It was a big deal.
Wizards had decided to reboot the core set. It would have a new naming convention, a sleeker set size, a lot of card turnover, and a major rules overhaul besides.
The year, as I'm sure you can guess, was... 1999.
A full decade before Magic R&D would reboot the core set with Magic 2010—a process Mark Rosewater describes in his article today—they made a major overhaul to what was then called the base set. That set is now known almost universally as Sixth Edition, but at the time it was called Classic, for reasons explained in this article.
The "Sixth Edition rules changes" remain the largest single set of rules overhauls in the game's history, but that's not what this article is about. This article is about the set itself, and how R&D decided what cards to add, what cards to subtract, and just what exactly they wanted the latest base set to do.
It was a different time, and R&D was tackling many of the same issues that core sets face today with a very different toolbox. Base sets were released every two years, consisted entirely of reprints, and were purposely aimed at a substantially lower level of complexity ("Advanced") than expansions ("Expert").
Some of the discussions in this article sound completely straightforward now. Others sound downright weird given what we now know (or at least believe) about what makes a good core set. Both categories can tell you a lot about how the philosophy of core sets has evolved over the last decade.
Daily MTG Editor
This article originally appeared in The Duelist #38 in June 1999.
Sowing the Seeds
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? So why fool around with Fifth Edition at all? The Standard environment is doing just fine as it is, thank you very much.
Not necessarily, according to Charlie Catino, designer and developer for Magic. "If we didn't rotate sets," he points out, "then some cards might always be in the environment. And keeping the environment fresh makes the game more enjoyable for a longer period of time."
Joel Mick, vice president of the Magic: The Gathering Product Group, couldn't agree with this more. "And popular cards from expansion sets that are no longer for sale get back into the environment," he says. Cards like Browse, Celestial Dawn, and Pillage end up seeing play again, and that's particularly good for players who've just entered Magic in the past year or two. This, Mick says, was the original goal of the base-set rotations anyway: to bring back popular cards.
"Now," he adds, "changing the cards in the base set also allows us to eliminate cards and game mechanics that are unnecessarily confusing or complicated, making the set better for newer players." (That's why the Advanced play-level logo now appears on base sets.) The more complicated game mechanics simply move from the base set to the Expert-level expansions, allowing new players to learn the basics before tackling banding and trample. And let's face it, some expert players still encounter new situations where these mechanics are baffling.
"Classic," admits Joe Hauck, associate brand manager for Magic, is aimed at a different audience. From a learning standpoint, the expert players—who make up the majority of our core players—won't learn anything new from the Classic set. They're not supposed to.
"But those players will find this set appealing in two ways," he hastens to add. "First, it'll define all the 'extra' cards that will be tournament-legal for the Standard tournament environment. Second, expert players who just discovered Magic in the last year or so will have easy access to reprints of cards from sets they might have missed. Alliances, Mirage, Visions, and Weatherlight will all appear for the first time in the Classic set."
These new additions, however, are carefully considered before making the cut. "We have to balance a lot of factors during development," Charlie Catino says. "How much fun are these cards? Are there rules confusion or complexity issues associated with a particular card? How about color balance? And we need to keep in mind which other cards are in the environment at the same time. After all, we wouldn't rotate a card into Classic if a very similar card appears in Urza's Destiny."
You Say, "Tomato"...
Players are likely to notice two things about the new edition right away—first, the reduced set size, and second, the new name: Classic.
"The name Classic," Joel Mick says, "tells existing players that the cards in the set have been published before and, at the same time, tells new players that this is where they should begin before moving on to expert sets."
"Think of chess or backgammon," Joe Hauck adds. "Magic is a classic like those: a game with easy rules but incredible depth of strategy and limitless combinations of play. The rules have been changed the way they have to build on those assets. The name Classic serves as a reminder to both our company and our fans that in the end, our goal is to make Magic the very best it can be—a classic game."
In addition to the name change, there's the matter of a smaller number of cards in the environment. Fifth Edition had some 429 cards; Classic has only 330.
According to Bill Rose, Magic lead designer, these cuts came easily, as most of them were common cards. "Extra common cards," he says, "didn't add any value. Furthermore, we wanted to standardize sets." What does this mean? Well, now the base set will contain as many cards as a large expansion, with comparable rares, making Classic as easy (or as hard!) to collect as Urza's Saga.
Who Makes the Cut?
So the big question then: What's in and what's out as a result of these changes? "We wanted to keep the complication level down," Rose begins. "We didn't want to do this to Magic as a whole, of course—but we felt we could accommodate core players through expert sets. The base set, though, concentrates on what somebody just getting into tournament Magic needs to know.
"Some power cards, like Wrath of God," Rose goes on, "satisfy new players and core players alike, so we left those cards in the base set."
