As I compose this, I’m waiting in the antechamber of a local tattoo parlor—called, coincidentally enough, Ophidian Tattoo. I say “coincidentally,” because back in the dim lost days of Magic, Ophidian was one of the best creatures for control decks—Jon Finkel’s “Forbidian” deck used the unassuming Snake (and Thawing Glaciers) to keep his hand full enough to buy back Forbid and soft-lock his opponents. By modern standards—especially when compared to Ohran Viper or Tomebound Lich—Ophidian is unplayable, but it used to be feared and adored. Nothing lasts forever; neither Ozymandias nor Ophidian will have an eternal legacy.

Ophidian is full of curios and artifacts—ram’s skulls, bell jars full of ivy, a sign that says “please stay distant 6’—that’s three opossums,” which is suitable, as that’s why I’m here today. I’m getting a possum entwined in kudzu pseudo-permanently inscribed onto my forearm. I say “pseudo,” because it will last a few more decades, at most, before being consigned to the fire with the rest of my carcass. Nothing lasts forever.

Possums themselves only live a short time, even if they avoid getting taken out by a passing Suburban or a hawk. They tend to live a year or two in the wild, and up to four in captivity. They’re fragile, passing from life to death faster than it takes to get your undergrad, but they’re hardy and highly functional. Possums, to me, are a symbol of resiliency—they’re perfectly evolved for their environmental niche. Some things last long enough.

Magic has been around for the majority of my life, and its core gameplay is surprisingly resilient. Mechanics come and go, but a Mountain taps for (R) in 1993 and in 2020 and Savannah Lions swings for 1/10 of an opponent’s life the exact same way it did back before many of the game’s players were born. It’s almost humbling to go back to the early sets revisit those vanished mechanics—Banding, Cumulative Upkeep, and Landhome (e.g., Sea Serpent) were resonant gestures, but not worth the hassle. Cumulative Upkeep is a superb way to represent a wizard having to maintain focus to sustain a spell or creature, even at the cost of their life or knowledge; but in practice, it was needlessly clunky and often underpowered. Of course, that’s befitting Ice Age, a set to which time has not been kind. (But see.)

Designed by the team of University of Pennsylvania math and physics grad students who originally tested Alpha with Richard Garfield, Ice Age was conceived as a side experiment concurrently with Alpha. Per designer Skaff Elias, it was meant to be “a better basic set” where “where environmental changes for all practical purposes changed the cards themselves.” Ice Age was a success, but it mutated significantly in the four year period between initial design and print; it was a standalone set full of reprints (which, to players who weren’t able to get their hands on Alpha/Beta cards, was incredibly important) that backed up Magic’s successful proof of concept with a solid iteration of what a Magic set was. Alpha/Beta/Unlimited was innovative, Legends was thrilling, but Ice Age proved that the Magic model was sustainable and dependable.

The next block was a 180 from Ice Age—far from the gelid wastes of Terisiare and Kjeldor, we traveled to the humid tropics of Jamuraa. I love Mirage block’s setting, because, along with Ravnica, it’s one of Magic’s homier environments. It’s a place of open-air markets and breezy architecture and actual, honest-to-Shauku culture. There’s peril and Ravenous Vampires, but there are also quiet pleasures and poetry. It’s a world of art and commerce, not of survival and brutality. The basic lands, like Ice Age’s Snow-Covered basics, have been reprinted and praised for two decades; the art, as overseen by art director Sue Ann Harkey, is stunning. But any discussion of Mirage’s successes has to be balanced by its failures, beginning with its core mechanic: Phasing.

Phasing was designed to give the player a slight discount on the mana cost in exchange for a significant drawback. Breezekeeper, for example, saved you U off an Air Elemental, but you, under Phasing’s original rules, would only get to attack with it once it’s phased out (turn five) and then phased back in (turn six). Your damage output would be the same as an Air Elemental, but you wouldn’t have been able to block with it on turn five. Phasing also had the completely arbitrary baggage of not triggering “enters the battlefield” abilities when objects phase in, but triggering “leaves the battlefield” abilities when objects phase out.

For years, Phasing was a joke of a mechanic; there’s a reason it didn’t appear in Time Spiral, where it would have been ideal. Phasing had no reminder text, because it wouldn’t fit on any of the cards. In the pre-smartphone age, you essentially had to trust whomever was most confident. It was a mechanic for lawyers, not for players, and it was thrown down the memory hole for twenty years, except for Magic trivia questions and the most trollish of Commander players. But like all good temporal anomalies, it showed back up unexpectedly on Teferi’s Protection, with a modern solution: just ignore it. The elegance of “treat it as though it does not exist” suggests a larger trend—an assumption that the rules of the game will be enforced by digital safeguards. Dominaria’s “Historic batching” mechanic, the return of Phasing, the retconning of Hounds to Dogs—these all imply a level of enforcement beyond a physical judge. (And then there’s Oubliette.)

Phasing isn’t the only peculiarity from Mirage Block, although the other is a footnote: Substance. When Mirage came to Magic Online in 2006, there was an issue with several cards (Necromancy, Mystic Veil, Armor of Thorns, Spider Climb, etc.). Under post-1999 rules, if you cast these enchantments at instant speed, you’d have to sacrifice them them at the start of your end phase, so, for example, Spider Climb wouldn’t save your creature from lethal damage, but simply delay its death. The intent of these was clear, though: you could either cast them at Sorcery speed for a permanent boost or at Instant speed for a temporary trick. So the Wizards rules team created a mechanic called “Substance” in 2005, where these enchantments were sacrificed when they lost “Substance,” a game term with no meaning. Seriously—the ruling for Substance was “502.49a Substance is a static ability with no effect.” This means, of course, that from 1999 to 2005, these ten cards (plus a couple of others like Waylay) simply didn’t work, unless you sort of waved your hand over the rules ramifications.

My dominant arm is now stinging and tender and thoroughly bepossumed, so we’ll wrap this up. Magic evolves, as all things that wish to continue living must. It also looks to its past, as all things that wish to continue understanding must; the things it sloughed off become relevant again in the present. Symbols, whether they be tattoos or the rules of a game, take on new resonances as the host grows, and in returning, we find entirely new territory. Nothing lasts forever, but some things are almost permanent.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.