The Return of Talking Time

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Old 02-12-2013, 06:45 PM
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Default Magic: The Appreciation

A thread in which we recognize the game design masterpiece that is Magic: The Gathering and recount its development. I'll write a post for each set, and sometimes go into deeper detail, drawing heavily on the trivial knowledge I've soaked up from reading Magicthegathering.com for over a decade, and before that, Duelist magazine. I'll start with six segments on the original Magic set and how it forms the basis for everything that followed.

But first: A primer for the uninitiated.

Magic: The Gathering is the collision of three core ideas.

1. The collectible card game. It wasn't technically the first but it was by far the most important and influential.

2. The five colors of Magic - White, Blue, Black, Red, and Green - and all their characteristics and interactions. The themes and mechanics associated with each color lend an element of role-play to Magic, and you can even look at the colors as a personality test of sorts.

3. The mana cost system in which payments may require specific colors of mana(corresponding to the five colors of Magic) or instead be generic, allowing any color. The result is that you can play whatever colors you like. It's just a matter of matching cards to the right resources.

MTG was designed by Richard Garfield when Peter Adkinson(former CEO of Wizards of the Coast) told him there was a need for a quick, portable game to fill in time between D&D sessions. The original version of the game, now known as Limited Edition Alpha, was released in 1993 and sold out immediately.

In MTG, spells are paid for with mana, and mana is drawn from lands. This was inspired by Larry Niven's series of short stories revolving around the concept of magical energy as a natural resource that can be used up. In particular, there's one story where the protagonist uses a weapon of last resort: A wheel that magically accelerates to extreme speed, rapidly consuming all the magic in the area.

Card of the day: Nevinyrral's Disk

Although clearly an homage to this concept, MTG's Nevinyrral's Disk actually works differently - it leaves lands' ability to produce mana intact. Still, it wipes out most everything else on the table, making it Magic's first "reset button." It's a neat design because it can't be used on the turn it's played, giving other players a chance to destroy it or race to win the game before it goes off. The disk is an artifact, allowing it to be played with any color of mana. Artifacts in Alpha will be today's subject.

Alpha's most famous artifacts are the most valuable of all Magic cards: Black Lotus and the five Moxes. Normally the pace of a game of Magic is one of gradual escalation, as each player can only put one land into play each turn. Artifacts, however, have no such limit. Thus, a card as innocuous as Mox Pearl has the same ability as the basic white mana producing Plains but is worth a kajillion more dollars.

The overpowered mana-producing artifacts are Alpha's most egregious design error, but the fact is that Richard Garfield knew they were overpowered, he just didn't know the game would be taken so seriously!

There are a lot of "build a deck around me" artifacts in Alpha. In particular, there's a cruel mana denial deck just begging to made with Winter Orb, Ankh of Mishra, and Dingus Egg. There are also some wacky card concepts like Chaos Orb and Illusionary Mask that caused endless confusion in tournaments, and even a joke card, Sunglasses of Urza. Magic will quickly take on a strictly serious and structured tone after Alpha, but a couple of non-tournament legal sets will later be made in order to allow oddities like this into print.

Like artifacts, lands are colorless, despite their connection to the colors of mana. Richard Garfield resisted the temptation to make lands in Alpha that did anything besides producing mana. There are only the five basic lands and the ten dual lands(well, nine due to a printing error). Magic designers will struggle with the power level of lands for years to come, looking for ways to make them interesting but not overpowered.

Review the list of artifacts in Alpha and share your comments, questions, and memories!

NEXT: White in Alpha
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Old 02-12-2013, 09:29 PM
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It's as shame that Illusionary Mask hasn't been around since Beta, because that is a hilarious ability.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:11 PM
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I think - despite a lot of horrible mistakes in the set - it's important to remember that there was no precedent for a collectible card game before Magic. It seems naive today to believe that Richard Garfield thought that cards such as the "Moxen" would see their power limited by their rarity, but there was a lot of unexplored territory in the first few years of the game.

