At MagicCon: Chicago, I gave a talk about my opinion of the best 20 mechanics of all time. It got me in a nostalgic mood, so I've decided to do a two-part article where I look at every full year of Magic's 30-year history (1993 to 2023) and choose an item, not necessarily a mechanic, that was the best addition to Magic as a game. I'll also list the runner-up. I should note that I'm focusing more on the mechanical side of things and mostly on the randomized booster releases.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Limited Edition (Alpha), Limited Edition (Beta), and Arabian Nights

Best Addition to Magic: The Golden Trifecta

I'm cheating a little on this first one as basically the introduction of Magic as a game is the addition. Whenever I talk about Alpha, I point out that I believe there are three genius ideas Richard Garfield made when he created Magic: the concept of a trading card game, the color wheel, and the mana system. Let me explain why each was so important.

Magic invented a brand-new genre of game. The idea that there are many different pieces and you, the player, choose which pieces to use, was revolutionary. It allows each player to customize the game to their desire. Players even have control over the format they play. As I often talk about, Magic is not a singular game and more of a game system that lets players have huge freedom in how they use the pieces to play. Also, I should point out the business model of a trading card game is a thing of pure brilliance and has let Magic have resources that few games get, which in turn, enables the high level of design quality.

Regular readers know that the color wheel is my passion. (Here's an article where I link to my many articles and podcasts on the topic.) I consider it the secret sauce of the game, the foundation of both mechanics and flavor, and it imbues Magic with an ethos and a psychological underpinning that we've used to great effect.

The mana system takes a lot of abuse, but it solves so many problems inherent in a trading card game. I've talked to numerous game designers who made a game where they tried to remove what they considered the downsides of the mana system only to realize what it was doing for the game. It allows flow, adds drama, and creates the skeletal structure we build every set on.

Runner-Up: Flying

It's flavorful, it's intuitive, and it makes games end. It has the honor of being in every Magic set and is core to how we make the game. If my MagicCon talk had included evergreen mechanics, there's a good chance flying would have been my number-one pick for the best mechanic of all time.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Antiquities, Revised Edition, Legends, The Dark, and Fallen Empires

Best Addition to Magic: Multicolor Cards

Legends introduced "gold" cards to Magic. Alpha had shown what you could do with the five colors separately. Legends took it to the next level by demonstrating what you could do when you mixed and matched colors. Those initial designs didn't maximize what multicolor designs would allow, but it opened up a valuable new tool for the game.

Runner-Up: Mechanical Set Themes

Arabian Nights had introduced the idea of flavor themes. Antiquities introduced the idea that a set could be built around a mechanical theme (artifacts in the case of Antiquities). This encouraged players to build new decks they didn't have access to before and allowed us to make sets feel distinct from one another (something that would become increasingly important as we made more sets).


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Fourth Edition, Ice Age, Chronicles, Renaissance, and Homelands

Best Addition to Magic: Cantrips

Cantrips are the internal nickname for cards that draw you a card when you cast them. A challenge of designing Magic cards is that certain effects are hard to cost correctly. Some, for example, are too small to be worth a single mana. Others don't neatly fit at a specific mana value. Cantrips were introduced in Ice Age to rethink the cost of a card. Normally, a card costs both the mana to cast it and the card itself. Cantrips allow you to offset the card disadvantage by giving you back a card. Ice Age did it with what we now call "slowtrips," cantrips where you draw the card at the beginning of the next turn. We soon realized it was better (and okay balance-wise) to just draw the card immediately. Cantrips are now an evergreen tool we use frequently.

Runner-Up: Open Print Run

Ice Age was the first set that we printed as much as players wanted. The early years of Magic was defined by Wizards not being able to meet demand. Fallen Empires had been the first set that Wizards could print what they thought players wanted, but stores used to overordering to get what they need ordered too much, creating a glut on the market. Ice Age was the first set to have what we now think of as an availability window where it was openly available for a length of time, meaning we would reprint it if needed.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Alliances and Mirage

Best Addition to Magic: Limited Play

Limited formats were made by the Alpha playtesters, so it was something Richard knew the game could eventually do if there was demand for it. Many players played Limited formats with early sets (I did), but it was clear the sets were not made with Limited in mind. For example, in Legends, if you wanted to destroy a troublesome non-world enchantment, the lowest rarity that enchantment removal existed at was rare. Likewise, only one common red creature could attack for damage. Ice Age famously didn't have enough evasion and was low on creatures, and it was possible to open sealed pools that essentially couldn't win. Mirage changed this. It was designed to be played in Limited formats and forever changed how we make Magic sets.

