Which sets offer the most fun?
A few weeks ago, I asked readers to send me their opinions on the “best set for multiplayer.” I got enough thoughtful emails on this for me to redesign my intended column a tiny bit. I’ve decided to run this week’s feature as less of a ranking, and more of a review of what certain expansions and blocks have given us. (For purposes of this article, "expansions" refers to both large expansions, like Tempest and Odyssey, and small ones, like Exodus and Torment.)
Opinions on the “best” or “most fun” expansion are incredibly subjective. (Even without ranking these, I am certain I am going to get tons of email telling me I missed this aspect or that. Well, that’s lovely, thanks; good to hear from all you fine people after I go through the trouble of writing the column! I’ll save anything I get, of course, and work key themes into future articles.) I’ve divided up the six expansions that got the most reader mention into two different categories -- those with key mechanics that changed the way we built fun decks, and those with key standout cards that still impact casual decks today.
Conveniently enough, each category contains one “old-school” expansion, one expansion from around the time I came into this game, and one quite recent expansion. So no accusations of bias! I love you all equally.
STANDING OUT IN THE CROWD
Expansions that hold precious gems of cards are everywhere; but which three sets gave us the richest lodes? Reader suggestions, and my own experiences, suggest the following:
THE DARK. I chuckle (kindly!) whenever I hear this expansion’s name, because it always seems like every veteran I ever sit across from at a PTQ, or every old-school player who ever writes to me to tell me I don’t write about older expansions enough, started playing during The Dark. And all I can ever imagine when I think of this set is the entire Magic community -- which must have been something like 16 people and a couple of very clever marsupials -- all gathered around a heavy oak table in a dimly lit, medieval tavern, opening packs and going “oooooooh” and “aaaaaah” to winners like Uncle Istvan and Spitting Slug.
But those old fogies were on to something, and it goes a little something like this: this set has at least a dozen “staple” cards that even relatively new players get to know very quickly. Among them:
- Cheaper-than-ever staples like Fellwar Stone and Maze of Ith, which to this day stand as two of the best cards that could go into just about any deck out there;
- Graveyard hosers like Eater of the Dead and Tormod's Crypt, which stand the test of time beautifully and pose real threats in this age of Odyssey and Torment;
- Aggressive ploys like Ball Lightning and Inferno, which are completely playable next to their direct descendants in Skizzik and Bloodfire Colossus;
- Some of the first opportunities for innovative combo decks, like Angry Mob (which would later team with Blanket of Night), Skull of Orm (the standard for enchantment recursion until Replenish), Safe Haven (with some appropriately valuable and intimidating creatures), and Mana Vortex (insert random mana denial trick, like Land Equilibrium, here).
The Dark also represents something to many players who write in to me. While I occasionally poke fun at the sentiment that “Magic used to be about something else” (particularly when it’s used to support an argument that somehow, the game can’t be as fun anymore), it does interest me to hear now and again of older days. This was a time before the Pro Tour, before websites that pushed ideas of strategy and efficiency -- I’m both guilty and proud of conspiracy there -- and before the poorer, less well-guided souls among us began cheating at the game to win money and prizes.
The Dark symbolizes something to those readers -- and in an indirect, hazy way, to me as well. It symbolizes the game for the sake of the game alone, and nothing else. The kitchen table and casual get-togethers at the local shop were all there were back then. If casual players are dinosaurs, that was one whopping Triassic Period. (This would make me some kind of freakish archaeopteryx, I suppose. Or a small rodent. No doubt Randy Buehler will design an on-line poll Friday to find out what you all think, and will incorporate the findings into the Development team’s work on future sets.)
STRONGHOLD. I will admit to a certain bias here, since this is the set where I first broke my teeth on high-level Magic; but I’ve had enough readers agree with me that I’m comfortable putting this forward as one of the best expansions for casual play, ever. Consider the following:
- The gold slivers. I really shouldn’t have to write more than this bullet, should I? I mean, this is the Sliver Queen, and her five golden maidens who made sliver decks a creature-theme deck that, several years later, still ranks among the most powerful out there. Anytime you’re playing “creature feature” at your local shop, you see a sliver deck. Anytime you’re playing a five-color deck, there’s a 50/50 chance (far greater before Invasion showed up) there’s a Queen in there. But let’s consider what else is in Stronghold…
- The artifacts. Even if I just named Horn of Greed, Hornet Cannon, Heartstone, and the legend-lovin’ Sword of the Chosen, that would be enough to say this set helped creative and fun players. But the real heavies are Portcullis and Ensnaring Bridge, each of which comes with a ream of possible combinations and synergies. Oh yeah, and there was this really obscure artifact called Mox Diamond which seems to find its way into plenty of readers’ decks, too.
