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The Comboist Manifesto: A/B/U Retrospective Part 2
By Stephen Bahl
The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 12: Comprehensive Retrospective Set Review of First & Second Edition, Part 2

Dark Ritual
Add BBB to your mana pool.

Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt deals 3 damage to target creature or player.

Giant Growth
Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn.

Healing Salve
Choose one — Target player gains 3 life; or prevent the next 3 damage that would be dealt to target creature or player this turn.

Along with Ancestral Recall, these cards made up the original “boons” cycle: five instants, each costing one mana, and providing three of something. Obviously, not all boons are equal in power. Wizards of the Coast seemed to have some understanding of this from the beginning: Ancestral Recall was a rare and the other four were commons. I've seen it asserted that the black and red instants were too strong, the green one was just right, and the white one was too weak. This isn't quite right. The situation is more complicated than that.

Dark Ritual was reprinted many, many times. It is a very good accelerant, especially for combo decks, but it was part of the game for a long time without being considered overpowered. Wizards of the Coast did eventually stop including Dark Ritual in core sets after Fifth Edition, but it was still seen in expansions up to Mercadian Masques. Dark Ritual was a tournament staple everywhere it was allowed, and continues to be one in formats that still contain the card, but it was almost never banned (Dark Ritual was banned once in Extended, because someone at the time really wanted to keep Necropotence from being banned, but that hardly counts). What took Dark Ritual out of circulation wasn't so much a gradual realization of its power as it was a new approach to the color pie. Wizards of the Coast decided that Dark Ritual was more of a red effect, so the original, a black card, no longer made sense as a constantly reprinted staple. Some of the red successors to Dark Ritual, such as Seething Song, are actually pretty good, although the original still has them beat for sheer utility. Back when Dark Ritual was being reprinted, and therefore relatively more popular than it is now, any black-heavy deck would use the card. As it drifted out of common usage and into the “Eternal” tournament formats, Vintage and Legacy, Dark Ritual did garner more focus as a combo-enabler than as a generic accelerant. But I'll definitely be writing more about Dark Ritual in the future.

Lightning Bolt was, in later core sets, replaced with a strictly weaker version of itself. Lightning Bolt remained in core sets through Fourth Edition, and was replaced in Sixth Edition with Stronghold's Shock (Fifth Edition had Incinerate, but no one-mana burn spell). However, Lightning Bolt was eventually reprinted in later sets, including Magic 2010 and Magic 2011. Lightning Bolt is a very good card, and has a good chance of showing up in any red deck that has access to it. The only problem with Lightning Bolt is that there can't be too many cards that do the same thing as it. We already have Chain Lightning, Rift Bolt, and Lava Spike, all of which can, at the cost of one mana, hit an opponent for 3 damage. Too many more of those and pure direct damage aggro decks (Burn) get a reliable third-turn clock, which isn't something we want. Unlike Ancestral Recall and Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt isn't an interesting card for combo decks. But for aggro decks, and even for some control decks, Lightning Bolt is great, either as a removal spell, or as a direct means of lowering an opponent's life total.

Healing Salve isn't a bad card, although admittedly it's not nearly as useful as Dark Ritual or Lightning Bolt. It was reprinted in core sets through Eighth Edition and made it into some expansions too. Healing Salve did see play in that time as a niche common in defensive decks, but probably more than its relative blandness as an instant, what eventually killed Healing Salve was that it had a dash in its textbox (Wizards of the Coast decided at some point to use an em dash with spaces around it when spells offer choices for what their effects are). Healing Salve presents a choice. Either one uses it to cause a player to gain 3 life or one uses it to prevent 3 damage to a creature or player. While many later cards do this, it is understandably not attractive for a basic, staple common in core sets. Healing Salve's poor reputation is largely a result of its comparison to the other original “boons.” While it's unimpressive compared to the other four, Healing Salve isn't that bad.