One of the cuter aspects of many of the older cards is that their wording is sometimes quite ambiguous. Consider the original printing of Black Vise:

"If opponent has more than four cards in hand during upkeep, black vise deals 1 damage to opponent for each card in excess of four."

The card now has a proper rules text that is clear (if not necessarily simple), but I remember that before such things as errata existed, there was an unspoken rule that the old version of Black Vise worked on all opponents, and the newer printings (in 4e in above) only worked on one opponent.

Another thing to notice is that there are no common artifacts in the base set; it would the minor expansion Antiquities before the game would see it's first common artifact. Until then, one can marvel at the number of bad uncommon and rare artifacts (alongside the stupid powerful ones of course).

Another thing that will probably become more obvious too is that the early days of Magic trumped flavour over mechanics. As a hardcore mechanics guy, I do think that part of the reason this crazy game caught on so well is because it tried so damned hard early on to make each individual card it's own story. Many cards are a wonderful mishmash of bad writing, mediocre art, and a lot of heart.

Some individual card comments:

Chaos Orb: Everyone has probably heard this urban legend, but there's a story that a guy at a tournament really wanted to win a game, and to do so, ripped up his Chaos Orb and tossed the pieces at his opponent's side of the board. The legend would be parodied in Unglued, with Chaos Confetti.

Helm of Chatzuk: Probably the worst "base" mechanic of the original set, if you never played with it, banding was complicated, underpowered, and - for whatever reason - was deemed worthy enough to show up on rare cards such as this one and Timber Wolves. If you've never played with it, banding allows you (rather than your opponent) to assign combat damage from enemy creatures, as long as your creatures were "banded" together. It's theoretically useful, but in practice, creatures who had banding were generally terrible.

Illusionary Mask: This card would become a proto-type of sorts for the "Morph" keyword in Onslaught block (and in my opinion, a very underused keyword that deserves a comeback). This card is perhaps most notable for allowing you to sneak cards onto the battlefield without paying any "additional" costs that the card might otherwise ask. I remember years ago that people were using this card to great effect with Phyrexian Dreadnaught in Vintage to sneak a 12/12 trampler onto the battlefield without having to sacrifice any creatures.

Juggernaut: Does anyone remember the old YTV/Sci-fi show, the Anti-Gravity Room? I remember it fondly, even it was probably kind of terrible. Anyway, they spotlighted a killer combo with this card and Invisibility. Together, you've got an unblockable creature!

(Players would later figure out that Juggernaut doesn't need Invisibility to be awesome.)

Time Vault: I remember this card going through a ton of errata. For a while, skipping your turn would give it a special counter that had to be on it in order to gain an extra turn. This was meant to stop abuse alongside cards like Voltaic Key, the combination of the two can get you infinite turns. A push was made to clean up the rules, and have the card "play" as close to the original rules as possible, so the special counter no longer exists.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:17 PM
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Oh, man. I think I started playing magic in the mid-nineties, with Fourth Edition if I'm not terribly mistaken. Everybody was raving about the Ice Age expansion, which was still pretty new at the time, but for some reason, it was hard to find booster packs for in my area. Probably because the place that carried Magic cards wasn't the usual sort of hobby shop. Most of their card-related merchandise was centered around just regular collectible cards. Fallen Empires was all over the place, and I bought a ton of Fallen Empires boosters because if memory serves, they were cheaper than most other expansions. Also some boosters for Legends, The Dark and Antiquities when I could get my hands on them.

I liked the background lore for Fallen Empires a lot. Maybe that's just because I got conditioned to liking it, what with buying so many cards for it and all. I liked how it was pretty far in the background of everything you did in-game, but was just present enough to lend a touch of atmosphere to things.

