Meet the Exiled

Posted in Latest Developments on August 7, 2009

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

This week was Johnny Week on Daily MTG, but it's also my last chance to tell you about the development of this year's installment of the From the Vault series, From the Vault: Exiled, before its presale at Gen Con. To give you a proper introduction to From the Vault: Exiled, I arranged to swap theme weeks with the upcoming Exiled Week (which, although it is about more than just From the Vault: Exiled, is when I would normally talk about this boxed set). My article about developing for Johnny is on its way!

From the Vault: Exiled contains fifteen cards that have been banned or restricted at some point. You might guess that many of these cards have not been printed in quite a long time or that some of them would be very powerful, and you'd be right. However, that wasn't good enough for us, so eight of them have never-before-seen art. I'll show you some of that art today. From the Vault sets are printed in the current card frame using a special foiling process that is unique to the series. Eight of the cards have never before been printed in the current card frame, and seven of those have never previously been printed in foil.

Every card in From the Vault: Exiled has been banned or restricted in a Magic tournament format. I could write an entire article about the stories behind these bannings and restrictions, and in some cases later unbannings and unrestrictions. Those who purchase their own copies of From the Vault: Exiled will find that article on the insert that comes inside the box. This is Latest Developments, so here I'll be talking about the Magic development lessons taught by each of the fifteen cards we chose to include. I'll go in alphabetical order. Here we go!

Balance has showed that even one copy of a sufficiently powerful card can warp games in formats with powerful tutoring effects. Multicolored control decks were among the best decks in Vintage for a long time. One of the reasons they were so strong is that if an aggressive creature deck got ahead of them, all they had to do to catch up was find their single Balance with one of their myriad tutoring effects. This meant that any creature deck had a massively uphill battle to fight, which had an oppressive effect on the format. Good players simply played control decks rather than expose themselves to getting Balanced out of games.

Balance has been printed in foil in the new card frame before, but this time we chose to give it entirely new art. Here it is!

Early Magic developers systematically overestimated creatures and underestimated spells. One manifestation of this is the fact that Berserk was on the very first restricted list in 1994, but Balance was unrestricted until 1995. This seems hardly fair to me; I can't imagine a healthy format that contains four Balances, but Berserk has caused no problems since its unrestriction. Now Berserk has been released from the restriction it languished in for years, and it's legal to play four copies of this awesome foil version in Vintage.

Mana is one thing we use to balance Magic, and Channel is a great way to circumvent the need for mana. The near-instant win that Channel and Fireball together provided made them one of Magic's first famous combinations, and I'm sure there are similarly degenerate things people would do these days with access to four Channels. Thankfully, Vintage only allows players one.

Powerful things happen any time strong tutoring and card advantage is paired with tons of mana. Extended decks have used Gifts Ungiven with the Urza's lands to set up infinite Mindslaver recursion and with Heartbeat of Spring to create a high storm count. In Vintage it combined so well with Mana Drain and Yawgmoth's Will that it had to be restricted. However, in non-Eternal formats this card has enabled interesting decks that weren't miserably overpowered. Compared to some of the other cards in From the Vault: Exiled, Gifts Ungiven worked out pretty well.

It's no fun when a game is over so quickly that no one got to make any decisions. When Goblin Lackey was printed, the most exciting Goblin to cheat into play was Goblin Mutant. This was fun and exciting to do, but could be foiled by a simple Terror on the Mutant. Onslaught block gave Goblin Lackey a new friend in the form of Seige-Gang Commander, which significantly increased the potential lethality of an unopposed Goblin Lackey and forced the banning of Goblin Lackey in Extended as part of a push to slow the format down.

A two-card combination like Goblin Lackey and Siege-Gang Commander is something that we try to avoid putting into a Standard environment. However, Magic is fun because it is modular and we do our best to allow cards to interact with other cards. The existence of Goblin Lackey in Urza's Saga must have made it difficult to justify putting a powerful and expensive Goblin in any of the sets that would be in Standard with it, but the developers of Urza's Saga must have known that someday a very powerful Goblin would see print. Putting limitations on cards like Goblin Lackey that reduced interactions with future cards is a way to avoid problems, but it usually costs far too much in lost interactivity between cards to be worth it.

This will be the first foil Goblin Lackey, and it has new art. Here it is!

Some may be confused by the presence of Kird Ape on this list, but it was on the very first Extended banned list. The card was considered to be too powerful a creature for the format, so it was removed. Oddly, that same format also contained far sicker spells like Necropotence. It's quite rare that a creature built only to attack and block causes serious problems, and that is why you no longer find things like Kird Ape or Tarmogoyf on our modern banned lists.

Magic's history has shown that one-shot mana acceleration cards are usually either extremely powerful or almost irrelevant. The last time we tried to print a new "fair" one was Coldsnap's Rite of Flame, which later helped fuel the Dragonstorm deck that won the World Championships in 2006. Given that, you might wonder why we would print them at all. The reason is that even if they aren't powerful, they are very appealing to players. When I drafted Tempest back in 1997 at my local store almost every Lotus Petal we opened found its way into someone's main deck even though tournament players considered it unplayable in Limited. This continues today; Lotus Petal is very popular in casual Classic games on Magic Online. It is sad to me as a developer when a card archetype that popular is so dangerous that we can barely make any of them.

