Unlocking Legacy – Legacy and Alara Design

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Friday, September 26th – Shards of Alara represents a new era for design and the power level of creatures and lands. Christopher Coppola looks back to Invasion and the evolution of modern design and considers what this means for the future of Legacy.

It wasn’t that long ago that Wizards was advertising their latest block for reinventing Magic’s past, present, and future, in an attempt to interest players by referencing past cards and reigniting the nostalgia that came with them. Time Spiral block did have some good cards and it was interesting to see how Wizards built the block, but the references were mostly flavorful and quirky. The cards were not the effective, unique, and efficient staples that actually stand out from Magic’s past. Time Spiral was really a completely new set, following the new rules of design, and glossing over those troublesome, older blocks that are full of unfun or unfair cards.

Now we have Alara block, which is a real reinvention of an important block, Invasion. But this time Wizards is pushing the power of some cards father than they have before, while still continuing the trend away from classical disruption. During Invasion design, some developers were concerned that comes-into-play-tapped (CIPT) dual lands were too powerful. Obviously they printed them anyway, and then made even stronger versions in Ravnica with the shock duals, but it’s interesting to note how the acceptable power level of lands has changed so drastically. The CIPT allied duals that were debated and then so heavily played in Invasion Standard formats are being upgraded in Alara to CIPT allied triples, which is a huge increase in power. Invasion’s allied dual cameos are being upgraded to allied triple cameos. Wizards is also printing some very strong common triple mana fixing lands to further support three colors. None of these mana sources are likely to see play in Legacy, but this continual increase in the power of mana sources is likely to produce something that can eventually compete with older manabases.

It is curious that the modern age of design is considered to have begun with Invasion. Invasion block did a lot of things differently, and better. Invasion was an amazing block, I imagine one of the most popular and best for the game, and in my opinion one of the most fun blocks. Wizards agrees with me, as they have made multicolor sets a regular occurrence and seem to be increasing their frequency of printing. However, Invasion block and the Standard formats built around it would terrify modern Magic designers. Back then the card pool still contained what many players remember to be staples of the game that have been removed by the current rules of design. Invasion was around at the same time as Mercadian Masques, and then Seventh Edition and Odyssey. Those sets were created before the themes of modern design were taken to their current extremes. Current design is moving magic away from many of the cards that were played during this time, and the type of game that they represent. Pernicious Deed, Fact or Fiction, Counterspell, Psychatog, Circular Logic, Daze, Dark Ritual, Upheaval, and Careful Study are all powerful cards that were played concurrently with Invasion, but which are not considered good for the game anymore . Much of this has to do with the infamous transformation of Blue, but some of it is a result of Wizards trying very hard to make Magic about combat and little else.

How are they doing this? Well, let’s look at Invasion some more to see where we are coming from. Some of the cards from that time contribute substantially to the basis of current design, such as Salt Marsh, Yavimaya Coast, Flametongue Kavu, Meddling Mage, Werebear, Wild Mongrel, and Call of the Herd. These are strong and efficient cards, and they were heavily played. The three and four-color Aggro and Aggro-Control decks that were created during this time, such as Fires and Opposition, were popular and successful. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that it would be better if Magic had more of this kind of deck, and less of the other kind of that existed during this time, like AK Control or Psychatog. Instead of pushing the power level of creatures down, and making it very difficult for Aggro decks to succeed (look at red creatures in Odyssey block, and compare with the last year of red creatures), an opposite approach was taken. We now live in a design era when creature power is pushed. The power creep for creatures is becoming unbelievable. Consider some of the cards printed recently, and think about just how unfairly they outclass almost all of Magic’s previous creatures: Countryside C rusher, Kitchen Finks, Tauren Mauler, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Woolly Thoctar, Doran, the Siege Tower, Rosheen Meanderer, Brion Stoutarm, Vexing Shusher. This isn’t even a list of special cases — the power of almost all creatures is being increased, in every color and at every rarity level. Hybrid cards are easier to cast than monocolor cards (not harder like multicolor cards), but they are being made more powerful, as if they were multicolor. Power and toughness ratios are being increased, card abilities are being given more freely, and generally casting costs are being reduced. Disruption, too, is being made in creature form, instead of as spells. Removal spells are being improved as well, although their power isn’t being pushed nearly like that of creatures. So creatures are becoming stronger, and some of the classical tools for dealing with them, such as counterspells and mass removal, are being made weaker in order to emphasize the creatures. More on this in a moment.

