Considering the fact you’re reading about Magic: The Gathering on the internet, you’re probably already aware of a very interesting bit of news about the upcoming M14 Core Set. The storied tribe of Slivers is back in the game with brand new cards, an updated design philosophy, and revamped art and style guidelines. As with any New Thing referencing an Old Thing the news has inspired tons of conversation since first being announced, and it’s easy to find vivid and vocal opinions across the entire spectrum, from “Hooray, Slivers forever!” to “BOOO! LAME!”
The news was very surprising to me at first. I was playing the game at the time the Sliver tribe was very first introduced way back during the Tempest block, and got to see them come around again in both the Legions expansion and the Time Spiral block. Several friends of mine over the years built and played Sliver decks, and the concept and nature of the tribe had become ingrained in the part of my consciousness shared with all Magic players around the world. However, after an absence of seven years, the Slivers have swarmed back into the game with a look and feel significantly different from anything that’s come before. It was a very odd and honestly stunning first few moments.
I’ve embarrassed myself before by making a snap reaction to something new and different without spending enough time thinking it over first (I still feel dumb about some things I said regarding the M10 Rules Update), so I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to gather my thoughts first on this one. I only hope I got the right idea in thinking that other people would be interested to hear some of those thoughts. For the Slivers, everything boils down to two major topics: the new look and the new design.
Let’s get this one out of the way first. Traditionally, Slivers always had a very distinctive look about them. A long, sinuous body with a big pointy head on one end, a two-pronged tail on the other (“bifurcated” is your new word with which to impress and astonish your romantic prospects), and a single clawed arm somewhere in the middle. The most basic form you can get is shown in Metallic Sliver, an artificial Sliver with no special abilities. Starting from that baseline, each one has its own variations based on its special abilities. Might Sliver is big and beefy, Winged Sliver… has wings, and I’m not going to insult you by telling you what Two-Headed Sliver’s situation is. For some Slivers the difference from the baseline is much more subtle than all that, but each one is still unique.
So now what do we have here? The Slivers revealed so far are all strikingly anthropomorphic, with very few having even the trace of a claw or pointy-headedness, and all of them seem to share a mass of headtacles that have drawn disparaging comparisons to the Predator. Either the “real” Slivers have gone completely extinct in the however many hundreds of years it’s been since the events of Time Spiral block and these new creatures picked up the name just for their ability sharing, or what we last saw of the Slivers have done a ton of evolving during the intervening period. It’s that last one that makes the most sense, since that’s an essential part of how the Slivers work. With their genetics constantly in flux, a Sliver that picks up a new mutation or adaptation (they’re not all beneficial…) will share it with the rest of the brood just by being in close proximity. We already have an adaptation that can let them all change their creature types, so it only takes one “Dude-Shaped Sliver” to turn the entire brood into two-eye-having, two-leg-walking freaks of nature. It would really make less sense overall if they all still looked the same as they did all those years ago.
There’s one very interesting thing related to this that I’ve come across recently. To give the proper credit, I first saw this image in the comments to a reaction article written by Ted Knutson (NSFW language). Be forewarned: the article is one of the most tragic examples of apoplectic nerd rage I’ve ever had the misfortune to read, but I will admit that it was a great help to me in determining my own true feelings on the subject. Anyway, the idea raised by the image is one that, for me at least, really ties the whole “highly advanced evolution” thing together. The Slivers are one of the native species of an artificial plane set up by Yawgmoth, himself, and they were probably (it’s never really made clear) subject to additional genetic experimentation by the Evincars of Rath and the other Phyrexians stationed there. Also note that since the flavor text on a couple of the ones we know about so far references the region of Thune, these are Slivers who somehow found their way to Shandalar (probably summoned by some jerk planeswalker), and have been evolving independently of the other events of the main Magic storyline. Just as a single drop of Oil continued the Grand Evolution on Mirrodin and eventually gave us New Phyrexia, down through the centuries the Slivers of Shandalar are finally expressing the Phyrexian genetics that have been inside them all along. That’s actually a pretty cool thought, in my opinion.
