What Once Was Not (An MTG Underground “Spectral Chaos” Preview)

“It does not matter what is.

It only matters what can be.”

-Tuknir Deathlock

By now, you already know something about Spectral Chaos. Over the years, it has influenced so much of the magic we have played, even from the shadows. It has manifested in set after set, and we were experiencing it long before any of us heard even a whisper of its existence. I do not need to rave on about its history. Its legacy. Its impact.

If you are unfamiliar with the set that almost was, designed by Barry Reich in the infancy of magic, take some time to learn about it. I could ramble on about it, but I am confident someone, or many someones, have already done so, with more thoroughness and focus than I would allow myself during such an undertaking.

You may also be aware that it is receiving a masterful handling and presentation by Micah of the Sisters of the Flame, which can be read about as well as visually admired as we spoil it at Spectral Chaos. This is a fan art project, for educational purposes, that brings us the gift of a secret past in a way that we can see in familiar form. I am fortunate enough to share some of that with you today, as I have had a handful of cards prepared for me to present with a mix of commentary related and unrelated to them, as is the blood and butter of the MTG Underground.

For well over a month I have refrained from exposing myself to what we are about to share. I wanted to let it unfold together, in as close to real time as the written word will permit. Buy the ticket. Come inside and take your seats. Buckle in. The show is about to begin.

But first, before we travel this yellow brick road into the Abyss, before we sip the memories and smoke the nostalgia, we will spend some words on my first encounter with Spectral Chaos. In many ways, it shares its foundation with my foray into oldschool magic.

In 2012 I moved back from Los Angeles to the Detroit area. At that time I was playing mostly legacy, because it had an active and healthy scene where I was living. But the transition back to Michigan left me with less avenues, and in turn, less interest. I started to branch out into other formats, spiking events and managing to enjoy myself despite my surroundings. I also started to play with my brother again, who only had a handful of cards, primarily dual lands.

He was not interested in competitive magic, but he did want to play. I proposed that we explore the game from the beginning all over again. We would start where we started back in 94 with the release of legends (Though in reality we were playing a few months before that.) We would build decks and battle throughout the format until we got bored, and then we would release the Dark.

The advantage of the format was that the majority of the cards were cheap, and the ones that were not were either format staples for eternal formats, or strange outliers. The most notorious of which was Juzam Djinn, but even those were about ten percent of what they are now. If need be we could fix anything with Proxies, though to my memory it never came up.

Once I started talking to people about what we were doing, I got pointed in the direction of oldschool Magic, and since we had a few other people interested, we all adjusted to the existing rule sets. Which meant buying cards from the Dark, playing less Mana Drains, and learning to argue with people on the internet about strip mine.

One of those early weekends, picking up cards and hanging out with a friend, we started talking about Shandalar, and building the Shandalar Cube. It was easily encouraged because of the already strong interest in picking up oldschool staples, and the gameplay of the oldschool cube was the fatty inner essence of dreams. We built. We played. It was the reason to buy alpha cards instead of foils. Miscuts instead of promos. The cube needed the Shandalar feel, the oldschool feel. It became the primary topic of discussion for three years.

When the Spectral Chaos list became available.

The set that never was. The endless possibilities that stranger, complicated Magic Time Line. It seemed like the perfect thing to make a cube out of. It was one thing to see the text of some cards that were strangely similar to cards that came to be, but it would be another to actually use and experience how they might have been. For me, though the appeal existed, the undertaking held considerably little appeal.

But the same was not true for my friend, and exactly one time I was given the chance to draft and play the Set that Never Was.

I do not recall much of the experience. It was a steady mix of green mana and whiskey, trying to read, trying to remember, and trying to figure out how to cast spells for the proper amount of mana. I do not even know what colors I played let alone what cards. But I remember that it felt unique and familiar. Nostalgic and Fresh. It felt like it belonged to a distant dream of brighter days. Something tangible from the past. Something intimately experienced. But the closer I drew to those feelings, the hazier it became. It was Shell Beach.

shell beach

From that day I have kept Spectral Chaos tucked away in shadowy recesses of the Library, a rainy day fantasy of something that could have been. Something that would one day crawl out of the darkness, slowly and grotesquely reassembling itself. Bent on devouring the world that unfolded without it. It would find life in the forgotten hours and the spaces between. And it has.

