Putting Nostalgia in the Cold

Posted in Latest Developments on July 28, 2006

By Aaron Forsythe

Coldsnap is Magic's 39th tournament-legal expansion. A quick look over all those sets' contents should lead you to believe that the game has lasted as long as it has because we constantly come up with new things to add. But the truth is that we have also been very good about reusing cards, mechanics, and creative concepts from the game's past where they make sense.

We have done nods to the past in many ways throughout the lifetime of the game; here are a few examples:

  • The bizarre creature Atog from Antiquities was such a fan favorite that a second one—Foratog—was created for the Mirage expansion. Over the following years, a full “cycle” was created, containing Chronatog from Visions, Necratog from Weatherlight, and Auratog from Tempest. Similarly, the popularity of Ice Age's Lhurgoyf led to a cycle of Lhurgoyf creatures in Odyssey (Magnivore, Terravore, etc.), and Razormane Masticore from Fifth Dawn played into players' love of the original Urza's Destiny Masticore. Reuse of a mechanic and creative concept like this is called an homage. Some homages are better disguised; for example, the Arabian Nights card Whirling Dervish inspired Slith Firewalker and the rest of the Mirrodin Slith cycle.
  • There have been many instances of creative ties to the past that exist only in names and/or flavor text. The Prophecy cards Agent of Shauku and Endbringer's Revel, for instance, reference the powerhouse Mirage legend Shauku, Endbringer in their names. The newer cards don't have any strong mechanical ties to the original, but because Shauku was a major force in the Prophecy storyline, using her name helped tie the creative together both within the set and between the Mercadian Masques block and the Mirage block. The best name for these nods is creative references.
  • Once in a while, we'll evolve mechanics. Cycling debuted in Urza's Saga and came back in Onslaught. Similarly, split cards first appeared in Invasion and came back again in Dissension. In these cases, the mechanics were significantly evolved such that the experience of playing with them in the newer sets was significantly different than that of their first go-around.
  • Our Un-sets (Unglued, Unhinged) let us do some parodies of our own work. Chaos Confetti and Greater Morphling are parodies of the famous Magic cards Chaos Orb and Morphling.

While each of these methods builds upon past successes to make the game more richly interconnected, none of them evoke the purest feelings of nostalgia that the next two methods do. What do I mean by nostalgia? Using cards to elicit memories of positive past play experiences, or to capture a feeling of the longed-for past when we began playing the game and things felt simpler and more wondrous. The two best ways to capture nostalgia are:

  • Reprints . Whether it's Kird Ape in Ninth Edition, Elves of Deep Shadow in Ravnica, or Triskelion in Mirrodin, we hope that when we choose to reprint a card that some number of players will say, “Oh, man! I remember playing with that card X years ago, and it was awesome! It's one of my favorite cards of all time!”
  • Reusing a mechanic in its original form , often with only a slight variation in execution. The return of Slivers in Legions is the most famous example of such a reuse. The goal was not to make Slivers significantly different, or to force players to reevaluate them in a new context, but simply to recapture the fun and excitement that they brought to the game several years before in the Tempest block.

Nostalgia Applied to Coldsnap

The design team went about creating the initial Coldsnap file as if it were actually supposed to be the third set of the Ice Age block, meaning that they avoided making cards that were too much like cards in Ice Age and Alliances, as those cards wouldn't have actually appeared in the same block.

The development team quickly realized that the rules for the third set in a block change significantly when (a) the third set is released a decade after the first two, and (b) only a very small number of players will actually mix the sets together in Limited or Block Constructed play. The huge amount of distance between the beginning and end of the block meant that old concepts and ideas could be more or less blatantly reused with only slight modernization, and they would be well-received thanks to the nostalgic feelings they would evoke.

In other words, the fact that Coldsnap was intentionally a throwback to older sets meant we could do direct riffs off old cards that would be met with, “Cool! It's a new version of [blank]! I loved that card!” as opposed to, “Lame! All they did was make a different version of [blank].” It was certainly fun making cards that were intentionally like other cards, as opposed to trying to be as different than everything else we've ever done as possible.

Below I'll illustrate several cards that probably wouldn't have existed if Coldsnap had been made ten years ago, but are cool now thanks to their nostalgia factor. And for those of you without a familiarity with the old sets, consider this a history lesson!

