Last updated on June 17, 2022

Necropotence - Illustration by Mark Tedin

Necropotence | Illustration by Mark Tedin

Ice Age may be most well-known for its introduction of the snow mechanic, but it was incredibly important to early Magic for a lot of reasons. This 1995 expansion was the game’s first “standalone” product and could be played completely independently of the MTG core products since it reprinted basic lands for the first time.

It introduced some of our favorite staple cards like Brainstorm, Demonic Consultation, and the all-powerful Necropotence. We also got a new white mana symbol and a new tap symbol, and it was the first set to include cycles of color-hosing cards.

But not all of Ice Age’s cards have aged well. Many of these cards now fall into that special category of “unplayable” reserved for Draft fodder and the Standard environments of days gone by. But the set will always hold a special place in my frigid heart, so take a seat in the DeLorean and let’s dive headfirst into the snow!

Setting and Story

Snowblind - Illustration by Douglas Shuler

Snowblind | Illustration by Douglas Shuler

Thousands of years before the War of the Spark on the continent of Terisiare in Dominaria, the Brothers’ War ended when Urza activated the Golgothian Sylex, instantly disintegrating himself and his Phyrexian-corrupted brother, Mishra. The resulting Sylex Blast (i.e., Urza’s Ruinous Blast) was apocalyptic. It destroyed the continent of Argoth and all of its citizens as well as the tectonic plates beneath the island (go ahead and mark “Genocide” on the Urza’s War Crimes Bingo sheets I’ve passed out). Urza later reconstituted when his planeswalker spark ignited and left Dominaria in the hands of his apprentice, Tawnos.

The shockwave and destructive force of the blast sent Dominaria into a Dark Age as the climate cooled and glaciers crept across the world. By the time of the Ice Age all the major civilizations on Dominaria had succumbed to war, famine, or the frigid cold. New cultures arose over time and were forced to unite against a common enemy: Lim-Dûl the Necromancer (who wouldn’t actually get a card until Time Spiral).

On a more metaphysical level, the plane of Dominaria began to form the Shard of the Twelve Worlds, a planar “envelope” composed of a dozen planes that were then blocked off from the rest of the multiverse.

The Ice Age ended when the planeswalker Freyalise cast the World Spell, rejuvenating the land and shattering the Shard. The world of Dominaria started to thaw roughly 2000 years after the Sylex Blast.

Themes, Mechanics, and Cycles

Winter's Chill - Illustration by Edward P. Beard, Jr.

Winter’s Chill | Illustration by Edward P. Beard, Jr.

Ice Age was designed by Skaff Elias and the rest of the “East Coast playtesters,” friends of Richard Garfield from the early, early days of Magic (we’re talking 1991, before any cards were really in circulation). You’ve probably heard the origin of the “:the Gathering” appended to the end of Magic’s name, how Garfield wanted each set to have its own themed name but the idea was scrapped for branding reasons.

Ice Age was in development around the same time as Alpha and was originally planned as a “better basic set.” A “Magic: 2,” a standalone follow-up more akin to today’s Core sets rather than a themed expansion. Elias and the crew started working up a new Core set but delays and complications pushed Ice Age’s release back quite a bit.

Five other expansions were released before Ice Age was ready in 1995. The team had a lot of time to work on the set which meant more cards could be tested and printed.  A quote from Elias’s “The Dawn of Magic’s Ice Age” explains their design philosophy best:

We wanted a set where flying was special, not just an extra word tacked on to every played creature. We wanted a set where the idea that a color was short on creatures meant something. We wanted a set where the “allied” colors were played more often with each other than enemy colors were. We wanted strategy in simple creature combat as well as flashy enchantments that gave you cards for life. We wanted games to last longer (when we started the design of the set, the Magic environment was too fast due to unlimited card restrictions) and have more turnabouts.

Skaff Elias

Elias and the team ultimately hit some of these marks but missed others. Let’s take a look at the major mechanics and themes, analyze some popular cards, and see how they did!

Snow

Ice Age is most famous for introducing the snow mechanic. Snow is a supertype for basic lands that other cards check for. Adding another land type is simple enough, but the payoffs for snow spells always seemed worse than the cost.

