August 31, 2020

Old School in the Time of Ice: Alpha through Alliances

Old School MTG has grown since its humble beginnings in the snowy Swedish fjords. Strip Mines proliferated and creatures dominated as Eternal Central loosened the restrictions of the Old Ways. The Atlantic Council instituted their land reforms and allowed for a more liberal adherence to the Laws of Time. Venerable Mages of Old in Sweden reached through time to Scry a potential future. The Paladins of the northern American plains decreed that more gentlemanly battles would be held within their lands. Not to be outdone, the Beasts which dwell in The Bay held the most powerful spells at bay, giving relief to the weary and freedom to those with a taste of adventure.

The current state of the world is distressing. Darkness spreads throughout the land, pestilence threatens those who venture outside their walls, and the climate continues to change. Life has frozen to a halt for some. We are living through our own Time of Ice. As the citizens of Terisiaire endured their own Time of Ice in the wake of the Brothers’ War, so must we.

And to distract from all of that, we in Music City are pleased to introduce our own take on Old School Magic: Alpha through Alliances (shorthanded as A-A or A2A).

New hotness

Our group here in Nashville have experimented several times with adding to the Eternal Central cardpool. After much discussion and experimentation, we feel that Ice Age, Homelands, and Alliances add a vast amount to the gameplay experience had in the 1993/1994 card pool. New archetypes are present, existing decks are given new tools to work with, and there is a great amount of room to brew in. Additionally, the flavor of the Ice Age present in Ice Age and Alliances is a favorite of many of us here in Nashville. Homelands, while taking place in a different planar setting, still fits the overall theme. In the next few sections of this article, I’ll be giving you a picture of what ICE-HML-ALL adds to Old School.

New Archetypes:
These three sets add over 600 cards to the Old School card pool. With that addition, new archetypes are born. Here are a select few:

Oh the places you’ll go…
  • Pox – Black control deck reliant on discard and board control that hinges on the Ice Age card Pox.
  • Browse/Digger – Blue/white control deck using the blue enchantment Browse to select your answer and Soldevi Digger to replenish your library. Once it gets going it’s hard to break out of its grip.
  • Counter-Post – Another control deck rooted in blue and white. This one uses hard counterspells and the white utility land Kjeldoran Outpost to control the game.
  • Stormbind – The powerful red/green enchantment from Ice Age turns dead cards in hand into 2 damage. When coupled with card advantage like Land Tax or Howling Mine, or fast aggro creatures, Stormbind can close a game all by itself.
  • RG Aggro – Ramp decks get a lot of help with Tinder Wall (a green card that makes RR) and Orcish Lumberjack (which turns Forests into Black Lotuses for R and G). With this amount of ramp, your Stormbind comes down easily. Deadly Insects come down far too early. Jokulhaups resets the board too quickly to overcome.
  • Zur’s Control – Another control deck. This one utilizes Zur’s Weirding to kill the opponent’s draw. Other tools to gain life (Zuran Orb, Land Tax/Ivory Tower) enables a hard lock.
  • Storm Cauldron – This is a pure combo deck that uses the eponymous artifact from Alliances to generate infinite mana in conjunction with Fastbond. What you do with it is up to you.
  • Enduring Renewal – This white enchantment was made famous after the printing of Goblin Bombardment in Tempest, but its presence in A2A allows for multiple combo kills. Whether you’re sacrificing Su-Chi to Ashnod’s Altar or feeding Ornithopters to your Fallen Angel, Renewal can enable it.
  • Necropotence – I shouldn’t have to say anything about The Skull. Necropotence comes in with Ice Age. Play it off a Lotus or Dark Ritual. Draw cards with it. Stay up on life with Ivory Tower and Zuran Orb. Mash face with creatures or Drain Life. The Skull allows it. It also adds to many archetypes including Land’s Edge, Dreams, and Power Monolith.

Old Decks, New Tools:
In addition to creating brand new decks, A2A introduces many cards that add functionality to existing archetypes.

