The Comboist Manifesto: A Tale of Two Enchantments [Article]


The Tentacled One
I was recently playing an EDH game in which I had a Drannith Magistrate on the battlefield, and the creature’s presence complicated things for my opponents. In a format that revolves around commanders, locking your opponents out of being able to cast their commanders from the command zone is potent, and most decks employ some other cards that rely on casting spells from other zones to some extent. In fact, my own deck that I was playing on the occasion included Dauthi Voidwalker, Vizier of the Menagerie, Opposition Agent, and Unburial Rites. Fortunately for me, Drannith Magistrate is not inconvenient for my use of such cards, as its ability reads, "Your opponents can’t cast spells from anywhere other than their hands." I am, alas, not my own opponent. Sure enough, I used one of those cards. If I remember correctly, it was Dauthi Voidwalker. This caused some stir and it seemed like everyone at the table agreed that the asymmetry of Drannith Magistrate was overpowered. Being such an obstacle, Drannith Magistrate was hit by a Path to Exile, and the action of the game continued. We moved on, and I eventually won with other cards.

It’s been suggested, if not outright confirmed, that the heavy use of asymmetrical effects in recent Magic design is tied to the “Philosophy of F.I.R.E.” Either way, symmetrical effects do still get printed, but they seem to be sparse compared to their use in older sets. Drannith Magistrate, printed in 2020, is an example of a card that certainly could have been symmetrical. It would still have been a strong card, but symmetry would have added additional gameplay considerations. Players would have to build their decks differently, navigate sequencing differently, or be prepared to remove their own Drannith Magistrate from the battlefield. The additional decision-making does add to the complexity of the game, and I admit that it could intimidate some new players. But Drannith Magistrate is a rare!

I’ve derisively referred to cards like Drannith Magistrate, ones that would be perfectly fine if symmetrical but are designed to be asymmetrical anyway, as “Have your cake and eat it too” cards. This isn’t my only qualm with the Philosophy of F.I.R.E. I’m also uneasy with cards like the aforementioned Opposition Agent, but even I can recognize that such a design wouldn’t make sense in a symmetrical fashion. Excessive asymmetry is one problem with contemporary Magic design, but it’s not the only problem. But the conversations I’ve had about Drannith Magistrate and other asymmetrical cards have gotten me thinking about this, about what makes a good card design, and more specifically about when to make an effect symmetrical instead of asymmetrical.

I want to zero in on two black enchantments from Legends. Despite glaring flaws in much of the rest of the set, I view these two cards as nearly perfect designs. They’re among my favorite cards of all time. They’re well-balanced, iconic, and powerful, while never quite being broken or adversely impacting other design choices. Printed in 1994, both cards had some significant presence in tournament and casual play, and both would, in their own way, later be the unfortunate victims of circumstances that the designers of Legends couldn’t foresee. In terms of symmetry, they could almost be considered polar opposites. The cards? Underworld Dreams and Nether Void.

Of course Underworld Dreams is the asymmetrical card and Nether Void is the symmetrical card. But to understand why I think these particular cards are so ingenious, we have to first understand the genius behind the set they came in. Legends was released in June of 1994. The original plan for the first expansion, Ice Age, wasn’t ready yet and wouldn’t actually be released until one year later. At this point, there was the original core set or base set, which had been released twice, in Limited and Unlimited versions, and there were two tiny “expansion” sets that were heavily thematic. There was also the new edition of the core set, the Revised Edition, which swapped out several cards in the original core set for ones in those two tiny sets, Arabian Nights and Antiquities. And that was it. Arabian Nights was a top-down design exploring the stories from the classic 1,001 Nights series of stories. It introduced some ideas that had never been used in the first set, such as utility lands, coin-flipping, -1/-1 counters, and some other ideas that would see further exploration later. Antiquities was a gimmicky set themed around a war between artificers, with every non-land card in the set either being an artifact or interacting with artifacts in some way. Both of these first two expansions were each well under 100 cards in size, so they had limited room to explore their own themes. The idea of swapping cards out for Revised Edition could have been neat in theory, but mostly resulted in overall downgrades. And really, that was it. Before Legends, that was the extent of innovation in Magic design following the release of the game. Ice Age was in the works, and was going to be a big deal, but like I said, it got delayed.

