Days of Future Past

Posted in Feature on October 25, 2006

By Brian Rogers

If you have read anything I have written about Magic before, you know the one thing that is most important to me is the history of Magic. I have been around the game for over 12 years. I have seen a lot of changes in the way people play our game and the way the sets are designed. That is a big reason Time Spiral is such a boon to me. I just turned 30, and it has provided a natural chance for me to reflect on things in my own life. Magic has been a big part of all of it.

I was searching for tidbits about Time Spiral to try to sate my own curiosity about the new set when I came across this in one of Mark Rosewater’s most recent articles written during the sneak previews for the new set. He was talking about how the design team tried to capture nostalgia with the design of the new set. Here is what he said:

“Another thing we tried hard to do was evoke ways we used to design. Cards have little riders that they might now, in modern day design, have. Certain flavors we’ve moved away from we’ve allowed a little visit. There’s a certain feel that evokes different times in Magic’s life. Time Spiral tries to recapture some of those moments.”

I encourage all of you to visit and read everything that he has written. In addition to being a pretty amazing guy, he is an incredible writer (as he will remind you with frequent references to his time writing for the sitcom Roseanne), and he has a unique perception into the world of Magic.

Oh, to Wax Nostalgic

What most caught my attention about the excerpt I quoted above was the mention of “little riders” that would have at one time appeared on cards. When I started playing Magic, these little riders were everywhere. An excellent example of this is Drain Life. The Revised printing of Drain Life reads as follows:

“Drain Life does 1 damage to a single target for each (B) spent in addition to the casting cost. Caster gains 1 life for each damage inflicted. If you drain life from a creature, you cannot gain more life than the creature’s current toughness.”

Now, compare that to the modern equivalent, Consume Spirit, as it appears in Ninth Edition:

“Spend only black mana on X.

Consume Spirit deals X damage to target creature or player. You gain x life.”

Between the two, I see two major differences. One has been a huge positive to Magic as a game. That is the implementation for templating to standardize the ways cards read. In the comprehensive rules, game terms like “target” have been clearly defined, and once you understand the way the templates work, it is much easier to understand how cards work.

The other difference is the last line of Drain Life, “If you drain life from a creature, you cannot gain more life than the creature’s current toughness.” From a flavor standpoint, I completely understand this. You can’t take more than there is to take; the creature’s life force is only so strong. This is completely missing from Consume Spirit. A tiny bit of flavor from the original version was sacrificed to make the card a little more clear and to make it work more simply.

Another good example is Fork and Twincast. Twincast is not just a blue version of the classic spell. The newer counterpart does not mimic the original in as far as the spell copy created by Fork was red. The newer Twincast does not make a blue copy; rather it simply makes a copy. Originally, the idea, I think, was that red should not be allowed to get around the drawback that you were playing red. What I mean is, once upon a time, Circles of Protection were much more prevalent than they are today. If Fork did not have this caveat, then red would have a potential way to deal damage that was not from a red source.

Too Complicated for Its Own Good

A trick used by the early designers of the Magic universe was to use these little riders to make sure a card was not too powerful. Look at Arcum’s Whistle with me. The card as printed reads:

“(3),(T): Target non-wall creature must attack. At end of turn, destroy that creature if it could not attack. Use this ability only during that creature’s controller’s turn before the attack. The creature’s controller may counter this effect by paying X, where X is equal to the creature’s casting cost. Arcum’s Whistle does not affect creatures brought under their controller’s control this turn.”

I suspect that if Arcum’s Whistle was to be in a new set today, it would read something more like this:

“(3),(T): Target creature must attack this turn if able.”

Quite a big difference in the amount of text, and a big difference in how the card would be played.

As written, Arcum’s Whistle really limits you to only target a creature that can attack, though you cannot use it on a creature with haste that was played this turn. The original version envisions the possibility of saving the creature by tapping it, via an activated ability or some outside force, in order to evade the effect by destroying the creature if it does not attack. The version on the card I created would not stop you from evading the whistle’s effect by tapping your creature. Finally, the original design gives the controller the option to ransom the creature. Pay X and you can save your creature—this serves to limit the power of the effect by providing a way around it.

I still see instances where R&D will test the waters with a new ability by making the first card or two that it is on a little behind the power curve. This gives the Magic community at large a chance to try to break the ability before a tournament-level card with a particular ability comes around. However, with the future league that Wizards now has to test upcoming cards before they get to the rest of us, this is nowhere near as important as it may have once been.

Visions of Things Yet to Come

I don’t know when these little riders disappeared from Magic. I remember a lot of them during the early sets: Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, and into Ice Age. They were still around at some level for the Mirage Block. With Tempest and then the Urza’s sets, however, they had become the exception as opposed to the rule. Once Sixth Edition came along and the rules received a major rewrite so that everything was more consistent and not such a jumble of rulings over time, and templates for new cards were introduced and refined, these insignificant clauses were a thing of Magic’s past.

I understand why these riders were sacrificed. It made playing the game a little easier as there were fewer things to forget. Yet, I do miss them. Sometimes I will even read a new card and think about how it may have been worded if it came out in 1996 instead of 2006.

Largely because of this, I am anticipating the Time Spiral prerelease more than I have for any set in a long time. I have seen a lot of Magic’s past. I have been a player for almost all of it and a judge for the greater part of it. I encourage you to join me September 23 and 24 when Wizards of the Coast gives us all a chance to relive some of the past a little early. You can find a list of events and find one near you at and at the Time Spiral Worldwide Prerelease Fact Sheet. While you are there, check out some of Mark Rosewater’s articles too.

If you happen to be near Columbus, Ohio, then I hope to see you there! I have high hopes for the new set. What I have heard so far has already brought back a lot of old memories in my mind, lots of which I hope to share with all of you in future editions of the Magic Player Rewards Newsletter.

Last Call

Finally, I thank everyone who took the time to send me an email about one of my previous articles (especially Tim Bentley, who I never even bothered to email back). If anyone would like to write to me about something from your Magic history, please do so. You can send the stories to I warn you, however—I may mention your story in a future column, so be careful. And if you do write, put MAGIC in all caps as your subject so I don’t clean your message out as spam. Thank you!

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