Out with the old, in with the new.
  • Control – With the addition of three very good counterspells (Force of Will, Memory Lapse, Arcane Denial), card selection and draw (Brainstorm, Portent, Browse), and several great win conditions (Helm of Obedience, Kjeldoran Outpost), control decks have a lot more to work with. Kiss your JMD Tomes goodbye.
  • Reanimator – Reanimation decks get a vast amount of help to be not just viable, but potentially busted in half. Dance of the Dead is Animate Dead five through eight. Krovikan Horror and Ashen Ghoul make for an engine that can overwhelm an opponent turn after turn. Put a Bazaar into play and things can get out of hand quickly.
  • White Weenie – This venerable aggro deck gets a second pump knight with Order of the White Shield. Phyrexian War Beast is a respectable artifact creature that can continue to keep a Land Tax active. But so can Zuran Orb and Kjeldoran Outpost. Zuran Orb followed by Armageddon is a backbreaking swing in the game.
  • Stasis – When you don’t have an untap step, how do you counter spells? Force of Will, of course. Add to that Arcane Denial (counterspell AND card draw) and Brainstorm, and Stasis gets some powerful cards to work with. Don’t have a Boomerang handy to reset Stasis? Despotic Scepter has you covered.
  • Erhnamgeddon – One of my favorite decks, Erhnamgeddon benefits first of all from Zuran Orb, as I referred to above. But Ice Age brought us an additional mana dork in Fyndhorn Elves to get ahead faster. And if you’re afraid of City in a Bottle, consider the powerful Protector of the Great Woods: Autumn Willow. Shroud is rare in Old School and proves to be very powerful. Alliance’s Deadly Insect is similar, but a 4/4 is more resilient to sweeping damage than a 6/1.
  • Mono Black – As mentioned before, Necropotence adds a lot of versatility and power to black decks. Like White Weenie, it also gets a second pump knight with Knight of Stromgald. Lake of the Dead is another utility land that serves to smooth your heavy black mana costs in the deck and feed Drain Lifes. Soul Burn from Ice Age is a fifth Drain Life. And Ihsan’s Shade provides a powerful body immune to Swords to Plowshares.
  • Burn – Any deck that revolves around direct damage benefits from the inclusion of ICE-HML-ALL. Incinerate supplants Chain Lightning for your Bolts five through eight. Stormbind provides for repeatable damage. Balduvian Hordes is the New Juzam (maybe). Guerrilla Tactics is versatile when cast, but even better when Twisted out of your hand. Pyroclasm and Pyrokinesis clear the board. But the most important addition red receives is possibly Gorilla Shaman–also known as Mox Monkey. One colorless mana is enough to kill any Mox, but as Zuran Orb shows up in so many lists, the Mox Monkey’s job becomes more important.
  • Aggro/Stompy – Llanowar Elves’ twin from the Fyndhorn Forest aids in mana ramp and going wide. Spectral Bears, while situational, can be used to great effect. The green pitch card Bounty of the Hunt distributes +1/+1 counters for an instant speed multi-pump. Stunted Growth and Thermokarst provides tempo. Dipping into red gets you the aforementioned Stormbind, Gorilla Shaman, and Guerrilla Tactics. And it also brings in some spicy inclusions such as Bestial Fury.
  • Land Destruction – Pillage, Thermokarst, and Icequake are the major land destruction spells added here. It may not be the strongest archetype, but there are definitely more spells to trigger the Dingus now.

Enablers and Sideboard Additions:
So what are the most impactful cards added with A2A? I’ve mentioned a selection, but I’ll go into slightly more detail here. Below are the common cards that can slot into many strategies, divided by main deck and sideboard:

Main Deck Enablers:

Feel the power…
  • Pain Lands – Ice Age tried to fix dual lands. In a format where the allied pain lands are legal with duals, the need for City of Brass is reduced and mana bases get just a little bit better.
  • Zuran Orb – Trading lands for life is powerful. It being a zero costing artifact means it goes in every deck. It improves Armageddon strategies, Land Tax strategies, and so many others. If you’re not brewing with these, you’re missing out.
  • Necropotence – I can’t say any more about this that I haven’t already said. It wasn’t called Black Summer for nothing. Pay life, draw cards. Make this devil’s bargain wisely.
  • Stormbind – Repeatable targeted damage is very powerful and Stormbind can be included in several decks to enhance a certain strategy.
  • Merchant Scroll – This addition from Homelands searches up a blue instant. I’m sure there’s an easy target for this card floating around in decks.
  • Portent – Ice Age gives Blue a lot of great tools. This sorcery is a slowtrip (a cantrip that draws on the next upkeep) that either shuffles or reorders the top three of your library.
  • Brainstorm – The bane of Vintage, Legacy, and Pauper. It definitely has a place in the wider array of blue control decks in A2A. But without easy shuffle effects, it isn’t going to run away with a game all by itself.
  • Thawing Glaciers – Oh look! An easy shuffle effect! This was the first fetch land. It only grabs basics, but it’s got a spot with control and midrange strategies.
  • Demonic Consultation – This is the most powerful tutor printed to date. A one black mana instant with a potential downside turned out to be too good as a 4-of in OS95. We ran an OS95 Christmas event where this was unrestricted and it was clear that the power of Consultation needed to be limited. This is restricted in A2A.
  • Mana Crypt – Another powerful card that is restricted in A2A, Mana Crypt is a book promo fast mana artifact. Extra cool points for playing this one. Just win those coin flips.
  • Lim-Dul’s Vault – Reorder the top five cards of your library at the end of your opponent’s turn. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Pay 1 life and look at the next five. Keep doing it until you find what you need. Not as good as Consultation, but still very powerful.
  • Glacial Chasm – Cumulative upkeep on a land is definitely new. But Glacial Chasm prevents all damage to you. This is a powerful protection card for some strategies.

