On October 24, Wizards announced on their site that "the legendary Lost Third Set of the Ice Age Block is coming out at last." If you didn't read the announcement or Randy Buehler's follow-up, do so now. I'll wait.
Here's the first thing that crossed my mind: They are trying to erase Homelands. I know I'm not the only one who thought that. Of course, they can't go door-to-door collecting and burning Homelands cards (or could they?), but they can pretend to do this for the online releases.
Solving the Online Dilemma
Releasing old sets online is one of the best ideas ever for Wizards. People love nostalgia. They love talking about the cards they used to play with and how great they were. There's nothing wrong with giving people what they remember loving. But there's an inherent problem when people remember hating something. With the release of Mirage on MTGO, a lot of people in R&D probably thought that Ice Age should get some love, too. But the big problem with Ice Age was the second set, Homelands. Homelands is universally derided as the crappiest set ever released and to put it out online would simply waste the time of whoever needs to program the set since no one would actually buy Homelands cards. Therefore, no money would be made off that set and the online Magic community would be in an uproar over the obvious fact that Wizards is trying to sell them pure crap. (I've noticed that people can't just not buy crap; they have to complain about the very existence of crap, as well.) What's the solution to this obvious conundrum? Replace Homelands! Much like an unpopular character on a sitcom, Homelands is going to be swept under the rug and replaced by that gorgeous young starlet, Coldsnap.
Solving the Fourth Set Dilemma
No problems so far. I love Big Brother. If he wants to delve into Magic's past and correct a little mistake to what it should be, I certainly can't complain. It's double-plus good. In fact, the release of Coldsnap fills another void by acting as the summer release set of 2006. Wizards likes to release four sets every year. Three sets are part of the traditional block rotation and the fourth set is either a Core Set (released every other year) or some unrelated set (Unhinged, etc.) Since 10th edition is still a year away and Unhinged got released during the last off year, something different needs to get thrown in the mix. Coldsnap gets released in the summer of 2006: WotC has its fourth set, casual players pull out their old Ice Age cards, Vintage players find a few gems and everyone's happy. Yay!
Wait a second, Randy has something to say...
"The set becomes legal for Standard constructed tournaments on August 20th"
Huh? The third set of ICE AGE is going to be legal in Standard? For the first time that I can remember, Standard will have a card pool consisting of up to 8 different sets. I could care less about Standard, but I have to believe this throws a loop into deck construction. Natural synergies appear between adjacent blocks. Now suddenly, we're going to throw a ten-year-old Ice Age expansion into the mix. Now I'm confused.
So what's going on here?
One possible explanation: It's a gimmick. There is no long lost set. Coldsnap was designed and developed recently, just like every other set in Standard. Its purpose was to fill the four-sets-per-year quota of 2006. Trying to find some sort of fancy catch, R&D decided to roughly match it thematically with the Ice Age block. You can't just toss out a fourth set at random and expect people to play ball. There's got to be a reason behind it. So the set really fits in well with other Standard cards, but it's being touted as an Ice Age expansion. They simultaneously create a reason for releasing the set and solve the online Homelands dilemma.
The other possibility is that they did just recently stumble upon a long-lost third Ice Age set. They felt the fans deserved to use the set, so they fixed some minor problems and threw it out there for us to play with. But they also wanted to ensure that the new cards would see tournament play. I'm guessing more money is made as long as cards are standard legal, so they pushed up demand by forcing the issue. If Coldsnap is legal in Standard, tournament players will have to buy a few more cards and the set is guaranteed to sell, despite the fact that a lot of cards feel way out of place.
I'm guessing the truth lies somewhere in between these two possibilities. I can believe that Coldsnap was designed with Ice Age and was simply never used, but there's no way they left all the cards in the set as is. 28 cards from Ice Age and another 4 from Alliances referenced snow-covered lands (not counting the snow-covered lands themselves.) There's no way we see an Arcum's Weathervane or Winter's Night effect in Standard. Coldsnap also brings the possibility of poison counters in Standard, as well as really odd power/toughness modifying counters. Ice Age and Alliances were loaded with cards that put +1/+0, +0/+1, +2/+2, -1/-1, +2/+1, -2/-1, and -0/-1 counters on creatures. I guarantee that Coldsnap was designed with cards like this, but we won't see them when it's released. To a lesser extent, banding, rampage, and cumulative upkeep were all big at the time. Will those abilities return to the Standard environment? Better read up on your old rules, kids.
So that's my official guess. Coldsnap was designed with Ice Age and Alliances, but got bumped by Homelands in production. It got dug up recently, moderately changed to fit the current environment, and will be released into the Standard environment within a year. After rotating out of Standard, it will be relegated to the same status as its older brethren. Fair enough? I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Ice Age Limited
There are still a few points that need to be addressed on the subject. In Buehler's column, he states that there will be a prerelease and theme decks for Coldsnap. These issues are sort of tied together in trying to figure out exactly how Ice Age fits into all of this. Prelease tournaments are typically run in a sealed-deck fashion. This would require Ice Age tournament packs, which are a little hard to come by these days. One option for the prerelease is to run it like Core Set sealed, using five packs of the set to make a deck. This works well in a set with 350 cards, but will it work in one with 150? Much like drafts that use three boosters from one expansion, I think the decks would be too fast and too consistent to be fun in a limited environment. The other option would be reprinting Ice Age tournament packs. Obviously some Ice Age cards are getting reprinted for the theme decks, but I don't think a lot of collectors would be too happy to see Necropotence and Illusions of Grandeur reprinted just to ease competition at a prerelease.
The Downfall of the Hastily-Written Reactionary Article
I have no conclusion. I'm sorry. The only things I know for sure are that Coldsnap will be released next summer and Ice Age block will eventually be released online, barring a complete failure of the Mirage release. Since most of my cards that I bought before 2003 were from the Ice Age block, I'm looking forward to the chance to build my real life decks online that heavily featured the set. I still can't figure out exactly how Coldsnap is going to fit into the modern tournament scene, but as a casual player, as long as the set doesn't completely suck, I suppose I really don't care.