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Magic History: Summoning Power Creep


In the Beginning...

It goes without saying that Magic has evolved quite a bit since the first set, Limited Edition Alpha, was released, but many people playing today don't have a clue just how much things have changed. There were rules that existed but were eventually removed, like the "Ante" rule where players would wager a random card from their decks before each match. Things that we take for granted like "the stack" weren't even a part of the rules until the Sixth Edition core set was released. There used to be a rule called "Mana Burn" that caused damage to players when mana went unspent from their mana pools. Combat damage used the stack for many years. The original "Legend Rule" was changed at least twice.

The power level of the spells has changed dramatically too. In Magic's formative years, Wizards' design team drastically underestimated the power level of the spells they printed. The first generation of designers created over-costed creatures (by today's standards) and also made one or two-mana removal like Swords to Plowshares or Terror. The creatures were on average worse and more expensive, but the removal was as cheap and effective as it has ever been. 

The game's most powerful and broken spells appeared at this time, and these cards were from the same pool as some real stinkers. One of the very first cycles was printed in Alpha was the "boon cycle." This was a cycle of one-mana cards that each provided "three" of something. Take a quick look at this cycle, and it appears pretty unbalanced:

One of these cards is a wee bit stronger than the others...

 

Creature Feature

Magic's designers apparently thought that creatures as a card type were much more powerful than they actually were. The creatures were on average higher in converted mana cost, and their CMC to power/toughness ratios were often much less efficient. As the years rolled by, R&D realized that they needed to make creatures stronger so games would revolve more around creature combat. Today's article is going to showcase some creatures that were considered playable in their heyday, but pale in comparison to what exists in this day and age.

Contemporary Magic players have a wealth of powerful creatures to choose from. The poster child of overpowered beasts is Siege Rhino. The four-mana 4/5 Trampler with a Lightning Helix attached would have made Magic players faint in 1993. Four-mana didn't buy you nearly as much back then. Everyone reading this article knows Siege Rhino is a powerful card. What some people may not know is that once upon a time this, four-mana 4/5 was a tournament all-star and multi-format staple:

Erhnam Djinn

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Erhnam Djinn is a vanilla creature with a drawback. Once upon a time Wizards of the Coast thought a 4/5 for 3G was too good, so they gave the green genie a drawback. "Drawbacks" were actually a common occurrences back then. Many creatures had drawbacks, from the very large creatures all the way down to smaller creatures like Erg Raiders. Ehrnam was really good in his day because there weren't a ton of other cards that were as efficient as he was. There was even an archetype named after it called "ErhnamGeddon" that was very successful. The plan of that deck was to play an efficient creature like Erhnam and follow it up with Armageddon. Without lands, opponents would struggle to defend themselves as the Ehrnamgeddon player pressed their advantage. Another bonus was that the Forestwalk granted by Erhnam Djinn's drawback was made irrelevant after Armageddon destroyed any Forests lying around. 

Many four-drop creatures can't hold a candle to Siege Rhino, but in the case of poor Erhnam Djinn, he looks particularly anemic and weak. 

Juzam Djinn

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Continuing on with the theme of "drawback monsters," Juzam is one of the original Djinns and likely the most iconic one. Today's Magic player gets 5/5's for four mana all the time, but this power was apparently too good for Arabian Nights era Magic. I can't imagine anyone playing Juzam in their deck if he was released in a Standard-legal expansion.

In recent history there was a four mana "drawback monster" in Black. Desecration Demon saw heavy play in Standard when Mono-Black Devotion was sitting at the top of the format. That creature was bigger (6/6), evasive, and its drawback was almost a bonus at times. Sure, you could sacrifice a creature to tap down an opponent's Desecration Demon, but if you're feeding the Demon just to stay alive, things aren't looking good for you!

When I was first learning to play Magic, Juzam was considered one of the best, if not the absolute best, creature in Magic. The rate of 5/5 for four was one of the best in the game at that time, and with Dark Ritual being in many Black decks, Juzam was easy to cast in the early turns of a game. The price tag on Juzam was very high, and for a long time he was the most expensive card from Arabian Nights.

Mahamoti Djinn

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Every control deck needs a finisher, and believe it or not, Mahamoti Djinn was what Blue decks used to close out a game. Paying six-mana for a 5/6 flyer was fine by the standards of the day even though removal was as cheap as it has ever been. Mahamoti Djinn has great art and great flavor, but this wouldn't make the cut in a constructed deck anymore. I could see someone playing something like this in limited, but it wouldn't be all that impressive. 

In modern Magic, six-mana buys you a Frost Titan, Consecrated Sphinx, or Aetherling. A six-mana french-vanilla creature isn't turning any heads. 

Force of Nature

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Honestly Force of Nature was never a tournament staple like some of the other cards mentioned in this article, but it was something that saw a lot of play in casual games. I know plenty of people who played with this creature. An 8/8 with trample was huge, and it only cost six-mana! It seemed like a terrific rate when you compared it to the six-mana 5/6 Mahamoti Djinn. Of course the real cost of Force of Nature goes beyond the 2GGGG mana cost. That upkeep cost is no joke! There's a reason that Ehrnamgeddon was a deck, and Force of Natureo'Geddon was not. 

