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Magic Memories: Library of Alexandria


The Tentacled One
Even though some of them have been fairly short, I've kinda enjoyed the "Memories" threads that were about cards I've mostly explored in recent years, rather than the ones I played with back when I was a kid. Stuff like Evolutionary Leap (a card that is only three years old) and Elephant Guide (a card I only started paying much attention to this year). So it occurred to me to do more of those. And I will! But obviously, not quite yet...

When pondering which cards I've taken an interest in relatively recently, I got a bit stuck on a card that is actually among the oldest. Er, among the second-oldest? Whatever. Library of Alexandria has been in the game almost from the beginning. But at first, I didn't take much interest in it because I didn't own the card. It was the most expensive card in Arabian Nights and was one of the old, broken cards anyway. It was the vaunted "Tenth Power." Mysterious. Elusive. And assuredly super-powerful. I didn't play with Library of Alexandria early on and my opponents didn't own it either. So it was outside my experience as a real card, instead being something I knew only as an icon.

But I did begin, using proxies, begin experimenting with friends in playing "powered" Type 1 decks, starting sometime in 2002, I believe. This wasn't very extensive, but technically it would have been my first gameplay with the card. Later, I'd try out Library in the "Shandalar" computer game. And later still, I'd buy my own real-life copy of the card. But that last part was only a couple of years ago.

I've found Library of Alexandria to be one of the most fascinating and subtle cards in the game. Its power and fame are undeniable, but it actually seems to see very little real gameplay, owing to its rarity and to the paucity of environments in which it is legal and available. So I'm not sure how many people can really evaluate the card properly. In fact, I'm not really sure if anyone can. Perhaps that statement seems odd or overly bold, but to some extent it might apply to almost any interesting card. Personal attempts at evaluation are necessarily just incomplete summaries. But for most cards, most of us have some pretty extensive experience to draw on, either looking at the usage of the card itself or looking at the general effect and the usage of similar cards. But even though Library of Alexandria's actual text is pretty simple, the practical applications of the card make it, I've come to believe, among the most unique cards in all of Magic.


The Tentacled One
The original Library of Alexandria, the real one that inspired the card, is famous for having burned down and for the supposed loss of much of the world's most valuable written records at the time. That's how the story goes, and as sad stories go, it's a good one. Some sources attributed the tragic conflagration to fire spread from Julius Caesar's ships in the aftermath of a naval battle nearby. The real history is far murkier. No one really knows how many times the Library burned, when, why, or how much damage was done. We can't even know how much was lost because there weren't records of which works were in the library at the times of the fires or if there were other copies in other libraries. "A big, famous library that was a cultural icon in its day suffered heavy damage from fire at multiple points over a span of a few centuries" isn't quite as catchy as "Mankind's greatest treasure trove of knowledge tragically destroyed as a side effect of war." Oh well.

Anyway, Mark Poole appeared to need more guidance in his depictions. Although he created some of the most iconic classic card illustrations, this one definitely doesn't fit...

While we can't know exactly what the Library really looked like, it certainly wouldn't have had minarets! Oh hey, they did new artwork for it when they made the MTGO Vintage Masters set...

Dammit, more minarets? You guys suck. Why not throw in a helicopter landing pad and a bunch of latticed stonework, while you're at it?


The Tentacled One
Enough about the real Library of Alexandria. One of the most striking details about the card, a factor that is eminently important in the card's place, but virtually unexplored by players across all formats, is something that card does not have. What's missing? The "legendary" supertype.

I've heard that WotC dislike legendary lands and that this is why they've taken to flimsy excuses for not making lands legendary even when, thematically, they really should be. A lot of non-legendary land cards in Modern sets really seem like unique, specific places. Many sets have no legendary lands in them at all. But in some sets, they used the legendary supertype deliberately, putting a constraint on lands that would be too powerful without it (Eye of Ugin, Gaea's Cradle, Inventor's Fair, etc.). However, two small sets were released with non-basic lands before this technology existed. And because of that, the lands in those sets couldn't be legendary, even if they probably should have been.

