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By: CottonRhetoric, Cotton Rhetoric
May 15 2018 11:00am
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Sometimes I forget that not all Magic players have the encyclopedic knowledge of 1990s sets that we old timers do. Many Magic players weren't even alive in the 90s! They might not realize just how weird this game we all love used to be.

I started playing when Ice Age, 4th Edition, and Chronicles were the new releases, and back then, you just sort of knew every card that existed. It wasn't hard; there were fewer than 2,000. But today there are over ten times that many. Forgotten are not only specific cards, but entire design philosophies. (Quick example: in the Kamigawa block, WotC made the deliberate choice to clutter the commons slots with unplayable junk. The idea was that drafting is more frantic and exciting when you didn't have enough playables and are forced to scrape by with things you normally wouldn't use. I do not know whether it's true, but I do know WotC no longer thinks it is.)

So, let's take a walk through those forgotten paths and see what we can find. We're going to dig as deep as we can—much deeper than "creatures used to be worse" and "land destruction used to be better." (Most of us know that already, and if you didn't, compare Mold Demon to Sheoldred, Whispering One, and Strip Mine to Memorial to War.)


Back in the day...

...there was some bookkeeping.

Did you ever wonder why City's Blessing stays active forever, instead of shutting back off when your permanent count drops back below ten? It's because 23 years earlier, Wizards learned their lesson from these two failed experiments:


The lesson was... don't make the players count how many permanents there are every single turn!!!

It's obvious why these have never been reprinted, but I could honestly see an argument for bringing them online. The computer can count and display the permanent total quite painlessly, and once that's taken care of, the subgame of managing it can be kind of fun. You know, Doom Blading something with the trigger on the stack to turn it off or on.

You know how clean and simple the design of Homarid Explorer is? Let me show you what Homarids used to look like.


I hope you brought your counters with you, and you have a good memory. Speaking of which,


...counter types were a mess.

These days, if a counter alters a creature's p/t, it's either +1/+1 or -1/-1. It wasn't always like that.

Armor Thrull  Ebon Praetor  

We're not just saying "different cards had different counter types"—individual cards had different counter types!! ("Is that a +1/+0 counter or a +0/+1 counter?" "I told you, pennies are toughness and nickels are power." "I thought you said pennies were power.")


...Earth was a plane.

They never used the word "Earth" (except to mean soil), but how else do you explain references to Golgotha, quotes from Earthen poets, or this cameo by Albert frickin' Einstein??


If you're thinking "that's just some guy who happens to look like Albert Einstein," I will draw your attention to those small circles surrounding his head. Those are the planets of our solar system, in order. Earth itself is literally depicted on that card. (I do like the flavor of all the planeswalkers seeing Einstein and going "Okay no more magic for a while. A scientist is here.")

Of course you want your fantasy game to feel fantastical, so I can understand taking those references out in later years. But the counterargument would be:

  1. If the multiverse really does contain multiple universes, there's no reason ours couldn't be one of them.
  2. Doesn't it feel kind of cool to be connected to all of this stuff? Like, having the knowledge that Nicol Bolas could actually visit us if he wanted to? That's a bad example, but Nissa could visit us; she seems chill.

P.S. I suppose the outfits and attitudes of the robed figures in Invoke Prejudice could be a case of parallel evolution, doesn't it seem like some planeswalker learned that spell by visiting Earth?


...the color pie didn't mean so much.

You might have heard from Mark Rosewater that flavor was king back in the day, and the reason you have such blatant color pie violations as Volcanic Eruption is top-down design. I can buy it, even like it. But how do you explain things like this?


We're not talking about some gradual shift in philosophy, as from 1993's Psionic Blast to 2005's Char. These three were printed within one year of each other!


...coin flipping REALLY had weight.

Today, a coin decides which buff (Two-Headed Giant) gets and how often Creepy Doll triggers. Back then it wasn't which benefit you got. It wasn't even whether you got a benefit. It was whether you got a benefit or harmed yourself! You might spend mana and a card to deal yourself damage or to counter your own spell.

Bottle of Suleiman    Orcish Captain

We're not even done yet. We can make the stakes bigger than that. Wizards literally made a card where you flip a coin...

to determine...

who wins the entire game!

Honestly I'm grateful that the card mentions ante, because that means it's impossible to be reprinted. gain wasn't balanced yet.

The conventional wisdom back in the day was, "Life gain isn't playable." And there wasn't a more complicated version. That was the entire heuristic, and it was accurate. Life gain was actually not playable in the mid-90s. (Yeah, Zuran Orb saw play, but was more as a combo with Balance than anything else. My memory told me that Ivory Tower was in Brian Weissman's famous "The Deck," but it was wrong. It wasn't.) Much more typical were these kinds of clunkers:


Oooooof. I know I said I wasn't going to devote my attention to "creatures used to be bad," but compare El-Hajjâj to Vampire Nighthawk. I mean really now.

