Like many players that were around when Magic started, I took a long break from the game around the Homelands expansion before returning at a later age.
I started reading articles and playing MTGO again when Ravnica was the hot new thing, and I think I started playing paper Magic again around Scars of Mirrodin (I distinctly remember the prerelease, where my single prize pack contained a Koth of the Hammer which I immediately sold for 20 bucks). I have learned a lot since my return to the game, but the main thing I learned is that we didn’t have a clue about playing Magic back in the 90s. We had no concept of a mana curve, we thought 20 lands in a 60 card deck was plenty, and we certainly didn’t know about tempo, card advantage or even about having a game plan. We thought a cool combo was playing a Royal Assassin together with an Icy Manipulator. I once built an entire deck around the Fortified Area + Wall of Swords combo. Admittedly, it was a pretty strong defense, but how I thought I was ever going to win a game I don’t know.
Now, in our defense, Wizards of the Coast didn’t really have a clue about designing Magic cards back then either. Spells were far too powerful and creatures far too weak, and some cards were so ridiculously complicated I would be very surprised if anyone ever finished reading them before losing interest. Not to mention cards where nobody understood what they were for (although whoever made Balduvian Shaman obviously had a very clear idea of what he wanted it to do). Don’t get me wrong, there were very strong decks back then, but mostly they were built around a few cards with crazy power levels, most of which you can check out on the Vintage restricted list if you’re interested. The decks me and my friends built were wacky, original, perhaps sometimes even clever, but certainly not strong by today’s standards.
I’ve recently turned 40, and apparently it is completely normal to suffer from occasional bouts of nostalgia at this age. I am no exception, and I get all warm and fuzzy when I think of how innocent and unspoilt our attitude to Magic was back then. If a guy brought a clever deck to a game, we would congratulate him on it being so clever, because we assumed he designed it himself. We had no internet, so other than reading a copy of Inquest once a month we just had to think up our own infinite combos. Although our decks were certainly less efficient as a result, our games were a lot less predictable. When I discovered the Battle Box format last year, it was clear that I would have to also do a 90s nostalgia Box. I have tried building nostalgic decks before, but honestly they don’t work very well. Normal 60 card decks are just no match for the decks of today (even competitive Legacy decks usually contain a significant number of modern cards to function properly) and Commander decks suffer from similar issues, mainly because large creatures from back then are decidedly underwhelming by today’s standards.
A Battle Box doesn’t really have these issues. I could just pick the creatures that were good, and mix them with the fun-but-not-really-powerful spells from back then. I didn’t need to worry about not measuring up to newer decks, because the Box will never be played against anything other than itself. This gave me essentially free reign on what I could put into the box. Because I do think that playability is important, I mixed strictly nostalgic cards with a solid amount of functional cards to make sure the Box as a whole played well. I limited myself to the sets Unlimited up to Urza’s Destiny, all sets printed in the 90s (Mercadian Masques was also published in 1999 but the rest of the Masques block wasn’t published until the 00s, so I decided to disqualify the entire block). Rather than run through all the cards I put into my Box and why, I thought I’d use this article to share some memories about my early days of Magic with you. If you want to check out the Battle Box list and special rules, you can find it here.