Something about the older expansions makes me feel tremendously nostalgic. Very much looking forward to this thread. Also very much wishing I had anyone to play older expansions against.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:21 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sanagi View Post
There are a lot of "build a deck around me" artifacts in Alpha. In particular, there's a cruel mana denial deck just begging to made with Winter Orb, Ankh of Mishra, and Dingus Egg. There are also some wacky card concepts like Chaos Orb and Illusionary Mask that caused endless confusion in tournaments, and even a joke card, Sunglasses of Urza.
Would you care to elaborate with links/pictures/explanation? I'm potentially interested in this thread as someone who dabbled in this during middle school and has since forgotten everything but the basics, but paragraphs like the one above might not much to anyone who doesn't already know what you're talking about.

I think this is a cool project, and it would be awesome if you could elaborate on your claims with a little more specificity.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:25 PM
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Ankh of mishra hit you for 2 dmg when you played a land. Dingus Egg hit you for 2 when a land went to the graveyard. Winter Orb said you could only untap one land at a time, meaning that with cards like sinkhole and stone rain, which both destroyed lands, you could build a deck that prevented your opponent from actually playing anything.

---
Alpha/Beta won me over because of the overwhelmingly cool flavor. I kinda hate that mtg is so structured and unified now, because you lose a lot of the cool genre flavor that permeated the early game.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:54 PM
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I think it should be noted that ante was a core component of the game in the first few iterations. There was also no upper limit on deck size or the number of specific cards you could have in your deck (the minimum was forty cards). You could use twenty Black Lotuses and twenty Plague Rats if you wanted to.

There were also a lot of hosers in those days. Not just for colours, but for strategies. They recognized that there would be players who would gravitate towards certain play styles and they included cards to force players to be more dynamic: a board full of flyers could get taken down by Hurricane, big creatures were kept in check by Meekstone, Manabarbs made direct damage difficult. All-artifact decks could get wrecked by Nevinyrral's Disk. Narrow strategies were obvious, but also had ways to keep them in check.

But back to ante: it was another way to keep the metagame moving. You could try to get back the card you lost through trading or subsequent games. It was also a way to keep decks from over-extending. If your deck relied on too many rares or had only one kill condition, you might end up with a significant handicap whereas your opponent might just be down a land.

It's obvious why the rule was phased out: people wouldn't want to play a game where they could lose something valuable like their only Serra Angel or Fireball. There was also the legal issue to consider: Ante could be legally classified as gambling, so sanctioned tournaments would have to take place in licensed gambling venues, assuming gambling was legal at all where you played.

Basically, ante seemed like a good idea to keep a cap on the way people played, but it just didn't work. (it didn't stop them from implementing ante in that goddamn Microprose game, though.)
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:58 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Eddie View Post
One of the cuter aspects of many of the older cards is that their wording is sometimes quite ambiguous.
Yeah, some of this stuff is a bit unclear. Why does Firebreathing not say target creature, but Blessing does?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Eddie View Post
Helm of Chatzuk: Probably the worst "base" mechanic of the original set, if you never played with it, banding was complicated, underpowered, and - for whatever reason - was deemed worthy enough to show up on rare cards such as this one and Timber Wolves. If you've never played with it, banding allows you (rather than your opponent) to assign combat damage from enemy creatures, as long as your creatures were "banded" together. It's theoretically useful, but in practice, creatures who had banding were generally terrible.
I can see Banding being semi-useful in a weenie deck, given that it allows you to stop trample with a 1/1. Have any post-banding cards tried to streamline the concept?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Eddie View Post
Another thing that will probably become more obvious too is that the early days of Magic trumped flavour over mechanics. As a hardcore mechanics guy, I do think that part of the reason this crazy game caught on so well is because it tried so damned hard early on to make each individual card it's own story. Many cards are a wonderful mishmash of bad writing, mediocre art, and a lot of heart.
I think this is why I dug the Innistrad block so much. It seemed like far more of a return to the classic Magic feel, even with weirdness like flip cards.

Last edited by liquid; 02-12-2013 at 11:08 PM.
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Old 02-12-2013, 11:00 PM
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yeah, i came back to mtg with innistraad because it actually felt like magic again, and not just the math game it had become.
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Old 02-12-2013, 11:27 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by liquid View Post
I can see Banding being semi-useful in a weenie deck, given that it allows you to stop trample with a 1/1. Have any post-banding cards tried to streamline the concept?
If you're in a position to have to block a big trampler in a weenie deck... your deck probably got problems that banding won't solve.
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Old 02-12-2013, 11:35 PM
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Th-they could draw four Dark Rituals in their opening hand...

