Magic is stupid
I mean, you're basically just throwing stupid things at idiots, and then someone wins.
I mean...really. This game is dumb.
Where Magic gets around the stupid is consistency.
It's consistently stupid.
It's reliably stupid.
As a game design goes, that's pretty goddamn good!
Today I'm going to honour the cards that helped with this consistency.
6 (+6) EARLY CARDS THAT DEFINED THEIR COLOURS
Dark Ritual is the poster child for immediate gratification. Burning a card to get another card into play faster can often blow up in your face, but this really defined Black as a colour in the early days. Using your resources faster to generate an early advantage would become a staple, and the very idea of a first-turn Erg Raiders with an Unholy Strength just created a nation of addicts.
“Ban everything until Necro is good, then ban Necro.” - Chris Pikula
Necropotence just looked like a terrible rare. Paying life to not-quite draw cards, skipping your draw step (so you have to pay life to draw even your normal allotment) and exiling cards that you discard...why would anybody play this? Seeing one in a fresh Ice Age pack would generate groans and eye-rolls. "Why can't this be a Balduvian Hydra?" we'd say, while we'd drink Crystal Pepsi and compare Swatches.
But then a weird thing happened. People started trying to use it, and discovered that (especially after Mirage came out), you could just shove every card in your deck that gains you life, throw in some Nevinyrral’s Disk for fun and Necro destruction, and profit. Necropotence was an active deck archetype, and often came up against Stasis in finals.
Turns out card advantage and lifegain is a thing. Who knew? A way better version of Greed, Necropotence spawned many more “Necro-Lite” cards, and now almost every block contains some sort of effect where you open up one of your Planeswalker veins in order to read a book faster or something.
Two untapped Islands was the bane of every player, because it required you to exist inside your head, and chances are that you play Magic so you don’t have to do just that. Permission wasn’t an archetype, it was a method of play, and many players wouldn’t play a deck unless it had some form of countermagic.
These people were, of course, friendless bastards.
It’s an honourable mention only because permission took a back seat right about the time Counterspell became Cancel. WotC started to scale back the permission aspect of Blue, because it turns out making the game not fun for new players means no more new players, which brings us to:
Sleight of Mind
If there’s something Blue does best, it’s mess with your plans. Counter Magic is one thing, but taking your stuff, redirecting your spells, and changing the very nature of what your effects do is something that the colour of champions has always done and done well.
Sleight of Mind, and its less-used cousin Magical Hack, started a long chain of spells that took your deck and shoved it up its own ass. Sleighting a Gloom to say “Black” gives one a sense of purpose that defines our worth, and is certainly more rewarding than seeing your child’s first steps. (Trust me, I’ve done both. Guess which story I tell?)
The Test of the Good Player (circa 1994-1998) was simply asking them if Disenchant was a good card. If they said “yes”, the player had some promise. If they said “Hell no, it’s not a dragon or a fire thing”, they would most likely be playing YuGiOh in a few years and constantly walking into walls when someone jangles their keys.
Disenchant almost always saw play in the Main Deck, with additional copies in the Sideboard, because most of the cards that screwed your deck over could be dealt with by Dissing the Enchant. It’s an honourable mention because the colour pie shifted, and Disenchant became Naturalize, which is way less sexy.
Wrath of God
Armageddon did a lot of heavy lifting in the early days. Not only is it what Stone Cold Steve Austin says when he leaves the room, it would define the next few turns of the game. Unfortunately, Land cards quickly became a protected class, and ‘Geddon got gone after 5th Edition.
Its partner-in-crime was Wrath of God, and God's Wrath is (almost) eternal. Aside from giving judges a few headaches (“Why does it kill a Black Knight, but Earthquake doesn’t kill a Repentant Blacksmith?”), Wrath punished players for overextending, and it continued to do so for many years. It was quickly replaced with Day of Judgment (in order to make Regenerate mean something), but nearly every block has at least one “Kill All Humans” sorcery in double-White, and for that, we give thanks to God and His wrath for defining White magic up until today.
Green took a few years to get good, being the colour of training wheels. If you saw a Forest on your opponent’s side, you were probably in for an easy ride. Green just wasn’t good.
Of course, that made losing to Green so much worse.
Giant Growth did a lot of work in the early days. Right now it’s card 61-64 in any stompy player’s decklist (in that it’s one of the last cards to be cut), but GG effects are always a threat. They prevent damage-based removal, they prevent trading in combat, and they can (if necessary) punch through 3 extra damage to your opponent’s face from an artificially inflated Gypsy or something..
Giant Growth is the grandfather of cool and explosive effects for Green, and even gave rise to the slower creature boost spells (including my favourite green card of all time, Enlarge). Unfortunately, Giant Growth’s lineage remains stuck in the midcard, never really achieving greatness, and that’s why it remains an Honourable Mention.
The original mana dorks, the motorcycle elves took a break from their War on All to act like a Forest in mostly-green decks to help people get their elephants out just that little bit faster. Elves did much of the mana work before the turn of the century when they finally started becoming beefy and viable (with the help of their friend Gaea and her Cradle)
Elves became a staple in every Green deck, and some mana-producing creature ability appears in just about every Magic set, thus defining what we might expect from those darn tree cards for the entirety of Magic’s 25-year history, and likely beyond.
Red is my favourite colour. How often can you say that you set fire to a cat and threw it at a witch? Ball Lightning gave us several things. In the constant challenge to expand design space, we got a direct-damage spell that just looked a lot like a creature. It has Haste, it has Trample, and if it didn’t die, it died anyway.
While Red has always planted their flaming flag in direct damage, Ball Lightning signalled a shift towards Haste creatures and face-smashing, and not a year goes by that we don’t see (and often wear) one of the descendants of the original electric asshole.
One of my favourite cards ever, the original Fork flourished under the Interrupt rules. Fork became a copy of the card (rather than lamely putting a copy on the stack) so Forking a spell with Buyback would land you the Fork back in your hand. Fork gave the Red mage something that they really didn’t have...it gave them a taste of control and chaos.
Ancestral Recall, Swords to Plowshares, Drain Life...nothing was safe from the Red Menace.
Fork started a trend for Red spells to add a layer of chaotic energy to the game, and the Extended format gave us access to 4 copies of it. (Fun fact: I actually qualified for the Pro Tour once, and it was due to Fork, and my understanding of the Interrupt window. Ladies, I can hear you ovulating already!)
(Yes, they're the 6th colour. Deal with it.)
Really also Moxes and stuff, but Sol Ring was the earliest and best example of Artifact mana being cool right out of the gate. Several “fixed” versions came out (Sisay’s Ring, Worn Powerstone), but Sol Ring’s influence can be seen even in recent sets. Artifact mana hasn’t been great for a long time, but it’s always been there.
The basic tenet of artifacts is that everybody has equal access to them, and Nevinyrral’s Disk gave all colours a reset button. It’s not so much the reset button that defined artifacts, but it was the notion that everybody should have a chance to do effects that are often restricted to certain colours.
Having artifacts take some of the responsibility of design shortfalls just works, and this is in part due to the work that Larry Niven’s Weird Tongue Circle did back in the olden days. Next time you see an Engineered Explosives, look back at the Disk in the store’s $2 binder and give thanks.