The Story of Mystery Booster Playtest Cards
Playtest cards were a special insert Introduced in 2019 as part of Mystery Booster Convention Edition and reprinted in the 2021 version of the product. The Mystery Booster set was designed to mimic the feeling of a Chaos Draft with over 1600 cards in the main set. The Playtest cards upped the chaos factor by being wonky, weird, and sometimes wildly powerful. Not tournament legal outside of Limited, playtest cards introduced an Un-like experience to the Mystery Booster Limited environment, without the silver borders. More on card borders later.
Playtest Cards That Foreshadowed Past/Present Cards and Mechanics
The majority of Mystery Booster Convention Edition (MBCE) consists of reprints going back to Mirage. It does a great job showcasing Magic's rich history. The playtest cards, on the other hand, were a way to look towards the future. According to Gavin Verhey, the set's Chief Architect, the 121 Playtest cards for MBCE were designed from the start with Future Sight in mind. "In fact, I looked through the Future Sight card list many times while making them," he wrote. The Playtest cards were, according to Verhey, "cards that weren't quite silver-bordered but definitely pushed the boundaries of what Magic could do. Some could be nods at Magic players, and others could be things that we may actually do someday..."
With two years of hindsight, we can already look back at Mystery Booster Playtest cards and see them forecasting mechanics in the present and recent past of Magic. Let's look at a few of these cards, and the mechanics they foreshadowed.
Recycla-Bird and Keyword Counters
A tournament-legal version of Recycla-bird never made it into Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. The mechanical idea of keyword counters, however, made it onto cards throughout the set, and across all colors.
Now that R&D has cracked open this realm of design space, I think it's safe to say that we will be seeing keyword counters quite a bit in the future. They do an elegant job of conveying permanent, or in the case of cards like Kappa Tech-Wrecker and Biting-Palm Ninja not so permanent upgrades to creatures. It's one of the deepest wells in recent design space I feel they've tapped into, and I'm excited to see what else can come from it.
Graveyard Dig - Cleave
Graveyard Dig quite obviously features the Cleave mechanic, though minus the ability word we saw printed in Innistrad: Crimson Vow. I wasn't much of a fan of this reverse-kicker mechanic, but from looking at Graveyard Dig, it's clear that the mechanic ported over into the premier set without much tinkering.
Louvaq, the Aberrant - Modified
While what it means to be modified changed slightly, the essence of what it was on Louvaq, the Aberrant to how the mechanic appears in Kamigawa Neon Dynasty is much the same. On Louvaq, "Modified creatures have a power, toughness, or ability different than their printed versions." The meaning of modified from Neon Dynasty, according to the updated Comprehensive Rules, is "a modified creature is a creature that has a counter on it, is equipped, or is enchanted by an Aura its controller also controls. See rule 700.9."
While not a drastic change, the biggest difference between the two versions is that effects controlled by an opponent do not cause a creature to be modified, where they could under the Louvaq modified rule. From my perspective, the Neon Dynasty version is more intuitive and requires a bit less for both players to keep track of. It's interesting how such a relatively small change can improve the quality of a mechanic, and it's something we see even more obviously in our next example.
Domesticated Watercourse - Reconfigure
The ability on Domesticated Watercourse is a kind of proto-Reconfigure. In this version of the mechanic, the effect is only temporary, but that's not the most interesting thing about it. From my perspective, the most interesting thing about Domesticated Watercourse is that it's a land and not an artifact creature! Creature lands have been part of Magic since Mishra's Factory back in Antiquities, but we've never seen a land equipment before.
It makes sense that in developing this mechanic for a real set they explored other card types to use, and artifact creatures make absolute sense. They make the mechanic play more like a better version of Theros's bestow mechanic, a mechanic I quite enjoyed back in the day. The versatility of being able to Reconfigure not just between creatures, but on and off of creatures makes for interesting gameplay decisions on both sides of the table.
Let's look at another mashing of card types we wouldn't expect to see together.
There's not a lot to talk about here mechanically. What's important to note about Enchanted Prairie is it was the first Enchantment Land we ever saw until Urza's Saga in Modern Horizons 2. That quirky exception aside, I don't think it is likely we will ever see enchantment lands in a constructed-legal set. We already have the MH2 artifact dual lands, which Enchanted Prairie could likely have helped inspire, but it's territory I'd be surprised to see R&D dip a toe in. That said, as time goes on, more and more things become acceptable to put on the table. In a few years, enchantment lands could be a thing we see. Perhaps when we return to Theros again?
Speaking of Theros, there's one more playtest card I'd like to look at before we start looking at the future of Magic more seriously.
Enchantmentize / One With The Stars
This is the only playtest card I could find from the 121 in the set that went directly into a constructed-legal set almost verbatim as printed. The only change between the two cards was the name to better match the flavor of Theros Beyond Death. These cards are close enough in time, about a year apart, that I'd honestly be surprised if [card]Enchantmentize[card] wasn't in the design file for TBD even before the Mystery Booster version was printed. Perhaps that's a trivia question for me to ask Gavin Verhey at some point?
That wraps up our tour of the present and recent past of Magic and playtest card mechanics that have crossed over into constructed-legal sets. Let's turn now to look at where playtest cards could point us in the future.
What About the Card Borders?
Before getting into looking at Playtest cards with mechanics ripe for future sets, it's important to note one of the more impactful aspects of the printing of Playtest cards to begin with: Their printing in black borders and not silver borders. Prior to the advent of Playtest cards, all cards deemed "Not tournament legal" were printed in silver borders. This was a quick and easy way to distinguish legal and illegal cards, without requiring adding entire sets worth of cards to constructed banned lists, and keeping Un-cards safely out of constructed (including Commander without Rule 0 Discussions).