These days you can have a Primeval Titan instead, or if you're into the bulk-rare type of comparison, there's Terra Stomper as a six-mana 8/8 trampling Green creature. Both of those are strictly better than poor old Force of Nature

Balduvian Horde

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Here we have a creature that had more hype than any other card from Alliances. Remember, at this time Ehrnam Djinn was really good and Juzam Djinn was "the best creature ever". This thing was the second coming of Juzam! It's Red instead of Black, but you don't lose life each turn! All you have to do is randomly discard a card from your hand when you play it!

Card advantage was a well-known concept by the time Alliances came out, so I don't have a clue why people thought this creature would be a good card. There's really no way around the drawback, and the creature gets chump-blocked all day. Still this card had a hefty price tag when it was first released, and you could trade these for multiple copies of Force of Will at the time. It seems silly to think about now, but the average Magic player just wasn't quite as savvy back then as they are today. 

Serra Angel

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Serra Angel's angelic visage, painted by Douglas Schuler, is one of the most iconic of the classic Magic: the Gathering images. She was a fantastic card in the early years of the game and was featured prominently in tournament-winning deck lists of the day. Zak Dolan, the 1994 Magic World Champion, used a Stasis deck with four copies of Serra Angel to claim the title. 

Of all the creatures featured today, Serra Angel is probably the closest to being playable by today's standards. In a modern context, Serra's power level has diminished to the point where she has been printed at Uncommon instead of Rare for many years. The angel that you're more likely to see in a tournament these days is probably Restoration Angel. Value creatures have become the new standard for playability and there isn't any room for a slightly-better Air Elemental in modern Magic decks. 

Miracle Grow and Tempo

If you play Modern or Legacy, then you know how those formats have some killer two-drops like Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, or Snapcaster Mage. Before there was the brute force of Tarmogoyf running around smashing heads, people had to work with creatures that weren't quite as strong:

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The type of cantrip-heavy decks that today might want either 'Goyf or Young Pyromancer had to work Quirion Dryad and Werebear back in the old days. Although both of those cards are heavily outclassed today, the basic principles of deck design that made them work are still alive today. Decks like Modern Delver, Legacy RUG Delver, and even Vintage Monastery Mentor all have their roots in a deck that played Quirion Dryad. Let's take a look at the great grandfather of modern tempo strategies.

 

 

A deck with only ten lands might look suspicious, but it was actually designed to work well. The deck used cantrips, Land Grant, and even Merfolk Looter to make sure it hit the land drops that it needed to. Cards like Gush and Daze allowed the deck to make extra mana and use up more of its land drops. Most importantly, Quirion Dryad would miraculously "grow" when the Blue cantrips were played. This spurt is analogous to a Tarmogoyf getting bigger when its controller puts more spells in the graveyard, or when a Young Pyromancer makes a horde of tokens from chaining cantrips. 

 

Drawback Demons and Super Massive Beasts

Whether you're playing a big-mana ramp deck like 12-Post or Tron, or you're playing a "cheat-a-fattie" deck like Sneak and Show or Reanimator, today's spellslinger has many over-the-top creatures to choose from. There's the Eldrazi, Griselbrand, or even Worldspine Worm if that's your thing. Well, back in the day, big creatures weren't quite as scary!

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Just look at all that power! These cards made all the "Timmy" players giddy like a little kid, but they were terrible. If you've ever wondered why Show and Tell or Sneak Attack were bulk Rares when they were released, this is why. There weren't a ton of creatures that were big enough and good enough to make you want to spend an entire card just to put it into play. Sneak Attack wouldn't even work with the two Blue giants: they come into play tapped! None of these creatures have any type of protection. The only kind of spell that generally can't touch these things would be burn spells like Lightning Bolt. Your eleven-mana investment in a Polar Kraken could be undone with a single Terror. Smart players learned to dismiss creatures like this right away, and it wouldn't be until creatures like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Progenitus were printed that enormous creatures became viable tournament staples. 

There was a deck based on Natural Order that had a moderate amount of success, but that deck didn't have Progenitus or Craterhoof Behemoth to sneak into play.

Here we have Secret Force, a rogue deck played by former Magic player and writer, Jamie Wakefield. This deck list was taken from a Daily MTG article and no sideboard was listed. I can't remember what the super secret sideboard tech was back in circa 1997, so I've left it blank. The important thing is that this deck represented one of the most unfair things you could do with a fair deck in this time period. Verdant Force was the "King of all Fatties", and it was the biggest creature with upside. Fetching up a Force of Nature with a Natural Order would have been possible, but it would tie up all of your mana in perpetuity. Times sure have changed, and if you love smashing creatures into each other, it is definitely a change for the better. 

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this look into some of the creatures that made up the early history of Magic. There are even more creatures that are laughably bad but didn't crack this article. If you have a favorite obsolete or terrible creature tell me about it in the comments; I'd love to hear about it! 

Follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on MTGO



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