"The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well." ~ Lewis Carroll
Several weeks ago I wrote an article called "Old School" where I talked about a deck that I built out of all Beta cards as a love letter to the game. I played my deck at a Friday Night Magic Vintage event and despite losing every game it was an amazing experience. Playing those old cards again was pure unadulterated fun. I even got a fist-bump when I put my first Wall of Swords into play in fifteen years! Since then, I have taken a second look at the "Old School" format that I originally dismissed as "too expensive". I think I've even found a deck that will at least be viable without costing thousands to assemble. This article isn't really a deck tech though - it is more thoughts on this format and why I think it's an important part of our hobby.
"Old School" (also known as 93/94) has a card pool consisting of Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends and The Dark. Reprints are not allowed and most playgroups frown upon proxies of any kind. It's crazy restrictive, but after playing my janky, all beta deck - I get it. Old School isn't about showing off your expensive cards - it's about recreating a time when Magic cards were a scarce resource.
Magic was a different game in 1993 - no one had any idea that it would have the incredible cultural impact that it does today. Ask a gamer what "Magic" is today and you will get an informed answer. Love it or hate it, they know what it is. When those of us that picked up the game in '93 realized its potential, two things went through our mind. "How am I going to convince my role-playing group to play this game?" and "How am I ever going to get enough cards to play?". Both of these were real concerns. I ended up scouring every comic book shop within 100 miles of my house, calling them every day to find out if they had any stock at all. If they had cards I immediately dropped everything and drove to the store. Which expansion wasn't a concern, physical cards were. Eventually, somewhere around Antiquities, I had cobbled together enough cards to build a deck and give some cards to my friends. After inviting them over to my house to play they agreed to give the game a shot. They managed to buy a few cards of their own and our little "card universe" increased in size. I still gave away every card I didn't need for a deck. It was totally worth it.
Severe scarcity of product continued through the release of Magic's third expansion - "Legends" and to some extent "The Dark". It was so bad in Legends that when store owners found out Wizards had printed the expansion in Italian they raced to import boxes for their stores at a huge expense. Boxes of cards came across the ocean and were sold at $10.00 a pack (in '94 dollars). Packs that contained cards in a language the great majority of their customers couldn't even read. Those imported boxes sold out just as fast. I always wondered if the Italians got to keep any for themselves.
The decks we built with our cards were janky, inefficient and experimental. They were also amazing to play. They say restriction breeds creativity, and it was evident in those times. Scarcity of cards meant you ran only one "The Abyss" in your deck even if you knew it was incredibly good, because it was the only one you owned and the only one anyone that you knew owned. Scarcity was so bad that when Wizards announced the "new" four of any card deck building limit my only concern was "How the heck does anyone have five of anything?" At the time, most players were still trading basic lands to build decks. Running nine islands even though you really needed ten (but that is all you had) was a real thing.
Even after magazines began to cover Magic, the lag time between a set's release and their publication of a "set report" meant there were long periods of time that you didn't know what you might see at the table. Even if you had seen a card you had no idea of the rarity. Wizards didn't publish this and it took the community a long time to compile an accurate list. Remember, Magic predates the modern Internet, so outside USENET groups and BBS's (Google it) you had to find out about cards through play. It was truly the Wild West of Magic.
Now here's where the Old School format dovetails with the history of the game. The growth of the player base and shrinkage of cards in existence (due to the fact it is a twenty year old product made of paper that you play with), has made it really hard to put your hand on a 93/94 copy of a given card. There were only 1,100 copies of an Alpha rare printed and 3,200 of a Beta. Of those 4,300, some are held by collectors sealed in plastic cases, some are forgotten in a drawer and some had a soda spilled on them and were thrown away. So how many Alpha Black Lotus still exist? No one knows. By enforcing the "original printing only restrictions" Old School has brought back the feel of the 93/94 environment, and it is epic. Building a 93/94 deck requires card substitutions and out-of the box thinking. Many of the matches in this format are won or lost on choices made to compensate for the imperfections of your deck - and from the unexpected contents of your opponents. Building my 93/94 deck I actually thought "Man I hope I have enough Scryb Sprites to build this deck". I can promise you that it has been a while since that went through my mind.
If there are any larger lessons to be learned here I guess it is that sometimes it's the journey and not the destination - even where our hobbies are concerned. It will be a long time before I find all the exact cards I want for my 93/94 deck and until then I will "make do" with what I have. This means going to a Grand Prix, a comic book convention or a game store in a new city has a sense of discovery - that chance I may finally find a card I need for my deck. The thrill of the hunt is almost as good as obtaining the goal. This could take years... and that sounds like fun.
Magic is a much better game than it was in 1993, but there is a child-like excitement that has been lost with the instant gratification of regularly released expansions, spoiler saturation on hundreds of websites and packs hanging on shelves in WalMart and Target. I think it is great there is a format designed to celebrate this part of the game and to keep the early feel of magic alive. There are even sites on the new-fangled World Wide Web thing dedicated to Old School and I have included some links below. Take some time to take a trip through history and consider building a deck under these restrictions. Enjoy the game - and get off my lawn.