Sworn to the Black: Before the Empires Fell in the MTG Underground

“I like my magic like I like metal: Black and from 1994.” – Yawgmoth, Former Sound Board Technician at Deathlike Silence Productions

hellfire

I love Music the same way I love Magic.

It should come as no surprise that my passion for sound is as far from the mainstream as my approach to the game.

The seed for my love was planted when I was about six. My cousin Mike decided that he preferred the solo work of Ozzy Osbourne to the dirges of Black Sabbath, and gave me every Sabbath album ever recorded on cassette. I listened to them endlessly, learning the lyrics while being mesmerized with the artwork. It spawned a taste in darker, stranger things, from Horror movies to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and likely was root source of my immediate fascination with Magic.

From the beginning, my obsession with both song and spell was intertwined. It would be absurd to presume that my taste in one did not influence my taste in the other. But it was more than just the subject matter that played into this matrimony of interests. My Magic Circle were the same guys in my Circle Pit. We were in it together, whether in the grimy concert venues of Detroit or the common areas of Sports Card Stores. On Friday night we would be at Harpos, growling along to Morbid Angel, and on Saturday we would face off in the basement of Card Castle.

We were an affront to the established stereotype. Years of media branding taught people about Nerds. Every fantasy game was Dungeons and Dragons, and only nerds played Dungeons and Dragons (we were fortunate enough to not live in a community that associated it with Devil Worship, because we fit that stereotype down to its finest nuance.) We were not living up to the image. There may have been plenty that fit the mold, but we were not even the same resin.

We never got the memo.

“You do not look like a Magic Player.”

I have heard this over and over for more than twenty years.

What the fuck does a Magic Player look like?

mtgplayer4

Exactly

Damn I miss that Hoodie. I have no idea what happened to it.

Beyond Sabbath, the rest of my childhood music collection consisted of hand me downs or dubs of whatever one of the older kids from the neighborhood lost interest in. Much of it was just as uninteresting to me, but the occasional treasure was unearthed and things like Hell Awaits from Slayer and Master of Puppets from Metallica were added to my favorites. The heavier it was, the more my little budding hardcore self liked it. From Suicidal Tendencies to the Misfits, I had a range and taste that bordered on weird and manifested in extremity in the absence of any proper parenting.

At some point I had a copy of License to Ill from the Beastie Boys. My cousin Jim loved it, and one afternoon we were listening to it in his Boombox, his most prized possession after his skateboard. He kept turning it louder. My uncle kept telling him to turn it down. He pushed it. Before long, it was at maximum volume. Jim was standing with his arms folded and the smuggest expression his ten year old face could muster. He was so busy gloating he did not see his dad round the corner of the house. He was oblivious until the Boombox was in motion. My uncle raised it over his head and threw it into the street.

It shattered into pieces accompanied by silence. The silence was followed by tears. The radio was completely destroyed, tape included. I consoled my cousin, telling him not to worry about it, the tape was just a dub and I did not really like the Beastie Boys anyway.

A few years later, when I was eleven, my cousin Mike decided to try and influence my taste in Music yet again. He was six years older than me, and I always looked up to him. Partially because he was tall, but partially because he had a jean jacket with a Pentagram drawn on the back (it was about as symmetrical as the one on Unholy Strength, but that did not matter to me any more on the fabric than it did on the card. I thought pentagrams were cool then, and I still think they are pretty cool now.) He bought me a copy of his favorite album for my birthday. He was excited to gift it to me.

I opened it up to find that it was Motley Crue. I hid my disappointment, but there was no way to salvage my innocence. It was a harsh dose of reality. Part of my childhood died that day, and I would never be able to look at my cousin the same. All of a sudden, I saw past the pentagram jacket and realized he had a mullet. I understood that he gave me all those Black Sabbath tapes to be rid of them. He had a tattoo, but it said “Home, Sweet Home.” He grew up in the 80s, and instead of embracing any of its gritty, hardcore underground, he handled it so poorly that his favorite singer was Vince Neil.

How the fuck does that happen to a person?

Needless to say I did not love the Theater of Pain. I pretended it was broken and he returned it. He gave me a gift certificate instead, making me aware that he knew I was silently judging him. A week later he took me to pick something out, and I had no idea where to begin. It was an adventure, and I wandered around the record store in a daze. When Mike started growing impatient, so I grabbed the first thing that looked cool, having no idea what it was.

Sepultura_-_Arise_1991

The first album I ever bought for myself was “Arise” by Sepultura.

It was all I listened to for the next year.

