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The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 17: Comprehensive Retrospective Set Review of First & Second Edition, Part 7
By Stephen Bahl
Nether Shadow
Creature — Spirit

At the beginning of your upkeep, if Nether Shadow is in your graveyard with three or more creature cards above it, you may put Nether Shadow onto the battlefield.


When I started playing Magic, Nether Shadow was still in the core set. I didn't use the card much myself, but I saw a lot of other players try Nether Shadow in casual decks. Often, these attempts focused on the fact that if one get four Nether Shadows in one's graveyard, the recursion ability never runs out of fuel. Of course, that circumstance is difficult to achieve and doesn't really do very much anyway. Four copies of Nether Shadow makes for a pretty ineffectual combo. Since a 1/1 for BB is puny anyway, most serious players didn't seem inclined to bother with Nether Shadow. If the card ever appeared in a tournament deck back when it was still considered a current card, I must have missed that. But Nether Shadow did go on to inspire other takes on the same concept, with the resilient Nether Spirit (typically employed as an easily reusable sacrifice) being the most notable. The original Nether Shadow languished in obscurity for a while, but has turned out to be a viable choice in dredge decks. This makes Nether Shadow a rare example of a very old card that went from having no tournament relevance to actually having a tournament niche, more than a dozen years later.

Craw Wurm
Creature — Wurm


A wall of flavor text is no substitute for playability. It's completely obsolete and was a bad card from the start, but Craw Wurm is iconic. Wurms in Magic got off to a pretty bad start, epitomizing the old-fashioned idea that high power and toughness could be balanced by exorbitant mana costs. Craw Wurm also highlights another concept that was prevalent from the beginning of the game, although it was not emphasized: rares get to be a lot better than commons. Compare Shivan Dragon, a rare, to Craw Wum, a common. The original wurm was lackluster all the way around, but wurms stuck around (there are now 76 of them). Other early takes on the concept were also mediocre. Eventually, we got some good ones, like Winding Wurm, Argothian Wurm, Scaled Wurm, Endless Wurm, Symbiotic Wurm, Wurmcoil Engine, and Arrogant Wurm. But it all started with Craw Wurm.

Plague Rats
Creature — Rat

Plague Rats's power and toughness are each equal to the number of creatures named Plague Rats on the battlefield.


In the first two core sets, this card was printed with “X/X” as its power and toughness, instead of the standard “*/*.” That's not actually important, but it just occurred to me to note it, so I did. Like Craw Wurm, Plague Rats in the original core set was the only representative of what would later become a widespread creature type, boasting much better cards than the outdated original. Rats have been used in a variety of ways, but the idea, first displayed in Plague Rats, of having them become more powerful with greater numbers has been an ongoing theme. Pestilence Rats, Swarm of Rats, and Relentless Rats continued this trend, which culminated in the considerably more powerful Pack Rat.But rats aren't content to just overwhelm enemies with superior numbers. They've learned other tricks too. In Kamigawa, at least, this even extends to ninja training.

Ironroot Treefolk
Creature — Treefolk


What do you notice about Ironroot Treefolk? Is it that it's yet another bland creature with a wall of flavor text and no abilities? That's what I noticed. But apparently, that's not what Wizards of the Coast noticed. What proved to be the important point about Ironroot Treefolk was that its power was lower than its toughness. Like Craw Wurm and Plague Rats, Ironroot Treefolk spawned the development of an entire creature type. And apparently, the rule of thumb for treefolk is that they can't dish it out quite as well as they can take it. Trees are tough, after all. Well, technically, by that line of reasoning, all treefolk should have 0 power, as trees cannot move. Trees are sessile. Stationary. Immobile. Of course if magic is used on them, they can move around. No one with any sense would question that! But if trees become capable of movement, why would they not be able to hit very hard? I realize that a tree cannot punch me. It doesn't have any muscles or nerves, nor any other means of accomplishing such a feat. But hypothetically, if a tree could punch me, I'd like to think that it could punch me pretty hard.

Glasses of Urza

T: Look at target player's hand.

Urza would later have his eyes replaced by the Mightstone and the Weakstone. Presumably, this event was what rendered Glasses of Urza obsolete.