As Invasion block progressed, the Lairs were printed, enemy painlands were printed, and the domain theme was fully explored. The idea was to push playing as many colors as possible, and so multicolored lands were made along with powerful multicolored spells. What Wizards may not have realized at the time was that this wasn’t going to end with Apocalypse. They discovered something about color fixing that they wanted to increase in every environment, not just multicolor-themed sets. However, at the end of Time Spiral block apparently Wizards was not happy with just how easy it was to splash the fifth color due to the abundance of mana fixing in the format. If it is desirable to restrict five color deckbuilding, it is very difficult to encourage significant mana fixing. This is because decks naturally fall into categories by how many colors they play. One and two-color decks essentially have the same design. Monocolored decks typically run colorless sources that provide additional advantages, or have artifacts that contribute to the deck’s strategy but do not interfere with the deck’s main colors. Colorless mana is essentially the second color in this design, and this is very similar to pure two-color decks. The next design is three-color decks, which can have a small splash of a third color or play all three colors relatively intensely. These decks are similar in their color requirements, but at the upper end of this category something interesting happens. Due to the way that lands and mana sources have been created in Magic, decks that have a heavy commitment to three different colors start to resemble five-color decks, which is the third design type. It is just easier to play five-color sources to meet these requirements than to try to overlap many two-color sources. One, two and five are the dominant number of colors provided by mana sources, and this disfavors the four-color deck in most circumstances, even in larger card pools with access to every type of mana fixer. In an attept to address this problem, Wizards is pushing three-color sources, and is likely to reduce five-color sources. This will strongly bolster three-color design without tempting designers to move to five colors. It will also make four-color design more viable, if for no other reason than the statistical likelihood that you will be running mana fixers that provide off colors.

So, mana sources are good. So are large creatures. The mana sources have tougher competition in Legacy’s card pool, but the creatures are doing very well so far. So what is lost here? Classical disruption. Consider, for example, Punish Ignorance. This card is intended to be a reference to two very popular counterspells from Invasion, Undermine and Absorb. But those cards would not be allowed in today’s format, even if they were doing direct reprints. Paying three mana for a Counterspell plus another effect is too strong according to the current rules. But the Planeshift charms are being redone, with much more powerful modes, and none of the blue ones have a hard counter.

Some of this is not news at all. The removal of Counterspell from the game made it very clear to Legacy players that that we would not be getting more of those cards, but that was a long time ago. What is news is that there is another real trend in current design, one that revolves around creatures. I am certain that Aggro decks will be getting more tools than any other archetype in Legacy for some time. Other decks are making use of these cards as well, but it is Aggro that gets the most out of them. For example, Tombstalker can be played in a lot of decks, but it takes a little work to design your deck such that it is consistently a 5/5 for two mana. Suicide decks do this the best, and I would consider them to be Aggro heavy. Countryside Crusher is so good it seems to be in the wrong color, but it is Red-Green Aggro-Loam decks that make best use of it. Magus of the Moon is best in 5/3 decks, which I call Chalice Aggro.

The staples of Legacy, the cards that the format is built upon and that define it, are not likely to be joined by similar effects. We are probably not going to get a lot more in the way of classical disruption, like Force of Will, Hymn to Tourach, or Wasteland. We are also probably not going to get more viable card advantage generators, like Wrath of God or Fact or Fiction, which aren’t always playable in Legacy in the first place. We will get lots of huge creatures. These are having by far the most effect on Legacy. Tarmogoyf is now the defining card of Green. We just got a bunch of creatures for Goblins, Fairies, and Aggro-Loam , and we are about to get more for Affinity and Zoo decks. The creatures that are being printed now are being designed with different priorities and are coming out stronger in so many ways.

There is also the possibility that Wizards will do some very interesting things later in this block. Invasion started out as a two-color theme, but moved to three and then five. This block could move to four colors, but five seems unlikely. Wizards also ended Invasion block with the enemy painlands, something players loved the idea of and which I’m sure bolstered sales of that set. It seems possible that they could do something similar this time with enemy fetchlands.

Shards of Alara is likely to be comparable to Future Sight in terms of its impact on Legacy, and the rest of the block is likely to have a similar effect.

Christopher Coppola