It’s always fun to look back on one’s timeline playing Magic: The Gathering. At least I think so. I’ve been playing for a long time, having celebrated my 20th anniversary in the game this April, and I’m still glad to be playing despite the ups and downs (including a hiatus 1999–2000).
When I started, I bought a Fourth Edition starter, and that was most of what I had for a month or so. As such, I looked through those cards constantly—sorting them, shuffling them, playing games against myself. As I acquired more cards, I of course added them to the stack, and eventually had to divide the stack into playable cards, first grouped by colors then in some semblance of playability. Eventually the cards were mixed into my collection and disappeared like sand on the beach. Some of them were no doubt traded or sold or destroyed by a washing machine.
I remember the three rares in the deck. (Like I said, I looked through the cards a lot, and once I learned about rarity, it was easy to recall the standouts.) And a few months ago, I decided I could probably reconstruct most of the deck from memory, starting with the rares and a few cards I could remember. As such, I submit this, my first starter, the 60 cards that got me into Magic, with commentary.
As best I can remember.
Nat’s First Fourth Edition Starter
I’ll be back with more Vintage content in two weeks.
I remember thinking back in the day that this was huge and uncastable and the activation cost was ridiculous. That’s all true, but since I put together the White-Border Wonder Cube (WBWC, a cube composed entirely of Fourth Edition and Chronicles, two seminal sets in my young Magic career), I have gained a new appreciation for the reusable four damage. This also inspired my first “combo,” putting this with Animate Artifact. I have no recollection of actually making that combo happen or of casting Aladdin’s Ring in the first place.
It’s hard for me to separate these two cards in my mind, as it seems so unlikely that they would have ended up in the same starter. I know I used these when they came up when I was still playing a deck that was “all my cards in one pile” and even “all my cards of two or three colors in one pile,” but I knew the risks of turning all my lands into creatures and falling victim to Wrath of God, or even Prodigal Sorcerer. Now, I look back on these as two of my first three rares and think it’s amazing that I stuck with the game for 20 years.
This is the first of many cards that I remember more because of the art than actually doing anything with it. What is going on? Why are that lizard man and that guy sharing a steam room? Is he wearing a swim cap? I think once I got some more cards and found out about Lifelink, Backfire never came out of the box.
I’m sure I have cast this card and attacked with it. Probably the solid 3/3 body with an ability has even won me a game. Compared to other 4E creatures, Bog Wraith is pretty good. It probably makes most of the WBWC decks it gets drafted for.
When I first started, I thought this card was awesome, especially when I started coming across creatures that didn’t tap to attack. A 4/6 Serra Angel was almost surely unstoppable, even for two cards and a combined nine mana. Really, though, the card I wanted was Crusade. I probably still don’t have a playset of those (not that I need one).
My first Lucky Charm. I remember playing this and its friends and Soul Net in lots of decks for a while. My friends and I would swap them to make sure we had at least one of each. They’re so cheap to play and use, they pretty much have no drawback at all. Later, when I was in college, my friends and I did a sealed league for ante, where players were able to provide any packs they wanted to go with a 6th Edition starter. The trick was that any card you lost to ante you could write on however you want. My cousin Mike lost an Iron Star to me and wrote on it, “Look what I pulled out of my ass!” I still have that one.
Another two cards that are inextricably linked in my memory, and not just by theme. None of my friends had Shivan Dragon or Mahamoti Djinn, so for a while these were heavy hitters in our group. I moved on to small creature “weenie” decks pretty quickly, though. Well, we played mostly one- and two-color decks because none of us had expensive manabases, and I played Burn and Goblins in red and “All My Counterspells” in blue. Once I had more cards, I think these got shelved for Goblins, and I definitely made a Keldon Warlord deck. The art on Water Elemental is still one of my favorites, though.
Richard Thomas’s art here (likewise in Wall of Water, Wall of Air, and Wall of Ice, and others) is so awesome, with that deceptively simple stained-glass effect. I didn’t play a lot of walls when I first started (“Blocking? No, thank you”), but they’re very appreciated in the WBWC.
Ah, crazy Uncle Istvan. This guy had a back-story for sure. He showed up in a lot of my black decks and was, as is to be expected now that I know what I’m doing, disappointing. Four-drop 1/3s, even if they’re full of flavor, are not full of win.
My friends and I were always obsessed with lifegain and damage prevention in our early decks (see earlier about Iron Star), so I remember throwing Amulet of Kroog and later Fountain of Youth into a lot of decks. They always did nothing but I never recognized that and was comforted simply by their presence. Do you realize you have to tap this to use it? That’s terrible!
This is the most wizardly wizard in Magic, for sure. He does nothing to fight the stereotype. Today, I have a black-bordered one that I’m unduly proud of. I used this card in a few decks later on, usually to power out artifacts or Mahamoti Djinn. Blue didn’t (and still doesn’t) get much mana acceleration, so this was a pretty good option somehow, despite costing three.
