Rename, Reuse, Recycle

Magic: The Gathering has a one-card-one-name policy. Lightning Bolt will always deal 3 damage to a target creature or player, for example, and Giant Spider will always be a 2/4 with reach for {3}{G}. Card names are language capital, a finite resource that must be managed to ensure the success of the game. One way to preserve this resource is to recycle card names, perhaps by creating a different Elder in various locales around the multiverse.

Or by finding many different ways to say “Fire Dragon.”

Magic also conserves card names by using “of” and “of the”. These valiant fellows prove my point:

Recycling card names goes a long way toward conserving Magic’s language capital. Take Innistrad for example: 83% of the creatures and 62% of the total cards of the set used the naming conventions illustrated above.

One Word

The above examples are all two or more words, which makes reuse much easier, but there are times when it makes sense for Wizards of the Coast to spend some language capital and use only one word. Fireball wouldn’t feel quite the same if it were named Explosive Fireball, for example. Crusade would be less iconic if it were First Crusade, and Pestilence would lose something were it named Pestilence of the Doomed.

According to Gatherer, there are 1,728 cards with one-word names. Most of them are pretty old.

First PrintedTotal%
Before 200080046%
Before Modern card frames106662%

Just under half of the one-word card names were first printed before the year 2000.

Of the ten expansions that first printed the most one-word card names, eight were released before 2000.

Expansion# NamesRelease Date
Urza's Saga85Oct 1998
Limited Edition Alpha78Aug 1993
Ice Age70Jun 1995
Odyssey69Oct 2001
Tempest66Oct 1997
Mercadian Masques63Oct 1999
Legends55Jun 1994
Ravnica: City of Guilds39Oct 2005
Mirage37Oct 1996
Visions36Feb 1997

When we look at the most current expansions, those that are currently Standard-legal, we can really see the drop off in choosing one-word card names:

Expansion# NamesRelease Date
Innistrad14Sep 2011
Dark Ascension12Feb 2012
Avacyn Restored19May 2012
Magic 201315Jul 2012
Return to Ravnica19Oct 2012
Gatecrash17Feb 2013

That’s fewer than one hundred cards and only 6% of the overall total. Widening the date range nearly two years, to all cards printed in 2010 or later, nearly doubles the results.

First PrintedTotal%
After 201018811%
After M12 (Standard-legal)966%

Let’s take a closer look at these 188 cards. Most of them did not require much of an investment of language capital. About half are a blend of two normally unpaired words.

This is yet another way to extend Magic’s pool of card-name options. Just like any of the multiple-word names above, these can be split apart and their components reused: Counterclock, Grindshock, or Staggerflux for example.

A further 25% won’t be found in any English dictionary. They are either proper nouns or were custom-made for Magic.

This is yet another tactic to add card names without reducing future options—there are always more words to be invented and places and beings to receive their own cards.

Worth a Word

These means 48 cards in total, fewer than 25% of the list, can be found in an English dictionary. These are the cards Wizards has decided to invest some language capital in.

Let’s take a deeper dive and see what types of cards are most frequently worth a word and what kinds of words are used.

63% are Verbs

Verbs convey action: “We will Outwit the enemy,” and “The farmer will Cultivate her land,” for example. It makes sense to use straightforward card names for these actions. The player casting the spell is usually the one carrying out the action. To use one of the recycling methods on this type of card would sound awkward most of the time. “I will Dispatch your Wurmcoil Engine,” sounds more appealing than, “I will Quick Dispatch your Wurmcoil Engine.”

The rest of the list is nouns, both proper nouns like Griselbrand and common nouns like Downpour.

45% are Instants

Instant-speed spells tend to denote an action of some type, and in fact, 82% of these instants are also verbs. The same case can be made for the importance of giving these cards clear, one-word names.

There are twelve enchantments on the list, which is where we find a lot of the nouns such as Agoraphobia, Claustrophobia, and Narcolepsy. There are also twelve sorceries such as Despise, Preordain, and Terminus. There is only one creature—Doorkeeper—and one artifact—Greatsword—on the list.

27% are Removal

Killing and destroying things is a popular activity for planeswalkers, it would seem, and Wizards of the Coast spares no verbal expense on these cards. Another common group is threat-mitigation cards that tap permanents—such as Encrust—or reduce damage—such as Defang.

Wrapping Up

Wizards of the Coast has perfected its card-name-recycling process. This enables them to create expansion after expansion without eliminating words for future use. I hope this look into their methods of recycling has been informative and entertaining. I look forward to Dragon's Maze spoilers to see what cards are worth a real word. Thanks for reading!

Nick Vigabool
@MrVigabool