- The discard tools. Until Stronghold, discard in group play didn’t stand a chance. It couldn’t make enough people discard, and it didn’t have room for a win condition. Two uncommons in Stronghold marked the start of a turning tide. Bottomless Pit gives constant discard pressure; and Megrim actually paves the path to victory. There have been other great discard cards since, and multiplayer discard decks still have a huge uphill climb (thank you, madness)… but these two cards represent something special to black mages.
- The walls. It seems strange to focus on walls, but five cards in Stronghold stand out for what they gave casual play -- a cheap way to hold the board in duels, and a great way to say subtly “go somewhere else” in multiplayer. Wall of Souls, Wall of Blossoms, Wall of Razors, Wall of Tears, and Wall of Essence are all two-drops worth your time. And like many of the great cards I’ve mentioned in this set, they’re uncommons, so they’re easy to get.
I haven’t even gotten to Reins of Power, Dream Halls, the Spike Feeder, Fling, Volrath's Stronghold, the Warrior en-Kor, and Ruination -- and that last really ought to be played more often, with all these new and efficient non-basic lands running around! Stronghold had no unifying theme for casual players; but it had incredibly fertile ground for different ideas in every color.
APOCALYPSE. Much as The Dark served to mark an age that many veteran players wish would come back, I expect that 4-6 years from now, we’ll all look back on Invasion block with similar nostalgia. Wizards can’t make a gold set as good as Apocalypse again. (They’re welcome to take this as a challenge.) Many readers can already guess the cards I would list -- Pernicious Deed, Mystic Snake, Spiritmonger, and Death Grasp -- so I’ll just mention some possibly overlooked (and mostly common) cards to consider:
- The enemy-color bears. We’ll be seeing the Goblin Legionnaire card in red-white casual decks for as long as Magic is a game. It’s efficient, it’s versatile, and the artwork is kinda cute. What’s not to like? Gaea's Skyfolk is among the top three best two-drop creatures in the game; Putrid Warrior does freaky things with Pestilence, Transcendence, and probably two or three more “-ence” cards; Razorfin Hunter gives you yet another “Tim” for your Awakening deck arsenal; and Llanowar Dead is a great accelerator even if you’re not playing a zombie or elf deck.
- The instant tricks. Consume Strength -- a great combat-twister, fat-energizer, and simple removal, all in one. Captain's Maneuver -- one of the most comfortable feelings you can have with X mana in a group game. And the split cards, like Life/Death and Fire/Ice, will inspire creative tricks for years to come.
- The cards you’ll want to remember later on in life. Coalition Honor Guard -- the “flagbearer” mechanic is one of those things that, in about a year, will be really funny to rerun in your decks. You can bet that there will be some cards out there that limiting targeting will really mess up. And then there’s Unnatural Selection. Somewhere down the road, there will be another trick like Pure Reflection with this card. Even if there isn’t, the combinations with Sword of the Chosen, Shoreline Raider, and Coat of Arms have all been worth the trip.
When the “second tier” cards are this good, you know you have a winner of an expansion.
Now that we’ve looked at a few sets with spots of standouts, what about those sets that show fundamental changes in the way we look at the game?
PUTTING THE “FUN” IN “FUNDAMENTAL SHIFTS”
Here are three sets that defined casual play in obvious, and some not so obvious, ways.
LEGENDS. We spent a whole week at this site talking about this expansion; I won’t retread material here. I will point out that any nostalgic veteran who isn’t writing me to talk about The Dark is almost certainly writing me to talk about Legends and the way that it introduced gold cards, brought a new and flexible mythology to the game, and started the idea of game-changing enchantments like Moat and The Abyss. And those old-school players are right: this expansion set a tone for the game, a tone that it didn’t match for about six more years.
VISIONS. I had two possible choices for this slot -- Visions, or Tempest. Tempest gave us shadow creatures and a remarkably fast pace. But that feels less like a fun, casual-play dynamic, and more like the overly-tournament-focused dynamic that caused some concern with many players.
