Magic Memories: Dark Ritual


The Tentacled One
During some downtime at work, I slogged through some online training. And while I'll still do that, the queue is prodigious and sometimes I want to do something that doesn't make me want to gouge my eyes out. Part of that has been the CPA. Indeed, I am at work right now. Call me Spiderman. Anyway, there's not much going on here and I had the notion to write something. I have deliberated and I am not sufficiently determined to be writing substantial articles at work. They take too much time and I can see to them best when I have large chunks of time (I actually do have real work to be doing, at least most of the time). Besides, the article submission button is broken and I'd have to pester Spiderman to post an article on the front page. And who wants to go to the front page anyway? Not me.

So it's to be forum posts, then. And the first thing that comes to mind is having a bunch of little vignettes about cards over the years. I'm sure other people have a lot of them too. So feel free to follow the same formula, either posting in threads that I start here or starting new ones for other cards. My idea is simply that, as it strikes my fancy, I'll wax nostalgic, recounting some of the events around a card for which I've already posted a thread, or start a new one if there isn't already a suitable thread. And the best card to start with is one of my old favorites: Dark Ritual.

It's such a simple concept, and so potent. It defined black decks for many years. It was reprinted over a dozen times. It's so powerful that it was a feature of the metagame in nearly every format that had it, even getting banned (unfairly, I think) in Extended at one point. And yet, Dark Ritual is gradually diminishing in prevalence. It was once so ubiquitous that for any deck heavily including black cards not to run it was unusual. Back then, I thought it was a permanent staple of the game. But we've long since reached a point where the majority of players have never used Dark Ritual, simply because it hasn't been included in the sets released since they started playing. In tournament gameplay, it is only legal in Legacy and Vintage. In both formats, it has continued to function as an accelerant for combo decks, but its once-common role as a tempo play in other decks has fallen by the wayside, and even the combo decks are eschewing Dark Ritual these days. In more casual settings, it is often either too old a card for the players involved or simply not suitable due to the environment (it's not a particularly good card in most Commander decks). While it hasn't vanished from gameplay so thoroughly as some other classic staples, it is a bit striking that something once so ubiquitous, and still clearly a good card, is turning into a sort of historical relic.

Well, that's a start. With other cards, I'll probably tend more toward specific anecdotes. Dark Ritual wasn't usually the key card in big plays that made for memorable stories, just a very common piece of utility that made other things faster...


The Tentacled One
My enthusiasm for combo decks is probably pretty well-established around here by now. And Dark Ritual has become primarily a combo card. In combo decks, it can be used to put out key pieces faster, for an earlier attempted kill. It also adds to the storm count and can, in some engines, provide large bursts of mana. But Dark Ritual isn't just a combo card. It was used extensively even in old days before Mirage and the resurgence of dedicated combo decks. The truly classic usage of Dark Ritual may now be essentially extinct. But, once upon a time, it was a blast to play in control decks and aggro decks.

My old favorite was first turn Dark Ritual into Necropotence. But there were a lot of options...

-First turn Hypnotic Specter.
- First turn Duress, then Sinkhole (on the draw, of course).
- First turn Duress, then Hymn to Tourach.
-First turn Illusionary Mask into Phyrexian Dreadnought.
-Second turn Pestilence.
-Second turn Persecute.
-A surprise early game Pox after dropping some artifacts.
-An early Nevinyrral's Disk against aggro.
-Fuel for Mind Twist, Drain Life, Death Cloud, or even Howl from Beyond.
-Stealing an early win off an unblocked creature with Hatred.

It really was versatile.


Well-Known Member
It is pretty amazing that Dark Ritual is no longer used as a tempo accelerator for aggressive decks. It was also interesting to me when there was an article recently that asked after a Dark Ritual, whether you should cast Thoughtseize or Hymn to Tourach first, and it occurred to me that no top Legacy decks actually play Ritual, Thoughtseize and Hymn together.