It is not my task to breathe life into the lungs. I am only here to pack some meat on its stained and twisted rib cage. We will shine the Light of Leng on its fresh meat, upon the forming organs that we will see for the first time together. Previous exposure is not important. This project is giving shape, memorable identity to the beast. Even if you have obsessively examined the initial list, or if you have only heard about it on the fringe of the internet, like a modern day Throat Wolf, this should feel new and exciting.

Let us pull back the Veil.

In the modern era it is easy to take basic lands for granted. It is easy to look back over the history of the game and find something you love. But in the beginning, we were all playing with revised  basics, because those were what existed. We do not talk about it much now, but one of the most important contributions of Ice Age, even more than the snow lands, were the existence of new, black bordered, beautiful basic lands. Within a month of the set release, I replaced all of my lands with Ice Age lands.

One of the last things I purchased before we drifted away from magic in 1996 was a Starter Deck of Mirage. I fell in love with two things that day. The first, Shauku, the Endbringer. The second, The basic lands of Mirage. To this day some of them remain among my favorites. In this context, another set that stood alone, early on, would have given a hungry mob something to satiate them.

 

In my first magic deck, I was enamored with Unholy Strength. I was fascinated with the idea of using enchantments to build super monsters. But the first time I had my double enchanted Bog Wraith die to a poorly timed Swords to Plowshares, I immediately recoiled at the liability. As we moved heavier into optimized piles, with better cards and better mana, it became clear that the removal was far too good for the risk of most Auras.

With Rancor, and eventually Armadillo Cloak, I once again began to experiment. Laws are not universal, and this is especially true with a game of endless variables. But the draw of Rancor and Armadillo Cloak was power creep. This card would be hard pressed to live in the shadow of that world.

Cards of this nature need to thrive or die in a limited environment. In an Ice Age Sealed deck format, you find yourself playing an assortment of cards you never would otherwise. In oldschool cubes, some terrible cards get their chance to shine. I have drafted and played worse cards than this in more nuanced sets. So while the static bonus is nothing exciting, and the secondary pumping of toughness is nothing I hunger to pay mana for, it could be worse. When your opponent casts this on his Wall of Brambles, you will think twice before sending your Mountain Giant crashing forward.

I am drawn to Black Magic. This card has the essence of Hellfire and the heart of Petilence. It has the attitude of Nevinyrral’s Disk. But it does not go away on its own. It sings and the song remains. This is not the powerhouse format defining card, but it drips with flavor and spirit. This card would have felt at home in any set from Mirage to Odyssey. It is the kind of spell I want to exist in an environment where it has a chance to play. One must imagine that Spectral Chaos, as a Cube, a draft, or a sealed format, would give this card numerous opportunities to scream against the light.

Zombie Token (#T3) - Reimagined by RagingRiver

Token Creatures were a strange part of early magic. Only a handful of cards made them, and most of those were overcosted or awkward at best, resigning them only to the most fringe play.

This did not keep me from having plastic dinosaurs and snakes to represent the aftermath of a Rukh Egg or the progeny of a Serpent Generator. Sometimes dice did the job, but there was always the hunger to personalize, to somehow better represent the token. When using Breeding Pit to feed Lord of the Pit or Ebon Praetor, it was important that the thrull was edible.

But it was not until Sengir Autocrat gave me an appropriate way to feed Hecatomb that I used cards to represent tokens. I found some old sports cards, and used bad players to represent serfs, though I eventually replaced them with a handful of Desert Storm Generals.

Upon taking up this method, my primary playgroup went wild in response. Previous to magic, they opted to buy Spellfire instead of Beta. The game was left dormant in a box in a closet, but proved to be excellent source material for making tokens with the assistance of some sharpies, probably stolen from school. We suddenly had community tokens for almost anything you could imagine.

Its hard to believe there was a time that a 2/2 Zombie token did not exist. But that time was real, and Spectral Chaos was not given the chance to end that reality. Another great tragedy of what became from the shunning of its weird and wondrous design.

