Get It? Unstable Edition

Posted in Making Magic on March 21, 2022

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

When Unhinged was announced, I wrote an article called "Get It?" where I explained a whole bunch of jokes we'd stuck into Unglued. Then when Unstable was announced, I wrote a two-part article called "Get It? Unhinged Edition" (Part 1 and Part 2) where I talked about many of the jokes from Unhinged. This article has been on my to-do list since we announced Unfinity, and today, I finally got around to it.

1. Every Set Has One

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Amateur Auteur was making fun of the fact that part of making Magic is having to design basic effects that work on every plane. Here's a card we do all the time, but on plane A, then plane B, then plane C, etc. The card originally was just a 1W 2/2, a card we've made numerous times, but we had to add on the enchantment removal as it didn't cleanly fit anywhere else. This card used its alternate art to play the same joke on four "different planes." The same character, in the same pose, is in four different school musicals (note the cardboard sets) representing four different popular Magic planes (Innistrad, Ravnica, Theros, and Zendikar). We then used the flavor text to tell the story of each plane through song lyrics, reinforcing what world the play is from.


2. Do Not Pass Go

GO TO JAIL references the game Monopoly (made by Hasbro). The card's mechanics match the jail mechanic in Monopoly where you must roll doubles to get out. The name being all caps is a nod to how the GET OUT OF JAIL card is written in Monopoly.


3. We Can Do It

Riveting Rigger references Rosie the Riveter from the classic "We Can Do It" World War II poster. Note that she has the same pose but that one of her fingers has been replaced with a welding tool.


4. Checkmate

Unstable introduced what we call "outside assistance," which are cards that add a randomizing element by involving a person not playing in the game to make a decision that affects the game. That concept is hard to demonstrate in art, but artist Matt Gaser found a clever way to do it on Sacrifice Play. Notice that the hand about to grab the player to the left wearing a hat shaped like a bishop chess piece is her own hand seen grabbing a bishop on the board.


5. How Novel

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Novellamental is making fun of how Elementals in Magic are depicted as being made from any substance, short stories in this case. The name comes from the fact that this is the one card with variants that differ only by flavor text. The four pieces of flavor text go together to tell a little story. Also, the flying book is Jane Air (a play on the novel Jane Eyre). In retrospect, I wish we'd had four different pieces of art, each with a differently named book.


6. Gimme a Hand

Unstable has five factions, each connected with a different ally color combination. The Order of the Widget is a series of cyborgs. One of the running jokes is that they replace parts of their body with various gadgets. Socketed Sprocketer plays up this joke most directly. On the wall is a series of different objects that can be attached for different functions. In the background, there are some weapon options. The closer wall has more day-to-day practical items like kitchen tools, a comb, and a rubber duck for the bath. My favorite is his formal arm, which comes with a glass and tuxedo on the arm.


7. How Cryptic

Because this card was a riff of another card (Cryptic Command from Lorwyn), we asked the same artist, Wayne England, to illustrate the card. Sadly, Wayne passed away after turning in the sketch, but artist Zoltan Boros finished the art. We decided to use Wayne's sketch art as one of the card's art variants (as this was a card with variants due to rules text) and changed the card to mechanically reference Wayne and his art.


8. Quite Genius

Incite Insight which assembles X Contraptions makes a visual reference to Urza's Saga's Stroke of Genius that draws X cards.


9. Just in Lowercase

To play up the joke that the card punishes capital letters, the card has no capital letters in its title bar, card type line, or textbox. We looked into making the collector info and legal text lowercase but were told we couldn't. In the art, the two larger henchmen that are hit by the bomb have capital letters on their clothing. The card was supposed to be called capital punishment, but the name got used the year before in Conspiracy: Take the Crown.


10. It Takes Time

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Extremely Slow Zombie is one of the cards with multiple art variants. This card makes a joke across the four cards. We see the zombie slowly approaching, but so slowly that seasons are passing as it advances. The flavor text also plays into this joke, spelling out "Brains!" The one joke we realized we missed, on reflection, was starting the scene in winter so "Brrrr" would have been on the winter card.


11. They're Good

The Masterful Ninja's so good, you can't see them. And no, he's not pictured in the art. Because he's messing with you, we made him a Troll Ninja.


12. In Morning

The Old-Fashioned Vampire is having a rough morning, which for him is 8 p.m. (see the clock in the background) because, for a vampire, that's morning. Notice he's drinking blood from his "I'm Not a Morning Person" cup. We made his creature type Vampyre to play up the feel that he's an old-school vampire. And yes, for rules purposes, he is affected by things that affect Vampires.


13. Grave Situation

This card's art is a parody of a World War II battle scene, except instead of foxholes, the zombies are climbing out of their own graves.


