aving access to R&D's Magic database gives me the feeling of a kid in a toy store. (I would have said, “candy store,” but our corporate overlords make toys. So toys it is.) Normally I use the database to peruse cards in development, reading and making comments as I go through. Each time through a set, I learn a little more about how the other developers feel about certain cards, and add my own opinions where I think something has been done well or could be improved.
It's a good system. That is, as long as we bother to use it.
The neat thing about the database is that it contains all the cards we've ever made, including things like Unglued, Portal Three Kingdoms, various box sets, and promo cards. That means all the cards from the sets I was playing with before I started working here are on file, complete with development comments.
I couldn't resist. Having been subjected to the horrors of the Urza's Saga block as a player, I just had to see what kind of lunacy was going on here that led to all those absurd ban-worthy cards that defined that period in Magic's history. So for my own personal enjoyment as well as yours, I'm going to let a few cats out of the bag.
The Grim Commentary
I'm presenting the comments (what few there are) straight from the database, as is. I'm leaving the initials on the comments for the sake of completeness. I will not, however, remind anyone whom the initials belong to. Many of those folks are still working here, and all of them agree that the sets I'm discussing are not their finest work.
But this is still some funny stuff.
I'll start with a couple cards from Exodus, the set right before Urza's Saga. Exodus marks the first set for which development comments were made in this database. All earlier sets were imported after the database was built.
Our first card is a nasty enchantment that is currently banned in Extended:
1.33 lowered from 2G to 1G.
That's it—a simple lowering of the cost. No comments explaining why or what the developers were hoping to accomplish. The day that change was made, blue mages across the world felt a chill run up their spines.
1.33 lowered from 3GG to 2GG
1.35 Changed to effect both players and lowered to 1G.
As you can see, having the cycle of Oaths have symmetrical mana costs outweighed any concern over the card being insane. I can hear it now… “It affects both players! It can't be that good!” Yeah, just barely good enough to win two Extended Pro Tours, two Extended Grand Prix, and earn a spot on that format's banned list.
Consider those two cards the appetizers as we move into the main course—the Urza's block. As a refresher—Urza's Saga, Urza's Legacy, and Urza's Destiny, released in 1998 and 1999, contained some of the most grossly overpowered cards in the game's history. Seven cards had to be banned from the Urza's Block Constructed format. Twelve of the twenty-two cards currently banned in Extended are from that block. And even though the thirteen cards the block contributes to the Type 1 restricted list aren't as powerful a group as the Alpha inductees, three cards from it—Yawgmoth's Will, Tolarian Academy, and Yawgmoth's Agenda—warp and define the format even on a one-per-deck basis.
As you can see, we're talking about some real powerhouses here. So what happened? As you're about to see, not much. There are embarrassingly few comments on any of these cards. Starting with Urza's Saga:
WJ: tested. Seems fine. From a theoretical viewpoint, this is not surprising, since it is two mana more than Diminishing Returns, and we are charging just under two mana for most of our free spells.
The free mechanic was clearly underestimated. I suppose if you test Time Spiral in a vacuum it doesn't seem incredibly degenerate. Actually, drawing seven for effectively 0 mana sounds degenerate no matter how you slice it. It's safe to say they didn't test Time Spiral with this little number:
variation: artifacts in play
WJ: Was on list. Tested. Scary. The team bought the argument that since it's a legendary land, it's inherently limited and therefore OK.
Thank heavens the team decided against the “variant” and left it to count just the artifacts you control! At least they saw that this one was scary. But then what? It sounds like someone pulled a fast one by convincing peoplethat it wasn't that bad since you couldn't ever have two in play. I guess the ability to win on turn ONE in the right deck is “inherently limited.”
HS,2/23: Is this card really worth it? would you play with enough sliding cards that this would ever be worth playing?
“Sliding” obviously means “cycling.” History has proven that you would in fact play enough sliding cards for this to be worth it.
Alternate X1UU sorcery
Armadillo only constructed card.
“Armadillo” was the code name for Saga. This comment suggests that the team believed the Stroke had few implications outside of block constructed. Speaking of which, here's another goodie that was pegged as a block-only card:
Armadillo only constructed card.
Playtest with Whetstone?
There you have it, folks. The super-secret Yawgmoth's Will tech: Whetstone. All of you that have been combining it with Dark Ritual and Black Lotus and whatnot, you've totally missed the boat.
I hope I'm not disappointing too many people. I imagine some of you pictured the R&D comments on a card like Yawgmoth's Will to read more like…
WJ: It's official. This is one of the most powerful cards we've ever considered making.