Take Winter’s Chill for example. It’s a sort of Fog with the potential to kill creatures but it gives your opponent a lot more choice than you’d want. Glacial Crevasses has a similar effect at the costly price of sacrificing Snow-Covered Mountains.

Long games didn’t have great win conditions at the time, so you often found yourself with lots of untapped lands from turn 5 onwards. The intent of these cards is clear, but they weren’t executed as aggressively as they should’ve been.

Ice Age included tons of “hoser” cards for snow lands to keep the feel of a new basic set, many of which were more aggressively costed than the snow spells themselves. Melting, Thermokarst, and Icequake all destroy snow lands with surprising efficiency, but that’s not even the worst of it.

Barbarian Guides has a repeatable way to pass evasion around your board, and Cold Snap just straight-up punishes you for playing in the snow.

The original incarnation of the snow mechanic was overall just kind of wonky. With only 36 snow-themed cards out of the entire 383, I would’ve preferred to see a stronger focus on this theme. The snow mechanic was allegedly added late in the set’s development which could explain the underpowered feel of the snow cards.

Cumulative Upkeep

Cumulative upkeep, an almost universally reviled mechanic, was introduced in Ice Age. Taxing effects were tested in this set in an effort to slow the game down. A lot of the upkeep costs are fairly restrictive and options for mitigating them are scarce.

Mystic Remora

A total of 30 cards in Ice Age reference cumulative upkeep, the most notable being the classic Mystic Remora. The main issue with cumulative upkeep was its use entirely as a disadvantage. Coldsnap later completed the Ice Age block and revisited cumulative upkeep with the idea to make it advantageous thanks to Herald of Leshrac and Braid of Fire.

Ice Age’s cumulative upkeep cards aren’t “strong” or even generally “playable,” but they are weird. Naked Singularity, Illusionary Terrain, and Reality Twist shift the mana generated by lands around which potentially shuts down your opponent’s next turn.

Snowfall mitigates those expensive upkeep costs by doubling your Islands’ mana production, a rare effect in blue these days. And I love the control elements of Glacial Chasm and Halls of Mist. Each of these cards creates a different scenario where you weigh the value of how long to keep the card around.

Cantrips

Ice Age introduced the “cantrip,” a (usually) simple spell that replaces itself by drawing a card in addition to its effect. A cantrip usually drew the card at the beginning of the next turn’s upkeep, slowing the game down and preventing a player from “storming off” (before it was even called that).

Some classic cantrips include Urza’s Bauble and Portent, the latter of which still sees a lot of play today.

Loads of the early cantrips had an effect common to their color and there was also a few designs for cantrip pairs. Formation and Lightning Blow are a pair, just like Enervate and Infuse.

Cycles

Like all sets, Ice Age featured cycles of similar cards that mirror each other across the color wheel.

The Circles of Protection each prevent damage from their respective color. These were absolutely crucial to combating burn decks in early MTG.

The Scarabs are five 1-mana white auras that hose a different color by making a creature unblockable by that color and granting +2/+2 while an opponent controls a permanent of that color.

The Boons are a rebalanced cycle of the original Boons from Alpha, replacing the overpowered Ancestral Recall with Brainstorm (its first printing!) and the underpowered Healing Salve with Sacred Boon. Lightning Bolt was also replaced by Incinerate.

A cycle of 10 mono-colored hoser enchantments with two of each color that punishes their respective enemy colors. For example, the blue enchantments Wrath of Marit Lage and Breath of Dreams penalize red and green creatures.

Five multicolor hoser enchantments with allied-color identities that hose their shared enemy color. Ghostly Flame is my favorite from this cycle. It “hoses” the damage-prevention effects rampant in white without specifically calling out the color in its text.

The talismans were a cycle of 2-mana artifacts that let you pay to untap a permanent whenever a spell of a given color is played.

The depletion lands are a cycle of five allied-color dual lands that can tap for one of their colors immediately, but don’t untap during your next upkeep.

