The Kitchen Table #408: The Golden Age Of Magic

Abe Sargent explores the ages of Magic from a player’s perspective and identifies the Golden Age of Magic. Will you come to the same conclusion?

This year we are celebrating twenty years of awesome with Magic. Whether you have been playing for twenty years or twenty minutes, Magic is made more incredible by your presence… so thanks!

Magic is. It needs nothing further to flesh it out. It just is.

How long have you been playing? What was your favorite time in the game? What were you favorite sets, themes, or cards? What was your favorite set to draft? Most importantly, when was the Golden Age of Magic?

Today I want to look at the various ages of Magic, as I identify them as a player, not as a developer. Wizards of the Coast has told us what they think, but as someone who played most of the sets as they came out through history I have my own thoughts. Sometimes these dovetail with theirs, and sometimes we differ. I then will to explain which of these ages is, to my mind, the Golden One. The “best” one. The classic one that defines all of Magic.

When I started playing Magic in the summer of 1994 I was entering my senior year in high school. I had played Battletech with my friends for three years running, but now Magic supplanted that. Some of my Battletech friends moved to Magic and played a lot. Others did not get the game. New friends were brought into the group as new people played the game, so our playgroup shifted. It was odd, but fun.

I had played Magic for three full days virtually non-stop when I saw my first black bordered card. The Dark had just been released as an expansion set, but it had a smaller number of cards. I was told that was because the cards from The Dark were so much more powerful than Revised. Yet, basic math pointed me to Revised boosters because I needed more cards as a new player. I was making trades and building decks with aplomb, and then saw a stack of cards in my friend’s basement and on top was a black bordered card. It affirmed everything special and unique about the Dark. It was…

And yet this vanilla creature blew my mind. The art was awesome, the black border was cool and the gold card just blew my mind. I didn’t even know gold cards existed; this was a new set of power! I completely skipped by the fact that this was a two mana Grizzly Bears in two colors, and thus strictly worse. It was amazing!

Thus my Magic playing days were assured. For my entire adult life, I have had Magic as my only consistent hobby. From The Dark through Dragon’s Maze it has been a flurry of cards, more cards, and even more cards in an avalanche of awesome that goes back to 1994.

As a player, these are my ages. Note that all ages are done by expansions set, rather than by year, because those are how we remember things.

The Age of Innocence: Alpha – Alliances

To me, this age is the time when people were learning the game. Cards were bad but we didn’t know it, and it was before major developments in theory such as the mana curve. Good decks barely had four of each card in their deck.

This was the time of major tempo cards. Many of the most powerful tempo cards and locks of all time were printed and played heavily. You had decks built around powerhouses such as Stasis, Armageddon, Balance and Winter Orb. Land Destruction was a player, led by cards like Stone Rain, Pillage and Strip Mine, and backed by Sinkhole and Ice Storm. The spells and tempo were incredibly powerful.

This was a time of creatures as king. Despite their relative weakness to creatures today, people loved creatures back then. Goblin decks loved Goblin Shrine and Goblin Caves. Creatures such as Dragon Whelp, Phantom Monster and Granite Gargoyle were in high demand, just like Shivan Dragon, Serra Angel and Clockwork Beast had been. Creatures always ruled.

This was a time of flavor. Cards were made more for flavor rather than clean language. If a card was clunky, but flavorful, it was printed. Take Castle for example. Your creatures get +0/+2 because they are behind the Castle. But when they attack, they lose the bonus, because the creatures are leaving the Castle. It makes perfect flavor sense. The art was also left to the hands of the individual artists, with no style guide, and it was vastly different from card to card, enhancing the flavor of the day.

However, at the end of the day, this was the age of innocence. Card quality was hit or miss, players tended to be on the same playing field due to a lack of experience, play variants were everywhere as magazines such as Inquest and Scrye pushed them (many of them are still with us today, like Two-headed Giant and Emperor), and the era was full of fantasy flavor. The game was young. It was the Age of Innocence.

