Barigord Gaming Weekly – 07/20/23 – Outside the Game of Magic: From Exile to Emblems

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Last week’s post can be found here.

Hey gamers! What exactly does it mean to have some part of your game be outside the game? Does that mean the game recognizes its own boundaries? Does that really mean that the game is including an additional game zone and calling it ‘outside the game?’ What does it all mean?

The Untouchables

What it all means is that your game wants to emphasize that there is place or state of being where things cannot be interacted with. In board game terms, put that card back in the box for next time. In video game terms, Aeris or Aerith from Final Fantasy 7 is not coming back.

But in terms of Magic the Gathering, what began as a space for untouchables gradually eroded and then became mined, and even adapted to try out radical departures from Magic that really skewed things heavily from normal gameplay. This might be a history lesson. I’ll try and make it fun.

Before There Was Exile There Was…

Way back in Alpha, that very first Magic release, came a card that is still heavily played today. It’s Swords to Plowshares, a card with a strange title and the first reference to a place outside the game that was still part of the game. Here’s the Alpha version:

This was always a really powerful card. Back in the day, your Wall of Stone had no chance, as this card forced it to rethink its warring ways and retire to the farming life. Team up with 2 other walls and a gate and keep some sheep.

There was also Disintegrate, a customizable damage spell that removed a creature from the game if the spell did enough damage to kill it. Conditional, though, because of Giant Growth and Healing Salve, etc. Not as straightforward and efficient as Sword to Plowshares.

Regardless, we all learned there was place our cards could go that was outside the game, and they would have to stay there until the game stopped. That didn’t last long.

Just One Wish, Ma’Ruf

Just as Swords to Plowshares sent a creature from the game, the card Ring of Ma’rûf grabbed something from outside the game and brought it in. This card came in with Arabian Nights, Magic’s first expansion in 1993. It also removed itself from the game in the process.

The idea was understandable: the ring offered a single wish, taking the form of a card that you wish you had in your hand, but wasn’t in your deck. You could swap it out to draw that card. Though it didn’t exactly specify something important: what were the limits on what cards were available to you? Did you have to own them? Have them handy? Could you take an hour or a bus to get them? Based on the creative interpretations early Magic players took on the rules, they probably had to say specifically that it needed to be a Magic card, and not a 5 of Diamonds or something.

The card Ring of Ma’rûf is largely forgotten, but the idea of Wishing for a card outside the game, and what that meant for organized Magic, were both pretty influential down the line.

Alas, Poor Tawnos

In 1994, WotC released Antiquities, an artifact-based set. This included Tawnos’s Coffin, which provided a temporary ‘remove from the game effect’ that is still problematically worded to this day, mainly because it has unique interactions with auras. Here it is:

I love to see the word ‘Hence’ on a Magic card. The idea here is pretty clear, where ‘out of play’ really means ‘in the coffin,’ which might have been better. We get the idea, and despite all the text, this card makes sense. We also got a few more cards that removed themselves from the game, like Feldon’s Cane and removal of tokens on Tetravus.

Later that year, we also got Knowledge Vault in Legends and Safe Haven in The Dark, giving players the abilities to exile cards and creatures in ‘a safe place’ outside the game, to be brought back later. Both sets included several cards that removed themselves from the game as part of some effect, as well as the powerful Tormod’s Crypt in The Dark which removed a player’s graveyard, and still sees play today.

Cards on Ice

With the release of 1995’s Ice Age, we had plenty of cards that removed themselves or other from the game. Elkin Bottle was the first of many cards that allowed cards to be removed from the game from the top of your deck, and then played later. Ice Cauldron did the same for cards in your hand.

Two black cards, Necropotence and Demonic Consultation both used removing cards from the game to reflect black’s gambling with dark forces in exchange for resources. Both see play today.

Alliances, the next set up, leaned heavily into removing cards from the game as a resource. You might know the card Force of Will, which asks for a blue card from your hand in exchange for a free Counterspell. In Magic, it’s usually terrible to spend 2 cards to stop one, but cards like Force of Will are considered essential to Magic’s highest levels of competition. Go figure.

Alliances also brought the card Exile which was barely consequential in function, but nailed the name of what it did. It still took a long time to catch on, and players put up with ‘Removed from the game’ for years.

Save Us, Leeches!

Legends and the Dark also brought in a handful of cards that gave players poison counters. For a brief period in 1994-1995, there were poison counters but no way to interact with them. They were in a zone of their own.

Luckily, we got the card Leeches in 1995’s Homelands. It’s still the only way to remove poison counters from a player. So poison isn’t quite interactable, but you need an obscure card from arguably Magic’s worst set that might kill you with damage instead.

Poison has a long history of effectiveness in tournament Magic. It still sees play in several formats, and there are poison counter cards in Standard. The recent ones seem pretty benign, though, and poison, while non-interactive, isn’t too much of a threat.

