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Attention to Detail #26
Uphill, Both Ways
by Jordan Kronick
June 16, 2006

In Mark Rosewater's more recent column, he said something that made me just a little grumpy. He said, “I don't know what I would have done for Eron the Relentless Week”, referring to the current Akroma week on magicthegathering.com. This bugged me because there's some implication that Eron isn't interesting or that people don't care about the old guy. For me, Eron has always represented everything that was great about the Legends (note: not Legendary Creatures) of Old. Today I'm going to go on yet another self-serving trip down memory lane. I'm going to take a look at some of the old legends that made the game so great in its infancy and some of the new legends. And while nobody can deny that when it comes to tournament effectiveness, Kokusho the Evening Star is way better than Merieke Ri Berit (go ahead and look that one up, I'll wait). But I hope to refresh the memories of the old players and instruct the newer ones on just why things were so cool back when Legends were Legends.

Let's start with that particular three-colored hard-to-pronounce Legend that I just mentioned. Back in the days of Arabian Nights, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires and Ice Age, gaining control of your opponent's creatures with your creatures was a very cool thing. There were a number of ways to pull it off. The first such card came from the first expansion in the form of Old Man of the Sea. Unfortunately for Arabian Nights (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the idea of a “Legend” hadn't been invented yet. That's why there's so many creatures with types like “Sindbad” (how could there possibly be another variety of Sindbad besides Sindbad?). When Legends came around, the ability was made into probably it's most unconditional form, Rubinia Soulsinger. She cost 5 mana across three colors and was a 2/3 (an unfortunate size in the days of Lightning Bolt), but everyone loved her. The ability to steal someone else's creature until it died and then steal something else was totally cool. The Dark gave us another conditional version with Preacher (another favorite from my favorite set) and Fallen Empires gave us the very lame Seasinger. Finally we get to Ms. Ri Berit in Ice Age. Merieke did something that none of her predecesors did. The problem with Old Man, Rubinia, Preacher and Seasinger was that when they died, you lost the creature you had stolen and your opponent was suddenly back in the game. Merieke resolved this by taking her stolen property with her when she died. That's the most basic view of the card. Combo junkies like myself immediately noticed that if you could repeatedly untap her, you could slowly kill off your opponent's creatures. Ice Age happened to give us the perfect tool in Norrit. So what does all this have to do with why old legends are cooler than new Legendary Creatures? Well, it's because the things that Legends could do back then were things that you could only find on a Legend. Legends were (for the most part) big and splashy and did unique things. They weren't designed to just be better versions of existing creatures, but rather to be something very special. Rubinia might just be “a better Seasinger”, but in reality she was the card that inspired all of those creature stealers that followed her – right up to Dissension with Cytoplast Manipulator. As the design space for Magic has been more completely explored in the past 13 years, it's harder and harder to come up with truly unique abilities for legendary creatures. These days, a legends end up being things like Silvos, Rogue Elemental, Yokora the Prisoner or Sisters of Stone Death. They're big and flashy like the old legends were, but their abilities are nothing new. Silvos (and later Kodama of the North Tree) are cool because they represent some of the very best creatures for that amount of mana. But they aren't doing anything particularly cool. Maro touched on this when he described his dislike for Akroma. The only unique thing about Akroma is that she's got more abilities crammed together than anything else. But those abilities are nothing special in and of themselves.

The great old legends of yore were the creatures that inspired the great non-legends of the modern day, in many cases. While Ball Lightning pioneered the territory of the “big red haste creature”, Eron the Relentless was the one who gave it some staying power. Later creatures like Skizzik owe their existence to Eron as much – if not more – than they do to Ball Lightning. And the reason is that Eron did something new as well. He took an existing design, improved on it in a way that could not normally be found on a creature (red regenerators are quite hard to come by), and turned it into a whole new classification. Eventually, some of the abilities that legends made so popular became the identity of their colors. Eron may not have been the first red creature with haste, but he certainly helped set it as being prominently red's domain. This isn't always just for mono-colored legends, either. One of the most popular legends around the big multiplayer games of 1994 was Nebuchadnezzar. Back then the game was a lot slower and more ponderous and Old Neb' was a huge hit. The ability to slowly deplete your opponent's hand of cards of your choosing was fantastic. It still is, though now players prefer it to happen for 1 black mana and be attached to a sorcery rather than a creature. Nebuchadnezzar helped define black/blue as the color combination that had the easiest time manipulating your opponent's card-based resources. This was expanded on in the multicolored cards of Ice Age, Mirage and beyond. All the way up to the Dimir – the undisputed masters of card resource manipulation in Ravnica. Circu and Szadek may be unique in their abilities, but they owe their very existence to Nebuchadnezzar.

