Art by Chuck Lukacs
In the Beginning
In Alpha, Richard Garfield made the following card:
At the time, the game didn't define tokens. The rulebook didn't even talk about them. In fact, this was the only card that made one and it just told you "represent Wasps with tokens." In fact, all the rules about how tokens worked were written out on this card. For example, the rule that tokens are removed from the game if they leave play comes from The Hive's rules text. (I believe the rule that token creatures briefly touch the graveyard to count for death triggers came later.)
It was evident right away that tokens had a big future. How do I know that? Because I was there when Alpha was the set on sale. The internet was in its infancy and overall Magic knowhow was pretty low because everyone was a beginner. There were two cards at the time that were considered impossible to get unless you opened them in a booster pack, because no one would trade them to you. Those two cards were The Hive and Clockwork Beast.
Neither card was actually any good, powerwise, but at the time everyone seemed to think they were. It's interesting to note that The Hive made tokens and Clockwork Beast used counters (one of seven to do so—but that's the subject of a completely different article). The idea of a card that could keep pumping out a new creature turn after turn just felt powerful.
In Arabian Nights, Richard produced two more cards that made tokens:
Both were very popular. Unlike The Hive, these two cards each could only make a token once (the cards and the tokens never even overlapped on the battlefield) and, in the case of Bottle of Suleiman, sometimes none. Once again, Richard used token technology for flavor purposes. The djinn was trapped in the bottle and you could attempt to summon it, while the Rukh Egg was a Rukh waiting to be hatched. It's interesting to note that every token up to this point had flying, although they varied from 1/1 up to 5/5. Rukh Egg also was the first token card to have a color. Note that all the stats were square, meaning they had the same power as toughness.
Next was Antiquities, which brought one more token creature:
Once again, the card was very popular. Tetravus's shtick was that it used both counters (+1/+1 counters specifically) and tokens and that the card allowed you to essentially turn one into the other. The flavor was that the Tertravus could break off pieces of its body that would then turn into their own little creatures and he could later rejoin the pieces back. Again, the tokens had flying and squared stats. The one new thing brought to the table was that the tokens had another ability—they could not be enchanted. Note that grafting technology (the tokens have "This creature can't be enchanted") did not yet exist. Tetravus just explained the rules about how its tokens worked.
Legends more than doubled the number of token cards in the game by making five new ones:
Legends started stretching the design of tokens. New things introduced included:
- Tokens with abilities other than flying (the Wolves from Master of the Hunt had bands with other Wolves of the Hunt and the Snakes from Serpent Generator granted poison counters)
- Stats that weren't square (Stangg made 3/4 tokens)
- Multicolor tokens (the Minor Demons from Boris Devilboon were black and red; the Sand Warriors from Hazezon Tamar were red, green, and white; and the Stangg Twin token from Stangg was red and green)
- Token-making tied to an X (the Sand Warriors from Hazezon Tamar)
- A token linked to a creature (Stangg and his twin token each died if the other ever left play)
The Dark had only one token card but it was a doozy.
Dance of Many was the first token that was a copy. (We'd later learn how to template it with a few less words.)
The next set, Fallen Empires, didn't spare the tokens, as they were a subtheme. Every color had a token-making card, each making a different kind of token. Let's start with the nongreen ones:
The Fallen Empire story was all about warring factions and the mechanics played directly into this conflict. Each color had the ability to make multiple token creatures: white Citizens, blue Camarids, black Thrulls, and red Goblins. Homarid Spawning Bed, Breeding Pit, and Goblin Warrens were all enchantments that allowed you to make token creatures turn after turn, while white Icatian Town was a sorcery that spit out four at once.
From a design standpoint these cards were very interesting because you can see the designers starting to use token technology to make different compelling top-down cards. The Breeding Pit, for example, represented the clerics making magical creatures solely for the use of sacrifice, while Goblin Warrens represented the goblins' big procreation advantage.
The most interesting and popular use of tokens showed up as a mechanical theme in green:
This was the first appearance of the Saprolings, which would go on to become a staple token type for green. Note that Saprolings are a totally Magic creation based off the word "sapling"—a young plant, usually a tree. They represent living, sentient, plant-based organisms.
The Thallid mechanic used counters to allow the fungus creatures to produce a Saproling every third turn. This was the first token theme that was designed to build a deck around. The Saproling mechanic was one of the most popular themes in Fallen Empires and led to many Saproling-based decks. So popular, in fact, that the theme would later be brought back in Time Spiral block and Modern Masters. This leads us to my first preview card of the day. This card will be making its fourth appearance in Magic (the first three being Fallen Empires, Time Spiral (on the timeshifted sheet), and Master Edition II on Magic Online).