Untap Phase, Upkeep Phase, Out of Phase?

In 1997 Mirage added a really strange mechanic, Phasing, something almost universally disliked. The cards were mostly badly designed, and the mechanic wasn’t fully thought out regarding things like auras, counters, state of tapped or untapped, etc. It was too complicated with minimal payoffs.

The big thing for the purposes of this article is that Phasing created another new outside the game zone. While phased out, stuff couldn’t be interacted with, very similar to what Tawnos’s Coffin did. A few cards did break through, like Frenetic Efreet, but overall, Phasing was bad and was considered one of Magic’s all-time design fails. Something many people thought they’d never bring back.

Naturally it was brought back recently, and has had great success with cards like Teferi’s Protection and the updated Oubliette.

Beyond Outside the Game

The Un-sets, Unglued and Unhinged, changed a few things about ‘outside the game’ that had repercussions in regular, black-bordered Magic.

First off, non-Magic gaming conventions like wordplay, table slapping, BINGO, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and such expanded greatly.

Second, we got a direct reference to how ‘removed from the game’ was less and less binding in the card AWOL.

Finally, we got card references to players and things outside the game, other than individual cards. Booster Tutor, which allows a player to open a booster pack and add a card to their hand, is a great example. This expanded later to incorporating people outside the game or in the same room to have an effect on gameplay, though this has had no effect on most organized Magic.

Resources From Outside the Game

The term ‘Wish’ was officially applied to a cycle of cards, including Burning Wish and Cunning Wish in 2002’s Judgment. These cards not only redefined what could be grabbed from outside the game, they also made tournament (official) Magic have to figure out how to incorporate it into serious play.

Because of this, we now narrow the search scope of cards like the Wishes and Ring of Ma’rûf to sideboards. Which also means that variants without sideboards, specifically Commander, renders these cards useless.

It also means sideboards, once filled with cards to bring in to address the deck’s weaknesses in certain matchups, were now potential toolboxes. Originally intended for games 2 and 3, now open for business in game 1.

As the years went along, Magic’s usage of the ‘removed from game’ space became more and more developed. Cards were stored with Memory Jar before it was banned almost everywhere. Cards were suspended with Jhoira of the Ghitu or on their own, creating unique decks built around cards like Greater Gargadon. Cards were blinked, with other cards like Flickerwisp, filling a wide range of functions, from untapping to re-using an enters-the-battlefield trigger, to getting rid of a token.

Planechase, in 2009, added Magic’s first dice roll, as well as more cards that weren’t Magic cards but were played in a game of Magic. They had their own space, and affected play for everyone. They had some interactivity, but only through very narrow means. They have never been for anything but casual play, but they are popular and new planes were printed in 2023.

Archenemy, a similar, supplemental product, dropped in 2010. Players could play as a group against one ‘archenemy’ player who got added bonuses from a series of powerful Archenemy cards that had their own space and lack of interactivity. Again, this was casual-only, but influenced some designs down the road.

Proper Exile

In 2010, Magic’s rules update turned ‘removed from the game’ into ‘exiled’. Whew. Much less typing for me.

The Command Zone

It’s tough to know exactly when to add this wrinkle into outside-the-game zones. In 1997, Magic released a series of Vanguard cards, which were sort of like Commanders, but also like enchantments that started on the battlefield. I don’t know if they had a specific zone, but they weren’t something you could interact with.

At the time, it was a gimmick that didn’t quite work. Some were clearly better than others, and they changed the game too much. But they, along with the Elder Dragon cycle from Legends, had inspired some Magic judges to come up with what eventually became the Commander (or EDH – Elder Dragon Highlander) format.

EDH is extremely important to the development of the outside-the-game zone, because it introduced and formalized the Command Zone. Magic’s first official Commander release was in 2011, so sequentially it’s going here, but it was years and years in the making.

Nowadays, EDH is Magic’s most popular format, and the Command Zone is a given. It’s also filled with all sorts of things. In the beginning it was just your Commander, and they only left it when cast.

Emblematic, Problematic?

Going back briefly to 2010, Magic addressed some weirdness on the card Elspeth, Knight-Errant. The card was part of the 2010 expansion, Shards of Alara. It had a -8 ability that said ‘for the rest of the game…’ you get an effect.

This created 3 problems. First, did this effect leave if Elspeth did, and if so, what was the point of using 8 loyalty on the ability? Obviously the effect would stick around if Elspeth left. But that raised problem 2, which was tracking the ability. Was it a thing to put on the board, or something to remember? Trying to remember is a pain, and tough on players, so we needed a thing, which raised problem 3. Could this thing be interacted with, and where did it go?

The way this was addressed was with Emblems. Elspeth, Knight-Errant‘s official wording has been changed to reflected this.

