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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
May 07 2015 11:00am
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Contrary to many people's thoughts, Modern Masters wasn't the first attempt of Wizards to make a set made entirely of existing cards. Long before Modern was ever even thought of as a possible format, Wizards made a series of four sets exclusively for Magic Online known as the Masters Edition sets. In this series of articles, I'll be going over all four of the Masters Edition sets, talking about how they came to be, how they were different from the reprint sets we know of today, as well as about their design in general. For the first article, I will start at the beginning with the original Masters Edition (ME1).

Before I go into the design of the original Masters Edition, I need to explain the history of the set to give it some context. When Wizards originally launched Magic Online, it only launched with the sets currently in Standard at the time (Invasion block, Odyssey, Torment, and 7th Edition) in order to limit its scope. While new sets were released in the same timeframe as in paper, people wanted to play older formats, and Wizards certainly wanted to support those desires. In 2005, Wizards started releasing older sets onto MTGO, starting with Mirage (since it was the first set to designed with Limited play in mind, though avoiding the era of Ante cards entirely certainly didn't hurt). This was the first step in supporting older formats, but it left the question of how older cards would be put on MTGO open for two more years.

Force of Will Juzam Djinn Illusions of Grandeur

On September 10th, 2007, the original Masters Edition was released, which was a set consisting entirely of cards originally printed before Mirage block. The goal was just to print a lot of cards that were either important for older formats (Lightning Bolt, Force of Will) or were nostalgic favorites (Juzam Djinn, Illusions of Grandeur). In addition, the set was very small and had a flat rarity structure: 60 commons, 60 uncommons, 60 rares, and 15 basic lands. All of these factors led to one of the worst limited environments created in recent times.

 

The problem with this set can be seen immediately from the commons if you sketch out the creature curve of the commons of each color. To help with this, I made a design spreadsheet for the set like the ones I've been using for my sets. The problems can be most readily seen if you look at Black:

CB01 Creature-Thrull 2 1/2 Basal Thrull
CB02 Creature 2 1/3 Cuombajj Witches
CB03 Creature 2 2/3 Erg Raiders
CB04 Creature 2 2/1 Order of the Ebon Hand
CB05 Creature-Thrull 3 2/2 Mindstab Thrull
CB06 Creature 5 4/3 Hyalopterous Lemure
CB07 Instant removal Feast or Famine
CB08 Enchantment removal Oubliette
CB09 Enchantment-Aura pump Thrull Retainer
CB10 Enchantment-Aura removal Phyrexian Boon
CB11 Enchantment-Aura removal Paralyze

Basal Thrull Cuombajj Witches Order of the Ebon Hand

Yes, of the six creatures, four of them are 2-drops, and three of those cost BB! The other colors aren't quite as bad, but most have their deficiencies: White is missing a 3-drop, Red has completely awful creatures such as Crookshank Kobolds and Goblins of the Flarg, Green's big creature Shambling Strider relies on Red mana, and Blue somehow got the best common creature by far Phantom Monster. Of course, the non-creature spells skew in the opposite direction: Red gets both Lightning Bolt and Fissure at common, while Blue's only counterspell is Arcane Denial. While this is balanced in a way, these massive imbalances do not lead to a good limited environment.

 

Goblins of the Flarg Animate Wall Gargantuan Gorilla

Considering the basics of the creature curve have issues, it shouldn't be a surprise that clear archetypes do not exist yet. What is a surprise is all the anti-synergies that exist. For example, I've already mentioned Goblins of the Flarg as an example of Red's horrible creatures, but the problem isn't just the Goblin Mountaineer stats, but that Dwarven Soldier is one of Red's better creatures. That's not the only tribal mechanic in the set (or even in red): Goblin Grenade should give you an incentive to play Goblins, but there are only four in the set: Goblins of the Flarg and Goblin Chirurgeon at common, Goblin Mutant at uncommon, and Goblin Wizard at rare. Similarly, Animate Wall only has four Walls in the set to enchant and none in White; though there the combo with Illusionary Wall is actually worth playing the card for. At least there are actually Goblins and Walls in the set; Gargantuan Gorilla wants you to play Snow-Covered Forests, but snow-covered lands aren't in the set at all!

