From Legends to Dominaria and Everything In Between - Part 2
Taking our cue from Dominaria’s legendary theme, we keep exploring the past of the controversial supertype, entering the era of the Modern border, the Kamigawa explosion, and all the other legends that populated the sets from the second decade of Magic’s history.
We ended Part 1 as the age of the classic card frame was ending. It was a change that signified more than just cosmetic retooling. Concurrently to that, the development of the game would also abandon the original Dominaria setting and send the narrative traveling through planes on a regular basis (you know, like planeswalkers are meant to do). Among the consequences of this, a top-down approach for the design of the sets started becoming more and more common.
Case in point: we’re in 2003, and the block that was going to debut the new layout, Mirrodin, focuses primarily on colorless artifacts, telling us of a plane made entirely of metal. Of the only 10 legends from the block, the noncreature artifacts are the most memorable, particularly Mindslaver, while the Kaldra weapons are an early cycle of legendary cards that combine together; strictly meant for casual gaming, they remain well-remembered due to the novelty of their conception, and for being the first legendary equipment.
Of course, Mirrodin’s robotic universe wasn’t very suitable for the notion of unique permanents, since so much of the plane’s flavor is about mass production and assembly lines. Leave it to the next block to push the legendary type to new heights.
A World of Legends
Another top-down design of this era, Kamigawa block was meant to transpose ancient Japan’s folklore into Magic. The subject matter lent itself to a plane populated by a large number of mythical heroes, fabled places and heritage items, and the block ended up becoming not only the first to feature the legendary keyword massively (147 instances, including 20 flip cards where the type appears in at least one state), but also the first to turn it into the deeper nature of its narrative and mechanics, as opposed to just a subset of cards sharing a supertype.
As a result of this unprecedented application of the legendary concept, Kamigawa also marks one of the moments in which the legend rule undergoes meaningful change: previously, if a second copy of a legendary permanent would be put into the graveyard as a state-based effect, now the same would be true of the original copy as well. Which meant that legendary permanents suddenly have two functions: the one described on their card and as removal for other cards with the same name.
The question is whether this massive legendary incursion actually produced anything worthwhile? Well, Kamigawa cards notoriously lowered the overall power level following Mirrodin's requirement for huge bannings in Standard during the Second Combo Winter. This is reflected in the block’s legends as well, and while there was still room for some truly memorable, still widely played cards like Umezawa’s Jitte, Kataki, War’s Wage, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Azusa, Lost but Seeking, nobody is going to remember the bulk of the Kamigawa legends, which included bone-chilling, “I can’t believe it exists” rares like Mannichi, the Fevered Dream, Shimatsu the Bloodcloaked, The Unspeakable, Shell of the Last Kappa, and Untaidake, the Cloud Keeper.
The sheer quantity of the legendary presence in Kamigawa even gave us an entire tribe, Kirin, made up only by legends, while the localized Samurai had a hefty quantity of legendary guys among their ranks (in an aptly designed, if ultimately underwhelming marriage between flavor and mechanic), including the first and to date only cards ever to ignore the legend rule, Brothers Yamazaki and Mirror Gallery.
The world of Kamigawa legends is also home of the mostly excellent Spirit Dragons (chief among them the combo-oriented Yosei, the Morning Star); the flawed proto-gods of the Myojin cycle, interesting for being Magic’s first mechanical take on the idea of superior beings; key lands like the eternal activator Oboro, Palace in the Clouds and the anti-permission tech Boseiju, Who Shelters All; or just simple but effective beaters like Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Kodama of the North Tree. More highlights came in blue: the defensive Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, the tactical finisher Meloku the Clouded Mirror, and the Wizard tribal champion (but still pretty effective on her own) Azami, Lady of Scrolls.
Finally, Kamigawa brought the legendary supertype full circle with the (then existing) permanent types that were allowed to bear it, introducing nine legendary enchantments (plus other five that result from the Ascendant cycle of flip cards from Saviors of Kamigawa). Of these, Night of Souls’ Betrayal is probably the only one that saw some degree of success, mostly as a sideboard card against token decks; the Honden cycle remains an intriguing idea, though; and, who knows, maybe even the very obscure Day of Destiny will come back with a vengeance in some future, Dominaria-fueled Modern meta (then again, clocking at CMC 4, it probably won’t).
After the Flood
Kamigawa’s model of telling what amounts to a folk tale of heroes and glory within an ancient Asian setting actually had a precedent in Magic, although a mostly forgotten one: five years before, Portal Three Kingdoms, the third and final starter set from the Portal series, used a historical ancient Chinese setting that also contained a larger than usual amount of legends (31), to embody all the real life characters that the set, weirdly, borrowed from China’s actual history. Due to the simplified Portal rules where everything has to happen at sorcery speed, paired with the fact that they are only legal from Legacy upward, none of these legends are particularly memorable, although the recyclers Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed and Hua Tuo, Honored Physician, and the horsemanship-giver Sun Quan, Lord of Wu all occasionally show up in Commander.
