Pattern Recognition #140 - Unbelievable
13 February 2020
13 February 2020
Hello everyone! Welcome back to Pattern Recognition! This is TappedOut.net's longest running article series. In it, I aim to bring to you each week a new article about some piece of Magic, be it a card, a mechanic, a deck, or something more fundamental or abstract. I am something of an Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass, so I sometimes talk out my ass. Feel free to dissent or just plain old correct me! I also have a Patreon if you feel like helping out.
Well, let me tell you, I needed last week off, that's for sure. But now it's time to get back into this mess of things and start to talk about a subject that is so unbelievable that it would on a normal day be impossible to see in Magic!
Let's talk about the UNSETS! Why? Because why not?
Oh, there is so much to discuss, so let's start with history. The first Unset, Unglued was published on 11 August 1998, coming halfway between Exodus - the end of the Tempest Block - and the start of Urza's Block with Urza's Saga. I want to say that it was the first Summer Special set like how we get Conspiracy or Battlebond or something like that, but I can't be quite certain that it would be officially recognized as such.
Unglued consisted of 85 cards, and was packaged in 10 card boosters. This odd distribution pattern was chosen to help emphasize just how 'off' the set was, if the rest of the cards weren't giveaways, such as the silver border on the cards.
Unglued was part-experiment, part-filler until the next set and perhaps most importantly, all humor. What most people remember most about this set and its successors was the tongue-in-cheek hilarity that permeated all the cards, from the art - such as how a creature is being knocked out of Free-for-All and into I'm Rubber, You're Glue to the memetic Chaos Confetti (which is a story for another day mostly because it's apocrypha) through to the mutual lockdowns that came with Paper Tiger, Rock Lobster and Scissor Lizard.
This humor is a release valve of sorts when it comes to Magic. Let me be clear, from my own forays into design for other games, that the whole process can be nerve wracking and quite stressful on a variety of levels. So, having the ability to just point at something that you're working on and make fun of it - or more importantly make fun of it can be a great thing to have.
And the players loved the humor in the set. There's a reason why this is perhaps one of the most beloved sets in the game, and no, it's not because the cards are any good, but because the whole thing brings a smile to ones face when you sit down with the cards and you discover detail after detail involved.
Or just laugh at the sheer absurdity of Burning Cinder Fury of Crimson Chaos Fire
The set was also part-filler, being a set released to help bridge the gap between the two adjacent 'real' sets of the aforementioned Exodus and Urza's Saga. Normally, there would have been a four month gap between the sets, and so this was published to help tide over the playerbase during the summer. Of course, this was before the formalization of the whole four sets per year, plus extras that Wizards has stuck to for decades now, but hey, at least the intent was there, right?
Lastly, the idea of the Experiment. You see, part of the idea behind the Unsets was that they could toss random ideas for mechanics into the set - because it doesn't care about regular rules or notions of how cards are played - and see what works and what doesn't. The idea of Meld cards came first from this set with the BFM. Cards that pushed their art outside of the card frame are now in every set - as Planeswalkers. Or cards turned sideways like in Planechase.
Now, not all of these experiments work. Die-rolling is quite out in normal play. Randomness is assured through coin flipping. Odd card construction is right out as it can only confuse players in the long run.
Unglued was, to put it lightly, a massive critical success. Everyone at the time who saw the cards loved the whole concept and they all found cards to love individually.
Unglued sold like shit, if you'll pardon my language. Critical acclaim, commercial flop. Yes, it moved packs, but nowhere near enough.
And that helped kill Unglued 2. Oh well.
What we did get came 6 years later. Unhinged was published on 20 November 2004 during the Kamigawa block and brought back to Magic much of the same things that went into the original Unglued - Humor, Experimentation and Randomness. The humour was back in full force, as it is the source of the card I have used in all my introductions - Old Fogey. You get cards that reference Magic itself, like Mana Screw. Or Red-Hot Hottie, a reference to the original art for Fire Elemental.
It introduced the Gotcha mechanic that punished or rewarded players for saying or doing a thing, such as how Number Crunch makes your opponents wary about using numbers. And speaking of numbers, this set experimented with half-life and half-mana, which I think was a reverse slight against certain other card games that tended to over-inflate their numbers just to seem bigger without actually changing anything because the ratios were all relatively the same.
That, and half-damage could be seen as a precursor to the doubled life of Commander, but even I think that's something of a stretch.
Another thing established for Unsets that came from Unhinged was that these fake humorous cards could reference real cards at the time and either just play on them in terms of ability or as a sendup of the card. Like with Erase (Not the Urza's Legacy One) - and I really implore you to read the errata to the flavour text found on its Gatherer Page just to give you an idea of how much fun they have with this.
Of course, it would up with the same results as the first Unset from six years previous. high critical reception and poor sales.
