When Was Magic Great?

Mark Nestico reality-checks players pining for a “Golden Age” of Standard that never was and shares the secret of what makes a time in Magic truly great!

Find Your Own Only Path: This Is My Territory to Tell a Story

I remember the first time I saw Nantuko Shade. It looked unbeatable, and I knew my Mono-Black Control deck was worse than his because I didn’t have any. My two-drop of choice was Mesmeric Fiend. “It’s not so bad,” I tried to convince myself. They both cost the same, and one of them could strip a great card out of the opponent’s hand. Surely that was better, right?

My deck didn’t have Mutilate, either. All of those gold symbols, and here I was scrounging for commons to uncommons. What else costs four? Faceless Butcher. It removes creatures from the battlefield, same as Mutilate. I had all the sacrificial effects, at least: Innocent Blood, Chainer’s Edict. My deck even had a power couple in it: I mowed the lawn for my neighbor, and she gave me ten bucks. I used it to buy a Chainer, Dementia Master and Visara, the Dreadful. I’d search them up with Diabolic Tutor.

Eventually it was time to play Magic.

“I’ll cast Careful Study and discard two Basking Rootwalla.”

I look down at my hand at the Faceless Butcher.

“Damnit. Mutilate would be much better in here,” I grimace.

That time was just about the most fun I’ve ever had playing Magic in my entire life.

Got a High Tolerance When Your Age Don’t Exist

The last few weeks have included a fair bit of dissection of Kaladesh Standard, because let’s face it: losing a lot of games to Emrakul, the Promised End and Aetherworks Marvel isn’t the best time. When a format becomes stale, it becomes natural to compare it to ones of the past and hold it up to ones we enjoyed more, point, and say “See? This is when Magic was fun.” Others will nod, and then another discussion begins.

“I remember when Magic was better.”

“I remember when Magic took more skill.”

“I remember when this game had better cards.”

“I remember when control was good.”

“I remember when the decks were better.”

“I’ll remember.”

Thinking long and hard, I found myself incredibly guilty of the same sin. We eventually date ourselves by discussing times long forgotten, only remembered by us and other curmudgeons, and bicker about how much more important to Magic Psychatog mirrors were in the face of Mardu Vehicles trying, and mostly failing, to get under B/G Delirium’s removal-heavy draw.

It’s the cycle. When I was a kid, Dragon Ball Z was the hip anime. Now it’s Attack on Titan and others. I’m the dinosaur for still loving Goku. You might never grow out of certain things, but Magic is different.

This is a game contingent on new sets, rotations, a rapidly evolving metagame, and staying ahead of the curve. It’s all about what you know in advance, and how you can apply it. It didn’t used to be that way.

I Can Guide You If You Feel Blind; I Just Need You to Be Willing to Journey

Before the internet, before Versus Videos or Twitch coverage and subreddits or whatever else, there were message boards, these archaic things called magazines, word of mouth, and your local meta. That was it. If ten people in your area were playing a deck, you had to figure out what beat it. It was that simple. Adapt or lose. No one held your hand or gave you sideboarding or those sideboarding guides people want handed to them. You didn’t get daily matchup analysis that gave you a better idea of how to alter your deck, or if you should even be playing it. It was a different time for sure. That doesn’t make it better. It just makes it different.

But that’s not the way everyone sees it.

Objectively, the best time for Magic is different for everyone. It gives way to passion, because we all think that we’re right and what we enjoyed the most is the default for “correct answer.” I decided to pose this question on social media, Twitter and Facebook, and asked when Magic was at its best, and why people always seem to think that the game is strictly worse now than it was then…whenever their interpretation of “then” is.

Those times are usually defined by when a player enjoyed the game the most. Someone in my generation is going to look back at Onslaught, Mercadian Masques, or Odyssey and use that as the starting point to when Magic was truly great, and then work forward from there. My “apex” would be expressed as around 2004-2006. Coincidentally that’s when I got my own car and started driving to tournaments and bonding more and more with my friends over our beloved hobby. Is that when Magic was at its best, or would it be the fact that I have the most memories attached to it?

A personal time where you developed the highest emotional connection to Magic does not objectively make it the greatest time in its history.

Connections can run deeper.

Jeff Hoogland suggested that when a player experienced the most personal success is when they’ll refer to Magic being at its best, and I tend to agree. As little as five years ago, there were Caw-Blade mirrors where each player were forced into working out the smallest of edges. Your tech was king one week and obscure and irrelevant the next. It was a deck so powerful that multiple cards were banned, but it still thrived. I remember playing it at Nationals that year and having a throbbing migraine at the end of Day 1 from the intense games I had to play against other pilots utilizing Squadron Hawks. Is that when Magic was at its height?

Bein’ Able to See in Lost Clarity

Certain triggers have to happen in order to get people to a point where they feel like a game is on a decline. Are sales in a slump or are we facing dwindling event attendance? Neither have happened, so there must be something that puts people in a tizzy.

