25 Years Living Next Door to Serra
With just a few months to go before the quarter century anniversary of summoning his first Serra Angel and with the release of a planeswalker card for the creator of the iconic angels scheduled to coincide with that celebration, Sancho merrily hums his own version of British glam rockers Smokie's greatest hit while looking at all things Serra.
My first tryst with Magic was in the year after the first edition of the game was released. 2019 marks my 25th anniversary as a planeswalker. I don't know if players even exist in the current lore of the game, but back in the days a planeswalker was a player and, even if the multiverse existed – it did, and it was called Dominia back then – all stories and all games took place on the plane of Dominaria to the best of my recollection. And any game where one of the players could manage to cast spells requiring two white mana was won by summoning a Serra Angel.
Over the Mountain and Far Away
Okay, that is perhaps exaggerating it a bit, but you did not really find anything more efficient in early Magic sets, at least when it came to creatures (a certain powerful nonet of artifacts and blue spells does not include any creatures). I confess that I originally read and probably pronounced the name as Sierra Angel, thinking it came swooping down some mountainside, and the mountain reference has somehow stuck in my head thinking of Serra as a ridge of serrated peaks.
As it turns out, Serra does actually mean mountain range in some languages, and the Spanish province of Castellón does indeed have a mountain range named Serra de la Vall d'Àngel meaning the range of the valley of the angels in the local Valencian tongue. So perhaps my associations were not too far off.
Don't Summon the Dragon
The angel summon spells in the Beta playtest version of Magic was quite different from Serra Angel as we know it (back then you cast summon spells to call upon creatures rather than casting creature spells). But by the time of the Gamma playtest set, the summon angel spell had become a 4/4 with the typical xeroxed clipart of that set and the text "Flies/not tapped on the attack" only kept back by the horrendous casting cost 5WW.
Not until the release of Alpha Limited Edition (Alpha) did the card get its full name Serra Angel and one of the most iconic pieces of Magic art ever created by Douglas Shuler (misspelled Schuler). And yes, that makes this yet another of my articles centered around cards illustrated by Shuler (see here, here and even here) – even if this aethereal being does not have the shoulder pads of almost all other characters in Shuler illustrations I have written about.
Unlike several other cards, I don't remember discovering Serra Angel. She just always seemed to be there very much like the neighborhood girl Alice in the Smokie song that inspired the title of this article. Early on my friends and I probably all agreed that Shivan Dragon was the best card in our world of Revised Edition. But looking at the mighty fire breathing dragon just sitting there helpless in our hands while the lower powered angel hit the board and finished us off by both flying over our creatures to bite chunks of our life total – and then being ready to block anything sent back over the battlefield for retaliation, we all learned the lesson: Serra Angel was the strongest card in Magic and every player needed four of her.
Magic's Most Costly Card
Today people cringe and cannot believe the stories of players trading the now so coveted original dual lands for Serra Angels. How could anyone do that? Well, no one knew that dual lands would stop being printed, no one knew that there would be a reserved list making certain cards so expensive that players hardly dare play them, and no one could foresee that creatures would be the card type Wizards of the Coast decided to inflate with decades of power creep. Also, most players being very casual back then would prefer having a creature that you could actually see win you games with rather than some boring land no matter how much it mathematically improved your chances of winning.
Heck, even if people had known that the dual lands would reach those price levels a quarter of a century later, a lot of players might still even have preferred to win games there and then instead of waiting for some pie in the sky payoff so many years in the future. These were after all also the days of keeping your deck in the pocket with a rubber band around it and playing unsleeved on whichever surface seemed big enough to accommodate a game.
I myself have played my share of games on sticky beer-soaked bar tables and concrete sidewalks without much wincing. Anyways, playing on the sidewalk was with Urza's Saga cards, which we were certain would never appreciate in value ever – and who can put a prize on fun and guarantee that a day of playing Magic in the sun is really less worth than a near mint Gaea's Cradle … or a Serra's Sanctum to stay on topic.
Fallen Angel Empire
Serra Angel, back then often just called Serra, was the best card, and a gazillion reprints (or at least 41 according to Scryfall) and six different illustrations later the card is still a solid pick in many limited environments, though hardly any Magic players would use it for any constructed play today. Naturally reprints means that the price is not what it used to be relative to some of the cards she was originally released alongside, and as mentioned above the power has also faded relatively, not least compared to most of the other 25 angels with converted mana cost five or less and power four or more.
As anyone reading this will know, the story of Serra did not end with a single angel. Already in Legends the white version of the much laughed at cycle of "bands lands" was named Cathedral of Serra. Though the card was without any flavor text expanding on the lore behind the Serra, the card's name established that there was a religion linked to the person, place, entity or whatever Serra was. The next mention of Serra was in the flavor text of one of the versions of Goblin War Drums in Fallen Empires, the first Magic expansion that was not a hit. Here the puny Sarpadian goblins somehow make drums of Serra Angel skulls, and as if to add insult to injury the name Serra did not reappear again until Homelands which is arguably the worst Magic set ever.
No less than 12 Homelands cards had Serra mentioned in their flavor text and four cards had Serra in their name (well five, if you are generous and count Serrated Arrows, which is often mentioned as one of the only three cards from the expansion to see any play along with Ihsan's Shade and Merchant Scroll). Homelands firmly established Serra as someone who had been gone for 20 years and who was also the object of a religion with its own abbeys and inquisitors. In the flavor text for Serra Aviary (the effect of which is mimicked by the +1 ability of the coming planeswalker) she is even mentioned along with Feroz which in later lore become her partner who died before Serra (I guess it is too late now to alert of a spoiler here – Serra has been dead for millennia).
Today nearly 50 cards have been printed that mention Serra and, including the upcoming planeswalker, 23 cards have been printed or spoiled bearing her name, well if I stretch myself to include all things serrated, we make it to 25 – one for each year since I cast my first vigilant angel.
As usual I would like to hear any thoughts you may have on the subject at hand. Have you ever cast a Serra Angel, or did you join Magic after power creep had made the card a less than ideal 5 CMC creature? Please share your own Serra Angel stories or insights into the lore surrounding Serra in the comments below.
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