Cards like Battering Ram and Burrowing give the impression that walls are going to be a lot more popular and worrisome in the game than they really are. I don’t think I ever got the opportunity to blow up a wall with a Battering Ram, maybe because I’m still hazy on how banding works.
In most respects, this card compares unfavorably to Paralyze, but it does stop someone from attacking with Serra Angel (if they can’t pay the tax). This probably would have been an effective card against my friends when we were first starting out, but I don’t think any of us recognized that, even though none of us owned things like Swords to Plowshares that were almost certainly better.
Soon after I got my first starter, my parents and I took a train trip from Cleveland to Chicago. I remember really delving into the starter then, since we had so many hours of train ride ahead of us. First, this card seemed great: a 4/5 to go along with my 4/4 Durkwood Boars and 6/4 Craw Wurm. At some point, I recognized that this card was a wall and couldn’t actually attack. Part of me died that day.
I was glad to hear when Wizards decided to phase color hosers out of base sets and make the remaining ones less common. These weren’t even especially useful Circles of Protection to get in one’s introductory pack. Well, I suppose Green was pretty good against the color’s big creatures. (It made the cut in the WBWC for that reason.) Anyway, I’m sure I included COPs in my early white decks, and I’m pretty sure I put a Sleight of Hand-Northern Paladin deck (Sleight-Knight) together at least once. I probably would have started with COP: Red, though. Also, I think by the time I unloaded my old bulk, I probably had several playsets of all of these, since they appeared in so many sets.
Yeah! Now we’re talking! This guy seemed so unfair when we were younger, and I later found out it was a common, so it was like a quarter to get a full playset. Delving even deeper into my backstory, I went to school with Tim Aten. He and I would talk MTG but on different levels since he was, like, actually good. He pointed out that Craw Wurm was bad because I could spend less colored mana and get Scaled Wurm from Ice Age, which was a 7/6! In retrospect, I’m not sure that was the soundest advice, but it made sense. I don’t think I played with Craw Wurm much after that.
This card was some sort of mythical unicorn for young me. I kept wanting to play mono-black decks (or decks that converted mana into black) so that I could win with it. Unfortunately, as I’m sure many people discovered, Dark Ritual into Dark Ritual into Drain Life is a pretty bad return on investment, even though it was one I kept trying. I feel like this strategy of “make a bunch of mana” finally came together for me when I made a Shade deck using Lion’s Eye Diamonds, maybe when I played a bunch of elves with Sacred Mesa, or maybe Vintage storm.
I have less to say about this card than I do about a similar card, Kjeldoran Dead. Kjeldoran Dead and Icatian Javelineers had art that my cousin Geoff and I thought looked like it was from the Jason and the Argonauts movie with animation by Ray Harryhausen. And, of course, a 3/1 for one was way better than a 1/1 for two, sacrifices be damned. Let’s get in the red zone! (Also Kjeldoran Dead paired nicely with the Serf tokens from Sengir Autocrat.)
I think because I also got Craw Wurm (and later Scaled Wurm), I was never impressed with Durkwood Boars. They’re still relatively expensive and of medium size; why not just spend a little more mana and get even bigger! I play them in WBWC because they beat Hill Giants and similar cards. Now I can say that Magic needs more swine.
I’ve comboed Channel into several turn-one wins with Goblin Charbelcher, but I don’t remember ever having used it with Fireball, Disintegrate, or any similar card. When I first started playing, I loved red’s X spells, though. The possibilities were literally limitless! Of course, instead of really trying to harness those possibilities and finish opponents off, I would usually wait until I didn’t have anything else to cast during a turn and point fire at my opponent’s dome. Later, I made a deck I called “Fire Sale,” which had X spells alongside Helm of Awakening, Nightscape Familiar, and Thornscape Familiar to make them cheaper. I don’t remember its plan ever coming to fruition.
Everyone’s favorite beginner card, I think. Grizzly Bears even shows up in the example games. It’s very square, very relatable: 2/2 for two. The flavor text is still the best part: “Of course, you could run up a tree…”
As with Lightning Bolt, I remember a lot of turn-one “Plains, Healing Salve myself, go.” It was innocuous. Peaceful. You didn’t make enemies in a group game by gaining three life. Healing Salve is a decent card if it’s played as a trick to save a creature or player from imminent death, but that was beyond us most of the time. Three life for one mana—that was the deal and we took it.
I’m sure everyone did the “Mountain, Bolt you, go” play when they were first starting out. It’s very satisfying, though it often leaves you wondering why the White Knight you couldn’t deal with keeps beating you. Anyway, I’ve cast this card recently in Vintage, so its lastingness is well proven. Whenever I put Lightning Bolts in a deck, I still use the 4E version.
When I first started, Mons’s Goblin Raiders were one of a limited number of goblins. If you wanted to build a dedicated Goblin deck, you started with Goblin King and some mediocre one-drops, including these. I played them a lot, also Goblin Digging Team and Goblins of the Flarg. Mono-red Sligh (which did not include this card) was invented shortly after I started playing, but I didn’t really know anything about it until later. I probably never would have considered Orcish Librarian as a playable card, other than it had funny art. I remember we were all pretty taken with Raging Goblin when that came out too. What an upgrade!
