Out of the Four Horsemen sets (Arabian Nights, Legends, Antiquities, and The Dark), The Dark has got to be the most under-appreciated. The small expansion set released in August 1994 is often overlooked as being extremely underpowered relative to contemporary sets.
In all honesty, that’s probably a fair assessment of the set’s power level. Other than Blood Moon, are there any other cards from the set that see tournament play?
I know Ball Lightning used to be a house back in the day, but it has since fallen out of favor. Maze of Ith is played in some Legacy Lands builds, so that one is still relevant. Anything else? Not really.
This week I am going to shine the light on some of the good, bad, and ugly from this oft-forgotten expansion from Magic's history. If you’re an Old School expert, you’ll appreciate the shout-outs to some cards you wish saw more play. If you’re a newer player and are unfamiliar with this set, get ready for a strange and wild ride—The Dark has so much flavor quirkiness to offer that you’ll be looking up these cards yourself just to confirm I’m not making them up.
Believe me, these are all real.
The most valuable card in The Dark isn’t even Blood Moon. Instead, it’s a Reserved List goblin creature card that sneaks additional goblins into play. Goblin Wizard’s casting cost is prohibitively high given the fact that you can only use it to cheat in goblin creatures, which are underwhelming to begin with. But it’s still a unique and powerful ability worth acknowledging. I guess it’s good with some of the more recent, more powerful goblins in Magic.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the artwork (a common theme for me with The Dark), but exiling creatures to ramp colorless mana isn’t my idea of a busted ability. I suppose it’s handy if your creatures are about to be killed anyway, but I can’t help but suspect being a Reserved List card from an old set has something to do with this card’s price tag.
Let’s get into a subset of cards from The Dark that all violate the color pie, starting with Preacher.
Here we have a white card that can repeatedly take control of opponents’ creatures. Typically this is a blue (or in a stretch, a black) effect. There aren’t many white Magic cards that boast this ability.
Next, let’s say you want to destroy a bunch of lands—what color comes to mind? If you guessed red because of Stone Rain, you win first prize. If you guessed black (Sinkhole), green (Ice Storm), or white (Armageddon), you get bonus points for thinking outside the box. But how many people think of blue when they consider land destruction cards? Introducing Mana Vortex:
This blue enchantment will destroy land after land… not just forests like Acid Rain, we’re talking any lands. I’m not sure how potent the card is in a game, but the utility is not what is driving this card’s price up near $50.
Speaking of blue receiving abilities that normally don’t exist within its color, check out Mind Bomb, the sorcery speed discard/direct damage spell.
Then you have other quirks like direct damage in white via Fire and Brimstone, toughness reduction in white with Holy Light, and additional blue land destruction with Erosion. The color pie was not so holy back in 1994, I guess.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the white spell that exiles all white creatures for just two mana! Sound oddly powerful? Well, for consolation, each creature exiled this way does get to draw a card. This seems like a breakable card though, in the right build. Say hello to Martyr's Cry, a strange card from The Dark with disturbing artwork.
Lastly, let’s not forget Fellwar Stone, a nearly $20 mana rock originally printed in The Dark with some real utility. In a multiplayer game of Commander, Fellwar Stone is likely to generate any color of mana you need.
There are many underwhelming cards in The Dark with surprisingly high values. Hidden Path comes to mind, a green enchantment that grants all green creatures forestwalk.
If you’re playing a green enchantment with four green mana symbols in its mana cost, chances are you’ll have forests in play. If your opponents are also playing green, you’d better have more green creatures out than they do or else you’ll get walked all over. And if they aren’t playing green then what good is giving them forestwalk?
Giving your opponent choices is traditionally a weakening effect on a Magic card. Ideally, you give your opponent as few options as possible throughout a game. So Cleansing isn’t the ideal card to use to destroy lands, especially since paying a few life to keep the most important lands doesn’t seem like a steep cost.
Worms of the Earth also gives opponents a choice. In fact, they have multiple options: stop playing lands, pay five life, or sacrifice two lands. Considering its effect is symmetric, I’m not sure what the upside is to paying five mana for this enchantment (not to mention paying $10 to buy the card!).
