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Chapter 4 | Old School Magic – Build Your Own Old School Format

Authors Note:

The response to this series has been heartening. In the works since 2013, many of the articles in this series were first outlined and drafted years ago, so it is especially encouraging, not only to see the positive feedback, but more importantly, the rapidly growing interest in the Old School Magic.  In the few months since this series has launched, new Old School communities have formed and new Old School formats have been created. Thank you to everyone who has been following this serifates so far.

If you are encountering this series for the first time, I provide a series index at the beginning of each article, and recommend you begin with the first chapter before continuing further.

Series Index

Chapter 1: Back to the Future – An Introduction to Old School Magic

Chapter 2: Old School Magic – The History of “The Deck”

Chapter 3: Old School Magic – A Visit to the Zoo

Chapter 4: Build Your Own Old School Format

Chapter 5: New Strategies for the Old School: The Transmute Control Deck

Chapter 6: Banning and Restriction in Old School

Chapter 7: New Strategies for the Old School: Blue-Red Aggro Control

Chapter 8: 2nd Place at Eternal Weekend, 2016 with Blue-Red Aggro-Control

Chapter 9: Reanimator Rises to the Top!

Chapter 10: Rules of the Road

Chapter 11: The Untold History of Combo in Old School

Chapter 12: Building a Stronger Prison

In the first chapter in this series, I introduced Old School Magic formats.  Old School Magic is the antithesis of Standard.  Whereas Standard permits only the most recent sets, Old School Magic is any magic format that excludes the most recent sets.  It is a set of retro formats that seeks to evoke the themes, strategies, and aesthetics of a different era, but not necessarily an attempt to recreate the past.  The second and third chapters in this series illustrated this, by tracing the evolution of two of the most popular archetypes in Old School Magic and their contemporary Old School expressions.

We now take a slight detour from strategy to format construction as outlined at the end of the introductory chapter. Addressing the first question posed there, this chapter explores which sets you may wish to include or permit.  In this article, I canvass your options, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of each option so that you will be well-informed as you consider this question for yourself and your Old School Magic playgroup and community.

One of the most important misconceptions I’ve sought to dispel with this series is that “Old School” Magic, or any “throwback” or “retro” format is reducible to a single format.  Some of you may be familiar with the format known as BYOB or Build Your Own Block. The idea is to select three sets from any block, in the proper sequence (A, B, C), and create your own block format.  So, you might build a block with Invasion, Worldwake, and Future Sight, three sets from very different blocks. Each configuration offers unique synergies and interactions to explore and discover. So does Old School.

In fact, the concept for Standard is similarly malleable, with endless iterations and fluid composition, but whose structure remains the same. As an analog to BOYB, Build Your Own Standard was a format I enjoyed in the last ever Magic Invitational, and reflects that structure.

Constructing your ideal Old School Format involves a similar structure and purpose. Old School Magic creates a context for cards and interactions that are otherwise generally unused in the pantheon of constructed formats. The selection of sets can be used to shape and define the range of interactions and strategies that are likely to arise.  It is an act of format crafting.

There is a tremendous degree of variability, flexibility, and options in terms of exactly which sets to include when playing Old School Magic.  This article surveys your options.  As noted in Chapter 1, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to the question of which sets you should permit in your Old School Magic tournament or casual play.  In fact, enjoying the full spectrum of Old School flavors may require you to change up which sets are permitted from tournament to tournament or meetup to meetup.

     Alpha/Beta/Unlimited (ABU) (1993)

The starting point for most discussions of which sets to include for your Old School Magic experience begin with the original Magic: The Gathering set (Alpha/Beta/Unlimited[1]), and the first four expansion sets, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, and The Dark. All four expansion sets were released in a remarkable twelve month period from December, 1993 through the Fall of 1994.

Although they are certainly not required to play Old School Magic (many Old School Standard or Extended formats have merit), virtually every known group that has hosted Old School Magic tournaments has included these core five sets. For the purpose of this series, I assume that any Old School Magic format will include these sets. These sets generate the fantasy flavor, feel and tone of the Old School formats. They also define the strategic possibilities. For that reason, I will briefly outline the role of these sets and their contribution to Old School Magic format construction.

Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited form the backbone for deck construction, by providing dual lands, basic lands, artifact acceleration in the form of Moxen, Sol Ring, and Black Lotus, a wide range of removal, countermagic, and much more.  The core of your deck building tools come from this set.

alphaundergroundsea1 betavolcanicisland1 unlimitedtundra1

Alpha Underground Sea, Beta Volcanic Island and Unlimited Tundra

(Left to Right)

 

ABU dual lands, in particular, are one of the most important deck building elements ever created. As an odd bit of historical trivia, for years after Revised Edition was no longer permitted, Type II (Standard) and later Extended formats carved an exception for Revised dual lands. Without dual lands, players must rely on greatly inferior substitutes, making multi-color deck construction much more difficulty and costly.

