Sunday, September 18, 2022

A history of Oldschool life counters (updated 2023-07)

As you may have noticed from the different life counters I use that can be seen in the pictures, I've always been interested in life counters in magic and this interest was renewed after I played more and more OS. The spark was really lit after Marten gave me one of these as a thanks for all of the tournaments I had organized and this blog, and I acquired some more counters after that. I will be updating this page with any new info you might have, so send me any information or pictures you might have of lifecounters not yet documented here :)

Looking into the life counters on the internet, I found there was no real guide to life counters or anything, just a couple of YouTube video's that say something about life counters, but don't even come close to a complete history of life counters in the early days of Magic. So I thought it would be nice to do my own personal history of life counters and also give an overview of Oldschool magic life counters as a whole as far as I could discover.

I started playing Magic somewhere in the summer of 1994 with cards from a friend of mine. I was very quickly hooked on the game and went to buy some cards myself in the gamestore called 'The Joker' in Utrecht, which exists to this day. I was advised to buy a giftbox set, as it would also give me a box to carry around a couple decks in. I bought the gift box and a couple of boosters. Guys in the gamestore at the time were telling me that I was just late, otherwise I could have bought Legends boosters. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what Legends boosters were. In this box there was also nice bag with the Magic logo embroidered on it, with some blue beads in 2 colors, which you could use to keep track of your life total. We used the dark ones for 5 life, the light ones for 1. 

The first life counters. More on the reaper scrye disk later. 

The later 4th edition gift box had the magic logo printed

I used these counters for a couple of weeks, when I noticed most people did not use them, because carrying around a single D20 die was easier. I could see the point in that, so I bought a transparent D20 at the game store for 1 guilder, which I suppose was worth more then a single euro or dollar today. After that, I bought two more I thought were nicer to see. I still have them to this day, although I never use them anymore. 

Later on, I bought a kingsize D20 because it looked better and it had the color scheme that came with the special Vampire the Masquerade roleplaying dice that Chessex had brought out. I also bought 2 similar red ones, even though I have no idea why. By then, I had also figured out that playing for ante was somewhat interesting, but I thought the idea of losing cards out of your deck was stupid because it would take too much time to get them back. There was no internet back then, so you could not just get a new Sengir Vampire if you needed one. But I did entice some opponents to play for their lifecounter die, and I won some over the time. I also got into the habit of asking for a D20 extra in trades, so I could play for these instead of losing my first personal dies. 

the spoils of playing for ante with the ones I bought.

The use of the dies continued for a while, when I encountered someone who had a different lifecounter. It was a metal disk that you could move around life points from 1-20 and 21-40 on the back. He had no idea where it came from because he had gotten it from buying some one's collection. I liked it very much and after some talking a traded it for some cards worth in the range of about 7-8 guilders. This was quite a lot because for 10 you could get a dual land. This was my first contact with a Reaper lifecounter. I also have it to this day and I used it on many occasions and tournaments. 

My trusted reaper lifecounter disk

At the time, I had no idea that there were more versions of this kind of lifecounter. There was no internet like today, and Scrye was not sold in our local game store at the time, so I had basically no idea were it came from. And no one else had one, so that made it kind of exotic and fun to have. When I started looking into these a bit more in the early 2000's, I figured out there were more than I had expected. By that time, I had also met some players that had ones with the same base as I had, but with metal figures on top of them. I have looked into them some more for your entertainment, so here they are. This is mostly speculation from my part because there is not much you can find on these, so I may have some chronology wrong. There are however reasons for my guessing. If you have more information, or pictures of counters that are not listed here, please let me know!

The Reaper disk counters

As far as I can tell, the first production run of the reaper disks was in 1994 and started with the plain disk like mine, and 2 or 4 different types of figurines on top of them. 


I think the earliest one from 1994 is the Wizard with the orb: 

The wizard with the orb in Red. Not mine, unfortunately :)

These were either unpainted, like my disk, or coated with one of magic's colors, like the red one above. I have seen the unpainted, red, black, blue and green ones in real life or for sale on eBay.  Supposedly white ones also exist, but I have not seen them so far. There are also versions with a black disk. Here are some examples I found over time:



Green with the orb missing

Copper on black

Silver on black

Gold (only color, not real gold) on black

There are also versions made in solid copper made in 1994:

There was also a counter plated with 14 or 24 carat gold. I have seen a couple of these for sale, but they always had a different figurine on top which I will mention later. 

Either in the same run or close after, came the claw with the orb: 

First version of the claw, unpainted (image from the internet)

Although these may exist in different colors, I've never seem them coated in the same way as the wizard with the orb. 

