Hello, all. I’m not sure how much I’ll be doing this, but this idea just came to me while lying in my bed, reading a book on education theory at around one o’clock at night. Weird how we people come up with stuff. Any how, I thought how interesting would it be to see how certain types of cards (say, rats, black removal, knights, ramp spells, counters) have evolved over the years. Magic has been around for a long while now, so there must be interesting things here.
In the interest of doing something quite general at first, I decided to go with something quite ubiquitous. And since MagicCards.info tells me there’s 59 red cards with X in the casting cost, many of which are not related to this article, his might actually be a manageable enough place to start.
First, what do I mean ‘Fireballs’? Well, all the descendants of this:
Its kind of iconic and has been around since the beginning, although they’ve tried out a lot of different things with these things over the years. I’m limiting this to spells that can deal damage to both players and creatures, but it has to target, so no Earthquake or Molten Disaster here, just for the sake of limiting this to something I can sift through in a limited amount of time.
It has 23 printings, including 7 different core sets (counting Alpha through Unlimited as one) and one set (Darksteel). Beyond those, it has been seen in Duel Decks, Commander products, Archenemy and a bunch of other stuff… but it wasn’t alone.
Disintegrate seems like a much more grokable card, but it hasn’t seen nearly as much love over the years. It was a mainstay of the game until Fifth Edition, but it has since then only been seen in Time Spiral as a Timeshifted card. Of course, now that regeneration is no longer a thing that’s used a lot (there’s no regenerate in Shadows Over Innistrad), due to its complicated nature ruleswise, I doubt we’ll see this anymore. Burn from Within is pretty much the same card anyway, but with more relevant text for the game today.
Early Attempts at Fixing Fireball
Ice Age (1995) was the first standalone set and brought two more X-spells. Meteor Shower was clearly supposed to be fixed version of Fireball, but at the same time, as one X was causing problems, two couldn’t have been an improvement. Although there are other XX-spells, they are few and far between.
Lava Burst sort of plays the part of Disintegrate here. Its less powerful, but I don’t think the power level was the main problem back in those days. The extra clauses seem kind of superfluous, but a similar clause on Exquisite Firecraft does often come into play these days. I don’t recall the redirection ever being a thing back in those days. On the other hand, circumventing damage prevention on players would have been good, when the major defense against red decks was Circle of Protection: Red.
Apparently two X-spells was supposed to be the norm back in the day. Mirage (1996), again, brought us two more. Volcanic Geyser brought us an instant version. Since Heat Ray (first printed in Urza’s Saga a couple of years later) couldn’t target players and Geyser has been reprinted twice in fairly recent Core Sets (2013 and 2014), this seems to be on the level they want. There was one significant change, though. For the first time, the X-spell was uncommon. This was probably for limited gameplay reasons, but it might also have been the complexity, as Mark Rosewater has pointed out that many new players do find the X difficult.
However, Kaervek's Torch wasn’t an uncommon. It stayed at common, but was printed as an uncommon in Vintage Masters almost two decades later, which suggests X-spells are seen as dangerous in common. Here’s another interesting twist. I don’t recall any other cards from the period with similar ability to circumvent counterspells. As those were a really important part of the game in those days, this seemed like an important addition, but it probably didn’t make a wave, anyway.
Tempest (1997) brought us another fixed version of Fireball. This time the targetting requirement was eased, but it became a weaker win condition. Than again, in those days creatures used to cost much more mana than now, so this must have been a powerful tool. It was brought back recently in Battle for Zendikar, where it was rightfully pushed into uncommon from common. It was strong, but I felt it was often overvalued as a good aggressive deck would often be able to do its thing before the Rolling Thunder became an issue.
Finally, the “pure” version. No thrills here, just X to the face or to a creature, sorcery-speed. No wonder it was first printed in Portal (1997), then in the other two Portal sets and finally it displaced the classic Fireball and Disintegrate in Core Sets from Sixth Edition all the way through to Tenth Edition, printed as un uncommon in each case.
Stronghold (1998) had a new twist on the theme with Fanning the Flames. This card definitely has a whole new level of inevitability. If you manage to get above six mana, you’ll kill your opponent eventually with this and can probably keep the board empty as well, but that required a lot of mana. On the other hand, counterspells were very common in those days, so this wouldn’t be a very reliable way to win the game.
Despite Heat Ray appearing in Urza’s Saga, there weren’t any true Fireballs in either Artifacts Cycle (the block with all the Urza-sets in it) or Masquerade Cycle. Of course, Core Sets were still printing ones, so Standard players would have access to one, but wouldn’t actually play it, anyhow. Invasion (2000) bucked the trend by introducing Ghitu Fire. It wasn’t really anything new, as Volcanic Geyser was already an instant, but it did come with nice flexibility on how to use it. Being able to use spells at instant speed can bring some nice options with mana.
For the first time, the X-spell was put into rares, so they were a bit wary of them at this point, but historically, they were right.