And then along came Legends. It had more overall cards than the core set and was Magic’s biggest set until Fourth Edition increased the size of the core set in 1995. It recapitulated on the themes used in the original core set and expanded on them. It sounds like business as usual when I put it this way, since of course an expansion set expands, but in point of fact, they hadn’t before and usually didn’t. The bite-sized Arabian Nights and Antiquities would really more appropriately have been termed “bonus” sets. And the other upcoming sets in 1994 would also do their own things. The Dark had an artistic emphasis and tried to showcase the “dark side” of each of Magic’s five colors. Fallen Empires played with creature types in card mechanics and made extensive use of different kinds of counters to put on permanents. And when Legends gets discussed in the history of these sets, it usually gets accounted for as the set that introduced gold cards, the set that introduced legendary creatures, the set that introduced world enchantments, etc. But don’t lose sight of the historical context! Like all other “expansion” sets at the time, Legends wasn’t meant to be played without the core set, and trying to do so wasn’t tenable. Expansion sets prior to Ice Age didn’t even have basic lands (except for one little mistake on the Arabian Nights common sheet). But while other early expansions essentially took a theme and gave players the option to incorporate cards from that theme into their decks, Legends painstakingly recapitulated the themes from the core set and gave new options for substitutions or additions.

The core set used lots of enchantments including many utility enchantments and build-around enchantments, so Legends provided more utility enchantments and introduced world enchantments. The core set had lots of landwalk, so Legends had even more landwalk and ways to interact with landwalk. The core set used trample to thematically make big, brutish creatures feel like meaningful attackers. Legends responded with rampage. The core set had lots of walls and tried to make walls a meaningful aspect of combat. Legends did even more with walls. Other than the central idea of making characters be “legends” and building the framework for what would become the “legendary” supertype, almost everything in the set is a callback to the core set. For instance, the designers of Legends were obviously thinking of Lightning Bolt when they created Chain Lightning, or Stone Rain when they created Land Tax. Keep in mind that this was all very early in the game’s history and deck design was a messy affair. Even relatively savvy players probably wouldn’t have all the cards. In hindsight, there were some dead ends in the design of all these early sets, including the core set. But in almost all instances, it seems that the designers of Legends tried to be faithful to the idea of Magic as it was presented in the original core set. And it’s uncanny how even with so many duds and mistakes that designers could learn from and later build more elegant sets, sometimes ingenious little nuances and interactions would only come up years later, as was the case with Green Ward + Aisling Leprechaun.

After just a few years, Wizards of the Coast would move to the block model of set design, with the “core” set having its meaning within gameplay diluted to the point that eventually core sets would be phased out entirely. But under the original framework, the mid-90’s vision for what Magic was supposed to look like as as agame, most early sets were what I’m labeling “bonus sets.” Compact, generally hyper-thematic, and divergent from the themes of the core set. Based on what I’ve seen of typical decks in this era, it seems that the assumption was that players would combine mostly packs of a single bonus set and incorporate them into the contents of one or more starter packs from the core set. A Goblins deck would be well-served to use stuff you opened from Fallen Empires or from the core set, but opening a pack of Arabian Nights would offer little chance for improvement. An artifact-based deck would of course benefit from some packs of Antiquities, but might have little use for The Dark.

Ice Age was a major development and milestone in the early years of the game. While it was the largest expansion set, it also felt more like a snow-flavored relaunch of the core set. It included reprints of many cards and even had its own basic lands, the first non-core set to do this. Despite being the largest Magic set at the time, much of the prodigious content found in Ice Age consists of exact reprints or rebalanced reprints of core set staples. Peruse the content cut between Revised Edition and Fourth Edition, and you’ll see lots of cards that have their roles filled by Ice Age cards. I say this not to insult Ice Age or complain about the direction the game took. Rebalancing was valid. However, this does leave Legends unique among large sets as something that took the term “expansion set” so literally. To understand the design of Legends, perhaps especially the quirky or failed aspects, it’s vital to understand that it was intended to complement the core set directly.