I attended my first concert in 1993. I saw Pantera at the State Theater in Detroit. My eyes were opened to many of the wonders of the world that night. I had my first taste of green mana. It was terrible, and I avoided it again for many years, unaware that the harvest of Havenwood Battleground was much different from that of Gaea’s Cradle. I also had my first view of the city, in all of its danger and glory. I was young, naive, and unaware I was a part of both. But the most important discovery of the night was the Mosh Pit. I fell in love with it much the way I did Magic a year later, and I have remained mesmerized every day since the first time I was lost in the music and thrashing limbs.

By the time I played my first game, I was a deeply rooted Metal Head. It was fortunate that my core group were just as planted in extreme music. We were discovering albums and cards with rabid fascination. It is likely that none of us would have gone as far or as hard on our own, but taking the journey together led us deeper and deeper into the darkness of both magic and metal.

Our sessions were a proving ground. It was a competition. Dan discovered Entombed and showed me Junun Efreet. Dave picked up a playset of Moss Monsters and a The Bleeding from Cannibal Corpse. I showed up with Sol’kanar the same day I bought my first Deicide album. The cards commanded the same unspoken social status as the songs. When they introduced White Zombie, Machine Head, and Clutch, I traded for some Sinkholes and crossed the threshold with Acid Bath. I was listening to Sleep’s Holy Mountain the first time I got locked out of a game by Moat. I cast my first Lich around the same time I heard At the Gates.

terminal

Terminal Spirit Disease sunk its teeth into me. I was poisoned. What was I hearing? Where did it come from? I lost a game to The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale and started to detest playing creatures at all. They were a liability. I wrote them off and let my preoccupation with music take over. If this kind of stuff was coming out of Europe, what else was out there? What was I missing?

And then it happened.

emperor

I bought “In the Nightside Eclipse” from Emperor.

I exposed my Magic Circle to Black Metal. Nothing was the same after that.

Pantera and Morbid Angel took the backseat for a while. We still went and saw Pro-Pain, but we listened to Marduk on the ride down. The night we beat up Napalm Death’s roadies outside of Harpos after they stopped the show because we were moshing, we rode home and celebrated listening to Cradle of Filth’s Vempire EP. It was the same way when it came to Magic. The Dark came out. With it came Darkthrone.

Darkthrone_-_Transilvanian_Hunger

In the months that followed the new expansion, released in overpriced packs containing only eight cards, we spent as much money on any record out of Scandinavia as we did on cards. There were some disappointing moments, like the expanded catalogues of Ulver and the lackluster City of Shadows, the horrible decision to buy Amorphis and opening Psychic Allergy, but they were overshadowed by things like Maze of Ith and Burzum. How could anyone be less than inspired by Mayhem or Worms of the Earth? The set and the sound were perfect. They were cold, They were dark, They were underdeveloped. It was everything we loved.

We each had our record collections as well as our magic collections, and we cherished them about the same. I have a strong desire to rant endlessly about Gorgoroth and Sedge Trolls, about Vader and Nicol Bolas, but I am eventually going somewhere with all of this aside from being nostalgic. Not only were we deeply planted in Metal and Magic, but we were constantly showing each other up.

By this time, it would seem impossible that I have not lost some readers. I understand that not everyone is a metal head. Some people have still never heard any of the noise I am spouting off about. I could be more compassionate, more considerate, but the MTG Underground is not concerned with consumer appeal. There is nothing to market. If I feel like ranting about metal, I owe no apologies. After all, you came here, and for some reason, you stuck around.

Sucker.

But now we shift to Magic. Or at least, as much Magic as usual.

In the early days there were no ways to pimp your cards. The first foils were in Urza’s Legacy, five years later. Legends and the Dark eventually received Italian printings, but in the Fall of 1994 there were only English cards. Instead of pimping our cards, we sought out to pimp our collections. We each had our own approach. The only place that direct rivalry arose was between Dan and myself, as we both shared an obsession with black cards.

Dan compiled a list of every black card in print, and set about putting together a playset. I mocked him and traded him a Quagmire and a Deathlace. I had a different approach, which was much the same as it is now. I only wanted to own cards I intended to play. I would eschew the bulk to focus on quality. Admittedly, in those days I considered Cosmic Horror and Sorceress Queen necessities, but I had a focus and I held to it. I did not own white cards then and I do not own them now. I had no intention of casting them, and nothing has changed.

But unlike Dan I was not committed exclusively to Black. Its sister colors rounded out my two favorite Legendary Creatures, and also included many of my favorite cards. It made sense to theme my collection around them, much as I have my Oldschool Collection now.

nicolkanar

I only play these three colors. I need nothing else. This is how I keep my collection under five hundred cards. Indulgence and Excess are the trappings of drug use and alcohol consumption, not collecting magic cards. Think of all the things you have that you never use. Think of the playsets that are decaying in a box, untouched by eager hands. Your speculation buys and your security blanket land base. What good are they? Why do you keep them? You could probably sell it all off and pick up a couple pieces of power if you were not so worried about having numerous options for your Tuesday Night Modern tournament.

