Famous Rules and Card Changes in Magic History
- Tobi Henke
There's a debate raging at the moment over the possibility of fixing companions via an update to the rules. While unprecedented in recent memory, it would not be the first time cards changed their behavior after the fact. Let's take a look at some famous examples from Magic's past.
On Monday, Wizards of the Coast announced some changes to the list of banned and restricted cards, including the first ban in Vintage for power-level reasons since 1996. That same article dropped another bombshell: They may be "willing to take steps up to or including changing how the companion mechanic works." Mark Rosewater later commented, "Companion is having ripples throughout almost all of the constructed formats in a way no singular mechanic ever has. It might call for special action."
Such an overhaul is common with digital games: When a new release creates balance issues, a later update can provide a solution, often by changing the game pieces themselves. However, once printed, it's impossible to edit a Magic card and a mismatch between printed and actual functionality always invites confusion/frustration/alienation. For a long time, Wizards policy has been to issue "errata" only to bring old cards in line with modern rules, not to take overpowered cards down a peg. However, they haven't always been consistent in this. In addition to card text updates, there are also updates to the rules framework. Both can completely change how cards work. Here are some famous examples …
Interrupts into Instants
For about the first six years of its existence, Magic featured the card type interrupt. These spells were "fast effects" faster than instants and worked in their own timing window. You couldn't respond to them except by casting another interrupt. This meant: if you weren't able to pay for your opponent's Power Sink and didn't have an interrupt of your own, all your lands would tap and your mana pool would empty before you got another chance to do anything. When Interdict countered the activated ability of Frozen Shade, the Shade was done activating for the turn, instead of doing it again in response. A bought back Forbid would happily counter two lethal burn spells in a row, returning to its owner's hand before the red mage got a shot at casting the second.
These three examples specifically and all interrupts generally lost in the transition. On the flip side, Avoid Fate and Burnout suddenly became able to target instants. Many years later, split second would recreate some aspects of playing with interrupts but go far beyond in limiting interaction. At least, Trickbind came in to do exactly what Interdict could do no longer.
Mana Source Mayhem
If interrupts didn't allow a player to respond with activated abilities, you might ask yourself how one could ever pay for Power Sink or one's own interrupts in the first place. Well, once upon a time, when you activated a permanent to generate mana, the cards asked you to "play this ability as an interrupt" and later "as a mana source." Mana source even appeared as a card type itself. Like the mana abilities of the present — which nowadays are defined as abilities, either activated or triggered by mana production, that don't have a target, aren't loyalty abilities, and can produce mana — mana sources didn't use the stack and resolved immediately. This meant: for some years, neither Nether Void nor Counterspell could stop Dark Ritual.
Further weirdness: Abeyance was never supposed to stop people from casting artifacts, creatures, or enchantments. However, tapping a land for mana was an "ability requiring an activation cost" even back in 1997. Abeyance prevented that and thus became the most highly sought card in the whole game for a short period. Wizards recreated the intended functionality by issuing a ruling, adding "nonmana" and eventually "that aren't mana abilities" to the card's official rules text. Although Null Rod, City of Solitude, and the first version of Cursed Totem used the same wording, these cards didn't get an update. Apparently, they were supposed to stop mana abilities to begin with.
When first printed, cards like Lake of the Dead, Lotus Vale, Scorched Ruins, or Mox Diamond already featured deceptively modern-looking rules text. Only, you couldn't activate them before you had dealt with their come-into-play ability at the time. When the rules changed, these cards required a change of text just so their behavior would not change. Otherwise, they would have turned into so many Lotus Petals. Curiously, the lands' interaction with Blood Moon changed again in 2017, back to what it presumably was in 1998.
A Substantial Sidenote
Speaking of lands, if not mana sources: Initially, if you activated Thawing Glaciers, the card would always be back in your hand by the end of the current turn. However, in 1999, a rules change enabled a trick: you could activate it during the opponent's end step, then activate it again on your turn, and only then have it return to hand at the beginning of your own end step. You got lands into play at a faster rate than if you just made normal land drops, which completely invalidated the card's drawback. Instead of a slow but potent card advantage engine, the Glaciers turned into a torrent. Wizards fixed the problem, first by introducing a timer in the form of a keyword that only existed in errata, later much more elegantly by replacing "at end of turn" with "at the beginning of the next cleanup step."
Unfortunately, it took them months, during which the community got used to and grew to love their sped-up "Thaw." It didn't help that the change came into effect a mere fortnight ahead of Pro Tour Chicago 1999, incurring the ire of, among others, Mike Flores. Ultimately, Thawing Glaciers went down in the collective memory as a card that worked vastly differently at various times because of Wizards meddling. The same everything — same rules change/trick/errata — applied to Waylay as well.
The Era of Errata
So far, we've only looked at benign examples where Wizards tried to restore cards to their intended functionality; cases when an overall rules improvement forced their hand. There also was a time when they, by their own modern standards, abused their power to issue errata. For example, for many years, a Cloud of Faeries, Great Whale, Palinchron, or Peregrine Drake untapped lands only "if you played it from your hand." Wizards argued, somewhat spuriously, that without the extra imposition these cards did not actually work as intended. After all, the designers and developers had never intended to make an infinite-mana combo with, say, Recurring Nightmare this easy. Once the floodgates opened, Karmic Guide and Iridescent Drake, which both had their own infinite combos, received the same errata, and they threw in Treachery for good measure.
