Retro Magic: The Gathering drafting with Fallen Empires

I had the opportunity to draft Fallen Empires and other sets, thanks to my coworker John.  These old sets have a reputation for being “undraftable” and bad. I had a great experience, though, and I wanted to write about all of the little things I noticed.

Fallen Empires was released in 1994, soon after I got into M:tG with my friends and my brother Chris. The Dark had sold out before we could buy it, so Chris and I pre-ordered a FE box. We opened it and were devastated.  It had weak commons and no powerful rare cards, nothing that compared with our existing collection. I carried a small grudge against the set to this day.

Draft Day

John is a great host and set us up with a great environment at his house. All of us sat at a table with everything laid out: dice, sleeves, and all of the packs. Daniele, one of the other players, had made a variety of tokens and counters that were customized to the set as well. Since Fallen Empires comes in 8-card packs, we drafted two packs at a time, mixed.  My first (double) pack had one famous card in it, Hymn to Tourach, so I got an instant hit of nostalgia.  Looking at these packs, the themes of Fallen Empires are clear:

  • White has a lot of tiny soldiers that band together
  • Blue has tidal cards that wax and wane over four turns
  • Black uses sacrificial Thrulls for gain
  • Red’s cowardly Orcs in-fight with Dwarves
  • Green’s Thallids build up spores each turn, which can be spent three at a time

To get a sense of Fallen Empires, check out this compilation of the flavor text. It involves the fall of the normal fantasy races, like Elves and Dwarves, as a result of magical climate change. Eventually this leads to Ice Age, another classic (and better loved) Magic set.

In the next pack, I saw an old card I remember, Deep Spawn.  Back in the day Blue got these over-costed blue sea monsters, though this one mercifully lacks the “opponent needs islands to attack” like Sea Serpent or Dandan.  Since the creatures in the set are all small and the removal sparse, I figured now was the time to finally play this card. Back in the day it sat unplayed in my binder.

Speaking of removal, there is very little at common:

Keep Thorn Thallid in mind, but notice that Black’s only removal requires getting a 2/2 through and Red has no removal unless it plays 1-for-2 combos. Merseine isn’t too bad for Blue common removal, and Javelineers aren’t the worst either.

My priority over the next few picks was to slurp up more Hymns, some Merseine, and Basal Thrulls to ramp out my bomb lobster.  Blue has essentially zero playable common creatures, the best probably being Homarid Warrior at 3/3 for 5 mana.  I got another Deep Spawn and grabbed a few Homarids, though I didn’t feel great doing so.

Later Packs in the Draft

When we cracked packs 3+4, I saw a bomb: Hand of Justice.  I took it right away, though I had to rethink my strategy.  I started to pivot towards white creatures, given that I needed to have a total of four creatures out to make Hand of Justice function.  A few Order of Leitbur came my way. These “pump knights” (along with their Black equivalent, Order of the Ebon Hand) are some of the best creatures in Fallen Empires. The combination of first strike and power pumping allow them to attack into groups of sickly FE creatures.

One thing I couldn’t find, because it’s absent in the set, are cheap quality “wall” creatures to slow the game down.  The closest thing in Blue and White is Icatian Phalanx, but at 5 mana it doesn’t come down until the board is already developed.  I eventually grabbed an Icatian Town and another six Merseines.

I didn’t really see any quality White, Blue, or Black cards go by and Justin next to me bemoaned the lack of quality in Red. Chas, who sat across from me, hinted at his draft coming together, and I realized towards the end that it must be something in Green that I hadn’t seen.  I passed a few Feral Thallids in later packs, which hammered home how strong Green looked in comparison.

Deck Build and Match One

My build ended up being a bunch of White one-drops, four Order of Leitbur, four Merseine, three Deep Spawn, and a Ring of Renewal.  I figured I had pretty good early game and could slam a Deep Spawn to close things out around turn 8-10. Notably, I had two “sac lands” (Syulvenite Temple and Ruins of Trokair) and one Sand Silos to help me spike up to 8 mana.

I looked across to Chas’s pile and he had drafted ten Thorn Thallids.  We started to realize that this was going to be pretty incredible.  With so few large creatures, his deck could accumulate spore tokens and pick off his opponent’s creatures. As we played out our match, we saw another part of the plan: fogs. He had plenty of time thanks to Spore Flower, which could stop an attack every three turns, and the devastating Spore Cloud, which effectively stopped two turns of attacks.  I could carve out 8-10 damage early on with my Javelineers and pump knights, but these fog effects shut down my offense and bought time to grow spores on Thorn Thallids.

One card in my deck deserves a shout-out for almost keeping me in the match: Combat Medic. These damage prevention cards are underrated in retro drafts.  In this case, if I left my mana open I could deter Chas’s thorns as I could negate the first few shots in a turn.  This bought me time, but I soon ran into a problem. All of my win conditions were very expensive, so I’d have to drop my shields for a turn to play them.  The Thorn Thallids have no such problem as they can accrue spores forever and have no mana cost to activate.  Even if I could stall the game for ten extra turns, the moment I casted something my team would be destroyed.  Lesson learned about Fallen Empires: Thallids are a dominant archetype! The Thorn Thallids are so good that Chas cut the otherwise solid Feral Thallids.