Two-Headed-Giant-of-Foriys

The first collision of planets came in October of 94, when we decided to go see Danzig on a tournament night. We discussed it for weeks leading up to the show, but in the end we decided to make the Drive into the city instead of playing. It did not keep us from talking about cards the whole way there. I joked around about how we should have brought something to get signed. The idea was poorly received, as apparently my friends felt that Magic should be kept secret in the presence of Metal. They seemed to take ownership of the stigma around being a Magic Player, but I did not fully understand it then and let it go. In my mind, the mosh pit was no different than a card tournament. They both gave me a way to unleash the raging river constantly flowing through my veins.

metal1

Fallen Empires came just before the first snow of that Winter. We anticipated it for weeks that seemed like years. It was the first time we knew about a set before it came out, even if we knew nothing about it. I stashed away some money, and when it dropped I was able to pick up half of a box. The fact that the cards were available to purchase was as exciting as having something new. Stores in our area always had limits on the number of packs they would sell to a single person. Sometimes, no matter how much money you had, there were no packs packs available. The accessibility of Fallen Empires brought optimism with the freedom from rationing. It was the dawn of a new day. It was hope against the coming chill of the months ahead.

But hope is often fleeting.

I opened about eight of my packs before I started to question the set. I did not understand or like that different art was not always a different card. Even cards that did different things did not seem much different. Was there much to separate Mindstab Thrull from Necrite? It was not just the lack of diversity that upset me. The cards were bland. There was no style and little substance. The borders were discolored. The more complex the text, the more underwhelming the effect. It was drab. It was the Magic equivalent of Metallica’s Black Album. We expected greatness, but for all of our anticipation we were only gifted mediocrity.

By the time I had my packs cracked, there was little left once I set aside the chaff. The most difficult part of determining what to keep was deciding on the art I preferred for Hymn to Tourach and Order of the Ebon Hand. I loved the art of Ebon Praetor enough to trade for a set, and even now it is one of my favorite pieces, justifying the acquisition of a print at Grand Prix: Detroit. I was left despondent by the set, but at least its bleakness would free up the finances to buy more albums over the winter. I vowed to never buy another pack of the set, keeping a Derelor to remind me of how good it could get if I did.

Dan felt the same as I did, but his hefty purchase left him unwilling to admit it. Against all reason he cracked his two boxes, and when he found nothing more than I did he insisted there was more to it. He built a Thallid deck, his first step away from black since he played his first game of magic, and put together a Thrull deck in the hopes of convincing himself to love the unwanted bastard spawn of Magic. He eventually swallowed his pride and boxed up the majority of his Fallen Empires as well, but not without first losing many games to the cards of the past. After being driven to the point of throwing a deck across the room, he had no choice but to accept the inferiority of the product.

Which is what the essence of the problem was. For the first time, magic felt like a product instead of a game.

Even in the places where the set could shine, they left something to be desired:

compareI know. Its blurry. So is much of my life. That is not the point. The picture tells an important story. Beneath the drugs, a fragment of history and an upstart share a moment.

Order of the Ebon Hand was a better card than Black Knight in most cases, but I came to love Black Knight. I know his flavor text. He is an Icon. They both have the Protection. Order can gain the Knight’s First Strike. And more. He can grow. He can strike harder and go deeper. He had advantages that have given him a place in Magic’s History that should have belonged to his predecessor. Instead, the work he put forth in the Dark Ages was forgotten. He became a relic. Washed up. No longer relevant. Discarded and thrown by the wayside.

Am I clinging to a vestige of the past in some foolish way? I play Oldschool Magic, what do you think?

If all you care about are the numbers, go ahead and fawn over Order. Oh, you do not like the art? Nothing to worry about. There are more to choose from. You can have it your way. Your tasteless, irreverent way.

Let us step away from the Sarpadian Empires for a moment and talk about something I love: Army of Darkness.

Yes, I meant the movie. But no, instead I am going to talk about my deck.

black 1

For the most part, the main deck has remained this way since I built it. I will break it down by the cards, but take a moment to stare at it in all of its wonder. No, it is not the optimal build. But it has Demonic Hordes. And that is all I really care about.

black 2

The Army:

The creature base of this deck is simple and focused. Since I have been writing this update for a little over two weeks, I have reflected heavily on the Order of the Ebon Hand discussion and now I wonder if I really want either creature. I am currently trying out Vampire Bats in that spot, and for the most part I love them. Ball Lightning is a liability, but otherwise they are surprisingly more effective at killing my opponent. Nice Moat.

