Hello everybody, my name is Phil, I have been kindly asked by Brother Ben to write an article for the “In Praise Of” series. I chose to talk about Disintegrate, which I will do, but first you’ll have to sit through my story of discovering Magic: The Gathering itself and Disintegrate in particular.
It’s only several times in your life that you get lucky enough to experience a feeling of absolute perfection. This feeling is akin to falling in love – not with a person, but with some hobby or activity.
This rare feeling should not be mistaken for a sense of excitement and curiosity about something new which usually fades away after a week or a month, revealing all its imperfections and making you realise it was just a fad.
In retrospect I can only pinpoint two such moments in my life – when I found my dream job (the one that I often forget I do for money) back in 2010, and when I first read the article about Magic: The Gathering in 1997. The article in Games Magazine said that the game boasted 437 cards and featured 5 colours of Magic as well as the special sixth one which could be used to cast spells with (X) in their cost [sic].
The very first article about Magic: The Gathering by MicroProse in Games Magazine (Russia, December 1996)
As a pre-teen in 1997 I was already a fan of fantasy worlds thanks to games like Diablo and Warcraft and books by Terry Brooks and Roger Zelazny. Board games were also something I enjoyed. I even tried making my own ones, even though they didn’t usually progress past the design document stage. So when I read about the idea of using a deck of cards where each card represented a magic spell, a fantasy creature, a powerful artefact or a mana-producing land, I immediately knew that I had to play this game.
The concept of Magic was rather simple, yet genius – something that anybody could have come up with, yet only one person did. It is now obvious that Richard Garfield, a man with an endless, to the point of obsession, passion for board games and mathematics designed the perfect game for himself without any concessions for the mass market – with incredibly complicated mechanics and interactions, high-effort and sometimes even shocking art. We are all lucky that thanks to the series of events this game became popular and stood the test of time.
So, as I have said, I really wanted to play this game of Magic, but the problem was that you couldn’t even buy MTG in Russia – with about $200 being the average salary in the country, Wizards didn’t have any intention to enter the market back then.
The solution seemed rather simple – I had to start making my own Magic: The Gathering set and force my friends to play it, whether they liked it or not. I had a vague understanding of the mechanics since I had never seen the game in action, let alone played it myself, but I knew that there were lands, spells and creatures, red was the colour of “fire magic”, white was about “knights” and black was “evil”, this seemed to be enough. Of course, I didn’t stop there and felt that I needed to invent the sixth colour – purple, which was responsible for “astral” spells and spirits (I know, I know…). I also intuitively understood, even before I learned about the existence of multicoloured cards, that there should be something as powerful as the whole lot of Power Rangers combined, and it obviously had to be rare and gold, so there were some WUBRG cards as well.
Fortunately, none of the cards I designed (and there were two 5-color decks of about 80 cards each) survived. I threw them away in shame as soon as bought the real cardboard some years later, but I’m going to show you the old punched cards from the seventies I used for my bootleg cards, cutting them in half:
My first custom-made Magic set was made on thick punched cards that we still had at home and were using instead of sticky notes
My set featured some weird cards such as the little black “Kamikaze Ninja” who died as soon as he battled your opponent’s creature, taking it to the graveyard. There was the also cliché fireball, a healing spell and a reanimation spell. One of my friends who playtested my ”Magic” game really liked it and even asked me to play it again, which we did on the small playground bench, dropping the cards on the dirty ground from time to time.
The fateful PC game compilation with Magic: The Gathering. The inclusion of “Wet: The Sexy Empire” (18+) demonstrates how much pirates cared about the age ratings.
After playing that proto-Magic I bought a random PC game compilation called New World 17 ($5 for a couple of dozen games, not a bad deal, even assuming you could usually run only about a half of these, there was literally no legal way to obtain games for PC in Russia). As you can see from the picture above, it featured Magic The Gathering: Duels of The Planeswalkers by MicroProse – arguably, the first and the last commercial Magic game for PC made with love – by the fans and for the fans, supervised by Sid Meier – the man who created Civilization.