HS: That's great. We really want to knock their socks off with this one.
Instead, we're all left to wonder if it was ever playtested in block with Whetstone.
Moving on to Urza's Legacy:
HS(5/26) playtesters concerned over interaction with mana vaults, etc. no data yet...
Looks like somebody had the right idea but got distracted. Mindslaver sends its thanks.
AT END OF TURN PROBLEM
It's written in all caps so it must be a big problem. Yes, it is a bit weird that I can sacrifice my Jar at the end of your turn, then untap and play with my new hand. But what I would have liked to see in all caps was, “WHY ARE WE MAKING ANOTHER DRAW 7, ESPECIALLY IN A SET WITH TINKER?” The Jar was one of the quickest cards banned in the history of the game.
Bill (5/22): Does this need to be a negative enchantment? What about “Whenever enchanted creature is blocked, it gets -1/-1 until end of turn.
HS(5/28) Yes, it does need to be a negative enchantment. I am willing to discuss other options, however
6/15 was weakness when blocking or blocked
HS(6/16) name (and art?) need to change
Interesting. Was Weakness when blocking or blocked. Gotta love those late changes. And so the best creature enchantment of all time was born.
The last batch of cards comes from Urza's Destiny:
WJ 8/6: Monocolor deck card.
WJ 8/6: I sure hope you guys try to break this one. It's also worth discussing whether the “summon Legend” rule should apply during testing.
WJ 9/17: potential loop issue, if we make a permanent that says: “[some amount of green and colorless mana]: untap target creature.”
CC 9/22: We have this creature already(some kind of brownie. However, the brownie sucks).
WJ 9/28: No, that one is OK, cos it has tap in the cost.
Rofellos passed the Fyndhorn Brownie test, so he was allowed to see print.
BR 7/31 too close to necro
WJ 8/6 We need to either fix necro or repeat it in expansions, since it can't remain in the basic set. We should probably have some kind of plan here.
WJ 8/6 If this card is done as is, someone should try real hard to break it. The immediacy of the draw is huge. Possibly combine with the “get B for each of your swamps” card for mucho mana to play all the cards you get . . .
Bill (8/14): Pull. If you want Necro in the environment, we can reprint it in Archemedes. Having similar versions decreases the specialness of Necro.
Bill (8/28): Having both this and Necro in the play environment is confusing.
Bill (8/28): Global issue—all 3 rare black enchantment are good. We need to vary the power levels more.
I can't tell what bothers me more—the idea that Necropotence was a card the developers wanted in print at all times, or that the team eventually decided that it was okay to have two versions of Necro in print at once. At least that last comment explains the reason why Carnival of Souls exists—to be a counterweight to the Bargain.
Should this be “you may”?
One of the most powerful creatures of all time, and the big concern is whether or not the ability should be optional. At least this comment had some impact, as the ability did end up optional.
But what I really want to know is, who in the world decided the same comment was appropriate for the following card?
Should this be “you may”?
Someone clearly didn't understand how Magic worked at all. A 5/5 trampler for with the optional ability to sacrifice permanents when it takes damage? Sign me up! This one, out of all the comments listed, is the one that made me shoot coffee out of my nose.
The Negator is a fine stopping point. I'd have loved to share the “stories” behind Morphling, Gaea's Cradle, Grim Monolith, Opalescence, Replenish, Metalworker, Masticore, and others, but there were no comments at all! That doesn't necessarily mean that the cards went from design to press without a second look, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me that they did.
Closing the Book
It may seem like I'm taking pot-shots at the lost souls that developed those sets, but it's all in good fun. Those of them that still work in R&D were laughing along as I read the comments out loud, confident in the knowledge that days like that are long gone.
The teams were severely undermanned and playtesting resources were next to none. The situation was rectified over the course of the next two years, and the team that was put in place as a result is the one that has brought you all the sets from Invasion forward—some of the best balanced of all time.
Of course, nobody's perfect. I'm sure ten years from now a new group of developers will look back at some of the cards we've made in recent years and say, “What were they thinking?!” I just hope they don't write an article about it.
Last Week's Poll
Now that you've seen Darksteel, what is your favorite keyworded mechanic from the Mirrodin block?
A quick note: Many people wrote me to say that “Equipment” and “Indestructible” are not keyworded mechanics. Those people are correct. Equipment is a subtype and indestructible is “just a word.” It should be obvious that I don't work on the comprehensive rules.
This Week's Poll:
Since I just finished talking about what I consider some of the worst sets of all time, I'd like to know…
What complaint do you have about your least favorite set?
Aaron may be reached at email@example.com.