Runner-Up: Block Structure

Mirage was also the first set to be designed as part of a block. Alliances had been marketed as part of Ice Age, but that was mostly done in development and through marketing. Blocks were an important step in the evolution of making Magic. We would eventually move away from them, but it was a key part of the growth of Magic design.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Visions, Fifth Edition, Portal, Weatherlight, and Tempest

Best Addition to Magic: Enters-the-Battlefield Effects

Sometimes you design something that seems so obvious that you can't believe Magic hasn't already done it. Interestingly, enters-the-battlefield effects (soon to be shortened to "enters" effects starting with Bloomburrow) were independently made by the Visions design team (i.e., the Mirage design team) and the Tempest design team unaware the other had made it. The ability to staple spells onto creatures is a giant design tool and has become something that we use in every set.

Runner-Up: Slivers

One of the terms we use in design is "parasitic." It means that the mechanical element on a card, mechanic, or theme only applies to other cards in the same set. Most of the time, the term is used in a negative context, but I always like to explain that parasitic design elements can be effective when used in moderation and in the right way. Slivers are my go-to example of a parasitic mechanic done well. They allowed Tempest players to build a brand-new deck right out of the gate, and over time as we've added more Slivers, they have become less and less parasitic. On top of that, they've allowed Magic to add something to our worldbuilding that is uniquely our own. Other properties might have elves and goblins, but only Magic has Slivers. Finally, we had creatures with a strong mechanical identity that are fun to play.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Stronghold, Exodus, Portal Second Age, Unglued, and Urza's Saga

Best Addition to Magic: Cycling

Richard Garfield recognized that one of the frustrating things about playing Magic was that cards often get stuck in your hand. Maybe they were too expensive, or too niche, or just required you doing something that you couldn't do based on the board state. His design was simple, let players trade in cards for other cards. This allowed us to design cards that people could main deck but normally wouldn't. It can go on any card type and works with a lot of designs, so much so that cycling has appeared in more sets than any other non-evergreen mechanic and is now a deciduous mechanic.

Runner-Up: Frames as a design tool

Unglued introduced several things to Magic, including tokens and full-art lands, but the most important aspect I believe happened in a card called B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster).

B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster) Left B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster) Right

I had wanted to push boundaries in Unglued, so I talked with many different sections of the company. One group I talked with was our production design team, those responsible for laying out the cards and getting them printed. I asked them if there was anything printing would allow us to do that we hadn't. They said that we could have art cross over between two cards if they sat next to each other on the sheet. That inspired me to make a creature so big that it took up two cards. B.F.M. would go on to be one of the most popular cards (left side edged out right side as the most popular) in the set. B.F.M. showed the designers that we were not constrained by the frames as we knew them. If we came up with reasons to change them, because there was something mechanically fun we could do, that was something available to us. B.F.M. would lead to many things including split cards and the meld mechanic, as well as a shift in mind-sight about how R&D thought about card frames.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Urza's Legacy, Sixth Edition, Portal Three Kingdoms, Urza's Destiny, and Mercadian Masques

Best Addition to Magic: Flicker Effects

In Urza's Destiny, I designed a vertical cycle of white cards that exiled a permanent (although it wasn't called that yet) and brought it back. The development team knocked the cycle down to one card, Flicker, but it saw print.


The Flicker ability has gone on to become a staple ability that we use (almost) every set and shows up in white and blue. It's very versatile and has synergy with a lot of different game components, including enters-the-battlefield effects.

Runner-Up: The importance of keywords

Mercadian Masques had mechanics. It had the Rebel mechanic, the Mercenary mechanic, alternate casting costs, and Spellshapers, but none of them were named. This resulted in something R&D didn't expect, a complaint that the set didn't have any new mechanics in it. This resulted in an important lesson where we realized the power of words to shape set expectation. From then on, we (mostly) named our new mechanics. It helped the audience identify them and talk about them, two things that are crucial during the early days of a set's release.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Nemesis, Prophecy, and Invasion,

Best Addition to Magic: Kicker

Bill Rose had always been fascinated with X spells. He liked the way that they had different utility at different points in the game. During the very first meeting of Invasion design, Bill suggested the idea for a new mechanic he had created, kicker. It allowed a spell to do one thing earlier and a more powerful thing later. Kicker is probably the most versatile mechanic we've ever made, so much so that many new mechanics just feel like an extension of kicker. Like cycling, it has become deciduous and gets used wherever we need it.

Runner-Up: Block Themes

The Mirage block contained the first three sets we designed as a block. (As I said earlier, Ice Age was sort of made a block after the fact.) Back then, blocks had a flavor but were defined mostly by the two main mechanics in them. The Mirage block was about flanking and phasing. The Tempest block was about buyback and shadow. The Urza's Saga block was about cycling and echo. The Mercadian Masques block, as explained above, didn't name its themes. The Invasion block tried something new. Instead of being about its mechanics, it focused on a singular theme. Invasion was a multicolor block. Its whole mechanical identity was shaped around that theme. This took blocks to the next level and allowed us to make things that were more distinct, flavorful, and marketable, an important thing when you make so many Magic sets.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Planeshift, Seventh Edition, Apocalypse, and Odyssey

Best Addition to Magic: Flashback

This was the mechanic I named as my top mechanic for Magic. It has the versatility of mechanics like cycling and kicker but with an added flavor element lacking in both. Unlike kicker, which allows cards to be used either early or late game, flashback can be used in both, tying into a theme that we've learned players adore: getting to use their spells twice. Like cycling and kicker, it's proved so useful, that it's gained deciduous status.

