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The Magic of Tokens

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I'm taking a break from Theros content today to talk about one of my favorite aspects of Magic: tokens. Feelings on tokens in Magic run across an entire spectrum, with some people happy to use three pieces of pocket lint to represent a dozen different tokens, while others have a dozen unique variants of the same token. I'm here to talk about the latter folks today.

Tokengenesis

While tokens are ubiquitous for Magic cards today, that hasn't always been the case. For the first five or so years of Magic's life, tokens-as-cards didn't exist. You'd use dice, the backs of other Magic cards, cardboard pop-outs, or the aforementioned pocket lint. Many players still do. But then something magical happened: Unglued.

A collection of Magic: The Gathering tokens is displayed, featuring a Pegasus, Soldier, Zombie, and Goblin

Pegasus, Soldier, Zombie, and Goblin Tokens

Images Courtesy of Scryfall

With Unglued, three of what would become the most common tokens of all time would get their first printing: the 1/1 Red goblin, the 1/1 White soldier, and the 2/2 Black zombie. At the time, they didn't have the stats you'd see on every follow-up version, but it was a big first step. Deckmasters: Garfield vs Finkel even came with blank Magic cards that I still use to this day to represent obscure tokens or copies.

More tokens would follow from the Magic Player Rewards program. Saprolings, dragons, and updated versions of the goblins and soldiers were among the collections released over the course of a few years. It was a lot, but there were still many tokens that didn't have a representative card yet, and the availability of these tokens was still low. The tokens themselves began to look a bit more like Magic cards, with type lines and power and toughness. And when the frame evolved with Eighth Edition and Mirrodin, so did the tokens. This new token design remained largely unchanged for a decade.

A collection of tokens contrasting the first modern-frame tokens with the original token frame designs.

Left: The first modern-frame tokens. Right: The old-frame token design.

Images Courtesy of Scryfall

But it wouldn't be until Tenth Edition that tokens became a common occurrence in packs. While tokens had mostly standardized before then, with the same core tokens being used every set plus a few outliers, this was a big change. Managing a large number of tokens became significantly less of a hassle.

Magic 2015 would change the oval shape of the art box on tokens to something more like an arched window. The tokens themselves got their collector's numbers as they were updated to follow the large black border at the bottom of the new card frame from the same set.

Over the next few years, token use exploded, culminating in Amonkhet using Embalm, which created token copies of creatures in your graveyard. But the next big leap forward for tokens would come from Unhinged. A new sequel to the set that first introduced tokens, Unhinged included double-faced tokens, with one side feature full bleed artwork without a frame. Just earlier this year, that full art concept was applied to all tokens in Magic 2020. Eschewing most of the frame, tokens have minimized it to the point of only including the important information.

This new style is, for the first time in over a decade, a departure from the main Magic frames. But it's not actually the first time it appeared.

Missing Links

Because it's difficult to render pocket lint in a digital format, Magic Online has always been a repository of token artwork. The program contains many tokens that have never been seen a physical printing, something noted by Mike Linnemann in The Missing Tokens of Magic, and while many of those have slowly been trickling out, there are still many cards without tokens.

One of my personal pet peeves, though, is when there is no token by the artist of a card that makes a token. The best tokens match the token producer, in my opinion, especially when that token producer can be a Commander. Karl Kopinski's Krenko, Mob Boss and Krenko's Command being able to produce a goblin token by the same artist? Perfection.

Krenko, Mob Boss, Krenko's Command, and a Goblin token by artist Karl Kopinski.

Above: Perfection.

But that's not always true. In fact, in most cases it's not, especially as the number of unique artworks produced every year keeps going up. So what is a player to do when there isn't a token you like? Well, you go outside what's official.

Custom Tokens

Magic players are big fans of customization. Finding just the right printing, in the right frame, with the right artwork can mean everything to a passionate fan. So it's no surprise that fans have been obsessively cataloguing tokens (The Great Creature Token Project) and creating their own (Custom Token and Token Collection Thread) for well over a decade now.

While custom tokens have been around for a long time, there's been an explosion of them in the last few years thanks in large part to two factors: dedicated storefronts and unique materials. While you might have been able to get custom tokens from individual artists in the past (and still can), being able to go to sites like Cardamajigs or the Original Magic Art Store and shop through artists, art styles, and materials has made a pretty huge difference. I've been playing Commander for a decade now, but in the last few years I've seen this explosion in custom tokens first hand. People don't just want to bling out their decks, they want their accessories to match their vision, as well.

Another big change? Patreon. Lots of Magic content creators have gotten involved in the direct support game, and getting goodies for your patrons can be a challenge. Custom playmats and tokens tends to be the way a lot of patrons go. Let's dive into the way people customize their tokens. Please note that when I use the word 'custom' here, I mean anything that isn't an official Magic product.

Miniatures

One of the more interesting, but less wieldy custom tokens out there are miniatures. It's probably not that much of a surprise given the overlap between Magic and Tabletop RPGs.

In some cases they're taken from other products, and in others they're custom designed and 3D printed, like those of Token Terrors (A friend of mine helped create the models for these tokens, but I have no financial interest in them).

Metal Tokens

If you're a fan of doubling the weight of what you're carrying around, metal tokens are a fun addition (I just wouldn't go getting every metal token out there). Popularized by CoolStuffInc (hey, that's this website!), metal tokens are a shiny way to both bling your deck and defend yourself in mortal combat.

Stuff like Heavy Metal Magic is fun and unique. I personally have the goblin token displayed here, which I adore, and pulls double-duty as a self-defense device. And this doesn't even get into some of the other metal paraphernalia, like metal life counters, dice, and counters.

Print-At-Home

One of the most popular kinds of custom token is what I'm calling the Print-At-Home variety. While this may include original artwork, in general the average Print-At-Home token player is printing tokens on card stock using images they've gotten from the internet. I've seen every possible interest represented in this variety.

Often these are great examples of Magic players being clever. Elf tokens with artwork of every Link, Vampires with artwork of the Count from Sesame Street, Pokemon representing various creature types. It's fun and very quickly establishes a sense of ownership and identity with your cards.

Dry Erase

Another kind of homemade token is one of the most inventive: dry erase. Why carry around dozens of different tokens when an impermeable surface and a marker would do the trick just as easily? I personally don't love this as a singular solution, as it takes time away from the game as someone hastily scribbles something down, but having some on hand for the more unusual tokens? Great idea.

Hand Drawn

The Hand Drawn cards are the most interesting. I've seen a number of specific collections hand drawn not by owner, but by other people for the owner. Maybe it's "draw me a token", as a souvenir of sorts when meeting new people at events. In some cases, I've seen players try to get a specific kind of token drawn by every Wizards of the Coast staff member they can. In all cases, they're priceless whether or not the person drawing had any skill at all.

Getting someone with some art skill to do this kind of thing leads me to my final category.

Artist Originals

Magic players, as a group, have pretty consistently proven the only things they want to buy are things they can use playing Magic. Original tokens, like playmats, are a great way for artists to deliver a kind of art print that Magic players will (hopefully) buy. If you're a Magic artist reading this, having a few token staples at your booths will always be helpful - but more so at a CommandFest than other Magic events. If you're a Magic fan who is interested in original Magic art but don't have the budget or space for prints, getting loads of custom tokens from your favorite artists is a very practical solution.

What About You?

So, readers, I'm curious as to what you at home do? Are you a print-at-home fanatic with a unique spin on your favorite token? A collector of some kind? Let me know here and on twitter and I'll share your collections.

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