I first discovered Magic in the spring of 1994 at the “Spellenspektakel” (a Dutch gaming convention) in Eindhoven, the town where I went to University. My friends and I were fervent roleplaying gamers back then, and we were on the lookout for new content for Middle Earth, Vampire: The Masquerade and Ars Magica. Instead, we spent a lot of our time learning and playing this complex but fun new card game called Magic the Gathering. To be honest, I don’t think we spent any money on it at that time, even though people were already telling us about the elusive 200 dollar Black Lotus. After coming home I decided to buy some packs at my local game store and no more than a month later I shelled out my hard earned student wages for a booster box of Legends (the contents of which I gradually traded away for not nearly what the cards would one day be worth). One more story about the “Spellenspektakel” convention: We went back the next year to discover they had an iron man Magic tournament going on. It is a multiplayer Magic tournament where everyone attacks the player to the left of them, which was a common way to play multiplayer Magic at the time. An iron man tournament is just like any Magic tournament, except there are no graveyards; any card that dies or is discarded is torn to pieces and thrown on the floor in the middle of the arena. There were whisperings of a guy in a previous tournament who cast a Black Lotus, sacrificed it immediately and without batting an eye tore it to pieces. I never did hear what he used the mana for. Let’s hope it won him the game, although I highly doubt it. Of course, there’s no telling if that was just an urban myth, but I did see a player tear up an unlimited Mox Pearl with my own eyes. I think they were worth around 150 bucks at the time. I’m pretty sure that even back then I thought these people were out of their minds.
When I was doing an internship in Allentown (Pennsylvania), I brought four decks with me in case I would run into a Magic game somewhere. Back then I was a hardcore Johnny, so almost all my decks had some combo element in them. I had one deck that combined Field of Dreams with Petra Sphinx and Millstone to draw into my best cards while keeping my opponents from drawing theirs. Another had the infamous Relic Barrier + Howling Mine combo, although for the life of me I can’t remember what else it did. My pride and joy was a deck that drew a ridiculous amount of cards with Necropotence to set up the following hand: Bayou, Eureka, Concordant Crossroads, Marton Stromgald and any three of Force of Nature, Lord of the Pit and Colossus of Sardia (these were all giant tramplers whose drawback didn’t matter until the next turn, by which time I intended to have won). I think I had some protection in the form of City of Solitude and some tutoring in Demonic Consultation, but other than that the entire deck was dedicated to the combo itself. I played in a local tournament with it, and actually did quite OK (which says more about the general level at the tournament than about the quality of my deck). I loved the looks when the combo worked and I would attack for ~40 trample damage on the fourth turn, and I conveniently forgot about all those games where I couldn’t assemble the combo or I Necropotence‘d myself to 1 life just to get killed by a Lightning Bolt. Being a strictly casual Johnny has its perks…
I think I played Magic actively for about two years, before my friends and I started to lose interest. Looking back, I think this was due to the choices Wizards made with the game. It was clear from the powerful cards from the first few expansion sets that power creep was a very real danger that could destroy the game if it was not kept in check (cards like Mana Drain were much more powerful than similar cards that came before them, leading to a slippery slope where each next expansion would have to contain even more powerful cards just to be of interest to the player base). Unfortunately, Wizards’ initial answer to this was to lower the power level across the board, culminating in the Fallen Empires and Homelands sets (Ice Age was not much better, but at least it had a cool theme that redeemed it a little). Now, if you were not playing Magic at that time, let me assure you those sets were downright miserable. The rares were overpriced and complicated, and the cards were so weak I don’t think any of them made any impact on tournament magic (yeah, yeah I know, Hymn to Tourach, still a miserable card if you ask me). I know they realized their own mistake and started to turn things around with the Mirage and Tempest blocks and the rise of the Standard (type II) tournament format, but by that time it was too late for me. The damage was done, and it would take many years before I would have any interest in Magic again.
Even though my 90s Magic stint was so short, it was during an important period of my life, and the memories of that period and of the role Magic played in them are very vivid. I didn’t talk about many things, like how my brother found an Arabian Nights City of Brass lying on the floor somewhere, or how I traded a collection of vintage Elfquest comics for my girlfriends’ Magic collection (of course, she’s not my girlfriend anymore, her Magic collection has since evaporated and my Elfquest comics are still being missed to this day). Oh, or that I used to have a girlfriend who was into playing Magic! It’s been a long time since then, and no end is in sight. I hope in a few years my daughters will get some interest in that colorful card game their dad is always playing…
In the meantime, I can reminisce about the crazy Magic days of the 90s every time I dust off my Nostalgia Box and give it a spin. Peace out!