During this era, you couldn't use Basalt Monolith's mana to untap itself, and Time Vault went through a series of iterations in an attempt to limit its utility. At one point, you needed to remove a time counter from it to get an extra turn and it had an ability that read: "Skip your next turn: Untap Time Vault and put a time counter on it." In a hilarious case of Sorcerer's Apprentice, this created a new infinite combo with Flame Fusillade. Then came, "If Time Vault would become untapped, instead choose one — untap Time Vault and you skip your next turn; or Time Vault remains tapped." In the end, Wizards decided to return all such cards to a state as close as possible to the way their most recent printed versions worked originally. They vowed not to mess with card texts for power-level reasons again. Instead, they would fix mistakes, if necessary, via bannings.
And they made good on their promise. For years, Flash had worked similar to how Mox Diamond does to this day: if you didn't pay the additional cost, the card you wanted to put into play never arrived on the battlefield. In May 2007, Flash reverted to sacrificing the creature, then usually Protean Hulk, and earned a place on the Legacy ban list just 36 days later. Some sources counted this as the fastest ban in the history of the format up until this week. Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Zirda, the Dawnwaker naturally broke the record 32 days after their online debut and three days after Ikoria's worldwide paper release.
The Legend of Legends
1994–1995: Legends, introduced in Legends, are restricted to one copy per deck.
1994–2004: If multiple Legends with the same name are in play, no matter under whose control, all of them die except the one in play the longest. Legend is a creature type, but the legend rule applies to legendary noncreature permanents as well.
This meant: whoever got a certain legendary permanent out first didn't just enjoy the advantage of using it first; its controller enjoyed the additional benefit of being the only one who got to use it at all. A game between two decks both running Gaea's Cradle and Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero was common in turn-of-the-century Standard but not a lot of fun. What was fun was Unnatural Selection as a tech in some mirror matches. One could turn two copies of the same creature into Legends to kill the one that came second.
2004–present: All Legends are legendary creatures. Legend as a creature type is obsolete.
2004–2013: If multiple legendary permanents with the same name are in play, no matter under whose control, all of them die.
2007–2013: The planeswalker uniqueness rule cares about planeswalkers' subtypes instead of name. Otherwise, it works the same way the legend rule does.
Effectively, each legendary permanent had two modes now. If yours was the first in play, you got to use it. If not, you could play yours as a removal spell but nothing more. This era also saw Standard's first big planeswalker battles. Jace Beleren turned out to be a useful tool in the all-important fight over Jace, the Mind Sculptor. He could trade with the other for just 3 mana, even preemptively, and added to a deck's total of ways to remove Jace.
2013–2017: The planeswalker uniqueness rule only cares about planeswalkers that are controlled by the same player. If a player controls multiple with the same subtype, the player chooses one to keep and puts the rest into their graveyard.
2013–present: The legend rule only cares about legendary permanents that are controlled by the same player. If a player controls multiple with the same name, the player chooses one to keep and puts the rest into their graveyard.
2017–present: All planeswalkers are legendary permanents and follow the legend rule, which cares about names rather than subtypes. The planeswalker uniqueness rule is obsolete.
M10: Major and Miscellaneous
A lot of things changed in July 2009 with the release of Magic 2010. Mana burn went away and mana pools now emptied at the end of each step as opposed to the end of every phase. Sadly, some of the coolest plays in Magic history no longer worked as a result. To wit: Mike Long once floated six black mana, cast Kaervek's Spite before drawing for the turn, sacrificed all his permanents as an additional cost, had the spell countered by Memory Lapse, and then re-drew and re-cast the Spite to win the game. Legend has it that David Brucker won a game of Limited by taking mana burn, making his opponent believe that Pulse of the Forge was coming — the opponent smartly took mana burn as well, down to 5, which would have rendered the Pulse unable to kill — only for Brucker to reveal, rather than Pulse, to be holding Shrapnel Blast.
Deathtouch and lifelink became static abilities, and exile became an in-game zone, suddenly off-limits for all kinds of Wishes. But the big paradigm shift concerned combat damage. Between 1999 and 2009, attackers and blockers had had their damage output locked in and put onto the stack, and were then free to leave or change into something more comfortable before the damage was dealt. Mogg Fanatic could trade with a 2/2 creature. Morphling could assign 5 damage, but be 1/5 when taking damage. Sakura-Tribe Elder could kill Savannah Lions and get a land instead of doing just one or the other. Artifact creatures could both trade in combat and be sacrificed to Arcbound Ravager or, for about two months, to Thopter Foundry.
Interestingly, Mogg Fanatic, the posterboy for damage on the stack, today works exactly the way it did at Tempest's release (save for some, largely irrelevant, technicalities of the old "damage-prevention step"). In fact, the Fanatic has worked this way for the majority of its existence now, and you rarely hear from the damage-on-the-stack fanatics anymore either. Hard to imagine in 2009, this intermezzo has simply moved to the discard pile of history. There it joined interrupts, mana sources, damage-prevention steps, substance, the madness timing window, planeswalker uniqueness, planeswalker damage redirection, and lots of other concepts once important, some mentioned above and many more beyond the scope of this article.
Will the almost-all-upside version of the companion rules fade into obscurity too? Will a possible change contradict the text on the cards themselves? Or will the banned list have to serve as a perpetual reminder of another failed experiment? What do you think? In any case, this little trip down memory lane shows that Magic has gone through all of these options before. The game tends to survive and thrive.
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