As with these ancient Type II and Extended formats, it is possible to fashion an Old School format that includes dual lands without also permitting cards like Moxen and Black Lotus by allowing Revised Edition, but excluding ABU.  However, in practice, few Old School formats permit Revised but not also allow ABU.

ABU not only provides fundamental deck building tools like dual lands, but they also give you some of the most broken cards ever printed. In addition to the aforementioned artifact acceleration, the “power blue” (Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Timetwister) is a central feature of ABU, and, along with Time Vault and a number of other interesting cards and oddities, were removed in Revised Edition.  These cards are not only fun and powerful, but they are also evocative of the early days of the game.  Their exclusion should be made deliberately, and generally only to create an Old School experience that mirrors something other than the Type I formats of yesteryear.

     Arabian Nights (1993)

Released in December, 1993, Arabian Nights is a small but completely transformative set, largely on account of the presence of some of the most efficient and powerful creatures in the game. As a testament to its enduring influence, as late as 1996, Arabian Nights featured many of the Top 10 (if not Top 5) best creatures in Type I, including Kird Ape, Serindib Efreet, Ernham Djinn, and Juzam Djinn (the other creatures on such lists are cards like Savannah Lions, Juggernaut, and Hypnotic Specter).

It wasn’t until Tempest arrives in 1997 that creatures of this level of efficiency are seen again.  In the interim period, every new set’s creatures were measured against these baddies (and mostly found lacking, like Balduvian Hordes, for example). Without Arabian Nights, aggro strategies must anchor with a far narrower set of threats, and are far less interesting, let alone viable.

As important as the raft of powerful and interesting creatures is for the allure of Arabian Nights, equally important, if not more so, are the lands. The first set to feature non-mana producing lands, Arabian Nights not only includes many of the most important specialty lands in the game, including arguably the most powerful card in any Old School format in Library of Alexandria, it also includes the single best mana fixer of the 1990s: City of Brass.

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Arabian Nights City of Brass

City of Brass’s importance to the game is difficult to overstate in a day and age where we enjoy many 5c mana producing lands. City of Brass is a virtual auto inclusion in any three, four or even five color deck from the 1990s, as it is essential to reliable mana in a format without fetchlands. City of Brass may inflict some damage, but it allows access to almost any spell in the game.

Type II variants of Old School Magic can access City of Brass via Chronicles, even though it won’t give you access to most of the set’s best creatures, but then Kird Ape and Serendib Djinn were reprinted in Revised, and Erhnam was also reprinted in Chronicles, which is why it was in Standard as late as 1996, in the famous Erhnam-Geddon deck.  Arabian Nights, however, provides one of the best answers to these reprints: City in a Bottle, which now destroys any card originally printed in Arabian Nights, even 9th edition Kird Apes.

Arabian Nights contribution to Old School formats goes beyond strategic implements.  Arabian Nights is one of the most richly imagined sets in the history of the game, drawn out of Middle Eastern culture and history with complementary art and imagery.  Juzam Djinn remains one of the most iconic images in the game.

    Antiquities (1994)

Antiquities was also a thematic set, with the great bulk of this 100 card expansion in the of artifacts.  These artifacts dramatically change the strategic possibilities in any format. Millstone facilitates and represents an alternative way to win the game, by decking the opponent. Similarly, the Rack is a vital tool for discard strategies, and Candelabra of Tawnos is a popular inclusion in Mana Flare decks.

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Antiquities Candelabra of Tawnos

Although not artifacts, Power Artifact and Transmute Artifact create new strategic possibilities in most Old School formats. In addition to strategic threats, Antiquities features critical answers. Ivory Tower and Feldon’s Cane combat both direct damage and milling strategies respectively.

Moreover, Antiquities’ artifacts are supplemented by new and important ways to remove, destroy, bounce or otherwise address artifact threats. And while many of these cards were reprinted, cards like Artifact Blast and Gate to Phyrexia were not.

Although Antiquities features many important artifacts,  Antiquities’ lands may be more important. The Urza lands are perhaps most famous in contemporary Magic, but Strip Mine, Mishra’s Factory, and Mishra’s Workshop are among the most powerful lands in any Old School Format.  Although Strip Mine and Mishra’s Workshop are most likely to be restricted of the trio (although some formats permit each as a four-of), Mishra’s Factory is increasingly viewed as the most annoying, as it is a ubiquitous presence in Old School environments.

    Legends (1994)

Of the first four expansion sets, Legends is not only the largest by far (weighing in at 310 cards), but it is the most impactful in broadening strategic diversity. Legends infamously ushered in the so-called “creatureless” era of Magic by featuring cards like Moat, The Abyss, Nether Void, and Mana Drain, cards critical, if not essential, to building Control and prison decks in Old School Magic.

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Legends Nether Void

Legends dramatically broadens the range of strategic possibilities.  It creates wacky and novel ways to put creatures into play, with cards like Eureka and Hell’s Caretaker; novel win conditions with cards like Land’s Edge, Underworld Dreams and Mirror Universe (depending on the rules you are using); and a number of interesting draw engines, like Sylvan Library, Greed, and Winds of Change.  Legends is a rich offering of strategic possibilities.

