This Day in MTG History Pro Tour Atlanta

This Day In Magic History: Pro Tour Atlanta (1996)

Jacob LacknerLimited

Welcome back to another edition of “This Day in Magic History!” Today, we’re going to take a look at Pro Tour Atlanta, which was held from Sept. 13-15, 1996. It is a very good time to take a look at the storied history of the Pro Tour, since it will be making its return in 2023

Pro Tour Atlanta is the most unique Pro Tour in all of Magic history for one reason: It was also a pre-release! This is not something we had seen before or since. 

The First Sealed Deck Pro Tour

The Pro Tour was in its infancy back in 1996, having only made its debut earlier that year. The event in Atlanta was only the fourth Pro Tour ever. Also, this is actually the second Pro Tour from 1996 I’ve covered in this series, as my very first article looked at Pro Tour Los Angeles from May of the same year. 

As I noted in that article, Pro Tour Los Angeles was notable because it was the first Limited Pro Tour. Atlanta also featured the Limited format, and it was the first premier-level Sealed event. In the Sealed formats we play today, you get six booster packs and build a 40-card deck from them. Back in 1996, it didn’t quite work the same way. 

Instead, you got a sealed deck of sixty cards and built a 40-card deck from it. These decks were not preconstructed. They were effectively just really big booster packs, as they contained random cards from the set. 

This is why you might hear some older Magic players still referring to our Sealed format today as “Sealed Deck,” even though we don’t actually use sealed decks anymore. You were only allowed to play cards from the decks you opened, including basic lands.

A Mirage sealed deck, which players opened during Pro Tour Atlanta.

Playing with Brand New Cards

While being the first premier-level Sealed event is certainly important, Pro Tour Atlanta was truly unique because it was also a Mirage pre-release. This was a really neat idea, because in those days it meant that nobody knew any of the cards. 

Today we have a drawn out preview season where we learn every single card from an upcoming set ahead of time, but that wasn’t how things worked in 1996. The internet wasn’t anything like it is today, and most people still didn’t have access to it in their homes. 

So, when players at Pro Tour Atlanta opened up their sealed deck, they had to evaluate these brand-new cards on the fly. That meant that this was a particularly challenging event to navigate. Being a good player wasn’t enough — you also had to have good card evaluation skills.

The Decks

The harsh limitations put on deck construction led to decks having some pretty bad mana bases. Sealed decks just didn’t have enough lands for players to make the two-color deck you expect to see in most formats. 

Instead, they usually had to go with three colors — and they had largely had to do it with basic lands. This made Mirage sealed a pretty slow format, as both players were likely to encounter significant mana issues. The good news is Mirage was the first set where Limited play was a factor in set design. Otherwise the format would have been truly miserable!

Let’s take a look at one of the decks from the Top 8 so you can get a feel for what these Limited decks looked like. Unfortunately, only a single deck from the time was preserved, as people at the time didn’t really see a reason to keep Limited deck lists around. That leaves us with Matthew Viennau’s deck from the event.

One thing you’ll notice immediately is how awful his mana base is. After all, each sealed deck has five or six lands of each type, so you generally had to play a three color deck with an awful mana base. The good news is, that’s what everyone else had to play too. 

The quality of creatures in the deck also leaves something to be desired. I mean, Crash of Rhinos is the deck’s top-curve! But once again, this is something the others had to deal with too. The quality of creatures in 1996 was much lower than it is today.

On the flip side, the deck also contains some more powerful non-creature spells than we tend to see today. Power Sink was a strong counterspell that could scale all game long, and the fact it could tap down lands also meant it felt like Time Walk sometimes. 

Moss Diamond, meanwhile, was a turn two mana rock. Grinning Totem might not look awesome today, but in a format as slow as Mirage sealed, you had plenty of time to steal your opponent’s best spell and cast it.

End Step

It is highly unlikely we will ever see another event where players are forced to play with cards they have never seen before. However, there have been two occasions that got pretty close to a similar experience, although the sets in question were not revealed at premier-level events.

The contents of 2017’s Iconic Masters was unknown until the HASCON Pre-release in 2017. However, the set was entirely made up of reprints, so it wasn’t quite as challenging as PT Atlanta.

Perhaps the closest we have gotten since 1996 is the Mystery Booster draft. This was never played as part of a major event, but it was a Limited format where the first players got to see cards they had never seen before. 

Mystery Boosters largely contain reprints, but each pack also contains a test card that was not part of any sort of preview season. Even then, though, these test cards were quickly shared online and the mystery was gone within a couple of days of the set’s release.

Still, it would be pretty cool if we ever got to see another event where players have to build decks from a collection of cards they have never seen before. Unfortunately, it probably won’t ever happen again.