Runner-Up: Threshold

This mechanic came about because Richard Garfield was interested in finding a resource that naturally grew over time. That resource ended up being the graveyard. The natural state of the game slowly filled it up as spells were cast and creatures died. Then, when you got to seven cards in your graveyard, all your threshold cards leveled up. The threshold mechanic has been reused several times, but the more important contribution to Magic design has been the idea of monitoring something that upgrades when hit, what we in R&D call a "threshold mechanic." This has spawned numerous other mechanics and set themes.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Torment, Judgment, and Onslaught

Best Addition to Magic: Typal Themes

Alpha had three cards with typal themes:

Lord of Atlantis Zombie Master Goblin King

They encouraged a lot of casual decks, but no one treated them seriously. Then in Onslaught, I was tasked with tightening up the design. There was a small theme on Mistform creatures that allowed you to change their creature type, but not a lot of ways in the set to care about it. I recognized that typal themes were popular with casual players. What if we made tournament players also care? It turns out typal themes are universally beloved. They're directional and flavorful and lead to fun games. It's a theme we go back to again and again, on par with popular themes like multicolor and the graveyard.

Runner-Up: Morph

The rules team was tasked with making two Alpha cards work within the rules, Camouflage and Illusionary Mask.

Camouflage Illusionary Mask

The issue with both is that they turned a card face down without defining what exactly that meant. In solving this problem by making the facedown creature have a power/toughness definition, they came up with a new mechanic. Morph brought an element of mystery to the game. The player's hands had always had hidden information, but usually that wasn't true of permanents. Morph was a hit with the players and has inspired numerous other uses of face-down cards, either on the battlefield or in exile.

Runner-Up: Reusing non-evergreen mechanics

I was really torn on this one, so I chose two runners-up. When I was tightening up Onslaught, increasing the typal theme and adding morph, I had one other quest. I wanted to bring back cycling. At the time, that wasn't a thing we did. Mechanics either graduated to evergreen status or went away. Cycling was such a good mechanic, I argued, it seemed wrong not to use it again. I made a few cards (Astral Slide and Lightning Rift) that allowed you to build a deck around cycling and was given permission to reuse it. Obviously, in hindsight, the strength of Magic design being able to access mechanics of the past is huge and has been used to great effect.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Legions, Scourge, Eighth Edition, and Mirrodin

Best Addition to Magic: Equipment

Mirrodin had an artifact theme, and we'd long talked about how there wasn't a good way to make use of Equipment in the game. Why couldn't I get a sword and give it to my Goblin? Equipment solved this problem in such a cool way that we made it evergreen right away and it became a staple tool for design.

Runner-Up: Worldbuilding to match mechanics

Mirrodin wasn't the first plane built by an internal team (that would be Rath for Tempest), but it was the start of the modern era of worldbuilding, where the plane is built in conjunction with the mechanical identity of the set in mind. We planned Mirrodin as an artifact-focused set and designed Mirrodin accordingly as an all-metal plane. The interconnection between design and the Worldbuilding team has been a major recipe for success, both in the card design and the creative.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Darksteel, Fifth Dawn, Champions of Kamigawa, and Unhinged

Best Addition to Magic: Naming Vigilance

Most evergreen mechanics, at least the ones that didn't start already named in Alpha, usually had a slow route to being a named mechanic. Vigilance started as an ability of a single card in Alpha (Serra Angel). It was used from time to time, until eventually, we decided we should name it, which would make it easier for us to use it more often. The vigilance keyword first showed up in Champions of Kamigawa. As there's a lot of other things to reference in this article, I'm using this as the representative of us having a system to turn popular mechanics into evergreen keywords.

Runner-Up: Indestructible

This mechanic came about when Bill Rose and I were talking about what made for a good mechanic. I said capturing something that players wanted but didn't yet have access to. Which, of course, led to Bill asking me, "Well then, what do players want?" I joked, "For other players to stop destroying their stuff." Two seconds later, I pitched indestructible. It ended up in Darksteel, would later make its way to evergreen status, although for a while just as a vocabulary word and not an actual keyword. Enough players mistook it as being a keyword, that we finally changed it. Indestructible has proven to be a valuable tool, although one we must use carefully. We don't want a lot of indestructible permanents, but as a temporary effect, it has many uses.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Betrayers of Kamigawa, Saviors of Kamigawa, Ravnica: City of Guilds

Best Addition to Magic: Faction Sets

At MagicCon: Chicago, I was part of a panel that spent an hour talking about the huge influence of Ravnica, the set, and Ravnica, the plane, so there's a lot to choose from. I guess the element that had the biggest impact on design was the introduction of a faction set, that is a set divided into parts, often by color, where each part has a distinctive flavor and mechanical identity, often with its own keyword. The Ravnica block was so successful, that it added faction sets as a thing that Magic now does on regularity.