With perhaps the most innocuous name in the list, Illuminate was in Apocalypse (2001). Most of the time this is just a sorcery-speed Heat Ray, but with enough mana (and that means quite a bit of mana), it can be so much more. I doubt it ever happened, but I do think plenty of games were lost when people didn’t play this early enough, because they wanted the full value. Despite being quite a complicated card, this was once again downgraded to uncommon, where it probably belongs power-level-wise.
I wasn’t quite sure I should put this here on the list, but I guess its nice to comment on the weakest card on the list. Despite having flashback, this just gives the opponent the choice, which is always very bad for you. It was first printed in Torment (2002) and hasn’t seen reprints since then and for a good reason. Should be a backdraft cube card. The theme in Torment was so-called “punisher” mechanics, which proved to be pretty bad in general, and most of the future ones haven’t been much good either.
The Modern Age
After Torment, there was a four-year period when there weren’t any Fireballs outside of the Core Sets. However, when the design team sits down to go through red, they always start with the burn, so such an iconic card design couldn’t stay out of the limelight forever (although the design also always starts with commons, so they probably don’t get to these spells very early on).
Time Spiral (2006) brought back the type. Conflagrate is quite reminiscent of Meteor Shower from Ice Age, but with minor tweaks. The flashback cost is too great to matter very often, so this was actually an inefficient version as well. This card was uncommon.
It wasn’t long before the next iteration. Demonfire from Dissension (2006) was a rare that brought back ideas from several previous versions (Disintegrate for the exiling ability, Lava Burst for the non-prevention and Kaervek's Torch for the inability to counter it), although its clearly a new take on those. Again, the X-spell was put into the rare slot, which is the norm from this point on, except for Core Sets and one exception from Battle for Zendikar (the aforementioned reprint of Rolling Thunder), where they remained as uncommons.
Another rare, Titan's Revenge from Morningtide (2008), once again utilizes a mechanic of the set. This card was very powerful in the limited format and the ability to clash can be very punishing for the opponent.
Another rare from Conflux (2009), Banefire still sees some play as a wincon in certain combodecks. Most recently I saw it in a Krark-Clan Ironworks deck by Conley Woods. It was also a key rare in Modern Masters 2015 Sealed, where it often ended games.
In Worldwake (2010), the X-spells once again tread new territory, when Comet Storm was printed as a mythic rare. It has a pretty unique place in Modern Masters, where you always want it in limited for how strong it is, but you never really want it because all the other mythics are so much more expensive.
Mirrodin Besieged (2011) had a cycle of Zeniths and while ths wasn’t by any means the most powerful, it still has a pretty unique ability as if you cast it late in the game, it makes the quality of the cards in your library ever-so-slightly better.
Devil's Play from Innistrad (2011) is another one of those cards that brings nice inevitability to the game, as you casting an X-spell twice will eat huge chunks of the target players life.
Avacyn Restored (2012) brought probably the best Fireball ever. Sure, its pretty swingy, but as the ceiling is very high, its still being played in Modern. Of course, I always draw it in my starting had, so there’s that (this is actually true, as I did draw it in my starting hand each time I brought it in from the sideboard at GP Copenhagen 2015, the only tournament I’ve played it in).
This has a special place in my heart, because I’ve won plenty of games with it. It was printed in Khans of Tarkir (2014), a format with a lot of tools for Big Red deck, where I often used this card to finish games (often after Stormbreath Dragon would dodge all their removal and put them down low enough).
Magic Origins (2015) brought another uncommon X-spell. I drafted a lot at this point, but for some reason, I don’t remember playing a lot of this card. I do remember my views on the format changing quite a bit in the short period this format was available, so I remember this being quite strong at times and quite weak at times as well.
Another very impactful X-spell, bringing Brad Nelson his third PT Top 8 after a very long pause between those. Oath of the Gatewatch (2016) needed some surge cards and this was easily the strongest, but apparently, its nothing to sneeze at in Standard as well. That deck fell out of favor pretty quickly, but it was nice to see something that different in the format.
Shadows Over Innistrad (2016) brought us two such spells, although the other doesn’t have the X in the actual casting cost. These are both rares, so you’ll see one or the other about as often as if there was one X-spell at uncommon. Burn from Within has become one of the best cards in the limited format, where the board has tendency to get clogged.
Although Fireball and its ilk have been around since the beginning, their value in the game has changed greatly. After Channel was restricted and banned (depending on the format), they became pretty useless. However, after limited became a thing, they found a new home in those decks, where they have retained their bomb status over the years. For this reason, their rarity has changed, making them more scarce.
Of course the value of X-spells has changed as creatures have changed as well. The bechmark for creatures is much higher these days and its pretty difficult to gain mana advantage by targetting creatures these days. Even when you do, your opponent has already usually gained some benefit from the creature. On the other hand, those cheap, effective creatures can also push your opponent low enough to just be burned out.
These cards are iconic and despite the few dry years a decade ago, we now see more of these in each block, the way it probably should be.