Other than the original dual lands, only 14 non-basic lands were released before Legends. Of these, definitely not all should have been legendary. Desert, Strip Mine, Elephant Graveyard, and Oasis are obviously meant to be generic and to potentially show up with multiple copies in decks (Desert, especially, may have been designed in a way that didn't account for the implementation of the 4-card rule, and if Richard Garfield had anticipated the 4-card rule, he might have modified the card design). Diamond Valley and City of Brass are ambiguous cases, thematically. Both names seem pretty specific, but it is also plausible that there are multiple places fitting that same description. Urza's Tower, Urza's Power Plant, Urza's Mine, and Mishra's Factory, have names that suggest the possibility of uniqueness, but mechanically they're very clearly meant to function in multiples, and the flavor texts sometimes imply that there were lots of these locations. Mishra's Workshop is a similar case, but mechanically it might have been more balanced if it had been legendary, and the flavor text implies that it might have been unique. If the card had been in Legends instead of Antiquities, it would probably have been made legendary, I'd think. Not too certain about it, though. But that does leave 3 pre-Legends lands that are definitely supposed to be unique places. No way around it. We know that they're unique places because two of them were real places on Earth, like in real life, and the other one says so in its (bizarre) flavor text...

I can't help but pointing that out. Yes, that card really does have the sentence...

The fruit looks like a woman's head, and when ripe speaks the word "Wak."
Yeah. OK, moving on...

Island of Wak-Wak is an irrelevant card anyway, but the fact that the two "real place on Earth for real" lands are not, mechanically, legendary has tremendous gameplay implications.


Nothing Special
I'm sure there's a library in Alexandria, Virginia as well. And I'm almost positive there's more than one bazaar in Baghdad.
Also, thanks for taking the time to tell us all about your feelings on unique non-legendary lands, but NOT answering my questions in Warhammer Quest. :rolleyes:


The Tentacled One
I'm sure there's a library in Alexandria, Virginia as well. And I'm almost positive there's more than one bazaar in Baghdad.
I don't know how many bazaars are in Baghdad today, but my inference was that the one depicted on the Magic card was supposed to be the original one from the early construction of the city. I'd guess that there are now probably several libraries in Alexandria, Egypt.

Also, thanks for taking the time to tell us all about your feelings on unique non-legendary lands, but NOT answering my questions in Warhammer Quest. :rolleyes:
Priorities! :p


The Tentacled One
By coincidence, I just had this "I can't believe it's not legendary" thing come up in a game yesterday! My copy of Library of Alexandria has been dwelling in my "Colored Spells are for Nerds" Canadian Highlander deck, and in one game, I got Mishra's Workshop, Library of Alexandria, Vesuva, and Thespian's Stage all onto the battlefield. Library came down on my first turn and kinda took over the game, which is another aspect of the card I was going to talk about. But anyway, the potential to copy Library of Alexandria with something like Thespian's Stage is one aspect of the card's nonlegendary status. More obviously, it's possible to play multiple copies of Library of Alexandria in one's deck and to get some (or all) of them onto the battlefield.

