The Gamma Orb

A couple of people asked me to go into some details on the three cards I flashed in the previous post, so let's do it. These cards have a special place in my collection and carry some history.

As Magic players, we all sit somewhere between "100% player" and "100% collector" on the proverbial Player/Collector spectrum. Sure, there are players who don't own any cards (or don't care about the few cards they do happen to own), prefers to proxy up the decks they play, and couldn't care less about the flavor, editions or conditions of cards they use. And sure, there are people with vast collections and sealed rarities they never intend to sell that don't know how to play the game. But for most of us, we land somewhere in between the end-points of the scale.

I used to see myself as far more of a player than a collector. If we look at the spectrum as a 1-10 scale, with 1 being "100% player", I would probably have stated that I was a "3" ten or twelve years ago. Today I'm probably more like a five or a six. In my mind, the collecting makes the game experience more intricate. Having to search for cards is a part of the fun. #MailDays are awesome, and building a deck in the Alpha-only format is truly an unique experience. But I always collect for the purpose of playing with the cards I gather. With one glaring exception. The Chaos Orbs.

The Gamma Orb.

Let me start with a disclaimer. The things we'll talk about in this and the coming two posts are very rare. The information I've gathered comes from reputable sources; apart from world-renowned collectors much of the info I've come across comes directly from 1992-era playtesters. Two of the three cards from last week's post I've gotten from such playtesters, and the third came from Keith "The Misprint Guy" Adams about three years ago (after he had visited original playtesters himself). So I'm basing the info here on some kind of authority. That said, it is very possible that some of the information about these three cards may turn out slightly incorrect. These things are more than a quarter century old, made by people who didn't fathom that anyone would care about them decades in the future, and the information I currently have is the recollections of a handful. I have no fully confirmed truth about a lot of these things, only a "best bet", and every now and then some new info about pre-Alpha playtest cards comes out and turn things on its head. As a simple example, until someone finds a checklist or similar for Ice Age development, I cannot be fully sure that a Sphere of Annihilation version wasn't playtested for Ice Age in 1992, and my collection of pre-Alpha Orbs may well be incomplete without me knowing it.

Any Ice Age playtester (or anyone else) knowing something about the possible existence of an Ice Age Sphere is very welcome to reach out.

Let's start with the "Gamma Orb", from a set mostly known as "Gamma". I know of two very well connected people (Keith and one of the original playtesters) who tries to collect a full set of Gamma. After years of collecting, if we combine both their collections into one super-super-collection, the two of them supposedly own less than half the rares of the set together. A lot of the Gamma rares haven't been seen since the early 90s, and for the longest time collecting the set meant that you had to go blind and hope, you never knew which cards could exist or if you were ever finished. I believe a third or more of the rares never resurfaced after the playtesting periods. In 2013, good authority had it that there existed a black Time Walk in Gamma called "Paralysis", which turned out incorrect. Estimates on the number of rares printed also differs dependent on source; Charlie Cantino stated in 2006 that "about five" of each rare was made, while Joel Mick more recently estimated that it was "one to four". Keith Adams have stated that many of the playtest decks he has found contained zero rares (and there weren't that many pre-alpha playtest decks to begin with after all). Regardless, it seems that the total number created could be counted on one hand in 1992, and that even fewer survived. A lot of the playtesters reportedly threw away their test cards once the real cards were printed. So for some of the rares, it is possible that the number of copies still surviving today may in fact be closer to zero. I don't envy the guys who tries to collect the full set.

Though Keith has a cube of Gamma at this point, so I guess he's already a winner. That Gamma Timetwister is the only known copy btw. Rares are rare.

So how do we know so much about the cards in Gamma? And what is Gamma? Let's start with the "what is".

Depending on the respondents' definition, there were three or four stages of Magic design before Alpha went to the printers.

The first stage, which I will call "theory crafting", was when Richard Garfield developed the core concepts of the game and mostly worked by himself. This stage could be a completely separate blogpost, but let's note that he took the term "mana" from Larry Niven's Warlock books (and Larry had taken it from Polynesian Mythology, but was still rewarded by having his name backwards on neviN yrraL's Disk), and that he removed the use of dice and tearing up destroyed cards during this stage.

The second stage was the first one with cards, 80 (or possibly 120, depending on source) on yellow stock to be exact, with no duplicates except for lands and the card Skeletons. These cards were split up into two decks which Garfield used for playtesting with Barry "Bit" Reich. According to the stories I've heard, Richard Garfield has kept these cards to this day, and no Chaos Orb version supposedly exists in these decks. These cards are commonly referred to as "Alpha" among playtesters.

Alpha playtest cards, via

The third stage was the second one with cards; these ones are commonly referred to as "Beta". These cards were created on a printer rather than by hand. A bunch of the cards got art, the rules got updated, and walls could no longer attack. Many creatures still only had one number to indicate their strenght, unlike the separate Power/Toughness we came to know later on. There were multiple revisions, Beta contained about 100 different cards, and as far as I've learned, there were no Chaos Orb / Sphere of Annihiliation versions in Beta. If someone is able to disprove this, feel free to reach out!

Beta playtest Fireball, via

Then we come to the fourth playtesting stage and the third generation of playtest cards. This is where things really start to happen. This stage is known as the "gamma stage", and this is the place were Magic started to grow legs. The number of playtester were doubled from a small handful to two handfuls, and a few playtesters began to experiment with creating their own sets. The cards all got art, creatures now had both Power and Toughness, and most old school players would recognize the game at hand as "proper Magic".

