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The Comboist Manifesto: A/B/U Retrospective
By Stephen Bahl
The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 11: Comprehensive Retrospective Set Review of First & Second Edition, Part 1

Note: This is a bit of a mess. Basically, my next few articles will consist of reviewing all 292 of the original Magic cards. I started writing this last year, but moved on to other articles. I didn't think this through, so I started out saying too much. My Born of the Gods review, which I've already posted, is more minimalist. In the future, I'll try to find a better balance for set reviews. I'm posting this anyway because I don't think there's anything really wrong with it, just that it's too long, so it needs to be serialized. It might seem pointless to review cards from 1993, but I think I've actually managed to find interesting things to say about most of these...

I remember seeing a “retro set review” and liking the concept. For my article series, one of the things I wanted to do was appropriate that concept, but with an emphasis on combo. Part of my motivation was personal: reviewing sets is a way to increase familiarity with them, and in my case I used to have an encyclopedic knowledge of older sets (but not anymore) and I have really seen very little of the releases since 2011. However, when it came time to give credit to the intrepid author from whom I planned to blatantly steal, I couldn't actually find this “retro set review” I remembered. I had thought that I was remembering a piece by either Mark Ortego or Eric Turgeon, but when I looked, all I could find were some (highly original) set reviews by Eric Turgeon. I did find a six-part series of articles by David McKenzie entitled “Ferret's Retro Corner.” And that's pretty close, but not really what I had in mind: David McKenzie does review the first set, which is a retro set review, but it's done with an emphasis on contrast, on highlighting what kind of game Magic was back in the old days. I had thought that someone wanted to do set reviews in the manner typically done for new releases, but for the older sets, and I was all set to steal that concept, but now it looks like I don't have anyone to actually steal it from.

As part of the Comboist Manifesto, I'll be reviewing every Magic: the Gathering set ever printed that introduced any new cards to the game (I might review sets that didn't introduce new cards, but I don't plan to at this point), focusing primarily on combo, but with some comments on general gameplay as well. Cards that either enable or shut down certain combo archetypes will receive more thorough treatment. These set reviews are rather formulaic, so they'll be an easy way for me to lazily generate articles if I can't think of anything else.

The first retrospective is for First Edition. Well, it's also for Second Edition. It's weird. Veterans of the game usually already know this, but in case you didn't know or have forgotten, I'll provide a brief explanation. When Magic first came out, its popularity grew more quickly than anticipated. The original print run was in August of 1993, and the second print run was in October of 1993. Both sold out very quickly. Collectively, these early printings were known as “Limited Edition.” However, there were two notable differences between them: the first print run had larger, rounded corners and accidentally omitted the cards Volcanic Island and Circle of Protection: Black. These printings were named “Alpha” and “Beta.” In January of 1994, an “Unlimited Edition” was released (and was, alas, not actually unlimited in any way), which was exactly like the “Beta” printing of “Limited Edition” except that the borders of the cards were white instead of black. In April of 1994, a “Revised Edition” was released, again with white borders, but with some of the original cards removed and with some cards from the early expansions, Arabian Nights and Aniquities, added in. It wasn't until May of 1995, with Fourth Edition, that core sets began using number designations. The idea in 1995 was that Alpha and Beta made up First Edition, Unlimited was Second Edition, and Revised was Third Edition. This numbering scheme persisted until Wizards of the Coast got tired of it and switched to numbering core sets by year of release.

However one categorizes these early sets, whether it's Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, Limited/Unlimited, or First Edition/Second Edition, they provided the game's original pool of cards. Later core sets, for many years, would not contain new cards, instead reprinting either cards from this pool or from expansion sets.

As befitting the very first set in the game, First/Second Edition is a mixed bag. It introduces some of the iconic themes, characters, and concepts in Magic, like Serra, Gaea, Urza, Shiv, elves, goblins, zombies, merfolk, orcs, giants, treefolk, moxen, and the color wheel. It also introduces concepts that the game, sooner or later, abandoned, like ante, “manual dexterity” cards meant to be thrown onto the playing area, sunglasses, and having walls of every material known to man. There are overpowered cards, underpowered cards, and ones that fall somewhere in between. Mostly, the cards in this set are either significantly more powerful than what later sets would introduce, or generally weaker than what's available now. It's important to keep in mind when evaluating this set that there were no precedents for anything: there had not yet been an opportunity to look at past releases and say, “When we did this, it was too strong” or “When we did this it was too weak.” Magic's first set was, by its nature, uncharted territory. With that in mind, here is my review of the original 292 Magic cards. All card texts are taken from the Oracle versions of the cards at the time I wrote this article...

