Simple Rules are the Holy Grail of Magic

Posted in Feature on June 1, 2009

By Dan Gray

Magic has not always been the simple game it is today. That may sound funny, since one of the most common complaints I hear is that Magic rules are simply too complicated. The rules have always been complex; however, over five years the game has evolved from a jumbled beginning to a more orderly—though still maddening—formal system.

Out of Chaos

In the beginning, there was chaos. The Limited Edition Magic set had a collection of basic rules (many of which are still widely used today) including turn phases, attacking, and summoning sickness. However, the first version lacked a comprehensive and cohesive set of rules.

For example, card wordings were rarely consistent. Disenchant referred to "discarding" artifacts while Shatter "destroyed" them. The timing structure called for spells to resolve simultaneously but required a complex scheme to deal with their resolutions. Artifacts came in four different flavors based on their functions.

As a result, it was not always easy to determine (even if you knew the rules) how two particular cards interacted. Longtime California player Kurt Burgner still tells the story of a match with Tom Wylie and other friends during the days of Unlimited when an argument erupted about whether or not Balance could kill a Black Knight. Clearly, this confusion was not an ideal situation.

Defining the Environment

The release of the Revised Edition card set in April 1994 marked the first attempt to formalize and simplify Magic rules. Revised introduced the tap symbol, removing the need for multiple artifact types and streamlining many cards. The introduction of technical terms like "destroy" and "bury" made wordings more consistent.

More importantly, Revised Edition rules included the timing system we still use today. Abbreviated LIFO for "last in, first out," this system brought an end to simultaneous spell resolution and the arguments it created. Spells were now announced in "stacks." After all players announced spells, the stack would resolve, one by one, with the last spell played being the first to resolve.

These changes would remain in place for over a year. However, as the player base grew, the need for special-case rulings increased. It became a frequent joke among serious players that rulings and errata on certain cards (Vesuvan Doppelganger and Chaos Orb being two major offenders) were longer than the rulebook.

These beta playtest cards (ca. 1992) still used the original casting cost mechanic, where meant you paid three mana, one of which had to be blue to cast the card.

A Formal System Merges

The Fourth Edition card set, released in mid-1995, marked the first attempt to formalize Magic rules into a coherent system. The general idea was that if you knew the basic rules of Magic, you could figure out most situations by applying that knowledge. The cards continued to receive cosmetic changes, including the new tap symbol (Magic had gone international) and even more streamlined wordings.

Generally, though, Fourth Edition rules were remarkably similar to Revised Edition rules. At the core, the existing system was easy to understand, but the vast majority of complicated interactions still required errata and special-case rulings. Something needed to be done to stabilize the rules and, at the same time, form a complete, easy-to-use system for players. This system would eventually become the Fifth Edition rules.

Despite their name, Fifth Edition rules were actually introduced in the Mirage expansion and were used in competitive tournaments during the summer of 1996 (Fifth Edition itself was not released until April 1997). The new rules instituted widespread changes that both simplified and complicated the rules (for example, they combined
the end-of-turn and heal creatures phases into a single phase, but introduced mana sources).

Fifth Edition rules changed interrupts to work remarkably like instants, simplified the attack phase, and introduced several "new" concepts that had never had formal names (including phase costs and triggered abilities). Finally, Fifth Edition rules introduced on- card reminder text, beginning the push toward putting most Magic rules directly on the cards, rather than in the rulebook.

The true impact of Fifth Edition rules, though, was the formalization of Magic into a complete system for the first time. Instead of special-case rulings governing most uncommon card combinations, general sets of rules and rulings existed that knowledgeable players could use to figure out how types of cards worked together. While this system clearly was not perfect, Magic had come a long way from the Limited Edition rules.

Looking to the Future

After five years, the game continues to change and expand, and the rules continue to adapt accordingly. Classic (Sixth Edition) rules will further the tradition of making the game easier to play and understand—and making a complicated idea (a game with thousands of interlocking parts) as simple as possible while still retaining the interest and excitement of the original version.

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