The Hypnotic Specters and the Juzams are the reason normal folk like this deck. Demonic Hordes are the reason I like this deck.

black 3

The Relics:

The Artifact mana is simple. The pair of Icy Manipulators are surprisingly effective, especially in light of the fact that I run no actual removal in my deck. They have been in my deck from the beginning and I could not imagine playing without them. They aid to the Land Destruction plan when needed, they lock down a creature, and they murder an opponent with his own City of Brass. Chaos Orb goes everywhere, and they Cyclopean Tomb can be fairly effective against anyone who makes the mistake of falling behind. Besides, the Alpha Tomb lacks the Mana Cost, and I was fascinated with that in my younger days. Not much has changed, and now I happily use it to disrupt your mana or turn off your Maze.

black 4

The Ceremony:

The Spells are what make this deck. They fill in the holes and provide lines of play that can dominate a game from the start. Some decks struggle to win through a first turn Underworld Dreams, regardless of the follow up pressure. Sinkholes stop factories, libraries, and sometimes just frustrate a mana screwed opponent. No one likes to be land screwed, but everyone secretly loves sticking it to their nemesis.

Demonic Tutor is Demonic Tutor. If you need this explained, it is time to start playing Uno instead of Magic.

Mind Twist is my favorite card. I know this because every time I cast it, I proceed to tell my empty handed opponent about it. If you have never cast Mind Twist, you should really work on trying it. You will not be disappointed.

black 5

The Border Lands:

The Factories are one of the most effective ways to kill a person. They may be the most powerful unrestricted card in the format, and they really shine in mono colored decks. Most of the time the Urborg is just a swamp, but sometimes it comes into play, and when it does its a delight to have. Maze is the perfect way to allow you to attack and protect yourself, and Strip Mine is better than Sinkhole, and you play four Sinkhole.

black 6

The Swamps:

Seventeen Alpha Swamps. Same Art. The best art.

black 7

The Sideboard:

Gloom is your only chance against Circle of Protection: Black, and it really puts the hurt on Mono White. A single terror accompanies a pair of Pestilence as my choice removal Suite, and I have not wanted anything different. The pair of Sengir come in to back up when obnoxious cards like Moat lurk across the way, and they do a wonderful job of eating Serendib Efreet. The Word of Commands started out as something cute, but I have loved having them against The Deck, and the more I play it the more I am awed by the power of the card. That leaves the three artifacts. Disks are the only answer to enchantments, and the Disrupting Scepter complements the maindeck discard against control decks rather well.

Right now, I am listening to “Earth’s Last Picture” from Darkthrone, thinking about what lurks ahead. Nearly every day I discuss Oldschool Magic with new and old players. I converse with the fiends and the curious who have yet to take a taste. Almost every day, someone mentions Fallen Empires.

My response is usually hostile, as one may have guessed from my discussion of the set in relation to my past. I have kept it out of my oldschool circle for simplicity reasons, sticking to the European side of things rather than the inclination to “improve” everything that my American cohorts are always so bent on doing. Finally, with little regard for anything, I have come to a decision.

If you want to play with Fallen Empires cards, play them. I will still play games against you. I will keep my harsh judgment silent, and I will keep them from appearing in my deck. As a result of playing them against me, you will likely lose in a worse fashion than you would have with good cards in your deck. That is your choice. If you like the flavor, stuff your mouth with it. It impacts me little.

I would rather you played with Fallen Empires than suffer a game of Standard because you have yet to get your oldschool deck in fighting shape. When you play them, all I ask is that you strive to crawl from your hollow trees back into the sunlight, and when you do come seeking the Seafarer’s Quay by the shore. Come sing and drink with us in the Adventurer’s Guildhouse. Have some bread in my Tabernacle. Be merry.

But please do not justify it to me. Do not tell me all about how it was printed in 1994, and therefore should be legal as some kind of right bestowed by time itself. There were a lot of albums recorded in 1994 I will never listen to. My love for the past does not encompass all of the past. Do not explain to me about how it is important to represent whatever explanation you have prepared. I will not listen, and I will not care. Fallen Empires is like your religion. I can respect your decision to have it, just do not push it on me. I am not friendly to early Sunday Morning visitors, especially ones who seek to sell salvation with aggressive words.

With that, I depart once more into the mists. I have drank the better part of a bottle of NyQuil trying to fight off this cold I got from a Deep Spawn, and I am not even sure much of what I have typed makes a hell of a lot of sense. If not, I do not really care, I am not the sucker who keeps reading it.
With Love from the Underground…

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Sworn to the Black: Before the Empires Fell in the MTG Underground

  1. You nailed it sir! : “Which is what the essence of the problem was. For the first time, magic felt like a product instead of a game.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s