Thursday, 27 February 2020 08:30

Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Urza's Saga'

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Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Urza's Saga' WOTC/MAGIC UNTAPPED

Sometimes it's nice to look back and see just how far things have come since the early days of Magic: The Gathering.  To that end, we're bringing you a series of short videos that highlight Magic: The Gathering expansions throughout the years.

Previously, we looked at Exodus, the final set in the block known as "The Rath Cycle."  This time around, we take a few minutes to look back at Urza's Saga, the first set in what is considered by most to be the most broken Magic: The Gathering set ever printed.

You can check it all out in our retrospective video (below).

Video transcript:

In October of 1998, the first set in the block that almost broke Magic was released.

Consisting of 350 cards, the block follows the exploits of the iconic planeswalker, Urza, and begins with Urza's Saga.

A prequel to the events of the Weatherlight Saga of the previous four sets, as well as both an expansion of (and sequel to) 1994's Antiquities, the set (and the block as a whole) carries a lot of story, introduces to the game some of its most iconic characters and locations, and expands upon many that were eluded to in some of Magic's earliest sets.

Taking a departure from how story was presented in previous sets, each of the set's five colors tell a different part of the story with green showcasing the conflict of Argoth and how those events would eventually lead towards Dominaria's Ice Age.  Black cards showcase Urza's attempt to personally attach Phyrexia.  White is centered on Urza's time in Serra's Realm after nearly dying in said attack.  Blue explains Urza's founding of the Tolarian Academy and the temporal and bloodline experiments that went on there, and red was centered on the foundation of the Tolarian-Shiv alliance.

For more than just the surface-level overview of Urza's Saga's story, we recommend you read the books The Brothers' War, Planeswalker, and Time Streams.  That stated, here's an abridged version:

Harbin (the son of Urza and his wife, Kayla bin-Kroog), was flying in an ornithopter when crosswinds blew him horribly off course, crash landing on the island of Argoth.  An elf helps Harbin repair the aircraft with some fallen wood from the area's mighty forest and sends him on his way.  Returning home, he tells Urza about the forest and the massive amounts of lumber he could find there.  An exploration party lands on the island and the sentient forest responds with hostility.

Yotian invaders rolled through on mobile forts, pillaging the land for materials that can be used in the war against Urza's brother, Mishra.  Despite help from the mystical forces of Gaea and Titania, the forest and its inhabitants were unable to repel them as they stripped the land of anything that could be of use.  Ultimately, Argoth proved a lost cause as the land was all but exhausted of its resources, turning it into a blasted landscape.

 A good while into the Brothers' War, Gix, a former Thran who was transfigured into a Phyrexian praetor by the game's then ultimate bad guy, Yawgmoth, entered Argoth through a trans-planar portal.  He took note of the conflict between Urza and Mishra and decided that regardless of who lost, he'd slay the victor.  On the morning of what would become the final battle, Gix used his powers to make machines on both sides of the war to go haywire.

Finally, Urza and Mishra faced off mano-a-mano.  Mishra took out his ankh and attempted to slash his brother's neck out of sheer rage.  In response, Urza blasted Mishra with a fireball.  Mishra's flesh melted away and exposed an artificial endoskeleton beneath where bones and guts should instead be.  Mishra, long since deceased and recreated in Phyrexina form, was no longer the flesh-and-blood borther Urza remembered.  Urza then used the Golgothian Sylex, causing a plane-altering explosion and, incidentally, ignited his planeswalker spark with his mightstone and Mishra's weakstone forming the newly-minted planeswalker's eyes.

The rest of the set (and, indeed, a number of those thereafter) then follow the events after this point into what will soon become the Phyrexian Invasion of Dominaria.

Meanwhile, back on Phyrexia, the Phyrexians were setting in motion the next step in their efforts to invade and overtake Dominaria.  They were busy at work, reprocessing bodies and turning them into Phyrexian-controlled human-appearing agents.  These "sleeper agents" were placed strategically to observe, sabotage, and report back to Phyrexia.  One such agent, Xantcha, resisted and developed a sense of self.  As punishment, her heartstone was removed and stored in a Phyrexian Tower.

