Referential Treatment

Posted in Feature on April 24, 2002

By Ben Bleiweiss

How often does the text on a Magic card refer to another card by name? Not that often, really. But those that do are noteworthy.

Cards that interact with specific other cards in the game of Magic have been around in one form or another since Alpha. Some say that Plague Rats were the first card to have this mechanic, though I discount these since they interact solely with their own kind. Others point to the triumvirate of Zombie Master, Goblin King, and Lord of Atlantis, though they have the same effect within their creature type as Sulfuric Vapors has with red direct damage spells -- they dole out bonuses based on type, not name. While the Rats inspired the "building block" creatures of later sets such as Acidic Sliver and Lead-Belly Chimera, and the lords theme continues unabated to present day, the true originator of this theme came as one of the few cards in Magic to be functionally changed from its original printing!

The original Gloom referenced Circles of Protection, but subsequent versions affect all white enchantments with activation costs. The original versions have errata to function the same way.

The intent of the original Gloom was not only to make white spells cost more to put into play, but also specifically as a way for black to deal with Circle of Protection: Red. If you go back to the Alpha printing of Gloom, you’ll see that instead of making all white enchantments cost more to activate, it pinpoints Circles of Protection. Ironically, Circle of Protection: Black was accidentally left off the original print sheet, causing a strange state of non-existence with a card specifically printed to hose it! Gloom did theoretically aim at five specific cards in Magic. This paved the way for the first cards which used the names of one specific other card.


Arabian Nights introduced the card Desert, the fist land with the ability to kill attacking creatures. Not content to let this obviously powerful card go unhosed, Wizards printed no less than two cards designed specially to fight Desert: Desert Nomads and Camel. When you think about it in retrospect, it seems rather absurd that these three cards ever interacted as such. It would be highly unlikely that a non-color specific land would be printed which could deal damage to creatures (see Balduvian Trading Post for an updated version of Desert), much less a banding creature. Never the less, they were here in all their glory, and they introduced a colorful mini-cycle of cards into the game.


Later in Antiquities, the mechanic was fully realized. Enter the Urza Lands three: Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower. These lands truly harnessed the power of combination-specific cards. Players began to experiment with the viability of a built-in mana engine designed around having these three cards in play. While there weren’t any cards which could easily tutor for your missing lands, outside of Demonic Tutor itself, the risk versus reward of playing these lands were undeniable. Without the Urza's Mine, the Urza's Power Plant and Urza's Tower were simply bad colorless mana producers. Same with the Plant and Mine without the Tower, and the Tower and Mine without the Plant. But put all three together, and suddenly you could have 7 mana as soon as the third turn. Undeniable. Suddenly, unplayably highly costed artifacts from other expansions were feasible in a Urza Land deck, especially combined with Mishra's Workshops. Aladdin's Ring came into play on turn four, ready to go. Splash a little red and you’ve got a rather large Disintegrate on turn 5. Even the gigantic Colossus of Sardia could be played and untapped as early as turn five without the need of Dark Rituals, Basalt Monoliths, or late game mana development.

Urza's Tower, Urza's Mine, and Urza's Power Plant combine to increase each other's production. The three cards earned the nickname "Urzatron" because combined they generate insane amounts of mana. Note that if you have, say, one Mine, one Power Plant, and three Towers, all the Towers produce 3 mana. There only needs to be one of each in play for tall the bonuses, not complete sets.


Legends and Mirage took two opposite ended approaches to the specific-reference idea. Legends introduced Rohgahh of Kher Keep, a monstrous rare legend who powered up the seemingly endless legions of puny common Kobolds of Kher Keep. On the other end of the spectrum, the common Urborg Panther had the ability to bring the rare Spirit of the Night into play when combined with Breathstealer and Feral Shadow. Visions even took both these ideas at once, with the reiteration of the Spirit motif through Viashivan Dragon (brought forth by the Kyscu Drake and Spitting Drakes), and the reverse of Rohgahh in Kookus, who needed his common friend (Keeper of Kookus) to keep him from being detrimental to your life total.