Visions, on the other hand, had a less dramatic but much longer-lasting impact. It gave us our first true comes-into-play creatures -- Nekrataal, Man-o'-War, and Uktabi Orangutan). (Yes, I am aware of the powerhouses Carrier Pigeons and Sengir Autocrat, but let’s be realistic here.) It also, for the record, gave us our last poison counter creature (Suq'ata Assassin). (Wizards hints occasionally that the poison counters will come back some day. Wouldn’t it be nifty, if they ever do, to see a creature that gives target player a poison counter as it comes into play, or leaves play?)
Whatever the future of poison counters may be, with Visions, the creatures underwent a very subtle but very real shift. They became less impractical and random, and more efficient and focused on specific goals. Both paths are fun; but honestly, the game has been more about efficiency and goals for years, and I would pinpoint the Visions creatures as the turning point. Ever since then, Wizards has had a winning combination on its hands. It can give casual players like us new tools for doing crazy things like Hunted Wumpus, Gravedigger, and Crater Hellion, and it can give tournament players efficient permanents with bonuses like Flametongue Kavu, Mystic Snake, and Deranged Hermit.
On top of this “comes-into-play” dynamic, Visions was in the midst of the first block to really emphasize graveyard recursion (Mirage). It provided plenty of standout recursion cards like Necrosavant and Miraculous Recovery, while setting up new classics like Coercion, Longbow Archer, Suq'ata Lancer, and Teferi's Puzzle Box. Going Ben Bleiweiss on you guys for a moment, it also contained the only instant discard you’ll ever find (Funeral Charm).
And oh, yeah. Visions has Tin-Wing Chimera. Case closed. Let’s go on to the third set.
INVASION. Anyone who couldn’t see this coming doesn’t read me very much. By anecdotal evidence (and some statistical evidence, like Grand Prix attendance), Invasion is single-handedly responsible for the greatest growth in numbers of Magic players, period. In the words of countless readers who have told me prodigal-son stories of leaving the fold and then returning when they heard and saw how amazing this set was, Invasion “made Magic fun again”. Part of this is the gold cards, yes, but Warping Wurm never recruited a single Magic player. Invasion’s gold cards were eye-poppers:
- Fat Crosis, the Purger!
- Galina's Knight!
- A card that lets you Coalition Victory for playing five colors!
- Counterspells that add Undermine!
- A legend that Tsabo Tavoc!
Everywhere you turned in this set, there was something new to see. Assault/Battery, Probe if you invested more (and different!) mana as you cast them, Urborg Volcano, even a legend for the birds. (Kangee, Aerie Keeper does look slightly less stupid in the Odyssey age of bird soldiers, but I’m still not sure we have a winner there!) Invasion also made very polite nods to Magic ages past, with quasi-remakes in Teferi's Moat, Overabundance, Blazing Specter, and Meteor Storm. That’s part of what made it so great -- older players could recognize it.
I hope Wizards remembers that lesson -- in the midst of all the innovation and new tricks, it’s incredibly fun to bring back old favorites. Given the recent re-emergence of Serra Angel, Sengir Vampire, and other key cards, I’m pretty sure they’ve already figured that out.
PROSPECTS: CURRENT AND FUTURE EXPANSIONS
You’ve noticed that neither Odyssey nor Torment are on the list. I disqualified them immediately since neither of them have had enough time to evolve and show their full impact. Both may be considered amazing creations for casual play, in the future. (If they are, it will likely be because of their masterful use of the graveyard.)
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a list of questions to ask yourself when a new set comes out. These are the criteria I would apply to Judgment -- or any future set -- when considering whether an expansion is “casual-friendly” or not.
- Does the expansion do something that no other expansion has done before? (And I don’t mean fading or gating, though those were clever. Think gold cards, or comes-into-play abilities on creatures. It’s a high bar but one worth jumping, every 5-7 expansions.)
- Does the expansion include cards, especially in the uncommon and common slots, that you could see yourself playing for years? (Think Wild Mongrel.)
- Does the expansion include interesting echoes, or even reprints, of classics?
- Are the majority of cards as playable with three people as they are with two? (Think Galina's Knight.)
- Is there a modest but vocal minority of cards that are more playable with three people than with two? (Think Propaganda.)
- Is there a small (again, I say, small) set of rares that will just make you roll your eyes, and/or laugh, and/or shake your head in worry for the sanity of R&D staff? (Think Radiate.)
The more enthusiastically you can say “yes” to the above questions, the happier you should be about each new expansion that comes out. Feel free to let me know how you answer, as the next one rolls out.Anthony may be reached at email@example.com.