Contract from Below
Remove Contract from Below from your deck before playing if you're not playing for ante.
Discard your hand, add the top card of your library to the ante, then draw seven cards.

Demonic Attorney
Remove Demonic Attorney from your deck before playing if you're not playing for ante.
Each player antes the top card of his or her library.

Remove Darkpact from your deck before playing if you're not playing for ante.
You own target card in the ante. Exchange that card with the top card of your library.

The original core set had three cards that cards that were completely dependent on the “ante” variant of Magic. All of them were black sorceries. The history of ante in Magic and the development of ante-specific cards is a topic far beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that ante is not really a prevalent aspect of Magic anymore and because of this, these cards are generally relegated to obscurity. Contract from Below is a slight exception to this, being a favorite for the purposes of Magic trivia on account of being the most blatantly overpowered card ever printed. In the classic Magic computer game, Shandalar, which includes a means of using more than four copies of cards, every deck I ever had eventually transformed into a bunch of copies of Dark Ritual and Contract from Below, with some other acceleration thrown in and some kill conditions.

Chaos Orb
1, T: If Chaos Orb is on the battlefield, flip Chaos Orb onto the battlefield from a height of at least one foot. If Chaos Orb turns over completely at least once during the flip, destroy all nontoken permanents it touches. Then destroy Chaos Orb.

Like the ante cards, Chaos Orb represents an aspect of the game that was toyed with in early sets, but ultimately abandoned for good reasons. I've never actually seen a real game in which Chaos Orb was used, although the card is, by all accounts, fun. There's a widely told anecdote about a tournament in which a player used Chaos Orb and ripped it to shreds, then threw the pieces over the opponent's cards in order to maximize the potential destruction. On CrystalKeep, there's even a ruling with a note by Stephen D'Angelo...

Ripping the Chaos Orb into confetti and then scattering it (as each piece flops 360 degrees) across your opponent's cards was ruled legal at one time, but it was suggested that this strategy not be allowed in the final round of a tournament. [bethmo 1994/10/01]
This ruling is mostly humorous in value. You are very unlikely to get WotC or a NetRep to back this one, but I'm listing it because it is funny. Also, note that if you remove a card from your deck during a tournament then you are disqualified. You cannot remove or shred one of your opponent's cards.

The popularity of this anecdote eventually led to the printing of Chaos Confetti in the joke set, Unglued.

The ante cards and Chaos Orb are banned in all tournament formats. In the case of the ante cards, they already have notes stating that they are to be removed from one's deck before playing if not playing for ante, which introduces another legality issue that I haven't actually seen addressed officially. Hypothetically, if the ante cards were not banned, would players be able to register their 60-card decks with them, then remove them at the start of each game as instructed by the cards, effectively thinning their decks for free? Some would interpret the cards in that way, and if such a trick worked, it would certainly necessitate banning all of the ante cards. For non-tournament play, I once constructed a deck with four copies of every ante card (there are nine of them, which would essentially allow a 24-card deck masquerade as a 60-card deck) as a joke, but I never actually used it against anyone because even if it is technically valid (and I'm not sure that it is), I'm just not that terrible of a person. As for Chaos Orb, it's an amusing idea, but just creates too many problems. I'm frankly rather glad the card had such a low print run.

Those are the four cards from this set that are banned in all tournament formats. Now on to the rest of the original core set...

Ancestral Recall
Target player draws three cards.

Time Walk
Take another turn after this one.

Each player shuffles his or her hand and graveyard into his or her library, then draws seven cards. (Then put Timetwister into its owner's graveyard.)

Black Lotus
T, Sacrifice Black Lotus: Add three mana of any one color to your mana pool.

Mox Pearl
T: Add W to your mana pool.

Mox Sapphire
T: Add U to your mana pool.

Mox Jet
T: Add B to your mana pool.