Also from 1994, but I think these may be from a later (larger) run because although they are still pretty rare these days, they do seem a bit more common are the Wizards Tox and Domur. They also seem a bit easier to make because the do not hold glass beads. 

My personal 1994 "Tox" Wizard

Apparently, Tox counters were also made in the different colors of magic, as I have found one specimen that seems to be the black version. At least, it was listed as such. I have seen no other ones since. 

Black version of Tox

How do I know the wizards are called Tox and Domur? Because although you can't buy the life counters new anymore, you can still buy these 2 figurines on the reaper website:

I also have a Domur lifecounter, but that is on the 1995 version of the lifecounters. 1994 was not over yet though, because in that year there were also other versions of the lifecounters brought out that were painted differently, with the numbers unpainted:

Because these seem like an evolution from the first, I think these may have been made later on. Also from 1994, the 14 carat gold plated version of Tox: 

Actual gold? Yes, actual gold. 

These must have been a one time thing, and probably way too expensive for most gamers to spend their money on. There have been some in circulation though. 

Apparently, there have also been 24 carat gold versions. Fellow Oldschooler Roelf pointed out to me that his has a box which says it is 24 carat gold plated, so even though all the other sources say it was 14 carat gold, I believe this to be true. He sent me pictures of his version, which I thankfully add here.

Roelfs' 24 carat gold version of the 1994 reaper Tox counter

Should you go looking for one of the gold plated versions, please be aware that there is also a Tox figure which is painted gold, but not gold plated. It looks like this:

it has gold colored paint, but is definitely different, so no real gold here. 


In 1995, a follow-up of these counters was made, which can be recognized because they are painted differently with a more transparent color. These exist in all the 5 colors of Magic the Gathering. 

Edit: As I have seen a white one, I have added this color in the summary. I found a blue single disk sold separately on Ebay (screenshot further on in the article), so that concluded my search for specimen in all 5 of the colors. 

This took al long time to find an example of a white one, but I finally saw one for sale on a site somewhere. 

In 1995 Reaper also brought a version with 2 disks, and some different figures on top of them:

Sarah the Seeress
I've never seen one of these in real life

I have seen one for sale, however I find this price too ridiculous to buy it

The 1995 2 disk version with the cleric
I could have bought one of these a couple of years back, but told myself I already had enough lifecounters :(

What is interesting about the figurine called a cleric, is that there is also a version of this figure which is called Vlad the Impaler, the only difference being that their flail is straight:

Vlad the Impaler (reaper website)

This is one with the figure Erin of the Flame on it, I've only seen this once

Erin as shown on the reaper website

There is also a version with a monk on top, of which I've seen only one in real life so far. Roy Neijland is it's owner:

Roy's 1995 reaper single disk with Monk statue

My personal favorite of the 1995 figures is Sidrith Sword Sister, which is on top of my near mint purple version of the 1995 dual disk:

My personal Domur on the left, Sidrith on the right

I suppose the purple version gets on board with the long term joke that a 6th color, purple, would be added to the MTG color wheel. It has been resurfaced several times in the last 25 years or so.  

Just like Tox and Domur, you can still buy Sidrith on the reaper website, although the material seems different from the one on the counter it might even be plastic from the looks of it. The same goes for Sarah the Seeress: 

Sidrith and Sarah on the reaper website. 

The 1995 versions were sold in blisters instead of the boxes of the 1994 versions. 

I have an unpainted one of these, still in it's original packaging:

my personal 1995 unpainted dual disk "never removed from package"

My personal demon claws with orbs, one with black base, pained, one with the red base, unpainted

I've seen some rumours on a forum that there are more versions of the lifecounter with the characters Galladon or Elena on top, but since I've never seen a picture or one in real life, I suspect these were never made in reality. If you have one of these, I would love to have a picture. 

Galladon and Elena. I suppose they would fit, but I don't think they were ever made as a lifecounter.

Over time, people seem to have lost or traded some of the parts of their reaper counters. You see parts of them online, or combined in combinations that were never really sold:

only the claw with no crystal

the 14 carat gold version with a black disk instead of the gold disk

A 1995 figure and dial with both the single and dual disks. Be aware that the dial only fits either the dual disk or single disk version, but not both, so there is something missing here. 

Up until 1995, the Reaper Scrye lifecounters were the only fancy lifecounters a magic player could buy. That was about to change in 1996. 