I mentioned Green Ward + Aisling Leprechaun. The “Ward” cycle of auras was not well received. They were panned from the beginning and were generally viewed with disdain when reprinted in later iterations of the core set, eventually getting dropped for Fifth Edition. It wasn’t until 2017, with the rising popularity of Old School ‘94 tournament play, that the utility of Green Ward alongside Aisling Leprechaun became popularized. The “Leprechaun Ward” deck uses Lifelace, Sylvan Paradise, and Aisling Leprechaun to paint opposing creatures green, then uses Circle of Protection: Green to prevent damage from them. The CoP: Green doubles as a way to prevent damage from one’s own Force of Nature, Ifh-Biff Efreet, and Hurricane. Lure on an Aisling Leprechaun can turn all blockers green, while Green Ward on another Aisling Leprechaun can ensure that it keeps getting in unblocked (while being pumped by Pendelhaven). The deck’s own big creatures, enchanted with Green Ward, can also circumvent blockers and push through for lethal damage. Now, I can’t prove that the designers of Legends were so clever as to foresee this sort of deck, only for it to lie undiscovered for the next twenty-three years, but I do believe that’s likely. There were probably plenty of other synergies they considered in set design that were never quite good enough for tournament play or didn’t ever fit into any tournament framework. And the sad truth is that so much of that was disrupted by outside circumstances.

The distribution of Legends was infamously poor. The set was underprinted for the size of the playerbase, which was growing rapidly. The collation of uncommons in this set meant that the west and east coasts of North America each received uncommons from different pools. Many players couldn’t get their hands on cards from this set, and even in areas where they could, the cards were overly expensive or only available in small batches. So while the idea of this as an expansion set that complemented the core set was there, the practical reality was different. The large size of the set coupled with its rarity meant that there were swaths of the set that went unseen by most players, lending Legends a reputation as an obscure, wonky set. I remember when a lot of Magic trivia focused on this set, and if you wanted to stump a knowledgeable player with something, Legends was the set to look at. I’ve heard stories that certain tournament-worthy cards, such as Moat and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, were highly sought after in 1994, sometimes by players who had no other experience with Legends at all. For my own part, I think I went well into the 00’s with some Legends cards being ones I hadn’t laid eyes on before, let alone used in gameplay.


The Tentacled One
I write all this not to bemoan some lost opportunity, but to set the stage for the real and idealized worlds into which Underworld Dreams and Nether Void emerged. That means showcasing how little the designers had to work with. Paradoxically, it also means pointing out the information that the designers had access to, and how some clever nuances of these cards were probably deliberate. The designers of Legends probably couldn’t anticipate that WotC would later temporarily change the game rules so that Dark Ritual would have a “mana source” card type and be uncounterable. And they probably couldn’t anticipate that WotC would decide to move “taxing” effects out of black. But they would have been aware of Sinkhole and, I assume, Strip Mine. Along with other Legends cards, these two enchantments were built with a purpose in mind, built with the understanding of what was already in the game in 1994. Some later developments were probably anticipated. Most probably were not. Despite the hurdles along the way, the genius of the two designs shines through even today.