Control has suffered. Here’s the reality: a lot of people love playing control decks, but they don’t have the capacity to do so in an efficient manner, and that’s okay. They love big spells, counters, battlefield wipes, and gigantic finishers. Magic doesn’t have that like it used to. There was a time when you were punished for overextending into a Wrath of God or a Day of Judgment, and you had to pick and choose what to play and when it was right to play it. Wraths that cost five are strictly worse, because you can be very dead before you even get a chance to play them. With Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the format, would that even matter?

The loss of almost an entire archetype in Standard is one that severely limits the fun players can have in a game of Magic. Counterspells are either too good (Mana Leak), they are role-players (Summary Dismissal), or they are terrible and virtually unplayable (Failed Inspection). Without a way to stop a planeswalker from entering the battlefield, you must rely on removal, but even that has suffered with comparisons of Hero’s Downfall to Ruinous Path. Disenchantment, to say the least, tends to take over.

You’ll argue the results of the last Pro Tour. Torrential Gearhulk. Sure. I would agree with you. Remember, I’m not your enemy here. I think that Magic is great, but I have to advocate the other side so we can understand why this has become a stigma every format faces and why the glare is more intense this time around. Bear with me. It’s going to be all right.

So anyhow, yes, we have Gearhulk Control decks that can’t wipe the battlefield unless they play cards like Descend upon the Sinful. Clogging your deck with a plethora of six-drops doesn’t seem overtly appealing if you’re playing an archetype contingent on leaving mana up almost every turn. These decks are primarily reactive nowadays: removal on turn 2, Void Shatter on 3, Glimmer of Genius on 4, hope we’re not dead on 5, Torrential Gearhulk I hope on 6. Pray.

There is no “punish” anymore. When I look at a Mardu deck with four creatures on the battlefield by turn 3, I secretly hope to flip the top card of my deck over and magically there will be a Day of Judgment. They will place four creatures in the graveyard, and they will shrivel up and die because they no longer have impunity. They no longer have freedom of consequence. They now have to think. We don’t have paper, rock, and scissors anymore. Now it’s boulder, sword, and cardboard box.

And isn’t that what is getting stuck in everyone’s craws lately? The illusion of choice in Standard is “Are you playing a deck with Marvel, Emrakul, Copter, or Gideon in it? No? Get the hell out of here.” Are we wearing rose-colored glasses? Was Magic so great when you played U/W Delver or you played a deck designed to beat it? Was Magic incredible when they had double Disciple of the Vault, Arcbound Ravager, and three Myr Enforcers on turn 3? Did their casting Force Spike on your turn 1 play feel good?

Here’s the flip-side of that coin. Maybe Standard wasn’t that great, and all of those wonderful memories you have are your way of manufacturing importance around something you hold personal value in association with? Pragmatism goes out the window when our ego is challenged, when our love for something or memories of it are specifically challenged, and that’s when we get emotional. That’s when we jump to something’s defense.

Remember when Magic was better? No. I don’t. I don’t remember when it was “better.” I remember when I, personally, had the most fun. Had the most meaningful interactions. Had the best time. Played a great game. Won an important tournament. That Pro Tour when I beat two Hall of Famers in a single Draft pod. Then. That’s when Magic was the best. That’s when it took the most skill. That’s when I worked the hardest. That’s when Magic was great.

See how that works?

My answer and your answer will be totally different, and both are only relevant in the face of the person feeling it. You won’t agree with me. I won’t agree with you. We can find common ground, sure. But in the grand scheme of things, Magic used to be a worse-designed game that felt like the Wild West, and now it’s a very precise game that feels like a lot of it is easily solved by a hive mind. It’s different, sure. Better? Maybe. That’s not for us to decide. That’s for the new crop of Magicians.

Chris Lansdell summed it up pretty well: “I miss when Magic was better” can be translated into “I can’t play with the cards I used to love anymore.” Tough world, kiddies.

Tell me below. Tell me when Magic was, personally for you, at its best. Tell us all about your favorite deck, and the best play you pulled off. Tell us about an event you won when you felt winning was impossible. Tell us when you loved this game fiercely, and it felt like it loved you back. Give me something other than why you think I’m wrong or right. Feel something. Anything.

Inhale Deep like the Words of My Breath / I Never Sleep, Because Sleep Is the Cousin of Death.

I look down at my hand. Wow. We’re really doing this.

Turn 1 Mountain. Imprint Chrome Mox. Slith Firewalker. Attack. Counter on Firewalker. Go.

They only play a land and pass. I draw. Mountain. Seething Song. Sword of Fire and Ice. Equip to Slith Firewalker. Attack. Take four. Put a counter on my creature. Shock you. I draw a card. Go.

They slump in their chair. Game 2 of the finals of FNM. I’m up a game.

That time was just about the most fun I’ve ever had playing Magic in my entire life.