   The Dark (August, 1994)

Slightly larger than Antiquities, The Dark is regarded as noticeably less powerful than the preceding three expansion sets. Accordingly, for Old School players The Dark is less important from a strategic or tactical perspective, but its contribution is enormous from a flavor standpoint.  Of all of the sets in Magic history, The Dark is one of the most evocative, graphic and expressionistic.  The artwork is hauntingly beautiful and the feel it generates through game play is an indelible part of the Old School Magic experience.

That is not to deny that The Dark features cards significant to Old School Magic.  Blood Moon is the first major non-basic hoser (and therefore the first card to punish dual lands and over-reliance on multi-color mana bases).  Before Blood Moon, there was no cost to running dual lands over basics.  The Dark also provides a number of marginal, but interesting deck building options that strengthen core strategies and answer others.

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The Dark Blood Moon

It is certainly possible to enjoy Old School Magic without one or more of these expansion sets, but any Old School Magic format that permits Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and Legends, will also include The Dark.  These four expansions are generally included or excluded as a group.

     Revised Edition (3rd edition) (1994)

One of the pioneer communities of Old School Magic is the Swedish 93/94 Magic group.  Their deck construction rules, as the name suggests, only permit sets printed and released in 1993 and 1994.  Curiously, however, it appears to be something as a misnomer, as they permit neither Revised (3rd edition) nor Fallen Empires, both of which were released in 1994. Indeed, Revised was probably the most popular set of 1994.

Aside from the incongruence of the format name, I find the omission of Revised Edition more troubling than the omission of Fallen Empires.  The reason for that is that Revised was released in April, 1994, just one month after Antiquities, and well before either Legends (June, 1994) or The Dark (August, 1994).  From a strictly chronological perspective, it is not obvious why a community would permit either Legends or The Dark, but exclude Revised.

Although the 93/94 website does not offer any formal explanation for the omission of Revised, there are hints in several blog posts that sheds light on this exclusion.  The 93/94 community embraces a vision of the format that seeks a greater challenge in building decks as part of the experience of the format. Revised contains far more copies of dual lands than Alpha, Beta or Unlimited combined (with roughly 300K printed). Excluding Revised Edition makes it much more difficult to build “optimal” decks. Another part of the argument against Revised is that it is not sufficiently “pimp” or alluring because of the much larger print run relative to any of the other sets discussed so far.

On balance, most American communities of interest find the accessibility concerns more compelling than the notion of pimpness or exclusivity, and therefore permit Revised. But, even on its own terms, the concerns about Revised significantly diminishing a format’s elite status are overblown. First, permitting players to use Revised dual lands dramatically increases the possibilities for deck building but does little to make it easier to obtain the difficult-to-find and scarcer cards from expansion sets, which had smaller print runs than even ABU.

Second, the 93/94 group permits Unlimited. The key variable that most distinguishes “pimp” cards from less so was historically recognized to be white borders. Alpha and Beta were printed on rich black borders, while Unlimited was printed on stark white borders. Permitting Unlimited, with its 35-40 million print run (3.5-4 times the size of Alpha and Beta combined), is a half measure – an attempt to make the format somewhat accessible, but not maintain the full pimp-ness or cool factor. Many Revised dual lands are not that much less expensive than their Unlimited counterparts (and any gap that exists is now largely driven by the fact that Unlimited is legal in some Old School formats where Revised is not). Once you include Unlimited (2nd edition), it is hard to make a principled case for excluding Revised (3rd edition) on grounds of pimpness or exclusivity. If those concerns really explain the exclusion of Revised, then Unlimited should not be permitted either.  Permitting Unlimited, but not Revised on grounds of exclusivity or pimpness is little more than arbitrary line-drawing.

These criticisms are amplified by permitting multiple sets that were released after Revised.  The Dark had a print run of over 60 million, making it much larger and more accessible than the sets that preceded it, and closer to Revised in terms of its printing scale.

The arguments for including Revised, I believe, are much more persuasive.  The overriding goal of Old School Magic is to enjoy Magic from the past, and cards and strategies that are no longer playable or even legal, in their original environment, or something that resembles it.  If permitting Revised makes it possible for more players to compete without undermining flavor, feel or strategy of Old School formats, I am in favor of that. Aside from the 93/94 group, every other Old School Magic group that I’m aware of permits Revised edition cards, including Eternal Central, Channel Fireball and NorCal 93/94.

   Foreign Editions of Revised

The history of foreign reprints is long and somewhat convoluted.  In October, 1994, Wizards released Italian Revised, the first non-English version of a Magic set, but this should not be confused with Renaissance, the Italian reprint – of sorts – of Fourth EditionItalian Revised, released well within 1994, was printed with black borders. Subsequently, French and German versions of revised were released.  How should these sets be treated?

