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In Praise of Wizards of the Coast
By Stephen Bahl
This is an article that I had intended to write in September. For whatever reason, I wasn't in the mood for it then. I had planned for an article on this subject to coincide with the September DCI banned/restricted list changes. Instead, I've finally started writing this article on January 28th, the same day that yet another DCI update has been announced, although I probably won't submit it for publication on that day. Whatever. You can pretend that you're reading this in September if you want. Wait, actually, don't do that. It would be silly. Fine then, it's January. Or March. Whatever. And there's a point in all this. Somewhere.

Oh yeah, it's now been something like six months (even more by the time this is published) since the DCI unbanned Land Tax in Legacy. Don't worry, this isn't an article about Land Tax—unless that's what you want to read, in which case, keep reading, as this is totally all about Land Tax. Cards have been banned and unbanned in Legacy before, but the reason that Land Tax's unbanning is of interest to me is that it's a card that a lot of the Legacy playerbase, from the beginning, didn't think deserved to be on the banned list. The DCI insisted, year after year, on maintaining the Land Tax ban. At one point, this was even addressed officially, and my ineptitude at finding the exact quote delayed this article, probably. Back in 2007, Aaron Forsythe wrote the following in a “Latest Developments” column:

quote:
I know there was a surge from within the Legacy community to unban Land Tax, but once again we didn't do it. Not only is the card incredibly powerful, but the games involving it are agonizing and boring. Any environment where the correct play involves not putting out your first land should be avoided, and with two Moxes available for anyone's use as four-ofs, I'd expect those decks to pop up. If the card's power level alone made it only a borderline case for banning, the oppressive nature of how it affects games pushes it over the edge.

I remember being rather annoyed with that at the time, insisting that anyone with experience playing with or against Land Tax would know that refraining from playing lands is usually a bad idea against Land Tax decks, and that this scenario of being oppressed because one doesn't get to play lands, at least as a regular concern, was farfetched. But this isn't about my thoughts on the Legacy banned list in 2007. I wrote an article back then on that very subject and even referenced the above quote (and didn't remember that I had done so until twenty minutes after having found the quote through repeated trials of slogging through search engine results, but shut up). Well, five years later, Land Tax was unbanned, with Eric Lauer offering this explanation:

quote:
Land Tax has been banned since 2004, doesn't seem to directly add to the top decks, and could make the format even more diverse. While there is always some risk in unbanning a powerful card, the DCI thinks this is a reasonable risk to take.

What changed in five years? The answer is, of course, a lot. I don't know for sure whether it was a good or a bad idea to leave Land Tax banned in 2007. But once it was unbanned in 2012, empirical evidence began building up. Since Land Tax's entry into Legacy, the card has become viable in blue/white control decks that could reasonably be labeled rogue decks. Land Tax hasn't run rampant, oppressing players left and right at every tournament. The card has mostly gone unnoticed. Even better: the card has mostly gone unnoticed, but has given another option to players that are trying to beat the top decks in the format. Options are good. I like options. So while I don't know whether Aaron Forsythe was right about Land Tax in 2007, it does seem that Eric Lauer was right about the card in 2012. And now the fat on the Legacy banned list has been trimmed just that little bit more. In December, when I realized that it had been six months and unbanning Land Tax hadn't hurt the format (as a side note, immediately after Land Tax was unbanned, there were articles espousing the notion that it would be overpowered, some of them with hypothetical decklists that could break the card, but it seems that those fears went unrealized), my thought was, “Well, I guess we can say for sure now that on this occasion, Wizards of the Coast did something right.” That was my first thought. Immediately after that, my second thought was, "That's a bit uncharitable, isn't it?"

When Magic players bring up Wizards of the Coast, it's often to complain about something. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else, if not moreso. We are quick to acknowledge their errors and seemingly reluctant to acknowledge their improvements on the game. This is not necessarily a problematic state of affairs. To a limited extent, silence can serve as a kind of tacit approval. Also, if we're still buying their products, presumably we're not wholly dissatisfied with them on everything. I'll probably continue to be a bit more critical than laudatory of Wizards of the Coast, just as I have been in the past. But there's a caveat here. They really do get some things right. And of those things, some they get even more right than others. Wizards of the Coast won't know which things really impressed players if all the players do is rant about mistakes. The occasional acknowledgment of improvement isn't enough. I contend that players should visibly note which changes to the game they viewed as highly successful, which things they'd hold up as models for future changes. Granted, the Casual Players Alliance, which seems to perpetually rest in a state of “not quite defunct yet—some of us are still here,” isn't a particularly good medium for this, but it's the one I'm most comfortable with. I don't expect anyone else to follow my example. I'd be shocked if this caught on. I'm not so much trying to start a trend as I am trying to provide my own example of what I think players should be writing.

