Mastering Magic Cards

The early days of Magic goes hand in hand with the early days of the web. The web became publicly available in august 1991, two years before the release of Alpha, but it wasn't really something the general public knew about or would use at that time. I got internet access at home in 1995, as the second person in my class to get it. The other one was also a Magic player, but we still didn't use the web for looking up cards or strategy. Some advanced players knew to use Stephen D'Angleos early web page for rule references, but the easily obtainable knowledge sharing of today didn't exist. In its infancy, Magic strategy and ideas was shared to the world via printed media.

The very first examples of printed Magic strategy was geared towards more novice players. If we would read e.g. the strategy article on how to use circles of protection from The Duelst #1 today, we would regard it as very basic advice which anyone would understand after playing the game a few times. The first more advanced strategy books were released in 1995, and one of the real pioneers was George Baxter.

Baxter is sometimes referred to as the father of the prison archetype, the innovator of Magic mass media, and is one of the true icons of early magic strategy. His resume includes reaching the top8 of two Pro Tours in 1996 alone (including the inaugural PT in New York), placing 2nd in the 1996 US Nationals, winning the 1996 World Team Championships, playing in the 1997 Invitational, and writing no less than nine books on Magic strategy. While our collective efforts and 20 years of experience have given us access to more tools than Baxter had in 1995, his contributions to the theory of Magic cannot be understated. Today we read his first book; Mastering Magic Cards from early 1995.
Before there was a Dojo
Mastering Magic Cards was written in the time between Fallen Empires and Ice Age. It is co-authored by Larry Smith, but story has it that the "real" co-author was Baxter's best friend Charles Wolfe. Larry knew the publisher and helped the book see the light of day, but as actual authorship and strategy advise goes, he was very much a novice compared to Baxter and Wolfe. Wolfe did get author credit on some of Baxter's later books though, including Deep Magic, Dominating Dominia and The Art of Deck Construction. Mastering Magic Cards was supposedly written in a basement in Colorado springs, where he and Wolfe spent countless hours trying to understand the nuances of the game.

At it's most basic, the book is divided into sections on playing techniques, deck building, and analysis of individual cards. The playing techniques section teaches a lot of advice that rings true today. Know your deck, play 60 cards, don't waste your Lightning Bolts too early, and learn how to play reactive. Baxter discuss statistics, how you need to anticipate your opponent's game plan, and that your opponent's skill needs to be respected. With the power of hindsight, we can probably say that the book lacks in information on how to play the beatdown role, but on the other hand, pretty much no one knew how to do this in early 1995. Beatdown was explored much later, by players like Paul Sligh, David Price and Mike Flores. Blue is correctly identified as the most powerful color, but the statement that it is also the hardest to play well and win with should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

It's obviously not easy playing blue, but when you can get hands like this, it's pretty hard to lose.
Baxter's ideas for deckbuilding is pretty interesting. He starts with comparing deckbuilding to crafting a sports team, and divides the decks into "blocks" and "pockets" of cards that should fill roles in the team. The pockets makes it easier to analyse the deck, and identify its strategy, strengths, and weaknesses.

Example of pockets in a land destruction deck.
15 different categories of cards are listed, from "intelligence" to "hand destruction". Cards that fit in multiple categories are identified as more valuable; such as Disenchant (artifact and enchantment removal), Drain Life (life gain and direct damage), and Mishra's Factory (land and creature). He states that "The most effective decks are those that have cards that can be effective on their own without relying on help from other cards and are also able to function well as combinations in the deck." Great advice, not the least for the time. Today we would probably agree that the value of "intelligence" cards (those that gives you information of your opponent's hidden cards, e.g. Glasses of Urza) are overstated, and that the decks generally uses too few mana sources (33% is given as a rule of thumb, rather than the 40% most of us go by today). Baxter is good at identifying how many lands of each type you should play to be able to cast your colored cards though. The two-colored lands are btw refered to as "mixed lands", as the name "duals" hadn't stuck yet when this got into print. There are some other interesting old school lingo as well; e.g. the core sets are referred to as "Gathering", and playing with a minimum of 60 cards and no more than 4 of each is referred to as playing under "convocation restrictions".

The last 85 pages of the book are a complete guide of all the cards in Magic at that point, up to and including Fallen Empires. Each card is described, and rated by combo value, versatility and standalone value. E.g Goblin Wizard gets a C+ grade in standalone value, a B+ in combo value, and a 4/10 in versatility. Black Lotus is a solid A+/A+/7, and Great Wall is a C/C/3. Before there were easily obtainable card lists, this was a great resource, even though all the scores don't really hold the test of time.

Come on, worse than Great Wall?!
There is a also a chapter on trading, written by a man named Corey (rather than Baxter himself). Trading before smart phones (and even price lists) was a very different thing than it is today. Corey identifies four types of value in cards; national/local rarity, playability, national/local price, and personal value. The trading techniques he writes about comes off as pretty nasty though; he identifies traders as either guppies, fish or sharks, and initially seems to take some pride in being able to "shark" players. To his credit, Corey does state that he feels guilty over some of the trades he did earlier in his career though, and writes "I am not a shark anymore, although once in a while, I will do some small sharking for old times sake."