Although perhaps a bit ironic, the European 93/94 group does not permit these European Revised editions, which, of course, is consonant with excluding the set from which they derive, Revised.  Yet, these sets are black bordered, and decidedly “pimper” than white-bordered Revised. So, a case could be made to permit them, while excluding the underlying American version.

On the other hand, for communities that permit Revised, there is no compelling reason to ban these sets, especially those printed in 1994. They are beautiful editions with rich coloring and dark borders.

    Summer Edition

There is probably no set that highlights the contrast between “pimpness” — extreme rarity and market value – and the question of legality in Old School Magic more than the so-called “Summer edition” printing of Revised.  Summer edition has a weird and somewhat confusing history, but, in essence, it was a short-lived attempt to correct some of the problems with Revised.  This batch of printings was intended for destruction, but a few sets escaped, making it one of the rarest sets in Magic history.  A more detailed overview of the story behind the set, as well as some images of Summer Cards, can be found in this article.

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Summer Magic Underground Sea

The author, a member of the 93/94 community, notes that if they were to permit another set, it would be Summer Edition.  I believe some Old School Groups have taken that up, and now legalize Summer edition cards. The irony, of course, is that Summer Edition is just a reprint of Revised, which many of these same groups do not permit.  Intellectual consistency, I suppose, is the hobgoblin of small minds.

     Fallen Empires (November, 1994)

Fallen Empires is a much maligned set, but not for same as reasons as Homelands or Prophesy.  Although Fallen Empires was the least powerful of the 1994 expansion sets, its mechanics and enormous print run shaped its harsh reputation.  As the first fully tribal set (Thrulls, Homorids,Thallids Oh My!), Fallen Empires was thematically intriguing, but the execution was mired in countless and confusing token and counter generation.  In fact, this aspect to the set was so overwhelming that the Duelist Magazine included an unintentionally comical cardboard punch out insert for the many tokens and counters needed to play with cards from the set.

The somewhat low power level and annoying mechanics, however, were exacerbated by the set’s absurdly large print run.  As an overreaction to the dramatic under printings of previous expansions, Fallen Empires had a larger print run than any of the other sets in this era, and Fallen Empires packs and even boxes could be readily found at original or discounted prices years and even decades later. It was the opposite of a collectible product – retailers could not get rid of it, and players were saturated with the set.

In spite of its many flaws, Fallen Empires contributes meaningfully to Old School Magic formats.  One of the most popular strategies in early Type I was hand destruction, or discard strategies.  Fallen Empires introduces one of the most powerful discard spell ever printed, Hymn to Tourach. Hymn to Tourach has the notable distinction of being the only card from Fallen Empires ever to be restricted or banned.  Although Hymn was never restricted in Type I, it was restricted in Type II, and is often restricted in Old School formats that permit Fallen Empires.

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Hymn of Tourach – All four variations

Even with the all four preceding expansions sets and the ABU core set, it can be challenging to construct competitive mono-color options or budget options.  While it is fun to play decks with 12 dual lands and City of Brass, sometimes it is more interesting to have other linear mono-color options. And while decks like White Weenie are surprisingly effective in Old School, they rely on questionable cards like Clergy of the Holy Nimbus to round out the deck.

Fallen Empires provides almost exactly the additional card pool needed to round out a host of mono color strategies.  For example, Order of Leitbur and Order of the Ebon Hand, the first of the so called “pump knights,” are automatic inclusions in any Old School weenie strategy in those colors. In fact, these cards are probably the second and third most powerful cards in the set.

It also introduces a number of blue and red tribal cards. With the preceding sets alone, it is difficult to build, for example, a competitive Merfolk or Goblins deck, even though Goblin King and Lord of Atlantis are well known ABU rares.  While the Goblins in Fallen Empires are unimpressive, Goblin Grenade offers an impressive finisher.  Merfolk strategies get multiple viable Merfolk inclusions, including River Merfolk and Seasinger.

It should also be noted that mono-color strategies not only enhance the strategic diversity of Old School Magic, spicing up what can otherwise be a fairly homogeneous card pool at times, but it also offers much less expensive deck building options.  These mono color strategies, by definition, do not rely on dual land or many other expensive deck building elements.  Fallen Empires also has a few marginal cards, like Deep Spawn, that can make Reanimator strategies more interesting.

The 93/94 Group describes the question of whether to include Fallen Empires or not as one of the most debated issues for that group.  The arguments about it are featured in this blog post.  The reasons to exclude Fallen Empires largely center on its decided “un-pimp-ness” and its power level.  As already noted, the 93/94 format is a misnomer, by excluding Revised and Fallen Empires (released November, 1994).

While it cannot be denied that Fallen Empires is unpimp (virtually all of the cards are dirt cheap) and it’s power level is markedly below average, the set’s feel is not radically different from the preceding four expansions, especially The Dark. For formats that permit The Dark, it is difficult to understand the exclusion of Fallen Empires.  Both sets had larger print runs, are much less expensive, and are underpowered compared to Legends, Antiquities, and Arabian Nights.

