Pattern Recognition #180 - Saga
21 January 2021
21 January 2021
Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass , so I can take it.
Welcome back! Today's article is about a card subtype that was introduced relatively recently and was an absolute hit with the players as well as something that was conceived of by Richard Garfield, Ph.D. himself, though the design process went through a lot of various aspects, including stealing some stuff from the original Planeswalker designs that would have been in Future Sight.
Today, I'm going to be talking about Sagas.
Introduced in the set Dominaria, the original Sagas were used to represent the historical events of the plane, from The Antiquities War through to The Mending of Dominaria . These cards stay on the battlefield for a various number of turns, then when they run their course are sacrificed.
When Sagas enter the battlefield, they do so with a Lore counter on them, and the ability denoted with a is triggered as an enters-the-battlefield effect. At the beginning of each pre-combat Main Phase, each Saga you control has an additional Lore counter put onto them, and then each Saga you control will put the ability - called a "Chapter Ability" - is put onto the stack. If the number of Lore counters equals or exceeds the highest Chapter Ability, then the Saga is sacrificed as a state based action.
I know the actual rules are a little more complicated than that, but I should have gotten the gist across.
Sagas exist as a temporary card on the battlefield, and as they are all enchantments, they will go away one way or the other, avoiding cluttering the board for the most part. They they last only or symbol:saga-4 (that's supposed to be the previous symbol with an "IV" in it, but TappedOut doesn't have it yet) turns is a deliberate design decision by Wizards to keep the cards from getting unwieldy in play and causing player-side memory issues. And so far, it's been pretty good about that.
In Dominaria, the Sagas were an experiment, as many things are. They appeared at Uncommon, Rare and Mythic. And it seems that Sagas are not going to appear at Common in order to avoid flooding the relevant draft formats. I can live with that. There were 14 of them, each colour getting three, one at each relevant rarity except for who only got two, The Flame of Keld and The First Eruption . They were relatively simple in effect, and some, such as The Mirari Conjecture found use as part of infinite loops of cards to go for infinite turns. Because that's a thing that happens on occasion.
They were met with critical and popular success. That they were tied into the Historic theme of the set, in addition to being something that was new, easy to understand and visually distinct. Sure, some people didn't like the vertical orientation, but they are obviously wrong, and it helps the flow of the cards that you can simply move the Lore counter down the card as it triggers.
This success meant there were calls for Sagas to return, and Mark Rosewater, on Blogatog had to repeatedly state that Sagas would return when the set allowed for them.
Then they returned. Kiora Bests the Sea God was, if I recall correctly, the first previewed Saga for Theros, and the community embraced the return of this mechanic with open arms and glee. One of the issues surrounding the creation of Sagas as cards was that they were tied to the notion of the 'story', that this is some retelling of a history or fable of that plane, and Theros was the first set that not only had room for Sagas - as Wizards was busy pile-driving War of the Spark into the ground - but also enough open-ended thematics to put Sagas into. The previous set, Throne of Eldraine, had too much going on with Adventures and the like to include them though, sorry.
Anyway, we got Sagas back, and they were well received. The stories they told were not longer just histories, summations of past events that had already been seen in the game, but new things. The First Iroan Games , for example, tells the tale of a single man who trains hard, learns new things, then achieves victory, all over the course of four turns.
Wizards had tried, they won, and the return was met with great reception. It doesn't hurt that The Birth of Meletis is one of the few land fetch cards in the game. So they knew that they had a winner on their hands, as long as they kept in on theme, and on point.
And so Sagas have returned, a third time to our decks, with Kaldheim. And in fact, the first card previewed for the whole set was Showdown of the Skalds , which works an multiple levels. First, it was in time with the announcement of the SECRET LAIR: PARTY HARD, SHRED HARDER announcement, as Metal Bands can have inspiration from Norse epic poems - called Edda - and the Skalds, the warrior-bards who told them. So this card was literally, as I pointed out on a different forum at the time, a Battle of the Bands in card form.