Some of you may be looking at those three black/blue legends and saying, “but Circu and Szadek are so much cooler than Nebuchadnezzar – and neither of their abilities can be found anywhere else”. That's true, but I think it's important to look at the bigger picture. What do Szadek and Circu do? At their most basic, they mill your opponent's library for cards. That's one of the oldest abilities there is. All these guys did was take a very well established mechanic, soup it up a bit and use it as their calling card. Now think of what Nebuchadnezzar did. His ability to cause discard of your choice. That did not exist until Nebuchadnezzar. Before him, discard was always random or the opponent's choice – whether from Hypnotic Specter, Mind Twist or Disrupting Scepter. Nebuchadnezzar invented something entirely new. Instead of just creating a new way of doing something old, he used an old method (discard) to a new end (selective disruption). He was also one of the first cards to let you repeatedly look at your opponent's hand. Mind Twist was an amazing card, but gave you no information about the remaining cards in your opponent's hand. Usually that's not such a big deal, but sometimes it's nice to know. Above all else, Nebuchadnezzar was an activated discard ability on a creature. That was also new at the time. Hypnotic Specter was the first discard creature, but you had to hit someone with it for it to work. In the defensive games of old (which consisted of large decks with painfully low land counts), getting a Hypnotic Specter past your opponent's army of Serra Angels, Mahamotis or Shivan Dragons was a bit of a pain. Nebuchadnezzar got around all that and went right for the source.

An old legend didn't have to do something new to be cool, but it helped even in the smallest amounts. One of my old favorites was the master of Hammerheim himself, Bartel Runeaxe. As I mentioned earlier, stealing creatures was a huge thing back then. And the most widely used method of accomplishing this was with Control Magic. Back then, Green wasn't as great at destroying enchantments as it is today and Black and Red were just as bad as ever. Getting your huge fatty stolen for 4 mana by the blue player was always a pain. Bartel got around this by being unenchantable – a new thing at the time. But more importantly, he was big and nasty. 6/5 with Vigilance for 6 mana was great back then – heck, it would be pretty great right now, too. Bartel never really caught on with the tournament crowd (who were starting to discover fast decks full of Kird Apes, Scryb Sprites, Lightning Bolts and Giant Growths) but he was a casual favorite. In the recent past of Magic, another 6-power creature caught on as well. Kodama of the North Tree owes a lot to Bartel. It represents one of the best hard-to-remove fatties of recent memory. The fact that it is legendary is probably the only reason it could have ever seen print at such a power level, in fact. Kamigawa block allowed for a lot of big nasty creatures to get printed in this way, but many of them followed the same style as the Kodama – something that doesn't really “seem legendary”. It's power level is very high, but in the end it has no personality. The legends of old all had personality (in fact, some of them didn't have much else – look at the uncommon gold creatures from Legends for examples). Maybe it's just a side effect of Kamigawa, which was so bogged down with legendary creatures as to be kind of silly, but there's not as much fun that comes from playing a newer legend.

Back in the mid-90's, the color pie was a lot less defined than it is now. Legends in particular often had abilities that didn't really make sense for their color. Eron the Relentless, as previously mentioned, has regeneration. Although Uthden Troll (oi, oi, oi) appeared in Alpha, the ability quickly became the domain of Black and Green. Eron used it to great effect, by combining regeneration with a fragile toughness. Another Legend which similarly had an ability that was particularly out of flavor but very useful was Sol'Kanar the Swamp King. He's black/red/blue but he has a life gain ability – something normally associated with white and green. I remember playing games shortly after Legends came out where people tried to combine Sol'Kanar with Greed, to draw more cards quickly. People laughed at that kind of synergy back then, but once it found a new home in Drain Life/Necropotence, it was hardly a laughing matter. Legends used to give colors access to abilities that were outside their spehere of influence, even then. For the best example, just look at Dakkon Blackblade. How the precursor to Molimo started out being mostly blue, I'll never know.

Legends used to tell stories as they were played. They represented the first time that concerns of flavor truly had an impact on the way decks were built. The first restricted lists included all legends – reasoning that since they are unique, you shouldn't be able to play with more than one. The legendary status of a creature these days seems often like an afterthought. Either it is used as a way to contain the power of something very good (like Kodama of the North Tree or Umezawa's Jitte) or as a way to prevent a card from being combo-degenerate in multiples (like Circu could be). And since every rare creature in Kamigawa was a Legendary one, they are even less special. Once upon a time, people used to build “legend decks”, where every creature was a legend. They still do that, but suddenly it doesn't mean playing 4 colors and having nothing that cost less than 4. Instead it can be a cohesive deck that uses legends no differently than it would another powerful creature. In short, Legends aren't special anymore. Just as many non-legendary creatures are printed with what passes for a unique ability, these days. And far too many legends just seem to be lame creatures with the prefix tacked on. If Mannichi the Fevered Dream had shown up in Legends, it would have been mocked as the worst Legend of all time and completely undeserving of the title.

So what can be done about this? Well, there's not much that Wizards can do to discover more new design space for legends. They do what they can already. What can be done is for players to start appreciating Legends – new and old – for the unique entitiies they are. Appreciate your legends and let them tell a story when you play them. When you play a Kodama of the North Tree in a casual game, remember that it's the personification of one of the sacred trees of Kamigawa – and not just a really big Troll Ascetic.
 



 

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