This game that featured cards from the 4th Edition, Unlimited, Legends, Arabian Nights, Antiquities and The Dark (never the full sets, just some of the cards, but this was still more than enough). It became the first computer game that I would often come back to – reinstalling it again and again many years after. This game is the reason why I value Old School 1993-1994 so much, even though I didn’t play Magic in that period of time. Even today, by modern standards, I would say that I prefer the interface of this 1997 game, which is now considered abandonware, to Magic Online, especially because of the way that the cards look.
Of course, playing Magic with the AI that would sometimes randomly cast Giant Growth on my creature was not so much fun, so I started printing my own proxies using Print Screen from the Shandalar Deck Editor, translating them into Russian for my friends. I dare say that these were the very first Magic cards printed in Russian since the first Russian card printed by Wizards appeared in Torment in 2002 as a part of pre-release cards in exotic languages, alongside Latin.
Of course, I often took liberties with translation, especially when I didn’t understand the terminology – for example, I had no idea what the mysterious “permanent” meant, but I did find the idea of having a Time Elemental (especially with this beautiful art) in my deck very appealing, so in my version it would just “rewind time” to the beginning of the turn. I also replaced the serious Bible flavour text of Durkwood Boars with some funny pig joke I came up with.
I had to butcher the beautiful textbox as well, placing the big coloured Arial letters in it. The cards were about twice as small as the original Magic cards (I had no idea about the dimensions and we had no Internet to look them up) and had a blank back.
My MS-Paint localised Time Walk proxy literally said ”Your enemy skips a turn”
I could go on and on about my experience of preaching Magic to literally everybody I knew at school and university, regardless of their interests, age and gender. I could talk non-stop about my passion for what we now call Old School Magic cards, and the joy of finally buying my first real Magic product – the two-player Sixth Edition starter and seeing my favourite cards, especially the Prodigal Sorcerer who had exactly the same art as in the very first editions of Magic… But it’s finally time to talk about Disintegrate.
Disintegrate may look brutal, but it conveys the idea of the spell perfectly
Why did I choose to write about Disintegrate? There are several reasons, but the most important one is very simple – it has always been overshadowed by Fireball. It goes without saying that the default “Burn for X” spell in Magic is Fireball. This comes as no surprise – even the red mana symbol itself depicts one.
I would even go as far as saying that Fireball is the default combat spell in any fantasy setting. It doesn’t need any explanation: fire is deadly and we know it instinctively. A mage who is too physically weak to wear any armour and wield a weapon wouldn’t want to engage in close combat, so launching fireballs from a distance seems to be the intuitive thing to do.
As I have mentioned earlier, we should thank Richard Garfield for creating cards with diverse and complex effects right from the start. Who knows how long Magic would have lasted if all combat spells simply dealt 1, 2 or 3 damage to your opponent? This seems to be the point where many game designers stop, either running out of imagination or not willing to alienate their audience, catering for the dreaded lowest common denominator.
In Magic: The Gathering, even something as basic as a Fireball has its own nuances and requires decision-making. The most important of these decisions is whether to burn your opponents or their creatures. With Fireball you can do both, but it’s not as intuitive as we would want it to be – first of all, there is one extra mana you should pay for every additional target, which sounds fair, but what’s even worse is that you can’t assign this damage the way you want.
If I could pay 6R and kill my opponent’s Savannah Lions and Serra Angel, I wouldn’t even be writing an article in defence of Disintegrate, praising Merchant Ship instead. For 6R, which is more than the casting cost of Shivan Dragon, a powerful endgame creature, you can only deal 2 damage to two targets.
Doing maths with Fireball always seemed like a chore to me, even with the marvellous Fireball widget included in the Shandalar game. When I asked myself the question of how much mana I needed to spend to kill more than one fearsome creature or deal some extra damage to my opponent along with getting rid of a threat, the answer was usually the same – more than I had. Since I started playing Old School Magic, I only remember one single game where I cast Fireball with three targets, but this was in my Gauntlet of Might Goblins build.