As these sleeper agents were becoming found out and destroyed on Dominaria, they began to be assigned elsewhere so that they may look for artifacts and take them back to Phyrexia.  Out of hatred for her race, Xantcha would often sabotage her own missions.  The Phyrexians caught on and victimized her.  Urza just happened to be nearby and saved her.  In exchange, she told the planeswalker how to get to Phyrexia.  Urza equipped his armor and decided to take the entire plane essentially on his own with nothing more than a dragon engine and Xantcha in tow.

Unfortunately, the planeswalker far underestimated what he would encounter on the machine plane.  He was able to fight his way through the first three spheres of the plane, facing increasing resistance each time.  On the fourth sphere, however, things didn't go quite as well.

Xantcha used her silver tongue to lie her way into the Phyrexian Tower containing her heart, stealing back her heartstone and fleeing.  Outside of the tower, she finds Urza in dire straits.  Facing certain Phyrexian corruption and his likely demise, Urza planeswalked away to destinations unknown.

With Urza badly wounded and on the run, pursued by Phyrexian Negators from plane to plane, he finally found a safe place to hide and recover once arriving at Serra's Sanctum -- an artificial plane of pure white mana.  The Sanctum was created by none other than the ancient planeswalker, Serra.

She takes in the sickened Urza who takes a half-decade to recover from his failed attack on Phyrexia.  Xantcha, too, receives medical attention and is allowed time to recover.  Unfortunately, this long-term introduction of black mana to Serra's pure-white plane caused undue pain to the planeswalker, forcing her to flee the plane of her own creation, leaving her protector, Radiant, in charge in her stead.  Shortly thereafter, the Phyrexians located the plane and began invading.

Angels were expunged one after another and black mana began to contaminate the plane.  The Phyrexian forces persecuted any angel they couldn't kill, including Selenia - an angel who would play a key role in The Weatherlight Saga.  While this was happening, Urza did nothing to help defend the very same angels who nursed he and his sleeper agent friend back to good health.  Serra then returns from her impromptu vacation only to find her Sanctum in ruins and all but a key few of her angels either slain or imprisoned.  Xantcha, as a sign of trust, presented Urza with her heart before the two fled the falling plane.

Back on Dominaria, Urza dwelled on his past failures for centuries until Xantcha finally snaps him out his funk and pointed out that the sleeper agent threat was still very real on the plane.  During the two;s efforts to snuff out any and all sleeper agents, they are unnearved to discover Gix still on the plane.

DUring the plane's null moon and with sleeper agents dying left and right from Urza's sabotage, Gix appears and is attacked by Urza.  The fight brings the two back to the Caves of the Damned (better known by players as Caves of Koilos) and Gix gains the upper hand as he begins to extract Urza's powerstone eyes.  Xantcha interferes, distracting Gix as Urza's eyes cause an explosion that killed not only the praetor, but Xantcha as well.

With little time to grieve the loss of his long-time friend due to the ever-present Phyrexian threat, Urza relocates to the isle of Tolaria and begins to build what would become the Tolarian Academy.  It's at this academy where a variety of artificers and mages would be trained, including a number who will become critical to Magic's storyline such as a disruptive student named Teferi.

Running the academy alongside Urza was Barrin, a master wizards, and the only other person who knew the true reason for the academy's existence: preparation for the inevitable Phyrexian Invasion.  As protection towards those ends and to prevent sleeper agents from arriving at the school, no adults save for those hand-picked by Urza and Barron as the school's administration and faculty were allowed.