 

All of this covers the problems with Masters Edition 1; it wasn't all the do-nothing cards from Magic's early days that was the problem (the Hallowed Grounds and Copper Tablets are relatively rare in the set), it was that the limited environment was just not fun and unbalanced at a basic level. This doesn't even include some of the higher-level problems with the set (like the complete lack of Enchantment removal, even with cards such as Moat in the set). As such, I don't want to spend the whole article trashing the set. This was an experiment, since the last time Wizards had tried anything like this was Chronicles, and at least ME1 didn't threaten to kill the game (and instead just kill online Classic/Legacy by making Force of Will extremely rare/expensive). Starting with Masters Edition 2, Wizards started to divide the themes of older sets into three distinct piles, so they could make three distinct sets without diluting the themes. In addition, Wizards started supplementing the older sets with cards from the Portal sets and Starter, which increased the quality of creatures somewhat (since those sets were printed later when creatures could be “pushed” more), as well as providing a large number of simple creatures and spells to fill out a set.

 

So why cover Masters Edition 1, considering that there aren't many design lessons to learn other than “have a decent creature curve” and “support your themes”? First of all, starting with ME2, the sets get much better (maybe even good, or at least unique), and I'm assuming I'll be able to learn more lessons from those sets. However, the main reason for this is to prepare for one of my most difficult projects to date: Masters Edition 5.

 

As I've mentioned above, the goal of the Masters Edition sets wasn't primarily to create a great environment (though that was obviously part of it, especially starting with ME2), but instead to put new cards on Magic Online. That means that you only have 13 sets to choose from: Alpha, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Homelands, Alliances, Portal 1, Portal 2, Portal 3, and Starter. In addition, one unresolved question is Conspiracy; a lot of cards are still missing, even beyond Conspiracies and the draft-matters stuff (and even those cards would be good artifact creatures). For now I haven't added any yet, but they're certainly there if I need them.

At this point I have a design spreadsheet for this set, but it differs from previous designs in one important way: it isn't anywhere close to finished yet. Right now I started by going through all of the sets in the range and sorting the cards into various piles, from obvious limited staples (mostly functional reprints like Phantom WarriorTalas Warrior and/or reasonable vanilla/french vanilla creatures), to cards people want (mostly missing legendary creatures or potential sideboard cards like Damping Field), to desirable reprints with art new to MTGO (Hurkyl's Recall is the standout here), to the trash (the “Bands with other Legends” lands), to the unprintable (coding nightmares like Raging River or offensive cards like Stone-Throwing Devils). After that, I'm trying to get a decent creature curve for each color using just cards new to MTGO, so I know where the obvious gaps are and which reprints I should be looking for.

One interesting thing about this design is that nothing is set in stone yet—I mentioned the use of Conspiracy cards was unresolved, but my concerns go deeper than that; I don't even have a set rarity distribution yet! Right now I'm using ME2 as a base, which is 80/80/80 (all the Masters Editions sets have a flat rarity distribution, and none have mythics, which I'll go into more in later entries in the series), but that isn't close to settled; I could go to the distribution of a standard large set (101/80/53/15), or maybe even a small set. Part of it goes into economics; even if I can fit in some desirable reprints like Hurkyl's Recall, Wrath of God, and Merchant Scroll, I think this set will have a lot of garbage in it and thus might need to be sold at a lower price than normal (which would necessitate fewer complicated cards to make it profitable to code).