Some key features of Underworld Dreams:
  • It’s an uncommon. Players would see it more. There would have been a notion that picking up multiple copies wouldn’t be too difficult and that players could trade for it, so they could build decks to reliably see this card.
  • It’s not a world enchantment. You could have multiple copies of Underworld Dreams out at the same time and they’d stack. That could mean a lot of damage.
  • It costs BBB, making it available off of one Dark Ritual. I’m virtually certain that this was a deliberate choice. It also means that the enchantment could hit the table early and start dishing out damage almost immediately.
  • It’s asymmetrical. You punish your opponents for drawing cards, but you are unharmed. This fundamentally changes the dynamic of symmetrical card-drawing effects, which already existed. Howling Mine, Timetwister, and Wheel of Fortune already existed in the core set.
  • There’s an obvious synergy between Underworld Dreams and Winds of Change, another uncommon in the same set. This combo can rack up damage. Also, Winds of Change is in red, so a black/red deck would have easy access to cards like Lightning Bolt and Earthquake. Chain Lightning also came out in this set. Even without hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that the scale of damage these cards could deal would have made killing players directly, without ever needing to use creatures to attack, a distinct possibility.
  • Targeted draw effects could also be deadly with Underworld Dreams. Ancestral Recall or Braingeyser would almost always be pointed at oneself (unless an opponent was about to run out of cards). Here was an enchantment that could turn these spells into offensive weapons.
  • Along with Black Vise, Underworld Dreams presented a dangerous obstacle against decks that used cards like Jayemdae Tome and Library of Alexandria.
  • Since Braingeyser is so good with Underworld Dreams, I suspect that blue was another secondary color considered for this card. Boomerang and Time Elemental were both introduced in Legends. Unsummon already existed. Bouncing dangerous permanents and then casting Winds of Change gets rid of the permanents and also increases damage to your opponent from Underworld Dreams.
Altogether, this paints a picture of a card that the set designers saw as an interesting and powerful centerpiece to a deck that relies primarily on direct damage to kill opponents. They would have been able to account for Dark Ritual and other mana producing options (dual lands, Black Lotus, etc.) to enable secondary colors, but they wanted to tilt the balance toward black. Richard Garfield established black as the primary color of punishment, and Underworld Dreams is a punishing effect. But the increased availability of ways to force your opponents to draw more cards indicates to me that this wasn’t originally viewed as a passive effect. Another clever aspect of Legends design was the lose-lose situations black cards could put opponents into, a deeper version of the color’s punishing nature. If you were using The Abyss to keep your opponent from retaining creatures and Underworld Dreams to slowly burn your opponent to death, then targeted removal could only deal with one problem. Similarly, if you were using Chains of Mephistopheles, you could force your opponent to confront the problem of which enchantment was more dangerous.

At just 1 damage per card drawn, Underworld Dreams isn’t immediately lethal in its own right. I do not believe that the designers of Legends envisioned a one-shot combo kill with this card. Oh, they would have done the math and known that getting three copies of Underworld Dreams out and casting Wheel of Fortune is lethal. They’d also have been aware of the potential for multiple instances of Winds of Change being cast in the same turn, racking up enough damage that it could approach lethality. But those take setup and incur risks. They also must have realized that there’d be some potential for counterplay, such as an opponent topdecking Disenchant after the first Winds of Change or an opponent responding to a lethal Timetwister with Swords to Plowshares on a creature.

WotC threw out some wildly different numbers for direct damage effects from the beginning of the game. Copper Tablet slowly burned all players. Fireball could, with a bit of help from mana acceleration, be a nuke. It’s impressive that the very first card to deal direct damage for drawing cards managed to strike such a balance. Underworld Dreams might not be strong enough for tournament play these days, but it is effective without ever really becoming broken. And actually, it does sometimes sneak into black decks in Legacy, where it’s a bit of a slow burn but can rack up lethal damage while cards like Liliana of the Veil control the board.

Sadly, the history of Underworld Dreams in tournament Magic is marred by the card’s restriction in August of 1994, less than two months after the card’s release. To the best of my knowledge, this was a bit of a trigger-happy precautionary restriction by the DCI, and not a response to a real tournament performance or any known decklist. I believe that the decision was unwarranted, but this was, after all, a very early decision by the governing body, which was also targeting stuff like Dingus, Egg, Ivory Tower, Sword of the Ages, and even Orcish Oriflamme. They’d go on to unrestrict Underworld Dreams in 1999, and their understanding of format management certainly improved, despite how much I might complain about their decisions to this day.

Mark Justice managed to make restricted Underworld Dreams work. Instead of using Winds of Change to dish out lots of damage, he used it with Chains of Mephistopheles. Stuff like Disrupting Scepter and Hypnotic Specter could keep the opponent’s hand empty, with punishing permanents like The Rack and Power Surge bringing in more damage. If the game ran long enough, Underworld Dreams, backed by Braingeyser and the Draw7 spells, became the deck’s most potent finisher.