OK, it was not the thousands of dollars it is today, but still, trading away five power cards for a Kudzu is pretty harsh.
With our power of hindsight, we can see that the book shows understanding of most of the core concepts we believe to this day. Baxter was one of the pioneers of both understanding the nuances of the game and sharing them with the world. So how do you manage to be one of the best players in the world and write nine books on magic, while maintaining a relationship and an academic career? Well, the answer is that you probably don't. Magic started to chip away on all of Baxter's time. He was a natural in school, but after a while his relationship couldn't take the strain and he was forced to chose between his girlfriend and Magic. He chose Magic, and went on to top8 a couple of Pro Tours and win the world team championships. After two years though, he understood that he might have chosen poorly. He enrolled in law school, quit Magic altogether, and managed to reunite with his future wife. A few years later, he taught their daughter to play, and felt the urge to start again. From what I heard, he limits himself to playing once a month, and only in very casual tournaments these days to avoid getting in too deep again and risk his relationship. It's a cautionary tale with a happy ending, from one of the game's first superstars.

If you can find the Mastering Magic Cards book in a dusty corner of your home, I recommenced that you give it a re-read. It might not make you a master, but it will definitely provide some sweet nostalgia.


  1. Very nice mg! I would love to read this book if I could get my hands on it.


  2. Once again, really nice article. I own the book, so I know about its contents. But the background stories regarding George Baxter (apart from his Pro Tour success) were still unfamiliar to me. Great read!

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Thanks! I appreciate the positive comments, it makes it much more rewarding to write posts when I hear that people appreciate reading them :)

    @Axelsson: I'll bring my copy to BSK, I'm planning to give it out as a bonus price in the tournament.

  4. @Mg: Hmm, then my deck have to perform well.. Haha damn it, my goal was just to have fun and an awesome looking deck ;)

    1. Don't worry, the book will be given to someone with a sweet deck or sweet attitude, not to someone who places high in the standings. I would say that winning the tournament pretty much guarantees that you wont get it ;)

  5. I remember my sweet old days back in the Christmas of 1994. We struggled with the rules and game concepts for hours. Both players shared one revised starter deck.
    Force of nature was the biggest monster, but there were only 7 forest in total in the deck, so players needed a bit of luck with the forests division... :)

    Pd: Dark ritual was played as an "enchant swamp"... but despite all this we fucking loved the game

    1. Haha, nice. We had some odd interpretation of rules in late 94 - early 95 as well. For us, Dark Ritual was played as a permanent, which could be tapped for 3 mana (or tapped 1-2 thirds of the way for 1-2 black mana) ;) Fond memories.

  6. The Trading Section author was Corey Segall, another friend of George Baxter. I just happen to run across this blog today.

  7. "OK, it was not the thousands of dollars it is today, but still, trading away five power cards for a Kudzu is pretty harsh."

    It was a near mint beta Kadzu and set collectors at the time didn't value the white border cards as much due to the much larger limited white boarder print run. True collectors focused on rarity and print runs only. I was focusing on how powerful the cards were in play, in addition to print run, before many knew the potency of those cards and how that would relate to future demand. The term power cards came years later. But later on I did feel guilty even though they seemed pleased with the trade at the time.


    You may want to recall back than the "collection" aspect was a bigger thing than tournament play.

    1. Hi Corey! Very cool that you found your way here. Thanks for clearing up some more about the trade. And yeah, it was a very different think trading 20+ years ago than it is today (and of course, we were all different people back then as well). Do you still play btw?

  8. I don't play much these days.. Maybe once or twice a year. In 2000 I had to make a choice of being a competitive player in either Texas Holdem or MTG. Being that both require full time dedication I choose Texas Holdem.


    The Flame Thrower
    4 Lightning Bolt
    4 Chain Lightning
    4 Fireball
    4 Disintegrate
    2 Hurricane
    2 Earthquake
    2 Balance
    2 Disenchant
    2 Howling Mine
    2 Black Vise
    1 Sol Ring
    2 Basalt Monolith
    1 Ivory Tower
    2 Stream of Life
    2 Fork
    1 Wheel of Fortune
    1 Jayemdae Tome
    5 Forest
    5 Plains
    12 Mountain

    Charles' Kird Ape Deck
    4 Kird Ape
    4 Scavenger Folk
    4 Llanowar Elves
    4 Giant Spider
    4 Grizzly Bears
    4 Lightning Bolt
    4 Disintegrate
    4 Fireball
    2 Hurricane
    2 Tranquility
    4 Giant Growth
    1 Regrowth
    1 Wheel of Fortune
    9 Mountain
    9 Forest

    Great White Hope
    4 Savannah Lions
    4 White Knight
    4 Icatian Javelineers
    4 Tundra Wolves
    4 Order of Leitbur
    4 Thunder Spirit
    2 Serra Angel
    4 Crusade
    2 Jihad
    4 Swords to Plowshares
    2 Disenchant
    2 Armageddon
    20 Plains

    The Abyss
    4 The Abyss
    4 Mana Drain
    4 Juggernaut
    4 Clay Statue
    4 Disenchant
    2 Amnesia
    1 Mind Twist
    3 Lightning Bolt
    2 Power Sink
    1 Disintegrate
    1 Ancestral Recall
    1 Time Walk
    1 Braingeyser
    1 Demonic Tutor
    1 Sol Ring
    1 Basalt Monolith
    5 Moxen
    1 Library of Alexandria
    1 Mishra's Workshop
    4 Mishra's Factory
    4 Underground Sea
    4 Volcanic Island
    4 Tundra
    2 Island

  10. I just found the book for 0.16€ on and couldn't resist! Thanks for the review Mg.

    1. Haha, that's a solid buy! Hope you'll like it :)


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