While at the academy, Urza repeatedly performed time travel experiments in hopes to travel back in time to when the Thran still existed on Dominaria and stop the Phyrexian threat before it even could begin.  After numerous failed attempts, he discovered that silver can travel backwards in time without any ill effects.  This stroke of genius prompted him to construct a silver golem that would be come known as "Karn," which is the Thran word for "mighty," and provided Karn with not only a brand on his chest to signify his role, but also the heart of his his departed companion, Xantcha.

Despite exhaustive efforts in Urza's arcane laboratory in researching time travel by using the lab's temporal aperture, Urza was only able to send Karn back in time by two days -- nowhere close to the thousands of years necessary to venture back to the time of the Thran Empire.

And, while there's much more to the story, that's about as far as the set Urza's Saga goes with it.

But that's not the end of Urza's Saga's story as a set as there is much more to tell.

Designed and developed by the likes of Mike Elliot, Richard Garfield, Mark Rosewater, and others, Urza's Saga -- and, indeed the Urza's block as a whole -- has a storyline and thematic feel that suggests that it's a set that cares about artifacts.  Surprisingly, that isn't the case as the folks behind it were actually creating an "enchantment matters" set.  In fact, the decision to make the storyline of the set be about Urza wasn't made until set design had passed the point of no return on the direction they were going.  Unable to shift gears so late in the process, the set's "enchantment matters" theme was buried beneath the Urza-focused storyline, as well as the artifice-inspired set symbols and a story arc branded as "The Artifacts Cycle."

But still, enchantments actually play a big role in the set as Mark Rosewater explained in his Drive to Work podcast:

(MaRo sound bite in video.)

In the end, what Wizards of the Coast decided that ultimately was fine because they were going to focus more on the story than on the mechanics.  The end result, however, was arguably the most broken set the company has ever made.

(MaRo sound bite in video.)

And just how broken was the block?  Considering that players even today consider Urza's Saga (along with the rest of the Urza's block) to be amongst Magic's strongest ever, it's safe to say that its power level was probably a tad high -- especially for 1998.

So, what made it so broken?

Well, for starters, the set (which won the 1998 Origins Award for "Best Card Game Expansion or Supplement") has had nine of the block's 16 cards that at one point or another were banned from DCI sanctioned formats: Stroke of Genius, Time Spiral, Windfall, Yawgmoth's Will, Goblin Lackey, Voltaic Key, Gaea's Cradle, Serra's Sanctum, and Tolarian Academy.  Of those, three of them are still banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage play.

Urza's Saga also had an expansive list of other cards of note that (thankfully) never found their way onto the dreaded banned and restricted lists.  This includes rares such as Gilded Drake, Morphling, Exploration, Back to Basics, Lifeline, and Gamble; as well as Sneak Attack and Show and Tell -- two key components in a popular and powerful Legacy deck simply known as "Sneak and Show."

The common and uncommon slots weren't lacking in powerful or notable cards either with the likes of Carpet of Flowers, Turnabout, Priest of Titania, Abundance, Rain of Filth, and Exhume.

The set was also the first to introduce to Magic the first widely available foil cards.  At the time marketed as "premium" cards, those who attended the Urza's Saga prerelease were treated to a shiny, date-stamped Lightning Dragon promotional card.  Ten other cards (Skittering Skirge, Rewind, Pouncing Jaguar, Duress, Karn, Silver Golem, and all five basic lands) from the set would also later receive the foil treatment.  They were provided as prize support for Magic's now-defunct Arena League in 1999 and early 2000.

Urza's Saga also set the stage for a new era of combo decks once the rest of the block hit the market.  It's an era referred to in hindsight as Magic's "combo winter" by players and Wizards of the Coast staff alike thanks to decks like Tommi Hovi's 1998-99 Pro Tour winning deck.  It used a combination of mana-producing artifacts along with the Exodus enchantment Mind Over Matter to untap his Tolarian Academy until he could cast a large enough Stroke of Genius on his opponent, decking them in one fell swoop.  And it's an era that would prove even more formidable once the block's next set released the following February.

But we'll leave the legacy of the second entry into the Urza's block for another time.

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