Originally published on Mage Markets blog (now defunct) back in 2018 I believe
So, I believe most of you are now familiar with the old kid on the block: the elusive, intriguing and vastly expensive format of 93/94 or simply Old School magic.
The format had its humble beginnings in Sweden, but these days it seems more and more people are (triple-?)sleeving up those Savannah Lions, them Icy Manipulators and all of the moxen they can get their hands on. The format is – as far as I can tell – thriving in most parts of Europe.
For those of you who are not familiar with the format, the basics are these:
You can only play cards printed in the following sets: Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, Summer/Edgar, Arabian Nights, Legends, Antiquities and The Dark. Yep. Only those! Do you know these sets? Where you even born, when they were released?! Oh! Also Chaos Orb is legal. Go look it up. One of the greatest, most iconic pictures in all of Magics history. Unfortunately also a dexterity-based card (you have to throw it), which makes it banned in all formats. That is, of course, all formats besides Old School (which, for the time being, ensures that Old School can never become a sanctioned format).
The main intention with the Old School format is to relive the feeling from back when our beloved card-game was brand new: Back in the 90’s when Spice Girls was a thing. When Clinton had no sexual relations with that woman and when Christian conservative groups were dumbfounded and outright outraged by the fact, that the original printing of Unholy Strength had a pentagram in the background – surely the youth would now be beyond salvation and the end was, by all means, near!
Back on track. It was also a time – believe it or not – when there was basicly no thing called internet. Which mean there was no thing called net-decking. Also no thing called GP’s or Pro tours and therefor practically no professional play- and test-groups. This meant that there was a lot of brewing and kitchen-table testing and playing – the original way to build decks and play games. You would play the cards you had access to, and there were no giant internet-shops with every card ever printed on display, so you had to hide your collection from the bullies in the schoolyard, and stay inside to trade and be lucky to find that extra Goblin Balloon Brigade to finish your crazy, blistering fast, friend-removing, monored goblin deck (complete with Ball Lightning and Blood Lust)…
It is this format that is now beginning to thrive. But how is that even possible? you ask. And you are right. Make no mistake. Even though it is possible to make a somewhat budget mono-colored deck. It is not that possible. These cards are expensive, and they are on the rise! Remember only the original printings are allowed, which makes it impossible for Wizards – even if they wanted to – to make the format cheaper and more accessible by, for example, printing new versions of the cards. This is a format, where you will have to shell out around 30€ for the cheapest possible Savannah Lions – the unlimited one. Counterspell is around 20€ and Shivan Dragon is closing in on 100€. And I’m not even starting to mention some of the all-stars: the Power Nine, the dual lands, Library of Alexandria, the aforementioned Chaos Orb and Juzam Djinn, Erhnam Djinn and Serendib Efreet. Oh, and beta and alpha versions of the cards! It is a format for the very rich, the very lucky or the very foresighted who bought the cards years ago and held on to them.
But the format is thriving and expanding and it actually makes sense. It is thriving because of several things:
1. Nostalgia! Even though it is impossible to recreate the feeling from the early 90’s – especially in regards to no net-decking – for a lot of players, there is a lot of nostalgic feeling in playing with these cards.
2. Players from the 90’s have grown up, cut their hair, shaved their necks, crawled out of their basements and even landed paid jobs, so they are able to actually buy all the Nightmares and Serra Angels they’ve always dreamt of! (and let’s be honest, we have all dreamt of that particular Angel…)
3. People want to play with and show off their crazy expensive, beautiful cards and decks.
4. Less restrictive Local (or national) rules are emerging all over the world. Which means the price of entering the format is drastically reduced. When revised or even 4th edition becomes legal, you can actually make playable or even competitive decks for a couple of hundred euros. And they won’t rotate out…
Enough of this introduction to a format I am sure most of you have already heard of. What I actually wanted to write about today was an experience I had playing the format at a tournament recently, which led me to think, or at least ponder. It has to do with the differences between playing kitchen-table magic with your friends and tournament-magic against unknown, less-casual players. And indeed about the possible near future of the Old School format (at least in Denmark).
It was no big tournament – 13 players arrived – but it was highly enjoyable and very much fun.
For me at least. People who know me, knows that I am no grinder, I am not a very competitive person or player and, indeed, not a very good player at all. But when I take the time to play at a tournament, for the most time, I am there to try and win. And have fun, of course. Besides being a mediocre to bad player, I also enjoy playing combo and/or prison strategies, and my weapon of choice this day was to play a 5 color PowerMonolith-monstrosity filled with most of the restricted cards of the format. Yep, a combo deck featuring cards like Balance, Strip Mine and Recall. And 4 power sink. I think I’m in love…
It is a very capable deck and without a doubt one of the most powerful of the format. It ends games playing an arbitrarily large fireball to the opponents face or firing a Rocket Launcher (no, actually the card Rocket Launcher – look it up!) for 50 billion damage at the opponents baffled crotch. This is done via the age-old unlimited mana combo of Basalt Monolith and Power Artifact. Much fun is had. At least I think it is much fun. And that may be a problem.
