Playing Out of Bounds

Posted in Serious Fun on July 30, 2002

By Anthony Alongi


Before we start on this week's topic, I would like to address two issues that have come up in reader email. First is a specific rules question, and second is a general reminder of my role here on this site.

The specific rules question regards tokens. On at least two occasions (once for an article on Last Laugh, and then again for the more recent bit on Burning Sands), I have had swarms of email "reminding" me that tokens never go to the graveyard. This is incorrect:

From comprehensive rules (February 2002 edition):
216.3. A token in a zone other than the in-play zone ceases to exist. This is a state-based effect. (Note that a token changing zones will set off triggered abilities before the token ceases to exist.) Once a token has left play, it can't be returned to play by any means.

I certainly make mistakes, and I encourage readers to write if something seems amiss. But do recognize that I'm a judge (though a fairly neurotic Level 1), and that these articles pass through the incredible, crushing gauntlet that is Aaron Forsythe's scrutiny before they reach you (I am the "Ancient Mariner" of editing; I stoppeth one mistake in three. -- Aaron). So when you write in, you may want to phrase your insult as a question, so that you are not so horribly embarrassed if I write back to you and correct you.

On a more general issue, I want to remind readers who email me that as a contracted writer, and not a Wizards employee, I have no decision-making authority on future cards, Eighth Edition, or other R&D matters. You're always welcome to write to me with thoughtful comments on any topic; and I do pass on specific individual emails when they're particularly relevant and/or well-written. But they go into the same mailbox for Mark and Randy that you use – I don't have a super-secret dimensional door from my pad in Minnesota to the offices in Renton. (Note to self: destroy all evidence of super-secret dimensional doors leading in and out of master bathroom.)

On to the main event.


Frequent readers may know that I used to write for Roseanne. (Wait, no, that's not me.) Frequent readers may know that I came into this game through the Portal set. I spent a great deal of time and money getting to know the game in the "Portal" state, and when a local store employee asked me when I was going to "make the leap into the real game", I took a little offense. Who was this guy to tell me that I was not playing a real game?

skeletal crocodile

But he was right, broadly speaking. A real game usually has other people you can play with. Portal Magic disqualified itself from being such a game, since the cards were forged to be unplayable in those rooms where the players were. I'm still a tiny bit bitter about this; but the fact that I can still use the cards to teach my six-year-old daughter how to play without caring about whether the cards are worn, etc. helps ease the pain.

Just because he was broadly right, though, doesn't mean he was entirely right. For the player who is already familiar with the fundamental game of Magic, explorations into different, non-sanctioned card sets can be fruitful and fun. Fun, because many of the cards do new and wonderful things that don't always happen during a regular Magic game. Fruitful, because examining an atypical set of cards can give you more opportunities to think about why you like the cards you like, and how they compare to this strange new card, or that one.

Please note that all of the card sets mentioned below are illegal in DCI-sanctioned play. Let's take the illegal roads, one at a time. No littering!


There are several sources of cards that look very close to the original, but aren't allowed at DCI-sanctioned tournaments. One of the first sources of such cards was the Collectors' Edition. This came out as a boxed set of the Beta card pool. The main difference is that the corners on the cards are square, like baseball cards, not rounded like most Magic cards. The front or "business" side of the card has a black border; and the back has a gold border and the telling words "Collectors' Edition" in gold leaf under the Magic logo.

Similarly, there are occasional collectible releases from Wizards – the first Pro Tour Top Eight decks (see here for a card list), and World Championship decks (and I'm still waiting for my multiplayer showdown with the entirety of R&D)--that, like the Collectors' Edition, are "real" cards that have been in actual sets but are formatted in a way that makes them illegal--typically gold borders on the front, and some very clear indication on the back that something's up. (Note that box sets with normal Magic backs, like Battle Royale or Deckmasters: Finkel vs. Garfield, contain perfectly legal cards. If a card exists in a legal expansion and has a normal back, that card is legal.)

This whole universe of "altered" cards is an interesting question to casual players. Certainly if you put your deck in opaque sleeves, you neutralize the issue of unconventional card backs. But the cards do feel like "cheating" to some players, especially those players who dished out hundreds of dollars chasing down cards that look almost exactly like the ones you got for $10. Your approach is lovely in its egalitarianism; but expect some dismay and/or resentment from the oligarchs.

Fronts and backs of the Collectors' Edition, Pro Tour 1 decks, and the latest World Championship decks.

Bottom line: The most usable of the "illegal" cards, and often a chance to try out those hard-to-get gems before you invest way more money. While you should prefer your group's okay before playing them, you should not feel too upset pushing their tolerance bit, as long as you use them in moderation, and honestly have no other way to acquire the cards. Always play in opaque sleeves.