The Tentacled One
The most mainstream deck that might conceivably run all three is Pox, and yeah, no one really considers it a top Legacy deck these days. Probably also the most mainstream deck to use Dark Ritual at all for any purpose besides trying to go with a fast combo kill. Of course, if you have a bad attitude like I do, playing monoblack is an acceptable outlet for trolling the uninitiated. "That sure is a lot of creature tokens you just made and I have no creatures left on my side of the board. Scary. Now, I notice that you're running a pretty greedy manabase. I don't know how I feel about you having access to all of those colors, but this here Sinkhole has some strong feelings on the matter. At least you have creatures even if you are now short on land. Don't worry: The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale can help with that."

Without knowing what the article said, my take on that particular case is that it depends on the matchup. If you already know that you don't have much chance of manascrewing your opponent, playing Hymn first reduces your chances of hitting a land with random discards when you'd rather be hitting business spells. But if you are in a position to make mana production difficult for your opponent, Thoughtseize first will hit a nonland card and increase the chances that the random discards hit lands. That's the biggest concern, probably (a deck playing both Thoughtseize and Hymn is likely to be packing some form of resource denial like Wasteland, Sinkhole, or Rishadan Port).


The Tentacled One
One of the aspects of black, which WotC continues here and there to emphasize (I know Mark Rosewater in particular likes to talk about the color pie and has brought it up on several occasions) is that it is the color with the biggest tendency to push people toward using more of it, because it can do powerful things the more you have of it, especially if you're willing to pay the price (often in the form of directly paying life, or of discarding cards or sacrificing stuff). It's supposed to be dangerous and seductive. Black whispers in your ear, "Hey, you know if you use a lot of me, you can summon a Lord of the Pit, and look how big and strong it is! You have to feed it other creatures, but just look at that thing! You know you want it." "I know you're thinking of using other colors for their utility, but you know, if you put more swamps in your deck instead of those silly islands and mountains, then Cabal Coffers will make so very much mana. Think of all the great things you could do with that much mana. But you have to have swamps to get the mana. Is that too much to ask?" "With Pestilence, the more black mana you have, the more damage you can do to everything. Sure, you'll be damaging yourself, but think of how powerful it is. It's got to be black mana though, so you'd better be able to make a lot of black mana." Dark Ritual was a valuable component of that aspect. Over the years, other cards definitely followed in its footsteps: Songs of the Damned, Rain of Filth, Lake of the Dead, Liliana of the Dark Realms, Burnt Offering, and so on. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, WotC never really chose to explore that aspect of black more ambitiously. They decided that Dark Ritual was "too powerful" and limited design space, but then they shoehorned black into being the least self-sufficient color for actually being able to provide utility, which makes it difficult to live up to the seductive "use more of me" ideal. Oh, black gets good cards, sure. But it, along with red, is the color least capable of dealing with opposing enchantments. It is singularly terrible at dealing with opposing artifacts. It is good at dealing with opposing creatures (so are all of the other colors) and it can kill planeswalkers (so can all of the other colors).

Even if Dark Ritual was reprinted, with today's card design, I don't know how prevalent it would be.


The Tentacled One
I can understand the rationale behind abandoning Dark Ritual. As long as the card is in the environment, black three-drops can effectively be black one-drops. Supposedly, WotC R&D originally pulled Hypnotic Specter from the core set because they thought that it was too powerful, only to later grasp that the acceleration by Dark Ritual was the real culprit. I get it. I really do. Ultimately, I think it was a mistake, and I should talk about that at some point. But there's no doubt that Dark Ritual really does enhance black three-drops. I've already mentioned Hypnotic Specter, Necropotence, Pox, and Yawgmoth's Will. Some other good cards to push out with Dark Ritual (sometimes on turn one, sometimes later) include...

Liliana of the Veil
Infernal Contract
Underworld Dreams
Buried Alive
Royal Assassin
Plague Spitter
Phyrexian Negator
Dark Tutelage
Haunting Misery
Season of the Witch


Man Among Gods
I remember when I was first playing loving the (very rare) first turn Sengir Vampire off of a double Dark Ritual draw. That was tough to stop.