After figuring out the layout of the set, I need to determine which themes I want to use, and if I want to plan for ME6, how to divide the themes between the sets. Right now the two major themes with major parts remaining are snow and Horsemanship. Snow would be very hard to meaningfully support though; there are thirteen cards mentioning snow missing from MTGO (along with a couple cards only printed in the Coldsnap theme decks but not in ME2; more on that in the ME2 article), and other than interesting Sunstone and Winter's Chill, most of the cards are awful and/or are hating on snow-covered lands. I'm certainly not going to go through the trouble of putting snow-covered lands in every pack just to print three interesting cards and a couple pieces of limited filler. If snow is going to come back, it should be in either a new set or Ice Age Remastered.

Horsemanship is a much more interesting idea for the set. There are seventeen cards either with or mentioning Horsemanship missing from MTGO, which would be fine, but they fall into two groups: awful (various 1-power creatures, or specialized cards like Borrowing the East Wind) or good legends (creatures like Lady Zhurong, Warrior Queen and Zhang He, Wei General). How good is it if I keep Horsemanship out of common and treat it essentially as “can't be blocked”? I haven't studied ME3 that much yet (and how it balanced Flying and Horsemanship) so this question will remained unresolved for a while—remember, I'm not going to finish the first version of this set until I finish the Masters Before Masters series at least.

Other than those two big themes, there are other mechanics I can use. Banding is by far the largest with 28 missing cards (not counting the “Bands with others” cards, which aren't worth coding in), and I've already penciled it in as the GW archetype (but again, I don't know how large amounts of Banding affects a limited environment). Cumulative Upkeep has 17 missing cards, but they are mostly awful, conditional, or both—I could use some cards like Flow of Maggots, but even though cards like Adarkar Unicorn are clearly setting up a WU archetype, I'm not sure I want it in the set. Rampage also counts, but it's just a creature keyword more than something to build around (especially since it only has five missing cards).

Other than the mechanics, the one notable theme with the early sets is that they care a lot about color. Some of this is fine: the allied color theme in Ice Age and Alliances can help me define my archetypes. The problems come from the other two parts: the enemy color hate cards and the color-changing cards. Obviously the excess of color hate was expected, but the real surprise was all the cards that simply changed the color of something. Obviously everyone knows about the joke that was the cycle of Laces, but that wasn't all—Legends had the Touch of Darkness cycle to change the color of creatures, and Blue has both Sleight of Mind and Magical Hack. In fact, there are so many of these kind of effects that combined with all the enemy-color hate this could actually be a theme of the set! Yes, that seems crazy, and I don't know if it would be any fun at all, but I think it's possible, and is the only realistic way to get all of these cards printed. I don't think I want to put it in this set (especially since there are so many other cards that deserve to be printed first), but would anyone be interested in this? Let me know in the comments.

 

Anyway, now that I've gone over some of the high-level concepts of ME5, here is my first design spreadsheet for the set. As I mentioned, this isn't even close to complete—I've filled the skeleton for White common and uncommon, I've started Blue common, and I have an couple other White and Blue slots filled, but not much else. The most important part is that I've done at least a first pass over every card in the range missing on MTGO and separated them into general categories (important stuff for limited, various mechanics, weird cards, and garbage)—if you're interested, they're all in the spreadsheet. This will hopefully let me streamline the process a bit, since at least I've seen all the cards before (which certainly wasn't the case before I started this project). As we go through this series I'll get closer to a complete skeleton, but I'm certainly not doing these consecutively—it'll be at least a month before the ME2 article, since I have at least two MM2015 articles coming, and I want to try some other things as well surrounding the release of Tempest Remastered.

 

That's all for today—hopefully I didn't have to stretch too much to make an article on the original Masters Edition an acceptable length. Modern Masters 2015 previews are in full swing by the time you read this, and next week we'll hopefully have enough spoilers (or even the full set, if there are only a week of previews) so I can start going over the limited archetypes of MM2015, and how it compares to my design. As of Monday morning it looks like a bloodbath (11/21 on official reveals, 3/14 on cards revealed today, and 0/4 on archetypes—seriously, UW artifacts again? And they actually did UR Elementals? At least they officially mentioned they couldn't make Infect work, so I don't feel too bad) and I'm hoping I can hit on at least one theme by next week.

 

Vincent

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