This card feels like it fell straight out of Invasion. That block benefited heavily from Spectral Chaos, so it is no surprise. Now that the finishing touches have been put on my Odyssey Block Cube, there is a good chance Invasion will be the next one that I build.

Imagine this card in 1995.

It can be played off of a Workshop and acceleration on turn one. It can be buffed by a timely drawn Strip mine. At its worst it is probably no smaller than a Roc of Kher Ridges, and at its best it stands fearless against a Mahamoti Djinn. It can be disenchanted, but it can also stare down the Abyss.

In a way it is a reverse Nightmare. A flying threat that gets theoretically weaker over time instead of stronger. But it is far more efficient, and it is the kind of card I would have jammed into every deck trying to figure it out in the early days. Much like Su-Chi, I would be trying to make it work and find ways to ignore its drawback. It punishes the Mono decks harder than others, but in the context of Spectral Chaos, nothing should be mono colored.

Of the cards so far, this is the most exciting.

The first wall I remember is Wall of Brambles. The first Wall I remember playing against was Wall of Swords, which my brother was attacking with, until we read the rules a little closer and put an end to his crushing sky assembly of blades. I inevitably tried my hand at Wall of Heat to stop Juzam Djinn, Wall of Wonder to get some utility, Wall of Shadows because it is a bad motherfucker, and even Wall of Putrid Flesh for Flavor.

This would fall in with the walls of the time, and be swiftly disregarded. But since it has some interesting things going on, its worth addressing them. First, I like this style of Color Hate. The trigger is not overly powerful, it is helpful, and it creates better gameplay than protection from red. This would have been one of the first cards with an off color ability, something that I imagine is fairly common in Spectral Chaos and went on to exist in time, even if it was too soon at its completion.

A strange variation on Onulet, my favorite part of this card is that it does not have regeneration, just an ability that matters if he does. For most purposes, it is inferior to the strange little bastard from Antiquities (The first card I opened with both a black border and a white border, and on the same day.) But there can never be too many terrible cards, and this is better than many of them.

This is some rowdy magic. Probably worse than Fireball and Earthquake in many applications, it does a stylish alternative. This is the kind of card I would put in my sideboard and never bring in to my deck. But if I was drafting, I am going to cast this every time I draw it. This is a fun limited card, and a better design for removal due to its Hellfire style drawback. In an era where power creep has made overpowered cards unplayable, it is refreshing to see card design that incorporates sacrifice or danger. And an Orcish Flamethrower should be dangerous.

Meltdown is a fantastic card. If it had always cost an additional black, it still would have served its purpose for me. I love this kind of card, and I am glad that when it found its way into this world it came at a reduced cost. Its largest competition in its time would have been Shatterstorm. This is not universally better or worse. I am unaware of the full range of artifacts and removal in the full set design, but this sweeper style effect does not take much to find purpose in a world where mana rocks or efficient artifact creatures reign.

The upgrade on Wards makes them much more interesting. Would the original wards have been at least playable in this form? Perhaps, but such was never to come to be. I love that this spell, and those like it, have to make permission for themselves against Protection from White. It is fascinating to see cards that had to help sculpt rules or exceptions just by design. I like these further because Cloaks are more interesting than wards, but it is hard to say much more about it.

The Mountains from Ice Age were a resounding gift, and the ones from Mirage improved yet again on the theme. All I can say is that another set of basics in those days would have added a great deal of style to an endless number of decks. Which is not to say that I fault any of the classic lands, they served an important role, but if it was not for the necessity of oldschool, I would find it unreasonable to default to them with so many other options available.

This card caught my attention. I remember the first enemy colored Gold card I saw. It was called Malignant Growth, also green and blue, from Mirage. This one is considerably more interesting. A strange and awkward board wipe in colors that do not lend themselves to it, it embodies the Chaotic Sorcery card type.

