turn after your Final Fortune turn).

A mega-cycle of rare lands began in this set, with Teferi’s Isle. These five lands would appear one per block, and always in the rare slot (Kor Haven, Yavimaya Hollow, Volrath’s Laboratory, and Keldon Necropolis being the other four).

Infernal Contract began a black trend of rare cards that cost BBB and a large drawback to use. A full cycle appeared in this block (Kaervek’s Spite and Doomsday being the other two), and continued in future blocks (such as with Lurking Evil).

Both black and white were given uncommon counterspells (Withering Boon and Illumination), which breaks the rarity rules, as the only counterspells outside of blue were previously red spells specifically designed to hose blue.

Red’s first auction card, Illicit Auction, started the rare mechanic of players bidding life for a certain effect. Mage’s Contest and Goblin Game would later revisit this rare theme.


Where Fallen Empires and Homelands had been mediocre sets with most of their good cards coming outside of the rare slots, Visions was an amazing set with most of its good cards coming in the common and uncommon slots. Several Wizards people have said, off the record, that Visions was a huge mistake- it was too good. Pound for pound, there are more playable cards in Visions than in any other modern Magic set – and most of these cards again were not rare. A quick examination of some cards which today would probably be printed in a different rarity slot:

Black: Crypt Rats would move from common to uncommon (global creature kill).

Green: Quirion Ranger would move from common to uncommon or rare (too unbalancing as a common). River Boa would move from common to uncommon or rare (regeneration + land walk together in a 2/1 creature for 1G is too powerful for a common). Witness that Spectral Lynx, although not a perfect copy of River Boa, was printed as a rare years later. Warthog, a common in this set, later was reprinted in 6th edition as an uncommon. Although not necessarily more powerful than a common, compare it to the rare Pygmy Allosaurus from Ice Age. Both are Swampwalkers for three mana, but the dinosaur is 2/2 for 2G (as a rare) and the pig is 3/2 for 1GG (as a common).

Red: Fireblast would move from common to uncommon (too powerful as a common). Suq’ata Lancer would move from common to uncommon (too powerful as a common).

Blue: Knight of Mists would move from common to uncommon (direct creature kill out of flavor for Blue.)

Players booster drafting two packs of Mirage and one pack of Visions would often find that their decks literally contained twelve to thirteen Visions cards, and only ten or eleven Mirage cards! With the overabundance of good cards being relegated to the common slots, the set really was unbalanced for limited play. This makes the set less of a skill tester for both Sealed and Draft play (since a majority of the cards are in the”good” category, much less the”playable”‘ category), and again lessens the number of packs players will buy to get the cards they need.

Originally, I started this series in response to an article being written about Wizards and their policy of making all the ‘good’ cards in the set rare. Visions represents the entire opposite end of that spectrum: All of the ‘good’ cards in the set are commons, with a few good uncommons and even fewer playable rares. If such a trend occurred to make the best cards in the set rares, it started in the next block (since Weatherlight had already been developed by the time Visions had been released). It won’t be until much later that we see rule #5 (powerful cards) taking effect more often.


The first modern theme set (following artifacts in Antiquities and creature wars in Fallen Empires), featuring the graveyard as a resource. There weren’t very many surprises here, but there are a couple of noteworthy cards:

Gemstone Mine was the first five-color land to be printed out of the rare slot (uncommon). Previous five-color lands were rare (City of Brass, Undiscovered Paradise, Rainbow Vale). Lands that could produce five colors under the right circumstances (such as School of the Unseen) are not counted, since they are mana filters.

Fervor continued the trend of Concordant Crossroads of making global haste-giving effects rare cards. This would be repealed with the advent of Fire of Yavimaya, but then later reinstated with Need for Speed in Odyssey.

Thundermare was the first ‘tap all other creatures’ creature printed in Magic. This ability remains one printed on rare cards, with the most recent example being Shrieking Mogg.

In my next installment, I’ll examine Tempest through Urza’s Destiny. One special note to my readers: I know that this article has been a long time in coming, but I have some good news! During the time I was away, I was hired by Wizards of the Coast to write a column for their new website, Magicthegathering.com. This site goes live on January 2nd, and I am one of the featured columnists there. If you have enjoyed my previous articles here on StarCity, then I suggest you check out Magicthegathering.com during the evening of 1/2/2002.

And, as always, any comments or suggestions or thoughts are welcomed.