14. About Face

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Sly Spy has six different versions, each with different rules text. One version destroys creatures facing left, and a different one destroys creatures facing right. We flipped the art of the one that destroys creatures facing right so that it too is facing right, the only one of the six with that art orientation.


15. I Bought the Shirt

When concepting Spike, we wanted to give her some attitude, so Kelly Digges, the person who did the card concepting, came up with the "Nope" shirt to express that. The illustration was so popular, we were asked by one of the people who makes shirts for us if they could make a "Nope" shirt. The shirt was so popular, it led to a whole series of shirts, first with colors and then with other Magic words.


16. So Shiny

The portal has a shiny silver quality because it resembles the inside of a booster pack. The card's original name was Undead Legions playing up the joke that the pack you want to open is Undead Legions, as it's all creatures, and this card just gets creatures out of the booster.


17. It's Hammer Time

The red-green faction is the Goblin Explosioneers. They are the Steamfloggers that build a lot of Contraptions. One of the running jokes with the Goblins in the set is that they're depicted as being obsessed with hammers. Box of Free-Range Goblins demonstrates this by using a hammer as a lure to trap Goblins.


18. Half-and-Half

One of the naming conventions for the augment cards is that their name is Half-<whatever>, Half- (Half-Kitten, Half-; Half-Shark, Half-; and Half-Squirrel, Half-). To play into this joke, we made a card that's Half-Orc because Half-Orcs are a creature in Dungeons & Dragons.


19. Easy as Pi

The card does pi damage, so the art shows pie damage. Early in design, the black-red faction started as clowns instead of supervillains. This is the only card with a clown in it that made it to print.


20. Through and Through

Super-Duper Death Ray has trample, so in the art, it just keeps going, through the target, through the henchman, through the wall.


21. Not Again!

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Target Minotaur is another card with art variants. These cards are making fun of the fact that minotaurs tend to be the victims in the art of spells doing bad things to creatures. Each of the four cards show the minotaur being attacked by a different color (ice [blue], acid rain [black], fire [red], and vines [green]).


22. Lucky Guess

As Luck Would Have It is playing into the joke that this is the luckiest person in the world. Part of the reason for this is that she has numerous signs of good luck, such as a horseshoe, a four-leaf clover, a rabbit's foot (along with the rest of the rabbit), a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and she's crossing her fingers.


23. Beast Wishes

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Beast in Show is another card with multiple pieces of art. The joke of this card is about how we use the creature type Beast to reference such a wide array of creatures. The four art pieces show a baloth, a gnarlid, a thragtusk, and a tyrranax. The flavor text does a fun job of talking about each one in dog show–style language.


24. I'll Have Some Punch

Really Epic Punch is the third part of a running joke. The joke began with the card Savage Punch in Khans of Tarkir showing Surrak Dragonclaw punching a bear. It was such a fan favorite, when we made Dragons of Tarkir, we created the card Epic Confrontation where you got to see Surrak Dragonclaw punching a dragon. Well, when we got to Unstable, we realized we were missing the final confrontation between bear and dragon. There was much talk about whether it was funnier to have the bear punching the dragon or the dragon punching the bear. In the end, we decided bear punching dragon was funnier.


25. Just a Head

Urza, Academy Headmaster is continuing a joke started in Unhinged that itself is making a joke about an event in the Weatherlight Saga. In the story, Urza has his head cut off, but continues living. While he later dies in the story, Unhinged explored a different outcome where Urza just continued to live on as a disembodied head. He shows up in the art for Urza's Hot Tub. We wanted Unstable to have a planeswalker, and the audience had been asking for an Urza planeswalker and a five-color planeswalker forever, so we saw the chance to deliver on all those things and continue the bodiless Urza joke.


26. Not So Emotional

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We wanted decks to have access to a bunch of Killbots (as there was a Mary O'Kill deck that wanted a bunch of Killbots in the deck), and we were doing a bunch of variants (art, flavor text, rules text, watermarks, etc.), so we came up with the solution of having a card that had a name variant. We purposefully chose to use the same art because we thought that was funnier. We ended up choosing emotions for the different names as that was a comical take with the art staying the same. However, to give them all the same collector number, we needed them to be next to one another alphabetically. We chose to fit them in between Contraption Cannon and Entirely Normal Armchair, which is why they all start with C, D, or E. Note that the flavor text of each is slightly different.


27. Aw Nuts

The set had a little bit of Squirrel tribal, so we decided we wanted to turn one of our Squirrels into a mechanical artifact creature. Once we did that, we realized that we had a fun "nut" joke where our steel squirrel liked mechanical nuts (as in "nuts and bolts") rather than the food nuts.