Runner-Up: Hybrid Mana

While creating Ravnica, I spent a lot of time thinking about multicolor. This led me to realize that gold cards represented the idea of color A and color B. There was space for something different that represented color A or color B. This led to hybrid mana, allowing players to spend one or the other color of mana to pay for the card or ability. Hybrid mana has proven to be one of the most versatile tools and has solved many a Magic design problem. I just did a two-parter on it (Part 1 and Part 2) showing its use has ramped up over time.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Guildpact, Dissension, Coldsnap, and Time Spiral

Best Addition to Magic: Bonus Sheets

Time Spiral had a theme of the past, so I pitched the idea of old cards, in the old frame, occasionally showing up in booster packs. That idea evolved until there were 121 cards, all on their own sheet, that dropped one per booster. We internally call this a "bonus sheet," as it required us making an additional sheet for printing purposes. Planar Chaos and Future Sight, the two other sets in the Time Spiral block, also used bonus sheets. We would bring bonus sheets back in Strixhaven to make the Mystical Archive. They've proven so popular that they've become a regular resource we deploy every year.

Runner-Up: Snow Supertype and Snow Mana

Ice Age had a variant of snow-covered basic lands. When looking for new design space for "the lost Ice Age block set" Coldsnap, we examined how we could make use of the snow theme in a different way. That resulted in creating the snow supertype and the snow mana symbol. Coldsnap didn't go over well, so I never expected us to bring it back. But then, we needed a dual land cycle for Modern Horizons and ended up bringing snow back in a big way. It was so popular that we brought back snow again when we made Kaldheim. It showed us the value of flavorful supertypes and has made us rethink how we use them.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Planar Chaos, Future Sight, Tenth Edition, and Lorwyn

Best Addition to Magic: Planeswalkers

The plan for the Time Spiral block was that we were changing the rules of how the Multiverse functioned so we could power down Planeswalkers. We wanted them to be the focus of our stories, and it was hard to personally care about people with the power of gods. During this, Matt Cavotta pitched me the idea of making Planeswalkers into the planeswalker card type. We had avoided making cards out of them in the past because they were so powerful. It would end up taking us about six months to make them, forcing us to put them into Lorwyn rather than Future Sight. They ended up being a slam dunk, so popular that we started putting at least one in every set. Besides being a fan favorite, they are also flavorful and powerful and have become a staple of in-Multiverse Magic sets.

Runner-Up: Changeling

Lorwyn had a typal theme with eight different creature types to care about (Kithkin, Merfolk, Goblins, Elementals, Elves, Faeries, Giants, and Treefolk). We desperately needed some glue to tie them together such that, in Draft, there were cards that players playing different creature types would fight over. We also needed to make sure the as-fan of each creature type was high enough. The solution to our problem rested in a legendary creature from Champions of Kamigawa, Mistform Ultimus. Creatures with changeling have every creature type. It not only solved all of our issues but was a huge hit with the players because it enabled typal decks for creatures that currently didn't have enough cards. We've brought it back numerous times.


Randomized Booster Releases of That Year: Morningtide, Shadowmoor, Eventide, and Shards of Alara

Best Addition to Magic: In-Color Artifacts

Shards of Alara wasn't technically the first time we'd made an in-color artifact creature. We first hinted at the idea on Sarcomite Myr, a future-shifted card in Future Sight. We then made Reaper King, which was flavored as a Scarecrow, although while he could be cast with generic mana, he was technically all five colors due to the twobrid mana in his cost. The Esper shard was the first set to use in-color artifacts as a larger theme. The audience's comfort with it encouraged us to use it more. It's now become an evergreen thing we do (almost) every set.

Runner-Up: Figure of Destiny

Figure of Destiny

Sometimes a single card can inspire a lot. Figure of Destiny from Eventide was a creature with multiple states that you could advance using mana. It is one of the most influential card designs. It has spawned new mechanics like level up and Classes, and the basic framework on the design has been copied on many cards.

Warden of the First Tree Ascendant Spirit Frodo, Sauron's Bane

Halfway There

We're out of time for today. I hope you enjoyed my look back at Magic's past. As always, I'm eager for any feedback, be it on today's column or any of the design components I discussed. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (X [formerly Twitter], Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for part two.

Until then, may you find the design innovation that's the most fun for you to play.