Magic: The Gathering – Early On, the Game Was Just Plain WEIRD

By now, Magic: The Gathering has long been established as a card game powerhouse, being printed all over the world in multiple languages with global tournaments taking place every year. The gameplay and lore are quite deep too, from the intricate storyline of the Gatewatch and Nicol Bolas to exotic worlds like Amonkhet, Innistrad and the metal plane of Mirrodin. But it all hard to start somewhere.

The game launched in August 1993, before some of today’s players were even born. However, the young Magic: The Gathering was hardly the same game players know today. Aside from some basic rules and the backs of the cards, it was a totally different experience. Wizards was still figuring this game out as it went — meaning the game as evolved significantly.

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Ante Up!

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In the early days of Magic: The Gathering, there was a gambling component known as ante. Legal issues aside, this mechanic proved problematic among players; in fact, at the time, it was normal for players to assume that the opponent wouldn’t want to use the ante rule, and it was the exception for players to use ante at all. That was likely one of several reasons why this mechanic was phased out after just a few years.

Before a game began, each player would choose a card at random from their deck and set those cards aside in the ante zone. The game’s winner would gain permanent, legal ownership of both cards. A few cards actually interacted with the ante zone, such as Jeweled Bird, and some cards would be excluded from the deck if ante is not being used. Not surprisingly, all ante cards are now banned in all sanctioned formats.

At the time, Wizards wanted a way for players to circulate cards among their friends and associates, and ante was seen as the solution. This proved unnecessary, however, since Magic sold extremely well from the start, and players eagerly bought and traded cards in great volumes. No one needed ante to circulate cards; the players had better (and less risky) ways to do that.

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Ye Olde Mechanics

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old cards magic the gathering

Most sets and blocks in the game have a mechanical identity, such as the Mirrodin block emphasizing artifacts and the Shards of Alara block being all about multicolor. Modern mechanics are often slick and exciting, but the many of the early game’s mechanics are either irrelevant, clunky or simply underpowered by modern standards.

Cumulative upkeep is an infamous example, and it only appeared on permanents. During the upkeep of the card’s controller, the player would put a time counter on their card, then pay the cumulative upkeep cost once for each counter on it. Failing to fully pay the costs meant sacrificing the card, so the card simply costs more and more to keep on the battlefield — and there is very little, if anything, that the player gets in return. No player would like an all-downside mechanic.

Rampage is a little better, but it too has gone extinct. A creature with rampage would get a specified power/toughness boost for each creature that blocks it beyond the first. This means if two creatures block Craw Giant together, then Craw Giant gets +2/+2 since it has rampage 2. Three blockers means getting +4/+4.

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Banding is the most notorious old-school mechanic of all, and it caused headaches for all players. To put it simply, creatures with banding could attack and block together as a group, and the controller of those banded creatures would decide how combat damage from enemy creatures was assigned. This could spread damage out thinly to protect creatures in the band, but in the end, this mechanic was so messy it had to be taken out of the game. The idea of an adventuring party lives on with the Party mechanic of Zendikar Rising, which most players would agree is a vast improvement.

Erratic Power Levels

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Another issue with the old sets was the balance of card power, as this era is infamous for having both underpowered and grossly overpowered cards. This was simply because Wizards was still figuring out this game (and the entire concept of a trading card game). As a result, Wizards overestimated the effectiveness of some game strategies and failed to recognize the power of others, leading to huge dips and spikes in card power within early sets.

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For example, the Alpha set (the first-ever set) had a cycle of instants and sorceries that cost one mana and had an effect based on the number three. Lightning Bolt and Dark Ritual are strong but generally fair cards from this cycle, and Giant Growth is a bit weak but still passable for casual games. However, the white card Healing Salve is hopelessly weak, while the blue card, Ancestral Recall, is among the nine strongest cards in the entire game. It’s ludicrous for a card like that to be in the same cycle as Giant Growth or Healing Salve.

Early on, games cared about mechanics like landwalk and creature regeneration, but in hindsight, these mechanics aren’t strong enough to warrant hoser cards like Great Wall. In fact, landwalk and regeneration have both been phased out of the game. This era also included “slow down the game” cards like Stasis, leading to so-called Prison decks. In hindsight, such decks were no fun at all.

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