1996 - Duelist abacus

In 1996, Wizards of the coast decided it was time for their own lifecounter, and just as the Scrye counter, it was named after a magazine, Wotc's own Duelist: 

Red 1996 version 1 abacus

These were made in all 5 colors, and unlike the Reaper counters, I have seen these in real life in all 5 colors of magic. The first version was made with the deckmaster subtext under The Duelist, like in the picture above. The second version left out that line, like with my personal white one:

My personal Duelist Abacus lifecounter, a version 2 in white

A 1996 version 2 in black

I acquired my white one in 2017 from someone who was cleaning out their collection and have used it in several OS tournaments. I thought about getting all 5 colors, until I found out these go for as much 90 up to a 125 euro's. Even though I've never actually seen anyone pay that much for one (mine was bought for 18 euros), I do see them for sale for those prices. Some of these have been on Ebay for 2 years or longer, so I'm not sure how serious I should take these prices, but they do seem quite expensive. 

1996 - The Inquest Cardboard Lifecounters

In 1996, Inquest magazine was one of the larger gaming magazines with a lot of MTG content. Since the other 2 major publications had brought out their lifecounters, InQuest thought it should have one as well, and packaged this nice paper version of a disk with their magazine:

My personal counter, which came with the InQuest I bought.

I put my personal one in a thick sleeve and taped it shut, it has been like this since 1996. I have seen several other OS players using this lifecounter and it is by far the cheapest lifecounter you can buy that one could consider oldschool. I've seen it online for as cheap as $3. It also fits nicely into a deckbox just like the Duelist Abacus, but it is a quite a bit flatter, so it fits more easily for most people. I have used this lifecounter for daily usage until I came to a Dutch Gaming convention named Ducosim, which also exists until this day. On this convention, I met an older man who had made it his craft to create lifecounters like the Inquest one, from cards that you provided to him. He had a special metal toolkit especially made for this purpose. I could not resist and had some of my own made:

4 of these I had made myself, the Shauku Endbringer was later traded from someone

Amrou was an obvious choice, as it has been one of my favorite MTG creatures of all time. I like Rob Alexander landscapes, so that was an easy choice. The Golem was from a standard (or Type II as it was then called) deck of mine with which I had won a tournament.  And I thought Lich was funny because of the text stating you would lose all life. I went on using these lifecounters up until early 2000, when I quit playing. There are quite a lot of Dutch players from the old days that had some of these made. In my local gamestore, there were a lot of Magic players that knew the old man (though no one knew his name..) and had their personal lifecounter made. My good friend Rene still has his made from a Serendib Djinn after all these years.  

1996 - The Reaper InQuest Counters

What is less known, is that InQuest also contacted Reaper to have metal lifecounters made, just like the other 2 magazines. You had to order these for about the same amount of money the other metal counters from Scrye or the Duelist cost, and less of them were sold. They are also very rare these days, for every 10 Scrye counters on ebay, you can find about 1 or 2 InQuest Metal life counter. 

The round one is a bit more common: 

As far as I can tell, it comes in 2 colors, black and gold. I have one of these on the way with the help of fellow OS player Fulco, and I should have mine pretty soon so I can try it out. 

There was also a more luxurious metal version made, with a large logo which was made to fit a deck box. I have one of these, and it is the only one I've ever seen either for sale or in real life. There are probably a lot more of these around (I assume unsold stock in a basement somewhere), but from what I am seeing, this is my rarest lifecounter:

The Reaper InQuest lifecounter with my Reaper Scrye lifecounter. The counter is from the Pro Counter product line, as were other Reaper lifecounters from 1996. 

1996 - The Reaper Pro Counters

In 1996, Reaper brought out some nice metal counters without a reference to a magazine, and called the productline Pro Counters. These were also available unpainted, or with colors pained on them. They were availabe in 3 versions, the Evil Eye, the Magic 8 ball and the Skull. 

The 8 ball was only available in black:

This has been for sale forever, so I would not take this price too seriously.. 

I have one of these still in its package, but since it had been in a basement for over 10 years when I bought it a couple of years back, it does have quite some wear from the moist:

My 2 pro counters. I should have bought the eye as well, but like said before, I told myself the idea was stupid. Now I think it was stupid I did not buy it.. 

The Skull was available in black and blue as it's main colors, but you could get different versions of colors of the eyes:

Since there are black versions with white eyes, I would not be surprised if there are versions with blue or green eyes, but I've never seen pictures of them, or seen them in real life. 

The eye version was available both painted and unpainted. As far as I can tell, there was only one color schema available, this one:

It may be possible though, that the iris was available in all 5 colors of Magic, since this one seems to have a green iris. It could also be the lighting though. 