But, yeah, fair point.
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Old 02-12-2013, 11:51 PM
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Banding never struck me as particularly useful. Most of the weenie decks I saw played, the main strategy was to put small creatures, and lots of creatures, in play early and start hitting as soon as you could. If you can start attacking before your opponent can mount any kind of defense, banding is unnecessary. If your opponent does have creatures on the table, then banding makes no sense because all of your smaller creatures can be blocked by one. I would think you'd want to avoid banding in that case so at least some damage would go through.

So yeah, I can see why they got rid of it.
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Old 02-13-2013, 08:52 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by liquid View Post
I can see Banding being semi-useful in a weenie deck, given that it allows you to stop trample with a 1/1. Have any post-banding cards tried to streamline the concept?
Fight and Provoke are both in the same vein, though only provoke works in combat.
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Old 02-13-2013, 12:18 PM
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I remember Ante still being occasionally a thing people would do when I got into Magic (right around Revised), but not very often. Because it sucked.

And yeah, I liked the very vague and mysterious flavor sprinkled through the early sets. Made it really seem like a big world. Honestly it was about when they started introducing more coherent "plot" to the sets that I lost interest.

But anyway, let's see if I have any special memories of these Alpha Artifacts we're supposed to be talking about...

I do kind of remember hand size shenanigans being a thing, with Black Vise, Howling Mine, Jayemdae Tome, Library of Leng, etc.

I think I ran a Clockwork Beast for a while. Not so bad as a late creature in a long game.

I remember Gauntlet of Might being an amazing object of coveting. Of course it's way overpowered and was immediately discontinued and ridiculously expensive. Probably the original enforcer of "red deck wins".

Living Wall is just so gross.

Sol Rings. Sol Rings are good.

(Sorry for not linking. Load up the list from the OP!)
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Old 02-13-2013, 12:44 PM
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sol ring is on my list of best cards ever.
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Old 02-13-2013, 01:03 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kirin View Post
I remember Gauntlet of Might being an amazing object of coveting. Of course it's way overpowered and was immediately discontinued and ridiculously expensive. Probably the original enforcer of "red deck wins".
And then they went and did this.
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Old 02-13-2013, 01:06 PM
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What I like the most about Black Vise is that it eventually led to The Rack. I love discard as a mechanic, so I've always wanted to make a Rack deck (I recently bought a playset of them for use with Modern but haven't gotten around to making the deck yet). Also the art for both cards is cool as hell in some totally disturbing voodoo way; the From the Vault art is fine, but as others have said, there's something special about the minimalist nature of early Magic art.
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Old 02-13-2013, 02:19 PM
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I think there were three cards that had that same weird voodoo doll thing in them, but hell if I can remember what the third one was.
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Old 02-13-2013, 02:27 PM
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It showed up during Legends as part of Wall of Wonder and Antiquities in the Cursed Rack. Then during Time Spiral they made it into Stuffy Doll (you have no idea how disappointed I was when I saw the new artwork for this).

EDIT: And on the Ice Age version of Leshrac's Rite.
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Old 02-13-2013, 02:31 PM
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Quote:
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I think there were three cards that had that same weird voodoo doll thing in them, but hell if I can remember what the third one was.
Cursed Rack

Also, the original Stuffy Doll.
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Old 02-13-2013, 02:43 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by estragon View Post
Would you care to elaborate with links/pictures/explanation?
I linked a list of all the cards rather than linking every card or providing images because for once I am erroring on the side of finishing a project rather than trying to make it perfect. But I do want this to be accessible to people who haven't already played Magic, so I'll probably include more links next time.

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I think it should be noted that ante was a core component of the game in the first few iterations.
You kind of covered it already, but I'll discuss ante a bit when I get to Alpha: Black.

