Soldevi Surveyor: Darksteel
- Sancho Napora
Poking through the strata of Magic's history, today Sancho has struck a layer particularly rich with the things archaeologists really dig (cough). Artifacts made up nearly half of the small expansion Darksteel—the subject of this installment of Soldevi Surveyor. Some still shape Eternal formats 15 years later.
Not following Magic for a decade and a half left me with thousands of cards to discover upon returning to the game. But not only had the cards changed their style and their wording along with some rule changes, entirely new card types and subtypes had appeared in the course of my absence.
My renewed interest in the game was sparked during Kaladesh block and one of the first things I had to do was to familiarize myself with Vehicles—a new subtype introduced in Kaladesh. At that time discussions were ripe about how Wizards had pushed this new kind of artifact to assure its popularity, and parallels were drawn to the introduction of another artifact type during Mirrodin block more than ten years earlier.
Ashnod's Clunky Battle Gear
Mirrodin, just like Kaladesh, had been a block with a prominent artifact theme and introduced the Equipment subtype. Equipment was an excellent idea. They make logical sense in the game setting as artifacts that the player can attach to various creatures and that do not disappear when the creature dies such as Auras do.
The designers of Magic had already experimented with what may be termed proto-Equipment early on. The game's second expansion ever, Antiquities, featured Tawnos's Weaponry and Ashnod's Battle Gear, Fallen Empires added the Scott Kirschner illustrated Zelyon Sword and Spirit Shield, and Urza's Saga gave us Endoskeleton. However, these cards came with inconsistent wording and clunky rules text, which is why creating the Equipment subtype was a smart move by Wizards; I don't think any players today would disagree with that.
Push Your Darlings
While the people behind Magic seem to be quite content designing cards that never see any play after they rotate out of Standard—and at times even cards that never see any play at all, whether in Constructed or Limited formats—their philosophy is noticeably different when it comes to new set mechanics. Often the developers seem to be so fixated on making new set mechanics a success, that they push cards with the mechanic to a level where they end up being oppressive. In Darksteel, Skullclamp was a prime example of this.
Whether the story is true, that Skullclamp was a mistake and the card's ridiculous power level was due to last-minute changes without enough time to test them—as Wizards have since said—or whether it was to push the new set, we will never know for sure. We did hear similar claims made from the company very recently in connection with the latest Throne of Eldraine bans.
Standard Held in a Tight Clamp
Skullclamp ended up dominating the format to the point where Wizard's own coverage of the Grand Prix Brussels 2004 finals began its description of the third game by mentioning the extraordinary fact that neither player managed to play one on their first turn. That game was played on May 30th and on June 1st, almost before the virtual ink on the online article had dried, the announcement was made that the 1-mana artifact would be banned in Standard and in Mirrodin Block Constructed. The card did remain legal in all other formats until Type 1.5 became Legacy, at which point it was also banned there.
Nowadays Skullclamp is legal in two formats, one of which is Vintage where it hardly ever sees play. MTGTop8 has it registered in a meager 0.3% of Vintage decks from the last three months. In Commander, however, the card remains a popular way to generate value when a creature dies or to pull off crazy card-draw combos. You can find Skullclamp in 20% of the more than 220.000 Commander decks on EDHrec. Despite its popularity in the casual but often pricey format, the card is cheaply and widely available due to it being an uncommon both originally and in its six Commander set reprintings.
If I Had a Hammer
Another popular uncommon artifact originally from Darksteel is Aether Vial, which has had its rarity shifted upwards in subsequent printings. In Modern Masters and Iconic Masters it was rare and the only other reprints came from From the Vault: Relics and Kaladesh Inventions, placing it in entirely different territory. Prices for the last mentioned version currently start at around €125 here on Cardmarket and the cheapest near-mint English versions cost €20 or more.
Aether Vial did end up on the banned list for the long-forgotten format Extended, and Darksteel even managed to get one of its 165 cards hit by the B'n'R hammer for Magic's strongest format. This was Trinisphere, which was restricted in Vintage in March 2005 because getting one down on turn one on the play using, for example, Mishra's Workshop was deemed too oppressive. One could question if the problem here really was the sphere and not the workshop, but with the triple-mana land from Antiquities a holy cow in that particular format, perhaps this query should not be made at all.
Other cards from Darksteel banned in the same announcement were Arcbound Ravager and Darksteel Citadel, removed from Standard to put a dampener on Affinity running rampant. Before Darksteel, Standard had avoided bans ever since Urza block, so everything excavated suggests that this was indeed a crazy time, which must have given the developers Food for thought regarding the pushing of new mechanics.
Moldy Relic Meshing up Vintage
Whereas some Darksteel cards were immediately broken, one relic from this age had to wait 15 years before realizing its full potential. While Mycosynth Lattice did show some teeth in combination with March of the Machines already back in 2004, it was the printing of Karn, the Great Creator in War of the Spark that really let it shine. Suddenly it became part of a two-card combo making many Modern, Legacy, and Vintage opponents concede when tutored from the sideboard.
After becoming infamous overnight and seeing play in about a fifth of all Vintage sideboards over the summer of 2019, the initial hype seems to have cooled somewhat with the weather. With so many options for broken combos in the format, the card now finds itself in the sideboard of well below 10% of all tournament-registered decks. Even so, Mycosynth Lattice is now a €30+ card in both its original version and as a reprint from Battlebond. For comparison, I bought the Battlebond version for my janky Padeem, Consul of Innovation Commander deck in July 2018 for a little more than €3—and it probably wasn't even the cheapest copy available on Cardmarket at the time.
When looking back at Darksteel, it is relics such as Skullclamp, Aether Vial, Arcbound Ravager, and lately also Mycosynth Lattice that stand tall on the hindsight horizon. But naturally the set was so much more than those four artifacts. Darksteel introduced us to modular and indestructible, and there was also a story about the Elf Glissa Sunseeker and the mighty Memnarch. There even were 92 nonartifact cards.
As someone digging into the unknown past, you cannot always decipher how it was to be there and to experience it firsthand, so I know that a lot has been left out here. If you have any recollections of how it was to play Magic in 2004 or other insights about Darksteel you would like to share, please leave a comment below.
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