Part of the problems with these two sets wasn't that they were in any way bad. No, part of the problem - Unglued moreso than Unhinged was that they weren't designed to play by themselves. Each of these two sets were meant to be played with regular cards from regular Standard rotation, adding a bit of spice to the mix. The problem was that most of these cards didn't really play well with regular sets, and they couldn't really support being played by themselves.
They were fun to play, but hard to do so as well.
But the concept never really died, and Mark Rosewater knew that people loved the set and wanted to see more. And as the guy in charge of such things, he kept it in the back of his mind for a long time.
Until at last, 08 December 2017. Unstable was released. The announcement was met with glorious love from the audience, as it had been thirteen years since the last Unset, and a lot of the game had changed since then. And it showed in the way the set was designed and marketed.
Rather than being a small set that couldn't support itself, Unstable was built to be a full self-sustaining set, capable of both draft and constructed formats. It learned from the lessons of the past two sets in making sure that this set could work.
To that end, Wizards cribbed a lot of notes from the concurrent sets being released - that being Ravnica Round Three. Unstable was built around five distinct colour pairings, the allied , , , and groupings. These five groups can certainly be seen as parodies of the relevant Guilds, but in truth it's not quite like that. They are their own things.
Rather the set was designed like it was a Ravnica Five-Guild set, and with an established framework to build into to, the set became more structured and playable without giving up the ability to be fun at the same time.
One of the truisms about the game that Rosewater likes to lean on from his lessons learned is that Limitations encourage creativity, and so by designing the set around this limitation they could create a more cohesive set. One where the jokes work on the larger scale rather than as accidents of design. Where we see patterns of jokes and that makes it funnier.
Unstable was perfect as it hit the right balance of playability, hilarity and design. And unlike the previous two sets, it was a commercial as well as a critical success - though I credit that more to the full-art lands by John Avon more than anything else. ;)
It had sold well enough that Wizards knew that there was a market still for these types of cards, more than just a vocal minority of players who were considered 'enfranchised'.
Finally, two years later, we come to UnSanctioned. This is a specialty set consisting mostly of reprints, but also of a few new cards, each helping to solidify the structure of the set. Consisting of 5 sets of 30 card half-decks, Unsanctioned - soon to be arriving in stores - allows players to shuffle two of these halves together for ten potential decks for one player, then three for the second player. Unless you buy more than one!
Unsets are fun. They were designed to be, and while humor by its very nature is hit or miss, these sets throw out enough that there's enough for even an Old Fogey like me to appreciate being a Smart Ass on occasion. While the jokes have gone from random to pillars, they maintain that same tongue-in-cheekieness that helps sell the whole thing.
In terms of being a place to do weird and interesting mechanics, part of the appeal of these sets is exactly that. These are the things that mostly or probably won't get into the main game, but the Unsets are expected to have these sorts of weird things that don't make much sense but still work. And if something does stick, does work out in the long run? Well, if it makes into the big leagues then it's only another success for the Unsets. Failures don't mean much here.
Will we be getting more? Most assuredly. The Unsets have a devoted playerbase attached to them, and Wizards knows that they can now get a good profit out of it as well thanks to their improved set design experience.
But they also know that they can't flood the market with these cards. Part of their appeal is in just how spread out the sets are. Jokes that come too fast are driven into the ground and stop being funny, and just like that, Unsets that come one after the other stop being appealing.
So yes, they will come. But not for a while yet.
And this has been your quick summary of the Unsets! Join me next week when I put on some pants, and not in that way.
So, until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!
A major issue with the sales for Unglued and Unhinged had to do with the size of the print runs themselves. Unglued was printed as if it were a normal small expansion, but with the cards not legal for sanctioned play, and also no limited-format PTQs, GPs, etc. to drive additional consumption, it was waaaay overprinted for the sales it generated. For whatever reason, WotC didn't learn the correct lesson and printed Unhinged the same way, leading to the same result. By the time Unstable came around they had learned a lot from products like Conspiracy and Battlebond and were able to avoid making the same mistake a third time. And like you said in your article, the fact that Unstable was actually designed to be drafted and played alone was also a huge help.
February 17, 2020 10:30 a.m.
Personally I've never been much for the Unsets. I think one reason is the lack of purpose after you play limited. Some may find it fun to craft janky decks with Unset cards, but that didn't seem appealing to me and my playgroup. You cannot use them for sanctioned play and in combination with the aforementioned, they already lose a ton of value on the secondary market.
As such the Unsets seem like a limited play experience and nothing more. As such, I think the price tag is overpriced. At least here in Europe there was no significant price difference between Unstable and Ravnica at the time. Right now Unstable sells for more than Theros: Beyond Death does, but the secondary market value is near non existent for Unstable besides the full art lands.