Power creep isn't even the issue here. Stick within the same one set of Arabian Nights and compare El-Hajjâj to Stone-Throwing Devils. A 1/1 with first strike cost B at common, and a 1/1 with lifelink cost 1BB—at uncommon. WotC simply thought lifegain was good back then.


...the "upkeep" was actually for upkeeping.

Today your upkeep is for any effects that need to happen before you draw. Adding a +1/+1 counter, revealing the top card of your library, whatever. We're so used to it that we think of it as a term unique to the game, like lifelink or swampwalk. We forget the word has a dictionary definition—to perform maintenance—and that the game used to use it with that same meaning.

During your upkeep, you would "upkeep" your Force of Nature, Juzám Djinn, and Demonic Hordes. You'd watch things wear away, like your Cyclopean Tomb's influence or your Living Artifact's charge. You'd regrow your damaged Rock Hydra or Nether Shadow. And that was about it!


...people wore glasses.

It's a known quirk that Magic used to have guns, but no one ever talks about this one: people in the multiverse used to have bad eyesight.

Glasses of Urza  Stern Proctor  Argivian Archaeologist

Where did all those vision problems go? Don't tell me Jeskai Elder and Jaya Ballard are wearing contact lenses. They all must be using "magic" to give themselves 20/20 vision. Perhaps WotC thinks that vision problems detract from the coolness of the fantasy world. Perhaps they were influenced by Frank Miller when he said he didn't want to see sweat patches on Superman's arms.

(I admit I may have missed some. Please tell me if you can think of any recent cards with corrective eyewear. And I don't mean goggles, a monocle, or a jeweler's eyepiece. I mean specs!) direction wasn't as rigid

#1, individual cards weren't as specific. You would never have artwork like Fiery Intervention or Hunted Troll in the 90s. Instead you had artwork like Powerleech and Horror of Horrors, where they drew the name, not the effect, and Field of Dreams and Kismet, where they drew, I'm not really sure what.

Shatterstorm, a card that destroys all artifacts, depicts the destruction one artifact. Natural Selection, a seemingly simple premise, depicts a bird head on a tiger body holding a tomato in one hand and a rope in the other.


#2, the world wasn't as fleshed out. Every card in Kaladesh looks like it takes place in Kaladesh. Every card in Ixalan, Ixalan. But would you ever guess these three cards are from the same set?


Hell, a nice field, and outer-darn-space! All in Legends! Where are all of the hell cards and extraterrestrials in Amonkhet's desert world? I know Nicol Bolas came to Amonkhet from somewhere beyond, but his cards don't show him still floating among the stars. 

#3, the art styles were a lot more varied. Every card today looks like it was drawn by the same person. Back then, every artist was their own entity. You would hear "favorite artist" debates all the time. (Mark Tedin? Anson Maddocks? Rebecca Guay? Phil Foglio? Drew Tucker? Quinton Hoover? And there was always some troll saying Justin Hampton—consider not clicking on that.) Forget about the same world, do these Ice Age cards look like they even came from the same game? (Ignoring the card frames, of course.)




...planeswalkers didn't look as fearsome.

We think of planeswalkers being a recent addition to the game, and mechanically they are, but the concept has been around since Alpha, and it's even depicted on multiple cards.

Think about the flavor of these cards. These are planeswalkers you're looking at! (In Personal Incarnation, check the tiny black shape in the corner.)


Come on, that guy on Reverberation looks more like the art teacher at a community college than somebody who would battle Garruk, Apex Predator. Even if he can summon dragons.

Speaking of things that existed earlier than you might have realized: hadn't been balanced yet.

Proper equipment as it currently stands started in 2003's Mirrodin. But Wizards was experimenting with different ways to represent the idea ten years earlier. It saw many different variations, and some are surprisingly similar to how it ended up. Consider how the below three would play out. It was activated at instant speed, you had to wait longer to reequip, and there's no room for Disarm shenanigans, but there's not much other difference. You paid the cost once, and kept it on for as long as you want without paying again.

(Other proto-equipment variations, like Sandals of Abdallah, had you repaying the cost every turn. I also love the added flavor of losing the shoes when their wearer dies, even if it is worse for gameplay.)


As for balance, I point to (Short Sword), Sword of Vengeance, and Spidersilk Net. I am reasonably certain the above proto-equipments have never seen the light of a Top 8.


...types came and went.

You probably know that Instants used to be divided among Instants and Interrupts. You might even know that "Mana Source" was a card type for two years.


But did you know about the brief appearance of "local" and "global" enchantments?


I remember opening packs of Mirage in 1996 and seeing these. There hadn't been any announcement. There was no rules card inserted into the pack as they had done with Legends. The internet wasn't very evolved yet. We had to guess. And it didn't matter much if we guessed wrong, because do you want to know how long this terminology lasted for? Not two years—two sets. Mirage and Visions. Not even Weatherlight, the third set of that block, was still saying global and local.


...keyboards weren't yet a consideration.

