"Old School" Magic: The Gathering

July 11, 2018 —

Over the past two years I've got back into collecting and playing Magic: The Gathering a little bit.

I was first introduced to the game by some friends in my fifth grade class in 1995 (actually, it was a grade five/six split class, I was in fifth grade though). I remember we used to actually sneak in games during class. I was really intrigued by all the cards and the artwork especially. Thinking back now, I recall that the majority of these cards were from the Fourth Edition, Chronicles and Ice Age sets, which all would have been current at that time. One card that I remember one of my friends had which sticks out the most in my mind that I thought was just the coolest creature card ever:

I mean, a 7/7 flying dragon that makes your opponent discard their entire hand when they take damage from him. Wow! I really wanted one! Of course, only years later did I realize that it was really a rather poor card from a playability perspective. 8 mana total casting cost with a 3 mana upkeep? Both of these costs comprised of 3 different colours? Yeah, no thanks! By the time you had enough mana out on the table available for use, the game would probably be almost over... if it even got that far.

But then again, thinking back to how I remember our games going at the time... a lot of them really did go on for a long time! I certainly don't remember anyone at the time having optimized decks. Everyone I knew who played was younger (11-12 years old) and it was their parents who were buying them cards. As a result, assuming you even had enough cards to build a deck (60 cards or more), you were playing with what you had. It might have even been with all that you had. Which probably meant you were playing with some really "janky" stuff. Maybe even (*shudder*) a four or five colour deck! So, the idea of playing something like Nicol Bolas in your deck at the time didn't really seem so crazy as it does to me now. And no, none of us had dual lands, and certainly not any of the power nine cards!

Regardless, even though I really wanted a Nicol Bolas card for myself, it wouldn't be until 23 years later that I got one, heh.

Getting a specific card wasn't even the first problem for me at that time. Getting any cards was the problem. I didn't have any money. Heck, I didn't even know where to go to buy Magic cards in the first place. I lived on a farm near a small town out in the "middle of no-where." There were no stores around that sold such things (so far as I knew). Darn! As luck would have it, later on during that school year, one of my other friends who had moved away the previous year (but who I still would occasionally go and visit, spending the weekend at his house) gave me his collection of Magic cards! I didn't even know he had any, but I showed up one weekend, and noticed he had a bunch in his room, carelessly strewn about. I asked about them and he replied "Do you want them?" I was absolutely thrilled. I think it ended up being a little over 100 or so cards all told. Again, they ended up being all from current (at the time) sets. A majority of Fourth Edition, and a smattering of Fallen Empires, Ice Age and Chronicles. A lot of the cards were in poor condition, clearly having been played many times over asphalt at school during recess or lunch before my friend ultimately got bored of the game. Finally, I could play with my own cards!

My younger brother was also interested in the game after he saw these cards and I remember we would play at home. I don't think we had quite enough cards to build a deck for each of us (I seem to recall we were somewhat short on lands) so what we ended up doing was sharing the same deck. We would play as normal, but both would draw our cards from the same deck. At first, we didn't have a rulebook so we were playing from my recollection of the rules that I learnt from my friends at school... and even that wasn't so perfect (plus I don't think we were 100% correct in following the rules during our games at school anyway). A few things I recall us doing incorrectly: we allowed attacking one (or more) of your opponents creatures directly, there was no distinction between sorceries, instants or interrupts (and I don't even think we ever played them during the opponents turn... not sure we understood that aspect of interrupts and instants), we allowed attacking with walls, regeneration could be played from cards long-since put into the graveyard. There's probably more I'm forgetting, but if you're familiar with the actual rules of the game, that should give you an idea of our games. Also, I do distinctly remember that, in an effort to not upset the other, we wouldn't attack at all until we had run out of cards in our shared deck. At which point it would turn into a real battle-royale! Early on for our games we did attacks early in the game (as soon as a creature was in play), but due to the hodge-podge of cards in our shared deck, games would often be very one-sided, especially early on and the early attacks ended up just upsetting whoever was taking a beating so we stopped doing that. Hey, we were both young after all!

The summer after school ended that year, I remember being in the mall with my Grandmother (during a visit to her place, there was no mall within an hour's drive of my house) and her buying me a Fourth Edition starter deck (60 cards!) and a couple booster packs of Alliances at some kiosk near the food court that sold Magic cards. My brother also got some cards at some point (if I recall correctly, a Mirage starter box later that year). Our games started taking better shape, which was good because I was also playing with friends at school less and less as time went on.

