Power Lunch and the 4-mana Sphere

A couple of months ago, we looked at some pictures of the three known pre-Alpha playtest versions of the card that would eventually become Chaos Orb. As some of you expressed interest, we followed up with posts about the Gamma Sphere and Menagerie Sphere. But we never came back to the third one. My god, the third one. If the other two have murky history, welcome to darkness.

The 4-mana Sphere

Similar to the Menagerie Spheres, the four-mana Sphere doesn't flip, but simply annihilates any card in play. Four colorless mana to exile anything would probably land somewhere between busted and broken in today's design zeitgeist, and "restriction worthy" in the 93/94 card pool. A solid Sphere by most measures.

Some eagle-eyed readers may however recognize an oddity right of the bat. The art. This is not the same art as the other pre-Alpha Spheres (the "black hole" thingie). And the most crazy of you may actually recognize the art as one of a very different Gamma card.

That's Nevinyrral's Disk, not Chaos Orb.

What's up with that? The Disk and the Sphere were next to each other on the Gamma print sheet (the White rare sheet), but mixing up the art for a "reprint" seems strange at best. I though they waited until Revised to do those kind of things.

Who's the original art fail now, Mr Late-to-the-party?

The backs of these cards are also a little different from most other playtest cards I've encountered. Disregarding things like stamps or other printings on the back, the paper stock on pretty much all playtest cards look the same on both sides. Not these though. The backs on cards from this set has a pattern resembling dried leather, rather than being plain white.

Backside. When dealing with oddities and rarities, provenance is important. After all, this is a pre-Alpha playtest card that I've only seen this one copy of, which makes chain of custody an important part of the verification process. This particular card was used by a playtester named Doug, and I had Joel Mick as the middle man in the transaction. Joel signed the card in pencil before he sent it to me as a "proof of authenticity" of sorts.

So there's where we start. The main thing here is however that I'm not even sure which set the card is from. There are basically three theories.
  • An unknown set. This is unlikely.
  • A mostly unidentified iteration of Menagerie. This would then be the 2nd edition of Menagerie, after the orange cards but before the blue and pink ones. This is a comparably reasonable theory. 
  • The unreleased set known as Power Lunch.
The second and third options are by far the most likely. Could I dig deeper and ask playtesters to clear this up? Yes. And I believe this is a question that eventually will have a definite answer. Though I have gotten different answers from different historians regarding this as well. My current money is, perhaps less excitingly, on this card being from a mostly unidentified 2nd edition of Menagerie from back when Menagerie was more of a small tweak of Gamma than the set that would become Mirage. That would date it to around the winter of 92/93.

First edition Menagerie (and this set, if it is in fact second edition Menagerie) is by most ways of measuring much more like playtest cards for Limited Edition Alpha than it is for Mirage or Visions. Iconic cards like dual lands (and fan favorites like Earthbind I suppose) had their first showing in early Menagerie, and a lot of tweaks we see in Alpha were done in these sets. So my hot take is that we should consider the earliest editions of Menagerie as much "Alpha playtest cards" as we do the Gamma set. Fight me.

Anyways, we've already talked about the history of Menagerie in some detail. Don't need to go down that rabbit hole again. And a bunch of people argue - with or without merit - that this card is from a set called Power Lunch. So let's take the opportunity to talk about Power Lunch.

The picture will make sense in a few paragraphs.

First, let's look at the picture I first received of this card, alongside the playtest decks it was found in:

Random paper for most of us, nerd porn for the few of us. (I suspect a few Angel collectors are giving a sight right now. Yep, there's another one for you.)

Two things here are of particular note.

The first is the Vast Plains, a very powerful land that taps for WW. Vast Plains, along with Dense Forest and the other "double lands", are staples as far as Power Lunch goes, and would almost certainly not see print in another set. (They were however in Menageri v1 playtesting, so there's that.)

The second is the mana cost of the creatures, in particular the Angel. "5WW" suggests that this is from a time when mana cost were written in the form "total mana cost; then how many of those mana that need to be of a particular color" rather than "number of mana that can be of any type; followed by any additional mana that need to be of a particular color". It also suggests that Angel had a converted mana cost of at least five (like it had in e.g. Gamma and Limited Edition Alpha), which would be pretty steep by Power Lunch standards.

Finding pictures of actual confirmed Power Lunch cards are rare, but I believe I've got an example here (via a pre-Alpha playtester):

...and now the Shivan Dragon collectors sigh.

From the lighting in the picture, it is hard to tell the true color of the card stock. Regardless, we do see that this card has mana cost written in the modern form; generic mana plus colored mana (otherwise it would simply say "RR"). It is also a god damned Shivan Dragon for the cost of a Dragon Whelp. What's going on here?

As the story goes, when designing Limited Edition Alpha, creatures were measured against Fireball and Disintegrate. If a creature was more powerful than those cards, it would get changed. The baseline power level for Limited Edition were hence for all intents and purposes Fireball. Power Lunch is what happens when they tinkered with changing the baseline power level from Fireball to Ancestral Recall.

Solid baseline.

Most of the information sources we find about Power Lunch online are referencing what Mark Rosewater stated in an article in 2010; "[Bill Rose] called it Power Lunch and the idea was this: It would be a set where the power level of all the cards was on par with Ancestral Recall. The heightened power level would allow two mages to have epic battles or let one player take on multiple players. While we thought the idea was novel we never took any steps to make it. Why? It wasn't the direction we wanted to take the game."

Though Mark Rosewater seems like a great guy to play Magic with, he didn't work at Wizards at the time Power Lunch was first conceived, and he may be slightly off here. I believe that the first iteration of Power Lunch was developed before it was decided to use the same back on all expansions, and as such it was more of a "powered up edition" of the Magic experience. One playtester e.g. mentioned that Power Lunch would be used to play faster games of Magic, and did not mention multiplayer at all. Later, when it was decided to have uniform backs on Mtg cards, Power Lunch was clearly a far too powerful expansion to introduce to the card pool.

...and this may be a too powerful card for Archenemy.

I believe that Bill Rose kept fighting for it to see print though. When he was asked in The Duelist #20 (in 1997) what his favorite expansion was, he replied "Code name: Power Lunch. It hasn't been published yet, but Juzam would get its butt kicked in Power Lunch. The experimental Power Lunch is being designed for one player to take on two opponents working as a team."

So in 1997 the selling point of Power Lunch had clearly moved from being a powered up edition of one-vs-one play to a one-vs-many experience. Thirteen years later WotC released Archenemy, quoting Power Lunch as the inspiration for the product.

Then, seven years after Archenemy was released, WotC released an improved version of the supplement; Archenemy: Nicol Bolas.

This is actually fun, and has the price tag of a single basic Island from Alpha.

So that's what happened to Power Lunch. A set to powerful to be, at least as it was intended. Or maybe we could argue that what happened in the end was exactly what was intended, and that the novel backs of the Archenemy schemes reflect what was supposed to be brand new backs for the upcoming editions of Magic back then.

I believe multiplayer formats with the 93/94 card pool has a lot of exploring left. I love Brother's Highlander, my forays with Emperor have been truly enjoyable, and the EDH groups are evolving some really cool stuff. But in the wake of Power Lunch, I think we still have a lot of cool things left to try out in the years to come. What if one player had an indestructible one-sided Mana Flare and Howling Mine, and fought against three other players? It would be a very interesting deck building exercise, if nothing else.