Tim Aten helped me build my first “real” deck, one that wasn’t themed based just on color or creature type or ridiculous cards I liked for some reason. Instead I got to play UG Ramp with four Mana Vaults that I used to get out Mahamoti Djinn and Ernham Djinn early then ride them and various counterspells (including actual Counterspell) to victory. This is probably the first deck I played that had a reasonable mana base, since I had long been a follower of the 2/3 spells, 1/3 mana doctrine, meaning 20 lands. Power Sink was one of the better counters in the deck, especially before the 6th Edition rules change. I think I used this deck to make it to the elimination rounds of a tournament, which was a pretty big moment. Those were the first packs I ever won playing Magic.
It was a fairly long time before I realized the benefit of buying singles versus buying packs and hoping to get what I wanted. For the most part, this was pre MTG internet too, so I never knew when I would get something I hadn’t known existed. I also ended up getting so much chaff. So much. I bought lots of Chronicles, Fallen Empires, and Homelands. Strangely, even though I bought all these packs, I still never got complete sets of any of them. Sometimes I wonder what my Magic career would have been like if I focused on singles rather than packs.
Samite Healer is a white card that taps to prevent a damage.
Stream of Life
Not quite as exciting as Fireball, but I like the symmetry here, as I like it between Healing Salve and Lightning Bolt. Of course, one of the lessons I did pick up was that lifegain was not the same and rarely as valuable as damage. Rather than winning the game, you often end up just delaying the inevitable. I do remember answering a Fireball for five or six with a similarly sized Stream of Life, though.
I know this card was in my first starter because it and Stream of Life had similar art. Wizards changed that by 5th Edition. We didn’t have a lot of reason to play enchantments when I started. No one owned enough Crusade or Stasis to build around them, and we didn’t play with sideboards, so any enchantments designed to hit specific colors or deck types would have ended up useless too often. Disenchant was flexible enough, and there were enough good artifacts to make Shatter worthwhile, but I don’t think Tranquility ever made the cut.
It’s interesting how playing Vintage changes perspectives on old cards. When I started, Shatter was a perfectly serviceable card. Two mana to remove an artifact, especially the artifacts we were playing, is reasonable, and at instant speed to boot! Now, most of the time I won’t pay more than one mana to blow up one artifact, and two mana should get rid of all my opponent’s artifacts or give me the option to blow up an enchantment. Shatter? What am I a peasant?
Yes, I played Vampire Bats quite a bit. They flew and could be 2/1 attackers, like tiny flying dragons. My favorite part of the Bats, though, was the flavor text. I really miss the quotes from real-world poetry and literature.
Unlike with Carnivorous Plant, Wall of Spears’s name tells you it’s a wall. That’s pretty handy. This card didn’t make it into any of my constructed decks that I recall. Well, that’s probably not true. I probably tried to build something artifact based around the Urzatron. It might have snuck in there, but I doubt it.
This guy, on the other hand… For some reason I played Yotian Soldier quite a bit. I liked that it had vigilance (before vigilance was a thing). I also liked that if I played Transmutation or About Face to switch its power and toughness, it became a legitimate attacking threat. I know I built a deck around this effect: lots of creatures with low cost and high toughness, which were, by their nature, difficult to remove. Yotian Soldier was important because it wouldn’t leave me open to counterattack.
When I first started, Zephyr Falcon was probably my favorite card. I used it in so many decks with things like Giant Growth and Unstable Mutation. Being able to fly and attack and block was just huge for me. It’s not an overwhelming (or, you know, good) card by any means, but I liked it a lot. Maybe it was the art. Maybe I liked the word “zephyr.”
Only the Mountains and Islands really made an impression on me artwise. I was never a fan of the pink Islands, but I did like the green one, and the Douglas Shuler Mountains reminded me of Bob Ross (sorry, Douglas; I didn’t know any better). I also remember that I had barely enough Swamps in my first starter to actually cast Uncle Istvan. Lands were also harder to come by then since I didn’t have a car or a local game store or a ton of nearby friends who played. I was kind of stuck for a few gaming sessions, even though I may not have fully recognized it for a while. I expect I got most of my lands in the traditional way: buying starters, and people giving away washed-out looking Revised lands.
That’s it. That’s all I remember, as best as I can remember. I hope you enjoyed this revisitation of my early days in Magic.
By the way, I think this is also why I’m a fan of Old School Magic but not a player of the format. It’s too old! The cards are too good. The cards I really started with—Fourth Edition, Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Chronicles, Homelands—they’re so bad, they’re good. They’re lovable ironically. Playing Old School misses too much of that sweet, awkward flavor and near-playability. I like seeing Old School results and the cards, but I’m just not interested in it for myself. The WBWC is where it’s at.
Thanks for reading! (More Vintage in two weeks!)
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