These are two words that best describes Magic's fourth expansion "The Dark". Released 22 years ago today on August 8th 1994, just two months after Legends, it was overshadowed by the scope and mechanics of its older sibling. Where Legends was flashy - bringing "gold cards" and "world enchantments" The Dark was foundational - bringing stability to the game and availability to the players.
In our previous retrospective on Legends we discussed the constrained availability that had been plaguing players since the game's inception. Despite the games increasing popularity, Wizards finally overcame their printing constraints and The Dark's 62 million card print run became the first expansion players could purchase on demand. Still available on the open market, boosters can be purchased today for $14.99. Not too shabby for a 22 year old expansion!
"The Dark" was a "small set" which meant cards were packaged in 8 card booster packs. There were no rares in small expansions - however there were three levels of common and two levels of uncommon which made collecting a bit of a challenge. With a print run of only 128,000 each, an uncommon 1 ("U1") could be considered the set's "rare" and these are the cards most sought after today.
Coming off Legends, The Dark struggled to find an identity. Without a "tent pole" mechanic or story-line the set was more about "mood" as it attempted to imprint some of the horror themes that Innistrad did so well many years later. Players were initially unimpressed; and without the "Magic hive-mind" that now exists on the internet, it took months for players to accept the the set as a worthwhile addition to the game.
What wasn't impressive then is, in hindsight, very impressive now. The Dark introduced broad ideas to the game as well as premier cards that still see play in eternal formats today.
The first "haste to graveyard" creature was introduced to Magic in the form of Ball Lightning. One of the most sought after cards of the set, it changed combat calculations forever and the mechanic has become a staple of red.
Another first for The Dark, creatures with "self-sacrifice" as a cost for their special ability opened up huge design space for magic R&D - and the door for very powerful effects. Self-sacrifice mechanics gave developers a new "cost" they could apply to powerful special abilities. Cards like Scavenger Folk, now seen as a "mediocre" card warped game play when it debuted, making players consider a more complex board state.
The Dark also had its share of staples that shouldn't be overlooked. Maze of Ith is a powerful land that will slow games to a halt with it's "turn back" mechanic. Fellwar Stone is still a popular mana rock in Commander, and Blood Moon is the bane of land lovers and five color generals everywhere. Also check out Gaea's Touch - it sees some eternal play, but it deserves to be played more. It's bonkers in mono-green and has a TCG median price of just 51 cents. Storm or enchantress EDH anyone?
There are some cards in The Dark that have fallen out of favor with players as time has passed. It's a shame because they are still worthy of inclusion with some very powerful effects. In fact, many of these cards still see play in the Old School format where the reduced card pool forces players to scrutinize these classic expansions. Kitchen table and EDH players take note - here are some cheap options that will surprise and devastate an unprepared table. Flood is an amazing card to slot into a control build. You are already holding some blue mana back for counterspells and now your opponents will have to decide if you are holding it back to counter their bomb or to tap down their creature. As a player, this gives you some added flexibility and a way to use your mana efficiently. Remember Sligh? Safe Haven, one of four lands in the set that don't tap for mana, is a great place to stick a creature before you Wrath of God. Finally Preacher is a house. Here is a card in white that allows you to take the best creature at the table for three mana. The Dark is known for cards like Preacher that break the color pie and it's my favorite of the bunch with Mind Bomb coming in a close second.
Innistrad may be the "Gothic horror" set everyone thinks of, but The Dark really brought home a similar feel. I would call it more "ghost stories and classic monsters" than true horror though. Cards like Season of the Witch and Scarecrow just feel like they are part of a story told around the campfire with a flashlight under your chin. The Angry Mob and Frankenstein's Monster are two cards that may not be game breakers, but they are full of flavor when they face-off against each other. Coal Golem is one of my favorite cards in the set because I think it looks like is was lifted right out of a Scooby Doo episode.
Finally lets talk Dark Heart of the Wood. This card just feels spooky... and it was a historic card as well. Since reprinted in Ravnica, this is the first non- creature, multi-color card. Comboing with Crucible of Worlds and Fastbond for infinite life, this card was super annoying back in the day. It dragged games out for-ev-er. Predating the Zuran Orb, if you were in green this was pretty darn effective.
Tying it to the stake.
I love The Dark. Probably because it was the first set that I could buy in quantity; but it also just had cards shook up the game. It gets a lot of hate from players for being an under-powered set and for being the oldest set without a card over $100.00 in value - but that's good for us "filthy casuals" and "Old Schoolers". It means that we still have an expansion, made before the game's rules and mechanics were fully fleshed out, that we can buy a pack of for the same price as a pack of Eternal Masters. Don't let the haters ruin it for you - these are fun cards that create stories at the table. Buy a pack or two and slot some of these in your decks - they will bring a smile to your face and maybe one of shock on your opponents!
On a personal note, when I was researching for this article I went to a local card store with an amazing amount of old stock - one of the advantages of living in the Pacific Northwest. I bought a booster of The Dark in case I needed it for use as a splash image. When I opened the booster lo-and-behold... a Blood Moon.
Sometimes you get lucky.
Join us in November when we celebrate the 22nd anniversary of... and pick up the pieces from... the Fallen Empires.
This is the second in a series of articles celebrating the anniversaries of the "Old School" Magic expansions. If you liked this article check out our earlier article "Legends."