The only five 3-color cards in the set, these allied-colored rares each cost three or six mana and have powerful effects. My favorite by far is Fiery Justice. I think it’s a good indicator for what the designers thought big flashy removal spells should be.

Pairs

While not fully fleshed out cycles, Ice Age included a handful of mirrored pairs. There’s the evergreen Hydroblast and Pyroblast pair, an iconic reflection across enemy colors, but Ice Age also gave green and black Icequake and Thermokarst, and white and black Order of the White Shield plus Knight of Stromgald as well as Order of the Sacred Torch and Stromgald Cabal.

Pairs and cycles were easy to design and balance, making them a key feature of early Magic.

White

Blue

Black

Red

Green

Multicolor

Colorless

Lands

Notable Cards

Ice Age saw the printing of many powerful cards, first-time effects, and more than a few cards that are still played today. Let’s take a look and some of them!

Necropotence

Necropotence

First and foremost is Necropotence. This 3-mana black enchantment definitely meets Elias’s goal of a “big, flashy enchantment” that lets you pay life for cards. I shouldn’t have to tell you how powerful this enchantment is. It’s so good that it’s one of the few cards banned in Legacy and is even restricted in Vintage!

It was a powerful card back in the day and it still is. Believe it or not, this enchantment was called the worst rare in the set by InQuest magazine at its release. What fools we were in the 90s!

Necropotence became a key component to a mono-black deck that was the scourge tournaments throughout that summer before its banning/restriction across every format. It and Illusions of Grandeur later teamed up with Donate for another lethal combo.

Pain Lands

Ice Age also introduced the cycle of pain lands. These are five allied-color lands that tap for a colorless, or can ping you for one damage to tap for one of their colors. As “powered-down” dual lands, their greatest advantage is entering the board untapped.

The original Phil Foglio Sulfurous Springs also happens to be one of my favorite card arts in the game. It captures a different approach to non-serious artwork that we just don’t see in this day and age.

Legendary Creatures

Ice Age released interesting new legendary creatures in the form of Merieke Ri Berit and the spooky Skeleton Ship. We also saw functionally-similar reprints à la Chaos Moon, a more unpredictable Gauntlet of Might.

Products

Ice Age boosters and starter decks were in print from June 1995 to February of 1996. The 15-card boosters are much the same as today’s with a spot reserved for a rare and a land. Though myths abound about the fabled 15-rare pack, a gift from the quality control gods at WotC.

Where to Buy

If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. Your patrician taste in Magic cards drives you to make poor choices, and you’ve decided you need to own the entire set of Ice Age.

With only an estimated 500 million cards printed, Ice Age sealed products can be a little hard to come by. Retailers like CardKingdom keep some stock, but it’ll cost you! A booster that used to be $2.50 back in ‘95 will run you an average of $35 today with some as high as $75.  An entire box is upwards of $1,000!

But don’t fret! Most of the singles in Ice Age are dirt cheap. The most you’ll spend will be on the rares without reprints like Demonic Consultation, Illusions of Grandeur, and the original pain lands. And Necropotence, of course.

Wrap Up

Mystic Remora - Illustration by Ken Meyer, Jr.

Mystic Remora | Illustration by Ken Meyer, Jr.

The East Coast playtesters wanted to build a better basic Magic set. They wanted Ice Age to stand on its own as a playable product. Their goals were to make games last longer, rebalance spells from Alpha, and more clearly define the way the colors interact with each other, either by “allied” colors cooperating or enemies colors “hosing.”

Did they succeed? Well, partly. Did they make the games last longer? Yes, definitely. Cumulative upkeep really slows the game down but makes for boring turns and wasn’t designed well enough on its own. Is combat more nuanced? Sure! Knowing when, where, and how to block without as many evasive creatures requires a lot more thought. Did they make a big, flashy enchantment that trades your life for cards? Absolutely!

If you disagree and you’ve been spite-reading this to find my author bio, the joke’s on you! I’d love to hear what you think in the comments down below or over on Twitter. Think I’m overvaluing Necropotence? Think you could design a better Ice Age set? Prove it!

Until then, stay warm, and thanks for reading!

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