Playtest cards were the first cards to do away with the silver borders. Instead, they're printed with frames designed to mimic the actual playtest cards used by Wizards R&D, with the words "TEST CARD - Not for constructed play" printed across the bottom where R&D set code information normally goes.
In a way, I think this sort of presaged the move to black borders for the forthcoming Un-set Unfinity. Magic Head Designer and Unfinity design leader, Mark Rosewater discussed the move to black borders in a November 2021 article revealing details about Unfinity. "Over the years, silver border slowly shifted to end up meaning 'not for any official format, casual or not,' which flies in the face of what it was originally intended to do."
With the line between what can and cannot be a constructed-playable Magic card getting fuzzier, I'm interested to see what Unfinity has in store for us later this year. What about actual constructed sets though? Let's look at some Playtest cards whose mechanics have the potential to break through into constructed Magic.
Playtest Cards with Future Set Mechanics
Frogkin Kidnapper / Squidnapper
I forgot both of these cards existed when I was writing my predictions for what mechanics or abilities might be in Streets of New Capenna (SNC). Let me rectify that right now by saying I think there will definitely be a ransom mechanic in SNC. But which one? The ransom mechanics on Frogkin Kidnapper and Squidnapper are similar, but not the same. The Frog has an exile effect affecting a card in hand, and the Squid has a control changing effect affecting a card in play.
I think the exile effect of the Frogkin Kidnapper has a wider potential for use. It's an ability that opens up the possibilities for interesting and cheap removal and interaction to cards from different zones. Then, regardless of the zone in which an opponent's card originates, they will be able to pay the ransom to return the card to their hand. We could see Ransom Oblivion Ring Ransom Thoughtseize, even Ransom Counterspell, or Ransom Wrath of God. The more I think about it, the more I'm intrigued by the possibilities.
Unicycle is one of my favorite playtest cards. The combination of artifact subtypes on the card, Equipment Vehicle, is a combination a long time in the making. I'm confident cards with this combination of subtypes will appear in a constructed-legal set. I can think of no better set to introduce them to Magic in a huge way than the forthcoming The Brother's War set. I mean, the story literally revolves around giant battle mechs fighting. The last time we saw Urza-designed battle mechs in Magic was Invasion block twenty years ago. And let's face it, no one under the age of 35 remembers Power Armor.
The development of awesome artifact subtypes over the last twenty years of Magic design has finally given us a chance to go back and revisit the era of The Brother's War as the giant Gundam fight of which we all had childhood fever dreams. In gameplay terms, equipment vehicles have interesting strategic implications. Which do you equip? Which do you crew? Think about deckbuilding with these and all the Kamigawa Neon Dynasty pilots and cards that care about modified creatures. If this prediction proves true, perhaps we will see a sweet vehicle deck in Standard again?
So far, I'm pretty confident in these predictions based on what we know about forthcoming sets. So much so, that I will be shocked if we don't see these mechanics/card type combinations in 2022. Now, let's go explore some more interesting possibilities.
Some Wild Predictions
Vazal, the Compleat
Over the years, we've seen cards like Relentless Rats and Seven Dwarves who bend the rules on how many copies can be in a deck. Vazal, the Compleat's megalegendary ability works in the opposite direction, allowing only one copy of the card in your deck. For those not old enough to remember, this was actually how the original legend rule worked back when Legends first came out.
While I think the word megalegendary is kinda cheesy, I like where this is going. I can certainly see this ability, or something similar, existing in constructed Magic. I think cards with deckbuilding restrictions built into them have the potential to foster creativity, not just in deckbuilding but in leading to fresh areas of design. That is, if they are not absurdly broken (looking at you companion mechanic).
Spellmorph Raise Dead
The original morph mechanic is one of my favorite mechanics in Magic. It creates interesting tactical decisions for both players, and the hidden information element of the mechanic creates a kind of mini-game within each game. Manifest, and to a lesser extent megamorph, each built on the mechanic in an interesting way. It was always disappointing manifesting a crucial spell, and then not being able to cast it. Spellmorph would create an interesting tension in the same vein as the original morph mechanic, but on a slightly different axis. And you'd still get to play those crucial spells.
I don't think there is much design space left for morph and its variants. Spellmorph is the most obvious variation left that's not been done. The uniqueness of morph-related abilities means the only set it makes sense to see it in, would be in a future Tarkir set. When we go back to Tarkir, I'm confident we will see Spellmorph.
The idea of spark counters shares a lot with the various other counters players have been able to get over the years. These include experience counters, energy, and even poison. I think the idea of spark counters has potential. What if instead of a new type of counter, though, it was a series of abilities on cards that made use of an existing type of counter? Why not poison counters? Think of the strategic implications!
The delicate balance between having enough poison to activate the poison spark abilities you want, but not so much that an opponent can't give you extra poison and kill you out of nowhere. I think it's more in line with what the energy mechanic should have been. The use of poison as a resource like this is something I think we will see when we get back to Phyrexia. With Planeswalkers getting Compleated left and right this year though, could we even wind up seeing it in Dominaria United?
Honorable Mention - Inspirational Antelope, Gold Mine
I couldn't bring up Unfinity in this article without giving a nod to these two cards. In my predictions article for Magic in 2022, I talked about the possibility of legacy cards appearing in the set. While I'm still more inclined to believe we will see peels or stickers like that MSCHF Secret Lair Plains, the concept of legacy cards is an interesting one ripe with possibility.
The Mystery Booster Convention Edition playtest cards are a wild group of Magic cards. Some, like the ones we've discussed, may creep into constructed paper sets in some capacity. Others have the potential to inspire future Alchemy digital designs. But now I want to hear your thoughts. Are there any recent cards I've missed that you think these Playtest cards inspired? What Playtest card mechanics do you think we are likely to see pop up in constructed sets in the next few years? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.