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sol ring is on my list of best cards ever.
If Sol Ring was a rare and hadn't been reprinted in Revised, it'd probably be right up there with the moxes.
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Old 02-13-2013, 02:51 PM
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i don't think it's lack of rarity makes sol ring any less powerful. first turn swamp, dark rit, sol ring, juzam djinn is pretty much game ending.
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Old 02-13-2013, 02:58 PM
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Quote:
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i don't think it's lack of rarity makes sol ring any less powerful. first turn swamp, dark rit, sol ring, juzam djinn is pretty much game ending.
He probably means price. $500 and up for a Mox, $7 for a Sol Ring.
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Old 02-13-2013, 10:30 PM
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Alpha, part 2: White

The distinct personalities of the five colors are key to Magic's success. First among the five is White, the bringer of law, morality and civilization. One aspect of this is that White plays the standard-issue Good Guy to Black's standard-issue Bad Guy, but there's a lot more to it than that. White is the color that wants to control the world in order to improve it, and doing that involves a lot of necessary evil.

Card of the day: Balance

Balance brings all the players in a game of Magic down to an equal footing. What could be more fair than that? Well, if you aren't playing any creatures in your deck, and you empty your hand to play out a bunch of artifact mana, Balance just demolishes your opponents while leaving you in relative comfort. Balance is an extremely unbalanced card, and it was eventually restricted so that only one copy could be played per deck. Ironic, but it also fits one of White's defining personality quirks: White plays fair, but White's idea of fairness is self-serving. After all, the best way to ensure that the world is fair is for White to rule the world. And if some troublemakers have to be dealt with, well, it's their fault for not following the rules.

Magic deck-builders have long seen the game as a yin-yang of two forces: Control and beatdown. One seeks to slow the game down, the other to hasten its end. White is unique for being equally able to play both strategies.

Beatdown means playing creatures and attacking relentlessly until the other player's twenty life points are depleted. White has some of the best small creatures in Alpha, like Savannah Lions and White Knight, and can make them into a formidable army with Crusade. In future sets, all the colors will dabble in this kind of strategy, but for now it's a White specialty.

When pursuing the longer game of a control deck, White has the ability to clear away opposition en masse with Wrath of God, cripple resources with Armageddon, and do both simultaneously and attack the opponent's cards in hand with Balance. White control traditionally ends the game with Serra Angel, a creature that attacks without dropping its guard.

Whether fast or slow, White in Alpha is the king of removal. It can destroy any kind of card that hits the table, either with the mass destruction spells mentioned above, or with cheap pinpoint removal spells. Between Disenchant and Swords to Plowshares, most threats can be disposed of with extreme efficiency. Future sets will reduce this aspect of White, leaving the color still versatile but never again so ruthlessly efficient.

Swords to Plowshares establishes another rule. While capable of removing creatures from the board, White is limited to doing so in morally satisfying ways. In this case, thematically, the creature is not killed, but rather is inspired to take up a peaceful way of life. Righteousness shows another angle on this: The use of lethal power in a defensive situation.

Two of White's most evocative "top-down" cards - i.e. cards designed to fit a concept rather than concepted to fit a design - are Island Sanctuary and Veteran Bodyguard. These cards were never big in tournaments but they definitely reigned on casual tabletops. While cool, the ideas behind these two cards only rarely come up again in Magic history, perhaps because they tend to drag the game out without actually doing anything to win on their own.

My biggest complaint about the design of White in Alpha is the amount of space taken up by Wards and Circles of Protection. With the benefit of hindsight, I think five(well, four anyway - again, printing error) of each is excessive and it would have been thematically more appropriate to focus on White's enemy colors. Oh, speaking of which:

COLOR RELATIONSHIPS
White and Green are allies. Both value order and the collective.
White and Blue are allies. They value control and restraint.
White and Red are enemies. Red prefers anarchy to any form of rule.
White and Black are enemies. Black hates anything that limits its power.

