The plane of Dominaria was the center of the plot for several years, with each MtG Card Set centering around some aspect of it’s timeline. Everything from the beginning of the Phyrexian Invasion to the final Apocalypse was set on Dominaria. Even today, with the just-released Scars of Mirrodin, the plot affects the game. Mirrodin itself was a plane created by Karn, one of the characters from this set of blocks.
Tempest – Released in 1997, Tempest was the first stand-alone set in the Weatherlight Saga, the story arc that spanned more than four years of Magic the Gathering history. It was the first set to have a large power increase from the previous sets, and many of it’s cards became instant staples. Among the cards introduced were Slivers, creatures that share their abilities with all other slivers, as well as cards with Buyback. Buyback was an extra cost that could be paid when casting a spell, which would cause the spell to return to your hand rather than go to the graveyard when cast. Creatures with Shadow also made their appearance here; creatures with Shadow can only block or be blocked by other creatures with Shadow. Tempest’s set symbol is a cloud with lightning.
Stronghold – The second set in the Rath Cycle, Stronghold follows the pursuit of the Legacy as it’s tracked into Volrath’s stronghold. Stronghold cards continued the set trends of having buyback and shadow, and introduced the En-Kor creatures, which inadvertently started an infinite-life combo. It also included the Spikes, a type of creature that comes into play with 0/0 power and toughness, but a set of +1/+1 counters, which can be distributed to other creatures. Stronghold’s set symbol is a portcullis.
Exodus – Third set in the Rath block, Exodus was the first set to make rarity visible on the card itself, as shown by the color of it’s set symbol. It was also the first set to add a collector’s number to the cards, under the copyright and artist information. Exodus was notable for it’s changes to card design more than it was for it’s cards. It’s set symbol is a bridge.
Known as the Artifact block, the Urza’s sets were driven as much by enchantments as they were by artifacts. The block had a large number of combo ability cards, resulting in decks that could often win by turn three, if not on the first turn. This resulted in a period known as Combo Winter, a time when many cards were banned or restricted, to limit these powerful combos. It also contains the first card ever banned before the set was released, Memory Jar. Rather than follow the storyline of the Rath cycle, the Artifact cycle worked as a prequel, explaining how things went from the end of the brother’s war to the beginning of the Rath cycle.
Urza’s Saga – This set was the first to separate colors in time, having each color display part of the story separate from the others. Red shows Urza’s alliance with Shiv, black shows his attack on phyrexia, white shows his recuperation in serra’s realm, green shows a preview of the war leading to the ice age, and blue shows Urza founding the academy in Tolaria. As a set, several new mechanics were introduced. Cycling allows you to pay to discard a card in your hand and draw a new one. Echo makes you pay the casting cost of a creature a second time, or else sacrifice it. It also had several spells that, upon resolution, returned the mana spent on them to the mana pool. Saga’s set symbol is a pair of gears.
Urza’s Legacy – Legacy was the first set to print premium foil cards, which could be any card from the set, printed with a reflective shine, and taking the place of a common in the booster pack. The set’s story expands on Urza’s attack on Phyrexia, as the demonic black plane attempts to invade Dominaria. The set expanded on the Echo mechanic, giving the cards abilities when they entered or left play, making it sometimes advantageous to not pay the cost. Urza’s Legacy’s set symbol is a hammer.
Urza’s Destiny – Widely considered one of the most powerful sets in MtG, Destiny followed Urza as he engineered a crew to fly his skyship to fight Phyrexia, and Phyrexia’s creation of the plane of Rath to use as a staging ground in the invasion of Dominaria. It added some creatures with abilities that trigger when the creature hits the graveyard, as well as creatures that can be sacrificed for cards. It was also the first set to print "Creature – Elf" in place of "Summon Elf." Destiny’s set symbol is a flask.
Released beginning in October of 1999 and following in 2000, the Masquerade cycle was the first to use the new Classic 6th Edition rules and changes to card design. The set had relatively little impact on the overall scene of Magic the Gathering; few of it’s cards have been reprinted, and the sets introduced few new keywords.
Mercadian Masques – Masques frustrated players by not introducing any new keyword abilities, though they have several ability themes that these days would probably have been keyworded. Rebels and Mercenaries have abilities that allow you to pay to search for other rebels or mercenaries and put them into play. In addition the set introduced abilities usable by any player. Masques had several cycles of cards, however. Depletion lands came into play with two counters and could be tapped for mana until the counters were gone. A cycle of Enchantments had what is now called Flash, allowing them to be played at instant speed. Mongers were creatures with abilities that any player could use. The set symbol is a Mask.
Nemesis – The hardest set to find a good set symbol picture for, Nemesis fills in more of the story as Phyrexia continues to invade Dominaria, with only Urza standing in their way. Some cards that Nemesis introduced include cards with fading, where a creature comes into play with a certain number of counters, which are removed once per turn. When the last is removed, the creature is sacrificed. Seals were a cycle of enchantments with no immediate effect, that could be sacrificed for a typical color-related effect, such as disenchant or damage. Nemesis’s set symbol is an axe.
Prophecy – The final set in the Masques block, Prophecy didn’t introduce any more keywords, but did introduce some very powerful and very expensive cards. The Winds cycle of cards were cost as much as nine mana, but had powerful effects, such as Denying Wind removing seven cards from the opponent’s library, and Blessed Wind setting a player’s life total to 20. It also had the cycle of Avatars, 8-mana creatures that could be cast for only 2 if certain conditions were met. Additionally, it added Rhystic spells, which gave the opponent the opportunity to pay mana to cancel the effect.
The Invasion block was the end of Magic the Gathering’s long-running plotline, involving the Phyrexian invasion of Dominaria. The set as a whole focused on the banding together of the races of Dominaria, and included many gold (or multicolored) cards for the first time since Stronghold.
Invasion – One of the most popular sets in MtG history due to it’s balanced but powerful gold cards, Invasion debuted several new mechanics as well. Kicker is an ability that has since made it’s return in Zendikar, where a card has an optional secondary cost that can boost the power of the original spell if paid. Domain is an effect that had no keyword at the time, but was keyworded later in the Conflux set; it gives various cards a boost in power the more basic land types the player controls. It also debuted the annoying but useful Split cards; cards that had two cards printed sideways on them, granting two different possible effects. Invasion’s set symbol is the symbol of the Dominarian Coalition.
Planeshift – This set was little more than an extension of Invasion, and has little new to offer the game. It continued the trends of gold cards, but added familiars; creatures that reduce the cost of allied-color spells you would play. It also added "gating" creatures, which were creatures that came into play with the additional cost of returning a creature from play to your hand. This is often used as potent combo fodder, for comes-into-play or leaves-play effects. Planeshift’s set symbol is a planar swirl.
Apocalypse – The final set in the longest-running plotline in Magic history, Apocalypse was the entrance of Phyrexia’s god, Yawgmoth, to Dominaria. The evil master of black mana resurrected the dead from the long-running war and used them as footsoldiers against the faltering Coalition. The set included a cycle of lands called painlands, which offer two colors of mana but deal a damage to the controller of the land when used. It also focused, instead of ally-color gold cards as Invasion and the Coalition did, on enemy-color cards. These cards represent Yawgmoth resurrecting the dead to fight for him. Apocalypse’s set symbol is Yawgmoth’s crying mask.
That’s all for part 1 of the Magic the Gathering Sets and Symbols article series! Find what you wanted? If not, perhaps you should look up these deck ideas, or check out this article about nudity in Heavy Rain.