Legends: "I am Legend"
A strange consequence of fantasy’s prominent place in media is that concepts like sorcery, elves and dragons have become... generic. The landscape of geek/gaming culture is even more heavily saturated with Tolkien-esque derivatives. This makes it hard for a new product like Magic: The Gathering to establish its own identity - especially when it has to be conveyed entirely through the cards themselves. Legends is the expansion set which really stood out in the game’s early days, and laid the foundation for Magic’s enduring appeal.
OUR STORY BEGINS...
In the first few sets released in 1993, the story and flavor of Magic was clearly an afterthought. The maths tutors and research students designing the game cobbled together whatever art they could license with flavor quotes from public domain literature to add the barest identity to the game pieces they devised. While some cards had names hinting at deeper lore, like Serra Angel, players asking “who or what is Serra?” would have to wait years before that question had a real answer.
Attempts to develop the identity of the game through the first couple of expansion sets were more enthusiastic, but not any more cohesive. Richard Garfield, Magic’s original mastermind, led the creation of Arabian Nights, a set which drew its flavor wholly from the public-domain collection of tales. Cards like Aladdin’s Ring and Sindbad evoked a sense of character, but not one which future sets could readily build upon or meshed with the game mechanics.
Simultaneously, designer Skaff Elias was helming the team behind the game’s second expansion set, Antiquities. This set added a unique spice to Magic’s fantasy soup, introducing themes of scientific magic and mechanical warfare with raygun-gothic technology. It also created Magic’s first storyline and cast of named characters, laying the foundation for a decades-long continous fantasy saga. Alas, very little of this information was actually included on the cards, and it would take until the late ‘90s for the story potential of the Brothers’ War to be realised.
DUNGEONS & DESIGNERS
The next expansion off the rank was Legends, which was left in the hands of WotC co-founder Steve Conard and his gaming friend Robin Herbert. Avid fans of Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games, Conard and Herbert sensed that Magic lacked the sort of epic characters who normally lead tales of myth and fantasy.
“Richard had created mysterious and wonderful creatures. It was clear, however, that his creatures were of species and that there were multitudes of them. There wasn’t anything unique in the game. More importantly, there weren’t any true heroes either. There was no Conan, no Han Solo, or anyone like them. The game needed heroes. Richard already had a card called "hero" (later renamed Benalish Hero), so we called them "Legends."
An initial review with the powers-that-be at WotC was a huge success, so Herbert and Conard set about cribbing characters en masse from their roleplaying campaigns and translating them into card designs for Legends. The result is a bewildering array of wizards, barbarians, seductresses and demons which each seem to have stepped out of a different universe and into the booster pack.
Despite the success of Legends as a set and as a product (it won the GAMA award for “Game Accessory of the Year” in 1994), this approach to Magic story development was never revisited. The decision was made to focus the story on the world of Dominaria, and the events of Antiquities. These standalone legends, so clearly harkening to grand personal histories those summoning them could never know, eventually became as so much Magic trivia. At least, until the rise of Elder Dragon Highlander.
COMMANDING THE MASSES
In the last decade of Magic’s long tenure the format known as Elder Dragon Highlander, or more officially Commander, has come to dominate casual play. Previously the marketing, product lines and public discussion of Magic had concerned itself with only the tournament scene and competitive, strategic deckbuilding.
Suddenly the stone was overturned, and revealed was a massive demographic of players who had simply never been represented by that take on the game - permanently changing views on what was important and appealing about Magic as a product and an experience.
There are a few reasons why the Commander format was so successful at hooking in players, but the actual concept of having each deck be “commanded” by a specific, named legend from Magic lore is key to the phenomenon. The Commander lends both a mechanical and ideological identity to your pile of random spells, and creates a sense of storyline in every game by their presence and actions.
With the amount of money and effort most players invest into their Magic decks, it makes sense that they invest in them emotionally also. We want to be able to imagine our deck as we would a RPG character, or at least be able to describe it as more than the sum of its parts. Even the earliest Magic players felt a kinship with trusty staples like Lightning Bolt or game-swinging monsters like Shivan Dragon and Juzam Djinn. But the Legends creatures, whose powerful abilities and varied artwork hinted at a history and character beyond what the mere card could capture, took this to a new level.
Just look at Angus Mackenzie compared to fellow Cleric of the era, Samite Healer. Besides having a more powerful and interesting ability, Angus’s name, art and flavor text give him an instant feeling of character and story. When you cast and activate this card you can imagine Angus, a staunch defender of the peace, guarding the sacred land of Karakas from brutish interlopers. You can even read his flavor text quote like the one-liner reeled off by a powerful hero as he enters the battlefield to turn the tide in your favor.
It feels good to play cards like this one, and if you’re the only player in your group with an Angus Mackenzie in your deck it’s hard not to feel like he’s your personal hero and avatar. Legendary creatures are the appeal of Commander, and thus one of the strongest elements of Magic as a whole - and both the card type and the format owe their existence to Legends.
ROCKING THE DRAGONS
So, how did Elder Dragon Highlander come about through Legends? The key is all in that kooky name. “Highlander” has become a relatively well-known term amongst connoisseurs of unusual Magic formats; it simply indicates that “there can be only one!” of each card in your deck. The “Elder Dragon” part harkens back to an early group of Magic players in Alaska, who were so in love with the Legends creatures that they set up special game rules to better tell their stories. This is where the idea of choosing a commander and building a deck in their colors began, and the original group of commanders were the dominant and unique Elder Dragons.
These costly and powerful beasts represent all the best strengths of Legends design. They are colorful - did I mention that Legends also invented multicolored cards? - distinctive, and memorable. These cards, presented without any flavor text, backstory or additional context, managed to inspire not only the Commander format but also multiple future cycles of three-color legendary dragons made in their image.
The most powerful among these cards, the bookish and grandfatherly-looking Nicol Bolas, has gone on to a long and illustrious career as the central villain of modern-day Magic lore! Through him, other Legends characters like Tetsuo Umezawa have been able to slide into quite important roles in the current Magic canon. And so, despite its humble origins in a D&D game and being glossed over in continuity, Legends has managed to have a monumental impact on both the story of Magic, and how its players tell stories through their games.