An Eye for the Past

Posted in Limited Information on December 9, 2015

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

Recently I was trying to teach my friend Adam about Limited. He's relatively new to the fold, but just as into it as any of us. He craves information, and I am happy to feed him whatever he wishes, but I always find myself struggling to find a bigger-picture explanation of Limited.

I want that one sentence that serves as the guiding light for all of the decisions he'll make going forward, but it doesn't exist.

Since you are reading this column, you already know that something like that simply isn't how we approach a big, complex system like Limited.

Going further down that rabbit hole, I try to break things down into digestible chunks. Morsels of knowledge that, when combined, give us the big-picture view we all want.

While thinking about how to do this, I noticed a pattern that has persisted with some amount of consistency through every set I've played since I started playing again. This week we'll be taking a look at that pattern, as it can act as a great shortcut to grokking a new set when it comes out.

Checklists and Spreadsheets

I've never worked in R&D, but the level of quality and consistency they achieve on a set-to-set basis is remarkable in my mind. Think about what a task it is for us to break down a new set and get to the meaty center of things.

Now imagine that there is no set at all, and you have to make it. And get it out the door in a specific time frame. And don't screw up, or you'll have a lot of "feedback" waiting for you from the demanding public.

If I were in that position, I'd have a lot of shortcuts and processes in place to make sure I could get a solid baseline down before going into the more complex stuff. It's not like we're trying to reinvent the wheel here, right?

On the floor where R&D works, they have a full sheet of the original Magic set framed and hung on the wall. I know that some the people who work there will occasionally stop by and reflect on that original set of cards, and even use it as inspiration for what they work on today.

We're going to go over a bunch of the cards that I see with set-to-set frequency, with the thinking that if you can recognize these cards early on, you can spend more time thinking about the more complex elements of a new set. Many of these go all the way back to that original set, Limited Edition (Alpha).

Let's get into it. Some of them I'll spend more time on than others, but follow along with me and see how many you can recognize. What I'm going to do is point out the archetypical version of the card and then you have to figure out what the corresponding card from Battle for Zendikar is.

We'll start simple:

The Grizzly Bears of the Set

Ah, good old Grizzly Bears. Back when they still used actual animals rather than more magical beasts. Also back when they still used plural animals in the title to designate what was really just one animal. Okay, things weren't perfect back then, but Grizzly Bears is pretty darn close to perfect.

Nowadays, we get more complex versions of this card, but the core stays the same: 1G for a 2/2. The modern versions will often pick up one of the core mechanics for the set. So which card fits the bill from Battle for Zendikar?

Click to Reveal

Ol' Snappy! Landfall is a core mechanic in this set, and Snapping Gnarlid is a perfect Grizzly Bears descendant. If you were thinking it might be Oran-Rief Invoker, you were close, but usually these iterations will have a mechanic that is more integral to the set rather than something like "Pay eight mana for a big effect."

Continuing on, we have one of the most iconic and popular Magic cards ever, and the first of a line of removal spells we'll be looking at:

The Lightning Bolt of the Set

As I've discussed many times, removal done changed over the years. Where there used to be cards like Lightning Bolt, we now get much more expensive, slower versions. That's okay; it makes for a more challenging and balanced Limited format. But it can also make these Lightning Bolt descendants a little harder to spot.

Which one comes to mind from Battle for Zendikar?

Click to Reveal

Touch of the Void again takes a familiar concept—a burn spell—and translates it to the modern world of both Limited and Battle for Zendikar. You can see this in the fact that it's got devoid and that it exiles when it finishes off a creature. You'll see cards like this in most every set, though they don't necessarily have to do 3 damage and they vary between instant and sorcery speed. This can make them a little harder to spot. They will be there, though, trust me.


The Terror of the Set

It's funny, because while Lightning Bolt has stood the test of time as the default card to name for red burn spells, Terror has not. It transferred to Dark Banishing somewhere along the line, and then finally to Doom Blade. You can probably tell how long someone has been playing by figuring out which of these they view as the default black removal spell in a set.

What about for Battle for Zendikar?

