Episode #10 script and notes.
The next topic’s Vanguard. I was surprised how much I had to say about it. I’ll probably doctor it in the next few days, but the context building works for me.
Hi there, and welcome to Ancestral Recall, a webseries on Magic’s past from the player’s point of view. I’m your host, Eli Kaplan. Today’s story? Vanguard.
Back in the late 90s, Wizards didn’t have a centralized web system of stores with preferred status for organized play like they do today. Now we have Friday Night Magic, a system designed for local gaming retailers to get people in the door playing the game. Its predecessor was a decentralized system, Arena League. Arena League got players access to cool foils and had a mix of unusual formats. One Constructed format was Vanguard, which they did five or six times. Each ‘season’ had eight cards that existed outside play. You picked one, and added it to a 60 card Standard legal deck to fight other people. The more matches you played, the better your rating was, and somehow stores mailed in their match information to Wizards. One season I was in 17th place in North America due to going 26-3 with one deck.
Not that Arena League really meant anything, but…
[This zone would be the Commander Zone today]
[Disclaimer: Eli isn’t going to discuss the Magic Online Vanguard cards. The format’s virtually dead, anyway.]
Vanguard cards were representations of famous Magic legends. You could play alongside Mishra, Urza, Serra, Gerrard, Sisay, Volrath, Maraxus, Starke, or Sidar Kondo. [All but the most diehard Vorthoses are probably stumped by the last three.]
Vanguard cards had three key characteristics. Each of them had a modifier to your initial life total, a modifier to your starting hand size (which also limited your maximum hand size), and a special ability. The modifiers were supposed to balance the different Vanguard abilities. And some were tailormade for specific strategies.
Do you like playing Draw-Go and have a good enough early game to keep from dying? Then you wanted Squee. Squee gave you perfect information, letting you look at your opponent’s hand at any time, and even gave you a starting hand size of TEN! That’s like a free Ancestral Recall. All it cost was starting at 16 life.
Ramp decks could play Sisay, providing themselves a one-sided Mana Flare. Or Heartbeat of Spring, in current form. That way they could power out four drops on turn two, and six drops on turn three. This ramping strategy had a steep cost, however. You had to start off with five cards in hand and seventeen life.
The first season focused on the Weatherlight crew, and later sets explored Rath and the characters of Urza’s saga. We got looks at little known characters like Xantcha, and Takara. Who I really think is just a nod to one of Wizards’ old distributors. Until the Lorwyn Five came along, Vanguard was the only place where you got to see actual Planeswalkers like Serra and Urza represented on cards.
By the way, Urza? An overgrown Prodigal Sorcerer? Who was the genius who thought of that idea? At least his ability was relevant when facing off against his brother Mishra, who usually came to the table with lots of efficient, small beaters.
At the end of the format, they had two open seasons where you could pick any Vanguard card to play instead of just the current season. The format was full Tempest/Saga block (after the draconian bannings), and I had cooked up an awesome number. The deck relied on creatures with comes into play abilities, fueled by the free combo enabler that was Barrin. Barrin was the guy that obliterated the Tolarian Academy in the face of massive Phyrexian invaders on Obliterate. His ability let you unsummon any creature. The only cost was sacrificing a permanent. I brought in all sorts of efficient guys like Avalanche Riders, Deranged Hermit, Wall of Blossoms, and Ghitu Slinger to attack and play abusable effects over and over. Two mana, sacrifice a permanent to draw a card? It was quite the engine. Gaea’s Cradle provided mana to do crazy things. In one month, since I was only able to play one night a week, I rattled off forty wins and three losses. It was easily the most effective brew I ever came up with. It looked rather similar to Aaron Forsythe’s famous rogue deck, Angry Hermit, because it also played with Plow Unders and Arc Lightnings.
Let’s look at some of the most creative and fascinating Vanguard cards.
Look at Eladamri. Now here’s a guy who knows how to take one for the team. This guy was a nightmare for red decks, because killing your creatures through burn was incredibly hard, and starting at 35 life guaranteed that games wouldn’t end on the usual fast schedule Sligh decks wanted. Starting off with six cards was not a big deal.
Lyna, the leader of the Shadows, was generally considered a dud in multiplayer games. Sure, you could attack anyone with almost no resistance. But losing the ability to block is a major cost. Rakdos’s Unleashed monsters had beefy stats. The creatures in the format, though, were anemic by today’s standards.
Sliver fans were delighted to get access to the Sliver Queen, who gave you eight life and could spit out colorless Sliver tokens for three mana. Yeah, the actual Sliver Queen could do it for two mana, not three. But the Vanguard version was much, much easier to get into play, as it were.
These days, if you want to play with Vanguard cards, you can add them into the mix with your cube drafts. I don’t recommend them for EDH, because designing broken decks around them is too easy. My recommendation is that you pick up a bunch of them and have players pick one randomly, with an option to reject their pick and take a new one instead. There are clunkers out there. Gerrard’s horrible because even if you’re drawing two cards a turn, you only have a maximum hand size of three, so you’re going to be discarding a lot. And knowing what your ability is will help you steer your way in the draft. If you get Tahngarth, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to draft red/green and lots of fatties, because hasty swings kill.
This isn’t a set per se, so I’m not going to give it a score, but I will make a strong recommendation for casual fans to track these cards down and give them a try.