Cards That Reference Other Cards
Set Card Name Card(s) Referenced
Alpha Gloom Circle of Protection: Red
Arabian Nights Camel Desert
Arabian Nights Desert Nomads Desert
Antiquities Urza's Tower Urza's Mine
Urza's Power Plant
Antiquities Urza's Power Plant Urza's Mine
Urza's Tower
Antiquities Urza's Mine Urza's Tower
Urza's Power Plant
Legends Rohgahh of Kher Keep Kobolds of Kher Keep
Mirage Urborg Panther Breathstealer
Feral Shadow
Spirit of the Night
Visions Kyscu Drake Spitting Drake
Viashivan Dragon
Visions Kookus Keeper of Kookus
Odyssey Pardic Firecat Flame Burst
Odyssey Diligent Farmhand Muscle Burst

Right after Visions, these types of cards vanished entirely. Sure, the Urza Lands saw print in Fifth Edition, but no new cards were made which referenced specific other cards in Magic. Tempest block came and went with Slivers to fill that void, followed by Urza’s block and it’s brokenly fast cards, and finally Masques block with Rebels and Mercenaries. Although all of these constituted a larger sphere of card-type influence, Magic lacked the one-to-one interaction seen in the previous releases.


Flash forward to present day. Odyssey finally returned this very overlooked ability to the Magic scene, and did so in the most playable and complex form yet. Now there were four cards set off in pairs which enhanced one another. In one corner we had Diligent Farmhand powering up the already above average Muscle Burst. In the other, Pardic Firecat gave an extra edge to the Kindle reprint Flame Burst. It’s amazing to think about how complex the game has become to get to this point: you’ve got two creatures which count both as themselves and as another type of card when these cards are in the graveyard. Muscle Burst tracks not only copies of Muscle Burst but also Diligent Farmhand. While these types of cards emerged seemingly out of nowhere (since they had been absent from the game for so long), it’s impressive to see how much they came along from the days of simply being there as hosers or variants on Goblin King.


One of my favorite memories in Magic came during Pro Tour - Atlanta 1996. This particular Pro Tour stop retains the unique distinction of being the only one to ever use individual sealed deck as its format. Moreover, the set was debuting at the tournament itself, so none of the players had any prior exposure to the cards. Think of it as a giant prerelease. Although I didn’t participate at this particular event, Neutral Ground commissioned me to put together a full spoiler for the set by the end of the weekend. Quickly I went to work, jotting down card names and card text on my notepad, frantically attempting to gather information of the shoulders of players as they built their decks. Since I didn’t have knowledge of rarities or even the exact size of the set (keep in mind, back then the sets weren’t printed in uniform sizes as they are in present day), I could only make page after page of notes without a clear end in sight.

These three commons can join hands and call forth the fury of the Spirit of the Night.

Things initially went smoothly. Some competitors kept their decks in order, so quickly I ascertained how to tell the rarities of each card. A few cards astounded me, such as the reusable Lightning Bolt known as Hammer of Bogardan, or the red/green Savage Twister, a Wrath of God variant popping up with uncommon frequency. But none of these could match the buzz around the room from a simple slightly-above average common. Urborg Panther contained the following text:

Sacrifice Feral Shadow, Breathstealer, and Urborg Panther: Search your library for Spirit of the Night and put it into play as though it were just played. Shuffle your library.

Wow, we’d never seen a card like that before! I checked and rechecked my self-made spoiler. Feral Shadow, present. Breathstealer, present. Urborg Panther, I was looking right at him. But Spirit of the Night? It was nowhere to be seen. I made my rounds across the room, trying to ascertain if anyone had opened up a Spirit, but if they had they were not talking. Many people expressed interest in finding out what the Spirit did, and I promised to let them know as soon as I found one.

After round three, we still hadn’t found a copy of this card. We guessed that it was a creature, since it involved being put directly into play, but we still kept an open mind that it might be an enchantment. We deduced correctly that it was rare, but then started running ‘what-if?’ scenarios in our heads: What if there was no Spirit of the Night in this set, and the other three cards were teasers for a future release? What if there was a Spirit of the Night but miraculously none of the competitors opened one? We threw these questions to Wizards of the Coast employees such as Skaff Elias and Andrew Finch, but they gave no definitive answers.

Finally, Brian David-Marshall came rushing to me. He had finally found a copy of Spirit of the Night! It cost nine mana and had a bazillion special abilities, certainly worthy of such a build up. It was one of the last cards we needed to complete the spoiler, but none of the other cards we collected that day gave us such a thrill as finding out the mystery behind the Urborg Panther and the Spirit of the Night.

Next week: A wish for green.

Ben may be reached at

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