Returning to Returning Veterans

Posted in Serious Fun on October 29, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

Thanks to everyone who responded to my column on returning veterans two weeks ago. It was easily the largest mail call I’ve gotten so far, and it was overwhelmingly favorable. (So many stories and experiences to share!) I won’t go through individual emails here, but there were some recurring themes that I wanted to pass on.


I was pleased that the reasons most recent returning veterans gave for returning were mostly in line with what I had guessed from my years of correspondence. But I did neglect to mention one oft-repeated force behind many players’ initial exits: There was no one else to play with. Naturally, this is an indirect outcome of the other reasons why people leave—if enough players in an area decide they don’t have time to play or if they lose interest in the game, then critical mass disintegrates and other players end up leaving, as well.

Two forces have pulled veterans back, no matter what their reasons were for leaving. I highlighted one in the last article (the excitement generated by the Invasion block). But I didn’t even give a nod to the second force, and it’s one that probably relates directly to those veterans who are in limited-player areas: Magic Online.

Now, relax. I’m not going to pitch Magic Online to you. I can’t do so honestly—I don’t play it myself. (My friend has it and swears by it, but he’s a bit odd.) My computer doesn’t seem to be able to digest the download, but that’s okay from my viewpoint. In fact, I’m even a bit relieved, as I probably would’ve become addicted to it and spent from 2 A.M. to 5 A.M. every day playing (it’s the only free time I have left). And the few times I played on my friend’s computer, I found the time limit and lack of human contact distracting anyway.

So Magic Online isn’t for everyone. But it is being used by more returning veterans than I would have guessed. And the veterans love reconnecting with the game in this way. Aside from being able to play despite remote locations and demanding time commitments, there’s an additional benefit— while their opponents are thinking of their next moves, the veterans can look over all the new cards carefully and learn them.

Which brings me to my next point.


While all the veterans who emailed me in the last two weeks are indisputably glad to be back, there’s one major barrier to their return: the sheer volume of cards they’re trying to learn.

Setting aside reprints, missing a single year’s block represents over 600 separate unknown cards. When some poor sap comes back to Magic after three years of putting his best efforts into law school, he has to learn 1800 cards! (This assumes that his job at the bottom of the law firm’s ladder leaves him the time to even try.)

Imagine if Legions came out with nearly two thousand cards—we’d all go bonkers, first from joy, then from anger in how many rares there were to collect, and then from frustration in trying to figure out how everything worked together! The more I thought about this, the more I realized how silly it is that I feel impatient with the occasional veteran in our own playgroup. (I hope it hasn’t shown!) Even if they study a card one week, the next week may bring completely new interactions.

Anyway, I’ve thought about this, and I have some suggested strategies that are meant specifically for getting to know a block. Most of these are best implemented “one block at a time,” as many of the cards in a set are tied to a specific mechanic. I mentioned a couple in passing last time, but more detail is provided this time around because I realize now how serious this issue is.

1. Drafting. Sets today really are different from sets from, oh, pre–Tempest block. (I’m tempted to say they really didn’t get Limited formats right until the Masques block, but I’m not familiar enough with what the Sealed or Draft environments were like before that time.) In Fallen Empires, a situational card like Night Soil could be common and that was okay. The fact that in the right block (Odyssey anyone?) it would devastate Limited play wasn’t a factor. But today, rarity is more strategic, and many veterans open their packs and don’t see why certain commons are the way they are.

Don't just rip 'em open and file 'em away… Draft! More bang for your buck!

My advice to those veterans has been to learn how to draft. You don’t have to buy more packs to do this—just draft with the packs you get anyway. (If you buy a box or two when a new set comes out, it’s easy. If you only buy a few packs at a time, you’ll have to learn a little restraint and wait until you’ve pulled enough packs together.) In fact, the reason I tell veterans to draft is not to get them to buy more packs—it’s so they get more value out of the cards they’re already buying. Opening a single pack and rushing to the rare while chucking aside the other fourteen pieces of cardboard is a quickly forgotten thrill—but perusing all fifteen cards and figuring out the best card for your deck is another matter. Each pack you draft provides you with at least a couple of cards you’ll play with immediately—and at the same time, you’re learning a strategic skill that will make you a better Magic player in all formats. Plus, you learn about a set’s mechanics and cards more quickly and more in depth.