This Fireball widget is something I wish was built into modern Magic life counter apps
I analysed numerous decklists from the Winter Derby 2020 and found that of all the decks that included red, 30 lists contained Fireball only, 3 contained both Fireball and Disintegrate (typically, a one-of) and 2 ran Disintegrate only. This means that Fireball is at least six times as popular. But did all the decks that ran it use the full potential of Fireball, targeting multiple creatures?
If you take a look at the lists, you will understand that the overwhelming majority of them used Fireball as a finisher. With only one target, Disintegrate is not just as good as Fireball – it is actually much better! And even if we choose to ignore the fact that Disintegrate would have been helpful against the regenerating trolls and reanimation spells which were featured in the metagame (although building your deck proactively based on the expected metagame is not so much in the spirit of Old School), there is still some advantage to using Disintegrate – for example, it removes the creature from the game, which means that your opponent won’t see it again if somebody uses Timetwister.
This brings me to the most important point of this article – when a card seems to be the default choice for a situation, we sometimes don’t even bother looking for alternatives and exploring the format, even such a deep and well-loved one as Old School 93-94. After all, the famous combo is called “Channel-Fireball”, not “Channel-Disintegrate”, even though the advantage of Fireball is non-existent in that deck.
Sol Ring is not an “auto-include” when it comes to, let’s say, White Weenie. Power Sink is not “strictly better” than Spell Blast. Jayemdae Tome doesn’t have the drawback of Jalum Tome. But I would prefer the latter in many of my decks because they are simply different cards with different purposes.
Sadly, the days of “playing with what you have” are gone and netdecking is here to stay, even though Old School players are much more creative than those in most other formats. I understand the appeal of winning and one innovator can rarely do something more important than a team of players who have been perfecting some deck for decades. But I just love to play with the not-so-popular cards, since they are fun and have one important advantage – people don’t expect them. In fact, even after reading the text, they can still forget about the exact effect they have, which often plays to your advantage.
It’s not that Disintegrate is an obscure card – it isn’t, but my opponents were often surprised when I Disintegrated their Sedge and Uthden Trolls, Clergy of the Holy Nimbus and thwarted their plans to use Animate Dead.
Just a handful of cards that make Disintegrate relevant
Regeneration is an important, yet often overlooked ability in Old School Magic, and Disintegrate is one of the few ways to deal with it. Arguably, Disintegrate is the second-best spot removal that can deal with regeneration, after Swords to Plowshares. As for removing creatures from the game, STP is obviously better, but it doesn’t do anything against creatureless decks, unlike Disintegrate. Fighting against reanimation spells can be easier with bounce spells and countermagic, but we should remember that running Disintegrate gives you a Swiss Army knife, not a silver bullet for your sideboard.
For a powerful burn-based Gauntlet of Might / Mana Flare deck it provides some extra copies of the much-needed “Deal X damage for X” spell, so you can have as many as eight copies if you use both Disintegrate and Fireball. In Singleton/Highlander decks where big burn spells are even more likely to resolve the creature stalemate situation you can have 2 big burn spells instead of one.
If, for a moment, we pretend that we care about the existence of modern Magic, we can understand that regeneration, which seemed to be an evergreen mechanic, became obsolete and was replaced with indestructible and some recursion mechanics. Fireball, which at some point in time was deemed too powerful or complex for core sets and was replaced with the vanilla “Burn for X” Blaze (which, on the plus side, boasted some of the best depictions of fire on a Magic card), which has been reprinted 30 times.
By contrast, the last reprint of Disintegrate was in 2006 in the throwback Timeshifted sub-set along with such nostalgic cards as Craw Giant and Dandân. I have a feeling that nowadays we are more likely to see reprints of the Reserved List cards in one form or another than Disintegrate.
But for us Old School Magic players, it is still 1994. It is not uncommon to cast Timetwister on Turn 1. Animate Dead is the best reanimation spell. Sedge Troll is a fearsome creature. And Disintegrate is a card we remember, just like the rest of 980 Old School cards, and this, I think, is a beautiful thing.
[Editor’s note: Thanks to Phil for an amazing journey into the Wild East of Magic! If you have a pet card that you’d like to celebrate in an article either long or short, send it to us for inclusion.]