Guest post today! A while ago Jon-Michael sent me an email asking about writing a post for the blog and we’ve kept in touch since then. We’ve had many conversations on the topic of Old School Mtg. He’s a super cool guy so I was confident that he would have a great article in him. He decided to write about his relationship with Old School and why he plays it. I think we’ll all be able to relate.
I’ve wanted to write about Old School Magic and my relationship to it for a while now but I haven’t until this and I don’t really know why. We don’t want to fuck up or misrepresent the things we love and I don’t think my fervor for slinging old spells of cardboard is any different. I guess the thing I cherish and admire most about Mtg, is succinctly, the wonder it creates. Taylor said it best when talking about Christopher Rush’s powerful art for Forest (B): how the possibility of whatever world was around that bend in the forest path brewed in him a vicious sense of wonder. Every Magic card, to me, is that feeling he put so beautifully. I love the game of Magic, but sometimes I think the game itself is one of the least important parts for me. I love any excuse for another world and with Magic, whether it’s the nostalgia, jamming games, ogling the oneiric artwork, there’s a plethora to choose from.
I don’t remember when I first started playing Magic, but that’s not really important. I do remember the first time that it shoved its universe in me though. 93/94 isn’t so much about the dates as it is about the experience. I woke up to that experience one autumn entering 6th grade at a few picnic tables outside my new middle school. I had just switched schools and had the wards and curses of anonymity in a fairly unforgiving world that prioritized not really social engagement, but social merit, over it seemed anything else. To this day I still enjoy the feeling of moving to and inhabiting a new place, which I think in some ways is impelled by my introduction to Magic and the feeling it gave me, rather than necessarily what’s outside of me, or who is peopling that fresh environment. The possibility of reinventing the self, or Rebirth as Magic would have us say, drives me back to what matters most: exploration. So with that raw insight that incentivizes approaching the world as a stranger, I spotted a few kids sitting atop a wood bench, throne-like, slamming spells. From the get-go, every climate of Magic I ever cared about was already rendered and realized for me there: Sengirs gnashing into Bird Maidens, Bronze Tablets pilfering from libraries, Snow-covered Lands littered with armies of Plague Rats and Giant Tortoises, and Polar Krakens thrashing into the waters off a Tropical Island encased in a great Forcefield.
I liked the language those kids seemed to possess that the world around them didn’t. It wasn’t their exclusivity, or remoteness, that transfixed me but rather their full immersion in a landscape that others weren’t privy to. That’s what made the scene feel so moving to me—that they were there in that other place, while the rest of the world did its dumb 6th grade thing, around them. I admired the community that was required to play the game too, but above that, I just wanted to be invited to that Safe Haven where I could snag potions off a Samite Healer and Rocket Launcher down some Scryb Sprites where the reality I was used to wouldn’t meddle. I knew it was just a game, but there was something different about it. It wasn’t the kids playing that I admired – because I don’t remember any of them anymore – but what they represented. Their existence allowed for novel art, literature, hieroglyphs, healing, wizardry, lore, symbolism, power, wanderlust, escapism into the concrete slabs of my life that was middle school when I really needed it most.
Part of the reason I think early Magic is so powerful to me is that intoxicating confluence of elements. Each facet of the game has depth to it—there’s nothing shallow about the commitment to play, which I felt was fairly incongruous to the day-to-day life of what adolescence was forcing me into. It was easier for things to be as you wanted them to be casting spells. It was a weird sensation to think that an unreality could be more “right” than a real one, but it was there. As relevant as that was for me then, it’s just as imperative now.
I suppose that’s the feeling I’m trying to return to when playing now. I’m chasing that sensation of the first grip of cards I ever had in my hands. My first packs were sadly Fallen Empires and Ice Age (The image of a Barbarian Guide behind comic store glass is still etched my brain), so it was probably something like Island, Island, Swamp, Wall of Water, Thrull Champion, Fear and a laughable Ashnod’s Transmogrant. But regardless, all Old School Mtg is good Mtg. There’s a sort of mulligan effect to my playing Old School Mtg now: I’m looking for that initial mess of unplayable cards I once had – the perfect hand: the t1 win – which was that first hand of shitty cards I ever had over two decades ago. Each game I play now, each new card I snipe off tcgplayer, is me building that hand. It’s not a hand I really want realized; the want for it is much more robust than its reality but the building is still necessary for whatever reason. Serra Angels stonewalling a fleet of Granite Gargoyles flanked by a Castle or Gloom descending the land while High Tides are bringing an alliance of Homarids and a fire-breathing Elder Legend Dragon to the beaches of Wak-Wak have the ability to conjure that feeling, too. It’s the world in the world that I’m after. And it does exist, but it’s not something that can be reached, and that’s what makes it worth revisiting. Maybe this is the nostalgia talking, since that feels a lot like nostalgia, but it’s fine for me. People shit on nostalgia but it’s better to long for your own life than somebody else’s. It’s not something I want to recover from.
When someone plays a Craw Wurm now I don’t just see a 6/4 with a menacing scaled head leering at me from a green border, but I also see my life gazing into me too, coaxing me to come back into it, that there’s still more of it in that Craw Wurm card frame than I may have experienced before. When we were kids we had no idea how Strip Mine or Balance could be better than a Dakkon Blackblade. And to be honest it’s still not. We wanted monstrous, emphatically intimidating or unnatural creatures, things that WEREN’T possible in this world—Savannah Lions were too feasible, too relatable. It just didn’t entertain us. Juzam was cool (although no one I knew ever saw one, which was the case with most of the creatures we dreamed of having), but we didn’t understand it: it pinged you! Why would we ever want to take damage? The object of the game, for us, was to never die, to stay as long in that world as we possibly could. That’s why we jammed Streams of Life and Alabaster Potions in every deck we could. The adult gamer in me enjoys strategy, I play games now, a lot of the time, for the strategy I can get invested in in it, and I think there’s a different kind of wonder in that technique too, but I don’t ever want to lose the authority and pleasure of slamming a Dakkon Blackblade on a carpet floor. More land, more creature—that’s a real mages’ MO. Make the world bigger: lands, duals, rituals, Urza’s’ and monoliths to engorge the landscape, and then you hatch a gargantuan creature from the land—and let that represent you—rather than your life, personality, status etc. I wish that was why underground seas were $300 now, but sadly it isn’t. Eschewing the adult world of magic–the $300 a card part–I love Old School Mtg because it represents all this—giant worlds, big spells, epic bashing.
Getting back into magic about 5 years ago I immediately went for Legacy because I saw the dual lands of my youth: the seas, savannahs and badlands that gave a breadth and range to the worlds I wanted to inhabit. They weren’t Shivans, or used to cast Shivans, but I knew Shivans once soared there. It took me a little longer to navigate the waters of a Volcanic Island but I found that Shivans are still there, somewhere maybe the art only suggests, like that dreamy cliff side behind the erupting volcano, but there’s a whole world there and that’s where I spend my mana now. That, to me, is what my enthusiasm for Old School is all about.
Thanks for reading.
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