All The Bells And Whistles

Even if you’re playing a card-for-card copy of the latest PT winner, you’re still playing your own deck. How? Daniel examines the thumbprints that we all leave on our cards.

I’ve been noticing a few articles being printed recently about netdecks, and this topic of conversation sparked another in my mind. Although you may copy a decklist card for card and take it to a tournament, you’re still playing your deck. The deck belongs to you – and like a fingerprint, that collection is unlike anyone else’s exact copy of that deck.

Because, you see, each individual Magic player adds his individuality to his deck. Most people tend to find a deck they like and latch on to it, playtesting it and perfecting it. Those who play with that deck for extended periods of time often personalize the deck in one of several ways. I wish to look at these methods of distinction in this article.


The first thing most players do when putting a (non-Five) deck together is put the cards in sleeves. Back in”the day,” nobody had sleeves; they just shuffled up those Moxen and anted those BoPs. However, now that Magic has taken off and is now worth something, most players have vested interests in keeping their cards in good condition. Excessive shuffling of unsleeved cards can cause wear and tear that can easily be avoided by using sleeves. Furthermore, sleeves help safeguard against unintentional cheating by using marked cards. If your only copy of Obliterate has a bent corner, your chances of knowing where that card is in your deck are much higher if you’re playing without sleeves than with. So sleeves have become mainstream in Magic society.

However, that generality is about as far as it goes. I haven’t bought sleeves in probably about a year, so I don’t have any of the new metallic colors or slightly transparent sleeves that have been coming out. Nevertheless, I have a total of nine different colors and kinds of sleeves. Three shades of blue, two shades of green, clear, white, black, and red adorn my decks, giving variety to the presentation of my decks.

But, although I have many different kinds of sleeves, I only have 75″play sleeves.” These sleeves are what encompass my”play deck.” Whatever deck I’m currently infatuated with will be covered by these unique sleeves. Similarly, what sleeves one brings to a tournament show a little piece of who that player is.

Some players like to play with old, tried, and true sleeves. There’s one player at Star City (the real, tangible store) who plays with the oldest, grimiest sleeves – but they shuffle well, and they’ve been with him for years and years. One of my friends has been playing with the same set of black sleeves since his first purchase of sleeves years ago. Other players like to have the newest, sleekest sleeves. For instance, another of my friends will invest in well-cut Japanese sleeves even if he has satisfactory American sleeves. It’s just a matter of personal preference and is the most readily evident piece of personality that your opponent sees when you sit down across from him.

The next area of specialization when it comes to Magic decks is card quality. This can actually be broken down into several groups: Foils, foreign, old cards, signed cards, artwork, and condition.


I’ve always liked foils, even from the day when a foil Ring of Gix was valued at $90. I still enjoy and collect foils, though it’s more of a sub-hobby of collecting Magic cards than it is a desire to improve the quality of my collection. Some, however, are really obsessed with foils. Another Star City player is definitely a foil-chaser. After the release of every set, he sets out to collect foils of every card – you’ll see him with his list of crossed-off and yet-to-be-achieved foils at every tournament, trying to hunt down those shiny gems. He’s also the one you’ll find with foils such as Shadowmage Infiltrator, Call of the Herd, and Urza’s Rage.

Aside from making a collection worth more, foils also provide a certain aesthetic appeal to a deck. The most common form of foil-inclusion that I’ve come across is in basic lands. If someone’s going to have foils in his deck, it’s going to be basic lands. I only have one deck with foil basic lands: My previous”play deck,” Green/White Beats. But, I often come across players who have their whole deck fleshed out with foil basic lands. They’re fairly easy and cheap to come upon, and they definitely give the deck a more”expensive” feel. All in all, although foils have lost their novelty, I think they’ll always have a place in Magic, filling their niche as deck-enhancers nicely.