They were still being updated or proxied at the gamma stage though. This early version of Ironclaw Orcs has been proxied to a Mox Jet, which is rad. This particular pre-Magic proxy was given out in an Easter Egg at n00bcon 9 btw.

From what I've heard thus far, six sets were worked on before Magic was released to the public; the four sets that would become Limited Edition Alpha (aka The Gathering), Ice Age, Mirage and Legends; along with two sets that would never be released (but that would eventually inspire Invasion and the Archenemy supplement respectively).

The most famous of these cards are of course the ones that would become Limited Edition Alpha. So much so that whenever a playtest card collector talks about "Gamma cards" we all agree that we talk about the set that would become Alpha. These cards are greyish white, and the contents of the set were steeped in myth. At least up until some years ago, when collector sleuths got hold of pictures of 16 out of 17 of the original print sheets from Richard Garfield.

The Blue Common sheet. Some of you may know that Ancestral Recall was originally a common during playtesting, but having Time Walk at common as well may be a little more surprising. The only blue Power Card to not be common was Timetwister, which was a rare.

So these sheet pictures are the main reasons we know the cards in the set. "Commons" from Gamma are not really common, but they do exist. If you want one for your collection as an historical trinket, I recommend reaching out to Keith Adams on facebook or similar and he can probably hook you up. If you are looking for a particular one, like Starburst or Time Walk, you might have to jump through some hoops, but for most commons it should be possible to find one.

The uncommons are pretty damn uncommon though. How uncommon you ask? Well, the sheet that Garfield didn't have a picture of was red uncommons, and it took about 18 years of searching before those 16 cards were discovered. The last one was first shared with the community online earlier this year, with the misprint community's search for the Gamma card list going back to 2001 or so.

The final puzzle piece to solve the Gamma spoiler. The art is in fact a Fire Elemental from an old D&D book (the Fire Elemental card depict the superhero Nova #NerdTrivia).

So, the Gamma Orb. All pre-Alpha variants of the card that would become Chaos Orb are named Sphere of Annihilation. I didn't reflect that much on the name change, but it was recently pointed out to me on this blog that sphere of annihilation was an artifact in D&D made famous by the 1978 module Tomb of Horrors, and it is possible that they changed the name before print to avoid any conflicts regarding intellectual property. The Gamma Orb is the only one of the Spheres that you actually flip.

The "2/0" in the top of the corner means that it costs two to cast and zero to activate. It could also be notable that the card type is "Artifact", as this was before they started dividing artifacts into Mono, Poly and Continous (Chaos Orb is of course printed as Mono Artifact). It is also pretty damn powerful. Not only is the activation cost zero, but it only needs to be flipped from six inches, and it doesn't need to turn more than 180 degrees to have effect.

As with the majority of artifacts in Gamma, the Sphere was printed on the rare sheet for color cards rather than being on a separate sheet. Sphere of Annihilation was printed along with Mox Ruby, Magical Disk and Howling Mine on the White rare sheet. While we're here, lets also bask in the fact that the original version of Mesa Pegasus was a rare during playtesting. The playtest version only cost one mana, but didn't have banding (or "stacks" as it was called).

If we are in deep enough, we may recognize a pretty cool design here. White had Benlish Hero at common and Green got Timber Wolves at rare as a color shifted Hero. The original intent seems to have been to give Green Scryb Sprites at common while White got Pegasus (a color shifted Sprites) at rare.

As Gamma rares go, the Sphere seems to have had a pretty good survival rate. Apart from the one I have, I know of two more; one each in the hands of the two people that try to complete the Gamma set. That puts a smile on my face. Long live the Orb.

Details about the Gamma set - as with the other sets during pre-Alpha playtesting - are still fuzzy at best. Gamma do have the rare luxury of having a full image spoiler as of this year, but things like more exact dates, print runs, distributions and such are still questionable. Even information relatively recent to the cards' creation - and from the most reputable of sources - have on time been shown to be not fully correct (e.g. in the 1994 Pocket Player's Guide Richard Garfield wrote that his face was on a card called "Gremlins"; having the spoiler we know that it was in fact on "Goblins", and no Gremlins card existed). Another playtester hinted at dual lands being in Gamma, but we now know they were in another playtesting set from around the same period. A set we'll talk more about next time.


So this was pretty far removed from playing with Magic cards. I hope some of you could find this dive into "deep nerd" a little interesting regardless. If nothing else, it was fun to write :) Let's end with a picture of Bryan Manolakos failing to get the Chaos Orb challenge badge in Gothenburg.

In case his stab wounds from Gothenburg started to heal too quickly, I promised to show up with some salt and remind him ;)


  1. Awesome! I'm so pumped about these posted, thanks so much for sharing!

    Is that a Garfield altered Orb I spy? :)

    1. Could be ;) Might do a follow up post about those as well, I've found quite a few more examples of Garfield alters since my old post (including both a Beta and an Alpha Chaos Orb :))

    2. Again I await with bated breath!

    3. I loved this post. Magic rarities/history fascinate me. I know that you previewed a lot of your Orb collection on the n00bcon stream recently, but I'd love to see a deep dive blog post.

  2. First my son ditches me, now this. FML.


Skicka en kommentar