4 The Rack
3 Disrupting Scepter
3 Hymn to Tourach
3 Chains of Mephistopheles
3 Dark Banishing
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Underworld Dreams
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Braingeyser
1 Timetwister
3 Power Surge
3 Shatter
3 Winds of Change
1 Blood Moon
1 Wheel of Fortune
4 Badlands
1 Library of Alexandria
3 Mishra’s Factory
3 Mountain
3 Swamp
4 Underground Sea
4 Volcanic Island
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sol Ring

4 The Abyss
2 Blood Moon
4 Earthquake
4 Pyroblast
1 Red Elemental Blast

It’s fascinating to see how flexible Underworld Dreams can be. I think that the designers of Legends definitely envisioned the card being cast through Dark Ritual and used in multiples, but it can also take on a role as a one-off source of damage for slow control deck to use as a kill condition. I’ve seen it done in black control decks in Legacy. In contemporary “Old School ‘94” formats, Underworld Dreams is unrestricted, and used as the primary kill condition in its own combo decks. In casual play, I’ve usually seen it used in something closer to the control approach, although in EDH it seems to sometimes see play as a combo card.

Let’s start with key features:
  • It costs 3B, so it splashes easily into multicolored decks.
  • As a four-drop, it cannot be cast directly off Dark Ritual mana. First-turn Nether Void is still possible, but only with extra setup.
  • This one is a world enchantment. You cannot have Nether Void out at the same time as The Abyss. More importantly, you cannot stack multiple copies of Nether Void. Only one can be on the battlefield at a time.
  • As a rare, many players would be expected to simply not pull this card in packs. Nether Void is highly specialized, and the vision may have been that players who weren’t interested in it would trade it to their friends who were. Also, most people using it would probably have fewer copies in a deck, perhaps just one.
  • There’s an awkward conflict with the use of Dark Ritual alongside Nether Void. Spellcasting is slowed down under Nether Void. You could use Dark Ritual to either get Nether Void out faster or, more likely, to rush out creatures or other threats, then let Nether Void slow your opponent down. You’ve emptied your hand anyway. But once Nether Void is out, Dark Ritual is essentially a useless topdeck. You don’t want to see it. So how many copies of Dark Ritual do you run?
  • As a black card, Nether Void may have been meant for use alongside Sinkhole. Blow up their lands and make it harder for them to pay the tax. Blight was a worse card, but had some synergy here too. Because it’s splashable, there might have been some thought given to Stone Rain or even Ice Storm instead.
  • Deliberately or not, Nether Void functioned nicely alongside the lands from Antiquities. I doubt that it’s a coincidence, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Lands can be played under Nether Void without problems. Strip Mine could get rid of an opposing land, leaving the opponent stuck for longer. Mishra’s Workshop could contribute enough to the cost of any artifact spell to make up for the Nether Void tax. Mishra’s Factory served as a creature that could be snuck in underneath Nether Void. And the Urzatron lands made extra mana when used together, allowing one to easily pay for the Nether Void tax.
  • Nether Void is symmetrical. If it only affected your opponents, it would be far too strong.
  • Because of the symmetry, deck construction must be designed to break parity. You want a deck that plays better under the influence of Nether Void than your opponent’s deck can. Punishing the opponent for having cards stuck in-hand, as with Black Vise, is an obvious approach to this.
  • It’s possible that Untamed Wilds was designed with a Nether Void synergy in-mind. While Untamed Wilds turned out to be a bit overcosted and was superseded by better ramp spells in later sets, it is essentially the original prototype ramp spell. Along with things like Wild Growth, there may have been some early design understanding that pairing green mana production with oppressive black effects could be exploited in deck construction.
  • The five Mana Battery artifacts also came out in Legends and the synergy between them and Nether Void may have been deliberate.
The picture I’m seeing is of a highly disruptive deck, perhaps with Nether Void as a core component or perhaps with Nether Void as one of various options to hinder spellcasting. Such a deck would not mind having dead draws or trading one-for-one on cards, so long as it established some initial advantage. If you’re doing damage with small attackers, you don’t need to follow up with bigger creatures or even protect them if you’re cutting off your opponent’s mana. Nether Void encapsulates the mana denial approach to Magic. I don’t know if the designers of Legends were aware of the Winter Orb + Icy Manipulator combo, but it feels like Nether Void would have been right at home with it.

