Two players were going to time during their third nested subgame of Shahrazad, abandoned games laid out over the field as they dove deeper, trying to find the fourth copy. Next to them, someone goldfished, hoping to find the unbeatable combo of Time Vault and Twiddle. Underworld Dreams was an MVP, Disenchant was all but a must-run, and Serra Angel was the biggest bomb on the block. I had a red Solo cup full of middling lager and was commiserating with two thirty-something players about how much we’d all sold our dual lands for back in 2003. This was Old School.

I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the early days of Magic, as I was a small child and didn’t really get into the game until post-Fifth Edition. The faded ash-gray of a Revised Dark Ritual doesn’t trigger the same spurt of dopamine that an Urza’s Saga one does, nor do I see much appeal in dropping an Infinity Gauntlet-worth of Moxen on turn one and Wheeling the day away. But when my local games store announced a proxy-enabled Old School tournament at the end of the month for charity, I figured I had to at least think about it. The fact that it was a BYOB affair didn’t hurt, but—if I’m being honest—the sole reason I decided to participate is because I found an ancient playset of Sedge Trolls in an unsorted box in the storage room. Those and some grungy Rituals—and a stack of World Championship proxies and a Sharpie—got my foot in the door.

So on Saturday, after snagging an iced coffee and scone from a coffee shop and catching an Uber ride with a shockingly racist grandmother who’d just moved down here from Oahu, I turned up at Columbia’s Ready to Play for their anniversary Old School event to benefit Toys for Tots.

For this tournament, we used the Eternal Central 93/94 ruleset, with the house rule of allowing proxies. That’s antithetical to the spirit of the format, but this isn’t the sort of group that would have access to some of the necessary cards and it would create an artificial divide between the enfranchised and the newer players. I’m interested in building an Old School deck entirely without proxies, but I decided early on that I wouldn’t needlessly handicap myself to make a statement: if you’re shuffling proxies, I’m going to do the same.

Troll Disco Variant #1

Creatures (8)
Sedge Troll
Hypnotic Specter

Spells (28)
Dark Ritual
Lightning Bolt
Chain Lightning
Demonic Tutor
Hymn to Tourach
Mind Twist
Mox Ruby
Mox Jet
Black Lotus
Sol Ring
Mana Vault
Nevinyrral's Disk
Lands (24)
City of Brass
Mishra's Factory
Strip Mine
Maze of Ith

Sideboard (15)
Wall of Putrid Flesh
Red Elemental Blast
Hymn to Tourach

If you haven’t seen Troll Disco in action, it functions by landing a Sedge Troll—an aggressive threat that’s able to regenerate from Nevinyrral’s Disk—and riding it to victory, backed up with burn. Earthquake is a necessity against faster decks—Black Knight and White Knight may be outclassed these days, but they’re still a force in Old School—and Gloom/Wall of Putrid Flesh are excellent against Circles of Protection and white weenie decks. Going into the tournament, I was terrified of blue, so the Red Elemental Blasts and Hymns are designed to punish control. A miser’s Shatterstorm made up the remainder, but possibly should have been cut since I have a higher density of artifacts of my own.

After a frenzied few minutes scrawling on blank cards with a Sharpie, I was ready to go. Someone at the store had curated a playlist of nineties hits to get us in the nostalgic frame of mind; as someone who had just returned from a Smashing Pumpkins legacy show last weekend, it certainly worked on me. The organizer passed out Mishra’s Factories for us to sign—a great and generous touch—and standings went up. I had entered my first Old School tournament.

The spirit of the format, in two images:

Round One

Opponent: David with Underwheel
Drink: Westbrook Key Lime Pie Gosé
Soundtrack: “Shoop”—Salt & Pepa, “Gin & Juice”—Snoop Dogg

Several players were running this combo deck, which drops an early Underworld Dreams off a Dark Ritual, then chains Winds of Change and (a single, as it’s restricted) Wheel of Fortune until the opponent is dead. The damage can add up fast, but this was a bad matchup for David. Having me shuffle in extraneous lands in exchange for Chain Lightnings and Bolts meant both games ended with a flurry of Lightning. He landed the play of the game, however, with a turn one Black Lotus into Underworld Dreams. That is a sentence that only makes sense in Old School, and for that, it deserves praise. 1-0.

Round Two

Opponent: Nathan with White Weenie
Drink: Birdsong Brewing Rewind Lager
Soundtrack: “Ditty”—Paperboy, “Suck My Kiss”—Red Hot Chili Peppers

As it turns out, there isn’t much a black-based deck can do against a tight White Weenie list. Any Trolls met a Swords to Plowshares, and my sole Disk got immediately Orbed. A quick sidenote: Chaos Orb is amazing, and worth practicing your flip. In addition, Disenchant is essentially an instant speed, two-mana Vindicate—it handles Disks, Moats, and, brutally and memorably, Mishra’s Factory when animated.