The block that followed Kamigawa, Ravnica: City of Guilds, would exploit the legendary type to a lesser but even more structured degree, as the block’s 20 legends are all part of one huge megacycle. Being the multicolored block that introduced the Guilds to the game, and in stark contrast to all of Kamigawa’s cards, which were monocolored, all of Ravnica’s legends are two-colored creatures that represent either a Guildmaster or a Guild Champion (while the land cards representing the Guildhalls, ancestral seats of the Guilds, are conspicuously missing the legendary type, to many a player’s annoyance). It’s peculiar that very few of these saw competitive play, even if several of them make for solid commanders, most notably Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and especially Momir Vig, Simic Visionary, whose Vanguard card would also give birth to its own whimsical MTGO format. However, it’s worth mentioning at least Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and Teysa, Orzhov Scion, both pieces of infinite combos (with Curiosity and Saffi Eriksdotter/Crypt Champion respectively, though the latter dynamic duo has later acquired better accomplices than Teysa).
Coldsnap, the single set from 2006 that was meant to complete the Ice Age block 10 years later, introduced 10 legends to that frosty world. Two of them would become very famous combo pieces, particularly Dark Depths and its indestructible 20/20 avatar, but also Thrumming Stones, which gave Fifth Dawn’s Relentless Rats a new reason for existing (and a deck almost entirely composed by them). Some great commanders here, too, in the form of artifact fetcher Arcum Dagsson and enchantment fetcher Zur the Enchanter.
Later the same year, Time Spiral would begin its grand experiment with the past, the future and the color pie. This also entailed 41 new legends, among which a few very important lands like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Academy Ruins, Flagstones of Trokair, and Gemstone Caverns. But also five new three-colored Dragons and their leader, Commander-ready Scion of the Ur-Dragon. Plus some remarkable little guys, like creature combo queen Saffi Eriksdotter, Death & Taxes exiler Mangara of Corondor, and the ineffable, living ETB trigger Norin the Wary. Rounding out the number of significant legends are color-shifted Akroma, Angel of Fury and flash specialists and future planeswalkers Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and Venser, Shaper Savant. Given its “Dominaria across the sands of time” setting, the block indeed featured quite a number of illustrious characters in card form, though not all of them saw a ton of play, some proving too hard to break, like Jhoira of the Ghitu, Jaya Ballard, Task Mage, and even the very first incarnation of Urza’s own infamous brother in Mishra, Artificer Prodigy.
Big Things Ahead
Unfolding between 2007 and 2008, the 4-set Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block was inspired by Celtic folklore, and that would sound like perfect terrain for legendary shenanigans. However, of the 26 legends currently to its name, the most widely known are the five that have been assigned the supertype only retroactively this year: the five original planeswalkers! Aside from those, the legendary creature that would prove most memorable doesn’t even really identify as a specific hero or heroine, but as a group of three fae siblings collectively known as the Vendilion Clique, whose card would go on to become one of the most sought-after in the history of Modern. Everything else that’s not a planeswalker or the Clique feels smaller by comparison (who even remembers cards like Rosheen Meanderer or Wydwen, the Biting Gale?), albeit Gaddock Teeg is a very respected sideboard hoser, Oona, Queen of the Fae is a powerful finisher, and Doran, the Siege Tower is a build-around-me centerpiece. Also notable: Fling on a stick (plus lifegaining) Brion Stoutarm and the tribal head honchos Reaper King and Rhys the Redeemed from Shadowmoor.
Aside from five new planeswalkers (it’s where everyone’s favorite archenemy Nicol Bolas is first seen in this form, and we meet Elspeth, Sarkhan and Tezzeret), Shards of Alara block contained 16 legends, with Progenitus setting itself as the scariest creature ever printed at the time, and a newfound prime target for Natural Order. The latest multicolored endeavor after Lorwyn/Shadowmoor’s foray into hybrid mana, Alara is home to several Commander darlings like Uril, the Miststalker, Sharuum the Hegemon, Rafiq of the Many and Sen Triplets, with Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund adding in a significant way to [Dragonstorm decks. Unscythe, Killer of Kings is the first colored legendary noncreature artifact, but that’s about the whole extent of its impact.
Zendikar has a similar number of legendary permanents, 16 plus 6 planeswalkers (including the infamous Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and our first encounter with Gideon, Sorin, and a very unimpressive Nissa). Some of these are beloved, especially the ultimate hosing Angels Linvala, Keeper of Silence and Iona, Shield of Emeria; some are utterly forgotten (Wrexial, the Risen Deep, anyone?). But the entire block belongs to the Eldrazi, even if they waited until the last set to actually show up. And so, the defining legends here are undoubtedly Eye of Ugin and the three Eldrazi titans: Kozilek, Butcher of Truth, Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, and the humongous Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, redefining what powerful creature means in the game, and taking Progenitus’s throne after just one year: from all colors, to none.
Next week in Part 3, after a new visit to Mirrodin and Ravnica, we finally meet the Gods.
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