Foreign cards

Very similar to foils, foreign cards simply make a deck look nice. When my opponent is beating me with a Japanese Shadowmage Infiltrator, it’s somehow different than just a normal one. But since there isn’t much difference between this and the previous category, I’ll tell you a little story:

A few Regionals ago, I participated in a booster draft. Now, the pod I was in decided to draft Japanese. Not one to spoil a party, I went along with it. The main problem was that I, someone who very rarely drafts, didn’t know the non-famous cards by artwork. I was in a pretty crappy position and ended up picking cards that had a G or W in the upper right-hand corner, preferably those with numbers in the lower right-hand corner. I then went to someone I recognized to help me determine what my cards were. Needless to say, my less-than-optimal drafting caused me to lose my first match and therefore drop the tournament… But I had cool Japanese cards. Overall, I’d say it was worth it because my collection got a boost in quality – and I can never win a booster draft anyhow!

Old Cards

It’s one thing to have that Saprazzan person grinning at you as your opponent counters your spell. It’s another when that young man is shouting at you from behind black borders. Black-bordered cards are like foils and foreign cards in that they’re rarer and deemed to be of a higher quality. Like foils, many try to put Alpha or Beta basic lands in their decks in order to give it a less”common” feel – and generally, the older the better. Unlike the other forms of deck-enhancement, though, using older cards is almost expected among experienced players. For instance, I once overheard the following exclamation:”You’re playing with a white-bordered Necropotence?” It was almost unthinkable not to have the original Ice Age version. Since”old cards” have been around since they weren’t old, many players from the early years of Magic take pride in having a lot of them – so much pride, in fact, that it becomes a way to identify with other more experienced players. So old cards have had their place in Magic collectors’ eyes for many years and are, I believe, more ingrained in the Magic attitude than either foil or foreign cards.

Signed Cards

Signed cards are like old cards. Big shot players (like Jon Finkel) and important Magic contributors (like Richard Garfield) have been signing cards for years. However, there are two main differences: The first is that a particular card can be signed by anyone. Whereas a black-bordered Necropotence will always look the same, a Counterspell signed by Jon Finkel will look different from one signed by Kai Budde, which will in turn look different from one signed by Mark Rosewater. Additionally, certain players are known for certain cards, especially the Invitational cards. An Avalanche Riders signed by Tom Van de Logt just isn’t the same as one signed by Darwin Kastle.

The other main difference between signed cards and other forms of deck enhancers is that someone can sign an old card or a foreign card or a foil card. Signing allows cards to have layers of specialness, adding more and more depth of personality to the deck that one plays. These cards are the most versatile of all, giving you a range of possibilities from having the artists personally sign their own cards to having your friends with you at every tournament you visit.

Artwork and condition

These groups can kind of go together because they’re somewhat similar and both rather brief. Choice of artwork is similar to the decision to play with an old card. However, the choice between a Mercadian Masques Counterspell and a Tempest Counterspell is really a matter of choice. The place where artwork choice shines is in the set Fallen Empires: Several cards had two versions, each with a different artwork. I think this is a really neat idea, and I’m glad that it’s been replicated to some degree in the alternate-art foils that have come out in some sets, including Planeshift and the boxed sets.

The condition of cards is more of a no-brainer: Most people want mint cards in their decks. However, there are bound to be those who have been playing with the same Birds of Paradise for years and wouldn’t stop even though they’re in shoddy condition. Additionally, condition is less important to some who simply want to get the cards. For instance, if I’m looking to complete a deck as fast as possible, I’d rather pay less for an EX-NM card than more for a NM-M card, especially if I won’t be trading that card to anyone else. Overall, cards in good condition are generally accepted as”better,” though less than NM cards definitely have their places in Magic.

So, as you can see, even if you copy and paste your decklist from the Internet, you’ll never be able to play someone else’s deck exactly (unless you have one of the decks that StarCity auctioned off a good while ago). There are lots of decisions that go into a deck, from what pictures you want on the cards to whether you want the entire deck to sparkle under direct light. These choices bring individuality into decks, allowing players to express themselves not only by deck choice, but by choice of presentation. So the next time you see a”netdeck,” understand that your opponent has probably taken a lot of time to make the deck look just like it does, even if it’s unsleeved and has Fifth Edition lands in it. Like they say, to each his own.

Daniel Crane

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