I started playing this game “late” as it was, in that I missed all the really powerful sets when you could still get them easily on the shelves in their sealed, virgin form. This situation gave me perspective on what happened before as an outsider looking in, but it also gives me perspective on what happened after I gave up and how things are now. It feels like I missed out on both ends of the time spectrum as the really powerful cards came out during times I did not play. Sure, Fourth Edition had its moments as did Ice Age, Mirage, and Tempest blocks. And today the Return to Ravnica block and unfolding Theros saga have nuggets of strength that would have made me piss my pants if someone had pulled it on me back in the day. Magic is a living, evolving game that is really more of a lifestyle than a hobby.
To give one small example of how things have changed. I always thought of “control” as a strategy that actually took control of your opponent’s board. Permission decks are what we called “control” back in the day, where your opponent gets so frustrated with counter spells and removal of creatures, enchantments, and artifacts that they start to ask your permission before casting anything. Newcomers to the game sometimes exclaim “hey!” the first time they see control magic or another card played that steals their stuff. But that was par for the course back then, the reason you did not put all your hopes into one or two big fatties as your “win condition.”
Then we agro, the other big strategy. You know what a player today would find “undercosted” back in the day? Savannah Lions and that was pretty much it. Anything else that gave you more bang than bucks was so costly in other ways that you really wanted to stay away from it. Now, reading the comments on the Gatherer website, basically anything I thought was fast then is junk now, or deadwood as the jargon holds. The big agro deck then was mono-red Sligh, where you tried to spend all your manna each turn to get maximum damage for it. But this strategy bogs down very easily in the face of many modern creatures. Burn was often a major component of sligh, but it was burn for removal. In sum, creatures were creatures and spells were for bending the rules or changing conditions. Now creatures are very often what set the conditions on the battlefield with their abilities and players rely far less on spells or non-creature permanents to bend the field.
You could almost make the case that, as the first CCG, Magic is analogous to the first Parliamentary democracy in the modern world; Great Britain. The British have miles and miles of rules and laws, just like Magic, but their constitution is unwritten. WoTC can change the constitution, or set of core principles, traditions, and rules, of the game at a whim. Such as planeswalkers, the first time I heard about them I was floored but now they are just as much a part of the game as creatures. The extinction of interrupts is another example. Back then we had an idea of something called “the stack” with the handy rule of “first in, last out” order of resolution but there were interrupts that served as trump cards. You could interrupt anything with a counter spell in a series of spells that were working out their resolution order. How it is that planeswalkers tax our brains less than interrupts I will never know. And of course in any society, you have ne’er do wells working constantly to game the system. British and American statesmen know all too well how special interests hire expensive accountants and lawyers to figure out how to tilt legislation and enforcement of laws to their advantage. In Magic it is the players themselves who, and of course this is the name of the game, put cards together and break things to the point of WoTC stepping in to ban or restrict things. A game that does not put out new sets every year and therefore stays static could be considered an American constitution.
This constant change and evolution does bring me to why I stopped playing around 1999. Obviously, the rotation of cards and introduction of new ones is a great way to separate gamers from their money. But the real concern I had was what the game was moving toward. The first real drop off of power came with the introduction of the Revised core set. Whoosh! Gone were the power 9 and all the abuse that went with them. Then Fourth Edition came out, sure cards looked better, more professional and brighter with the better ink but another big chop in the power level of the set pissed a lot of people off. This one still inexplicably had ante cards, though no one played with ante for years at that point, but gone were Sol RIng, duel lands, and any other vestige of original power. They were replaced by… Nothing. By the time Fifth Edition was getting ready to hit the shelves I read in Scrye magazine (the official journal of MTG) an interview with some corporate lackey. I can only imagine what this woman looked like, probably a perfect ladies’ business suit with hair and makeup to boot, nothing like the gaming nerds she was talking down to. It has been a long time so I will need to paraphrase but she was saying how they needed to slow down the game and rebalance the power. So fifth edition was saying goodbye to Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire and Lightning bolt, etc. Because these cards screwed up the curve. Huh? I hope that empty suit was booted soon after that interview, classic example of putting an MBA moron in charge of anything creative, suck the life out of the product and jack up the price.
I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs: IT’S A GAME LADY! That was exactly why people played it. The game’s freaking title should have given her a clue. “Magic” the very idea was to fill people with a sense of wonder, of doing crazy things, of commanding amazing creatures, and doing things that were as far away from the mundane world of corporate bullshit as possible. There were a lot of other reasons I put the cards away and stopped getting new ones but this one, how disappointingly weak fifth edition was and the subsequent sets soon came to be, were the proverbial straw breaking my back.
Then, over a decade later I met some young people who let me in on the secret. Yes, idiots like that empty suit were overruled, the game was fun again. Of course, I was like a Civil War soldier going up against modern SEALs. But what the heck, I could learn the new rules and the new metagame. So far it has been mixed, there are teenagers out there who beat me before I even know what happened. I have had a very hard time adjusting to the new power curve, back then a 2/2 for 3 manna was pretty respectable and there was a reason I captioned Shivan dragon with “Big Daddy” in my last post, he was. Mr. Shivan was the biggest, baddest, most efficient monster there was when I started playing. I had two of them and thought I was king of the castle, but Big Daddy has become so out-classed by the modern ‘roid o’sauruses out there that I can’t even find a slot for him in my dragon deck anymore.
Overall, the game has slowed down. The power curve has been pushed out a bit but holy cow has it gone up. Cards that back then would have given their benefits to everyone now tend to affect only the player casting them. Counter spells and other permission type cards have scaled back far from where they were, as has removal become a more difficult prospect. There used to also be cards we called “hosers” things like Flashfires or Karma that could just annihilate an enemy color. Now having just a creature with protection from a color is a big deal. But the biggest change of all is the internet, not just playing online but the access to so much more information is just absolutely huge. That is probably where I will pick up next time.