In my assessment, the strongest argument for permitting Fallen Empires is that it provides almost exactly the padding needed to round out a range of otherwise overly marginal strategies.  Its inclusion is barely perceptible but a significant enhancement.  It expands and diversifies the range of strategic options while hardly affecting the feel and aesthetics of the format. And it is not just that it enhances tribal or weenie strategies, but it boosts strategies along other dimensions, such as hand destruction and reanimation.

In summary, permitting Fallen Empires meaningfully enhances the extant strategies without transforming the format or environment dramatically.   If your goal is to make a challenging format to build for, with an emphasis on “pimp-ness” and exclusivity, then not permitting Fallen Empires is consistent with that, with the attendant consequence of a more strategically narrow format.  But if you want a richer and more fully realized metagame, and more fully consonant with 1994 Type I, and a bit more accessibility, then I recommend including Fallen Empires, as Eternal Central and NorCal 93/94 have done.

It should also be noted that if you want to play Magic as it was played at the first World Championship, then you should not permit Fallen Empires, but neither should you permit The Dark.  But, if you want to play something resembling Classic Type I, which was basically a static format from November, 1994 to June, 1995, a large expanse of time, then permitting Fallen Empires will get you close as possible to that period in which The Deck was ascendant.

In the pantheon of Old School communities, the main fulcrum is not between communities that permit Revised and Fallen Empires and those that do not. By now, the strong consensus, at least throughout the United States, as evident under Eternal Central Rules, NorCal rules, New York rules, and Channel Fireball rules, is to permit both Revised and Fallen Empires.  Rather, the main divide is over the remaining sets. Perhaps the most interesting debate is Collector’s Edition…

      Collector’s Edition/International Edition

Collector’s Edition (CE) and International Edition (IE) are two special sets that many of you may not know about.  In fact, both sets are reprints of Beta that were released in 1993.  These sets were printed in very limited quantities. Collector’s Edition was sold as a complete set of Beta, but only 13,500 were released.  International Edition was virtually identical, but with only 3,500 sets produced for sales overseas. [2]

To ensure that these cards would not appear in tournaments, CE and IE sets were visually distinctive in several respects.  First, both sets have square corners rather than the curved corners of other Magic cards.

 

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International Edition (IE) Black Lotus

Second, the backs of both sets are similar, but not identical to other sets.  Aside from the square corners, Collector’s Edition and International Edition cards have gold borders, but only on their backs.  Finally, they also have stenciling on their backs that say “Collector’s Edition” and “International Edition” respectively.

 

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Collector’s Edition (IE) Black Lotus

These cards were released in special premium sets rather than packs, and had, as noted, a tiny print run.  In terms of “pimp-ness,” Collector’s Edition and International Edition sets have a much stronger claim than Unlimited.  They are black bordered on the front (always a chief measure of “pimpness), with the same rich coloration as Beta, and there were fewer printed by thousands. Having been printed and sold in 1993, they were distributed at the same time as Unlimited as well. It should also be mentioned that CE and IE cards, by their very nature, tend to be in better condition on average than their Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited counterparts.  Whether judged by rarity, aesthetics, or chronology, CE and IE cards either are superior to or equal to Unlimited, at least when sleeved.

However, CE and IE cards have never been tournament legal.  The fundamental problem with them is that they have square corners, and are thus “marked.”  However, a similar problem was true of Alpha. For many years Alpha cards were not tournament legal because Alpha’s more rounded corners distinguished them from a deck. What ultimately led to Alpha’s legalization was the advent of tournament rules mandating card sleeves.  CE & IE cards, however, are distinguished by having gold borders on the back, and therefore weren’t intended for tournament play.  With sleeves, however, those borders aren’t visible, and the front of a CE or IE card looks almost indistinguishable for Alpha, with the only difference being square corners.

The fundamental problem, however, is that some claim that the square corners are visible through the back of the sleeve.  The more rounded corners of Alpha have not proven a similar problem for tournament play. No one, to my knowledge, has conducted a controlled experiment to see if CE & IE cards are discernible through sleeves, but, my experience suggests that with multiple sleeving, that risk can be minimized.

In the NorCal Old School, we permit CE & IE cards to make the format more accessible while preserving the spirit of the format, so long as they are double sleeved, and many communities have taken our lead, and adopted the same approach.  Yet, we can understand why other groups might not. For tournament organizers like Channel Fireball, permitting “illegal” sets is more of a difficulty, as it may violate tenets of organized play.  Nonetheless, permitting IE and CE sets are an important consideration and option, especially for communities seeking to expand the supply of power and dual lands in their environments.

     Chronicles (July, 1995)

Freighted with more controversy than the last half dozen Magic controversies combined, Chronicles arrived with thunderous debate over when and how Wizards of the Coast should reprint cards.  Although Chronicles was released (July, 1995) shortly after Ice Age, I address Chronicles next because it reprints only cards from the first three expansion sets, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and LegendsChronicles is an important reprint set, and the reasons to include it or not should be carefully weighed.

