A Golden Age Of Magic

Posted in Serious Fun on August 9, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

There are times when I feel older than I usually do.

One of those came a few weeks ago, when a reader emailed me enthusiastically about one of the game theory columns I did. The exact context isn't important; he closed his email with the sentence:

"I'm only sixteen, but I started playing Magic with old-school cards like Fact or Fiction and Rith, the Awakener."

Old-school! Did he just say old-school? I asked myself. No way. Invasion isn't old-school. It's new-school! It's right now! In fact, scratch that. It's like a 22nd century school, which will come to pass in some ultra-cool, futuristic parallel universe!

Then I did some counting. I ran out of fingers and had to go to toes. This got the dog interested, which distracted me for a while since she likes it when I scratch her behind the ears with my toes. (My children don't like this so much. They say it embarrasses them. Boo-hoo, I tell them. I'm showing you a little affection, and you're worried about what your so-called friends will tell county social services. Some child of mine you are! Now hand me the nail-clippers.)

After I was done counting, I realized that Wizards had released twelve tournament-legal sets since Invasion block – and fourteen sets since Invasion itself broke on the scene. Over a dozen sets – and that's not even counting stuff like Unhinged! This is roughly the same chasm that yawns between Invasion and Ice Age. And Ice Age happened, like, 100,000 years ago! I learned that in chemistry class. Of course, I got a C+ in chemistry, so I may have been paying attention to something else.

Reading that email on Invasion got me thinking – what is it that makes people refer to other things as "old-school"? Why do we care about concepts like "old-school" so much? And why isn't this article going to be as much about Invasion directly as some fraction of my audience would probably like?

The answers are actually all related.

While writing and sports are certainly not the same thing, there are interesting similarities – especially in that when you reach a certain level, you are entertaining an audience. That audience, when it becomes familiar enough with an athlete or writer, expects a certain performance. We expect Tim Duncan to play a certain role on the basketball court in San Antonio, and we expect J.K. Rowling to pull us into a familiar world when we crack open one of her Harry Potter books.

What gets some people upset is when things change. If Tim Duncan decides to bolt San Antonio and play for, say, the Los Angeles Clippers, some fans would get understandably upset. If J.K. Rowling turns book #7 into a futuristic action thriller with laser-armed helicopters and bikini-babe robots, there may be riots. The audience has certain expectations.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for an athlete or author to do different things. Tim Duncan, for example, could reasonably ask his coach in San Antonio to change his role a bit – to shift between power forward and center, or to do more aggressive play, or to meld better with a new teammate. Likewise, J.K. Rowling could toy with her readers and put an even darker edge on the last book (she has hinted that Harry might not survive).

Dropping off the skill level precipitously from Ms. Rowling, consider a writer for this site – say, me. I also face certain expectations. Some readers expect a different play format in Serious Fun, every week. I used to do that (or I came close). And back when I did Casual Fridays, I talked a great deal about our play group and what happened the previous weeks. I don't do that much any more. Not only have I changed things, I keep rotating topics and styles in and out.

When someone tweaks like this, the audience may not like it. They might refer to the new style as "awful" or "unacceptable". They may say that the old way of doing things was better – Tim was better as a center, J.K. was better when Harry was younger and happier, Alongi was much better when he wrote about stuff you like. And it comes: the way things used to be.

It was "better back then."

You prefer the "old-school" style.


Anthony's favorite expansion of all time is Invasion. Some readers, however, may finish this article and somehow get the impression that he doesn't like it. For those people, a summary of facts from past articles:

  • A very large fraction of cards in his Multiplayer Card Hall of Fame are from Invasion;
  • Invasion did terrific things with Magic, bringing back many "old-school" (ironic!) players and re-energizing the game;
  • Invasion was the expansion where Anthony had the most tournament success – while never qualifying for the Pro Tour, he did come close right after Invasion's release;
  • Invasion block was when he spent a good deal of time reporting on the Pro Tour and meeting the people who eventually offered him this writing gig;
  • Invasion (and Planeshift) set up Apocalypse, which is probably Anthony's Favorite Single Expansion Ever;
  • Anthony likes pretty colors, which Invasion likes to play with; and
  • Invasion came after Masques block, which Anthony believes was (perhaps necessarily) wretched in many ways.

In short, Anthony loves Invasion. And Anthony wrote this little sidebar in the third person to make it abundantly clear that he does. In fact, he credits it as the expansion (and block) that kept him in Magic during a time when he had many good personal reasons for quitting. Now go read the rest of the article, secure in the knowledge of his love for Invasion. Thank you.

Old-school caught fire as a term in basketball, long before anyone knew about Tim Duncan, to refer to the 1960's and 1970's style of play, when dunking was rare and players set up their offense more slowly. (There may be a different, earlier use of "old-school". Call it "old-school old-school", if you will. But that's not the point.) Julius Earving, or "Doctor J", was the poster boy for old-school basketball. Ironically, he didn't get this title until years after he retired, after breaking open the game with his inimitable fast-break dunking style. Old-school, you see, is not always what its proponents think it is.