Administrative Assistant
Staff member
Or the Black Knight/Erg Raiders + Unholy Strength on turn 1...Not as hard to stop but slightly more consistent...:)


The Tentacled One
Or the Black Knight/Erg Raiders + Unholy Strength on turn 1...Not as hard to stop but slightly more consistent...:)
I have an old computer that still runs the first Magic computer game (the one with the "Shandalar" mode). I occasionally play a few fun games against the AI, and Swamp with Dark Ritual into Black Knight and Unholy Strength is a very common first-turn play for me.

Hm, I should try posting my decks from that game in the Decks section here. See if anyone has ideas I never thought of...


Administrative Assistant
Staff member
I have an old comp I try to play the game on sometimes, but it really doesn't work very well...:(


The Tentacled One
The Shandalar portion of the game, with the world map and all that, is buggy even on my old Windows 2000 machine, albeit still playable. But the mode that lets you just play Magic against an AI works even on my laptop. It didn't work on my new desktop, but for all I know, it's a simple fix in the settings.

It's too bad they don't make a new game that does what that game did. Because while its age shows, it's really fun. Magic Duels could learn some lessons from it.

And when I did play through the Shandalar game, Dark Ritual was my bread and butter. I think on every playthrough, I eventually built up a deck that chained Dark Ritual and Contract from Below into a fast combo kill, easily defeating enemies while grinding for Power 9 cards.


Administrative Assistant
Staff member
When I did get it to work I usually ended up with a R/W deck that had cards like Savannah Lions and White Knights in it to get in fast beats while using STP's and Lightning Bolts for opposing creatures. A couple Serra Angels were my finishers if I remember right, though if a Shivan Dragon made an appearance or 2 it wouldn't be too farfetched.

Ahhh, the good ol' days...:)


The Tentacled One
You guys have no idea how tempted I've been over the past 11 months to make other posts in this thread. I kinda moved away from it when I was still getting a handle on this whole "Magic Memories" concept and purposely didn't add new posts to this one. I was worried I'd go overboard with it. At some point, so many things came back to Dark Ritual. I'd been thinking about mentioning such topics as the artwork used on Dark Ritual and the best "payloads" for Dark Ritual from different eras of Magic. Stephen Menendian wrote a whole book about Gush. I feel like I could write a book about Dark Ritual. But I'm not a successful tournament player with a depth of insight on advanced strategy. I'm just some guy who really likes Dark Ritual.

Well, I bumped into something intriguing. It's something that, logically, I've known for many years. I just, I guess, didn't think about it...

So on a Magic YouTube content person doing some Magic history videos did a video on the "mana source" card type. Even though he tried to explain what it was, the entire concept clearly bewildered players who weren't around back then. To briefly recap...

Magic's rules were not originally formalized because there was not a perceived need for this. In 1995, Fourth Edition was released and came with an update that attempted to codify the rules, but the descriptions were only mostly adequate. If you ever browse some Fourth Edition rules material, it all has a kind of spurious quality to it, like the writer is hand-waving in explanations. Fifth Edition marked what was, at the time, a huge change. It was the first time WotC were really systematic and comprehensive about the rules. I really wish I still had my old hard copy of the Fifth Edition rulebook. With all of the weird old Magic paraphernalia I managed to hang onto, you'd think I'd have it. Alas, it is truly lost. Anyway, Fifth Edition rules provided real, structured systems that generally covered the bases. A kind of "make the rules comprehensive, but also try to make the cards keep doing what they've been doing already for the past four years without a real rules system." In trying to make this work, there were some odd side effects. Most famous among these was the "mana source" card type. Fifth Edition rules, for anyone who doesn't remember or wasn't there, did not use the stack, as it had not yet been invented. Spells were played in "series and batches." Playing an instant started a batch, and subsequent instants would be added to the batch. A batch of instants could be frozen by an interrupt, a card type that was like an instant, but faster. Once a batch of interrupts was started, that whole batch had to be resolved before returning to the batch of instants. This was very similar to the less formal "LIFO" system Fourth Edition had been using. Because of the way mana was generated and used to pay for spells, it would be a problem within these rules for something that generated mana to be responded to with an interrupt. To resolve this, the architects of Fifth Edition rules retroactively changed all instance of mana-production to be played "as a mana source." A mana source was an effect that was faster than an interrupt, and nothing could respond to it. Most mana sources were abilities, things like the activated abilities on Llanowar Elves or Sol Ring. But some cards directly generated mana as their entire effect! And that meant the card type was "mana source." It's one of those occasionally trotted out bits of Magic trivia that only two cards were printed with "Mana Source" on the type line: Dark Ritual and Culling the Weak.