For players who only permit sets from 1993 and 1994, the case against Chronicles is relatively straight-forward. Chronicles was not actually released in 1993 or 1994.  As a white-bordered and more widely available set, it is decidedly un-pimp.  That said, there are reasons, even for 93/94 players, to consider permitting Chronicles.  From a strategic perspective, it is also decidedly “Old School,” reprinting only cards from 1993 and 1994.  In that sense, Chronicles could actually be considered a 93/94 set, despite being released mid-way through 1995.

Chronicles falls into a similar camp as Revised, in that permitting it provides more access to the format while nonetheless preserving the strategic feel of the format. In particular, Chronicles provides inexpensive access to a very important card: City of Brass.  Like the revised dual lands, City of Brass is one of the most important building blocks in the entire format.  For most Old School formats, City of Brass is the best and one of the only multi-color lands, making it possible to build three, four, and even five color decks far more easily.  The Ice Age pain lands supplement the dual lands in two and even three color decks, but City of Brass is the key card that makes 3-5 color decks mana reliable.

I do not wish to create the impression that City of Brass is the only key card provided by Chronicles.  The mere fact of Chronicles has likely held down the prices of many of the Old School cards, including Blood Moon, Ernham Djinn, Recall, and a number of other cards that were reprinted in that set and that see Old School Magic play.  This small set is just as controversial in Old School Magic as it was back in its time.

For Old School Magic formats that permit sets from 1995 or later (such as Ice Age or Alliances), the case against Chronicles has to rest almost entirely on the set being “un-pimp.” I believe that the presence of City of Brass weighs heavily towards inclusion, especially if the only reason to exclude it is pimp-ness.  It should be noted that, strategically, permitting Chronicles actually makes City in a Bottle a stronger card, as more players are likely to use City of Brass.

      Fourth Edition (April, 1995)

Fourth Edition was released in April, 1995, two months before Ice Age, and three months before ChroniclesFourth Edition is notable because, while it was the largest Magic set printed to that date, many of the best cards from Revised Edition (3rd) were removed, and a number of cards from Legends, and a few other cards from Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and even Unlimited (such as Twiddle) were included.

The case for Fourth Edition is similar to that of Chronicles, but less compelling.  Whereas Chronicles has a number of otherwise high value cards, and incredibly important cards, like City of Brass, the original versions of cards reprinted for the first time in Fourth Edition are not terribly expensive, even if they are quite useful.  Cards like Mishra’s Factory, Sylvan Library and even Land Tax are not high value cards in their original editions to compensate for a less aesthetically pleasing set, if exclusivity and pimpness are goals.  Moreover, the cards in Fourth edition that were also available in Revised are not that much more expensive, if at all, in their Revised versions.

While it may be difficult to justify excluding Fourth Edition while permitting Chronicles, it at least defensible on the grounds that Chronicles provides key format assets, whereas Fourth Edition does not. For formats that permit sets from 1995, however, its exclusion is less defensible.

     Ice Age (June, 1995)

Released in June, 1995, Ice Age is without question, a strategic break from the 93/94 format, and it is a line that should be crossed only knowingly and with some caution.  Permitting Ice Age opens up many interesting and fun strategic options. But it does not have the same feel as the 93/94 format.

First and foremost, the presence of painlands , the new dual lands from Ice Age, dramatically strengthen the mana bases of two color decks vis-à-vis three or four color decks.  This cycle of dual lands is quite important. It creates a consistency in mana production otherwise not possible in 93/94, and reduces reliance on City of Brass.

Second, Ice Age introduces a number of close duplicates to already playable cards.  Cards like Pyroblast, Hydroblast, Incinerate, Icequake, Thermokarst, Knight of Stromgald, Dance of the Dead, and others, all have serious implications.  It is not simply that you have more of the same, in many cases you now have a critical mass of a necessary effect. For example, Dance of the Dead makes Reanimator strategies far more viable, especially with cards like Ashen Ghoul in Ice Age.  The Knights enhance weenie strategies for both black and white, providing even more power.

But perhaps most importantly, Ice Age introduces a number of very powerful cards like Necropotence, Jester’s Cap, Brainstorm and Zuran Orb, cards that fundamentally change the range of strategic options in the format.  Even cards like Glacial Chasm, Ashen Ghoul and Demonic Consultation all have strategic implications.  For example, Polar Kraken becomes the largest viable Animate Dead target.  Zuran Orb becomes a way to trigger Land Tax on demand, and Brainstorm and Land Tax becomes a new powerful draw engine, and so on.

iceagepolarkraken999

Ice Age Polar Kraken (“Release the Kraken!”)

