That New Card Smell

Posted in Serious Fun on August 26, 2008

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

I love that smell.

You know the one I mean. It's that smell that wafts out of a just-opened booster pack, clings to the flow wrap, and lingers on the cards as you fan them out.

Now, objectively speaking, I suppose it's not actually a pleasant smell. In fact, it's kind of a harsh, chemical smell. But I have this Pavlovian response to it because of what it means.

It's that new card smell.

And I love new cards. Thumbing through a booster to see the goods is a wonderful thing. Before you opened it, they were quantum cards, uncertain. Every unopened booster pack is the same. Every open booster pack is different, and there's excitement at the threshold.

That said, I almost never just open booster packs. Because while opening boosters is fun, opening them and playing with them is even more fun. I love Limited, be it Sealed Deck, Draft, whatever.

Even so, recently I found myself wanting to just open a few packs. Laura is still working on some of the two-color Ravnica / Shadowmoor decks I mentioned a few weeks ago, and there are some Eventide cards she wishes she had a few more of.

We were bored, though, so rather than just busting the packs open (which does have its own charm, and is what she does with the packs she wins at Prereleases), we decided to play Pack Wars, also known as MiniMaster.

Format: Pack Wars

In Brief: Each player opens a booster and adds lands, making a 30-card, five-color deck to battle with.

Rules Rundown: Each player needs one booster pack and three of each basic land. It doesn't matter who owns each booster pack; they're not going to be mixed, so everyone will be able to take their own cards at the end.

Open your pack, but—and this is important—don't look at it! Half the fun of Pack Wars is not having any idea what you might pull off the top. Add the 15 lands to your booster pack and shuffle thoroughly. You and your opponent now each have a 30-card deck that's ready to go.

Many groups disallow mulligans during Pack Wars, again because of the fun to be had in not knowing what might come out of your deck. But not being able to play spells is no fun at all, so there's still reason to allow mulligans. Decide with your opponent whether you're allowing mulligans before looking at your opening hands.

After that, it's normal Magic. Pack Wars is usually played with two players, because it's generally a pick-up game, but there's nothing saying it couldn't be a quick multiplayer format if there are more packs that need opening.

There's no rule that says how many games to play, but if I'm playing with one other person, I usually make it a best-of-three match.

Pros: You can play Pack Wars anytime you've got at least one other player, with one unopened booster pack and three of each basic land for each player. This makes it more or less the perfect format when you have packs you want to open and are looking to play a quick few games of Magic. It's better for this than most Limited formats because of the small number of packs and quick game time.

The fact that your deck is random and unknown is most of the fun of Pack Wars. It's exciting to draw that perfect card you didn't even know was in your deck! Pack Wars can also get you playing with cards or combinations of cards that you wouldn't ordinarily use, and seeing them in action can really change your perspective.

Cons: With five-color decks assembled randomly, mana problems are pretty frequent. You've just got to accept them in the spirit of random fun that inspired the format. If that's going to frustrate you, Pack Wars may not be your game.

And, of course, like any Limited format, you've got to open packs to play. But if you're opening packs anyway...

Having decided on Pack Wars, Laura and I grabbed two Eventide packs and 30 basic lands and shuffled up.

Our first game was all about Flame Jab.

I had an early Shorecrasher Mimic and, it turned out, lots of green-blue cards in my deck to turn it on. She had a Smoldering Butcher on turn four, but I hit it with Flame Jab, then discarded a land I didn't need to Flame Jab it again. With these decks being 50% land, I felt pretty good about having a retrace card in my graveyard!

Alas, I couldn't kill her Shrewd Hatchling before she Double Cleaved it on the attack, getting a counter off and slamming me for 6. I did kill the Hatchling eventually using Gilder Bairn, which is something I've been wanting to do since I first saw Gilder Bairn.

We bashed each other back and forth until she was at 4 and I was at 3. She had a Wilderness Hypnotist, and my three creatures all had 1 or 2 power... and, despite the fact that I had no Forests in play, all three of my creatures were green. Hybrid!

It looked like I might be able to poke her for 1 each turn until she was dead, but then she played... Soot Imp. Not the creature you want to see when you're at 3 life playing a five-color deck.

I'd never seen Soot Imp in play before, and I was surprised at how much it changed the game. Of course, this was Pack Wars, so it was potentially ticking away at Laura's life total as well, but she played it in exactly the right situation to make things really difficult for me. Note to self: toss that in a mono-black deck!

I had to kill the Soot Imp right away, and the only way I could do that was by playing the Flame Jab in my graveyard twice. I killed Soot Imp with Flame Jab, going down to 1.

She drew her card, cackled, and slammed it down onto the table.

"Flame Jab!" she cried, taking me from a precarious 1 to a lethal 0.

Neither of us had seen anywhere close to our whole deck yet, so we decided to play at least one more game with the same decks.

Unfortunately, the second was later stricken from the record because we both misread my Soul Snuffers. It puts a -1/-1 counter on each creature, itself included, so it's not a game-breaking 3/3 after all—it's a game-breaking 2/2. Since a big part of my win involved swinging for 3 with what should have been a 2/2, I declare my victory null and void.

That's too bad, because it was a pretty exciting game. Laura played a Noggle Ransacker on turn three, so I got to see it in action for the first time. We each drew two cards, plucked a card at random out of the other's hand, and slammed them down on the table simultaneously. I lost an Island, and she pitched Woodlurker Mimic.

"Was that good for me?" I asked. "Bad for me? I don't know."