See the first preview card.>> Click to Show
There's a lot of ground to cover and a lot of tokens, so from here out, I'm just going to stop on token making cards that I feel advanced the design of token making.
Caribou Range (Ice Age)
This was the first token maker to have the ability to sacrifice the tokens for an effect, in this case lifegain. (One could argue that Tetravus had a sacrifice ability but as the counters/tokens could go back and forth, I don't count it.)
Broken Visage (Homelands)
Broken Visage was the first token-making card to make a variable token (as opposed to a copy) and the first one to make a temporary one (meaning it came with a set duration), its flavor being the creation of a shadow version of a creature that can only exist for a short time.
Phelddagrif and Varchild's War-Riders (Alliances)
Afterlife and Basalt Golem (Mirage)
Afterlife and Basalt Golem were the first two cards to essentially turn existing creatures into tokens, most often your opponent's. Note in both cases that the card technically destroyed the creature and then replaced it with a token. Using this mechanic to convey the flavor of transformation has always been a tenuous one, especially because the first creature is in your graveyard and can be used as a resource. There has been a push within design to start exiling the first creature to make it feel more as though it's just gone from the game.
Spirit Mirror (Tempest)
The goal of Spirit Mirror was to make a creature that could not be killed by traditional creature kill but could only die to enchantment destruction. To accomplish this odd task, I designed the card to use tokens as a stand-in for the creature. The token could be killed, but the enchantment kept bringing it back, meaning that the only way to permanently get rid of the token was to destroy the enchantment that kept making it.
I bring up Spirit Mirror because it is a good example of the use of token technology to fulfill a design that could not be executed through another means. This flexibility of tokens is one of the reasons they are popular with designers.
Volrath's Laboratory (Stronghold)
Volrath's Laboratory was the first card that gave customizability to the player making the token. What is it? Whatever you wanted to make it. It's interesting that this card raised a number of question in R&D about what options should be available to players choosing creature types. This discussion would lead (along with other factors) to both the great creature type update and the removal of Un-creature types as legal creature types. (Bye bye Chicken, Pig, and Cow.)
Phyrexian Processor (Urza's Saga)
This card started life as the card that would later be printed in Mirrodin called Soul Foundry (called Clone Machine in design). Rules issues caused this card to be changed at the last minute after the art was already in. While Magic had done variable tokens before, Phyrexian Processor was the first to allow a player to spend a resource other than mana to control its size. This card and the decision of how much life to spend would lead to one of the most dramatic finals in Pro Tour history between Jon Finkel and Bob Maher Jr. (both Pro Tour Hall of Famers), in the finals of the 2000 World Championships in Brussels, Belgium.
Deranged Hermit (Urza's Legacy)
Homeland's Sengir Autocrat had already done the "single creature makes multiple tokens" shtick. What sets Deranged Hermit apart is that it both made tokens and enhanced them. Magic had token makers and lords but Deranged Hermit put the two together. This allowed the player to figure out which threat was more problematic—the creatures threatening you or the creature behind the scenes boosting them up? This card is also famous for being the card that first put Aaron Forsythe in the spotlight. A deck built around this card helped Aaron make the 2000 US Nationals team. He and Jon Finkel, along with Chris Benafel and Frank Hernandez, would go on to win the Worlds Team competition for the United States at the same 2000 Worlds in Brussels, Belgium.
Saproling Burst (Nemesis)
Tokens and counters coexisted since Alpha and they had even managed to show up on the same card a few times, but Saproling Burst took their interconnectivity to new heights. The power and toughness of the Saproling token creatures made by Saproling Burst were defined by how many fade counters the enchantment had. This card would go on to make a big splash on the tournament scene.
Penumbra Wurm (Apocalypse)
While the penumbra mechanic was not named (the creatures were tied through the use of the word "Penumbra" in their name), it was one of the first mechanics to use tokens as part of the mechanic. All Penumbra creatures died into black tokens that mirrored their size. This forced the opponent to have to kill each Penumbra creature twice.
There's not much innovation on this card, but I couldn't pass up the chance to reveal that for several days this card's actual name for print was Bear Supply. You see, I was in charge of the names for Odyssey and I was trying to mix things up a little. (And yes, this also explains how the flavor text to Gorilla Titan made it to print). The reason I chose not to use it wasn't because it was too silly but because I didn't feel enough players would know who Air Supply was. (For those who don't know—it's a band.)