The bigger issue wasn't individual cards, Rose notes. (He does say, however, that some cards were rotated in or out "so people would notice. Sixth Edition is different from Fifth Edition—we wanted to shake up the environment.") Instead, some mechanics as a whole came under fire. Banding, trample, poison, protection—these needed to come out of the base set and be moved into expert sets. "We felt we could accomplish everything we needed to for Pro Tour players without these mechanics in the base set," Rose says. As a result, power cards like Ball Lightning, Colossus of Sardia, and Force of Nature (trample); favorites like Black Knight and White Knight (protection); and even long-time standards like Benalish Hero (banding) and Serpent Generator (poison) are going away. Still, some cards don't fall under these umbrella issues. And more importantly, what's in the new set?
Balduvian Horde. "A tournament-level card," Rose says. "Last summer, when we surveyed the Top 8 decks from all the regionals, Balduvian Horde was one of the top 100 most played cards." As a player favorite, it was immediately included in Classic.
Browse. Rose describes this card as "interesting, in blue's flavor," and included it because "we wanted to dispel the 'remove-from-the-game is gone' rumor."
Celestial Dawn. "This isn't a tournament card, but a lot of players have fun with it," Rose says. "It's really more complicated to rules gurus than to the average player. It's popular, so we decided that casual players needed it."
Grinning Totem. "Fifth Edition had Jester's Cap—a 'marquee' card," Rose explains, "so we tried to move a marquee card from the Mirage cycle into Classic. As Ice Age defined Fifth Edition, Mirage will define Classic." This same reasoning applies to Hammer of Bogardan.
Maro. "This card is well liked, good for green, and has long-term staying potential," Rose says.
Pillage. "This is just the kind of card I was looking to add to Classic," Rose says. "It's tournament level but straightforward for the new player."
Relentless Assault. "A popular card for casual players," Rose says simply.
Reprisal. "This card is very flavorful for white," Rose explains. "It's a basic white ability."
Storm Cauldron. "This card is an interesting one to play," Rose says. "A better player can use it more effectively than a beginner, but it's still very straightforward. Certain cards stand out as being interesting—the right level of play, the right depth—and new players still understand it. Storm Cauldron is one of those cards."
Vampiric Tutor. "Again, we wanted to shake up the tournament environment," Rose notes.
But Say Goodbye to the Following...
Bad Moon. "Some cards were pulled due to the numbers crunch," Rose says. As a result, some cards had to disappear to make room for good cards from the Mirage block. "Besides," Rose goes on, "with Bad Moon leaving, black weenie decks will need to change, and that's a good thing."
Blinking Spirit. "Was this ability white? Was it blue? We were never really sure," Rose admits. "White has good rares already—Armageddon, Wrath of God, Crusade—so we wanted to give room to balance the other colors."
Dark Ritual. "This card has had its timing rules changed too many times," Rose says with a sigh. "We decided not to burden our average player with it again. Besides, it's in the environment anyway because it's in Tempest and Urza's Saga."
Feldon's Cane. "This was removed for some environment control," Rose says. "We wanted to give recursion decks a kick."
Fireball. Some cards, Rose points out, will probably work their way back into expert sets, and this is one of them. "But the X-plus-splitting cost of this card confuses new players," he adds.
Jester's Cap. "We want to give sets their own feel and character," Rose explains. "Basically, time had just run out on Jester's Cap. The new edition shouldn't simply have all the power cards of the previous edition plus a few new ones. This way, we give Fifth Edition some special meaning."
Necropotence. Again, Rose emphasizes, some old good cards had to go to make room for new good cards. "Necro is a good deck," Rose says, "but you want good decks to come and go. Something else will take its place." As with some other cards, Rose suggests players will probably see Necropotence again in expert-level sets.
Nevinyrral's Disk. "If you play black, you have a problem with enchantments," Rose says, "and we want players who play single-color decks to have to deal with a weakness." The Disk, he indicates, eliminates black's problem with enchantments.
Shivan Dragon. "We wanted players who have been playing a long time to find their Shivan Dragons valuable," Rose jokes. "Again, good cards come, good cards go." Note, too, Rose says, that Crimson Hellkite and Volcanic Dragon both appear in Classic. Furthermore, even Serra Angel has cropped up in other recent releases (Anthologies). "Not being in Classic doesn't mean it'll never get published again," Rose says.
Stasis. "This card either isn't played or tends to dominate the environment," Rose says. "We've had viable Stasis decks in the past, and if we don't remove it, we can't make control decks that aren't Stasis decks." Winter Orb falls into this general category as well.
What's It All Mean?
Players will no doubt spend a great deal of time digesting the changes to the Standard environment, disassembling decks that are no longer viable and putting together decks based on the new crop of arrivals. Catino is glad to see some of the new cards entering the environment—Æther Flash, Exile, Final Fortune—because many of them are "a lot of fun to play with." Casual players will find the Classic set more approachable while expert players will find it a welcome opportunity to reshape the Standard environment without some of the predictable decks.
It make take a while, however, for players to notice the tragic disappearance of an old reliable standby: Atog.
"It's all or none with atogs," Rose says with a dismissive sweeps of his hand. "We decided on none."
New players will never know what they're missing.