Unbanning Land Tax was a good move, but it's a relatively minor thing. I cannot, in the space of a single article, revisit every instance of Wizards of the Coast impressing me, but here are some of the more memorable examples in my time playing Magic. I was introduced to the game in, I think, 1997. Portal (a set that is incidentally an example that I'd probably castigate as a mistake if I had the opposite purpose in mind with this article) was new, and I learned most of the basics of the game through that set. In my fifteen or so years of playing Magic, these are some of the updates, changes, errata, etc. that I've really appreciated.

Rarity color-coded expansion symbols

Exodus was one of the first sets to come out when I was playing the full game of Magic and not just the simplified-rules Portal version of the game. It was also the first set to introduce expansion symbols color-coded to show rarity: black for common, silver for uncommon, gold for rare. Most of my deckbuilding has been done with older cards and I remember spending some of my time checking on rarities using printed indices (some magazines kept tables with the information) or the internet. But for every set after Exodus, no one has to do that. This minor, simple change made things more convenient for players everywhere.

The much-maligned “free” cards of Urza's block

When Urza's block was new, these cards were cited as examples of how overpowered the Urza's sets were. After all, if cards that untapped the lands used to pay for them weren't too good, what else would be? The creature version of this mechanic (Great Whale and friends) was the subject of an erratum following the rise of a Great Whale/Recurring Nightmare deck. Frantic Search and Time Spiral ended up on banned and restricted lists, and several other “free” cards were powerful tools in tournament decks. Even though these cards were subjects of derision when they were new, I'd say that over the total lifetime of the game, they've mostly been good additions to Magic's pool of cards. Frantic Search is still exceedingly strong, but most of the other cards using the mechanic are neither too good, nor so bad that they're not worth touching. They're just viable choices, which is really what cards should be.

The Sixth Edition rules changes

Fifth Edition cards were among my first purchases as a new player. I got a Fifth Edition rulebook that I think I still have in a box somewhere. I studied it judiciously. I looked at comprehensive rules online (CrystalKeep, I think). Then quite suddenly I, along with other players everywhere, found all that knowledge of the rules to be virtually obsolete. Many of us were resistant to these changes. In my case, the local card shop adopted an official policy of continued Fifth Edition rules, probably because they didn't have any arbiters comfortable with Sixth Edition rules. Ah, but in hindsight, nearly everything about the Sixth Edition changes was an improvement. Series and batches were a technical mess, and the implementation of the stack cleaned that problem up. Combat rules were made incredibly intuitive. Conditions for losing the game were simplified. Extraneous card types were condensed (even veteran players might not remember Dark Ritual with “Mana Source” as its card type). Core sets started getting expansion symbols so we wouldn't have to look at years on the bottoms of cards to figure out which sets they were from. I wasn't a fan of Sixth Edition when it came out. To this day, when I see Fifth Edition cards, I see them as reminders of the good old days. But really, that's silly. Sixth Edition's changes ended up being the biggest improvement to the game ever. So those of us, myself included, that resisted the changes when they were new should take that as a bit of a lesson in humility.

The revival of gold cards with Invasion block

Multicolored “gold” cards were around before my time, but Wizards of the Coast stopped printing them shortly after I started playing. Stronghold had gold cards, and then they stopped coming. I still don't know the explanation for this (presumably it was something more than just R&D arbitrarily deciding they wanted a break from multicolored cards). Invasion brought gold cards, and a multicolored focus in general, back with a vengeance. And Apocalypse gave more options than ever before to decks looking to use “opposing” colors together. This is one change that I can comfortably say isn't something I appreciate only in hindsight. In part because we missed gold cards and in part because we were dissatisfied with the generally underpowered Mercadian block cards, Invasion was welcomed by all the players I knew. It was well-executed. Good job, WotC.

Tribes as a real thing

Creature types have been around from the beginning, but in Magic's early days they were mostly just flavor. Shivan Dragon said “Summon Dragon” because it was a dragon, not because the fact that it was a dragon was likely to mean much. Creature types did have implications on certain things (Lord of Atlantis and the like), but it was only emphasized in very specific cases (slivers, for instance). The gradual accumulation of more tools in the creature type arsenal and the arrival of Onslaught block added up to a fundamental change in the game's use of creature types. An aspect of the game that was already there, but not living up to its full potential, was finally made to realize that potential. And so we got tribes.