Sunglasses of Urza

You may spend white mana as though it were red mana.

Oh yes: more Urza and more glasses. Urza would go on to become one of the most important characters in Magic. His war against his brother, Mishra, would change the world. He would become a planeswalker and get his own entire block. But it all started with Urza as an unidentified person who inexplicably had magic eyewear. Then again, a lot of people own both glasses and sunglasses, so maybe this totally makes sense.


Destroy target nonartifact, nonblack creature. It can't be regenerated.

With Terror, Magic gave black its first dedicated creature removal spell. And even by today's standards, Terror isn't so bad. Some players eschew it in favor of later spells that have fewer limitations on what they can target, while other players fall back on the original for its regeneration-blocking utility. Although Terror and spells like it are a perfectly sensible part of the game in some environments, I tend not to bother with this sort of card. Part of the reason is that, even allowing for the “can't be regenerated” clause on Terror and also allowing for the lack of color/artifact targeting restrictions on some of Terror's more recent successors, there are still issues with untargetable creatures, creatures with protection from black, hexproof creatures, indestructible creatures, and such. But mostly, I want to kill my opponent, not my opponent's creatures.


Cast Camouflage only during your declare attackers step.
This turn, instead of declaring blockers, each defending player chooses any number of creatures he or she controls and divides them into a number of piles equal to the number of attacking creatures for whom that player is the defending player. Creatures he or she controls that can block additional creatures may likewise be put into additional piles. Assign each pile to a different one of those attacking creatures at random. Each creature in a pile that can block the creature that pile is assigned to does so.

Did you read all that? I didn't. And that's why Camouflage was cut from the core set early on. Also, the face-down mechanism explained on Camouflage as it was originally printed conflicted with the “morph” mechanic that was introduced later in the game, so Camouflage was reworked, although the result is still a card that no one wants to use anyway, so it doesn't matter. My blurb about this card is shorter than its Oracle text.

Unholy Strength
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature gets +2/+1.

Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature gets -2/-1.

These cards were printed at the same time and coexisted in the core set on several occasions. I find this to be a pretty good point of comparison, as their effects are inversions of each other. And, as is obvious to any experienced player, Unholy Strength is easily the stronger card. In Magic, there are cards that boost power, cards that boost toughness, and cards that boost both. But boosting power is preferred over boosting toughness. There are also cards that take away power, cards that take away toughness, and cards that take away both. Taking away toughness is preferred over taking away power. Another factor is that, by its nature as a power-boosting effect, Unholy Strength is proactive: the extra point of toughness may never come up, but most of the card is focused on boosting power, which can be used to attack. Weakness is reactive: it only accomplishes anything if an opponent has a creature and is attempting to use that creature in combat, or if the creature only has a single toughness and could be killed by Weakness. While these differences can't really be quantified, they are sufficient to make Unholy Strength a much better card than Weakness.

Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature can't be blocked except by Walls.

One nice thing about Invisibility and similar cards is that no one uses walls anymore anyway, so it's almost like having true unblockability. However, Invisibility usually just isn't worth the mana. Wizards of the Coast appear to have concluded (like the rest of us) that Invisibility was overcosted. This led to later attempts at the same concept, such as Cloak of Invisibility, Cloak of Mists, and Writ of Passage. Aqueous Form is the latest and greatest in this line of cards.

Howl from Beyond

Target creature gets +X/+0 until end of turn.

On an unblocked creature, Howl from Beyond is a sort of black Fireball pointed at an opponent. On a blocked creature, Howl from Beyond can kill a blocker that would otherwise live, but usually this results in a trade, which results in card disadvantage. Howl from Beyond's effect is proportional to mana spent on it, which means that it generally locks down one's mana for the turn it is being used. The combination of card disadvantage and tempo loss are deleterious enough to make an otherwise powerful card into something that even casual players generally disregard.

Control Magic
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
You control enchanted creature.

Replaced in later core sets with Mind Control, a strictly worse reprint, doing the same thing for more mana. I consider this to be an overreaction. Control Magic is good, but it is not overpowered. Cards that could do things like Control Magic have been very powerful, such as Vedalken Shackles. The original is simple, but still fairly effective. I could see myself still using Control Magic in some sort of blue casual deck, probably one that is based around taking other people's things. I used to have a deck a lot like that, actually.

