Magic Memories: Tolarian Academy


The Tentacled One
There is a point in all of this, which I'd planned on when I started the thread. Took me long enough to get to it, but whatever...

I admitted at the outset that Tolarian Academy was a mistake. I actually went a step further than that. When it comes to broken cards, Tolarian Academy isn't just a run-of-the-mill mistake, but arguably the biggest mistake. I say "arguably" because it all depends on your interpretation. But I'd point out that the only cards consistently presenting a power-level issue to the same striking degree as Academy, across different formats, tend to be ones originally printed in 1993, and the context of the game was different. As amazingly powerful as some other cards have shown themselves to be, Tolarian Academy almost always seems like it can take things to another level. I'd say more about this, but it seems like it's probably a non-controversial assertion that Tolarian Academy is one of the most broken cards ever printed. So yeah, to reiterate from my first post in this thread...

To be clear, just in case it's not obvious enough already, the card is totally broken. In terms of the power level of an individual card, of the impact it can make on the game, Tolarian Academy is probably the biggest mistake ever. Seriously, I do not want to understate this. WotC have made some mistakes and they are the first ones to admit it. I think it's meaningless to compare categorically different types of mistakes when it gets as broad as "the design philosophy of this set" or "the gameplay of this mechanic." So, sticking to individual cards that were overpowered far beyond their original intentions, there's some stiff competition. And if I were to try to list these "biggest overpowered mistake" cards, there'd necessarily be a caveat that the cards from 1993 (and possibly 1994) were made in a different context from the cards in later sets. When Richard Garfield first designed the game, he envisioned that essentially every player would only open so much sealed product, so broken cards would be restricted, not by a governing body, but by the nature of the game itself. Richard Garfield knew that Ancestral Recall was extremely powerful, but if the game had borne out in the way he was planning, that wouldn't really be a problem. The guy who owned a copy of Ancestral Recall probably wouldn't be the same person in your local playgroup as the guy who owned a copy of Black Lotus. Even crucial aspects of the game like the four-card rule weren't in place. In a vacuum, we'd probably state that Time Walk is "more broken" than Skullclamp. But I contend we'd also state that Skullclamp is a "bigger mistake" because the designers of Darksteel ostensibly knew better.

While there's some subjectivity to it, I'd cite Tolarian Academy as the "biggest mistake" for the power level of a single card. In fact, despite how amazingly strong some of the competition has been demonstrated to be, I think that in the imaginary contest for first place in this category, it's really not even close. What's really impressive, though, isn't just that Tolarian Academy is a bigger mistake than its contemporaries, but that even if we stripped away the caveat and compared its power level directly to the old cards designed before the game developed its real structure, Tolarian Academy still shines. It is that strong.

I want to be eminently clear about this and put it in context, because a lot of discussion about broken cards in Urza's Saga or even the block as a whole doesn't really capture how egregious Tolarian Academy really is. Yes, the set had other mistakes. Yes, the block had other mistakes. But every set has mistakes. Tolarian Academy as an irredeemably powerful card is every bit as potent as some of the most broken mana-producers of the early, pioneering era of the game. As a "mistake" the card should kinda be regarded as in a league of its own.
I said all that at the outset primarily because it was too important not to note it. This isn't your typical Magic card. I write the stuff in these "Memories" threads about cards I enjoyed playing with, but there's no question that this one is broken. I'd even say, "most egregiously broken." But there was also a secondary reason for my emphasizing this aspect up-front. And that's this: it's been almost 20 years since we were introduced to Tolarian Academy. Looking back, well, what of it? It was a mistake to print the card. But now it's been in the game for 20 years. And so what? In the grand scheme of things, what is the effect on the game?

Those copies of Tolarian Academy? They're in Vintage decks. They're in trade binders. They're hoarded by financial speculators because the card is on the Reserved List. They're in Highlander decks. They're in "Power Cubes." Generally, they're not doing anything bad. The card sees little real use, is kept in check in the formats where it is still allowed, and it makes for interesting conversations. So, in essence, Tolarian Academy isn't a problem anymore and actually does some good things. I mean, yeah, that's pretty much it.

I'm not saying that mistakes aren't mistakes! But so many of them are tempered with time. So many cards that were considered too strong at one time are now reined in naturally, by the evolution of the game. And even the truly egregious offenders tend to find some niche. Skullclamp was a huge mistake, but these days it's mostly an EDH card and not really a problem for that format: it's even been reprinted in the Commander precon products. Mind's Desire was a mistake, but it now plays a minor role in Vintage and in EDH, as well as in some other, more obscure places. It was reprinted in a Duel Deck. Stoneforge Mystic was a mistake, but now it helps form multiple healthy archetypes in Legacy and other formats. And even Tolarian Academy, the biggest mistake of them all (when it comes to power-level specifically), is a valued card in Vintage, in Cubes, and in specialty formats like Canadian Highlander. Virtually every "broken" card, setting aside the initial fuss, has gone on to become innocuous in the context of the game as a whole, given the passage of time.

Maybe that's not some profound insight, but it sure seems like it should have implications on card design. Yes, WotC should set out to avoid mistakes, but if they always err on the side of caution, sets will be weak and boring. If they make the occasional mistake, there might be some upset over it, but that has always faded with time. And it's the interesting cards, especially the mistakes, that have allure. Even in Modern, a comparatively young format, it seems like the cards that keep people coming back are the ones that were once mistakes. It's a mistake to design a card like Tolarian Academy, but it's a bigger mistake to make everything dull and low-impact because you're too cautious.