Giant Growth has been reprinted more than any of the other boons. For casual play, it's a strong utility card, useful as a combat trick to kill an attacker or blocker by pumping up one's own creature. Because Giant Growth has been a fixture of the game from the beginning, probably all experienced players have seen the card used in that way at some point. But really, Giant Growth's home will always be in green aggro (Stompy) decks, where it is valued more for killing people than for combat tricks. To combo purists, this is mainly of interest because it tells us, “This is what you have to be faster than.”

Pearled Unicorn
Creature — Unicorn

Scathe Zombies
Creature — Zombie

Gray Ogre
Creature — Ogre

Grizzly Bear
Creature — Bear

Vanilla is a type of orchid. The fruits of these orchids are used, either as whole pods or as a ground powder, in various culinary applications. Vanilla is the most common flavor of ice cream, and for some reason, vanilla ice cream often has so little vanilla extract that the ice cream is too bland for any reasonable human palate. It's really more like milk-flavored ice cream than vanilla-flavored ice cream, but it gets packaged and presented as “vanilla.” As a consequence of this, it is an unfortunate fact of the English language that “vanilla” is a slang term for “plain.” This is a bit bizarre, considering that the flavor in actual vanilla pods is quite strong, and the extract that is more commonly seen has an even stronger flavor. Vanilla is certainly not “plain.” But bad ice cream has forever corrupted the connotation of the word. And because of all that, creatures in Magic with no abilities are known as “vanilla.” I don't know if I'm the first person to write an article about Magic that took a tangent into this subject, but I'd like to think so.

The “vanilla test” is sometimes invoked in analyzing creatures, a thought experiment in which one asks, “How good would this creature be for its mana cost if it kept is power and toughness, but had no abilities?” First Edition set the original standard in which white, black, and red can all get a 2/2 for three mana, while green can get a 2/2 for only two mana. Blue doesn't get a vanilla 2/2. All of these creatures are outclassed by newer ones, but really, they weren't particularly good to begin with.

In Gray Ogre's case, there are creatures in this very set that cost 2R for a 2/2 and have useful abilities. I actually nominated Gray Ogre for the CPA's Casual Card Hall of Shame, on the grounds that it was printed in the very first Magic set, but was strictly inferior to other cards in the same set. It's not as though, Wizards of the Coast retroactively decided, “A 2/2 with that ability is too good of a deal for 2R” and then printed Gray Ogre in a new set. Nor could it be the case that Wizards of the Coast looked back on the weak Gray Ogre and said, “Red should be able to get more out of a creature for three mana” so they printed the better cards in a new set. Gray Ogre and the superior versions of it were both released in First Edition. There's no excuse for Gray Ogre, even if one could make excuses for Pearled Unicorn and Scathe Zombies.

As Lich enters the battlefield, you lose life equal to your life total.
You don't lose the game for having 0 or less life.
If you would gain life, draw that many cards instead.
Whenever you're dealt damage, sacrifice that many nontoken permanents. If you can't, you lose the game.
When Lich is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, you lose the game.

Another nominee for the Casual Card Hall of Shame, although I argued against its nomination at the time. Lich is a very strange card. In reviewing the original core set, it is important to emphasize that the designers in 1993 didn't have the experience with the game that, over two decades later, we all benefit from. Still, Lich is a very strange card even by 1993 standards. Most of the original cards are straightforward. Lich has more text than all of them. It costs four black mana, which is the heaviest color requirement out of any of the original cards. It has three drawbacks, one of which is that you lose the game if the enchantment is destroyed. Lich's drawbacks are so severe that the card must have been viewed as unplayable by most players when it was new.

Without cards from later sets, Lich does seem like it would be an obvious candidate for the worst card. Before Legends introduced Mirror Universe, I cannot think of a single reasonable combo that would make Lich viable, even for the most casual of games. I might have to make some sort of challenge for this. What's the best use of Lich that only involves cards from A/B/U?

With access to cards from later sets, Lich combo decks are possible and can be fun and effective. But that's a topic for another article.

