Tighter And Tighter

Posted in Serious Fun on July 26, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

An analysis dating back to the 16th century

When Scott Johns told the writers this would be corset week here on magicthegathering.com, no one was more surprised than I. Corsets? In Magic? That's not a lot of material to work with. But I gladly accept the challenge.

First, some historial reference. Corsets did not start, as many people think, during Victorian times (which would be the 19th century). Best estimates put the start at 16th century, toward the end of the Renaissance. According to a web site by Drea Leed (who appears to know far more about corsets than I do),

The corset represents a fundamental shift in the concept of clothing and tailoring; instead of shaping clothes to the body, as had been done throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the body began to conform to the fashionable shape of the clothing worn.

Much like the development of corsets, Magic also went under a fundamental shift about ten years ago. As Wizards produced more sets and cards, they began to make a sharper delineation between new expansions and something called "core sets". (Really, it would have been far more sensible to have a "Core Set" week, instead of a corset week. But I'm not in charge.)

The basic difference, from the customer standpoint? The core sets would contain no new cards, just white-bordered reprints of cards previously released with black borders.

Getting back to corsets – much like Magic cards would come in at least two varieties now, corsets have at least two basic shapes. The first (Tudor & Elizabethan) corsets were actually quite comfortable, though I admittedly have no firsthand experience to draw on here. According to Ms. Leed, the first corsets were designed to mold the torso into a cylindrical shape, and then flatten and raise the bustline. Sort of an original Serra Angel approach. Some modern top-heavy women actually wear similar garmets today, because it works much like a back brace.

Compare that to the 19th century corsets that came later. They forced an hourglass shape and pretty much made women miserable all over Europe. (Thank goodness there was something around besides men to do so. Must have taken some of the pressure off. "Well, at least he's not as bad as my corset.")

Many players – especially casual players, who on average don't follow the Core Set as carefully as tournament-minded players – feel a similar difference between white and black-bordered cards. Black-bordered cards came first. They were comfortable to players and collectors alike, and folks expected this sort of thing to go on for a few hundred years.

Imagine their disappointment with the next generation of cards! Like hourglass-shaped corsets, white-bordered core sets forced some people into a space where they weren't completely comfortable. These surly customers shook their fists at Wizards and cursed the obsession with tiny waists – er, I mean, with preserving the value of black-bordered cards.

But with whalebone-like firmness, Wizards did not yield their approach to the core sets. This is, ultimately, a good thing for casual players.

Why casual players? Aren't core sets really something only tournament players worry about, since it defines what's in Standard and similar constructed formats?

Not really. Core sets are important to casual players for at least two reasons. First, many casual players are newer players. They're entering the game through the core set, which must contain simpler cards than you'll find in the "expert" expansions. So finding the right cards for such a set is important – Wizards wants to make a good first impression on these newer players, so they stick around!

Second, having white-bordered versions of valuable black-bordered rares, such as the five Apocalypse "pain-lands", makes such cards more plentiful. Functional reprints are good for players who had a hard time getting certain cards the first time around. Tournament players will go out and get four of them anyway (and in fact, many older tournament enthusiasts already have four or more of each). But casual players won't try as hard – so having the cards in a modern set helps them a bit.

This idea of reaching more of the masses with a luxury is exactly what happened to corsets in the mid-to-late 19th century. According to David Kunzle, improved methods of manufacture (including the sewing machine) took the corset – which was primarily known as a luxury to the upper classes – and made it more readily available to the new urban masses. The ability to mass-produce corsets, in effect, lowered the price. Adding a white-bordered expansion to a black-bordered expansion isn't exactly the same thing, but it does put more of those pain-lands on the market.

To sum up, off-color reprints allows Wizards and its customers to have it both ways. Like the Minoans of 2000 B.C., whose snake goddess wore a fitted vest that helped support and display the bust as well as leather rings or bands that confined and accentuated the waist, people want to get the best of both worlds. Cool cards, and preserved value. Snake goddesses, and shapely figures. (That is just so like Crete to do that!)

An Hourglass Format

For the sake of those expecting a creative format this week, here's one based on the hourglass shape that Victorian corsets made popular.

Use the mana curve as your "hourglass". Each deck (otherwise Vintage, Legacy, or Extended legal) must have twice as many cards that cost one and two, as cost three or four; and must also have twice as many cards that cost five or six, as cost three or four. No cards worth seven or more. (You don't want heavy thighs!)

Another way to look at the hourglass: Start the game with an automatic Howling Mine for all players. At the start of the first player's fifth turn, nobody may draw any cards. Then, at the start of the first player's tenth turn, the Howling Mine is back on.

Notice how the two formats, both based on the hourglass shape, do two different things to the importance of mid-range cards!

The End Of Core Sets?

As the 20th century approached, medical evidence against corsets mounted. Fashion, which demanded more and more of an hourglass shape, put women's bodies through incredible hardship. Slowly, men began to figure out that their taste in women's shapes might be hurting the very people they were attracted to. So a few doctors began to speak out. Brilliant.

Will the same thing happen with white-bordered sets? Will we learn someday that white-bordered sets don't let us "breathe" enough as collectors and players?

Unlikely. White-bordered cards aren't likely to vanish from the Magic landscape – after all, corsets are still around today, though generally made with more comfortable shapes and materials. In fact, they may contribute to the sustained growth of whole new industries, just like the corset did during the 19th century when clothing retailers used mannequins to model the underwear in shop windows, and magazine advertising with illustrated display advertisements started becoming commonplace. Thus began window-shopping, and the nascent signs of Victoria Secret catalogs.

White-bordered cards, sexy? You bet.

If you'd like to learn more about the corset, go to http://laracorsets.com/History_of_the_corset_001_Start_page.htm or http://costume.dm.net/corsets/history.html. If you'd like to learn more about the new core set, go here. Thanks to Wizards for coming up with another winner of a theme! Though I'm not sure how much I'm looking forward to codpiece week.

Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing far longer than that. His new fantasy young adult novel, Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace, was co-written with his wife MaryJanice Davidson, and comes out August 2005 from Berkley Books.

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