Syphilis and CCGs: Magic: The Gathering’s Shadowmoor Expansion

To really explain my history with Magic: The Gathering, I need to take you back to sixth grade and Hyde Park Middle School’s magnet program for little nerds good at math and science. The program’s 90-minute blocks of advanced math, algebraic drills and fantasy stock markets turned us into 12-year-old statisticians too young to spend money on girls or clothes, but old enough to have a limited chunk of change and a willingness to spend it. We were all young enough to remember baseball card collections, but old enough to know those tiny pictures of athletes were worth less than the paper on which they were printed. We were primed for a collectible card game fad, and Magic spread through our school faster than the Great Syphilis Outbreak of 2000 that would plague my high school a few years later.

These were the halcyon days of Fourth Edition, and the game was in full bloom. Wizards of the Coast had improved the paper stock it used from previous editions, which meant the cards lasted longer and looked better. The Shivan Dragon ruled our skies and looked stunning in our hands. The cards from previous editions were skyrocketing in value as they were discontinued; one in particular, the Black Lotus, was worth $400 and took on mythic status in our class circle.

Not everyone in the school played, but those who didn’t were in the minority. After-school clubs became inundated with Magic players more interested in talking Mill Stones than chess, glee club or any other hobby that had previously piqued their interest. I can’t remember a school day that I didn’t play at least one game with someone, and some of those games are woven together with the myriad of other fragments from early puberty. For some reason, whenever I think of the first time I lost a girl’s affection to a friend, I remember the time I beat him with a Channel/Fireball combo on turn three.

As we matured together, so did the game we played. In seventh grade came Ice Age, universally known as the game’s death knell, and when Fifth Edition came at the tail end of eighth grade, you could buy a kid’s card collection for $10 or a week of school lunch. I grew out of Magic, but didn’t say goodbye very gracefully, and the bad taste it left in my mouth soured me on CCGs for years.

I’ve bounced back into the hobby from time to time. There was Jyhad (later renamed Vampire, for obvious reasons) and the Star Wars CCG, but no game ever reached critical mass in my social circle like Magic did. By the time Pokemon revived the genre, I was driving.

The funny thing is, I never got rid of my last deck. It was a red, direct damage “burn” deck, just over 40 cards and chock full o’ piss and vinegar. Every time I unearth it I marvel at its construction and wonder what happened to the game that dominated a couple of years of my life. As it turns out, quite a lot.

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Last week, I received a FedEx envelope packed full of cards from Magic‘s latest expansion, Shadowmoor and learned that as many changes as the game has endured, it’s still Magic.

In the package were five starter decks, now called “theme decks,” and 10 booster packs. I grabbed four friends – all Magic vets who’d strayed like I had – and decided to stage an old-school tournament. Everyone got one theme deck and two boosters to build a deck of his own, at which point we’d all form a circle and attack left. Whoever was left standing at the end was the winner.

Rather than a random assortment of cards from all five colors, theme decks are 60-card, two-color decks that actually lend new players some viability right out the chute. Each deck has quite a few combos to use right away, and starting off with a two-color focus made getting back into the game a lot easier. What’s more, a number of cards use “Hybrid” mana now, which allows you to choose which color mana you use to cast the spell.

The first of the five theme decks is “Mortal Coil,” an annoyance deck that weakens your opponent’s creatures. Over time, he’s left with a crippled fleet, and your army of flying blue/black creatures with “Persist,” a new ability that allows creatures to return from the dead with -1/-1 tokens on them, can zoom along and smack him around unheeded.

Similar to “Mortal Coil” is “Army of Entropy,” a red/black deck that similarly weakens enemy creatures, but does so by making use of the “Wither” ability – every time a creature with Wither damages another creature, the creature’s power and toughness drop by the attacking creature’s power. Assuming a 2/4 monster with Wither is blocked by a 3/3 monster, at the end of combat, the 3/3 monster receives two -1/-1 tokens, rendering it a 1/1 until it dies or someone plays a spell that removes the tokens.

Also included is the red/green “Overkill” deck, which bears resemblance to green weenie decks of old, only this time your little 2/2 goons back up giant 7/5 monsters, and there’s some direct damage in there, to boot.

The old lockdown deck makes an appearance with the white/blue “Aura Mastery,” which uses enchantments and the new “Conspire” ability (tap two creatures, and you can copy a spell you just cast) to pin down your opponent’s big creatures and buff your own.

Last is the green/white “Turnabout,” which features the new “Untap” mechanic – certain creature abilities are only activated when you untap them; it makes for some interesting (and devastating) Upkeep phases.

Each of us chose a deck and plopped down in a circle. I chose Mortal Coil. To my left was Army of Entropy, then Overkill, Turnabout and finally Aura Mastery, whose player would be attacking me. It played out much as I remember it from sixth grade; at first two people had no mana, two people had too much and I blew my wad killing my first opponent. Once I’d killed Army of Entropy’s player, Aura Mastery had enough mana to bring out her huge creatures and ruined my day two turns later. She then turned her sights to Overkill, a deck without many flying creatures, and so he, too, fell. However, she finally met her match with Turnabout’s player, who quickly locked down Aura Mastery’s big creatures and took pot shots at her as they slung enchantments back and forth. It was the best Magic duel I’ve seen in years; it was also the only Magic duel I’ve seen in years, but that’s not the point.

Turnabout outlasted Aura Mastery and won, thanks in large part to a mental error by Aura Mastery’s player. Since I got taken out so quickly, it gave me a chance to watch how each deck played. Overall, both the white decks, Aura Mastery and Turnabout, seem the most complete out the box. They seem to have stronger individual cards and rely less on combos than the other decks. Mortal Coil, my deck, and Army of Entropy both lack a certain killer instinct — you either win early or you don’t win at all. Army of Entropy’s player and I both agreed we could build a really nasty deck by combining elements from both. Overkill comes in at No. 3, powerful enough to deal with Mortal Coil and Army of Entropy’s debuffs, but with enough small creatures to avoid a total lockdown from the white decks. All in all, each deck is a great way to get used to the game, and judging by how much we were all tinkering after the tournament, they seem designed to be open-ended.

Shadowmoor‘s single greatest weakness is the amount of tokens and counters you need to play on the table. We ended up raiding the boss’ office to use his dice to mark how many debuffed creatures were running around., and God forbid if you have a lot of creature tokens to deal with. At one point, Overkill’s player had 10 phantom creatures, none of which were on cards. The game has obviously evolved to be played on the computer, and given Magic Online‘s success, it’s hard to dispute that. Maybe the type of people who still prefer a face-to-face game are the same people with enough dice in their house to not be hindered by Magic‘s new requirements, but if this version had been what I encountered when I was 12, I likely wouldn’t have bothered.

The whole affair lasted about two hours, and while the game’s minutiaa have changed, its spirit hasn’t. We were all talking the same 12-year-old shit we did when we were kids, only this time we weren’t trying to squeeze in the game between overlong classes. I’m not sure this will pull me back into the game – an unofficial survey has all of us resisting the urge to hit up our local hobby shop – but Shadowmoor definitely does the game justice and is worth a look if you’re a fan of the game now.

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor at The Escapist. While he did catch the Magic bug, he never once caught syphilis. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

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