Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Anachronisms in Old School Part II - Alpha Templating, by Brother Stebbo

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

A lot of what I do for a living involves using written English consistently, and picking holes in others' use of written English. [Any typos in my articles are just down to Brother Jonas' shoddy editing!]

This has perhaps given me a sensitive eye for the templating on Magic cards and Old School cards in particular.

One of the highlights of the Wizards' Tournament, at Noobcon X earlier this year, was getting to see some rarely played Alpha cardboard in all its glory. One of the things I found amazing was how many of the cards didn't make sense under the contemporary rules of the game, and how the templating between cards which are functionally identical is not similarly consistent.

There are all kinds of anachronisms in the templating of Alpha. Some hark back to a simpler time, where the expectation was that players would only ever play a few games with their decks, before moving onto the next fad. Some reflect how the game was perceived as confusing to new players, in some cases necessitating the intricacies of the game being partly broken down by the cards themselves offering subtle hints on how to play the game.

Anachronism 1 – Weakness


Three simple words – and we all know what it means. This creature has popped its clogs, shuffled off this mortal coil.

This is incredibly intuitive.

However it is meaningless under the current Magic rules.

Now I expect many of you haven't read the 2018 version of the Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules (and at 227 pages of A4, who would blame you?…) but if you had you'd know that rule 704.5 states that "If a creature has toughness 0 or less, it's put into its owner's graveyard". This is one of the "state-based actions" and nowhere is there any mention of the creature being expressly "dead"!

Now we all know why Weakness has this line of text – the game was new and maybe you'd never seen a Savannah Lions before. This was Richard Garfield's way of whispering in your ear and suggesting "Kid, enchant those opposing Savannah Lions, and them Lions will be dead".

It's a powerful, yet subtle suggestion, which is shared with…

Anachronism 2 – Animate Artifact

Animate Artifact is like the 'meal-deal' of anachronisms in Alpha – let's review:

1) There is the hilariously clunky "Enchant Non-Creature Artifact". Such specificity. And all for nothing – the current Oracle text enables an artifact creature to be enchanted(!), but that the card only has any effect if the enchanted artifact isn't a creature. I guess you could say the card is now better than it was twenty-five years ago!

2) I just love the conversational style of the card – "retains all its original abilities as well" – nowadays the card would be strictly to the point – that the only change is that it's now also a creature – no need for this bonus information.

3) Another suggestion! The hint-hint, nudge-nudge that an artifact with a converted mana cost (or "casting cost" to use the lingo of the day) of 0 will be destroyed (note, not, "the artifact will be DEAD").

One has to say it's hard to envisage a situation where a player needed to use their Animate Artifact as removal against an enemy Mox or Black Lotus. But clearly this nuanced, yet vital, line of play came up enough in playtesting that the game designers saw fit to include this bonus bit of high-level strategy on the card itself.

Blue players get the most broken cards, AND artifact removal with free strategy advice.  Talk about there being a best colour in Magic...

Anachronism 3 - Psionic Blast

One of my all-time favourite cards!

I love the flavour of the abstract art, and have always interpreted this as the two damage ‘suffered’ by you as the spellcaster being depicted as a lingering headache for this tank-top wearing wizard. The art is almost like it's from the advertising campaign for Dominarian Nurofen.

Of course the meta-busting anachronism of this card is that it's a blue direct damage spell. At instant speed, no less! Literally what were the designers thinking!? To be fair, I guess to be the best colour, blue needs something to deal with a Serra Angel or Sengir Vampire, should one of these threats be fortunate enough to slip through your defences of counter-magic….

There is also a subtle anachronism. After the card emphatically declares that it does 4 damage to any target, it reminds you in a rather conciliatory tone that it does 2 damage to you "as well". The templating equivalent of some elder wizard putting an arm around your shoulder to break some bad news, namely that your blue direct damage isn't as good as that red mage's from across the street... Never mind lad, at least you've got your tank-top…

Anachronism 4 – Demonic Attorney

On the face of it, some fourth-wall breaking card design encapsulating greedy lawyers requiring another card offered up in 'legal fees' by each player. Remember; in litigation, and seemingly in ante, the convention is that the loser pays the winner’s costs! Bloody genius! Deepest flavour.

Although it makes slightly more sense in the context of a game where an additional card would otherwise be henceforth on the line for keeps, even in the event of a future concession, look closely and you'll see arguably the most unnecessary line of text ever printed on a Magic card: "if opponent doesn't concede the game immediately"!!

Yes, a useful prompt for players who may want to cut their losses and not risk losing a second card to ante. But remind me to offer this to my opponent whenever I cast a spell in the future!

Brother Stebbo: 'Bolt you? Unless you concede the game immediately?'

Opponent: '…..'

Anachronism 5 – Disintegrate

One of the best things about Alpha is the innocence of the designers. They assumed that players would buy a few starters each and then play a handful of games with their mates. Indeed, this was seen as an obvious way to mitigate the busted cards. Sure Granite Gargoyle is better than Grey Ogre, but as the 'better' card is a rare it hardly matters, as quite literally, you’ll rarely have to face down a Gargoyle. No-one is going to collect a whole set of Alpha, let alone be playing the game twenty-five years later…

On the face of it, Disintegrate is a harmless bit of card design. But there is a real drafting error in the card that reflects this initial innocence. As we all know, Disintegrate is perfect for dealing with enemy creatures, which face being removed from the game entirely. Not partially or more-removed-from-the-game-than-not, but entirely. Completely unnecessary language! But it does make sense in the context of educating players of the differences between the graveyard and what we now know as the exile zone.

However I have always enjoyed the contradiction (which is shared with, amongst others, Swords to Plowshares) that whilst the card emphatically declares that a target is entirely removed from the game, this doesn't literally mean 'removed from your game set of Magic: The Gathering'. Instead "entirely" is qualified as only being until this 'game' of the 'Game' is complete and one is invited to return the card to its "owner's deck only when game is over", the inference being it would otherwise sit forever in the eternal exile zone of a shelf in your study.

There is something very charming about these fourth-wall busting prompts, reminding players to return cards to their decks, or return to their opponents cards which have been stolen during the game.


I hope you have enjoyed this satirical trip down memory lane. With any luck, I’ve left enough Alpha templating material for a sequel someday. But please do tell me what your favourite templating anachronisms are!

Stay tuned for my next piece where I’ll be reminiscing on the superb Wizards’ Tournament and Noobcon X from the spring. Any excuse for Alpha pics…

Until next time.

- Brother Stebbo

1 comment:

  1. I chuckled all the way through that! :) I always imagined the Wizard depicted on Psionic Blast to be the one who has been Blasted - but despite playing it countless times I had never noticed the tank top until you pointed it out.