At least my Pestilence stuck around—even if it was only because it couldn’t kill his White Knights. Game one was decided by a double-Crusade-backed Thunder Spirit. The second was over once he landed a White Knight with Crusade and slammed the door with Armageddon. White Weenie appeared, overall, to be faster than a burn strategy, and more resilient to Old School’s threats. Worth pursuing, particularly because you can run Disenchant maindeck. 1-1.

Round Three

Opponent: David with Mono-Black
Drink: Sierra Nevada No Middle Ground coffee IPA
Soundtrack: “500 Miles”—The Proclaimers, “Jump Around”—House of Pain

In game one, David landed an early Underworld Dreams for value. No combo here, but in a world laden with Ancestral Recalls and opposing Wheels, sometimes value is enough. Matching him, I landed an early Sedge Troll and swung enough times to put him in burn range. Game two, the only notes I took were a scribbled “TROLLS!” from which we can take away two lessons: a) Sedge Troll is quite good in the format and b) drinking three 7% beers before two p.m. results in one excitable boy.

David was running a neat bit of tech: Psychic Purge, which I had to read a couple of times. It’s a superb mini game to bring in against someone running Hypnotic Specter and Hymn to Tourach, and it took one game when I Hymned his three cards and picked the Purge. 2-1.

Interlude of Chaos

Between rounds three and four, the store hosted a Chaos Orb-flipping competition—$10 buy-in, proceeds to charity, with a prize of a Collector’s Edition Orb. I was tempted, but my hand-eye coordination is pretty iffy on zero beers and hilarious with any more than zero. My body is studded with bar-scars from darts and drunk bicycling incidents, so I sat this one out. By the end, they were dropping the Orb from six feet up, the sleeved card fluttering to the target (an oversized Orb—nothing if not thematic) in random zigzags.

Round Four

Opponent: Teddy with The Deck
Beer: Fat Orange Cat’s All Cats Are Gray in the Dark White Stout
Soundtrack: “Possum Kingdom”—The Toadies

The Deck. Brian Weissman’s hideously potent pile of cards that provided a crash course in the importance of card advantage. It’s a slog to play against sober but, as I found out, humorous to play against buzzed. They have all the answers, they’ve drawn all of their outs, and it’s just a matter of time before they get a Serra Angel out. Game one was decided by just that, after digging a Moat that kept my Sedge Trolls home—and a turn two Time Walk, just to rub it in.

Game two started off with a neat play: successfully quashing his greed, Teddy led with Mishra’s Factory against my Strip Mine—bait I couldn’t resist and bait that punished me severely when he replaced it with Library of Alexandria. The advantage garnered from that put the game away. Counterspells blunted Bolts, and I lost in short order to the 4/4 flyer. 2-2.

Round Five

Opponent: Richard with Black Control
Beer: Water
Soundtrack: The Blue Album—Weezer

At this point, as evidenced by the music choice, we were starting to lose focus. Richard had driven down from Charlotte, and was a blast to play against. His deck ran the greatest hits from the first two years of the game, and I was starting to think that I could use some Psychic Purges of my own. He put the match away with speed, and I realized that Strip Mine isn’t a two-of in Old School. Lessons learned with some pain are lessons that stick. 2-3-DROP.


Out of contention for prizes, a bit worn out, and ravenously hungry; I left after the fifth round, caught a non-racist Uber home, and goldfished one final game on the kitchen table. After a turn one ritual into Hypnotic Specter—a fabulous feeling without an opponent, utter Bolt-bait in a real game—I snap-ordered a playset of Psychic Purges, a beat-up Strip Mine, and a set of Disenchants and realized I was a complete convert to the format.

When I started researching it, I was worried that Old School was going to feel inauthentic or ersatz—possibly because most things feel inauthentic or ersatz to me, especially when I drink. I expected my first experience with Magic’s Wild West to be more “Westworld” than “Deadwood”—a thin veneer of archaic tropes over a modern skeleton. Instead, even though my record was garbage, I got uncomplicated joy and camaraderie. Everyone there wanted to be there—not to grind, but to show off or combo off, to get a story or a signature or have a drink with friends. There were prizes for the longest drive, for proxy-less decks, for creative deck building.

This wasn’t the soft poison of nostalgia, but the fertile paradox of restrictive freedom. This was part of why I started playing Magic in the first place, and it was a reminder of what the game used to be—and always can be again.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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