The Age of Conformity – Mirage – Prophecy

When Mirage hit, Magic was having some problems. Several weak sets, such as Fallen Empires and Homelands, had arrived, and Alliances was just so-so. It seems that cards were weak and themes were not spread across the board. Then something happened. From the darkness of Renton came Mirage, and the first full three set block followed. Suddenly, formulas began to develop that would be used over the next four blocks.

First, each block would begin with a large standalone set. That set would introduce new keywords or mechanics to the game, which would only be fleshed out in that set and then left behind. We saw Flanking, Shadow, Phasing, Echo, Buyback, Cycling, and others. The blocks each developed these themes over an entire group of three sets. The conformity and rules began.

You also saw this in flavor. Art increasingly began to look similar. You had standouts, especially in Mirage block, but fewer and fewer pieces of art really stood out from the rest. Cards were made with flavor but it was often just the flavor of the cast of characters from the Weatherlight Saga, which was an experiment to create a mega-story line which really failed on many fronts. As a planeswalker and über-sorcerer, why would I scour the planes so I could find and cast Hanna’s Custody or Gerrard’s Battle Cry?

There were many good developments though, particularly in Visions. This was the first “modern” set in many ways. The commons were very playable, preventing someone from having to accumulate a lot of uncommons or rares just to have good deck. Visions also introduced the comes-into-play trigger on several creatures, from Nekrataal to Shrieking Drake. These new concepts are still around with us today.

Unfortunately, it was also the era of Combo Winter. The overpowered cards of Urza’s Block smashing against many unprepared decks alike, and the overreaction to weaken Masques Block did not help matters as the card quality suffered. To this day, Masques is the weakest block of all time. This era began many things, and yet it was largely defined as an overreaction to the bad flavor and randomness of the previous age, as it used conformity to break down the innocence.

The Age of One Note Blocks – Invasion – Scourge

For three blocks and three years, Wizards produced three blocks where every block had a huge theme of emphasis and gimmicky sets. Invasion’s theme was multicolor, Odyssey’s the graveyard, and Onslaught’s theme was tribal creatures. I almost called this the ‘Age of Gimmicks.’ I decided to give it a nicer title, as blocks were very concentrated around one central theme… to the detriment of anything else.

That’s not to say that these blocks didn’t have value, because they did. There are great individual cards, cycles, and themes here that are still with us today. Still, the weakness of sets like Planeshift and Scourge, combined with the overall pushing of gimmicks, resulted in weaker sets overall.

Having said that, Invasion is still one of my favorite sets of all time. Its cards were great from rare on down to common and many commons from Invasion, such as Dismantling Blow and Recoil, are favorites of mine to this day. However, as fun as Invasion was, Odyssey Block was a time of overly spike-ish mechanics that resulted in only few good decks from the era, and cards from it like Wild Mongrel and Quiet Speculation dominated just as much as Combo Winter had.

Onslaught was the weakest of these blocks, but it brought back some fun themes like Slivers. I loved Mono-White Control for tournaments, and there were some great cards for the casual world as well. But the sets and cards were often underwhelming, lifted only by how useful tribal interactions can be.

This overemphasis of one clear note kept the blocks from transcending, and many of the cards printed for them have not made the pilgrimage to decks today simply because they were designed for than environment (such as Coldsnap finds few cards outside of it, because of the snow mechanic).

The Age of Flavor Wins and Losses – Mirrodin – Dissension

The next age seems to continue the one before, the era of one note blocks, but injects flavor around these single notes. Thus, the Mirrodin, Kamigawa, and Ravnica blocks build upon both the one note aspect of Onslaught and Odyssey, and yet add the flavor of Tempest. Mirrodin has a heavy artifact theme, and Ravnica had the Guild/multi-color theme. Both of these sets have a lot going for them.