This one is also a pretty jarring change for those who already knew about Slivers. As I mentioned earlier, part of the deal with Slivers is that they’re able to instantly share new mutations and adaptations with the entire hive. Traditionally, this manifested in abilities that said “all slivers have/gain [stuff]”, rather than what we’re seeing right here. When they were first introduced this basically made them a tribe of “Lords”, since that’s the way those kinds of abilities worked at the time (Goblin King buffs all the Goblins, Lord of Atlantis buffs all the Merfolk, etc.). Depending on who was on the receiving end of the craziness, players both loved and loathed the wild situations and board states that a deck full of Slivers could create, especially if more than one player in the game was doing it. Though it’s true that you could get a similar effect by loading up the game with multiple players running multiple “normal” lords, the things a couple Elvish Champions can do aren’t a tenth as nuts as what a single Brood Sliver can manage.
When Slivers came around again in Legions, they still worked the same way. Every Sliver gave abilities to every other Sliver, and that’s just how they rolled. Almost all other tribal effects in Onslaught block also worked this way (Wellwisher, Nameless One, etc.), but in Scourge we saw the first versions of the kinds of Lords we see today in the Warchiefs, who only cared about your side of the battlefield. This wasn’t a definitive turning point in the design of Lords for Magic, as we can still see a mix of the two designs in subsequent sets in cards such as Auriok Steelshaper (new design), reprints of both Goblin King and Lord of Atlantis (old design), and Marrow-Gnawer (both designs!). When Slivers last appeared in Time Spiral block the decision about which Lord design to use in the game still hadn’t been made 100% certain, and the nostalgia theme of the block gave greater leeway to use old-style designs. The switch to the modern-day Lord design finally got locked down in the next block, the heavily tribal Lorwyn/Shadowmoor.
One common argument against the conversion to the “just your stuff” type of Lord is that the “everyone” type of Lord design is essential to the Slivers because it’s part of what makes them unique. That idea starts to break down when you go back and think about the other things we’ve talked about so far, specifically because the “everyone” Lord design was simply just part of how everything was done back in the day. For the rest of Magic, the switch to the modern-day Lord design was done to make improvements to gameplay, most notably to back off of excessive amounts of board complexity and to reduce the occurrences of certain “feel-bad” situations (specifically: when a good card you purposefully put into your deck suddenly becomes a huge piece of crap that’s going to get you killed if you even think about casting it). Using the new design means we’re not going to have any more problems like that, and newer players don’t have to bend their heads around two different design philosophies and try to do their best not to mix them up in the middle of a game. If the Slivers were brought back with the previous design then the root answer to the question of “Why?” would pretty much be “because a 16 year old, long obsolete design document says that’s how they should work”, and that’s just not acceptable.
The changes are still jarring for a player who has the existing concept of Slivers already stamped into his understanding of the game, and they’re going to take some time to get used to. However, I think these new design choices for the Slivers are good ones. These changes aren’t just being made for the sake of novelty, but as a way to make real improvements on what we’ve seen before, especially for the mechanical design. Newer players are getting the best deal because they get to have the Slivers in this fresh new state without having all the historical baggage poking at the backs of their minds. I’ll probably still never play with Slivers (I never tried to build a deck, and over the years traded all the good ones away to people much more excited than I was), but I’m sure that I’ll enjoy seeing them around to make things more interesting as only the Slivers can do. Let me know what you think in the comments, below, and feel free to share your own opinions on the topic.
Have fun, guys.
Postscript: July 8th, 2013
At the time this article was originally published, the fact that the the revealed Slivers were only in Naya colors (RGW) didn’t strike me as something significant, but if I had known more about it at the time I may have addressed it as another major point. To that point, I think it’s fine to only have one Sliver in each of the other colors (UB), since the Design and Development teams wanted Slivers to be a viable deck in Limited. M14 has enough good fixing to make a 3-color (or 2 + 1) deck workable, but 5-color is waaay too much of a stretch in anything other than the weirdest Limited formats the game has seen over the years.