A few weeks ago, I won a game of Magic thanks mostly to an Icatian Moneychanger. I also leaned heavily on an Elven Fortress and Icatian Priest, one with a no-tap ability to pay 1WW to pump any creature +1/+1.
The entire experience led me to a startling conclusion: Fallen Empires isn’t as bad as I thought it was. And I’ve always thought it was the most boring, useless, lifeless set ever produced.
Let me back up a bit. I’ve been playing Magic for 20 years, actively as a middle schooler in the mid/late 1990s and a couple times a year with old friends in the current millennium. I have an old mono black discard deck that I keep around, but mostly I draft Winston-style with piles of old cards or whatever new packs someone picks up for fun.
It’s no secret that new cards have gotten insanely powerful, and that’s clear to me every time I crack open a pack of cards printed in the 21st century. A 2/2 creature with no ability for two mana is no longer considered decent, and a set like Fallen Empires–which seemed weak even in comparison to sets of its era–now seems positively archaic.
But it’s not so boring if you draft a bunch of Fallen Empires packs and splash something a little more exotic from the same time period. Over the holidays, a buddy of mine and I drafted nine Femps packs (which can be had for about $3 apiece on eBay) and three of The Dark ($12-15 apiece). For two people, I’d recommend adding 2-4 more packs, as they’re small and we didn’t have quite as much selection as we would have liked.
But make no mistake: Fallen Empires is the cheapest old set to draft, and though the cards are vastly underpowered by today’s standards (aside from Hymn to Tourach), the lack of supercharged spells makes for longer–and, in some cases, more intricate–games.
I ended up playing a green-white deck full of townspeople and fungus versus a red-black orc-thrull concoction. In one game, my opponent and I settled into a stalemate after I’d fallen to 5 life (he was close to 20), and we spent several turns stockpiling mediocre creatures.
Then I drew an Icatian Moneychanger.
If you can’t remember what it does (and why should you?), it’s an 0/2 for one white that deals 3 damage to you when it comes into play. It also starts out with three counters on it and gets a new one each turn. During your upkeep, you can sacrifice it to gain life equal to the number of counters accumulated.
I took the plunge and went down to two life, watching my Moneychanger grow heftier by the turn, and each upkeep became a game theory dilemma: Pop the fatty now? Wait greedily and risk my foe–who spared a slimmer Moneychanger and killed my two Thallids with an Ashes to Ashes–drawing something else capable of offing him? When it got to 9 counters, I couldn’t take it anymore and did the deed, sending me back to double-digit life.
The ploy allowed me to stick around long enough to draw a Thorn Thallid, which let me pick off my opponent’s blockers and eventually win by means of creature advantage (I lost the two other games, so we won’t talk about that). All in all, it was a blast–and far more fascinating than I ever thought Fallen Empires could be.
It was sort of like watching a college basketball game: sure, the Warriors could destroy either team, but it can be more fun to experience the interactions of evenly matched lesser players than watching the big guys duke it out with each other.
In hindsight, we actually got a pretty crappy batch of packs. Though my opponent pulled two Hymns and I snagged three Thallids (and backdrafted the super-annoying Goblin War Drums), neither of us landed a potentially game-changing Hand of Justice or a Goblin Grenade, creature factories like Breeding Pit or Goblin Warrens or Night Soil, or big boppers like Feral Thallid or Deep Spawn (I had to look that one up, but it’s actually not that bad).
Splashing the Dark was helpful–for the novelty of cards like Niall Silvan, for goblins and other creature types that play well with Femps and for useful spells like Blood of the Martyr. If you get lucky, you may even pull legit good cards like Maze of Ith, Blood Moon and Ball Lightning.
My advice to you: go order some Fallen Empires packs and save them (and perhaps a bottle of wine, or three) for a rainy day. Better yet, dig through your parents’ basement and find enough loose Femps cards among your old MTG stash to draft Winston-style. Just be sure to include at least one Icatian Moneychanger.
When he’s not dabbling in dusty MTG drafts, Zack O’Malley Greenburg is the senior editor of media & entertainment at Forbes, and has authored two books: Michael Jackson, Inc and Jay Z biography Empire State of Mind. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter/Facebook, sign up for his newsletter and check out his full bio.