Ravnica champions the multicolored theme with hybrid cards as well as no “enemy” colors – all ten color pairs are treated equally. The cards from Ravnica have increased in power as gold enhances how far they will push the power barrier. While it was considered a big hit, and had many cards people remember fondly, it had a surprising amount of clunkers. Take a look at the set’s cards again and see how many Zephyr Spirit level cards it has. You might remember the block’s Karoo lands, power cards like Dark Confidant, and high quality utility cards such as Mortify. But there were some seriously underpowered chaff in the sets that enabled those cards. Also, the set had too many keywords, some of which were poor.

Meanwhile, Mirrodin pushed artifacts hard, and it was the block with the most mistakes seen since Urza’s block. The dominance of Affinity decks just two years after that of the U/G Madness decks from Odyssey left for some boring times in tournaments. It’s no surprise that I stopped playing tournaments heavily at this time. None of my comments against a block interfere with great cards from it; even the worst sets have winners. But Mirrodin block clearly pushed commonalties and artifacts far too hard.

Then we have the uneven Kamigawa block in here. Attempting to bring us a nice, flavorful Japanese inspired set was a great idea, and Champions of Kamigawa suitably delivered. But the two follow up sets were not as inspired and we had had too much already of the name and flavor overload. This would have been better as a summer set in place of Coldsnap. Saviors of Kamigawa remains the worst designed set in the Modern era.

This period saw continued reliance on single note blocks and had mixed success. It had favorites alongside very weak sets (Fifth Dawn, Saviors). Flavor was nice, but there were some design issues in the game that caused some problems with the cards.

The Age of Pushing Too Far – Time Spiral – Alara Reborn

The three to four blocks that came after Ravnica each had an idea for a set and worked with it, but after it left behind the one note nature of previous blocks. For example, while Time Spiral Block saw each set with a heavy unique theme, those themes crossed each other in various ways.

Time Spiral Block was a giant love letter to people who played the game extensively, and that includes me. So I loved it. But it pushed too hard and too far, and the result was a giant mix of far too many mechanics and weird cards. Between Ravnica’s bajillion keywords and keyword assault from this block, we had keyword overload.

Then we had the fun four sets of the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor uber-block. Lorwyn and Morningtide had great tribal themes and were a lot of fun, but like Onslaught, they pushed tribal so much that many cards just aren’t seen anymore outside of their tribal decks. Shadowmoor had a hybrid themed multicolored pair of sets which was nice, but it was a bit weak. These sets were a bit too insular, and looked too much at cards from within it to make them better. The result was an overly weak über-block, despite the introduction of great cards like planeswalkers.

Shards of Alara was the first block in the “mythic” era, with changes in the way Magic cards were made. With a multi-color theme focused on the five trios of allied colors, this set often felt very been there-done that with that theme. Consider this: One year you have Ravnica. Then you had a year off with Future Sight. Then you had a multicolor theme with both Shadowmoor and Eventide. Now you have a block of multicolor themes and you have had three out of four years pushing multi-colored. It was just too much, and a certain all-gold set was way too gimmicky to work very well. It recalled the bad aspects of similar sets, such as Legions.

The result of the sets from this era are themes that were pushed too hard, and the result were sets, ideas, and cards that were either too insular or went too far.

The Age of Flavor – Zendikar – ???

Now we move into the current age of modern sets. I hate to use a phrase like The Modern Age, because that’s very pejorative. This is the age where flavor trumps everything when making sets and cards. From the war on Mirrodin to adventure world of Zendikar to the sheer flavor of Innistrad and Return to Ravnica, this is the era of flavor.

Zendikar began everything with a great theme of land matters. It had a lot of interesting design choices. While we had some misses (Allies, Level Up), the sheer amount of hits would stagger a mule: Eldrazi, the lands, Landfall, “defender matters,” and more. Yes, this saw the worst card printed since Mirrodin Block in Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but the block was very strong.