What the guy in the video didn't make clear was that those two were the only printed cards with mana source card type lines, it was still the case under Fifth Edition rules that other mana-making spells were mana sources. For instance, Sacrifice was printed as an interrupt and is now an instant, but from 1997 to 1999, it was officially mana source. What he did point out, which I knew but hadn't considered very much, was that during this window, Dark Ritual was effectively uncounterable. In a way, Dark Ritual got a significant boost in functionality in 1996 (I've been saying "Fifth Edition rules" but some of the initial groundwork came with updates in Mirage, several months before Fifth Edition itself was released) and had it taken away in 1999, with the Sixth Edition rules changes. Interesting. That wasn't what really got my attention, though. While I was clarifying something in a comment, I noted that Culling the Weak had been printed as a mana source in Exodus and Dark Ritual was printed as a mana source...

...four times.

Seriously. I counted. See?

So, for further emphasis...

The window of time during which "mana source" was a card type was from October of 1996 to April of 1999. During that window, Dark Ritual was printed in one core set and three expansion sets for a total of four different iterations.

I mean, I knew that. I've always known that. I collect Dark Rituals. I have copies of all of those. I played with all of those sets. Fifth Edition was practically my first set. So I'm not taken by surprise here. I just hadn't seen anyone state it like that before. Yes, obviously Dark Ritual is in those sets. It's just that when I think about it, that window isn't really very big. Just a few years. Short enough that only one other card snuck in with the short-lived card type. And yet Dark Ritual didn't just make it in, it did it four times. Other bit of Magic trivia to trot out: Dark Ritual is the only card that's been printed with three different card types.

Even dismissing the distinction of the defunct card type, it's worth noting that not only was Dark Ritual in the first five core sets, but it was also in the first expansion of every block in the 90's. All of them. I counted again. See? The first block of expansions was Ice Age, which wasn't originally going to be a block at all, but was later made into one...

...and then there was Mirage Block...

...up next was Rath Block...

...followed by the glorious Urza's Block...

...and finally Masques Block closed out the decade...

That's quite the distinction. Wizards of the Coast at that time looked at a card that they were putting in every core set and thought, "We'd better also shove it into the expansion sets."


Metacompositional Theoretician
Never printed in Modern...that is wild for a card I consider a classic staple of the game. I really like the Mercadian Masques version of the card - cool art, nice flavor text, and finally arriving at the Instant type.


The Tentacled One
Never printed in Modern...that is wild for a card I consider a classic staple of the game. I really like the Mercadian Masques version of the card - cool art, nice flavor text, and finally arriving at the Instant type.
I think Dark Ritual was an excellent choice for a card to give Rebecca Guay to illustrate. In retrospect, I wonder why they didn't do it sooner. It's also a bit of a shame that instead of reusing that artwork for reprints (Battle Royale, Beatdown, Duel Decks, Planechase, From the Vault), they consistently reused the art from Fifth Edition.

I own at least one of all of the artworks!
I don't! But only because of the Amonkhet Invocation version.

I don't dislike the art, but that frame is ugly.