In virtually every Magic player's life, there comes a card that truly defines who they are as a player and the things that they love to do with the game. This might be something that's become one of your absolute favorites, or just something that influenced you. This is true no matter how long you've been playing the game, and even if you've only been playing for a few months, you could probably point to the cards that really pulled you into the game as a whole. I know for me, as someone who has been playing for nearly a quarter of a century, there's no shortage of cards that have influenced me tremendously over the years.
Today I'm going to talk about several of those exact cards. It seems like a great opportunity to do so given how close we are to Magic's true 30th anniversary in August. Some of these are genuinely my favorite cards of all time, while others are more memorable for their influence on me as a player. Today I'm going to focus exclusively on cards that had this massive impact on me before I took a hiatus and "quit" the game back in 2008. These were my early years and thus had some of the most influential cards that paved the way for me to become the player I am today. After that, I'll come back next week and talk about some more cards that came to influence me after I came back starting in 2010.
Let's dive in!
These three cards are more of a general example than any one specific card. They're the cards that I remember being in the first deck that my cousin handed me when he taught my sibling and I how to play the game. I recall all of these showing up in my first deck along with not-so-great cards like Bog Rats, Transmutation, and the infamous bird without flying Whippoorwill. With the exception of Llanowar Elves - a staple in current day play and a favorite to the point that I have a print hanging on my office wall - most of these cards were unplayable trash. It's the kind of thing that wouldn't even be that great in draft, and that's considering these were the early days of Limited and the formats weren't particularly great yet.
For as bad as these cards are, though, it's hard to not go back and remember them. When I see them, I'm instantly transported back to that night in 1999 in my cousin's room learning how to play this game. The cards may have been rough, but as is the experience for many of us when we started out, they were able to captivate my imagination and suck me in. That kickstarted a love for this great game that's kept me coming back for many years to come. Yet no matter how much time has passed or how many power cards I play with the most competitive edge imaginable, you never really ever forget your first.
There's that age-old saying that you always remember your first love. That could mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. That might mean the first person you ever dated, the first movie that left an impact on you, or discovering a truly wonderful book. When it comes to Magic, there're some key things I can absolutely remember about my earliest days. I can still recall many of the cards I used the first time I played the game and the first five rares I ever opened out of booster packs (Armageddon, Dakmor Sorceress, Quicksilver Amulet, Lurking Skirge, and Shivan Phoenix). What I don't remember, though, is what my first ever legend was.
These days, legends are everywhere. Most people start the game playing Commander and usually there's some quick attachment to legendary creatures because of that. Back in 1999, though, they were incredibly sparse. As a result, while I couldn't tell you the first one I ran into, every single one I ran into as a kid blew me away. I'll never forget the time I went to a friend's place and was introduced to the Elder Dragon Legends of Chronicles and then going out of my way to hunt them down at local shops. The same was true for rummaging through binders at stores, scouring magazines for information, and eventually looking through them all on the Magic Interactive Encyclopedia that pre-dated Magic Online and Gatherer. I couldn't get enough, and it's no surprise that several years later I would latch onto Commander as hard as I did.
What's a "sliver?"
I remember asking myself that question the first time I saw Victual Sliver sitting in a binder at the little store in my local bowling alley. There was something awesome and alluring about this card. The artwork was weird and wild, it was a multicolored card in a time when those were sparse, and I was intrigued to discover what a sliver was. It wouldn't be long before I was snapping up copies of Winged Sliver, Heart Sliver, and even the meanest girl around: Sliver Queen herself.
During these early days I was playing with a hodgepodge of random cards stuffed together in giant five-color decks that I'd play with my sibling at the kitchen table. As the years went on, though, Slivers gave me my entry into Standard at FNM during the Onslaught Block and remained favorites to play whenever I could reasonably do so. They played a big role in getting me back into the game in 2010 thanks to the Premium Deck Series: Slivers precon. When slivers returned in Magic 2013 and I was fully back in Standard, I was happily trying my hand at a Naya Slivers list. Even to this day, every so often you'll see me at the Pauper tables slamming down some meathooks.
Speaking of my time playing Slivers during Onslaught Standard, I should really go in and clarify exactly what that deck was like. I don't know if you're familiar with things like the quality of slivers from that era or exactly what mana bases looked like, but they were horrendous. Think cards like Shifting Sliver and Ward Sliver with your best early game being Plated Sliver and your lands maybe utilizing the Invasion slow lands like Elfhame Palace or Coastal Tower. That's what we had to work with. To make matters worse, I was playing "cool and rare" cards in it like Decree of Justice, Worship, Silver Knight, and Eternal Dragon, all without understanding the synergies that made them good in the format.
Right around this time a little program came out you may know called Magic Online. I was a very early adopter of the game, picking it up at an Electronics Boutique - yes, you had to physically buy the game originally - and went and played it at home. My family didn't have a lot of money to really play, so I found ways to play it casually instead of competitively. One such way was trying out the format Tribal Wars, an old format where a third of your deck had to consist of a single creature type.
