The Expanding Worlds of Magic

Posted in NEWS on August 17, 2009

By Richard Garfield

Our original plan went like this. When Wizards of the Coast released Magic: The Gathering in the summer of 1993, we intended to sell the ten million cards we'd printed, and then design and sell Magic: The Gathering—Ice Age, the next release. Ice Age would add perhaps a hundred new cards and remove an equal number of old cards from The Gathering mix; the new set would probably have a different card back. We thought that one or two times a year we would print a new limited edition game environment so that players could explore an entirely new game and relearn the subtle balances of the environment. The game would slowly evolve into something quite different from the original set, constantly improving with time.

*  *  *

At GenCon that year, we realized there was no way we could go with this plan. The cards would not last until winter; they would be gone in weeks. It became clear that we shouldn't rotate out thirty percent of the cards before we let more people see the game. We decided to print an unlimited version of The Gathering, and to keep the game environment fresh, we started designing expansion sets.

Unknown Terrain

The concept of an expansion scared me, because if we did three or four, we would begin running out of simple ideas and elegant spells. It seemed we couldn't possibly keep up with the number of combi¬nations that would arise. The first expansion for Magic, Arabian Nights, was a real trial. I had no understanding of how an expansion would work.

As it turned out, we made a number of mistakes, but nothing too outrageous. The spells in that expansion ranged from far too weak (Merchant Ship) to far too powerful (Library of Alexandria). The worst mistake of Arabian Nights was probably that I tried to make the expansion internally consistent and true to The Thousand and One Nights, rather than in balance with The Gathering. That is why, for example, white magic is so much more aggressive in Arabian Nights.

By the time the next expansion set rolled around, the philosophy of expansions was developing fast, and the overall balance of Antiquities was much better than Arabian Nights. Unfortunately, the Antiquities cards tended to be weak, and involved artifacts too much. This meant that you had to play either with or against a largely-artifact deck to make them worthwhile.

I describe the Legends expansion as sprawling and chaotic, but beautiful as well. It had great art, and some wild ideas on the cards. The idea behind the next expansion, The Dark, was to get the artists involved in the creation process; Jesper Myrfors, at that time the art director at Wizards of the Coast, designed it. The cards were per¬haps a bit weaker on average than they should have been, but the art and flavor are outstanding. We did a better job balancing the cards this time; as of yet, the Duelists' Convocation has put only one Dark card on its tournament Restricted list.

Fallen Empires was the first expansion designed entirely inside Wizards of the Coast. It is easily the most complicated and best-looking of the expansions. The play value is high for the complexity, and the cards are very valuable for play. The flavor is probably the most cohesive since Arabian Nights. This expansion is easily my favorite.

The expansion sets have kept Magic evolving. In Arabian Nights we saw the first lands that did things. In Legends we introduced multicolor cards and the concept of the Legend, a card of which only one can be in play at a time. Fallen Empires greatly expands the use of creature-generating cards, and cards with effects that unfold over time. I have to credit Skaff Elias with a major innovation in Antiquities: the concept of telling a story through the cards. At first the concept seems strange, because you have no particular order to the cards, and so can get no narrative thread. You might not even have all the cards! But this is exactly parallel to an archaeologist's excavation of a town or battlefield—there are clues here and there, but the archaeologist must work to piece it together.

Ice Age and Beyond

Remember Ice Age? It's still around, only it has been getting better over time, becoming more balanced and colorful. Wizards of the Coast will release Ice Age as a stand-alone expansion set this spring. Naturally it contains duplicates of cards from The Gathering, because it is not possible to maintain the flavor and balance of the game without certain staple cards like Circles of Protection. However, all the cards will have new art, and the great majority of the cards will be entirely new.

Like its predecessors, the Ice Age expansion marks a new stage in the of Magic. Wizards of the Coast will support Ice Age-only tournaments and leagues. In this way people can enter a more balanced game environment. Ice Age will be compatible with Magic for those who wish to mix their cards, yet beginners can also start fresh, on equal footing with the old Black Lotus Brigades. There will also be an expansion for Ice Age (compatible with The Gathering, natch). Too much land will also be a thing of the past—boosters for Ice Age (and new boosters for The Gathering) won't contain basic land—it will only be in starter decks. When Ice Age comes out, do yourself a favor and try it for a while without your other cards. If you like it, set up a league using the cards.

We are striving to return to a version of our original plan. Each year we hope to print a new stand-alone expansion or parallel world. This lets players explore a new world annually. And if you take a Magic-free year, you can come back the following year and have equal access to the new game environment.

The Gathering will continue to gather. It will get new cards from expansions and parallel worlds. The weakest cards will be dropped in favor of more interesting cards from the expansions. Because many, many cards will be available in this way, an unlimited expansion will also appear, called Chronicles.

That is how I see things in the Magic world, past and future. It is pretty complicated in that world now—there are almost a thousand cards. Will this turn people away from the game? I don't think so. People who weren't scared by three hundred cards probably won't be scared by a thousand. A large part of the attraction of the game for me is the feeling of infinite realms to be explored; you can't avoid that feeling now.

(Click here for today's results!)