28. At the Border

This card represents a physical place where the silver-border world of the Un- sets (on the left) meets the black-border world of normal Magic (on the right). The Un- world is represented by a penguin with an octopus while the black-bordered side is represented by a minotaur.


29. There Had to Be Two

In Mirrodin, I wanted to make an artifact that helped coin-flipping decks. It turned out too good in multiples, so the play designers asked if we could make it legendary. I said sure. Krark's Thumb went on to be a popular card among casual players, so when I was making Unstable, I decided to make the same card but for die rolling. I'd always joked that it was odd that Krark only had one thumb, so I made the card Krark's Other Thumb. Commander Legends would complete this joke by finally making Krark a legendary creature. He was, of course, thumbless.


30. Staff Meeting

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Alpha had a cycle of artifacts affectionately known as the "lucky charms" that gained you a life when you cast a particular color spell. These artifacts were popular with less experienced players, so we kept making new versions of them. Magic 2014 had a version where you got life over the appropriate basic land getting played as well as that color getting cast.

For Unstable, we thought it would be fun to riff on this design but care about letters in a spell's name rather than its color. The earliest version let you pick any letter, but everyone only chose vowels. So, we made it consonants, and everyone kept picking the same four letters, so we just ended up banning those letters as choices. The card was given to the same artist, Daniel Ljunggren, and he posed the art in the same pose as the previous cycle.


31. Give Me a Hand

The card requires you to make tokens out of your hand, so we asked the artist to create a monster that kind of looks like a hand without actually being one. I love how it turned out.


32. Screen Time

The card divides your library into four libraries, so the art shows an Agent of S.N.E.A.K. watching things on monitors. One monitor shows a partially eaten cherry pie. One shows a goblin outhouse, complete with the cutout of a stick of dynamite rather than a crescent moon. One shows the agent, who's supposed to be watching the monitors, sleeping. The last shows the death of subtlety, making a self-referential joke about the art.


33. I've Got Just the Hat

In Tempest design, I made an artifact that could take over the opponent's turn (it was the original design of Volrath's Helm). The rules couldn't handle it at the time, so I had to get rid of it. Years later while designing Mirrodin, I was looking for cool artifact designs and remembered the Tempest card. There was a different rules manager, and he said he could make it work. When Mindslaver first got published, there was a running joke that it looked kind of like the hat you can put two cans in and drink from through a straw. In Unstable, we were enjoying how Outside Assistance was playing, so we decided to do a Mindslaver variant. Remembering the joke from Mindslaver, we concepted the card to be exactly the thing we joked about Mindslaver looking like.


34. Not the Time or the Mace

The Mirrodin block was the first block with an artifact theme, and it introduced Equipment to Magic. In Darksteel, the second set in the block, we introduced two flashy swords, Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow. We really had no intention of them being a cycle, but I guess two dots make a line, so we would later finish the cycle making the other three enemy color Swords. This, of course, led to us doing the ally color cycle.

Anyway, while designing Unstable, I thought it would be fun to parody the Swords by making a Sword of _______ & _______ that was a little sillier. The design team came up with a bunch of options, but the one we liked best was Sword of Dungeons & Dragons. This meant we had to go to the Dungeons & Dragons team (there hadn't been any crossover products yet) and ask if they would be okay with us making the card. They were on board, but they had a few suggestions of how to tweak the card.

The original design had you roll three six-sided dice (to match how you roll stats). They asked if it could be a twenty-sided die instead, as twenty-sided dice are iconic to D&D. Also, the original card created a Beholder token, and the D&D team asked if it could be a Dragon instead. They liked the idea of it being a gold Dragon, so we had fun and made it a Dragon that was the color gold (only something an Un- set could do). The art has a few fun nods to D&D. The hilt of the sword has an ampersand, which is the symbol for D&D. The base of the sword is a twenty-sided die. And the sword has a mace built into it, a classic D&D weapon.


35. Haven't I Seen You Before

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One of the things Un- sets enjoy doing is making references to other cards also in the set. Here are a few in Unstable. The Countdown Is at One references both Baron Von Count (his design name was Major Monologue) and Clock of DOOOOOOOOOOOOM!. Graveyard Busybody has a Spy Eye in it. Novellamental features crows from Crow Storm, and Side Quest features the Turtle/Elephant from Shellephant.

"You've Been a Great Audience"

That's all the jokes for today. If you've never had the pleasure of looking at Unstable, there's a lot more comedy built into the set. Take a look here to see all the cards. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's article, on any of the cards I talked about, on Unstable as a set, or on Un- cards as a whole. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week when I talk about what being deciduous is all about.

Until then, may you always look for the extra joke.

 
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