I've never actually witnessed someone in a real game using multiple copies of Library of Alexandria in the same deck. Most people who own a copy of the card only own one, and the card has been restricted in Vintage (or Type 1) since 1994. In this regard, Library of Alexandria is in a very exclusive club. Sure, the Vintage Restricted List is long, but most of those cards weren't always restricted, or have been legal in other formats. And in casual play, I've used playsets of most of the Restricted cards that were reprinted in Revised Edition. So have a lot of people. In particular, I've already expounded on my experiences with decks using a full playset of Wheel of Fortune. But even going through the others, I've personally had decks with multiple copies of Balance, Channel, Demonic Tutor, Fastbond, and Sol Ring. Some of them I even posted about here at the CPA. And it wasn't just me: I saw other casual players doing the same. It's rarer now, especially with fewer cards from that era floating around in the hands of younger or less enfranchised players. Sol Ring is in every Commander precon though, and that might be why it's the one that still seems to crop up in this way. Most of the other Restricted cards are now or once were legal in full playsets in competitive tournament formats. Sometimes it was a while back, but not 1994, and there was an established competitive understanding of what those cards did and how they played out. However, some cards were restricted very early on, were banned in other tournament formats, and were only printed in very early sets, so by the time that competitive play became really structured in the mid-90's, most casual players couldn't afford them anyway. Of course, there are some people out there who will have used four copies of Black Lotus in a deck, but such individuals are rare exceptions. This may seem like a dubious distinction, and perhaps it is. But I think it might be important. Yeah, the only people who have really played with four copies of Balance in a deck were goofy no-hold-barred casual players anyway doing their own thing, but there were a lot of them and they made it easy to see what the card did, what it could do, what it could not do, and so on. I'm not talking about a value judgment of whether people should play in that way, just that because they did, it could be useful for analytical purposes. Most casual players probably didn't get a chance to own multiple copies of Moat either, but it was/is unrestricted in tournaments, so tournament players could/did demonstrate the potential of the card anyway. And really, the cross section of cards that are so exclusively old and rare that casual players usually wouldn't have been able to acquire copies of them and cards that have been restricted or banned across all tournament formats since 1994 is about ten cards...

Black Lotus
Ancestral Recall
Time Walk
Mox Jet
Mox Emerald
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Library of Alexandria

Hey! That's the Power 10.


The Tentacled One
I didn't set out to legitimize the notion that Library is the "tenth power." It's a quirk of the game's history that it got called that or that the "Power 9" concept came about in the first place. This is all relative anyway. Tons of players never got experience with other old, rare cards like Nether Void or Candelabra of Tawnos. But speaking generally, they've been available (and used, to some extent) in tournament decks, up to and including full playsets. The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale is now nearly a $1,600 card on the secondary market, and very few players have access to even one, let alone a full playset. But it does see play, and Sean O'Brien, one of the pioneers of prison decks, has been known to use a full playset of Tabernacle in Vintage tournaments. In contrast, some cards have been virtually unexplored in the context of full playsets. And I'd say that for most informed veteran players, that happens to align with the "Power 10."

Of course, I am one of the people who has used Library of Alexandria as a full playset. I've only ever owned one paper copy, but I used it a lot more in the "Shandalar" game. What I learned, although I initially underestimated it, was that Library of Alexandria scales very well with multiple copies. Yes, lots of cards do. You're more likely to get a copy onto the battlefield in the first place, and having two out is better than having just one. For instance, two copies of Mishra's Workshop gives you 6 mana instead of just 3. But many of the control decks that use Library of Alexandria deliberately use play patterns that keep Library active, at least for part of the game. And having multiple copies of Library on the battlefield lets control decks continue to draw cards while also playing those cards. I found that I could end my turn with 7 cards, and then, during my opponent's turn, activate one Library to draw a card, respond to that by activating another Library, then play a Counterspell on something my opponent tried to play, and start my next turn with an 8-card hand, playing a land and another card and ending the turn with a 7-card hand, ready to do it all over again. That kind of card advantage becomes insurmountable. Just one copy of Library is extremely strong, but having multiples, once their draw ability is activatable, is crazy-broken.


The Tentacled One
I'm sure the vast majority of usage of this card has been in decks containing just one copy. I'll move on to that soon. But as a final note on the potential for multiple copies in one deck, I do remember that at one point I advocated that Library should be unrestricted in Vintage. This was a few years ago. I wasn't especially vocal about it and I don't even know if I ever mentioned it here at the CPA, but I did make the claim, and I have completely reversed my inclination on that in the time since then. So, to be forthright, I think I should go a step further and explain how I view the restriction. Much like Sol Ring, Wheel of Fortune, Channel, Demonic Tutor, and the Power 9, this is a card that has been restricted for so long that it has no meaningful significance as a tournament 4-of. That category could be extended a bit further, although stuff like Fastbond and Balance had some substantial historical tournament play in decks exploiting them in multiple copies. Anyway, these are cards that are known to be strong, their effects were and are significant within the game. However, I argued some years ago, and I still do today, that established historical power in tournaments should be the criterion by which restriction is gauged. For many, many years, Regrowth was effectively in this same category, but the decision was eventually made to unrestrict it; I'm comfortably concluding that the data showed the decision to be correct.

