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Posted in Latest Developments on October 4, 2002

By Randy Buehler

I spent last weekend at the Pro Tour and, more importantly, the Onslaught prerelease. PT Boston was a good event with quite a worthy winner, but the really exciting action, from my point of view, was over in the Side Events area where Your Move Games was running Boston’s prerelease.

I am always interested in learning whether people like the sets I’ve worked on and reading the ‘Net is useful for gaining insight into what some elements of Magic’s audience think, but nothing beats a prerelease. There are lots of Magic players out there who never post anything to the web, and never go to any other tournaments, but they always go to the prerelease. (Our Organized Play department has been very smart about keeping the prerelease environment more casual so it will be a fun experience that makes these players want to keep playing Magic.)

The new face of attacking for 2.

Coming into the Onslaught prerelease I thought morph was a great mechanic. I mentioned in my column a few weeks ago that I thought it was one of the better we’d ever done and it was probably my own personal all-time favorite. People kept coming up to me on Thursday and Friday and complaining about how many “broken rares” the set had that could “ruin” limited games, but my response was always the same: play the set. There’s a lot more going on than who opened what rares and much of it is hard to appreciate when you read it in a spoiler. It’s not until you play a creature face-down and think about attacking with it that you really appreciate what morph has to offer. It’s also pretty much impossible to comprehend what all those tribal cards are going to do to the environment until you’ve built a deck and played with them.

I eagerly awaited midnight Friday night and 240 people showed up to play the 12:01 event. I wandered through the aisles as people opened up packs and showed each other what they’d gotten. The time for speculating about what people would like was long over, now it was time to see how we’d actually done. Of course, there was celebrating from players who had opened any of the set’s Legends. I didn’t see as many “oh-my-god have-you-seen-this?!” gestures or conversations as I remember from the Invasion prerelease, but people seemed generally happy.

(Invasion will probably always be the standard by which I judge prereleases. The spoilers didn’t come out nearly as early back then so most people didn’t know much, other than the fact that gold cards were back. Those gold cards made the set quite popular and then on top of everything else the split cards were extremely visually striking and everyone who opened one excitedly showed it to everyone else near him. I’m probably biased by the fact that Invasion was the first set I worked on, and its prerelease was the first time I got to watch people play with “my” cards, but it is the measuring stick I use to grade all prereleases now.)

Score a direct hit!

While the buzz in the room wasn’t quite as loud as Invasion, it was still louder than I can recall hearing since then. I watched a bunch of pleased faces get the land they needed and wait for first round pairings. Once round 1 started the set seemed to really shine. In addition to morph stories there were also Erratic Explosion stories being swapped between rounds. My favorite was the one guy who pointed his Explosion at a 6/6 creature despite knowing that he only had one card in his deck that could kill it: land … land … Aven Fateshaper! I know this story because the man could be heard celebrating from across the room.

I went to bed around 3am and then came back to the site on Saturday morning to watch more people’s eyes as they opened up the new cards. The funny thing was, though, that it wasn’t morph stories people were telling the most – it was tribal stories. Once the 8-man booster drafts got cranked up it became clear that tribal was the real star of the show. I watched with delight as players clutched their decks like prized toys and walked quickly across the room looking for friends to show their decks off to. “I’ve got 15 Elves, and the Avatar, and the +1/+1 guy, and I can put 7/7’s into play!”

We knew there have always been players who like race decks. Goblin decks and Merfolk decks have been staples of casual play since time began and that was enough to justify Onslaught’s tribal theme. However, there was some debate inside R&D about how good this theme actually was. By the end of Saturday there was no doubt left in my mind – tribal was a hit across all audiences. Even grizzled veterans of the Pro Tour were giggling like little kids after drafting with Onslaught. It turns out that everyone has a theme-deck player buried inside them and all we had to do was make it the right strategy and suddenly everyone was giving in the their inner Timmy (or is it Johnny?).

Looking back at last weekend it reminds me of the Standard environment shortly after Invasion came out. At Pro Tour - Chicago players were sitting around debating which Dragon was better – was Rith the right Dragon to put into Fires of Yavimaya decks, or was Two-Headed Dragon better? Some even made a case for splashing black for Darigaaz, but the really interesting part was when they all took a step back, mentally, and acknowledged how cool it was that there were multiple Dragons you could play in constructed. Killing your opponent with a Dragon is just more fun than killing him with anything else, and on the other side people don’t seem to mind losing as much when they lose to a Dragon. The lasting image of that Pro Tour remains Brian Kibler enchanting his dragon of choice (Rith, the Awakener) with Armadillo Cloak and attacking a previously undefeated Jon Finkel with it for a round-11 win.

Tribal seems similar in that winning with a race theme deck is simply more fun than winning with a random collection of good cards. Even the most diehard tournament players, who limit themselves exclusively to cards the cards that give them the best chance to win, have more fun when those cards are cool cards like tribal lords or tribal avatars.

After all, Magic is a game and it’s supposed to be fun. Morph may be strategically very interesting but tribal gives life to all the fantasy elements that form the backdrop for the game and tribal puts you inside the world, commanding an army of zombies or clerics. It’s not that morph isn’t fun – I saw plenty of high-fives and “Gotcha!” moments – but tribal is more fun, and that means this should be an amazing block for Magic players of all kinds.

By the end of the weekend the numbers started coming in from around the country and prerelease attendance was up, way up. We’re obviously very happy that the buzz over Onslaught is so good and in future years when I go to prereleases and look into players’ eyes, I think I’m going to be comparing them to the joy I saw last weekend in Boston.

Last Week’s Poll Results:

Which Onslaught race do you like the best?
Elves 4122 34.2%
Wizards 1584 13.1%
Beasts 1374 11.4%
Goblins 1315 10.9%
Zombies 1294 10.7%
Clerics 1133 9.4%
Soldiers 635 5.3%
Birds 591 4.9%
Total 12048 100.0%

Looks like there will be a lot of 7/7 Elementals put into to play in coming years…

Randy may be reached at

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