Power Leak
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant enchantment
At the beginning of the upkeep of enchanted enchantment's controller, that player may pay any amount of mana. Power Leak deals 2 damage to that player. Prevent X of that damage, where X is the amount of mana that player paid this way.

While the Oracle text isn't so heinous, it is rather bizarre. Power Leak, while an easy concept to understand, is apparently difficult to template. I have Fourth Edition copies of this card. They have the phrase “may pay 1 for each damage he or she wishes to prevent from Power Leak.” Note that this never actually says that the damage is prevented, only that the controller of the enchantment may pay 1 for each damage he or she wishes to prevent. The current version, allowing a surplus of mana to be paid, is functionally different, but with the removal of mana burn from the game, this difference in functionality is negligible—much like Power Leak itself, which has always been a mediocre card.

White Ward
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has protection from white. This effect doesn't remove White Ward.

Blue Ward
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has protection from blue. This effect doesn't remove Blue Ward.

Black Ward
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has protection from black. This effect doesn't remove Black Ward.

Red Ward
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has protection from red. This effect doesn't remove Red Ward.

Green Ward
Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has protection from green. This effect doesn't remove Green Ward.

Much like the circles of protection, the original cycle of wards has the flaw that all wards against colors opponents are not using are dead draws. A red ward does nothing against a blue player, and so on. But having multiple wards to ensure proper color coverage leads to even more dead draws. Blah, blah, blah, I explained this already for the circles of protection. And like the circles of protection, the wards inspired later cards that used different takes on the same concept, such as Artifact Ward, Prismatic, Ward of Lights, Tattoo Ward, and Guildscorn Ward. Flickering Ward is probably the best of the lot, but they're all rather underwhelming cards.

Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature gets +0/+2 and has reach.

Reach was not a keyword when Web was originally printed, so of course a phrase was used. The silly original text on Web had “can now block creatures with flying, though it does not gain the power to fly.” Web is an almost completely defensive aura, its only offensive application being that the extra 2 toughness could allow an attacker to survive a block that would normally kill it. Most people do not think to themselves, “I sure wish that I could dedicate more slots in my deck to cards that give me slightly more blocking coverage.” It's not that defensive enchantments have no place in Magic, but that auras present the risk of card disadvantage and need to provide something of substance to mitigate that risk. Web does not.

Enchantment — Aura

Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has mountainwalk.

I could reexamine the problems inherent in color-specific hosers, but instead I'll just point out that in a red on red mirror match, your first concern is probably not that your opponent is beating you by blocking your attackers too much. Evasion in general is nice to have, but not when it is so highly situational.

Copper Tablet

At the beginning of each player's upkeep, Copper Tablet deals 1 damage to that player.

Much of the deckbuilding in Magic, at nearly every level, has focused on breaking symmetrical effects, especially on artifacts and enchantments. Making it such that a car that inherently helps or hurts all players equally has its effect in some way altered or interacted with so as to stop being symmetrical is a well-established, powerful, and widespread aspect of combo. Copper Tablet, which has been around since the beginning of the game, hasn't really been a part of this, and there's an important reason for this: it is just too weak to bother with. Copper Tablet could be the original poster child for a design issue that would go on to plague several other cards: symmetrical effects need to actually do something worth possible attempts at interaction.

Winter Orb

Players can't untap more than one land during their untap steps.

As a “continuous artifact” Winter Orb originally only functioned if it was untapped. For years, one of the most iconic combos in Magic was Winter Orb + Icy Manipulator. By activating the Icy Manipulator at the end of one's opponent's turn, Winter Orb would be tapped, so one's own lands would untap as normal, along with both Winter Orb and Icy Manipulator. With just one mana being used to keep the Icy Manipulator going, one have Winter Orb's ability act in a one-sided manner, turned off for oneself and turn on for any opponents. The Sixth Edition rules changes did away with this, but then a few of the old artifacts that had exploited the old off switch received errata to preserve that functionality with “if X is untapped” lines added into their text. In 2011, Wizards of the Coast reversed that decision as part of their policy of cleaning up errata. In the case of Howling Mine, the card had been reprinted while the errata were still in effect. Winter Orb had not been reprinted since the change, killing the famous Winter Orb + Icy Manipulator combo a second time. And now it is almost certainly gone forever.