Scars of Mirrodin saw the return of Phyrexians and great mechanics such as Infect. As they transform the world into New Phyrexia, we see our friends and allies fade. We are saddened by this loss, but the powerful mechanics of Phyrexian mana and Proliferate assuage our guilt. This time the artifacts were not that bad, compared to the first Mirrodin block. This was a strong block.

This strength continued in Innistrad and Return to Ravnica. Both are great blocks where flavor trumps most everything. This is particularly true in Innistrad. No block has been as flavorful as it, and every single card seems to ooze flavor (save for a few cards, such as Fortress Crab). The result is two powerful blocks that not only have great cards but also great stories. This age is marked by a return to flavor being king as a result; the sets are not nearly as one note.

What we have seen is set design that moves from one extreme to the next. We saw increasing structure from the Mirage Block to fight against the chaotic forms before. Then we saw sets such as Torment and Legions breaking out of that mold. Increasing one note themes were pushed until we went from a set like Odyssey, which is not completely about the themes, to set such as Betrayers of Kamigawa and Planar Chaos that are extremely themed. Then these themes got pushed too hard and we began to back off of them, with flavor ruling rather than the mechanics. The flavor of Zendikar and Innistrad trump any mechanical themes of the sets. We don’t have just Landfall and “land matters” or just the Phyrexian/Mirran war. We have cards beyond them and the sets prosper.

So Which Is The Golden Age of Magic?

As I look back, I see the benefits in them all. I remember fondly the chaotic times of Innocence, when cards like Scarwood Bandits were not bad. Cards you did not have, no matter how crappy, like Flash Flood, were deemed golden. I was there for the introduction of the Weatherlight Saga, cards with gold and silver symbols for rarity, Slivers, Buyback, the enchantment block of Urza’s Saga (remembered today for its artifacts), the dominance of Masticore, the weak tempo environment of Mercadian Masques (when one of the best commons to draft was Stinging Barrier, an 0/4 wall that cost four mana), when Invasion destroyed tables, the first time I saw a split card, the joy of the Fires of Yavimaya deck and Zvi’s billion articles about it, the potency of discard fueled by Compulsion and Wild Mongrel, the fun of not knowing what card was upside down with morph but sadness that they had to break Illusionary Mask to do it, the intrigue of seeing equipment for the first time, the pleasure of assembling all three Kaldra pieces, dealing with Etched Oracle tricks and the overpowered All Suns’ Dawn, enjoying Champions of Kamigawa and building my first Spirit deck, seeing the power of Umezawa’s Jitte before others did (and picking them up in trades), changing my opinion of the power of green-white decks after playing with Watchwolf, having the wonder of opening my first booster pack at the Time Spiral prerelease and seeing a foil Sol’Kanar the Swamp King staring at me, trading for every Harmonize ever, enjoying how difficult Lorwyn was when it was supposedly made to simplify things, enjoying the power of tribal as a card type, opening up my first Mythics in Alara block, chuckling at the power of Maelstrom Nexus in a multiplayer draft, imaging myself actually in the adventure world of Zendikar, trading for a foil of every equipment from that block because they were basic tools, seeing the Return of the Eldrazi spoiler early because I wrote for a magazine, and rooting hard for Mirrodin to win (but knowing they would not), my first Proliferate on a poison counter, just feeling Innistrad, extolling the virtues of various multiplayer hits from the block that people eventually listened to them, the odd Avacyn Restored drafts that others may not have liked (but I really enjoyed), and the Ravnica awesomeness with so many cards and not enough time to discuss them at length.

That stream of conscious trek through time is meant to show just how much the game has impacted me.

But what is the best era of them all? When was the Golden Age of Magic?

It’s right now.

The combination of flavor and theme has propelled the sets of today beyond any other. Not by a little, but massively. I honestly believe that when you look back at Magic in fifty years you will see this era as the Golden Age of Magic, when increasing numbers of people came into the game and the sets and design were hitting on all cylinders.

Welcome to the Golden Age of Magic. Long may it reign. Happy 20th Anniversary everyone!

Until Later,
Abe Sargent