I ended up staying somewhat into Magic cards into 2001/2002 or so and kept collecting here and there (in particular, I remember getting quite a lot of Mercadian Masques in 1999 and early 2000). I was in high school at the time and in 2001 I remember I discovered one of the history teachers left his room open for students to come and hang out in during lunch. There was a group of -- well, I can only describe most of them in one way -- "comic book store"-type nerds who played Magic there during lunch. I hadn't played the game with anyone other then my brother in a few years at that point, so I was excited to play against some new opponents. I "endured" it for a while, but ultimately got put off playing the game by this group. Really, just a rude bunch of players that clearly weren't there to have fun but rather, seemed to have their fun by insulting people like me who were not playing with well optimized decks and had less overall experience playing the game. So, I put the game aside from a number of years.

After finishing college in 2007, I was contacted by my friend who had originally introduced me to the game in 1995 inviting me to come to a "draft" he was organizing. I hadn't played in quite a while and the game, as I discovered when I went to this draft, had changed quite a bit in the look and feel of it. The core rules were of course mostly the same, but the look had changed to what I always felt was a more generic or even "sterile" look and the artwork on the cards generally felt a lot less inspired and seemed to lack the character or "charm" that a lot of the original cards that I remembered had.

But more then that, after attending a few such drafts over the next year or two I began to realize that the sets now were largely designed with drafting in mind. There weren't really any of the fun, imbalanced, and/or just plain weird cards that you would see in the older sets. This never really felt that fun to me, it just added to the generic/sterile feeling I was getting about the game. At some point in 2008 or 2009 I declined going to further drafts just saying that I'd basically lost interest in the game.

Fast forward to 2016. I don't really remember what made me want to look up Magic again. Probably I was looking at the box in my closet that had all my old cards in it. But I started thinking about how I enjoyed the older cards much more and wouldn't it be cool if there was some group of people out there who played strictly with these older cards? After googling a bit, I discovered that, indeed, this was actually a thing! Not an official format mind you. But heck, that's probably a good thing anyway given my dislike of where the game has gone over the past 15-20 years.

Most people interested in this format stuck with cards from the original sets released in 1993/94 which was a bit before I started playing, but since Fourth Edition and Chronicles were comprised of all reprints of cards from the original sets, it was all the same cards to me anyway. Great!

Looking up some cards on eBay and such ... wow, Magic cards sure are expensive! Especially the older cards! However, I proceeded forward and ultimately, much of my disposable income in 2016 went into buying older Magic cards. Eventually, I was able to piece together quite a collection of cards that fit into the much more strict Swedish rules for "Old School 93/94" Magic, which is the ruleset that I had decided at the time that I was going to build for (mainly because I largely consider the much cheaper Revised edition cards to look somewhat ugly).

Currently, I am happy that I've been able to build three separate decks for this format:

They are most certainly not the best most optimized decks out there, and my ability to actually play the game is still rather limited due to not getting much experience at it, but even still, when I do get to play I enjoy it. This era of Magic was just a lot more fun to me and I attribute that (and only that) to my regaining interest in the game over the past two years.

Unfortunately for me, while there seems to have been a much bigger "Old School" Magic community here in Toronto years back (see here and here), it has diminished drastically since then. I currently know of only one other person in Toronto who plays and one other in Hamilton. I meet up with the person from Toronto every other month or so for some games and we have fun, but even still, it doesn't scratch my itch to play a bit more.

Thankfully this "lack of players" problem seems to be common, which you can imagine for what is a very niche (and especially now in 2018, prohibitively expensive) format of the game. So people in the online community from around the world have started playing games over Skype and other webcam-enabled methods of communication. I've only played one game this way so far, and wasn't sure what to expect exactly (I was imagining lots of connectivity and audio issues, as that's how almost every Google Hangouts session I've ever been in has gone), but it went better then I expected and I'm looking forward to playing more this way! It's nice that in 2018 there exists another way to connect all these people who enjoy this particular format of the game.

Recently, I figured that since my introduction to the game was largely via the Fourth Edition set originally released 23 years ago in 1995, that I would treat myself to some sealed old stock of this set. Buying any sealed old stock of Magic and opening it is guaranteed to lose you money, so one cannot treat it as an investment, but rather as an indulgence into nostalgia.

I suppose it's important to point out that, with my goal of building my "old school" decks within the boundaries of the stricter Swedish rules, using Fourth Edition cards in my decks is not possible. Unless I decide to follow the more lenient Eternal Central rules, which I may do at some point given the way that prices are going up recently... At any rate, I bought this just for fun, nothing else!