Storm

This one's probably the most embarrassing case for me, but I'm honor-bound to include the storm mechanic in this article. I'm not really embarrassed about being resistant to the Sixth Edition rules changes. I was still an inexperienced player and I was influenced by veteran players around me, besides being annoyed at dedicating time and effort to learn the rules only for them to change so much so suddenly. The story of my reaction to the storm mechanic is considerably different. My two favorite decks I was playing at the time were a Necropotence-based Illusions of Grandeur/Donate combo-control deck and a speedy Tolarian Academy/Mind over Matter combo deck. I built my friend a ProsBloom deck. I saw other players beating each other down with all the new tribal cards and decided I'd rather cast spells that let me cast more spells so that I could cast more spells and kill everyone, in addition to perhaps casting a few spells to stop anyone from being able to stop me from doing that (and by "that" I mean casting spells that let me cast more spells so that I could cast more spells and kill everyone). Essentially, I was already a very dedicated combo player. Before Scourge was released, I saw a spoiler with Dragonstorm. I thought, “What's this crap? Well, at least it's expensive. By the time they get the mana to cast that, I'll have won the game.” I found out that I couldn't use one Force of Will to stop an opponent's Tendrils of Agony and I was mad about the mechanic working that way. It's not just that I didn't like a new mechanic: that had happened before and would happen again. This particular case is embarrassing because I am now the Storm mechanic's biggest fan. I can scarcely imagine the game without it. I don't remember when I first learned to stop worrying and love the Storm Count, but I did, oh yes, I did. And of course I did, since Storm was exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to the kind of player I was (and still am). In 2003, Wizards of the Coast reached out to me personally and said, “Happy birthday. Forever.” And I hated it. I don't like to think of myself as capricious, but it sure seems that I was in this case.

Equipment

Artifacts that basically attached themselves to creatures and gave those creatures some sort of enhancement go back at least as far as Fallen Empires with Zelyon Sword (oh, and Spirit Shield). Following in the tradition of Zelyon Sword, these cards were almost always nigh unplayable. There wasn't anything obviously wrong with the concept other than the fact that Zelyon Sword is a profoundly weak card. Mirrodin block revised the concept by making equipment a real thing with its own rules. I wasn't dead-set against it at the time, but I was pretty apprehensive, and I think a lot of players were. One complaint I remember was the comparison of Armadillo Cloak, which had been considered a pretty good enchantment, to Loxodon Warhammer. The two cards had similar roles, but the Warhammer didn't have and color requirements and, more importantly, didn't die if the creature died. I remember players thinking that creature enchantments (they weren't auras yet) would become obsolete, because how could they hope to compete with equipment. Sure, equipping a creature had a mana cost, but that was tied to the advantage of being able to, at sorcery speed, switch the equipment to whichever creature needed it most. In hindsight, equipment added cool options to the game. It wasn't the concept that was overpowered, it was just a few broken cards in a big heap of inoffensive ones. Really, some of the mechanics from both the Urza's and Mirrodin blocks (“free” spells, equipment, etc.) received criticism for being overpowered that seems, in hindsight, to have been baseless. Most of the cards in both blocks were actually fine (and a few were ridiculously underpowered). The handful of truly broken cards (things like Windfall and Skullclamp) left players complaining about entire sets. And now, years later, the dust has settled, the truly broken cards are still generally banned, and the rest of those sets play nicely with the rest of the cards in the game.

The detachment of Type 1.5 from Type 1

I've never been a prolific tournament player and I've always eschewed rotating formats (originally for budget reasons, then later because of habit, and then because of budget reasons again), so I don't have any cool anecdotes about Wizards of the Coast making some improvement to Standard or Extended (I do remember when they replaced the old mulligan with the Paris mulligan, and I suppose that was good). But I can say that the creation of Legacy as a format was great. Some of the players I knew personally had been playing progressively less and were talking about selling their cards and leaving the game for good. Legacy got them back into Magic (I think most of them still eventually sold their cards and left the game for good, but shut up).

Timeshifted cards

Reprints have been a part of Magic since, well I guess it would be since 1994. If I remember correctly, from Second Edition (also known as Unlimited) all the way to Tenth Edition, core sets consisted entirely of reprints. And traditionally the first, largest set in a block of expansions would reprint a few staples (and basic lands) with new artwork. A few disgruntled individuals didn't like having their cool old cards so readily available to players that started later (I remember one guy citing Fifth Edition's reprinting of his Ice Age cards as the reason he quit, which struck me as just bizarre). For most of us, I think reprints have been accepted, but not in any sort of enthusiastic way. It's not that we minded Lure being reprinted yet again for Champions of Kamigawa, it just wasn't really that noteworthy. With Timeshifted cards, Wizards of the Coast finally succeeded in making reprints fun for once. The brief return to the old cardface was a neat trick for tapping into the nostalgia of veteran players, and the purple expansion symbol made Timeshifted cards stand out.