Mox Ruby
T: Add R to your mana pool.

Mox Emerald
T: Add G to your mana pool.

The infamous Power 9. For most of the game's history, and certainly since before I started playing, new players, and many veterans, have held these cards in a sort of reverential awe. There's a mystique to them. This arises from a confluence of a few conditions: these cards are rares, they were never reprinted after Unlimited Edition, they're extremely powerful, and finally, because of the aforementioned facts, these cards fetch some of the highest prices on the secondary market. Most of us have never paid hundreds of dollars for a single piece of cardboard. There are some rare misprints of cards that are valuable to collectors, but for the game's regular cards, the Power 9 are like the crown jewels.

Just how overpowered are these cards? It's complicated. They were, at least sort of, released into a vacuum, unlike cards in later sets. When these cards were originally printed, the rules regarding deckbuilding were very different from today. What is clear is that, given the option to use these cards, players in Vintage tournaments, where all of the Power 9 are restricted, invariably use the six artifacts. Free mana is too good to pass up. The other three cards are blue, and if a deck uses blue cards at all and players have access to Power 9 cards, they invariably use Ancestral Recall and Time Walk. That's a pretty good indication that, at least in the case of those eight cards, these are real powerhouses. But ignoring rarity and mystique, focusing strictly on the utility of the cards themselves, this isn't an indication that the Power 9 stand in their own tier above everything else. There are other cards that turn up almost every tournament deck where they're legal if the players can get them. Furthermore, while restriction is a valuable tool to make Vintage a worthwhile tournament format, some cards are lackluster as one-ofs and much more powerful as four-ofs. Restriction hurts the utility of some cards more than it does others. I'll return to that topic in a future article, but an easy example of this is a card already mentioned: Timetwister. With only one copy, Timetwister is a nice reset mechanism for one's graveyard and a powerful draw spell, but many decks are constructed in a way that they want to accumulate specific cards in their hands, and Timetwister resets the hand too, which limits it, and provides a symmetrical effect, which also limits it. With four copies available, decks could build around the higher chances of getting Timetwister and could chain Timetwisters together, which would be far more potent.

The Power 9 are certainly formidable, Wizards of the Coast learned and, in later sets, never printed quite as many blatantly overpowered cards at once. First/Second Edition easily has more broken cards, or at least more cards that are really, really broken, than any other set. But Wizards of the Coast has, on occasion, produces something totally overpowered in a way that's reminiscent of the Power 9. Also, one need not leave this set to find examples of cards that are not Power 9, but rival the Power 9 for power. I already talked about Contract from Below. These cards have escaped the notoriety of the Power 9 in large part simply by being reprinted in the “Revised Edition.”

Time Vault
Time Vault enters the battlefield tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
If you would begin your turn while Time Vault is tapped, you may skip that turn instead. If you do, untap Time Vault.
T: Take an extra turn after this one.

Time Vault was the subject of one of the earliest power-level errata in Magic. As the game developed, Wizards of the Coast adopted the position that errata were for fixing cards that rules changes would alter or render nonsensical and that bans and restrictions were for addressing cases in which new releases, rules changes, or unforeseen circumstances had made a card more powerful than originally intended. However, this took a long time. Power-level errata, placed on cards back when Wizards of the Coast used errata as a tool to nerf cards that had unexpected interactions, affected many cards, but Time Vault could have been the poster child for the concept. Wizards of the Coast went out of their way to create convoluted errata, generally involving special counters, for Time Vault that would prevent it from being used to take extra turns. Whenever some combo was discovered that could break the weakened Time Vault, Wizards of the Coast changed the erratum to close that loophole. It was like they wanted the card to just die already. They didn't want to deal with it.

Time Vault seemed relegated to obscurity, and then Ravnica introduced a card that broke it again: Flame Fusillade. Players in the Legacy format found that they could create a very strong deck based around casting Flame Fusillade with Time Vault out, resulting in an infinite damage combo. Time Vault got hit with another modification to its erratum, one so comprehensive that it seemed the card would be dead forever. And then Wizards of the Coast began the redaction of power-level errata. It took most of the game's life so far, but Time Vault was finally restored to its original glory. The card was immediately restricted in Vintage (and banned in Legacy). Time Vault quickly rose to prominence in Vintage and has remained a key card in top decks to this day.