Ice Age can be amazing, but it is a distinctly different set of strategic options, and it can’t be easily tamed by simply restricting Necropotence, for example.  For players who want to venture beyond the bounds of 93/94, Ice Age is a wonderful first step, but it should be recognized for what it is: a different Old School Magic experience.  Ice Age is the first set that fundamentally re-orients the metagame away from The Deck.  This is not simply a function of Necropotence, a draw engine which vastly outstrips what The Deck can generate.  Tactics like Jester’s Cap directly threaten The Deck, and counter-strategies like combo and Reanimator become new threats.

Ice Age is a set to consider if your community and play group are frustrated or exhausted with interminable debates over The Deck. The best reason to introduce Ice Age is that it renders this debate largely obsolete.

    Homelands (October, 1995)

Released in October, 1995, Homelands is widely (although mistakenly) regarded as one of the worst sets of all time (that dubious honor probably belongs to Prophesy).  How and when should Homelands be permitted in 1995?  What does it add?  What does permitting it take away?

The most important card in Homelands is Merchant Scroll, but it isn’t the only card from Homelands that might see play in a Type I variant Old School Magic format.  Cards like Memory Lapse, Serrated Arrows and even a few creatures may show up.  Although Homelands is widely regarded as an underpowered set, it is aesthetically and thematically rich, and it is fun to search Homelands for possible deck fillers or marginal playables.

As the last set released in 1995, there are good reasons for players who want to permit Ice Age to permit Homelands as well. It makes it possible to refer to your format by the year, 1995 Old School Magic, without caveat.  Permitting only to Ice Age is a more difficult cut-off, especially since what Homelands adds thematically compensates for its dearth of playables.

Eternal Central has created a 95 format that encompasses Homelands, as an example of a format with such rules.

    Alliances (June, 1996)

The first set released in 1996, and the first major set since Ice Age, Alliances arrived at stores in June.

Even more so than Ice Age, Alliances is a decisive strategic break from the 93/94 format.  With a few exceptions, most notably Necropotence, Ice Age enhanced existing strategies while subtly shifting the balance of design options and incentivizing two-colored decks.  In contrast, Alliance is a fundamental change in the feel and structure of the format.

Most importantly, Alliances features a cycle of five cards, designed by Richard Garfield himself, that are “free” in that they have an alternative mana cost.  The most famous card in this cycle is of course:

 

alliancesfow1

Alliances Force of Will

But it is not the only card that would see play in an Old School format from that cycle or this set.  There is much to commend in Alliances that is strategically interesting and worthy of playing (like Gorilla Shaman).  But the fundamental question that you have to decide is whether you want to play in a format with or without Force of Will.

Once Ice Age is permitted, Force of Will becomes more attractive as an “answer” to Dark Ritual –> Necropotence.  Zoo decks stacked with Black Vise are also a good way to answer Necropotence.

     Promotional Cards

A number of special promotional cards were created and distributed in the early years of the game that were not available in packs.  The first such card, Nalathni Dragon, was printed in the third issue of the Duelist and then given out at cons, with a print run of 200,000.  However, a few other cards, Arena, Giant Badger, Mana Crypt, Sewers of Estark, and Windseeker Centaur, were each available through mail in coupons from novels published in 1994 and 1995. By 1996, Mana Crypt decks had become quite popular in historical Type I.

mana crypt967

Mana Crypt Book Promo

Precisely dating these cards is a challenge, but they can certainly enhance an Old School environment both strategically and aesthetically.  For any Old School format that permits Alliances, I would also permit Mana Crypt.  For those that don’t, I would be more circumspect.  Most Old School communities explicitly define which promotional cards are legal, and which are not. You should bear that in mind as well.

    Mirage (October, 1996)

After permitting Alliances, the next question is whether to permit Mirage. Drawing a line at Alliances is understandable if you want an Old School format that most resembles that of the golden days of Type I except with Force of Will permitted.  Mirage  dramatically changes the strategic options within a format.  For for chronological purists, however, any ’96 format may well permit Mirage.

Mirage is a big set with lots interesting cards.  A few examples: First, Lion Eye Diamond makes Mana Crypt and Draw7 decks far more powerful and viable, helping build towards larger combo finishers.  Second, Phyrexian Dreadnaught makes MaskNaught a real combo, although it was never a historical combo.  Third, Mystical Tutor is a nice boon to the Control decks, helping them find key answers more consistently.

Introducing sets like Ice Age, Alliances, and Mirage are moves that could be made in a careful progression, as the community is sated on the experience of Old School before them, but eager to continue gradually expand the card pool.

   Conclusion

I could continue to examine sets from 1997 and beyond, and that would be a worthwhile exercise.  Old School formats from these eras are fun and entertaining.  For now, however, I restrict my focus to the 1993-96 period, at least as far a sets are concerned, where most of our Old School fun will be had in the near future.

In general, I tend to lean more toward the “inclusive” side of permitting sets and cards from sets that are sometimes not permitted by some communities of Old School interest.  In particular, I view chronology as a more important factor than “pimpness.”  If a format is referred to by a year or date, then I think such formats should include all sets in that year.

