Revised Core Set: The Basis of Magic
When you look into the origins of historic success stories, like Magic, it becomes clear that they don’t appear fully-formed overnight. Magic: the Gathering is a combination of hundreds or thousands of ideas. And as whole and intertwined as they may seem to players today, in the game’s early years things were still being invented and added to it bit by bit. It’s surprisingly hard to point at any single set and say “here is where Magic as we know it begins”.
But if you were going to pick one? Then Revised Edition, released in April 1994, is probably the best place to point.
STRENGTH COMES FROM THE CORE
1994 is represented in Magic history by no fewer than five unique set releases, but Revised Edition was its only Core Set. We had previously seen Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited, but they were closer to print runs of the same set - hence the common ABU abbreviation.
Revised Edition was the first chance for Wizards of the Coast to step out and start making changes to the core of their game. Having played with new mechanics across Arabian Nights, Antiquities and the still-in-design Ice Age and Mirage, the Magic designers had figured out a much more complete vision for the game than when Alpha was in development. With this new core set players suddenly saw a year’s worth of design lessons integrated into the fabric of Magic, all at once.
A SYMBOLIC IMPROVEMENT
Tapping lands and other permanents had been part of the game since day one, but its original templating, like most of the original rules, was shockingly loose. Individual cards would spell out to players when and how to tap them, as well as the effects of doing so.
Things got especially complicated where artifacts were concerned. Bad news, since the card type had become even more prominent with the release of Antiquities! The culprit was the original “artifact rule”, which meant that, as a card type, artifacts were considered to have no effect while tapped. They were simply “turned off”!
While cool from a flavor perspective, this rule meant that artifacts needed a separate system to control usage of their abilities. The solution was to print the cards as either “Mono Artifact”, “Poly Artifact” or “Continuous Artifact” - showing their effect as working once a turn cycle, multiple times, or as a static ability.
Revised Edition presented a solution to this clunky and unintuitive system by inventing Magic’s first “tap symbol”! Not only did this drastically improve the templating of any permanent with an activated ability, it replaced the Mono/Poly/Continous artifact system with something that appeared in the rules text, and was consistent with other card types. The tap symbol has gone on to be among Magic’s great hallmarks of design.
GET YOUR TIMING RIGHT
The tapping rules weren’t the only essential element of modern Magic to be added in Revised Edition. Even something as vital as the rules for when cards and effects can be played - the system which today sets Magic apart from competitors like Hearthstone - was very different in the days of ABU. The difference is best summed up by the question any player from a later era asks when they pick up an early printing of the iconic Dark Ritual:
“Wait, what the heck is an Interrupt?!?”
Cards like these (and early Counterspell) had to be templated as Interrupts because, for the first year of Magic, there was no such thing as the Stack. Effects just happened as you played them - and if more than one effect triggered at once, then those things would “resolve simultaneously unless a conflict arises”. Any card or ability which might need to be played in response to something else - like Counterspell - had to be made an Interrupt and explicitly spell out its effect in rules text.
That just doesn’t sound like the Magic we know, with its intricate yet robust on-Stack interactions, and we can thank Revised Edition for adding the game’s most dynamic zone. While it would take several more iterations for the rules to reach their current state, defining the Stack may have done more to increase the design space of future Magic sets than anything else post-Alpha. The game today would be unrecognizable without it.
While Revised Edition certainly left its mark on the rules of Magic, the most notable changes for 1994’s player base were to the selection of cards carried over from ABU. Wizards of the Coast had been keeping an eye on the results from the budding tournament scene, and had noticed the tremendous power gap between certain outliers from the Core Set and the rest of the pack.
Such incredibly strong effects were never meant to be a common part of gameplay - Richard Garfield’s original design had revolved around players buying only a few packs of cards apiece, so that any specific rare card would only show up here and there across a city. With the game having taken a very different path, it would not do to have Black Lotuses dominating casual Magic indefinitely, and so Revised Edition removed the Power Nine from the Core Set card list.
Also gone were a grab-bag of other cards deemed too powerful (Sinkhole), violations of the color pie (Psionic Blast), or just too complicated and annoying to play with (Chaos Orb, Camouflage). They were replaced by a selection of “greatest hits” from Arabian Nights and Antiquities.
NEVER TO BE REPRINTED
There were still quite a few powerful cards left in the Revised core set; Sol Ring, the original dual-lands and Demonic Tutor are all still highly sought after today. But the decision to remove the Power Nine proved portentous for the fortunes of players who owned them from their ABU printings.
Revised Edition had a print run of roughly 500 million cards - many times the combined total of ABU. While an Underground Sea from Alpha can be worth thousands of dollars depending on its condition, that’s still a far cry from the eye-watering $166K USD that a record-breaking Alpha Black Lotus sold for this year. By removing the Lotus and its Moxen friends from future Core Sets, Revised Edition ensured their status as the ultimate collectors’ trophies.
SETTING CORE VALUES
The role of Core Sets has often been questioned in Magic’s recent history. There was even a period of some years where they vanished completely! But in the formative first years of Magic, Revised Edition was a huge step forward, the first evolution from the rough draft of ABU. In the overall development of the game, Revised is truly invaluable.
As the first Core Set to receive a significant print run, Revised Edition is also remembered as the set which introduced many now-veteran players to Magic. Unlike ABU, its booster packs remained in print for years after release. Revised Edition was the foundation of Magic throughout these early years of growth - and it is still a vital part of the game today!
Without access to Revised Edition’s supply of white-bordered dual lands, the beloved Legacy format would be inaccessibly expensive. And of course, without its changes to modernize the tapping and timing rules, Magic as a whole would be unrecognizable. For these reasons and more, Revised Edition stands out as an imposing landmark in the progression of Magic.