Earlier this month, Magic: the Gathering had its birthday. The first week in August marks the release of Alpha, the very first Magic cards – 22 years ago. For a game that continually releases new content and expansions, that milestone is practically unheard of. Magic came into the market at a time where people were clamoring for new games and the economics at the time meant many people, particularly younger folk, had the extra cash to check out this new idea of a CCG.
Obviously, the idea caught on.
In the years that followed Magic’s release, dozens upon dozens of other CCGs also tried to stake their claim on the marketplace with wildly different levels of success. Due to poor interest, mechanical issues, and supply problems (to name a few), most of them burnt out and became footnotes of CCG history. None, save for a scant handful (L5R, Vampire [another Richard Garfield game], Star Wars, etc.) had the early staying power that Magic did, and even of the successful ones, only L5R is still around.
Part of the reason Magic emerged at the top was because it was the one leading the charge into the new field of collectible card games. Part of many games’s demise also stemmed from the fact that by the mid 90’s Magic belonged to Hasbro, and they routinely muscled many of their competitors out of the market using a variety of tactics.
Aggressive business tactics aside, though, Magic was ultimately successful because it captured the thrill of casting spells and attacking your opponent through a completely customizable set of cards. With five distinct colors and a high fantasy flavoring, the game gave you total control over the ability to build a deck however you wanted. Just like today, early Magic provided the capability to tailor your deck in any manner that sprang to mind, and it might even work.
That said, Magic also caught people’s early interest because it was a very unrefined time in the game. It was still finding its footing and needed to gauge what worked versus what different – plus it didn’t have any money at first – so Magic cast a wide net. Early Magic didn’t have the insistence on homogeneous world-focused art that we have now, for example. Instead, it showcased a diverse variety of artwork and art styles, from surrealism to watercolors, to cartoonish portraits. Practically anything went at first because, well, they didn’t have anything to the contrary.
The same went for mechanics. There is no shortage of really wonky, strange, and convoluted cards from the first couple years. Some of them, like Chains of Mephistopheles or Transmute Artifact were very well received. Others, like Infinite Authority or Sorrow’s Path were seen as overly complicated, too wordy, and ineffective.
The thing is, that’s also what made the game so enticing for those first players. There was an unrefined quality to this new upstart game, and those who got into it really wanted to see what came next. Their feedback and buying behavior, coupled with new designers, allowed Wizards to correct perceived ‘mistakes’ while making brand new ones. It was exciting as there was no precedent yet, and Magic bristled with potential for all manner of bizarre cards to come out. Which they did for quite some time. It may have been more chaotic during those formative years, but it was also one of the most exciting eras in the game’s history because, quite literally, anything was possible. And it worked. It hooked an entire generation of gamers onto what Magic was and could be – myself included.
Things are different now though. The game has grown exponentially and grown up significantly. It’s more popular than ever, likely more profitable than ever, and there’s little doubt that the people steering Magic’s ship nowadays put an excruciating amount of work into making the best product they can. The results speak for themselves.
Still, while I enjoy having cards with cleaned up text, that doesn’t mean I mind them being a bit wordy. What’s more, I like many veteran players also lament sometimes that the game has become too polished over time. Everything is slick looking and sets are almost overly-uniform in their presentation. From flavor to mechanics to tournament readiness, modern Magic sets are highly scrutinized, highly polished products.
For storytelling and marketing purposes this is a great selling point. Yet it also means it’s next to impossible now to see a really weird card get made simply for the fun of it. Save for a few cards from the Commander sets, you don’t see nearly as many risk-taking cards as the early years. I get it. But when you watch the creative designers talk about the fight they had to make Bronzebeak Moa of all things because it’s Bird that doesn’t fly (and how they may not be able to do so again in the future), that tells you the level of control the game’s design has reached at its 22 year mark.
Well, as it happens, when we cross odd text effects and flightless birds, we get this week’s pick.
Today we have: Whippoorwill
Edition: The Dark
Focus: Damage Control
Highlights: Whippoorwill has such a weird confluence of effects jammed into one ability that I’m not quite sure where to start with such an oddball specimen. It’d probably be a good launch point in reiterating the fact that this card would never be made today, which both elevates its uniqueness while also illustrating that in Magic’s need for a refined and streamlined everything, it doesn’t leave a ton of room for raw experimentation anymore.
However, that alone does not make Whippoorwill worthy of inclusion into a Commander deck.
So, what can this one mana flightless Green bird do? A lot, actually, albeit in a situational capacity. For two mana, Whippoorwill’s single activation contains four seemingly separate uses into a single blast of damage negation…negation. The targeted creature falls prey to the following conditions:
- A classic era rider ability that it cannot Regenerate.
- If the creature dies, it is exiled.
- Damage to the creature can’t be prevented, negating all damage prevention spells and abilities, from Dolmen Gate to Protection.
- Although primarily a White trait, this strips someone from being able to redirect damage that would be dealt to the creature elsewhere.
When combined Whippoorwill’s text essentially says that the vast majority of the time, if the targeted creature is dealt enough damage to die, it’s going to stay dead.
From a mechanical standpoint, using this cheap creature is quite effective when timed right, and because of its four varied effects thrown onto one tiny body, it provides far more versatility than if it only had one or two of them. Creature utility and whatnot.
That said, in most Commander games, the most common usage for Whippoorwill will be ensuring a dying creature gets exiled. Unlike cards that simply exile graveyard cards en masse, this creature gives you the power to be selective over which dying creature gets shuffled off to exile and which get to potentially see a second life. It’s minor in many cases, but there can also be plenty of times when selectively exiling cards from graveyards will give you much more political maneuverability than a carte blanche approach.
What’s more, it’s also very thematic. Real Whippoorwills, for example, tend to next on the ground instead of trees (hence the no flying part). What’s more, in part due to its nocturnal nature and song-like calls, it’s mentioned in classic New England stories and folklore that its call reflects a soul’s departing – and that it can catch them if it so chooses.
Whippoorwill is a great example of a card with good flavor and, while conditional in their use, possess a creative amalgamation of abilities. Moreover, its cheap cost makes it accessible from turn one onward. Yes, we may not see the likes of these highly experimental card abilities to the same degree in the modern era, thanks to the eternal nature of EDH, this little birdie is available to us even now.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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Do you have a particular Commander card to suggest for us to shine a future Spotlight on? You can send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org