When I think of Magic: The Gathering, I imagine a vast fantasy war: dragons veering overhead, lines of goblins charging, colossal beasts rumbling in the distance. Meanwhile, two players hunch over a table, brains visibly steaming from heady math-based calculations.
For the most part, that is what the popular trading card game is: high-strategy epic conflicts where the aim is unquestionably, to crush your foe with superior tactics - whether that’s how you’ve built your deck before each match, or the canny with which you select and play cards.
However, among its multitude of expansions over the years, Magic: The Gathering has also released Un-sets, collections comprised of Un-cards - the wildest, weirdest MTG cards you could ever imagine, which aren’t legal to play in official tournaments due to their rule-breaking abilities.
These battles are fast, unpredictable and completely preposterous.
Unsanctioned’s cards feature a host of meta in-jokes, absurd creatures - such as the Adorable Kitten that, as you’d expect, gives life - and even gameplay commands for you to shout, dance and stack perilously high towers of dice, along a host of other things you’d never imagine happening during a typical game of Magic: The Gathering.
Here’s how Unsanctioned goes: you open up a big box containing five 30-card decks, each representing one of the Magic: The Gathering mana colours. You then smash two of these decks together to form one 60-card deck ready for fighting.
During play, it quickly becomes apparent that winning isn’t really the point. This is emphasised by Unsanctioned cards such as mono-red Strategy, Schmategy, a sort of wheel of fortune sorcery that lets you roll a die to determine one of six possible outcomes, ranging from nothing happening to each player having to discard their hand.
As in previous Un-set titled Unstable, other cards involve smashing certain creatures together to creature augmented monstrosities such as the mighty bat kitten or hummingbird crocodile. Another, Spirit of the Season, grants you boons depending on whether it’s spring, summer, winter or autumn.
Certain cards, sometimes bolstered with a roll of the dice or little spontaneous dance, end the game in a matter of rounds. Card Infinity Elemental powers up to infinity, its flavour text including a groan-worthy dad joke demonstrating the concept of infinity for good measure.
Unsanctioned is not your usual Magic: The Gathering fare. It’s much more frenetic and less calculated. Playing my very first round of Unsanctioned, I was wiped out by black-coloured card Jumbo Imp in three turns.
A flying creature - making it particularly pesky to block - when it enters the battlefield you roll a six-sided die, then add a number of +1/+1 counters on the Jumbo Imp equal to the result. You then keep rolling that die at the start of your upkeep each round, before - here’s the kicker - rolling another die to remove tokens from it at the end of your turn.
My foe, Dicebreaker’s Wheels, rolled high on upkeep and low on counter removal. Consequently, the imp because a jumbo-sized one-hit kill machine.
These battles are fast, unpredictable and completely preposterous.
Next match, I retaliated with my own dice-driven beast: Boomstacker. A rare card unique to the Unsanctioned set, it’s a goblin artificer who powers up via a perilous dice tower. Whenever it enters the battlefield or attacks, you stack two dice on top of it.
Initially only having a mass of d20s on hand, I opted for a more pleasing (and stable) d6 tower. For each die in the tower, Boomstacker gets a +1/+1 token. An aggressive mono-red card, Boomstacker must attack each round if able.
That meant that every round I’d have to tilt the card and accompanying dice stack to the right to tap as it attacked. Suddenly, I found myself playing something that was less trading card game and more dexterity board game.
Boomstacker was not long for this world, however. After it had acquired a not-too-shabby +6/+6 over a course of rounds - partially thanks to the preternatural levels of dice stacking nous I’d learnt from storytelling RPG Icarus - Boomstacker was unceremoniously killed by an Entirely Normal Armchair. Yes, you read that right.
The Entirely Normal Armchair bided its time on the battlefield, surreptitiously laid underneath another card at the back of the table. Wheels sacrificed the card, destroying the the target attacking creature - which, when your beast is a dice-crazed goblin megalomaniac who can’t stop attacking, gave the whole thing an air of poetic justice.
In a similar dexterity vein, the Pointy Finger of Doom card must be spun by hand in the centre of the board. Following at least one full rotation, it destroys the closest permanent it lands near to - sort of like a doom-laden spin-the-bottle.
Unsanctioned is a deck of many surprises. Continuing the past Un-sets’ appearance of different animals, its land cards contain secret squirrels grafted into the very terrain. Card Acornelia, Fashionable Filcher, lets you stack up acorn counters for each one of these inconspicuous squirrels. Meanwhile, white-coloured card Knight of the Hokey Pokey requires you to do the Hokey Pokey dance (instructions provided) to attach mana that prevents all damage to the Knight.
Some cards even involve getting outside help. The Flavor Judge, a rooster referee, demands you tell a story to a person outside of the game for a potential gain. The Emcee, depicted in a wrestling ring, is a white-mana card that can grant a +1/+1 token on any creature if you stand up and say “Presenting…” in a deep booming voice.
Then there’s the Infernal Spawn of Evil, a pink-cheeked mouse holding a steaming mug of marshmallow-topped hot chocolate. You can reveal it from your hand and say “It’s coming!’ to deal one damage to the target opponent or planeswalker. This expands into the Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil (shout, “I’m coming too!”) and further down the Infernal Spawn of Evil tree until you’re packing its even more adorable grandchild.
There’s even potential to play a game within a game as the infamous sub-game mechanic - which was banned from tournaments for being too time-consuming - makes a reappearance in Unhinged via the Enter the Dungeon sorcery. This card requires you to play an MTG subgame under the table, which starts at five life. The winner searches their library for two cards and puts them into their hand. Another card in Unhinged literally requires you to fetch and open an additional Magic: The Gathering booster pack.
The Emcee, depicted in a wrestling ring, is a white-mana card that can grant a +1/+1 token on any creature if you stand up and say “Presenting…” in a deep booming voice.
Overall, Unsanctioned is a surreal and madcap experience, unlike the usual Magic: The Gathering fare. It’s a love letter to the card game’s fans in many ways, its unashamed silliness delving into decades of lore, inside jokes about the TCG’s players and creators alike - original designer Richard Garfield turns up as a card that grants a lot of power - and ultimately, very unexpected cards that like to screw with their owner as much as cause mayhem on the field. There’s also nods to old mechanics, with one card letting you unleash a bunch of old moves that have since been banned in regular play.
Many of these unhinged cards can be linked up to control the field, as in Standard MTG decks, showing that this set is no way a random collection of scattershot jokes, but a cunningly balanced game of strategy and control, just wrapped up in a theme that’s more wrestling smackdowns and goblin game show hosts then epic fantasy battle.
Unsanctioned indulges its experienced players and relishes in finding daft new ways to surprise them, but for Magic: The Gathering beginners, Unsanctioned is less an entry point into the trading card game and more a standalone game within itself. Despite its inherent wackiness, Unsanctioned reveals a lot of the beauty - even its most ridiculous cards are still gorgeously illustrated - and tense tactics that make regular Magic: The Gathering so compelling.
If you’re new to the popular card game, check out Dicebreaker’s guide on how to play Magic: The Gathering and take a glance at the latest Standard expansion, the Greek mythology-themed Theros: Beyond Death.