Flash over to Magic. What is it that makes Invasion "old-school" nowadays?

Well, first of all, it's pretty old. Think of what you were doing back in 2000 – and think of the current events that have taken place since then. Geological considerations aside, a lot happens in five years.

Second, it's distinctive. It's a block virtually all players know about – even the newer ones will generally hear about (and play against) Invasion cards more quickly than they'll play against, say, Onslaught or Mirage cards. It marks the beginning of Magic Online sets (for now!), and it re-introduced gold cards after a significant hiatus.

Third, it introduced a completely new style of design. Much like Ice Age and Mirage introduced the idea of "blocks" in Magic, Invasion and Odyssey introduced the idea that a block might have a certain theme. (Given the 4-5 year timing, it sorta makes you wonder what the next block will do, doesn't it? Don't ask me – no one's told me yet.) This is a pretty fundamental aspect of design – and Invasion got it all started. Much like Doctor J was a fast-breaking, dunking, "new-school" player who gets a lot of credit nowadays for being "old-school", Invasion is likely to be seen (if it isn't already) as old-school simply because it introduced change. The irony is delicious.

Fourth, Invasion is old-school because it needs to be seen that way. Old. Crusty. Obsolete. We need to ditch Invasion, big-time. It needs to go. I hope Wizards blows up every idea behind Invasion. And you should too.

Now, don't go nuts. (The whistling sound you hear is a few hundred readers missing my point.) I'm not talking about the cards themselves. They should reprint many of those, in core sets and elsewhere. I'm talking about the emotional bonds many players have with it. Looking back on Invasion with undue fondness is bad for us. It shuts us off to whatever Wizards will do next to the game. (Hint: Whatever Wizards is doing now will not kill Magic.) So many of us who were dazzled by what Invasion did – ended an era – have ironically closed ourselves to the possibility that the Invasion-inspired era should end.

We need to learn to think about Invasion the same way many of us have thought about Ice Age and The Dark – quaint, interesting, with several cards we'd love to see again. That's it.

Bury it, my friends. Let it go.

And then make a new format out of it!

An Old-School Format

Have I ever told you about back when I was a kid? We didn't have "Magic", or "personal computers", or "food". We ate dirt while scraping rudimentary words in the dirt about a game that didn't exist yet. Yep, that was back before Wizards ruined the game with new-fangled ideas like "cards" and "life totals".

If you're like me, you'll want to hang around with friends who think like you. Which means you may enjoy this format:

This requires preparation and deck construction before the day you play. Each player secretly picks an expansion. (Having two or more pick the same expansion is fine.) The deal is, you pick THE expansion you consider to be the most typical of "old-school". While you can certainly use reprints and such, every card title in your deck (aside from basic land) must be present in that expansion somehow.

You show up for the game, and each player guesses for each opponent what expansion they're using. They write it down (name of player, expected expansion) and keep that secret, too.

At any time she could declare an instant, a player may reveal her original guess for any opponent. If she does and she's correct, she gains five life, draws a card, and forces that player to sacrifice either a creature, an enchantment, or an artifact (her choice which type).

In addition, when a player deals the final blow to an opponent, that player reveals her original guess, whether she wants to or not. If she guessed right, see bonuses above. If she guessed wrong, she loses five life, discards a card, and sacrifices either a creature, an enchantment, or an artifact (the dead player's choice which type).

You can make the bonuses (and penalties) bigger if you want, but you get the idea.

Don't spend too much time building your deck – because this will only really work once, though nothing stops you from letting the bonuses stick around for future games. It's still a great way to learn a bit about each other and revisit older cards you have in your collection.

To keep volume down, please don't email me asking the obvious question for myself. I will reveal which expansion I would choose as most typical of "old school" on the message boards. Thanks for understanding.

An Ending Caution: Old-School Snobbery

One of the most aggressive reasons why people use "old-school" terminology so much, in sports and other contexts, is to be exclusive. Saying you're "old-school" means you have some sort of time advantage or veterancy over someone else: they don't know as much, they don't appreciate the past, they're just not as cool as you are.

I laugh out loud when I see people jostle each other on the message boards (or elsewhere) to establish who's older-school than such-and-such. "Invasion isn't even close to old-school," they'll say. "That's for stuff like Ice Age." Then someone will come in and tell that guy how little he knows: "Old-school is really The Dark." Then someone will chime and call that last guy a newb because old-school is really Alpha-Beta-Unlimited. Frankly, it calls to mind the manner in which lions follow each other around the savannah, spraying over each other's scent.

It's a dangerous trap to let yourself fall into. Old-school snobbery is, by its nature, a huge threat to any venture that wants to last into future generations. New people will come along, and will bring change. Resistance to change is the oldest school there is. If the resistance succeeds, the newer generations go invent something else. The resistors die out. So does the sport or game.

Invasion is dead. Long live Invasion!

Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for several years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His young adult fantasy novel JENNIFER SCALES AND THE ANCIENT FURNACE, co-written with wife MaryJanice Davidson and published by Berkley Books, is available now.

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