Something to Remember - The History of Tokens
From glass beads, coins, and matches to cardboard with the same size and even the same backside as Magic cards, tokens and other reminders that represent everything within the game, including creatures, have come a long way. This week, Sancho offers a token of gratitude to a special category of little helpers.
When Magic players speak of tokens, they are usually referring to token creatures and to a lesser extent, token artifacts – since the release of Commander 2018, sometimes even token enchantments. However, when taken in a wider context as the extra piece of cardboard found in most booster packs along with the cards themselves, tokens include even more types of reminders which can represent all sorts of game states. And, of course, you don't actually need the official tokens to represent something in the game, since any object that the players agree upon can be used as a token (as long as it is not misleading and as long as the token representing, for example a creature or artifact, can be placed in a state that clearly shows it as tapped). For the first years of Magic, official tokens did not even exist, and players had to use their imagination when games involved token creatures and even counters. (Check out my article about Fallen Empires for an idea on how confusing a board state could be in the early days of Magic, when the same type of reminder was used to represent creatures as well as a variety of tokens.)
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Besides the obvious coins and matches to represent creatures with no card on the battlefield tied to them, glass beads were a widespread choice when the molten rock of Dominaria was still cooling down. Some people were also using glass beads, placed on top of cards, to represent tapped permanents instead of turning them sideways. (I don't think that would fly in most places today.) These gaming stone-type glass beads were more functional than coins when used for tokens, since they had a rounded side and a flat side, and flat side up seemed to be commonly agreed upon as a representation of the tapped state. Still, this was far from ideal. Glass beads, matchboxes, and whatnots added an irritating bulkiness to the ultra-portability that Magic offered when being carried around. All you needed to sit down and play anywhere was a worn Revised Edition cardboard box. For those who need a chilling reminder: In those days, everything from moxen to dual lands went unsleeved into worn-out cardboard deck boxes. Those boxes were forced into tight pockets along with half-eaten corndogs, screws, and other harmful, sharp, and greasy objects that might have taken residence in a pair of grunge-age teenage jeans.
In Magic's prehistory, this problem was negligible, since not many cards required tokens or counters. In the first core sets from Alpha to Unlimited, only one card generated tokens. And since it was the only card doing so, it had all the rules about this special kind of permanent spelled out in its entirety in the text box. That card happened to one of my first rares, and it was quite usable in the low power level of my original meta. It was The Hive, a five-mana artifact where you could pay five mana and tap to create a 1/1 flying wasp. Or as the card itself said in my Revised version:
5, T: Creates one Giant Wasp, a 1/1 flying creature. Represent Wasps with tokens, making sure to indicate when each Wasp is tapped. Wasps can't attack during the turn created. Treat Wasps like artifact creatures in every way, except that they are removed from the game entirely if they ever leave play. If the Hive is destroyed, the Wasps must still be killed individually.
Come on, you have to love Dr. Garfield's ability to lay down the rules. This text more or less describes in detail how tokens have worked ever since. While the first expansions added a few token-generating cards beyond the single one from Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, they weren't a lot. I also had a Revised version of the Arabian Nights card Bottle of Suleiman when my collection was still just a few hundred cards. Unfortunately, the coinflip never seemed to favor me.
Token Gestures Were No Match
Before the first big token explosion happened with the arrival of Fallen Empires, Magic had a total of exactly ten token generator cards, which besides the two aforementioned, were Boris Devilboon, Dance of Many, Hazezon Tamar, Master of the Hunt, Rukh Egg, Serpent Generator, Stangg, and Tetravus. Fallen Empires may have only added eight new cards that generated tokens, but this was an 80% increase of the total – and a 200% increase in the number of token generators as commons. (Rukh Egg, the only common token generator, was now joined by both Thallid and Night Soil in the same rarity.) When Fallen Empires landed, the expansion filled the tables at local game stores and in kitchens with red goblins, black thrulls, green saprolings, white townsfolk, and even at times, the more rarely seen blue camarids.
While we always ended up using the same old matches for both counters and tokens in my playgroup, Wizards of the Coast actually tried to do something to alleviate the chaos of the many different new tokens and counters. In Issue #4 of the official Magic magazine, The Duelist, a token sheet was included that gave players access to printed versions of all the new token creatures – in thick but small, fiddly cardboard. I only remember using those a few times because who wanted to waste time looking for just the right tiny token in a bag to represent a thrull, when matches were so much easier to grab? We usually never got the board complex enough to forget what represented what; those were, after all, also the days of keeping track of both your own life total and that of your opponent's in your head.
It took nearly four years since Fallen Empires before tokens as modern Magic players know them arrived. This was towards the very end of my initial engagement with the game. One of the last sets I bought boosters from back then was the original Un-set, Unglued.
Unglued's biggest claim to fame is probably that it introduced the concept of full-art lands for the very first time. But another first for this silver-bordered supplemental set of joke cards was the introduction of card-sized creature tokens that fit perfectly in the deck box along with your normal cards. Somewhat problematic during the first wave of tokens in the pre-sleeve days, the new tokens also had the same back as real cards and often ended up being shuffled into your deck.
Of course, nowadays, tokens are an integral part of every new Magic release and new official tokens are released with every new set, including set symbols and all the trimmings. Today, there are more than 300 different official tokens available. Well over a thousand cards now refer specifically to tokens in their rules text, and a good deal of these are regular token generators, giving players a constant source of new creatures in exchange for some resource, usually mana.
The most infamous token must be Marit Lage, the 20/20 win-condition of many decks, produced by the land Dark Depths. Marit Lage as an official token is only available in foil but in two different versions, due to its being a special release promo for Coldsnap where Dark Depths was originally from. Additionally, it was included in From the Vault: Lore. The release promo of Marit Lage can be bought for prices starting at 3,45 € and other official versions can be found for below 0,80 €.
As with many other popular tokens, a good deal of unofficial versions have also been printed. Foil tokens for other creatures have more recently been printed in the Unstable supplemental set and for a very short while, Friday Night Magic promos were foil tokens as well. That is until this practice was abandoned due to complaints from players who wanted something more valuable. Even if they look nice and come in glittering collectable versions, one thing remains true for tokens: Most of them aren't good investments for anyone looking to make money. They exist purely for the joy of collecting and to help players remember what goes on in the game.
If you take a look at the tokens for sale on Cardmarket, you will also make this curious observation: The most expensive tokens for sale are not even official printings from Wizards of the Coast, but rather tokens made by other companies around the world. The top priced official token is a league promo token representing a 1/1 white monk with prowess generated by the infamous Monastery Mentor. At the time of writing, only five copies of this alternate art version of the monk are even for sale on Cardmarket at prices between 12,00 € and 24,99 €. None of those are even English versions.
Well that's all for today, and at the risk of being accused of tokenism, I will straight-up admit that this will probably be the only article I ever do on tokens. But I would still love to hear your favorite token facts and stories. Did you win sweet victories with deadly assassin tokens from Vraska the Unseen? Did you discover the misprint on the monarch token without having someone point it out? Did you lose horribly because someone opened a door, and the wind blew your micro stamp-sized Fallen Empires thrulls and goblins out the window? Share your facts and stories in the comments below.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.