In recent years, when I see Nether Void enthusiasts like myself coming up with ways to exploit the card, they often jump to tricks like Icy Manipulator, Ivory Tower, and even Storm Seeker. Such uses might have been anticipated, or perhaps they’re coincidental. One thing that’s striking is how essentially from the beginning, Nether Void was paired with land destruction. All the earliest plausible decklists I find rely on mana denial through artifact/land destruction, with Nether Void locking opponents out of spellcasting. Perhaps this was always the easiest and most efficient way to break the symmetry of the effect. Sean O’Brien is easily the most well-known luminary of this sort of thing. I believe this is one of his Old School lists.

4 Nether Void
4 Dark Ritual
4 Sinkhole
4 Order of the Ebon Hand
4 Juzam Djinn
4 Black Vise
4 Mishra's Factory
4 Strip Mine
3 Mana Vault
3 Howling Mine
2 Juggernaut
1 Nevinyrral's Disk
1 Chaos Orb
1 Sol Ring
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Emerald
10 Swamp

4 Paralyze
2 Cuombajj Witches
3 Black Knight
1 Xenic Poltergeist
4 Gloom
1 Howling Mine

The more famous version of this deck arrived after Ice Age and the advent of Icequake. This allowed Nether Void decks to more reliably get enough land destruction to ensure that opponents would be completely helpless for many turns once Nether Void was deployed, more than enough time for a Juzam Djinn to close out the game, and often long enough for things like Black Vise to do the job.

With Underworld Dreams, I’ve noted that the trigger-happy restriction of the card hampered its early tournament usage and altered the trajectory of what might have otherwise been a more notable card. Nether Void Void was not restricted and did quite well for itself in tournaments, with adaptations throughout the late 90’s and early 00’s enabling the card to maintain relevance, although eventually it would fall into a miniscule niche as a one-off in Legacy Pox decks. Despite the evident success, I do get the sense that Nether Void had a different obstacle in its path. The card was never reprinted and WotC moved away from giving this sort of “taxing” effect to black.

Is the design shift a problem? Perhaps not. And Nether Void certainly did pretty well for itself when paired with newer cards like Trinisphere and Smallpox. But even if the card continued to see play, the idea, the design concept, was pretty much abandoned. WotC dropped world enchantments from their design toolkit in 1997, and black is one of the worst colors for mana denial when it comes to newer cards. The “Reserved List Rare” status and price tag of over $1,000 have effectively relegated Nether Void, even if it’s actually still a reasonably strong card in a vacuum.

In retrospect, despite everything that’s transpired over decades, these are two very cool enchantments. I’ve had fun with them myself, and I’m sure that I’ll be using them in some future decks too. And yet, I’m still not really sure what was deliberate in design from the beginning and what was happenstance. Because with so many details, it really seems like the designers of Legends knew exactly what they were doing when they put these enchantments into the set.
  • Underworld Dreams had to be the one that costed BBB. Nether Void had to be 3B. For proper performance with Dark Ritual and to prevent either one from being either too strong or too weak, these were basically the perfect costs.
  • Underworld Dreams being stackable was great for it. Making Nether Void a world enchantment was almost necessary. It actually feels like this might be the single best use of the world enchantment mechanic as a design tool.
  • Underworld Dreams needed to be asymmetrical, and Nether Void needed to be asymmetrical. The other way around would have been disastrous. And yet, both cards were doing novel things at the time, so I’m not sure how easy this was to foresee.
  • Making the enchantment that works well with multiple copies be uncommon is a good choice. Limiting the oppressive, prison-based card to the rare slot, where casual players would run into it less frequently, was also sensible.
Magic design has come a long way since 1994. But I worry that sometimes, WotC don’t seem to understand the value of making punishing effects symmetrical and of giving players access to the tools to break that symmetry if they build their decks properly. The finely-tuned details of Underworld Dreams and Nether Void, taken into consideration with the environment they’d be released into, shows that appreciation for symmetry, and awareness of when not to use it, was already quite well-developed as early as 1994. So, what was lost between then and now? What gives, WotC? Why abandon such a valuable lesson?

And what of you, the reader? What do you think? What are your favorite symmetrical effects? Do you have some favorite build-around cards that you’re glad were designed to be asymmetrical instead of symmetrical?