In the era of Magic Online, when we have to type card names into a search bar, WotC spells it "Aether," not "Æther," and I can't think of a single recent card with an accent in its name. In my day, cards weren't made with the e-world in mind. They were made to look cool. Computers were still viewed as some otherworldly concept, like in The Lawnmower Man, and the phrase "paper cards" would have been redundant.

The result of all this was you had to grapple with the below, and your best bet was probably memorizing Ascii codes. (I still know that Æ is 402, û is 406, and á is 160. I couldn't tell you many non-Magic characters' codes).



...references were downgrades.

Referencing old cards is an old tradition. But these days when we do, unless it's for the power nine, it's in the form of an upgrade. Flight got a nice boost when it became (Arcane Flight), and Master of the Hunt got WAY better as Master of the Wild Hunt.

In the old days, if you wanted a nostalgic reference, you were only approximating the original's power. Compare the beloved iconic Alpha cards Sengir Vampire and Shivan Dragon with their callouts on Sengir Bats and Viashivan Dragon. Compare Maze of Ith with Maze of Shadows. Blech!

  Viashivan Dragon Maze of Shadows

Paying 2 mana less and getting -3/-2... is that worth it? Let's see what happens when we do that to Juggernaut. It's now 2 mana for a 2/1 that has to attack every turn. No, that isn't a good exchange.


...mana costs were a guess.

Today, what to cost a card is more of a science than an art. In the 90s, it was more of a blind man throwing darts than either of the two. What can you say to explain these cards' costs?


You've seen Dominaria's Pegasus Courser. Imagine if it was one more colored mana to cast, -0/-2, and instead of activating for free when it attacked, it could activate for three colored mana instead of attacking.

Speaking of Dominaria drafting, Goblin Chainwhirler is a little hard to cast at RRR. How would you like a four mana artifact that lets you cast him for only 7?

Jaya Ballard off a North Star: 4 up front plus 9 that turn. Jaya Ballard off a Chromatic Lantern: 3 up front plus 4 that turn (the Lantern itself provides the 5th mana).

And that's not even the worst of it! I present to you Aladdin's Lamp. The standard joke is, "if they couldn't fit 10 in one circle, why didn't they just make it cost 9 instead of writing 5 and 5 like that?" But there's a problem with that joke. Years later, they made an almost identical card at only one mana, and it was still barely playable. Give me Mirri's Guile or Sensei's Divining Top any day. Arabian Nights had a card that, when you reduced its cost by nine mana, was still not good. What happens when we reduce Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger's cost by nine mana? Okay you get the idea.


..."grokability" wasn't around yet.

If you're not in a hurry to finish this article before a doctor's appointment, try to figure out what Remove Enchantments does. Try to figure out whether or not its Oracle wording matches the intent of the original card or not. To reveal the answer, highlight this box. It took me a while to figure out. I had to make a six-box chart of what happens to each type of enchantment. The rows were for enchantments I control, enchantments on my permanents, and enchantments on attacking creatures. The rows were for whether I owned them or not. Perhaps surprisingly, the card's wording and the Oracle wording do match in result, as differently worded as they are. Phew!

Winter's Chill has 79 words across 10 lines of text. Bottle of Suleiman, 86 words across 10 lines. But the undisputed champion of wordiness is Ice Cauldron, at a whopping 103 words across 13 lines! When I was in middle school, our current events reports were shorter than that.


Humorously, even with all that clarifying, Ice Cauldron still needed fourteen separate Gatherer Card Rulings to explain how it worked.


...backgrounds were optional.

Compare this old soldier, mana rock, and burn spell to these newer ones.



Sometimes Alpha cards had a full background. Sometimes just had streaks of colorswirly blobs, or a solid texture.


...symmetry was frequent (and frequently bad).

There were some nice symmetrical cards back in the day, such as Howling Mine and especially Balance, so don't think it was nonexistent.

But don't think it was common, either! Most symmetrical cards were undiluted dreck, and they were all over the place. Really take a moment to luxuriate over these cards. Inhale their aroma; imagine putting one in your deck. Imagine striking a deal with with the devil where you were guaranteed entrance to the next Pro Tour, but you had to include a playset of one of these.


Green was the king of symmetrical effects, and as a 90s green mage, I remember feeling disappointed every time I saw a Liege of the Hollows, Waiting in the Weeds, Nature's Resurgence, or Veteran Explorer. Why can't I just have those effects myself? It's not like those cards would be too powerful if strengthened to be non-symmetrical. Still nowhere nearly as powerful as the blue cards my brother was using.

I was so conditioned to expect green to share, I misread the Verdant Force I opened and put it right into my trade binder with a sigh. And I must not be the only one who did that, because WotC changed the templating on its second run to add an "under your control." (Nowadays, players no longer associate green with helping the opponent, so WotC was able to take that clause back off without confusing anyone.)



...there were other assorted oddities.

None of these needed its own category, but here are some final observations I had about the old days.


Today, the game has been cleaned up a bit, and I suppose it's for the better, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss at least some of the old way.