Adarkar Valkyrie, as a nod to Seraph

Adarkar ValkyrieSeraph

Ice Age already had an expensive Angel that could put your opponent's dead creatures into play on your side, and it would normally be crazy to follow Seraph with the Valkyrie just because of how much better the Valkyrie is. But the Valkyrie is a clear home run—a nice homage, but with a power-level more in line with today's good fatties, and a way cooler flavor. Valkyrie really captures the setting's Norse influence.

Bull Aurochs, as a nod to Aurochs

The fact that Aurochs debuted as the only “Aurochs” in the set leads me to believe that the designers meant the word to be treated as a card name, like Plague Rats did, as opposed to a creature type, like Goblin or Kobold. As such, it makes sense that there was only one in the set—after all, there couldn't be any more. However, that lack of clarity allowed us to treat it as a creature type, making a whole herd of Aurochs with the same abilities.

Commandeer, as a nod to Force of Will

It is unlikely, although not impossible, that a second cycle of pitch cards would follow the first just a set later, but because Force of Will, Contagion, and the rest were such an integral part of the Alliances experience, we decided to rehash them in Coldsnap. The new cycle has a definite tweak, but they play quite similarly (especially from the other side of the table).

Frostweb Spider, as a nod to Woolly Spider 

Frostweb SpiderWoolly Spider

The Pro Tour-winning block deck contained both Woolly Spider and Giant Trap Door Spider, forever linking Ice Age with Spiders in players' minds.

Greater Stone Spirit, as a nod to Stone Spirit and Stonehands

Few players realize that this guy is a Stone Spirit that casts Stonehands, which is a hilariously absurd pair of cards to combine. It's safe to say that this card would have never existed if Coldsnap came out right after Alliances.

Jester's Scepter, as a nod to Jester's Cap and Jester's Mask

The two Jester's cards from Ice Age were quirky and memorable, and it made sense to try to add a third to their pantheon. As Brady Dommermuth noted in Ask Wizards, there was no jester in the set's storyline; the cards were merely concepted as Jester accoutrements to highlight the “messing with your opponents” mechanic. Our new one fits in quite well.

Jokulmorder, as a nod to Polar Kraken

In Magic's early years, there was a bit of slow one-upmanship regarding the largest creature in the game in every other set. Alpha's 8/8 Force of Nature was one-upped by Antiquities' 9/9 Colossus of Sardia, and then The Dark's 10/10 Leviathan and Ice Age's 11/11 Polar Kraken. Jokulmorder fits the pattern, jumping in line ahead of Mirage's Phyrexian Dreadnought.

Mishra's Bauble, as a nod to Urza's Bauble

Mishra's Bauble is the most overt nostalgic homage. There's no way it would have existed if the set was printed in 1996, and it exists here only to recapture the experience of playing with a 0-mana cantrip artifact.

Phyrexian Etchings, as a nod to Necropotence

Necropotence has turned out to be the card most associated with Ice Age, so it made sense to try to make another card-drawing enchantment that cost BBB.

Sek'Kuar, Deathkeeper, as a nod to Balduvian Dead

Balduvian Dead makes a weird kind of token—so weird that we had the urge to make a second card that made 3/1 Graveborns. (You can see the two cards in action side-by-side in the Beyond the Grave theme deck).

Shape of the Wiitigo, as a nod to Wiitigo

Another amusing card along the lines of Greater Stone Spirit, the Shape calls out the quirkiness of one of Ice Age's more memorable creatures. Again, this is not a card that would ever have made it into the block proper, but it is a fun homage.

Stromgald Crusader, as a nod to Knight of Stromgald

It's not inconceivable that this card would have been made in the same block as Stromgald Crusader, considering the Crusader was legal in Standard at the same times as the identical Order of the Ebon Hand. The “pump knights” were well-loved creatures from early in Magic, and remaking them as “jump knights” was an obvious choice.

Ursine Fylgja, as a nod to Fylgja

The bears are another fun homage to a flavorful but confusing Ice Age card. Fylgja's weird name and complicated minor abilities really embody Ice Age, and by making Ursine Fylgja, we were able to make similarly wacky cards with the “excuse” that we were channeling the past.

I hope you enjoyed this look at nostalgia… I'm warning you now that we're on kind of a nostalgia kick here in R&D. Stay tuned…

Last Week's Poll:

Do you like the snow mechanic in Coldsnap?
Yes, it's cool. 5512 69.7%
No, sorry. 1457 18.4%
I don't care. 944 11.9%
Total 7913 100.0%

Yes! We succeeded in taking of the most ridiculed mechanics in Magic's history and making it somewhat respectable.

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