1994: The Year That Defined the Game

1994: The Year That Defined the Game

Today, Magic: The Gathering is the biggest collectible game on earth; tens of millions of players duel with each other across every continent, and there are many billions of Magic cards in circulation. But of course, things didn’t get that way overnight! 

Archival image of Magic’s first “Pro Tour” event, 1996’s Showdown In New York

Archival image of Magic’s first “Pro Tour” event, 1996’s Showdown In New York

Every fantastic journey has humble beginnings

In 1993/94 the world’s greatest fantasy card game was just taking its first wobbly steps. Designed and play-tested by grad students, the first Alpha printing of Magic was a very limited run. But it sold out fast. As did the next printing, and the next after that. 

By December ‘93, the game’s publishers felt confident enough to release the first expansion set of new cards, inspired by the Arabian Nights. You’ll be shocked to hear that it sold out too!

The first year of Magic was awkward and experimental - there were printing errors, poor distribution, conflict over what the game needed to be. Some early cards proved to be so powerful that they had to be banned, becoming sought after relics in their own right. 

An actual deck played by Steven Menendian in a tournament designed to follow the rules - or lack thereof - in original 1993 Alpha Magic. 90% of the cards are copies of the Power 9.

An actual deck played by Steven Menendian in a tournament designed to follow the rules - or lack thereof - in original 1993 Alpha Magic. 90% of the cards are copies of the Power 9.

But by 1994 things were really picking up steam 

In what became Magic’s first halcyon year, 5 new card sets were released to the public — 4 expansion sets of new cards and a fresh, Revised edition of the base game. 

In just 12 months, these sets — Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empiresexpanded Magic in every direction, adding new card types, multicolored cards, “tribal” deck types, and the first chapters of Magic’s own epic storyline — one that is still going today, with a high-profile Netflix adaptation in the works. 

And in the middle of all of that, Revised not only provided the best-known printings of some of the game’s most iconic cards, it solidified the modern Magic ruleset, introducing the fundamental structure of the game which still reigns to this day.

Capturing the Magic

The story of Magic is a 26 year history of growth, and it is a testament to MTG’s unique appeal that some players have stuck with it from the very beginning. These players have seen the entire evolution of the Magic product, and as the first years of the game increasingly become the stuff of myth and legend to a younger audience, the veterans have become guardians of Magic history and nostalgia. And the best way to get new generations interested in the earliest Magic cards? Why, play with them!

The popularization of Old School Magic tournaments, designed as a way to play and appreciate the game as it was in 1994, has led a revival in interest for Magic’s first boom period. In these games, only vintage cards from the early printings are legal; old-timers play with the first decks they ever owned, clashing with younger opponents who were not even born when their Black Lotuses were first torn from a booster pack!

Some of the top-ranked players from an Old School tournament in the UK

Some of the top-ranked players from an Old School tournament in the UK

The Old School feeling

We spoke to one of those “youngsters” about the appeal of Old School as a subculture. Nick, who describes himself as an “avid fan of Eternal Magic formats”, does relate having been told more than once that he’s “too young to be an Old School player”.

“I think the appeal of Old School Magic is primarily nostalgic. You have a generation of players in their 30’s and 40’s… it’s a natural progression that many of these players looking to recapture a nostalgic feel from their youth also happen to have a comfortable income that allows them to indulge (despite) the high price barrier…”

“For me, someone under 30 who didn’t start playing until the late ‘90s but picked up Power (Magic’s rarest cards) before they skyrocketed, the format gives me a window into the roots of the game which I cherish so much.”

A heritage treasured by all

That sort of reverence for early Magic sets is almost universal amongst today’s players, regardless of their age. One of the things which sets Magic apart from other games is its age and scope — to own a card which someone first excitedly played over 25 years ago, and still be able to play it today, carries a real emotional weight. In time, even common cards like Lightning Bolt and Counterspell have become iconic concepts which Nick and millions of others worldwide feel a connection to.

“I love that the format breathes life into iconic cards that would be unplayable by any other means (in tournaments with modern cards legal). My favorite card to play is Serendib Efreet, a 3 mana 3/4 flier that pings you for 1 on your upkeep.” 

Side-by-side comparison of the Arabian Nights printing of Serendib Efreet and the green version from Revised.

Side-by-side comparison of the Arabian Nights printing of Serendib Efreet and the green version from Revised.

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Nick would no doubt be happy to imagine our sealed box of Revised boosters contains one or more of the unique “wrong-color” Serendib Efreet, among Magic’s most famous misprinted cards. Such errors and quirks of the printing process are cherished by Old School fans, along with the hodgepodge art style and presentation of the ‘94 sets. 

The cherished and beautiful “counterburn” deck Nick plays in Old School Magic events

The cherished and beautiful “counterburn” deck Nick plays in Old School Magic events

While the modern cards have clean production values, the old school sets burst off the cardboard with bright primary colors, cartoonish figures and painterly landscapes. Decks like Nick’s are vivid, priceless windows into the shared past of a global community. And with so little original ‘94 product left in the world, our booster boxes hold a similar wealth of nostalgia. A little time capsule, wherein those brightly enchanting cards rest good as new — as though no time had passed at all since the early ‘90s.


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Antiquities: The Power of Antiquity

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