Other than Timetwister, the Power 9 are very flexible cards that are good in just about any deck, and Timetwister doesn't fall short by much. Time Vault requires other cards to interact with in order to be good. The card doesn't just accelerate decks on its own, like the Power 9 do. Also, the options for untapping artifacts weren't as numerous or as convenient back when Time Vault was first released as they are now. Despite all that, there is no doubt in my mind that if Time Vault had never been modified by power-level errata, as a completely broken rare that was never reprinted after Unlimited Edition, it would be grouped in with the Power 9. Instead of having the phrase, Power 9, we would be calling them the Power 10.

Wheel of Fortune
Each player discards his or her hand and draws seven cards.

It's a lot like Timetwister. Dumping hands into graveyards and not reshuffling graveyards back into libraries makes it a bit worse than Timetwister in some situations, but a bit better in others. It is red instead of blue, which is a consideration, but overall, it's an insanely powerful card. If Timetwister meets the standard for being in the highest powered tier of cards, then Wheel of Fortune deserves inclusion too. The cards are very similar. Both are three-mana, draw seven sorceries from the original core set. Both are rares. The only reason Timetwister is part of an exclusive club and Wheel of Fortune is just some card that is banned or restricted in tournaments is that Wheel of Fortune was reprinted in Revised Edition, and is therefore available to players for a pricetag that isn't in the hundreds of dollars range.

You may play any number of additional lands on each of your turns.
Whenever you play a land, if it wasn't the first land you played this turn, Fastbond deals 1 damage to you.

Overpowered decks tend not to use very many lands, but a noteworthy corollary to this is the fact that Fastbond has been banned or restricted in every tournament format for over 17 years. In tournament play, Fastbond is a niche card employed in some combo decks in Vintage. Fastbond's power is considerably more apparent when a full playset of the card is allowed.

A while back, a friend of mine was going into a tournament in which no cards would be restricted, but which had a special “no winning the game before the fifth turn” clause, which was a silly rule. His idea was to use Fastbond, Crucible of Worlds, and Strip Mine in a deck that could prevent opponents from getting any lands, and then wait until the minimum time had passed before going for the kill. He wanted me to help build and test his deck. We constructed a monstrosity that would, following a first-turn Fastbond, not only lock the opponent down with Strip Mine and Crucible of Worlds on the first turn, but also draw a handful of disruption and hit the opponent with Tendrils of Agony for 18 damage. The deck did win the tournament.

Fastbond is really not a good card for fun, casual games. One mana to ignore a fundamental aspect of Magic's tempo regulation is just too strong. Fastbond practically turns lands into moxen. It's a very broken card, probably the second most powerful enchantment ever, although one could argue that it's actually first in that category.

Sol Ring
T: Add 2 to your mana pool.

When artifacts that produced mana were first printed, they were generally too strong. Later mana artifacts were toned down for some time and were generally too weak until Wizards of the Coast eventually reached the pretty reasonable balance. Much like the artifacts in the Power 9, Sol Ring is overpowered. It was reprinted in Revised Edition, and then later in Magic: the Gathering Commander and From the Vault: Relics. It was also originally an uncommon. For those reasons, Sol Ring has been much, much more accessible than the five original moxen. While it might not be as prevalent now, Sol Rings used to be everywhere. The widespread availability of the card combined with its utility in any deck to make Sol Ring a staple anywhere it was allowed, which was generally not in tournaments, at least.

For many years, I used every copy of Sol Ring I had in decks, because the card just seemed so useful. It also appears to be innocuous enough when not used with broken cards, although this is deceptive: the tempo advantage from Sol Ring is spread throughout the course of a game and isn't always obvious to people that aren't looking for it. Also, it's probably the case that players in the past got used to seeing Sol Ring enough that it seemed normal. Prominent CPA member, Istanbul, suggested in the comments on one of my old articles that Sol Ring should be unbanned, but restricted in Legacy, on the basis that the card is too strong when four are allowed in the same deck, but not when only one is. Of course, Legacy doesn't actually have a restricted list, and probably never will.