Ivory Cup
Whenever a player casts a white spell, you may pay 1. If you do, you gain 1 life.

Crystal Rod
Whenever a player casts a blue spell, you may pay 1. If you do, you gain 1 life.

Throne of Bone
Whenever a player casts a black spell, you may pay 1. If you do, you gain 1 life.

Iron Star
Whenever a player casts a red spell, you may pay 1. If you do, you gain 1 life.

Wooden Sphere
Whenever a player casts a green spell, you may pay 1. If you do, you gain 1 life.

The original “lucky charms.” They're, well, kind of bad. Seriously, I don't think I've ever felt any desire to use any of them in any deck. For some unfathomable reason, Wizards of the Coast completely disagrees with me about this. These artifacts, all five of them, were reprinted in every single core set through Eighth Edition. Did Wizards of the Coast come to their senses for Ninth Edition? Being generous, I could say, “kind of.” Ninth Edition brought in a replacement cycle of lucky charms, originally printed in Darksteel. Magic 2014 would later replace the lucky charms again, this time with “Staff of the _____ Magus” cards. I think these are, without exception, a waste of cardboard.

Illusionary Mask
X: You may choose a creature card in your hand whose mana cost could be paid by some amount of, or all of, the mana you spent on X. If you do, you may cast that card face down as a 2/2 creature spell without paying its mana cost. If the creature that spell becomes as it resolves has not been turned face up and would assign or deal damage, be dealt damage, or become tapped, instead it's turned face up and assigns or deals damage, is dealt damage, or becomes tapped. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.

This card has two major claims to fame. Firstly, Illusionary Mask is a bizarre card with an Oracle text that doesn't match the original text at all. In 2002, Wizards of the Coast released Onslaught, a set that introduced “morph” as a mechanic. Creatures with morph could be played face down as 2/2 creatures with their own new section of the comprehensive rules to cover all the intricacies of this. The problem was, Illusionary Mask already existed, and put creatures into play face down. Because of Onslaught, Illusionary Mask received a series of complicated errata similar to the fate of Time Vault, just to keep the card from causing rules problems. The current iteration is much cleaner and simpler than previous attempts.

Illusionary Mask is also famous for a combo with Phyrexian Dreadnought. This combo, which would still potentially be of some use to those of us that actually have access to Illusionary Mask, is important enough that it's worth mentioning a particular historical circumstance here: Phyrexian Dreadnought was another victim of a power-level erratum. I'll save most of my details on that for a hypothetical retrospective set review of Mirage at some later date, but the gist of it is that, for a long time, Phyrexian Dreadnought did not work with most methods to cheat it into play. Illusionary Mask, unlike those other methods, was unaffected by the erratum. The little-known combo was featured by InQuest magazine in their “Enter the Dragon” list of the top 50 two-card combos (totally unrelated note: I think I just found an article topic to steal for The Comboist Manifesto). Illusionary Mask + Phyrexian Dreadnought was number one. I don't know for sure how much of a role the InQuest feature played in this, but around that time, Illusionary Mask, which had been an obscure old rare with an overly complicated Oracle text, became a much more popular card (I think a later InQuest article did say they liked to think they were largely responsible for the spike in Illusionary Mask's price on the secondary market, but I don't think I actually have a copy of that article to reference). Although the pieces of the combo are rather weak on their own, the combo is compact, cheap, has no color requirements, and fits into a variety of decks. I saw MaskNought control-combo decks, MaskNought aggro-combo decks, and pure MaskNought combo decks. Some decks relying on the combo even became prominent tournament archetypes in Vintage. Ever since Phyrexian Dreadnought shed its power-level erratum, Illusionary Mask hasn't had quite the exclusive association to Phyrexian Dreadnought. Stifle has largely replaced Illusionary Mask as a cheap way to get Phyrexian Dreadnought out.