One of the two player "gift boxes" for Fourth Edition. Containing two 60 card decks, a rule book (a slightly bigger one then you'd get ordinarily with a starter deck box), and a (in my opinion) kind of nice flannel bag with glass counters. There was also a mostly equivalent gift box set for Revised Edition, but it's far more expensive due to the possibility of it having dual lands (which are expensive cards).

The bag holding the glass counters had broken open on it's own somehow over the past 23 years and they were scattered in the box when I opened it, but no harm was done. It's kind of funny seeing the mail-in response cards. A part of me wants to try sending it in, but I think I'll just leave it here in the box for completeness. The little black flannel bag to hold the counters is a bit nicer then I expected. Not super great quality or anything, but after seeing this now, I think I'm definitely going to use it with these glass counters for all my games going forward. As I understand it, the counters were intended to be used to track the the player's life during a game. However, nowadays there are mobile apps that do this task just as well (if not better). Instead, using these to track tokens and counters as needed for cards during a game seems a much better use to me.

But let's get on to the sealed decks. As per the description on the back of the box shown above, "this box contains everything two people need to play", so what will these decks actually look like?

Heh. So, if you've ever opened a Magic starter deck box (60 cards), then you'll instantly know that despite the fact that these two "decks" were packaged differently in a "two player" set ... this gift box just contains two normal starter decks. That is, 60 randomly assorted cards with lands, and the usual amount of rares, uncommons and commons. They're not specially prepared into anything even remotely resembling what one could consider to be a playable deck.

Well, actually now let me think about that, heh. If I think back to how I used to play this game with my brother back in the mid-90's (described above in this post) then actually for me, these two "decks" here are actually quite reminiscent of how we played! Lots of random cards with no theme or strategy. Just a "play with what you have" kind of feel to it. Now, if you were a player who had money and was not a young kid just getting into the game and had the knowledge to construct an optimized deck, then no, these two decks most certainly are not "playable" to you.

Aside from all of that, it brought a big smile to my face shuffling through these cards. It's always fun to see a Craw Wurm. Who doesn't like big creatures. And 6/4 was pretty damn big! With the way my brother and I played back in the day, Howl from Beyond was a very strong card given that we typically left our attacks until the end of the game (at which point you had a lot of lands out and could hugely buff one of your attackers... and at that point, we only had one Howl from Beyond, so it often was a game winner). I remember we both never really thought much of Erg Raiders ("why would you want to play a card that hurts you every turn you don't attack with it!?"). Always nice to see a Lightning Bolt of course. Terror was a card that we also had only one or two of back then, and it was something we loved drawing and using to instantly kill something of the others. Cards like Holy Armor and Firebreathing were also quite sought-after for us during games, as anything that buffed your creatures was good for our typical end-of-game battle-royale-style attacks. For me now in 2018, seeing Greed, Hypnotic Specter, Fellwar Stone, Strip Mine, Millstone, Power Surge amongst others are also all quite nice.

Fourth Edition, and to a little bit of a lesser extent, Ice Age will always remain my favourite sets of Magic. Not just because it's what I started playing with, but also because I always thought that the cards looked their best (highly subjective opinion of course) at this early point in the game's life while still retaining the majority of the original cards and artwork (in the case of Fourth Edition anyway). Chronicles also continues that, though with a smaller pool of cards. Revised edition, as I mentioned earlier, looked rather ugly to me. Alpha, Beta and Unlimited edition cards look rather nice (I prefer Beta to the more rounded corners of Alpha), but to me there was always a certain ... crudeness (?)... to them. I'm not sure if that's really the right word honestly. Perhaps it is, but I feel someone will read that and get an exaggerated impression of what I mean. They were of course the earliest editions (as evidenced by the names "alpha" and "beta", heh), but they did always have a little tiny bit of an unpolished feel to me. However, that feeling could largely be because I didn't see these editions until after I was already accustomed to Fourth Edition, Chronicles, and beyond. I can see how these simpler looking cards from the earliest editions would be more appealing to some. And to be clear, I am not saying I dislike them by any means. Quite the contrary as I covet my existing collection of Alpha/Beta/Unlimited cards!

(Just ignore the blatantly obvious centering issue on the Fourth Edition card on the bottom right, heh. That kind of thing happens in any edition.)

I suppose this all just helps to demonstrate how our early encounters with things colour our perceptions of it later on.