What's your earliest memory of (non-Magical) tokens?
If you're a venerable planeswalker (not quite Nicol Bolas or Sorin Markov venerable but at least 70 in the U.S.) you may remember rationing tokens from World War II or another conflict such as the Red Points and Blue Points. Bus tokens may seem as if they belong in the past but they're still sold for some mass transit systems like the Metro of Los Angeles County. Similarly folks my age (give or take a decade) might have grown up with arcade tokens depending on where they live; like bus tokens arcade tokens are fading away but they haven't given up the fight yet.
Over a decade or so of Magic playing I've beaten down with Red Point 1/1 Soldiers 3/3 Elephants represented by hula girl bus tokens from Honolulu and more than one 5/5 Dragon straight out of Chuck E. Cheese. I've also rocked custom drawn tokens on the backs of artists' proofs; a 7/1 red Elemental with trample from the pen of Ryan Pancoast and a whole suite of W/B Tokens...er tokens by rk post.
Of course sometimes I have a game where I cast and flash back Lingering Souls three times running me out of the custom drawn tokens and with so many creature types in play I have to go with the more conventional preprinted tokens to close the gap. The various tokens printed by Wizards also offer insight into how the game has been played at various times; after all the token cards don't exist without a reason. Let's go exploring!
A Brief History of Tokens
The first official tokens produced by Wizards of the Coast were printed in Unglued. The original "joke set" has had several surprising legacies including the sequel set Unhinged a serious reprint of a "joke card" (Barren Glory is The Cheese Stands Alone with different flavor) and full-art lands that saw a new frame reprise in Zendikar. But the tokens may be the longest lasting and most enduring of Unglued's innovations.* The infamously adorable Squirrel token by Ron Spencer is the single most expensive Unglued card in the StarCityGames.com store sold out at $5.99 at this writing. That's a dollar more than the Unglued Island.
The Unglued tokens are extraordinarily simple compared to later versions showing full-art illustrations with no name power/toughness or other identifying markers. (The Series One StarCityGames.com tokens share this characteristic.) Some Unglued tokens correspond to cards in the set (the Squirrel to Squirrel Farm and the Sheep to Flock of Rabid Sheep for example) while others like the Pegasus have no such link.
Unglued was released in August 1998. A few years later the Magic Player Rewards program started including creature tokens in its promotional mailings. The tokens printed before the Great Card Frame Change of 2003 share several unusual characteristics: a gray border around the art with a smaller color-indicating frame around the text box (note the old-gold on the Goblin Soldier for Goblin Trenches below) the word "Token" at the top in lieu of the token creature's actual name and a spritz of flavor text.
The change in the regular card frame with Eighth Edition also brought a change in the token card frame. Beyond the frame change the name of the token was moved on top and the word "Token" moved to the text line. The card frame shift created a handful of quirks in the 2003 and 2004 Player Rewards seasons most notably a new frame Angel token printed with the expansion symbol of Scourge the last old frame set.
After 2004 the Player Rewards tokens stopped causing a brief lull. The token to break it was Coldsnap Release promo "card" Marit Lage the ice queen created by Dark Depths at the end of the ice counter countdown or after a Vampire Hexmage activation. Before Tuktuk the Returned took a bow with Rise of the Eldrazi Marit Lage was the only legendary creature token printed by Wizards of the Coast. Until the double-sided premium Helvault Angel/Demon tokens this year the Marit Lage was the only foil token made by Wizards for the game a status befitting its gaudy numbers (more on those soon).
A year later in July 2007 Tenth Edition saw release and introduced tokens in booster packs of non-humorous sets which has carried on to the present. An important change from the previous new frame token design is that the word "token" no longer appears anywhere on the front of the token; the new frame redesign had solved one problem by putting tokens' proper names up top but created another by sticking "token" at the end of the creature subtypes. I've read the Comprehensive Rules down to 110.5 and I'm still not sure what "token" is in Magic terms but I'm pretty sure "subtype" isn't part of it. Contrast the Pentavite tokens from Mirrodin and Magic 2012 to see the differences:
Official Wizards of the Coast tokens cover lots of ground both flavor and mechanical. The diverse sizes of creature tokens can surprise even longtime players while the newer enthusiast might rip open a booster pack of Alara Reborn find a certain token and wonder what "devour 2" might mean. I'll look at both of those topics below.
Pop quiz time: which of the following power-toughness combinations has not appeared on an officially issued Wizards of the Coast token?
I'll give you a moment to think about that one...
The correct answer is...
B) 3/2. Lorwyn had three separate cards producing 3/1 Elemental Shaman tokens: Hearthcage Giant Hostility and Rebellion of the Flamekin. The 3/3 token is a staple usually with creature type Elephant or Beast. Gargoyle Castle produces a 3/4 Gargoyle artifact creature with flying.
As for 3/2 I'm sure Wizards will get around to it someday. They've gone some weird places in the past: a 2/5 Treefolk Shaman made by Reach of Branches a 6/12 Construct made by Stone Idol Trap a 9/9 Golem made by Titan Forge. The biggest and baddest of them all—independent of play conditions at least—is the 20/20 Marit Lage token made for the Coldsnap Release Events.
Of course within the context of a game even the 20/20 indestructible Marit Lage might not be the biggest and baddest creature token on the battlefield. If Ajani Goldmane has been working overtime his ultimate ability's Avatar token could be even bigger and other conditional */* tokens though less likely could still be bigger; think the Demon from Promise of Power the Elementals from Devastating Summons and the Horror from Phyrexian Rebirth.
Most creature tokens are simple either vanilla (the 1/1 Human with no abilities) or "French vanilla" (the 1/1 Spirit with flying). Occasional tokens however get into screwball territory. Marit Lage's indestructibility may fit the technical definition of French vanilla but it's so unusual (and the ability was so new relative to its introduction) that it almost breaks out of the category. The same goes with the Avatar token for Ajani Goldmane.
Most unusual though are a pair of recently printed tokens: the 1/1 Dragon from Alara Reborn and the 2/2 Ooze from Magic 2011. The baby Dragon has flying but is also a hungry little critter sporting the block mechanic "devour 2." The Ooze has what would be template today as a "dies" trigger putting a pair of 1/1 Oozes onto the battlefield. Once a token is putting +1/+1 counters on itself or making new creature tokens when it dies that's too complicated for me to represent with an old British penny or other bit of miscellany. Bring on the printed token!
Buy Some Tokens! (Plus the Obligatory Decklist)
The super-duper StarCityGames.com one-stop token shop is right here. As an added bonus if you have an order of Wizards of the Coast tokens you'll get a couple of random new-era StarCityGames.com tokens with funky artwork to boot! (Yes I've done this and yes it's as weird-cool as it sounds.)
Before I go there's a decklist I want to share. It's a rough sketch built around a combination I've wanted to make work for a while: Kuldotha Rebirth and Intangible Virtue. The mana is dicey and running a deck like this into a metagame heavy on Slagstorm and Whipflare is foolish but the Magical Christmasland dreamer in me can't resist the lure of a theoretical third-turn win.
As always thanks for reading.
@jdbeety on Twitter
*I typed all of that before finding Aaron Forsythe's card comment of the day on the Goblin token's Gatherer page. Just when I believed I had an original thought...