Basic Land — Plains

Basic Land — Island

Basic Land — Swamp

Basic Land — Mountain

Basic Land — Forest

Yes, I am reviewing basic lands. Well, out of all cards in the original set, these ones have been reprinted the most. They're the most recognizable cards in the game, and a fun subject for comparisons of different artwork styles. Card art is not the focus of The Comboist Manifesto, so I won't say much about it. Since basic lands lend themselves to it, I might comment on the evolution of basic land artwork as I review later sets. Beta introduced one new artwork for each basic land that had not appeared in the Alpha printing, but all three illustrations for each of the original basic lands were done by one person (Jesper Myrfors for Plains, Mark Poole for Island, Dan Frazier for Swamp, Douglas Shuler for Mountain, and Christopher Rush for Forest).

The viability of basic lands for combo decks and for general gameplay is difficult to state properly. Basic lands are the default mana-producers. Where other cards replace them, it is almost always either for the purposes of making multicolored decks more consistent by using mana-producers that are more versatile (mana-fixing) or in order to produce larger amounts of mana more quickly (acceleration). Alternatives to basic lands always have some drawback, but the drawbacks are often worth it. In “Eternal” formats (Vintage and Legacy), nonbasic lands are so typically used that cards such as Wasteland, Price of Progress, and Back to Basics have often been maindecked. Where all the alternatives are available, basic lands aren't quite as prevalent. Combo decks, in particular, can often get away with running no basic lands whatsoever. In other cases, combo decks use combos that specifically require certain basic lands. More typically, combo decks use a handful of basic lands, but emphasize other mana-producers.

Target player draws X cards.

While it can provide a useful, possibly game-winning, effect for control decks in long games, Braingeyser is at its most potent in combo decks. Because of the obvious power that a medium-to-large Braingeyser provides, the card was included on the original restricted list. I currently have very little information on the logic behind DCI bans and restrictions prior to the late 1990's, but it appears that the initial round of restrictions was very liberally applied to any card that was problematic in the least. Back when cards like the Power 9, Fastbond, and Channel were legal, Braingeyser would have been even easier to break. Braingeyser finally left the Vintage restricted list for good in 2004.

Like Illusionary Mask, Braingeyser was a powerful rare that has, over the years, lost some of its luster. The abundance of more efficient blue draw spells has made Braingeyser suboptimal in most cases. It's still a strong spell: Wizards of the Coast even created a slightly weaker version of it for Magic 2010 with Mind Spring.

Land — Plains Island

Land — Plains Swamp

Land — Mountain Plains

Land — Forest Plains

Underground Sea
Land — Island Swamp

Volcanic Island
Land — Island Mountain

Tropical Island
Land — Forest Island

Land — Swamp Mountain

Land — Swamp Forest

Land — Mountain Forest

As I noted earlier, Volcanic Island was missing from Alpha, but appeared in Beta and Unlimited. The Oracle texts of these lands and the basic lands are unfortunately vague. I never understood why Wizards of the Coast would want to do that. Not long ago (well, it will have been longer ago when this article is finally published, but whatever), I played against a newer player who, looking at the Oracle text, thought Plateau would tap for both a red mana and a white mana at the same time. That was how he interpreted “Mountain Plains.” This would never have been a point of confusion if the Oracle text were as clear as the original text.

The dual lands are, well, really good. Many later sets would release weaker alternatives to the original dual lands, and I'll cover those eventually, if this series continues. But for sheer two-color mana-producing utility, the none of the imitations match the originals.

Read More Articles by Stephen Bahl!

 - Wednesday (July 18. 2018)
 - Thursday (May 17, 2018)
 - Tuesday (Aprl. 24, 2018
 - Monday (Apr. 16, 2018)
 - Friday (Apr. 6, 2018)
 - Wednesday (Apr. 4, 2018)
 - Monday (Apr. 2, 2018)
 - Friday (Mar. 23, 2018)
 - Thursday (Feb. 15, 2018)
 - Thursday (Jan 25, 2018)

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