The Dark: Just a Phase They're Going Through...
When it was first designed in 1993, Magic: The Gathering was the brainchild of Richard Garfield and an ingenious team of playtesters at University of Pennsylvania. The game went through a precocious and exciting childhood, selling out several runs of the original core set and the first few expansions.
By its first birthday, Magic was already up to its eighth card set, and while it was still growing fast Garfield’s brainchild was starting to show some personality issues. Expansions had been developed independently of each other by teams of totally different philosophies, which left the overall game chaotic and unbalanced. These balance issues were exacerbated by the presence of absurdly overpowered cards from the very first set, especially the group known as the “Power Nine”. While Garfield and co. had removed these cards from the most recent Core Set, older printings were still dominating the nascent tournament scene.
You could say that the young game of Magic was about to enter a difficult teenage phase. The next expansion set, August 1994’s The Dark, would perfectly capture both the difficulties of a game figuring out how to deal with growing pains and the future potential hidden behind the awkward surface detail.
DARK BY NAME, DARK BY NATURE
The mid 90’s saw a definite macabre turn in pop culture, especially the then-niche enclave of gamer/geek culture. Reflecting trends in music, comics and film, art director Jesper Myrfors wanted to bring that energy to Magic; combining it with his love of horror and European history to create a card set that felt like the Dark Ages. Noticing a gap in the release schedule for Magic, he successfully pitched the idea to Wizards of the Coast and so began work on The Dark.
Like its title and inspiration imply, The Dark is as grim and menacing as a teenager’s band posters. Myrfors has said in interviews that he wanted to break up preconceptions about white cards as representing goodness and morality. Instead, he created cards depicting religious persecution and ideological control, such as Witch Hunter and Holy Light.
Blue and green, colors which had previously been “allied” with white and had spells which specifically targeted red and black, were deemed to have betrayed that allegiance and now helped those enemy colors instead. There were even multicolored cards in these combinations, including the first multicolored non-creature spell, Dark Heart of the Woods.
Card art for the set, regardless of color, features shadowy, ugly figures and blurred compositions. Compared to the generic high fantasy aesthetic or even the magitek stylings of Antiquities, it made The Dark instantly memorable and paved the way for later horror-inspired sets such as Innistrad and Hour of Devastation. The Dark is also by far the most aesthetically consistent despite having nineteen contributing artists - a lasting credit to Myrfors’ art direction.
Flipping the moral depiction of white and its allies was far from the only way that The Dark broke with tradition. Like a rowdy teen the card designs seemed to lash out at the unspoken rules established by earlier sets, toying with effects considered out-of-the-ordinary for each color.
White got a direct damage spell, an effect to gain control of creatures, and a way to return them to hand. Black got Word of Binding, which tapped down creatures instead of destroying them. Red got Fissure, which destroyed creatures instead of dealing them damage. Blue got a cheap way to destroy creatures, repeatedly, and a direct damage or discard spell.
All of these cards show the signs of top-down design. This technique starts with an idea for a card, say “a merfolk assassin”, and decides what that card should be able to do in flavour, then creates rules to match. This results in cards which “make sense” - of course the Merfolk Assassin can only kill creatures which are swimming, represented by the islandwalk keyword! On the other hand, top-down designs treat maintaining game balance and conforming to Magic’s color pie as secondary concerns.
This type of design was widespread in Magic’s early years, but later was mostly phased out as designers came to a more consistent understanding on how certain effects should be represented with mechanics. The Dark is one of the most top-down sets of all time, for better and for worse.
AN AWKWARD ADOLESCENCE
While it was less strange in 1994 to see The Dark depart from color pie rules which had not yet been fully established, that’s not to say that its rebellion against Magic trends was without any controversy! As mentioned earlier, there was a clear issue with power disparity between the strongest and weakest cards in the first few sets of Magic. The designers at Wizards of the Coast wanted to try and lower the ceiling on the strongest cards, while also creating more nuanced designs to keep players engaged.
Unfortunately, these early design teams for The Dark and other sets had not yet built up the detailed, fluent vocabulary of rules terms which Magic would establish in the coming decades. As a result, their attempts at top-down design for cards like Frankenstein’s Monster or Runesword often became hopelessly complicated. And while that complexity might be interesting in theory, many cards were just weaker than what was already available in previous sets.
While this underpowered feeling would be much more pronounced in the following expansion, Fallen Empires, it still stopped many enfranchised players from buying into The Dark. This weaker reception meant lower representation in tournament play, with most cards from The Dark making very little impact on the collective memory as a result. There are notable exceptions though - Blood Moon is an iconic prison card across Modern and Legacy, and Maze of Ith sees play in Legacy as well as being a staple of Commander.
HANGING WITH THE COOL TRIBE
There was one other very significant contribution made by The Dark which would define Magic even in its adulthood. Many of the red cards in the set either depicted goblin creatures or referred to goblins specifically in their text, making this among the earliest examples of “tribal” themes in a set. Goblins would go on to be Magic’s most beloved and recurring creature type, with players dedicating themselves to goblin-themed decks and never looking back over the next quarter-century. Cards like Goblin Wizard and Goblin Caves are responsible for lighting that chaotic spark.
Even for those who don’t play the little green menaces, the aftershocks of this tribal innovation are significant. Decks built around a creature type have a strong sense of identity and are easy to understand, making them extremely popular with new and casual players. Nowadays Magic dedicates an entire set to tribal mechanics every few years. As such, fans of Ixalan, Onslaught, and Lorwyn all owe a debt to The Dark for its willingness to break new ground.
From a historical perspective, this is a great way to view the significance of The Dark as a set. Jesper Myrfors took charge of the project in a period of great uncertainty and experimentation in Magic’s development. Even if not all of his design choices were vindicated in the end, his willingness to pursue a strong, unique vision was exactly what Wizards of the Coast needed from developers so they could come to a better understanding of what worked for their game. Today, the set he created remains memorable for its brooding, medieval flavor, even 25 years into the life of Magic.