During the 5 rounds of the tournament I had several surprising reactions to my deck and the games we played. My opponents didn’t seem to have much fun. Let me just pause a minute to make something clear – I am not advocating that one has to be happy about being killed by a combo deck, but if playing against combo ruins your day or gives you a feeling of being unfairly treated, is tournament-magic really your thing? My deck is in no way unbeatable. A well-timed Shatter ruins me day! A Blood Moon makes me cry and a turn one Argothian Pixies followed by a turn two Serendib Efreet can be very tough for me to beat! But of course, to beat it, you have to come prepared. It is not a casual deck – you have to bring counterspells, removal or your own combo.
I know that a deck like mine won’t make me many friends at kitchen tables. I admit that it is based on decklists I’ve seen online and I know that there is a lot more nostalgia in attacking with a Sengir Vampire or landing an impressive 2/3 Kird Ape off a taiga in the first round (Kird Ape was actually banned for being too powerful back in the day…). But I will still hold that in tournament-magic it is not unsportmanlike conduct to play combo or prison. It is not being a bad friend to play to win. And especially in Old School it is not very cool to be mad about losing to a bizarre interaction between three old cards. These bizarre interactions is – I would argue – what the format is all about.
Also: many of the games in question were very interesting and not decided before the resolving of the infinite ball of fire. I had to keep my opponent off black mana, so he couldn’t play his mind twist; I had to find a Mox Sapphire AND a Blue Elemental Blast to kill an opposing Blood Moon; I had to play and replay my Demonic Tutor (via Regrowth) to find both mana and a removal to a horrible Energy Flux and the list goes on. This format – for me – is all about enjoying the interactions between cards – often relatively unknown cards – as the game were originally thought. It is quite a simple game of magic but it stills requires you to think. It is about having fun doing that – and even if you should sometimes loose, don’t despair! In the next round you will face another strange, spicy brew consisting of Triskelions, Titania’s Song, Hypnotic Spector, Sol’kanar the Swamp King or even freaking Copper Tablet. So if all else fails, play your deck, lose or win and just enjoy the immensely powerful, expensive and beautiful decks that are roaming the format. Again: I would consider entering an Old School tournament with a brew of only Mountains and a single Fireball – hell a brew of only Mountains! – just to look at all the incredibly, iconic, sexy pieces of cardboard. They don’t come any hotter than here! But anyway, this is – for now at least – a very open format where many strategies are viable.
And that leads me to the next of my worries. Even though the format is expanding, it is – still – a somewhat obscure, fringe format with a relatively small dedicated group of players. Many of whom have a very casual mindset when playing, some of whom are not very skilled players – or at least not very used to play at tournaments. My fear is that at some point some maybe not-so-nice but great players will take advantage of these facts and begin to roam the Old School tournaments flinging the “Best deck of the format” and simply be almost certain to win. This will be a heavy blow to some of the vibe and feel of the format, and it will probably enhance the notion, that it is impossible to win a game of Old School, without playing the legendary power nine. Which really is not true.
I am aware that many Old School groups and indeed several of the larger tournaments, don’t really play with prices and oftentimes don’t play top4/8. This means that the tournaments have a heavy emphasis on playing games, rather than win. This also helps ensure, that the incentive to grind these tournaments become a lot less appealing. Since you won’t win anything worth anything, and you won’t even gather those sought after Planeswalker points.
BUT as a former tournament organizer, with around a hundred tournaments in the sack, I discovered that, at least in Denmark, one of the best/only ways to make people actually show up at tournaments is to hand out good to ridiculously great prices based on a reasonable entry-fee. And so we have a classic dilemma: No prices means more dedicated, casual players, that ensure the right “Old School vibe”, but also less players overall. Prices means more “outsiders” – players who can’t remember trading their Serra Angel for a Black Lotus – but also, probably a lot more players overall. What to do?
I honestly don’t know. A friend of mine is trying to harness a competitive Old School scene in Copenhagen. That means entry-fees, prices, play-offs and a general feeling of playing competitive magic (which means: if you want to win, you have to play an optimized deck). But he also tries to make sure that the cozy element of just playing whatever crappy combo you wish that specific day, is there. I am excited to see where it ends, as of now some of the more casually oriented Old Schoolers are not too keen on the idea. But let’s see. I think the most important part is to enjoy a unique and highly challenging format.