The redaction of power-level errata

In 2006, Scott Johns explained that Wizards of the Coast was beginning the process of fixing errata on old cards to better conform to newer policy.

quote:
Currently Wizards has two main systems for dealing with problem cards, either banning/restricting or issuing errata. Generally speaking, the intention has been to use banning and restricting for cards that are too powerful, and to issue errata to cards that either have mistakes (like the original version of Impulse) or need to be updated because of things like rules changes (such as Wall cards gaining the defender ability when that rule was changed). The issue is that there is a small subset of cards that proved too powerful when printed but were dealt with through errata rather than banning or restricting. Examples of this would be Great Whale or Basalt Monolith, each of which received "power-level errata" to prevent degenerate combos, thus avoiding having to restrict or ban the cards in question. So, in the interest of using each system what it was intended for, with Monday's Oracle update R&D is removing a bunch of errata that deals with power level.

This process continued for some time. Some of the cards passed over to retain power-level errata (Phyrexian Dreadnought, Time Vault) were eventually restored to their full glory. There were occasional hiccups in the system (the debacle with Flash in Legacy tournaments, for example), but overall, this was good for the game. On multiple occasions I saw inexperienced players convinced that Time Vault had a combo with Voltaic Key, since that was what the texts of the cards would indicate. Well, now that's one less problem to worry about. Oh, and we get our ridiculous combos back.

Planeswalker cards

My initial reaction to planeswalkers as playable cards was that it clashed with the flavor of the game. Even though players hardly ever actually think about it, the lore behind Magic is that the players represent planeswalkers dueling over territory. They gather resources to tap into for mana (magical power) and use that to cast spells and summon creatures in their battles against one another. So a planeswalker being a card doesn't seem to make sense. Well, the idea is that one is recruiting a powerful planeswalker for assistance in battle, so planeswalkers are powered by their own special “loyalty” mechanic. And I suppose that makes more sense than many other things in the game (insert tired old joke about giving a Wall of Water Firebreathing), so whatever. But I quickly found out that planeswalkers are a really cool addition to the game. I still don't use them extensively myself, at least not so much so far, but I do have some experience with them and I find that I quite like them now. I mean, I could do without a new Jace in every other set, but the concept is solid and some of the planeswalkers are neat, well-balanced cards. Trying to build the range of functionality planeswalkers can have into existing card types, such as enchantments, would be incredibly clunky. So good job on that one, Wizards.

Power creep

This one might seem odd, since power creep is usually something players complain about. So I'll note that I do think power creep has been a problem for the game in some ways. Not being too savvy on most of the cards released lately (I'm hoping to change that soon), I'll restrict that a bit. I'm not sure where Innistrad stands, nor the sets following it. But I'm comfortable generalizing that from Ravnica block onward, power creep ramped up considerably at least until Zendikar block. I do think that the primary reason power creep exists is that it's a way for Wizards of the Coast to make money (players won't want to buy new sets if they are weaker than the sets they've already spent money on). But the rate of power creep following Ravnica block was really not sustainable. The reason I'm bringing all this up in an article about impressive things that Wizards of the Coast has done is that, to a point, power creep really helped the game, and it's possible that a few extreme examples have overly colored the perspective of most players on the issue. Before power creep started ramping up, most games I was seeing were focused on playing, protecting, and exploiting key powerhouse cards, generally artifacts or enchantments, but sometimes sorceries and, less frequently, creatures. Yes, it's true that players still used creatures to finish games, but more often the gameplay itself revolved around particularly powerful cards. Bombs. Sometimes these bombs even seemed to make the game become about creatures, but the effect was superficial, as in the case of Umezawa's Jitte. Paradoxically, making creatures more powerful (and that's where most of the power creep has been focused) stole some of the emphasis from “bomb” cards, and I noticed that gameplay after Ravnica seemed to be more about summoning and more tactical than it had been. Creatures weren't just some means of playing the game until the next bigger bomb. Instead, something like Rhox War Monk could really make a difference as a card in its own rite, and not fodder for an artifact, enchantment, sorcery, or bigger creature. Not only has power creep, at least some of it, made the game more tactical—it has, in turn, made the game more fun. Well, at least that's true for those of you that actually play creatures. I, on the other hand, still can't quite remember what the Tenth Edition rules changes did to combat. So I'll be letting the combo enablers gradually accumulate while waiting to cast Tendrils of Agony with 50 copies. Maybe there will be some power creep for sorceries? One can only dream.

Those are the improvements to the game that stand out to me, at least in retrospect. Some of them I took a liking to right away, and others I can shamefully say I did not, even if I should have. If you made it all the way to the end of this thank you for indulging me. I invite you to tell me what I've missed. What developments since you started playing Magic have stuck with you as improvements to the game? What has Wizards of the Coast done really well? Alternatively, tell me how I'm wrong about the choices I included here, how the things I called improvements were actually bad. Either way, it should be fun.

Read More Articles by Stephen Bahl!

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