Sol Ring is an extremely powerful accelerant. While one doesn't need to play combo deck to take advantage of it, combo is where Sol Ring's potential is fully realized.

Mana Vault
Mana Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may pay 4. If you do, untap Mana Vault.
At the beginning of your draw step, if Mana Vault is tapped, it deals 1 damage to you.
T: Add 3 to your mana pool.

Much like Wheel of Fortune and Fastbond, Mana Vault is an overpowered rare from the original core set that managed to get reprinted in more widely circulated sets. Although it's a rare, Mana Vault was reprinted in every core set through Fifth Edition. Most of Mana Vault's text is dedicated to giving it weaknesses: it doesn't untap as normal, it requires a fairly steep 4 mana to untap, and it hurts you every turn if left tapped. Compared to the free mana from Sol Ring and the five moxen, Mana Vault doesn't seem quite as great. Still, Mana Vault is an extremely strong accelerant, and is banned or restricted in tournament formats.

Mana Vault is especially useful for combo decks. Sol Ring's net contribution to the mana pool the turn it comes out is 1. Mana Vault's net contribution the turn it comes out is 2. Sol Ring only takes one turn to start being more useful than Mana Vault, but if there aren't going to be any more turns, that's not an issue, and Mana Vault becomes the stronger card in such situations. Even for non-combo purposes, the tempo advantage Mana Vault provides can be worth the drawbacks.

Demonic Tutor
Search your library for a card and put that card into your hand. Then shuffle your library.

Demonic Tutor started a trend in which the names of cards that allowed one to search one's own library for a card were “tutors.” Although few of these cards quite match the utility of the original, the ability to find a particular card on demand is powerful enough that some of the tutors have been banned in various tournament formats.

Demonic Tutor is only as powerful as the cards that is is used to find. Even when Demonic Tutor was new, those cards could have been very powerful. Two mana is a pretty good deal for the card you need in order to win the game. In a combo deck, having four copies of Demonic Tutor means four slots that can become whatever card is needed to complete a combo. Like Sol Ring, Demonic Tutor's status as an uncommon and reprinting in Revised Edition gave it wider availability than some of the other broken cards.

Demonic Tutor is viable in virtually any deck that can produce black mana. In Vintage tournaments, where powerful cards, including some of the ones I've already reviewed here, are restricted rather than banned, Demonic Tutor and some later cards that use the same concept are all restricted themselves. Demonic Tutor has also been banned in other tournament formats, which do not employ restricted lists. In both cases, the biggest concern is combo decks. Demonic Tutor makes decks more consistent, and is exceptionally good at doing so. Consistency is more dangerous in combo decks than it is in other types of decks.

Until end of turn, any time you could activate a mana ability, you may pay 1 life. If you do, add 1 to your mana pool.

The infamous ChannelBall is allegedly one of the oldest combo decks. I don't know when the first Channel-powered Fireball was cast, but maybe no one knows for sure: it's a pretty obvious combo. I used to have my own deck that used the combo, but with Kaervek's Torch (this was long before Banefire was printed). Perhaps not quite as famous as using Channel on Fireball itself is the first-turn kill with any source of red mana (could be a simple Mountain), Black Lotus, Channel, and Fireball. For whatever reason, it seems to be the most famous first-turn kill in the history of the game. Using Channel in this way could be risky (in the Black Lotus example, one would pay 19 life to Channel, but play Fireball for 20 damage to the opponent), but fast enough to make up for that.

Channel's infamous combo with Fireball was, as far as I can tell, the original impetus behind banning the card (technically, it was restricted, then banned, then restricted again, all in the 1990's) in all tournament formats. But this is an incomplete picture of the card's power. Channel is one of the most powerful mana accelerants ever printed. Even if Fireball and all versions of it were eliminated from Magic somehow, Channel would still need to be restricted. It's entirely possible that Fireball-type interactions are not even the most powerful combos with Channel. But they're the simplest and the oldest. Since the card has generally been unavailable for tournaments, little actual deckbulding seems to have been done with the card. While Channel undoubtedly has a wealth of possible combo decks that could be built with it, I've never really seen them. Maybe I should do some testing...

Read More Articles by Stephen Bahl!

 - Wednesday (July 18. 2018)
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 - Thursday (Feb. 15, 2018)
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