So, what about Winter Orb without the off switch? Well, it's actually still a decent card. Rising Waters, an enchantment with abilities that make it very similar to Winter Orb, costs twice as much mana and was used successfully in tournaments. I remember being confused at the time because, even though I'd actually been playing Magic for a few years when Rising Waters came out, I was young and unfamiliar with the details behind competitive Magic. I didn't understand why tournament players would be using Rising Waters when Winter Orb was a cheaper way to get the same effect (but Winter Orb wasn't legal in Standard). Even if Winter Orb will never be as good as it once was, it seems like it is still a fine card for casual control decks.

Volcanic Eruption

Destroy X target Mountains. Volcanic Eruption deals damage to each creature and each player equal to the number of Mountains put into a graveyard this way.

Volcanic Eruption is a very strange card. As far as flavor goes, it makes perfect sense: explosive volcanic eruptions involve seawater infiltrating magma in Eath's crust, dramatically increasing the gas content, and therefore the pressure, when the magma reaches the surface. These eruptions can destroy mountains and anything else in proximity. So there's a kind of sense behind having this be a blue spell that destroys mountains and damages things. But can a blue deck actually find a use for this? It's a red-hoser, not something that is useful against a broad spectrum of opponents. It also deals symmetrical damage to creatures and players, something that blue would probably rather avoid doing against red. But the real problem is the exorbitant mana cost. Many players probably overlook Volcanic Eruption as just a weird card, but the confluence of these drawbacks could make it actually one of the worst cards in the original core set.

Psionic Blast

Psionic Blast deals 4 damage to target creature or player and 2 damage to you.

This one freaks people out, especially newer players who aren't familiar with old cards. Blue isn't the color that gets direct damage spells. What about the color pie? Yeah, yeah, Psionic Blast is unusual. But how playable is it? Well, I have used it, but only a little. Most players are more likely to be familiar with Char, a red reprint of Psionic Blast. Char is a decent burn spell in some decks, but those decks might not be running blue. And really, the obvious distinction is the important one here. Psionic Blast is an instant speed burn spell in blue. This is, of course, unusual. But it's good to have options.

Creature — Nightmare Horse

Nightmare's power and toughness are each equal to the number of Swamps you control.


I've never understood why Nightmare became such a core set staple. It's not a bad card, but it doesn't seem particularly remarkable either. As far as I can tell, Nightmare became iconic through sheer attrition. It has never been a tournament powerhouse and it hasn't been particularly popular with casual players, but it has been in core sets so much, only skipping three years in a row, but then reappearing in the 2014 core set. And all of that adds up. While I wouldn't normally bother to use Nightmare in any of my own decks, I won't complain: it's actually a pretty efficient card for monoblack decks.

The Hive

5, T: Put a 1/1 colorless Insect artifact creature token with flying named Wasp onto the battlefield.

The Hive had a surprisingly prolific run in core sets for a card from which no player has ever felt any joy. Do I want to pay five mana for an artifact that doesn't do anything but let me pay five more mana and tap it to get a single token? No. Would I play the card if my other option were to shoot myself in the face? I guess. To be fair, this was the first token-generator ever. So I guess it has its historical distinction with that tidbit. It might also be the worst token-generator ever, which would be yet another distinction.

Creature — Fungus Lizard

Whenever Fungusaur is dealt damage, put a +1/+1 counter on it.


I was looking for a few cards to add to the end of this week's article, and I knew as soon as I saw Fungusaur that it had to be next. Of course, this is why. Poor Fungusaur was printed as a fungusaur in six different core sets, but then Wizards of the Coast decided that “fungusaur” couldn't be a creature type, so it was edited to be a fungus lizard instead. Obviously, this is an atrocity, as we all know that fungusaurs are not lizards at all.

Anyway, I used to try to use Fungusaur a lot, and if one has a reliable way to damage it repeatedly and in a controlled manner, then it can get big very quickly. But there are more efficient ways to get really big creatures. Fungusaur doesn't have what it takes to be a really strong card. But I suppose that it can be fun.

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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