1997 - nothing happened

I have found no lifecounters specific for Magic made in 1997. Again, this might not be a complete picture, please let me know if that is the case. 

1998 - New Pro Counters by Reaper

1998 brought us a new line of pro-counters by Reaper. The were disks similar to the InQuest disk, but know available with base disks in all colors of magic, with an image on the top that loosely seemed to refer to the colors of magic:

In some offers, they are referred to as the Talisman of Energy, Darkness, Law, Strength, Light and Chaos. I have one of these in it's packaging that says Wizard of Energy, however. So it could be that they were sold under different names. 

My Own wizard of Energy

It could also be that they were just sold in different years because there was some stock leftover. The disks referred to on the internet clearly say they are called talismans and are from 1998:

But the packaging on mine says copyright until 2003:

It could also mean mine was produced on a later date, or packaged on a later date. Or that the packaging was supposed to last until 2003. Who knows. 

this package clearly says Talisman

1998 - Flying Tricycle

Also in 1998, a new player entered the market for more luxury metal life counters. A company called Fying Tricycle offered nice metal disk counters going up to 60 with the magic mana symbols on them:

Wizards seems to have been on this, because their trademark is recognized on the front of the counter. Although I've never seen one of these in real life, they seem well made, although I think the numbers are a bit too close to each other. 

There were also lifecounter plates made by the same company which were also coated in real gold. These were released in 1999. 

Also from 1998 were the lifecounter cards, like this one on my shelf with Selenia Dark Angel:

You could use these with your glass beads from the gift set :)

1999 and onwards

In 1999, Flying Tricycle released its versions of lifecounters which were goldplated:

These top plates were sold separately, without the base number plate which you had to have already, or buy also.  

1999 also brought us the first Ultra Pro more durable card lifecounters. Made of a sort of laminated cardboard of plastic, they were similar to the older card counters, but more durable. 

Also around 2000 WotC came out with the first spindown dies:

After adding them to the Beatdown and Deckmaster box sets, they were also sold as a packages and became more common as spindowns were released with most of the new sets these days.  

Most lifecounters made later on were of the cheaper kind that continue on the same bases and material of the Ultra Pro's above. Every now and then, someone tries something a bit more exclusive, like Dark Platypus its metal Squirrel lifecounters:

It came in 2003 with Squirrel tokens made out of metal. 

Also in 2002 or 2003, these were made for something called the super series. The one below is stored with my other lifecounters and I think this might be the first lifecounter which counts both your life and that of your opponent in one lifecounter. 

I got this one mainly because of the Rebecca artwork, but noticed this might be the first dual life counter

In 2004, another company did another Abacus and called it the Battle Counter:

I have one of these, and it is actually quite nice. It's quite heavy and says it's made out of steel. From the weight, I think that might be true. 

This monstrosity came out in 2008, on the 15th anniversary of Magic. Fortunately it is a limited edition, meaning you won't be seeing much of these in real life. Even if I had one, I would be kind of embarrassed to take this out of my bag.  

The older spindown dies are now quite rare, and somehow people seem to think that all OS players care so much for nostalgia they will pay ridiculous amounts for stuff like this. Like these examples show:

for only the base? You've got to be kidding me..

It seems to happen more often though. This was also the first blue single disk I found on the internet. 

Just one thought here: Hahahahahahahaha (hysterical tone)

Just because we spend a lot of money on rare cards does not mean you can get us to pay that kind of money for an incomplete lifecounter. Or a complete one. I wouldn't pay that much for it, and neither should you. It's nice, but not that nice. And, if you are not that critical of it and you're a bit lucky, you can find a damaged one for a lot less. This is the cheapest one I ever saw:

Right now, if you are looking for one, I think one of the later versions of the single or dual disk can be had for somewhere between 50 and 125 euros. Which is still a lot of money, but they are really nice. 

2022 - Oldschool feeling, but new

If you want to have a bit more of that oldschool feeling for a lot less, Ultra Pro has 2 options for you that are still available today:

The modern version of the Duelist Abacus. I have one of these, and it works fine

If you want more of the original feel like the Scrye Disk counters, you can get one of these:

I got one of these to see, and it looks and feels nice enough

I spotted these on Etsy in 2022, and the also mimic the metal disks:

Also in 2022, Beadle & grimms released a metal lifecounter with a Secret Lair Drop series, with a metal dragon statue on top. This life counter seems to spin around freely, so unlike the lifecounters by Reaper and UP, you could accidently nudge these and lose track of your lifetotal. The statue seems very well made:

I hope you enjoyed this little summary of Lifecounters, and if you have any information to add, just let me know and I will update this article. Till next time!