Click to Reveal


As you can see, the black common removal spell has drifted pretty far from its roots. Complete Disregard is one of the better ones we've had of late, too. Still, this type of card is everywhere in Limited, and knowing where it lies on the power scale early can really help focus the picture of a color.

More removal!

The Swords to Plowshares of the Set

Okay, I'll admit I fudged a little here. Swords to Plowshares is an uncommon, and all the other cards I am highlighting are common. Also, the type of card I want to highlight here is a common. But I couldn't find a white common removal spell to reference from Alpha, and Swords to Plowshares is so sweet, so I picked it. A more realistic comparison would be something like Neck Snap. You know, the conditional-but-still-good white common removal spell. That's the one we are looking for here.

Which would mean, of course, that in Battle for Zendikar we are talking about:

Click to Reveal


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This is how it goes sometimes. It's not a perfect science, this matching things up with older sets and trying to fill in an imaginary list. But, you do still get a good feel for it and the fact that you are looking will show you the times when it varies from the norm.

This next one has developed more recently than the others.

The Blue "Removal" Spell (Narcolepsy?) of the Set

They didn't used to print blue cards that acted as removal, but they come up in various forms fairly frequently these days. Super hint: they are usually enchantments. Narcolepsy came to mind as the first really good one of these that was blue only, but you know what I mean.

And the most current one?

Click to Reveal

While not quite as good as Narcolepsy or Claustrophobia, Tightening Coils serves an important role in the set. After identifying it at the release of the new set, you'd probably make some assumptions about flying and how good this would be in a deck that relied on flying to win. And you would have been correct, too.

Speaking of blue ways to interact with the opponent...

The Unsummon of the Set

Bounce spells have gained in power level and popularity over the last few years. This is mainly due to the fact that cheap ways to interact with your opponent's creatures are at a premium with the demise of truly superior removal at common.

And boy, they didn't hold back with the bounce spell in Battle for Zendikar. I bet a lot of you know this one...

Click to Reveal

Clutch of Currents is one of the best bounce spells we've had in recent memory. Heck, it's closer to a creature that bounces another creature (my favorite kind of creature) than just a bounce spell, thanks to the awaken mechanic. The point here is that if you had looked for the Unsummon of the set and seen this, you would have been like, "Whoa!" and had not only Clutch of Currents on your mind, but awaken cards in general as well.

Another card type we see a lot of these days that didn't exist way back in the day is a green "fight" card.

The Prey Upon of the Set

These green fight cards have taken an important role in Limited Magic since their introduction, as they give green the ability to remove other creatures—albeit conditionally—something it never had before.

There is only one in this set:

Click to Reveal

Unnatural Aggression is a super-interesting case study, as it looked pretty good at first glance but ended up being a downright poor performer. This was partially due to its status as a green card, but also the fact that it doesn't pump up your creature at all really hurts it compared to its cousins. I figured that being an instant would help shore that up, but it didn't. Lesson learned.

One more. (I could do this all day.)

The Divination of the Set

I know, I could have said, "The Ancestral Recall of the Set," but come on. You gotta have some respect for the past.

So, we'll catch right up to the prototypical card of this type of effect, Divination. These vary a lot, from unplayable to downright great. Which card comes to mind for the Divination of the set for Battle for Zendikar?

Click to Reveal

It turns out, when you add the ability to make a creature to cards like Divination and Unsummon, you get some really powerful cards. Who knew?


I could go on like this all day, but I won't. I want you to be able to pick these apart on your own. As food for thought, try to identify the Giant Growth of the set, the Counterspell of the set, etc.

After you develop your eye for these archetypical cards, the more complex uncommons, commons, rares, and even the cards that were put in place for a specific reason start to emerge in front of you. Like, why are there three white removal spells at common in Battle for Zendikar? My guess is that they added Smite the Monstrous as a way to balance out the huge Eldrazi that are prevalent in the set.

You'll also have a much better feel for which colors got pushed a bit and which didn't. This kind of head start can pay dividends deep into the set.

I hope you had fun today and learned a little something, too. I've selected two of my favorite columns from this year for the next two weeks as the site is on a break, but I look forward to chatting with you on the other side!


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