Naturally, I jumped onto this format playing - you guessed it - Slivers! As you might imagine, I was getting trounced. And then someone brought an Elves deck to the table and were doing just the wildest things: gaining tons of life with Wellwisher, smashing for absurd damage with Timberwatch Elf, and making crazy numbers of tokens with Wirewood Hivemaster. I started picking it up soon after and was hooked. I couldn't stop playing the deck! As you might have guessed, my love for Elves truly started right here, and a big reason I play the archetype as much as I do goes right back to these early days as a player. Heck, a big reason I gravitate toward Pauper Elves is because it gives me an opportunity to play with the classics I grew up with!
These days, when people think of me as a competitive player, they think of my love for Elves primarily. As you can tell from the last group of cards, there's a good reason for that! They were the first cards that were able to give me a real taste of competitive play in a cohesive manner that made me want to explore it more and more. What really solidified that taste for me, though, was my experience with Affinity in Mirrodin-era Standard. Yes, the legendary archetype that destroyed Standard and caused an unheard of number of bans. For all the hate, though, I absolutely adored it.
Elves gave me that taste of finding new and wild ways to win. Wellwisher became my favorite card because it taught me the value of finding other ways to win besides damage (in this case, gaining so much life your opponent simply can't stop you). Affinity, on the other hand, taught me the value in bashing your opponents' faces in as hard and fast as possible. When I'm not playing Elves, you probably know me for playing aggro decks most of the time, and this is where that began. This is even more true for artifact-based aggressive decks most of all, to the point I played Affinity or Affinity-adjacent strategies in most formats for years to come, and it was even the deck that got me to try Pauper out for the first time ever as well! I couldn't quite afford the true Affinity build, but I reveled in crushing my friends with Broodstars, Cranial Platings, Myr Enforcers, and Skullclamps all the same.
If you know me, you probably know me for three styles of play primarily: Aggro, combo, and a mixture of the two in aggro-combo, with occasional dabbling into midrange depending on the format. This should be especially apparent after the last two categories, which pretty much covers all three in a way. Every so often, though, I find myself enamored by a control list or style of play. This usually happens when I play Cube on MTGO, Flicker Tron in Pauper, or trying out various Fires of Invention builds in different formats. Back in the day, though, my control interest was piqued when I ran into the card Underworld Dreams when it was reprinted in Eighth Edition.
Nowadays, this card has been reprinted a ton. Back then, though, this was the first time it was ever getting reprinted since Legends as a part of the 10th anniversary special of including at least one card from each set up until that point. As a result, the card caused a lot of buzz and for a little while it was actually somewhat pricey. I didn't quite see the appeal until I ran into an opponent who was playing it on Magic Online, and then it clicked. My opponent was playing a control game until they dropped Underworld Dreams, and soon they were following it up with Howling Mine and Teferi's Puzzle Box.
Now, if you've played against Nekusar in Commander, you probably know how this went down. All those cards were causing me to lose tons of life while my opponent controlled my board until I lost. It made me want to try this for myself, especially since Teferi's Puzzle Box and Howling Mine both were influential cards in my early days. I definitely played the hell out of it at FNM for years as the cards continued to be reprinted through Ninth Edition and Tenth Edition (minus Puzzle Box on that last one). It inspired me to build the aforementioned Nekusar at one point in Commander and even got me trying out a Peer into the Abyss combo deck during the Core Set 2021 early access event! It's something that made me want to go well out of my comfort zone and I love it for it.
By the time the Time Spiral block had rolled around, I'd had a bit of experience with combo strategies. I remember being beaten by a deck using Mindslaver and Bringer of the White Dawn to lock me out at one of my earliest FNMs. At some point soon after I recall discovering how much I loved Endless Whispers and Leveler - a combo that almost made this list on its own - and how it made my opponents mill their entire libraries at the same time as me, but with them losing first. There was also Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion to lock down creature decks and the previously mentioned Underworld Dreams decks had a sort of combo-esque element to them.
I wouldn't truly experience the sheer force of a real combo deck until the Dragonstorm archetype dropped with Time Spiral. At this time, I was playing Magic far less. I'd moved to Florida from New York and most people in my area didn't play at the time - a stark difference from when I grew up in an area that had people playing constantly. Somehow, I managed to acquire all the pieces to Dragonstorm on Magic Online and played it a ton there. I hadn't yet really discovered paid competitive play there yet - especially when I was too young still to actually buy event tickets on my own - so it would be a few years until I crossed that bridge. Still, I played the hell out of the deck, and it gave me a real appreciation for what it meant to play a serious combo strategy and influenced my love of other cards and decks that I'm going to save until next week.
These cards represent only a fraction of the cards that have truly come to define who I am as a Magic player. Originally, this was only going to be one long piece, but the deeper I got, the more I just kept adding until it inevitably had to be split into two parts. Even then, some got cut, such as the Endless Whispers and Leveler combo that I would utilize time and time again with glee when playing with friends at lunch in high school or the couple oversized cards that sat on my cousin's bookcase that wowed me regularly. There's still plenty more to cover, though, so I'll see you once again next week when I cover the cards that influenced me from 2010 onwards and boy are there a ton.