Bottled up

Creating expansions to The Gathering wasn't really the plan. The idea was to let the 10 million cards from Magic: The Gathering fill the demand for the foreseeable months, and then phase them out for Magic: Ice Age about a year later. Instead, the first edition of Gathering sold out in weeks. To saturate the demand a second edition, Unlimited, was printed. It was soon clear that this wasn't enough. The players demanded new cards to fill the void before Ice Age would hit the shelves.

The story of Arabian Nights is a tumultuous one. I'm sure I'm going to write about it in more detail in the future. For now, lets simply state that there were some reservations at WotC about adding cards to The Gathering. Ice Age had been planned as a standalone version of Magic with different card backs. Using different backs was also suggested for Arabian Nights, as well as having a different color on the borders, before finally settling on having an expansion symbol to differentiate the cards. The set hadn't been tested nearly as much as the original core set, and there were worries that players could get alienated. Richard Garfield stated that if you were going to play a deck with the expansion, you would have to get the permission of your opponent first. And to really make sure that the expansion wouldn't break the original game, he created City in a Bottle.
Last year I wrote a post about Serendib Efreet. I think the time is ripe to take a deeper look at another sweet card from the first expansion. Today, let's look through the glass of City in a Bottle.

City in a Bottle is, fairly obviously, the first "expansion hoser". And in Old School Mtg, it's a really good one. It kills a majority of the best creatures in the format, as well as cards like Library of Alexandria, City of Brass and lots of other powerful staples. The card is the main reason that Juzam Smash decks play Sengir Vampire rather than Serendib Efreet. Pretty much any deck that don't rely on cards from Arabian Nights themselves would be wise to include the card, at least as a sideboard option. Killing five of the best lands in The Deck, crippling a majority of the offense in Zoo, or simply holding off Juzams is a bargain at two mana.

So what is a city in a bottle anyway? It is not mentioned in 1001 Arabian Nights for one. When it was decided that Wizards should make the first expansion for Magic, they argued that it would save a lot of time to use an existing mythos as the basis of the set rather than create a new one from scratch. At the time, Garfield had just read Sandman #50, Ramadan. It is about how the Caliph Harun al-Rashid becomes worried that his city of Baghdad will eventually be forgotten. 8th century Baghdad is shown as the most spectacular and awe-inspiring city in the world, overflowing with wealth and mythical beings. The Caliph makes a deal with Dream and sells his city to him. In exchange, Dream will make sure that the Baghdad of Arabian Nights will always live on in the dreams of man. Dream seals Baghdad in a bottle, and we see the Caliph wake up in "real world" 8th century Baghdad with no solid recollection of what transpired.
Garfield was impressed by the story and the setting, and used it as the inspiration for his expansion. When the set was printed, he then sent two copies of the City in a Bottle card to Neil Gaiman, the creator of Sandman. One of them for him to keep, and the other for him to sign for Garfield.

The bottle shown in the comics doesn't really look like the one on the card. This could be chalked up to that Drew Tucker maybe hadn't read the comic. If we dig a little further though, there are some other interesting things about the artwork used.

In 1993, the artwork was mostly up to the artists. Garfield's response to seeing Llanowar Elves for the first time was reportedly "That's not at all what I had imagined." All artwork was used, to the point that new cards were made for unused artwork (like Bird of Paradise). This makes the fate of the original art for City in a Bottle very strange. The art first submitted for the card is the first Magic art I know of that was in fact rejected. Drew Tucker's original interpretation never saw the light of day. As to why it was rejected, I can only speculate. Maybe the colors of the bottle and the background looked too similar to the comic, and WotC was worried about accusations of plagiarism?