Searching your library for cards—"tutoring"—is very powerful, even at great cost. Spells like Demonic Tutor and Demonic Consultation that put cards immediately into a player's hand are good in almost any deck. However, the Mirage tutors are a little more restrictive. They require you to wait a turn to draw the cards you found, and for those tutors to show up in tournaments, that wait had better be worth it. This cuts down the number of decks that are interested in playing them. However, for the decks that do want them, they are no less powerful. Legacy decks built around Ad Nauseam are not afraid to play Mystical Tutor, nor are Vintage decks that can use cards like Yawgmoth's Will or the aforementioned Balance to steal games. Mystical Tutor's power depends entirely on how powerful the cards around it are. These days, we try not to print cards that are only powerful or worth playing if they have degenerate friends.

Necropotence teaches many lessons about Magic. One of them is that powerful card drawing engines aren't very picky about what sorts of decks they fuel. Early Necropotence decks used the card to fuel seemingly endless creature assaults. Later ones used repeated Drain Life and Corrupt effects to win the game without playing creatures. The final evolution of Necropotence came in the form of Illusions of Grandeur / Donate combination decks. These decks all looked different, but they all worked fundamentally the same: draw tons of cards, then throw them at the opponent until the Necropotence player wins.

Another lesson of Necropotence has to do with managing formats. Necropotence was a dominating presence in Magic tournaments for years, and many times the DCI chose to ban or restrict the cards that were in the Necropotence decks rather than Necropotence itself. However, each time this happened Necropotence surrounded itself with new friends and continued to cause the same problems. These days, when a card shows the potential to be a repeat offender in this way, we don't wait to ban it.

Necropotence appeared in foil in the Deckmasters box set, but has never before been printed in the current card frame. We gave it new art to commemorate the occasion, although you might not want to know what is happening to the unfortunate mage in the art.

The physical operation of a Sensei's Divining Top takes a long time. Looking at three cards, thinking, ordering them, and putting them back is a lot of things to do. Some people enjoy performing delicate manipulations of this sort, but many do not, and few people enjoy sitting across from someone else who is doing them. Sensei's Divining Top is so powerful that people who didn't enjoy such manipulations but like winning were encouraged to play it, which made formats less fun and slowed tournaments down. We won't stop making cards like this altogether because some of our players like them, but we have learned to be more careful when we do.

From the very beginning of Magic, blue was the color that was best known for having powerful spells. However, some very early aggressive tournament decks chose to splash blue in order to have access to Serendib Efreet, which was one of the most efficient beatdown creatures in the game when Arabian Nights was released. This is a failure of development. Blue's creatures should be strong enough for blue decks to win with, but they should not be so good that it is correct to splash for them in beatdown decks. Errors like this hurt color pie definition.

Powerful artifacts can be problematic. Because they don't require color commitment, one sick artifact can warp an entire format. Skullclamp was one such artifact. The three best-performing deck archetypes in U.S. Regional Championships in 2004 were Ravager Affinity with Skullclamp, Goblins with Skullclamp, and Elf and Nail with Skullclamp. These decks were all different, but basically you had to play with Skullclamp or not be competitive. That's pretty oppressive, so Skullclamp was banned.

It is fun to cast spells. Three-mana land destruction sometimes comes close to being too good at keeping people from playing spells. Strip Mine costs zero mana and can be used over and over again with recursion effects like Life from the Loam and Crucible of Worlds. Nothing to see here, move along ....

Two of the most powerful categories of effects in Magic are mana acceleration and tutoring, and Tinker manages to fit into both of them. The tutoring is obvious, and the mana acceleration happens when the artifact that was searched for jumps immediately onto the battlefield rather than going to the player's hand. Most ways to cheat expensive permanents onto the battlefield require multiple steps; for example, Animate Dead can produce a Kalonian Behemoth for only two mana, but first that Behemoth needs to find its way into the graveyard. Tinker doesn't even require the second step. There are so many things wrong with Tinker that it's no surprise it has found its way onto tons of banned lists.

This version of Tinker has new art featuring a familiar face. However, he looks a little different now ....

Once again, it is fun to cast spells. It is not fun when Mishra's Workshop pops one of these out on the first turn of a Vintage game and keeps you from playing any spells. However, I don't consider this one a development error because Mishra's Workshop is itself a silly card, and Trinisphere has played a hero's role against combination decks in Extended and Legacy. Sometimes we have to accept that a card we want to make may be silly in Vintage but is correct to print for Magic as a whole. Trinisphere is one of those cards.

If you want to be one of the first four hundred people to get their hands on a copy of From the Vault: Exiled, you'll need to be at Gen Con Indy next weekend. We'll be selling one hundred copies of it each day at the Wizards booth in the exhibitor hall. Everyone else will have to wait until August 28, when the set releases to the general public.

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