I’m a very different Magic player than I was in 1994. By itself, that’s a fairly meaningless statement—it’s been nearly thirty years. Magic reinvents itself every expansion and I’m an adult in my thirties instead of a child. Here, I mean that I can’t go back to playing Magic the way I used to. In the 90s, I played Magic by pulling cards at random out of a shoebox (the earliest form of Limited, with truly horrendous mana), or by building and sharing constructed decks with friends. It was good, random, and very casual fun. I’ve long since become a competitive player while my childhood friends have barely touched Magic over the years. We still hang out, but we never play Magic anymore. It’s just more fun for us to play other games and for me to stick to drafting Magic with my Spikier team draft friends. Sure, I could always jumble up my collection in a shoebox, but I’m skeptical that would be fun for me or do anything to bridge the skill and experience divide between me and with my friends.

And yet, one afternoon this past December, I managed to go back in time, just for a few hours. And all it took was a sealed box of Unsanctioned.

A survey of Un-felt history

Unsanctioned proved impressively egalitarian. By virtue of being preconstructed, it leveled the playing field in terms of card quality and familiarity—my partner and I wouldn’t draft decks of vastly different quality, nor would I have an inherent advantage by virtue of having built both decks. Because the decks were a fair bit janky (there’s major variance in card power level and none of the half-decks meld together perfectly), the variance helped further smooth out our differences. Finally, because the cards are so inherently silly, it encouraged stylish play—we were both playing to win, but we were also vying to maximize the amount of wackiness per game.

The afternoon was a study in many of the most famous Un-cards and acorn mechanics. I got to actually play Mental Magic with Richard Garfield, Ph.D., engage in subgames thanks to Enter the Dungeon (and win one via a legitimately cheated Cheatyface!), and dance-activate my Knight of the Hokey Pokey. We laughed as I permanently modified my opponent’s name with Stet, Draconic Proofreader and Staying Power as well as when I hilariously died to my own Look at Me, I’m R&D buffing my opponent’s followup B.O.B. (Bevy of Beebles) to generate six 2/2 Beebles on arrival (four from its initial loyalty, plus two more from the +1 +2!). We learned just how powerful Frankie Peanuts can be and both felt the sting of being unable to activate Infernal Spawn of Evil during a 5 life subgame to win. Sure, not all the experiences were total successes—every Augment drawn was always stuck in its owner’s hand with no Host to merge with, Goblin S.W.A.T. Team was distracting and annoying but never effective, and Old Fogey was much funnier to read than it was to actually play with—but overall, we had a blast. We each won a few games and we kept coming back until we’d felt we’d seen it all.

A Link to the Past

If that’s where the story ended, I would have had an uproarious and educational afternoon. A solid day, but hardly one for the record books. And yet, it was. The missing, critical piece is my opponent’s identity. I wasn’t just playing against anyone. I was playing against my best friend, Sam.

To give you just a tiny bit of background, I’ve known Sam for almost twenty-five years. We played Magic in our school’s hallways way back in seventh grade. The two of us created the very first game I put on the internet, a deeply educational (due to the volume of mistakes I made) message board RPG called Rockman Battleverse. We stayed in touch after high school and college, through grad school and breakups and convention road trips. We’ve been there for each other through thick and thin for decades. We still talk regularly despite adult life and Covid making it much harder to meet up in person. As for Magic, we haven’t played in ages. Sam frequently humors me, listening to me prattle away about Magic for hundreds of hours despite not having played a game in years. I cannot overemphasize just how many articles have been directly inspired by Chats with Sam or brought into coherence through his perspective and patience. Still, conversation is the only medium through which we engage with this game I’ve held dear for so long. Until now.

Bridging the gap

Unsanctioned wound back the clock. For one chilly afternoon in December 2022, we played Magic on my dining room table just as we did on my parents’ dining room table in the early 2000s. When we cast our first Enter the Dungeon, I couldn’t help but smile remembering all the times we’d slung cardboard on the floor for want of anywhere else to play. We cast Knight of the Hokey Pokey, a card we’d joked about as kids but never actually played with. We weren’t equally experienced, but Unsanctioned smoothed out many of the differences (you try winning after losing a subgame thanks to overreliance on your Jack-in-the-Mox), and I was always more obsessed with Magic even when we were kids. Booster Tutor brought us forward in time as I assembled a pack of cards from my latest cube. We settled into the present as Sam, my wife, and I split dinner in our apartment after our matches.

It was a heartwarming connection between past and present. I got to relive one of my dearest childhood relationships while being firmly rooted in the present. And then, the perfect little afternoon was over, and Sam headed off for the long trip home. I don’t think we’ll be able to repeat this experience by playing Unsanctioned again, but that doesn’t matter. It was wonderful for it was. Just like I can’t bottle Sam’s experience of Miracling an Entreat the Angels to win with an entire prerelease watching in 2012, I can’t bottle this. But it does remind me that there’s always the possibility of something unexpectedly joyful sometime down the next bend. So, thanks to Unsanctioned for enabling this experience and my apologies to Sam for waxing more than a bit saccharine in detailing my affection for him. But hey, he knows what he signed up for in being my friend.

Zachary Barash (he/him) is a New York City-based game designer and the last commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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