The original art for City in a Bottle is owned by "The Godfather of Pimp" Jason Jaco. For those of you that don't know him, his CV includes being the CEO and Content Manager of Eternal Central, as well as one of the early adopters of Old School Mtg in the US. I sent him a message and he was quick to send me a picture of the original art.
The art was later suggested for Urza's Miter ;)
Pretty sweet. It is kind of ironic that this card in a sense removed even itself ;)

City in a Bottle was the only card in Arabian Nights not primarily influenced by 1001 Arabian Nights, but rather referencing a comic from present time. In a similar vein, the expansion hoser from the next set had a fairly odd name reference. Rather than talking of "The Brother's War" between Mishra and Urza, this one had a blantant Bible reference.
"So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha" John 19:17
Creating a card that destroys all the cards in the set and naming it after the hill where Jesus was crucified is kinda crude. A little amusing, especially considering the backlash WotC suffered from Christian groups in the mid 90s, but still crude.

The Crucifixion Bowl is not as versatile and powerful as the Bottle. It has twice the mana cost, with an additional mana to activate, and destroys itself in the process. It also won't hinder your opponent from casting cards like Hurkyl's Recall or Transmute Artifact. It's not a complete dud though. Recently a few players have begun using the Sylex as an answer to Factories and Su-Chis. From what I've heard it works well enough.

The next set took the expansion hosing even less aggressively. Legends gave us Arena of the Ancients. This one only shut down all the new multicolored creatures introduced in the set and left the other cards alone.
This might actually be playable in that newfangled EDH format the kids are talking about.
At this point, it seems like Wizards had begun to accept expansions as a good part of the game, and not something they needed to hose. The Dark had no card that hated on the set or new cards introduced in it. It took until Homelands until we saw another expansion hoser, the Apocalypse Chime. I think that Homelands got the power level of the expansion hoser right. City in a Bottle might be too effective and the Crucifixion Bowl is probably overcosted.
The problem is that it is pretty much the only permanent in Homelands that don't suck, which makes it suck again.
A decade later, the expansion hosers were considered mistakes. Like the dexterity cards, many players viewed them as silly ideas from a bygone era. And the rules around the cards could be a headache. In 2005, I remember asking a couple of judges about them before a Legacy tournament. Sea Stompy was a fairly popular strategy in the area, and I considered splashing City in a Bottle to take care of the deck's Serendib Efreets and Flying Men. I played a deck with a full set of Enlightened Tutors maindeck, so the Bottle could take up a slot in the sideboard without too much hassle.
If you wanna talk real old school, add them to the ante instead of removing them from the game.
Two of the three regular Sea Stompy players had pimped their decks with Serendib Efreets from Arabian Nights. In the store where the tournament took place, you could however obtain Efreets from Revised easily. So if I cast my City in a Bottle, could my opponent switch out his AN Efreets for Revised Efreets while my City was on the stack? Could he change them between turns or matches? The most common reply was that it was OK for opponents to switch between matches but not in the middle of a game, but there was no consensus.

To handle this ambiguity, and encourage sweet basics, we actually used to have a small errata on City in a Bottle. The errata simply stated that the Bottle did not affect basic lands. This was to make the Arabian Nights Mountain playable in the format, instead of just being a much worse alternative to the ABU versions. Some time later, Wizards changed the rules on expansion hosers to solve this issue once and for all. Now the hosers look for cards originally printed in the set rather than checking for the expansion symbol, and Mountain v78 is free to roam the format without any help from us.
Now this is amusing. The first errata of the card available to players (from the first Official Encyclopedia) was misprinted and hence need errata.
All in all, City in a Bottle is damn sweet card. It's easy start pondering what would have become of the game if Garfield hadn't read that Sandman comic all those years ago. Maybe Magic would not have become as successful. If they had followed Alpha with something like Homelands, things could have looked very different. At the very least, we wouldn't have been able to crack open Rukh Eggs and close Libraries for two colorless mana.


  1. Sweet mg! Now I've learned something new today too 8)

    Happy Midsummer and hope we'll catch up soon again!


  2. This interview with Richard Garfield back in 2002 is quite interesting, explaining the history of Magic expansions in general and Arabian Nights in particular:

    1. Thanks for the link, I hadn't read that one before. Very interesting read :)

  3. Excellent read as always!

  4. Thank you for the information.


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