Sideboard Additions:

If only UR Burn could play the full 16 blasts side…
  • Guerrilla Tactics – As mentioned above, Guerrilla Tactics is a great sideboard card to defend against Pox discard and the common Hymn to Tourach and Mind Twist.
  • Serrated Arrows – Finally, a Homelands card! Serrated Arrows is one of the most powerful artifacts in the A2A additions. With fast aggro being so prominent, the arrowheads can dodge protection and eliminate that army of weenies across the table.
  • Primal Order – This 4 mana green enchantment also from Homelands hoses nonbasic lands. In a format that allows for even heavier chip damage, this could close out games all by itself against the right deck.
  • Energy Storm – This white enchantment hoses flying attackers and prevents damage from spells. It has a cumulative upkeep, but it isn’t as hefty as Glacial Chasm’s. If this enchantment hits the table, your Serendibs will wind up killing you. (Ask me how I know.)
  • Contagion – Black gets a lot of tools with A2A. Contagion is a pitch card like Force of Will that can kill two one-toughness creatures or blank a single 4/X.
  • Dystopia – Another cumulative upkeep enchantment, this time for black, that hoses green and white. Eat it, Erhnamgeddon.
  • Stromgald Cabal – Two words: black counterspell.
  • Binding Grasp – I’m not sure if this is better or worse than Control Magic, but it is definitely another one of those effects.
  • Sea Sprite – With the addition of so many red cards, Sea Sprite’s protection from red could mean the difference in a game. And as a 1/1 flyer for 2 mana, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
  • Pyroblast/Hydroblast – Red and blue get additional Blasts. Split these with Red/Blue Blast as desired to avoid the dreaded Jester’s Cap.
  • Spectral Bears – With the boost black gets, a strong 3/3 for two mana that works best when facing down black cards. That one Necropotence on the opponent’s battlefield means they’re on a pretty fast clock.

Parting Thoughts:
Ice Age, Homelands, and Alliances add a lot of very playable cards that slot right into decks we already have, but Old School is in part an appreciation of an aesthetic. The three sets add so much to the flavor and art of Old School, while not seeming altogether too “modern” (as the addition of Mirage would). A stack of Force of Will off a Brainstorm in response to a Serra Angel still looks thematically and artistically cohesive. But in addition to the artistic direction, there are many black border reprints of common playables present. Ice Age adds beautiful artwork for cards such as Counterspell, Disenchant, Swords to Plowshares, Hurricane, Shatter, Dark Ritual, and Icy Manipulator–all rather expensive in Beta and hard to find in CE/IE. The new black bordered basic lands in Ice Age add variety to the mana bases as well. Appreciate the addition of these arts. It’s hard not to play Kaja Foglio’s Swords to Plowshares over that of Menges’.

Hell, play the reprints in normal 93/94. Make your opponent stop you.

If you want to explore these three sets, use this Scryfall search to browse everything contained within:

Black borders on a budget

Format Notes:
Alpha through Alliances was developed in an Eternal Central environment adhering to the OS95 Banned and Restricted list. That can be found here:
This restricts Mana Crypt and Demonic Consultation. That’s it.
If you wish to try A2A in a single-Strip Mine environment, we do not recommend any other changes to the ban list. But the proliferation of more strong utility lands and the improvement of some archetypes relying on lands likely necessitates more than one Strip Mine. Bear that in mind when experimenting with this format outside of EC rules.

We encourage anyone interested in trying A2A to start there. As you explore the format, keep an eye out for things that may be overpowered. Rather than restricting it, seek out other tools present in the format that may be answers to the powerful cards. Here are some thoughts from us in Nashville on what we’re on the lookout for:

  • Zuran Orb is very powerful. However, rather than immediately restrict it, we feel there are many answers to it. All the normal artifact destruction present in Old School, plus Gorilla Shaman should be enough to keep Zorb in check. We do not recommend a restriction at this time.
  • Necropotence is a card people fear. We do not recommend restricting it due to the sheer number of strategies that limit the utility of Necro. Burn, fast aggro, and Black Vise all reduce the number of cards Necro can draw. Stasis was developed specifically to beat Necro. The lowly Howling Mine becomes a one-sided effect under Necro also. Don’t fear The Skull. Play 4.
  • Fastbond is instrumental in the Storm Cauldron combo deck. We’re not recommending it be restricted, but this deck IS what got it restricted in Type 1 back in 1996. Just saying.
  • Reanimator Decks get a lot of tools with A2A. There are a lot of very, very strong cards in this archetype. For now, there isn’t a good target for restriction. Pack your Strip Mines and Tormod’s Crypts to battle this matchup.

In summary, give Alpha through Alliances a try. This article, while quite extensive, is not exhaustive for what A2A contains. I’ve left out a few things that you may remember from the era (or that may still be in your binders). Be like Disa the Restless and explore. Appreciate some beautiful art, concoct some tasty brews, step out of the comfortable deck archetypes that seem “solved.” Experiment. We would be glad to hear your experiences as you give it a try.

Make the most of our Time of Ice…


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