Check out the list of White cards in Alpha and share your comments.

NEXT: Blue in Alpha
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Old 02-13-2013, 11:20 PM
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Each of the colors in Alpha had a three for one instant. Green, Red, and Black's were all extremely useful bread and butter cards that stuck around for years, Blue's was, fittingly, unbelievably overpowered, and White's was almost completely worthless. I don't know if lifegain/damage prevention was overvalued at the time or what, but Healing Salve stuck around in a mind-boggling amount of sets for something that you would almost never want to stick in a deck.

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When pursuing the longer game of a control deck, White has the ability to clear away opposition en masse with Wrath of God, cripple resources with Armageddon, and do both simultaneously and attack the opponent's cards in hand with Balance. White control traditionally ends the game with Serra Angel, a creature that attacks without dropping its guard.
One of the dudes I play Magic with every other week made an Armageddon deck, and by the end of the night every single player wanted to murder him. I don't think I've ever seen so much bad blood at the end of a Magic game.
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Old 02-13-2013, 11:25 PM
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New players have always overvalued lifegain.
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Old 02-14-2013, 12:15 AM
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One of the dudes I play Magic with every other week made an Armageddon deck, and by the end of the night every single player wanted to murder him. I don't think I've ever seen so much bad blood at the end of a Magic game.
Armageddon sucks, yessir, but for me there's always been a special kind of hate reserved for Stasis. Sure, it's awful to have all of your lands destroyed, but there's something about the feeling of absolute helplessness Stasis induces. You have all of your creatures and enchantments and lands still intact, I mean right the fuck there in front of you, and all of it utterly useless. About all you can do is draw your obligatory beginning-of-the-turn card, stew and fume, and eventually go over your hand limit and start being forced to discard useful shit while waiting until you or someone can drop more new mana and hopefully cast a disenchant (hoping all the while that you aren't forced to use said new mana to defend yourself from other attacks). Sure, it has upkeep in order to prevent its being completely, stupidly broken, but it only takes two mana to bring it out. And the sort of bastard who plays it probably has enough lands to keep it going for a while.

/rant.
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Old 02-14-2013, 12:44 AM
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liquid liquid is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Wolf View Post
About all you can do is draw your obligatory beginning-of-the-turn card, stew and fume, and eventually go over your hand limit and start being forced to discard useful shit while waiting until you or someone can drop more new mana and hopefully cast a disenchant (hoping all the while that you aren't forced to use said new mana to defend yourself from other attacks).
Well, that's why you use Kismet, too.
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Old 02-14-2013, 12:54 AM
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Mr. J Mr. J is offline
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Looking over the white cards in alpha I'm rather shocked by how solid a lot of the designs are. Wrath of God has remained the standard for board sweepers. White Knight is the model efficient 2 drop. Veteran Bodyguard's mechanic has been reused several times on cards (palisade giant is not that far removed for a card made over 15 years later). Swords to Plowshares is still the best removal spell ever made and established white's "justified" kill spells. Cards like smite, avenging arrow, chastise and karmic justice all come from the same "punishment" vein. Savannah Lions was a staple beater until recently. Resurrection was the first of many white reanimation spells. Disenchant is a very well balanced card that is good at what it does but never too good. Castle has lived in on both effects that boost the toughness of untapped creatures and general toughness boosting in white. White's slice of the color pie has changed very little over the years. The only big shifts are moving reanimation to black and moving land destruction to red.
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Old 02-14-2013, 03:01 AM
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Destil Destil is offline
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Well, white has still gotten a lot: taxing, best fliers, best small creatures (though lions is right there). And while disenchant is green now white can still do it with somewhat less efficiently.

And even mass land destruction is just something that's not pushed these days (hell, stone rain's not even in standard anymore), but white can still be your man for it (as long as you're destroying everything so it's 'fair', pretty white really), isn't obliterate the last time even Red could do that?
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blue is for cowards , ccg , game design , magic the gathering , mtg , red is for real men , trading card game , two blue says "no" , wizards of the coast

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