Acorn Harvest (Odyssey)
This card represents the use of tokens by the flashback mechanic. The mechanic could only work on instants and sorceries, so we turned to token technology to make "flashback creatures." (The unearth mechanic would be a later attempt at the same thing.) I also chose Acorn Harvest to point out that not only was I in charge of names in Odyssey but creature types as well.
Dogged Hunter (Odyssey)
For a long time, we never referenced tokens mechanically except to say "nontoken." We made this card as a "token hate" card because the block had a larger-than-normal amount of token creatures (due mostly to flashback being in the block). The creative team hates cards like this because creatively there is no difference between a Bear and a Bear token, so this card is kind of impossible to concept.
Zombie Infestation (Odyssey)
This card was a straight-up engine card allowing players to turn cards in hand directly into creatures without any need of mana. Zombie Infestation is somewhat unique in there are very few repeatable token makers that don't require mana.
Riptide Replicator (Onslaught)
I wanted to point of this card because it's the culmination of a lot of the cards listed above. It was a token card that just mixed and matched a lot of different token evolutions, none of which were original but many that hadn't been done all together before.
Symbiotic Wurm (Onslaught)
This card is here to represent the symbiotic mechanic. Like Penumbra creatures, Symbiotic creatures created the token upon dying. The twist with this mechanic is that it made a number of 1/1 tokens equal to the creature's (squared) power/toughness.
Day of the Dragons (Scourge)
We had made cards that turned a single creature into a token but Day of the Dragons turned all your creatures into tokens—and 5/5 flying Dragons, no less.
Soul Foundry (Mirrodin)
Imprint technology allowed us to make a card capable of repeatedly making potentially very complex tokens.
Gemini Engine (Darksteel)
Gemini Engine is interesting because it demonstrates that tokens have a valuable use as a tool for design. For example, Gemini Engine wanted to copy itself during, and basically only during, attack. There are not a lot of ways to do that, but token technology makes it pretty clean. Also, note that this card plays around with what it means to be a token in that it takes away the token's permanence. The token only shows up for small glimpses at a time.
Myr Matrix (Darksteel)
I loved the concept that the Myr lord was an artifact that itself made myr.
Helm of Kaldra (Fifth Dawn)
We knew that we wanted to have three legendary pieces of Equipment, one per set in the block, but it took us a while to figure out the payoff for getting them all in play. We wanted them all being used together but we also didn't want you to get all three out and then have to wait multiple turns for something to happen. The token appearing and attaching all the Equipment to it proved to be the perfect answer.
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (Champions of Kamigawa)
As you can see with some of the cards above, design started playing around more and more with tokens that had a duration. In Kiki-Jiki's case, it crossed temporary tokens with cloning, allowing the card infinite flexibility. This card is in the Top 10 of my all-time favorite cards I've designed.
Which brings us to our next preview card, which just so happens to be my favorite card design I've done. In fact, the inclusion of this card is what got me the honor of previewing cards from the token draft strategy. This is also a card that players have been asking for us to reprint for a long time.
See the second preview card>> Click to Show
Doubling Season (Ravnica)
For those who are unaware, I love cards that double. I also love tokens. And I love counters. I designed Doubling Season as much for myself as I did for the players. It was just a card I really wanted to exist. Ravnica, probably because I was leading it, had a lot of counters and tokens, and this card felt like a fun build-around for Timmies and Johnnies. It just took decks that were fun to play and ramped them up. I had tried the same approach years before with a card called Coat of Arms and I figured, why not just throw caution to the wind?
I tried to bring back Doubling Season in Zendikar, as once again my set was full of counters and tokens (how did that happen?) but development informed me that the introduction of Planeswalkers made the card too good for Standard. I was very happy, though, to learn that it made into Modern Masters. Hopefully, much more fun will be had with it.
Scatter the Seeds (Ravnica)
Convoke didn't exactly use tokens but it really upped their value in Selesnya. Token making was pushed as a mono-green thing because I knew Selesnya could use them for convoke and overrunning the opponent and Golgari could use them as fodder for sacrificing.
Now we come to the third preview card for today. It plays nicely with both previous preview cards.