Scarwood Bandits is another card that gives your opponent choices. Being able to gain control of an artifact is powerful, but your opponent has the option of paying two mana to prevent the ability from taking effect. This is another one of those random The Dark Reserved List cards worth $10.
Lastly, I’ve already mentioned Mind Bomb for breaking the color pie, but it also fits in this section too because it gives your opponent the option to discard cards or take damage. The symmetric nature of this card makes it especially underwhelming unless you want to discard cards.
This section is going to be my favorite. There are many cards in The Dark with disturbing art. It’s kind of the set’s theme, after all. Don’t expect to find many cute bear cubs, shining angels or paladins, or adorable squirrels in this set. Instead, let’s see some of the more hideously awesome pieces of artwork from this set.
Because there are so many, I’m going to minimize commentary on each card so I can touch upon them all. Let’s start with Eater of the Dead because the creature’s name and art are disturbing. Look closely at the picture—how many eyes does this creature have?
Next, there’s Frankenstein's Monster. I like this card for its reference to a real-life story and I like it twice over because its reference is historically correct. Many people refer to the monster of Mary Shelly’s work as “Frankenstein” but the reality is that was the doctor’s name and the monster was… well, Frankenstein’s monster.
One of my favorite pieces of art from The Dark has to be Drew Tucker’s Exorcist. Not only is the concept of an “Exorcist” card really cool, but I love the dark abstraction this artwork evokes.
Worms of the Earth is a disturbing mental image. How about Psychic Allergy? I don’t know what a psychic allergy is, but if it affects an individual as depicted in the card’s artwork, then remind me to avoid such a thing at all costs.
Grave Robbers is a disturbing thought, and the artwork does the concept justice. How these two guys sleep at night given their dark hobby is beyond me.
Then there’s a trio of creatures I would never want to see at my doorstep on any given night: Banshee, Rag Man, and The Fallen. Which of these three creatures is most frightening to you? Personally, I think The Fallen is the worst—that smile is just so unsettling.
Then there’s Amnesia, whose artwork is so disgusting that I refuse to keep a copy of the card. Every time I pick one up, I ask myself what pleasure I can possibly glean from such a card. As my mind draws a blank, I add it to the buylist pile.
Even something that could be innately innocent is given a dark spin in this set. Check out the artwork for Scarecrow. The creature looks nothing like the modern-day Scarecrows we are used to seeing in Magic. The original looks so much more sinister.
How about Blood of the Martyr, another favorite of mine from The Dark.
This card isn’t on the Reserved List and isn’t all that playable, yet it is still worth a solid buck or so. I’d like to think that’s because of the cool art.
Last but not least, there’s Scarwood Hag which looks… well, it looks how a hag should look like from the era of The Dark.
Wrapping It Up
This article just scratched the surface of what The Dark has to offer from a value and aesthetic standpoint. In my modest collection, I have a smattering of cards from each of the Four Horsemen sets. My section on The Dark may be the least valuable of the four, but it definitely isn’t the least interesting. There are so many strange, dark, and quirky cards from this set that I want to own in my collection simply for these reasons alone.
And I didn’t even mention a couple of other favorites of mine. Season of the Witch is a dark and disturbing piece of art on a $30 card. Necropolis has a beautiful piece of art too, even though I couldn’t recite to you from memory what the card actually does. The list goes on and on.
If you have an appreciation for top-down Magic set design, where flavor takes the driver’s seat, then The Dark is for you. You’ll not find cards to help you win competitive games of Magic, but you’ll definitely earn multiple double-takes from your friends when you start casting some of these off-the-wall cards.
Just be prepared to a) lookup rules text in Gatherer, b) wait patiently while your opponents read the cards, and c) remind your opponents that they may have multiple choices and that the cards also impact you as well. As long as you can tolerate all three of these side effects, then The Dark is definitely a set worth shopping for the next time you’re looking to fill out a shopping cart.