So draft!

The best format for returning veterans is probably a 2 x 2 booster. It consists of four people (teammates sit opposite each other). Each person drafts three packs each (within the same block is ideal) and then duels against each opposing team member. What happens with the rares and uncommons after that is up to you—winners take all, winners get first two picks, random distribution, whatever. Or if one person provided all the packs, he just gets all the cards back.

But Sealed is also fine. Also good, if you have the time, is Rochester Draft, in which all the picks are visible by all players. If you’ve got a friendly enough group, you can consult each other on picks. Our playgroup tries to stay silent and let the draft happen—but each player gets three “lifelines,” so he or she can get the opinions of fellow players. That keeps a fairly lengthy format moving along and also allows for some strategic discussion. Good stuff for people who already understand Magic, but don’t know all the cards yet.

2. Play Casual Team Formats. It’s less pressure to learn all the cards you have to combat if you don’t have to worry about six fronts at once, each one containing cards with expansion symbols you’ve never seen before. With a couple of true, assured allies at your side, you can focus on the task at hand—crippling the other side—and let their knowledge of new tech support you until you can figure out what the best new mechanics are and why.

In addition, you’ll get the chance to see new cards interact in friendly ways with your old cards, which will likely give you deck ideas.

Two-headed giant or emperor are fine here—nothing fancy.

3. Special Format Nights. When your group gets creative, try to steer them toward only those card pools that you don’t know very well yet. For example, if you’re going to do a blue-deck highlander night, why not just make the decks Standard legal? This will force you out of your comfort zone—and it will also probably take some work for the other players, too, so the disadvantage won’t be as large as you think.

Another special format might be an all-cycling night—every card must be a cycling card (ban Fluctuator). If you can combine your new Onslaught and (if you have them) old Urza block cards, there ought to be enough material to work with here.

4. Tribal Format. This one’s easy. One of the best ways to learn Onslaught will be to update your old “Soldier” or “Beasts” deck with the latest tech. This only works for this set, but you gotta learn these cards at some point, right?

5. Turn the Tables. Every once in a while, insist on drafting Ice Age block or an all–The Dark deck. There’s no reason why you can’t go home every now and then, right?

With that, I’m going to close out the returning veterans topic for now, but I’m still open to hearing your stories. In the future, I’m likely to assemble what I’ve learned about new and returning players and compare that to the “stalwart” playgroups that have been with the game for some time.


Talking about returning veterans doesn’t readily lend itself to decklists! But fortunately, last week’s “Wall of Kelp” and “Wall of Mulch” decks generated enough laughs and feedback to suggest several fine-tuning possibilities. Here’s a short list:

I usually don’t get much feedback on the decklists I post unless people are actually trying the deck out, so I figured I should pass on the above suggestions to the poor souls who were actually tinkering with this! I particularly like Words of Wind and Opposition, as neither really helps you win. And that’s kinda where the deck was going. Or wasn’t going, if you follow me.

Also, the occasional level 2 certified judge (why is it always level 2? . . . I’m not allowed to argue with them!) has pointed out to me that in my Dual NatureUnnatural Selection example, you can go one step further than just killing the token. If you turn the token into a Legend first and then the card, the card dies (last one to become a Legend with the same name is a rotten egg!)—and so then the token does as well. It’s two for the price of one.

Normally, I see stuff like that—and sometimes I don’t! I’m fairly annoyed at myself for not catching this one, especially when I’m trying to model innovative deck construction. So, my apologies to all for missing that obvious strategic improvement, and thanks to those readers who suggested it!

Anthony may be reached at

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