One of the more intriguing Wizards experiments was the Unglued expansion, which is sort of the anti-collectible: the card backs and borders are normal, but the cards themselves are completely nutty. You can explore concepts like "denimwalk," games that influence future games, and physical comedy as part of your Magic game. It's a wildly creative set, and even came with excellent lands and tokens (many of which fetch a higher price than some Unglued rares in the secondary market).

I do not play the set very much, because I only like so much randomness in my life. But randomness can be fun, and the card titles can be excellent (my favorite titles: Strategy, Schmategy; Flock of Rabid Sheep; Urza's Science Fair Project; and Burning Cinder Fury of Crimson Chaos Fire).

Since the good people at Wizards denied me my chance at glory at last year's Magic Invitational, I will now force them to reprint my deck submission for the Deck of the People feature that year, which featured my favorite Unglued card, Giant Fan:

Spike Lee(ches) Fans.deq

Download Arena Decklist

Bottom Line: Where Unglued succeeded was in showing us that the folks in Wizards can laugh at themselves and the wider Magic community (Look at Me, I'm the DCI; Timmy, Power Gamer; and Sex Appeal). Unglued is the sort of expansion your group should occasionally allow, in a structured way: "Unglued Night," or that sort of thing. Otherwise, many players may find the effects too random to enjoy night after night. The card backs are "normal," so sleeves are not necessary (but use them anyway on the token and land cards, whenever you play them!).


The last set of cards has two uneasy brothers. Both are homemade, but they are homemade in entirely different ways…

First, there's the "new creation": the kind of card you genuinely go through the trouble to create, print, and maybe even generate artwork for. (If you go to and then type in "Magic the Gathering homemade cards", you'll get links to a whole bunch of individual efforts.) I get these in the mail quite often, and I get a kick out of them even though I don't play them myself. (If you send me picture attachments, make sure they're readable in preview mode. I don't open unsolicited attachments, for obvious reasons.) I once had a reader send me an absolutely stellar Buffy the Vampire Slayer card that even took the trouble to be balanced in tournament and casual play.

Second, and on the other end of the homemade spectrum, there's the proxy. This is the exact opposite of the new creation in many ways, since it requires no thought or trouble at all, but gives you access to the entire world of existing Magic cards. You just pick up a swamp and say, "Okay, this is a Black Lotus!" or (if you're at least sensitive to casting costs) a Wall of Distortion and say "Okay, this is a Juzam Djinn!" Easy, right?

And therein lies the problem. While I won't even get involved in your group's decision to allow truly creative homemade cards--just check in with them, or make it a special event, and it should be fine--I will lobby the casual community hard and fast to ban proxies. (I'm skipping strange variants like Mental Magic, where cards inherently represent other cards all the time.) Proxies are just not good for casual Magic, well beyond any consideration of profit margins for the company. I held this belief even before Wizards contracted me to write weekly for them, and I continue to hold it today.

The reason is simple: Magic is a strategy game seeped in creation, effort, and patience. Proxies are quick ways for tournament players to try out new Odyssey Block Constructed strategies before they buy the cards, and that's fine; but if you're using them in a play environment where winning is second to having fun, then you're missing the point. Creation. Effort. Patience. Create. Work. Wait. If your deck absolutely will not work without a specific card, then you have two choices: acquire the card or build a different deck.

I'm not saying spend, spend, spend. Use your head. The wider your card pool, the better your decks. And the more players you put into the same pool… well, the better your decks. So our playgroup sometimes lends each other certain cards (especially new rares), so that someone can try out a funky idea. We're friends, and we want to see the cool idea someone just came up with. That's Magic at its best, and it doesn't have to cost you a thing. (Just keep track of who owes what to whom.)


Bear in mind, if you seek out some of the cards noted above, that Collectors' Edition and other non-sanctioned sets operate in a different world than cards you'd normally buy or trade for. Trading and pricing can be a little tricky. Before you trade away perfectly legal rares to get your hands on a Mox Jet with a funky back, do your research. Scan eBay for auctions, and take note of the final prices. Write the data down. Use it as an upper guideline when you trade face-to-face (auctions generally sell merchandise at a premium, given the convenience). This is good advice generally when trading; but doubly so when the card you're trying so hard to get can't even be used in a tournament.

That said, enjoy these cards as you come across them, and talk with your group about ways you can use them. It's too easy to get wrapped up in DCI-sanctioned formats, because that's where a lot of the Internet press is. But it can be very rewarding to escape into other formats, and even entirely different cards, for a little while.

Anthony may be reached at

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