See the third preview card>> Click to Show
Thallid Germinator (Time Spiral)
The interesting story about this card, and all the Thallids in Time Spiral, is that they weren't put into the set by the design team, but rather by the development team—led by lead developer Brian Schneider. Brian and his team were trying to make sure each color had a few mechanics from the past and green was a little behind. The design team had thought about Thallids, but the fact that their counters counted up while suspend's counters counted down was felt to be too confusing. Development played with Thallids and felt it wasn't too disorienting and kept them in the set. Thallid Germinator was one of the new Thallids designed to fit seamlessly into a Thallid deck.
Sengir Nosferatu (Time Spiral)
Tetravus played around with a +1/+1 counter that could essentially turn into a flying 1/1 token, but Sengir Nosferatu took this idea to the next level by creating a card that could turn itself into a token (essentially—I know the rules aren't exactly that). This trope, a vampire that turns into a bat, would be revisited in Innistrad with the double-faced card Screeching Bat/Stalking Vampire.
Goldmeadow Lookout (Future Sight)
Goldmeadow Lookout was part of a cycle of creatures that could put a token, which was the copy of a specific card, onto the battlefield. What made Goldmeadow Lookout the quirkiest of this cycle was that the card of the token it created wouldn't come out until the next expansion, Lorwyn.
Imperial Mask (Future Sight)
For many years, all tokens were creature tokens. Imperial Mask, a future shifted card, was the first to ever make enchantment tokens.
And now we come to our fourth and final preview card of the day—from the Lorwyn block.
See the fourth preview card>> Click to Show
Cloudgoat Ranger (Lorwyn)
While this isn't the first card to use this trick, it's a pretty good one. A card brings with it the tokens needed to make use of one of its abilities. My only question was how exactly do the Kithkins get the Ranger +2/+0 and flying? I'm guessing they wrangle him onto the cloudgoat.
Springjack Shepherd (Eventide)
This card isn't all that innovative but I wanted to point out that after a failed attempt to get a single goat into Lorwyn to justify Goatnapper (yeah, yeah, there were changelings; that didn't stop a torrent of email from players who wanted a goat to be napped), this card was put into Eventide to at least make sure the larger Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block didn't end without at least one card capable of making a goat.
Ooze Garden (Shards of Alara)
The neat thing with tokens is that they can appeal to the many different psychographics (although Timmy is probably the most token friendly). Ooze Garden is a hardcore Johnny card where the tokens are a gauntlet thrown down at Johnny's feet. What size tokens can Johnny make? And how can he or she do it?
Puppet Conjurer (Shards of Alara)
This isn't the first token maker to make a token that went away at end of turn but it is the first one to make you have to figure out what exactly to do with it.
Bestial Menace (Worldwake)
For a long time, R&D had a policy not to make a card that produced multiple different token types. In fact, this card was put into a set nine years before it saw print and was removed for breaking this rule. The decision was reached that while we shouldn't do this often, that we could do it occasionally if we had a fun design.
Skittering Invasion (Rise of the Eldrazi)
This card is here to mark the use of the Spawn tokens, a mechanic that was executed solely through a unique type of token (one that could be sacrificed for one colorless mana).
Prototype Portal (Scars of Mirrodin)
Prototype Portal is the first card capable of making noncreature artifact tokens. Interestingly a similar card was in Fifth Dawn but was removed because at the time we didn't want to make artifact tokens.
This card is here to represent the living weapon mechanic that created the first-ever 0/0 token creature.
Army of the Damned (Innistrad)
Army of the Damned wasn't the first token maker but it was the first one without an X in the title capable of making twenty-six token creatures. The original design, interestingly enough, allowed you to make forty.
Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage (Return to Ravnica)
The final card today marks the introduction of one of the most token-centric mechanics of all time—populate. This mechanic came about because we were trying to find a token equivalent to proliferate from Scars of Mirrodin block. The original version copied every different type of token in play you controlled but that proved to be a little too much so it was changed to the present version.
Whew! That was a lot of token talk. I hope you enjoyed my trip through token history and perhaps I've encouraged a few of you to try drafting a token deck with Modern Masters.
Join me next week when I communicate about communicating.
Until then, may you know they joy of placing a token (or more) onto the battlefield.
Drive to Work #35—Blue
This is part two of my meta-series on the color philosophies. Today I talk about the color blue.
- Episode 35 : Blue (9.9 MB)
- Episode 34 : Future Sight, Part 3 (10.2 MB)
- Episode 33 : Future Sight, Part 2 (10.0 MB)
- Episode 32 : Future Sight, Part 1 (10.5 MB)
- Episode 31 : Lessons I've Learned, Part 2 (10.4 MB)