That alone makes me want to put Noggle Ransacker in a deck and get a whole multiplayer table asking themselves the same question. It digs everyone two cards deeper into their decks, but it also randomly takes a card away.... Basically, it makes things happen, which is one of my favorite things that a multiplayer card can do (in moderation, at least). Into the blue-red deck it goes!

Later in the game, after I also had a Hag Hedge-Mage up and running (getting back a Shorecrasher Mimic that had died to my own Soul Snuffers and forcing her to discard Soot Imp), she drew a card, smiled, frowned, and then settled firmly on her thinky face.

After thinking about it for a long time, she played Shrewd Hatchling, passed the turn, and declined to block with her (currently) 2/2 Hatchling when I attacked. I played my Shorecrasher Mimic again and passed the turn back. I wasn't sure what her big thinky plan was...

...then she played Glamerdye!

She switched "red" to "green," turning her Shrewd Hatchling into a sort of pretend Sturdy Hatchling, and said it was my turn. Green... why green?

I played a Grazing Kelpie and attacked with my beefed-up Mimic and my Soul Snuffers, and she revealed the reason for choosing green: Snakeform!

Snakeform made my 5/3 a 1/1, and let her block my (erroneously) 3/3 Soul Snuffers with her now 4/4 Hatchling. Nice play! Of course, changing red to blue would have worked, too, but her deck had more green cards than blue ones.

On her turn, she tried to Flame Jab my 2/1 Mimic, but I had Inside Out to save it and draw a card, and she didn't have the land to deal the second point of damage. Go Mimic!

On the next turn, finally, after having its soul snuffed then being trawled out of the graveyard by a hag, turned into a snake, jabbed with flame, and turned inside out, my brave little Mimic finally met an Unmake.

"No more of those shenanigans!" declared Laura.

She turned green back into red on her Mimic (hey, Glamerdye has retrace!) and played Double Cleave on it, slamming me for 12, which put me at 3, but I was able to Flame Jab her for the win.

Our third game with those decks wasn't very interesting, and it seemed like we'd pretty much played out the match (Flame Jab, Flame Jab, Flame Jab!). We cracked them apart to see the few cards we hadn't seen yet, including my unseen rare, Umbra Stalker.

There were still two more boosters we wanted to open, so we played one more game with new decks.

We stuck to the "no mulligans" rule, despite both having really ugly hands that we probably would have mulliganed otherwise. We'd just have to see what happened.

On her third turn, she drew a much-needed Swamp and played Nip Gwyllion. I played Hobgoblin Dragoon on turn three, a fine foil for an unaugmented Nip Gwyllion. Then, of course, she slammed Edge of the Divinity down on her Nip Gwyllion and hit me for 4, but I was barely even paying attention... because in the meantime, I'd drawn Scourge of the Nobilis!

I triumphantly played Scourge of the Nobilis on Hobgoblin Dragoon, and we both laughed. This could go on a while!

We traded hits from the lifelinkers back and forth, and while I was getting a slight edge thanks to the "Firebreathing" ability granted by the Scourge, 1 point at a time was way too slow. Besides, she kept playing creatures!

I had a solution to the creature problem: Cenn's Enlistment and a generous helping of land-flood meant that I had quite an army of little chump-blockers, and a sad, targetless Nucklavee was still big enough to keep her Nip Gwyllion from charging in.

She had an answer to my answer in the form of Fable of Wolf and Owl, and I was really surprised at how quickly both of those cards filled the table with tokens.

I had passed over the Fable for the green-blue deck, but this game made me reconsider it. Even in an awkward five-color Pack Wars deck, she still pumped out three or four Wolves and an owl.

Unfortunately, that owl was to be her undoing. (Foreshadowing!)

I eventually managed to kill her Nip Gwyllion when she had to attack to gain life, but she hit my Hobgoblin Dragoon with Unmake a turn or two later. Antler Skulkin made my combat math really tricky (being able to send pump anywhere is awesome), but Outrage Shaman (also awesome) put a stop to that.

I finally drew my rare and gasped so hard I almost choked...

...then looked down at my two Plains and two Swamps. Come on!

The Dragoon plus some attacks with Impelled Giant put Laura all the way down to 3, but she killed the Giant, too, and I ran out of lands for Cenn's Enlistment. It looked like I was going to have trouble doing those last few points. The owl hit me once, taking me down to 20, promising a long game yet to come, especially if I couldn't get that fifth for Divinity of Pride.

Then I saw it: one of those convoluted plays that makes Magic what it is.

I hit one of her lands with Drain the Well, then killed the Bird token—her lone nongreen creature—with Soul Reap.

Good game!

  • What Is It Good For?

Pack Wars isn't a robust format that you'd want to play Magic night after Magic night. It's just a quick, fun alternative to plain old opening packs. Next time you've got a few packs that you want to open—assuming you can stand to wait until you get home from the store—consider grabbing a friend and having a Pack War. It's fun, it's fast, and the end result is exactly the same.

Speaking of which, that Divinity of Pride is going to make Laura's white-black deck even more ridiculous, and a lot of those other cards go straight into our other decks.

That's how I like to open packs, but everyone has different rituals. Some people play more formal Limited formats like Draft or Sealed Deck. Others play quick variants like Pack Wars that need fewer packs, fewer people, and less time. And others, of course, just rip the pack open to see what's inside, but even then there's variety. You can thumb straight to the rare, or you can force yourself to go through the commons one by one, savoring the anticipation. And I'm sure there are ways of opening a pack I've never even heard of.

How do you like to open packs? Let me know!

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