Is it good? Probably not It lacks the liability of being a permanent that plagues Nevinyrral’s Disk, as well as the reach of hitting all permanents. It becomes expensive quickly, struggling to destroy anything of value. It cannot hit two creatures with different costs. There is a niche role for a card like this, but it is probably too limited to invest in. As a draft removal spell it will do the job, and it is not forced to target its victims, but it becomes less attractive the closer we look at it.

These kind of cards, much like many of the terrible cards in the ranks of magic history, help set up and test for later success. Pernicious Deed will always be my favorite card in this style.

This is the Magic We Live for.

I love Lich. My attraction was immediate and unbreakable. I was at a tournament when I first saw it, in a baseball card showcase in 1994. It was $40. That was an insane amount of money for a magic card. That night I won $20 in store credit. I could not stop staring at the Lich. I could hear it calling my name. I did not have the money, but I had some cards. I quickly cut a deal with the shop owner for a couple of my plateaus and my store credit, and I went home that night with a Lich.

I had only a rudimentary grasp on the potential, trying everything from Healing Salve Ancestrals to Stream of Life Braingeysers. I tried Drain Life. I learned about Mirror Universe, and traded off some of my legends for one of those. The Dark came out and Dark Heart of the Wood had me trying again. In the end the problem was that I did not have enough Liches. But it was a problem without a solution.

It did not keep me from playing it alongside Necropotence and Illusions of Grandeur when Ice Age did its best to help feed my growing obsession. It was forever an unfulfilled fantasy, one that still lives inside of me to this day. A lifetime later, when I am high, sipping scotch, watching the groundhog that lives in my yard terrorize my neighbor, I think about how good it feels to cast Illusions of Grandeur with Lich in Play. I think about the beauty of Casting Eureka and playing both spells in proper sequence.

This card is not Lich. It does not offer the recurring draw, but it instead provides instant gratification in undead form. In Eureka, this would follow the Illusions instead of preceding it. All on its own, if offers Life from the Grave in exchange for swearing an oath. Perhaps more like Yawgmoth’s Bargain than Lich or Necropotence, at least in execution, this card would provide me no shortage of opportunity to play. This is what I want to be doing.

For all of the things that kept this set from coming to be, against them the only grudge I hold is that I never got the chance to cast this spell. This will live in the corridors of my mind that twist from possibility like tentacles bent on nihilism. I would take the Oath. I would find a way through the Mirror Universe into the Spectral Chaos, and become the Lich the Elric probably is, was, or could have been.

While I cannot imagine meeting the Mana requirements of this card, it drips with the kind of brutality I crave. I was a fan of Jokulhaups. I am a fanatic for Hellfire and Damnation. That magic could have been a game played out in such a way that eight restricted mana could secure the need for this kind of reset. That is a dream every multiplayer format chases. It was a force that compelled an early group that I played with, folk that were determined to make games go longer, bigger, make everything more epic. They had house rules like not attacking in the first five turns. This kind of card would have given more to those players than they could have hoped for. Much like when cards now so easily feed commander.

I am listening to Ritual Killer and the music feels like this card. Far too often we get lost in efficiency or structure, and we lose out on the real flavor of this game. This is Death Metal in 1995. This might not be remembered in the future, but for its moment, to its fans, it is exactly the way it is supposed to be.

We close out this menagerie with an early Equipment design. Moving on from the Prototype style of Ashnod’s Battle Gear, This still has the disadvantage of an aura with only a slight upside for a steep cost. It is more of a Runesword than a Feast of the Unicorn, and even fueled by Mishra’s Workshop it is too prohibitive to appeal to any reasonably minded swordsman. Like many relics of the time, it has only the rust from lack of use in its future.

“The Show is Over. Pavel Maliki has left the Building”

– Stangg’s Twin

With this I offer you all fifteen cards of my glimpse into the Spectral Chaos. The load lightened by the inclusion of two basics and a token, it provided me the time to focus on the glory that is Elric’s Oath. It is fantastic to be a part of presenting this information, in being able to share such a fascinating part of our history. I will remind you once again that this is Fan Made concept mock ups, not intended for sale or play. This is an educational endeavor, driven by love of history and nostalgia.

Does this mean the MTG Underground is back? After all of these years away? Maybe it does. There are many stories to tell.

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