There are some folks, however, that cannot understand any exclusion based upon year, set or date.  They might ask, for example, why not permit Masques block Dark Rituals in 1995 Standard?  Or a Judge’s promo foil Mana Drain for 2003 Classic? Or a From the Vault Serendib Efreet or Channel for 1995 Type I?  After all, From the Vault cards may actually be harder or more expensive to acquire than their 1994 counterparts!  To those very fair questions, which this article has not addressed, there are a range of possible answers.

As always, Old School Magic is not a single format, but an unending continuum of formats.  Some communities or playgroups may give greater weight to the original art than others.  For those who are concerned as much with nostalgia and the original aesthetic feel of the art, then the line might be reasonably drawn between modern or contemporary reprints with the original art and those that feature new art.  Other groups may draw lines in other ways.  As frustrating as such line drawing may be, I take the view that we should respect the preferences of each group.  If you do not like the restrictions imposed by one group, you are free to join those groups, and try to persuade them otherwise.  Or, better yet, form your own group and invite friends to join you!

There is no end to the possibilities in Old School Magic. The variability of Old School formats is as overwhelming as it is delightful.  You may not only select which sets you wish to permit, expanding or contracting your card pool on command, but you can also mix and match which cards will be permitted in which quantities, by managing the Banned and Restricted list at the same time.  I will examine that issue in a few months.  Next month, a tournament report!

‘Til then,

Stephen Menendian

[1] Noting that Alpha was missing 5 cards that were corrected in Beta.

[2] Some sources say that the sets were printed in runs of 10K and 5K respectively.

19 comments
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Savo says:

Aug 29,2016

Steve,
Big fan of yours and all your content since a long time.
I would be curious to hear your thoughts on B&R lists for old school. In '93-'94, me and my group (we live in Italy) think that 4x mishra and 4x swords to plowshares make "The Deck" by far too good. Limiting sword also enhances diversity in creature removal, and consequently, in creatures…
Thanks

Steve Menendian says:

Aug 30,2016

Hi Savo,

Good questions. I, personally, agree that Mishra’s Factory is one of the best cards in the format. But, restrictions aren’t always the answer. One way of addressing this matter is to unrestrict Strip Mine. Many groups go that route, and while I do not personally advocate it, I do acknowledge it can help address the dominance of Factory. Similarly, unrestricting Black Vise can make land destruction strategies more viable, and therefore indirectly promote an answer to both The Deck and Strip Mine.

My next article covers these matters, so just wait until next week!

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Jared says:

Aug 11,2016

Just wanted to say I love this article and this series. This format is so sweet

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» This Week in Magic says:

Aug 08,2016

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Mg says:

Aug 03,2016

Hi!
Nice read 🙂

As noted on the old school blog, the cards legal in the baseline incarnation of oldschool are those who couldn't be found in stores in 1995, and were considered "old school" by the huge number of players that started back then. Hence the legality of Legends but not Revised or Fallen Empires. The name 93/94 was first used by a convention organizer in 2008, and has since stuck as a shorthand for the format name, but it has never been the "official" name. Some players call it Magic 94 as well, even though both names can be somewhat ambiguous. It's not a case of "Intellectual consistency [being the] hobgoblin of small minds." Mostly we stick with calling it Oldschool ourselves 🙂

Communities outside Sweden that only allow ABU include e.g. Oslo, Moscow, Brussels, Copenhaugen, Moss, Drammen and parts of Frankfurt btw. It's not unconventional 🙂

Also, Alpha has always been legal in Magic tournaments, where the collectible points from CE/IE never has. Though you can only play with Alpha cards if all cards in your deck are Alpha, or (later, when sleeves became popular) if you use opaque sleeves.

For some more info on popular local variants, there are a few links at the bottom of the B&R page on the old school blog: http://oldschool-mtg.blogspot.no/p/banrestriction.html

Steve Menendian says:

Aug 04,2016

The “hobgoblin of small minds” is an English idiom that I should have realized would be misconstrued by our European friends. It means that only small minds are concerned with intellectual consistency on picayune matters. So, I wasn’t accusing people who aren’t chronologically consistent (like permitting the Dark, but excluding Revised) of having “small minds,” but rather saying that people like myself, who care about that, are small minded. Apologies if anyone took offense. None was intended.

One other issue: it’s absolutely not true that Alpha has always been tournament legal. Alpha was never tournament legal back in the mid-1990s (unless you played all Alpha decks, which almost no one does). Alpha wasn’t legalized until sleeves were permitted in tournaments.

Claw says:

Aug 05,2016

Nobody in Moscow plays with only ABU+AALD legal. To be fair, nobody in Moscow plays 93/94 at all.

Zer0evil says:

Aug 19,2016

I remember when Alpha versions of cards were worth less than Beta and sometimes Unlimited precisely because Alpha was not Tournament legal and had much less demand.

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Andreas says:

Aug 02,2016

Very nice article.

Just a nitpick: Argithian Pixies indeed was reprinted (in Chronicles).

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