Match Two: Orcs and Goblins

My second opponent was Justin, playing a mono-red deck. For a red deck, his starts were pretty funny: lots of Goblin Chirurgeons! They were reasonably solid at protecting his Brassclaw Orcs from my Javelineers. If I wanted to keep up mana to defend with Order of Leitbur, I couldn’t also develop my board. His Goblin Kites, though risky, could get his orcs above my defense to help pound some damage in.

I eventually drew my savior, Hand of Justice, though I had to play around situations where he could suicide an Orc into my HoJ and then finish it off with a Goblin Grenade. Once I had stalled the game out, though, I could just pass with full mana and pick off a creature each turn with great justice.  A fairly excruciating way to win, to be sure, as the Chirurgeons were excellent lightning rods.

Drafting The Dark and Match Three

Before the third match, we drafted a pack of The Dark, another classic set.  The Dark is known for having a great spooky vibe and has a number of interesting cards.  Those aspects were hard to notice in just one pack, though. I saw no playable white or blue cards in the packs I was handed, though the presence of several Sunken City made me wish the blue creatures in Fallen Empires had been good enough to pair with it.  The high price for The Dark packs makes it impractical to have more of them in a draft, so I’d probably recommend skipping them if you do your own retro draft.

Around the table, I heard Justin bemoaning that his deck was so desperate for Goblins that Goblin Hero was a powerful card for him (compare that to Thorn Thallid)! I passed several Gaea’s Touch, which seemed like valuable ramp for the mono-Green deck. Turns out the mana curve for the Thallid is so low that even something like Gaea’s Touch isn’t good enough!

I played our host John in match three.  His deck contained something like 9 or 10 white one-drops! He had a few Order of the Ebon Hand as well.  Here, his game plan of Javelineer-ing my Order of Leitburs and finishing the game with Ebon Hands proved too fast.  That said, I found it very enjoyable to try to plan out who to javelin and how to play around his Javelins.  I did take one game due to Deep Spawn being way bigger than anything he had, especially when combined with the powerful Combat Medic.

Drafting Chronicles and Homelands

Next we drafted a pack of Chronicles and a pack of Homelands. As kids, we considered Chronicles to be almost fake cards and wouldn’t trade for them.  Since then, EDH and other formats have brought the cards back into favor. Also, after FE and The Dark, Chronicles was a crazy power boost!  I was delighted to slam (otherwise humble) Keepers of the Faith as 3 mana 2/3s.  I saw a bunch of Legends go by: Rubinia Soulsinger, Kei Takahashi, and Dakkon Blackblade. In retrospect, I wish I had grabbed these, but without any mana fixing I was hesitant to try splashing colors.  I also grabbed a few Walls and Boomerangs.

Homelands was also a nice injection of cards, despite being a famously unpopular set.  We saw actual flying creatures go by! I grabbed a Giant Oyster, though I wouldn’t end up drawing it in a game.  I grabbed a few Labyrinth Minotaurs and Sea Sprites, but couldn’t really justify playing them with one of my win conditions being Hand of Justice.

Match Four and Prizes

My last match was against Zack, who was busy resleeving his deck after overhauling it with his Chronicles picks.  Not long into game one, I found out why: he was the one taking all of the Legends. After naturally drawing all the basics he needed, he played Rubinia, Kei, and Dakkon, while also pecking away at me with fliers.  Game two was even more devastating as he built his own mini-Glorybringers using a pair of Farrel’s Mantle.  Even on a 1/1, it was too devastating to recover.

Everyone brought 7 prizes to the event and we drafted them after the matches were over.  People brought a bunch of cool old packs, deck boxes, tokens, and even snack foods. I paired packs with fun cards from The Dark, including an old Maze of Ith that I had from back in the day.  John then ran a mini-game where laid out paper “packs” and we had to guess which packs were the least valuable.  The “winner” there is Dragon’s Maze, which is a relatively recent set with no chase cards left after the reprinting of Voice of Resurgence in Modern Masters 2017.

Thoughts and Conclusions

I was astounded by how fun the games were.  Unlike old Core Sets, there were a lot of complicated, flavorful cards that just happened to have a low power level.  I learned that low power, in a vacuum, had its own unique feel.  With no easy beatdown decks and no removal or card draw to make control decks. Each game is a fight over meager resources.

Additionally, it was fun being totally flooded with the same thirty-ish commons.  Almost all of the cards in Fallen Empires are wordy messes by modern standards, but this is mitigated when you have all seen them many times.  Decks have a strong identity. Playing around cards is more reasonable when your opponent has six copies of the card in their deck.

This experience makes made me curious if it is possible to create a custom set that captured a similar feel to this one.  The balance of the cards in FE is way off but the vibe was so different and fresh that all of us could see the appeal.  I will be thinking about this retro draft day for a long time.  Thanks to John and everyone else for making it such a fun event.