Antiquities: The Power of Antiquity
There are quite a few reasons to celebrate Antiquities, one of the standout sets from the early years of Magic: The Gathering. Released at the start of 1994, it set the tone for a year in which Magic had a whopping five set releases and exploded in popularity and sales worldwide, winning many games industry awards along the way. The design choices and success of Antiquities were essential to unlocking this potential - without it, we might literally not have the Magic we know today.
After the success of the original Core Set, Antiquities was developed concurrently alongside several other expansions, which were then released one by one across late 1993 and early 1994. Each of these expansions was being handled by a different group of designers and playtesters. But since nobody at Wizards of the Coast really knew what Magic was meant to be yet, the assumptions each group made ended up wildly different.
WHAT IS MAGIC MEANT TO BE?
It’s hard to imagine a world before the current Magic status quo, but as the first collectible card game of its type, modern wisdom regarding the audience’s needs and buying habits was yet to be figured out. Richard Garfield, the game’s original designer, first assumed players would only buy a few packs of Magic and then trade or bet cards on matches to eventually create better decks. Instead, they bought packs en masse, making “rare” cards like Black Lotus far more common than was planned.
When Garfield then sat down to design his first expansion set, 1993’s Arabian Nights, he wanted to have the cards printed with distinctive purple backs, so that players could only mix them into their Core Set decks by mutual agreement! Other designers had wacky ideas of their own: Ice Age originally had only rare and uncommon cards, with the idea that all the common card designs the game needed were in the Core Set. Fallen Empires had far fewer unique cards, instead choosing to print multiple versions of each card that featured different artworks. If any of these sets had become the template for future Magic design, things would be very different today.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Instead, the design team led by unsung hero Skaff Elias were the ones who would define the style and identity of Magic. Before they started work on Antiquities, the Core Set had only used generic fantasy creatures with nonsense words like “Llanowar” or “Serra” added on just for effect. Arabian Nights cribbed famous characters and concepts from the public domain book, creating cards for Aladdin and Sindbad.
Elias and co., with years of wargaming experience under their belts, sat down and plotted out the first original Magic world and story. It was a war between brothers Urza and Mishra; powerful wizards, but in a different sort of fantasy world where powerful technology and lost civilizations shaped the course of history. The Brothers’ War, fought over these Antiquities of the ancient Thran race, was written out as a hugely detailed history, and then cards were designed to fit the characters, war machines and artifacts thus imagined.
The results cannot be overstated. Even without being able to make cards for all the characters they dreamed up - Mishra’s primary apprentice Ashnod has never been depicted - the level of detail and creativity in this fantasy saga was keenly felt by those who played with Antiquities. The concepts evoked were compelling enough to allow Urza’s history to continue in Ice Age and Alliances the following year. With that, the world of Dominaria was confirmed as Magic’s main setting, and Urza its most pivotal figure. The ideas of the Antiquities team would be the foundation for Magic’s amazing success and inextricably linked with the game forevermore.
ARTIFACTS OF POWER
Antiquities also made a historic impact with its mechanics and card designs. Considering how hit and miss these early sets were, the consistent design of Antiquities is only more impressive.
Mishra’s Workshop is a defining pillar of Vintage, allowing for explosive starts from all-artifact decks. Strip Mine, the original land-destroying land, helped to keep Workshop in check and created the blueprint for more fair effects Wasteland and Ghost Quarter in later sets. And those two are just the cards overpowered enough to get confined to Vintage! Others were so well designed that they remain unbanned in Constructed to this day.
Mishra’s Factory is still played despite competition from its ideological descendants Blinkmoth Nexus and Mutavault. Cards like Transmute Artifact, Shatterstorm and Feldon’s Cane are effective niche players; the ever-hungry Atog and Walking Ballista ancestor Triskelion have terrorised both Commander and traditional Constructed in their day. Candelabra of Tawnos and Tawnos’ Coffin are uniquely powerful effects that have become rare and costly cards as a result. Ashnod’s Altar is the sacrifice outlet/mana generator by which all future models will be judged.
And that, really, is the biggest claim to design fame that any set can put forward. Antiquities invented a general power level and specific card designs so well regarded that they became the inspiration which future cards would riff on.
URZA’S REAL LEGACY
Looking through the set, a shocking number of cards would be reprinted in Core Sets for years to come, like Hurkyl’s Recall and Ornithopter. Others would see slight revisions, like Millstone or The Rack, which still holds its place in Modern today. And of course, Antiquities saw the iconic first printing of the lands known as UrzaTron. Dominant in Standard, Modern and Pauper, Tron has become the definitive “big mana” deck, making the Tower, Mine and Power Plant some of the most polarizing cards in Magic.
The legacy of Urza and his twisted brother, of Skaff Elias and his hardworking and visionary team of designers, has only become more visible in Magic’s recent years. The Dominaria set released in 2018 re-centered their world as the spiritual home of Magic, containing many references to Antiquities and at least one direct reprint in Sage of Lat-Nam! The immensely popular Commander sets have given Brothers War characters like Tawnos their own creature cards, 25 years after they were originally created. And as long as tournament players invoke the secrets of Urza’s Tron to summon his scion Karn Liberated on turn three, the Magic world will be sure to remember Antiquities!