You see, Sagas are a part of Norse culture and mythology, so naturally they were part and parcel of the set design. And we're getting Twenty of them, two in each colour pairing, one at uncommon and one at rare. And they're all pretty neat, though obviously some are better than others. It's just the way of the game.
But so far? It looks like Sagas are going to be a reliable, but intermittent part of the game from here on out, meaning that the associated concept of Historic has a better chance of coming back, though obviously that requires some work to get into place. I look forward to them, or at least hope for it!
Sagas are interesting mechanically. While Wizards has experimented with cards that live and die on a clock, such as with Fading or Vanishing, old mechanics from the bygone era of the bad old days and Time Spiral, this is the real first time they experimented with cards that did things as they progressed through the turns. Sometimes the same thing, sometimes something different on each additional Lore counter.
From one perspective, Sagas work because they are very upfront about what they do and when they do it. This makes them easy to design and play around as all the information about them is up front. You play a Saga, and you and your opponent know what's coming. But to your benefit and detriment. That 1/1 soldier made by The First Iroan Games ? Well, the rest of it is quiet useless if your mono- opponent decides to kill all your creatures with a Pestilent Haze . You know who you are, and that's why I was laughing when I did it. Even though you couldn't hear me on Arena.
Arena need a "Laugh" emote. Just putting that out there.
Anyway, this is something that Wizards likes to do, given the shift in the game away from hidden variables toward things out in the open. I can see why, but even Wizards can't kill Instants. But I digress.
There was a comment made on another forum that got me thinking, and it was how the use of Sagas interacted with the new Foretell mechanic in Kaldheim thematically. They pointed out that with these two cards being ... well, not pushed pushed, but rather a highlight of the set, Kaldheim is not a set that plays in the now, rather they play in the yet.
Let me explain. With cards like Saw It Coming (one of the best card names ever) or Doomskar that set themselves up for later payoff, Kaldheim plays with cards that are played now, but have their fullest effect later. It's like Suspend in its own way, but doesn't have the same tick-tock to the inevitable. It's more of an active surprise. But you're playing cards not for the effect they'll have on the same turn, but rather for what they can do for you next turn, or the turn after.
Sagas, and Kaldheim, play for the next turn. They are consistent, they are predictable, and they are something you can look forward to as your plans come to fruition. Well, until someone casts Disenchant on your Saga. But that's always a risk in any environment.
The aspect of time in these sorts of cards is a space that hasn't really been explored, but it has been touched upon. Yes, Time Spiral had cards that used time as a resource, but that was an exception, not the rule. Time passes, a story is told, and at the end of the story? Well, you hope you're better off for it.
Sagas have proven their worth in the game from both mechanical and from customer/fan perspective. They provide something different in appearance, in execution and in results. They also prove that the existing card frames can be tweaked to incorporate unique mechanics and still be recognizably "Magic" in nature without losing anything from them. It opens up the idea that there is more to the layout of the cards than has existed for the past 25+ years, and that's something that can be experimented with in the future.
They are a glimpse into the future. Here's hoping they stay on the battlefield long enough to deliver!
Join me next week when I talk about a fairly contentious aspect to Magic that I think needs to come back in some way as on one hand it's sorely needed, but on the other hand, its rightfully called unfun, that most vile of descriptors in the game.
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!
It's also worth pointing out that the mechanical execution of Sagas was originally a potential Planeswalker design back in the Lorwyn/TSP era. They talked about how you'd originally loop through the planeswalker's abilities, but this didn't really give the feel of a planeswalker adapting to the situation. I'm glad that all these years later they made the design work with Sagas.
I get where people not liking the vertical layout are coming from, though. I think the vertical art that's long in one axis is cool and works well for the storytelling aspect, but it makes the card feel visually unbalanced (usually toward the light-colored, high-contrast text side). I don't have a good solution for this, but I think a borderless/showcase saga where the text overlays some kind of full art in a style like the showcase Triomes (which I'm not sure how to link) might look better.