Emblems are a thing that’s not a thing. They sit on the battlefield, but are not permanents. They behave like enchantments and artifacts sometimes do, but they can’t be targeted, or destroyed by a sweeper effect, or even removed at all.

In 2012, Magic printed Sorin, Lord of Innistrad in Dark Ascension, and along with him came an Emblem for his -2 ability. Not only were Emblems fleshed out and here to stay, they could stack. You could use Sorin’s -2 ability several times. Maybe even with several Sorins in a long game, and once they were there, there was nothing your opponent could do about it.

Back From Exile… Again!

While Emblems were impossible to interact with, the exile zone was more and more interactive. A trio of creatures, Misthollow Griffin from 2012’s Avacyn Restored, Eternal Scourge from 2016’s Oath of the Gatewatch and Squee, the Immortal from 2018’s Dominaria, could all be cast from exile. The Griffin menaced Legacy for a while, creating a looping interaction with Food Chain, but overall these cards had little impact.

The same could be said for the various cards like Pull from Eternity and Riftsweeper which did little else other than make the exile zone more accessible. The not-keyworded ‘process’ ability on cards like Ulamog’s Reclaimer, which took an opponent’s exiled cards and put them into their graveyard for value, was a complete fail.

Casting or playing cards from exile, however, became really common, including what’s often referred to as ‘impulse draw’ on cards like Outpost Siege. Abilities like Cascade, Madness, Hideaway and Foretell, which involve exile as part of their process, got additional printings and more design attention.

Energy Drain

In 2016, Kaladesh was released, bringing with it the energy mechanic. Energy was a resource, like mana, that could be used for all sorts of things. Energy was also like poison, in that it wasn’t interactive at all. Forget Leeches. You couldn’t remove or change an opponent’s energy. No stealing either.

Energy had a card for tracking it, establishing yet another game zone without interaction. The lack of interaction, and the overall efficiency of the energy cards, resulted in multiple bannings in Standard.

Common Emblems

Two emblems emerged in 2016 and 2017, both on a whole host of cards, including many commons. Conspiracy 2 in 2016 introduced the very popular Monarch mechanic, which uses an Emblem that gets passed around the table. While never in Standard, the mechanic has made waves in Commander of course, but also Pauper, Legacy and Vintage.

Standard saw some play of the second Emblem, The City’s Blessing, as part of the Ascend mechanic. This triggers only on some cards, and counts your permanents. If you have 10, you get the Blessing. You don’t get the Blessing if you have 10 permanents but not one of the Ascend cards. The mechanic was pretty limited, and not very popular.

Crowded Command Zone

The Command Zone filled up. While previously one could only have a single creature that stayed there and provided colour restrictions and little else, a series of releases changed that drastically.

First there were Oloro, Ageless Ascetic and Derevi, Empyrial Tactician from Commander 2013. Both broke rules. Oloro had an effect that impacted the board while it was in the Command Zone, and Derevi could go directly from the Zone to the board at a consistent cost that did not involve casting. Derevi was a terror of the early format for sure. Oloro was frustrating to play against, but the ability wasn’t too strong to be a concern.

Commander 2014 made it so that Planeswalkers could be your Commander, though not just any of them. Just the ones with it printed on them, luckily.

Commander 2016 added the partner mechanic to the mix, doubling the amount of Commanders in the Zone for many players. Not only did it expand the colour possibilities, but it made 2 cards always available to you, and beyond discard or other disruption. The original partners were mostly harmless.

Commander 2017 added Eminence to the party. This was Oloro evolved. While there were only 4 Commanders that had this ability, Edgar Markov proved to be an immediate problem, and The Ur-Dragon became one of the most played Commanders ever. Eminence gives you a bonus while your Commander is in the Command Zone. It’s beyond interaction and very strong. I play The Ur-Dragon with Changelings, and it’s like starting the game with a Mind Stone in play.

We’ve since seen Background enchantments that can be in the Command Zone. Kaldheim’s legends have flip sides that are artifacts. Some of Strixhaven’s legends are two different creatures, or a creature and spell on either side. It’s tough to measure what effect any of this stuff actually has on Commander, but it does add a ton of complexity to the format.

The Companion Conundrum

In 2020, WotC broke the Command Zone wide open with the release of Companions in the Ikoria expansion. Not only could these cards be added to your Command Zone in Commander if you met the criteria, they created a Command Zone in other formats.

Companions broke Magic. They dominated every competitive format where they were legal. Lurrus of the Dream-Den was banned in Vintage, the format where Black Lotus is legal. Several are currently banned across several formats, even though the mechanic was changed to make it less oppressive.

Part of the problem is accessibility. Like Commanders, the Companions are available from the start of the game. The other problem, and that’s what this whole post is about, is interactivity. Nothing your opponent can do can affect your Companion being available at the start of the game like it is. They can kill it, counter it, whatever, but it’s always a ready threat they have to react to.