Vintage is a format that lets players do powerful things. Very powerful. Oath of Druids, Mishra's Workshop, Mana Drain, and so on. And even though Library of Alexandria was very powerful and did take over some games, I noticed how some of the scariest decks in the format were always dumping the contents of their hands too quickly to be able to use Library. I suspected that, like some other cards, its restriction had more relevance to the way it was used in the 90's to the way "modern era" Magic had evolved. So even though I knew many decks were using it restricted, I figured that unrestricted, it wouldn't be oppressive.

Yeah, I no longer have that opinion. I think I underestimated how easy it was for decks to draw multiple cards in a few turns with Library of Alexandria, for a minor opportunity cost to their colored mana output. The flexibility of the card and its sheer power in multiples makes it far too dangerous to unrestrict.


The Tentacled One
Part of the mythos surrounding Library of Alexandria has its origin in Zak Dolan's original World Championship winning deck...

1 Birds of Paradise
1 Clone
1 Ley Druid
2 Old Man of the Sea
4 Serra Angel
1 Time Elemental
1 Vesuvan Doppleganger
1 Ancestral Recall
2 Disenchant
1 Mana Drain
1 Recall
1 Siren's Call
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Armageddon
1 Regrowth
1 Time Walk
1 Timetwister
1 Wrath of God
1 Control Magic
1 Kismet
2 Stasis
1 Library of Alexandria
4 Savannah
2 Strip Mine
4 Tropical Island
4 Tundra
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Jet
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
1 Black Vise
1 Howling Mine
1 Icy Manipulator
1 Ivory Tower
2 Meekstone
1 Winter Orb

1 Chaos Orb
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Copy Artifact
1 Diamond Valley
1 In the Eye of Chaos
1 Floral Spuzzem
2 Karma
1 Magical Hack
1 Powersink
1 Presence of the Master
1 Reverse Damage
1 Sleight of Mind
1 Kismet
1 Winter Blast


The Tentacled One
So I had some other aspects to talk about, but by coincidence, I happen to have hit a patch of games in which I drew Library of Alexandria in my opening hand. I think I won all but one of those. It is, of course, a very strong opening play. One of the games was multiplayer and I actually kept burning through my deck for several turns. But the others were more protracted. The card is strong in general, but really shines when you realize it's given you more card advantage in the course of a game than Ancestral Recall would, and still functions as a mana source if necessary. Most games run long enough to make this happen, and it really drives home just how powerful Library of Alexandria can be. Of course, most games you probably don't have it in your opening hand. But that high ceiling is important in evaluating the card.

One player, having already experienced playing against my Bazaar of Baghdad, was taken aback on realizing that Library of Alexandria taps for mana. The two cards serve very different functions so there's not much point in comparison, but that flexibility is crucial. The floor on Library of Alexandria is probably "it taps for colorless mana" and the ceiling is "it takes over the game with consistent card advantage for no mana cost." Most games are somewhere in between. But even when I draw it later on in a game, it often still manages to draw a couple of cards eventually.

In seeing how insanely powerful it can be when it shows up in an opening hand and how it still manages to be pretty good even when it shows up later on and your hand is too small to draw cards from it, I'd say my respect for the card has increased substantially. While I always knew it was strong, I had more appreciation for lands like Tolarian Academy and Strip Mine, because I'd used them so much in real games. I'd even, years ago, come to value Mishra's Workshop and Bazaar of Baghdad, perhaps even Gaea's Cradle, over Library of Alexandria. But that's turned around. It's got to be one of the most imposing land drops in the game, especially at the beginning of a game.


Staff member
When I had my Tuesday-night Casual group, each one of us had a card that helped define who we were. Jimmy had his Time Walk (he loved Blue Control), Ken had his Forcefield (ideal for sitting back and waiting to win), I had my Black Lotus (I liked summoning big stuff EARLY!), and my roommate had his Library of Alexandria. He became the master of keeping a full hand and constantly casting. Most of his decks relied on card advantage, and he won - a LOT.