Enter the Dungeon

In 2021, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms gave us the most complicated and involved Emblems yet: The Dungeons. Intended to bring a cool new subgame aspect to Magic, these overcomplicated, underpowered and cumbersome non-cards instead made a lot of headaches. Incidentally, these Dungeons live in the Command Zone.

While they weren’t interactive, they provided too many options that didn’t really link up to any coherent strategy. You couldn’t pick a path and leverage it easily. The cards were also fairly underpowered, and rarely made traversing the Dungeons easy or worthwhile. The card Acererak the Archlich is one of the few cards to see any significant play at all anywhere, as it loops with Aluren in Legacy and kills the opponent if they don’t stop it somehow. The kill relies on one room in one Dungeon, so you have to loop through all the rooms enough times to win.

The Initiative, part of 2022’s Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate, was a similar, Dungeon-based mechanic. It was limited to the Undercity, a new Emblem that was both Dungeon and The Monarch in the sense that it could be passed around. Players could Take the Initiative from their opponent, and progress through the Dungeon themselves instead.

The Initiative proved weak in Commander. It was, like the other Dungeons, too complicated and tough to find a path to victory. The payoffs were small, and the 4 player game was too unpredictable. But….

The Initiative broke Pauper, needing a whole raft of bannings, and even required a banning in Legacy, of White Plume Adventurer. The non-interactive nature of the Emblem really made a lot of difference, and decks could easily leverage it against anything unprepared to take The Initiative from them. Further, the effects were not scaled for 1-on-1, 20 life games. It was too easy to burn an opponent down and gain card advantage without opposition.

Garth and Alchemy

A little side note in all this are Spellbook cards. Alchemy, on Magic Arena, has them. They’re cards that can be summoned from nowhere into a player’s hand, library or graveyard via an effect from another card. This is the kind of thing that’s really troublesome in paper, so it requires some computation and randomization to make it work. Alchemy is not popular.

The card Garth One-Eye from Modern Horizons 2 in 2021 does something similar, giving the player access to five spells that aren’t touchable by the opponent. Garth is slow and clunky, but it’s legal in Modern, and the door to stuff like Spellbooks is open. Another weird wrinkle with Garth is that it creates copies of cards that aren’t available by many conventional means, like Black Lotus and Braingeyser both on the Reserved List and not legal in Modern. Black Lotus is additionally illegal in Commander, where Garth sees some play.

The Land Taboo

Finally I want to look at one of Magic’s unwritten rules, and how it has shaped where power is concentrated in Magic. If you’ve played the game from the very beginning, you’ll know that land destruction has been all but phased out of the game. Cards like Sinkhole and Stone Rain are no longer common, and mass land destruction, like Armageddon is all but gone also.

This has a lot to do with Commander, because land destruction is a feelbad, regardless of how competitive it actually is, and Commander is mostly a casual format where people are trying to avoid feelbads.

Land destruction sees some play in other formats, like Pauper, Legacy, and even Modern occasionally, but it relies on older cards, and isn’t played because it’s not that good.

Meanwhile, lands have grown more and more powerful and impactful. While fixing mana and making your drops was once the best game that could be played with lands, nowadays cards like Boseiju, Who Endures, Urza’s Saga, and Dark Depths offer strong gameplay, in large part because there aren’t good answers to lands.

This is even more pronounced in Commander, where almost every land in the game is legal, and there’s little to stop any of them if they become a problem. Cards like Cabal Coffers and Gemstone Caverns can be gamechangers, and because of this carry huge price tags. This has not escaped the notice of Hasbro, and big ticket lands are carrying reprint sets and driving prices of new sets alike.

It’s like lands have evolved to have their own little zone. A bubble. A little fence around things with a sign that says ‘touch me and feelbad.’ Yet another untouchable little zone within a zone, in a game that surrounded by areas outside the game which are all part of the game.


The Outside the Game Zone. What began with 2 cards as a way to represent creatures that were too Disintegrated or tired of war to be Resurrectioned, Animate Deaded or Regrowthed, has now become a full-on landscape of Dungeons and Cities and Crowns and Companions and Partners and Backgrounds and everything. Exile is hardly permanent, and you might even be lucky enough to Wish for a card you didn’t start with.

There is a disturbing trend here, and that’s how interactive most of this stuff isn’t. It’s like an entire subset of game cards have some variety of hexproof, indestructible, discard-proof, etc. Those are powerful abilities, and will dominate games. It’s tough to say where this will all go, but it will certainly diminish gameplay. Games can eventually boil down to who lands the powerful, non-interactive thing first. That’s why The Initiative is almost all banned in Pauper, and a bit in Legacy. Not the kind of Magic I want to play.

If you have thoughts and suggestions, leave them in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

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