Mirage, in my humble opinion is the last hurrah of the 'old school' age of MtG. While according to most, it's not (the argument usually ends it with Ice Age, or at least Alliances), I have a different argument.
Mirage, Visions, and Weatherlight all are old school, in the sense they are designed under the same philosophy as it's predecessors, but much more polished then the earlier expansions.
So first, lets define what is a bridge. A bridge is occasionally used as a metaphor to describe a thing from what was, to what is, a good example is WW1 is often said to be a bridge from the way wars were fought, to how wars are fought (in this day, that's another can of worms, but bare with me). In this regard, Mirage block is the same, a clash of old design philosophy, and the design philosophy that would dominate the game for the next decade (and maybe longer).
Let me elaborate:
Enchant Worlds: Mirage is literally the last expansion to feature Enchant Worlds. Though they exist of the Tempest design sheet, none of them say play, making this the last expansion to ever include the Super Type.
Out of house artists: Although this technically goes to Tempest, Mirage block was the last expansion to feature a great deal of classical and out of house MtG artists, and the results show. Just look at the gatherer card list to see an amazing amount of variety between the arts, from oil paintings, too images that would look in place on a comic book. While the art direction would still have some bit of variety for a number of years, none quiet got to it like this one did.
Banding and Rampage: While they were also present in 5th edition, this was the last stand alone block to feature these much fanfare mechanics. Another is poison counters, which came back with the mechanic Infect some years later, and cumulative upkeep, which came back, albet a bit different in Cold Snap.
|One of the last banders, and one of the best.|
Graveyard: Mirage block is the last set with Graveyard order mattering. While many of these are present in the Weatherlight expansion, and it's 'graveyard mattering' theme, a number appear in Mirage and Visions as well, including the once popular Shallow Grave.
Flavor Text: Although a bit weak in this argument, Mirage and visions were the last set to feature copious amounts of Flavor Text. Bonus points about Jenny Scotts 'Love song of Night and Day', which was an original poem written while designing the African settings.
|You'd never see simple, but effective flavor text on a card like this today.|
Powerful Color hosers: Mirage is arguable the last block to feature powerful enemy hosers, with the added bonus many of them also inconvenience other colors as well. Elephant Grass is a great example, it hurts everyone, but stops Black in it's tracks.
Walls are Special: Mirage block was the last block to make major emphasis on walls in card text.
Art Direction: While the art direction is extremely liberal and authentic compared to today's standards, this was the first setting with a cohesive direction. Sure Ice Age had 'cold', with some vague norse/germanic theme, but not much else. This could create actual nations, instead of arguments over whether Balduvia is Nordic (see the art of Balduvian Barbarians), or Gaelic (See the art of Horde). "Hell, the conjurer is a god damned alien, so what about that". Instead, the art featured respective kingdoms that were recognizable without hampering the artist too much. (Zhalfir is obvious arabic, the more African looking is Femeref, ect). Some people might bad mouth her, but I'll give Sue-Ann Harkey her credit where credit is due, she might not understood the game, but she truly took the art to a level that it hadn't been at before. (She is largely credited with not only the feel of the set, but the idea of an african setting to begin with).
|Magazine Ad's also got more elaborate and abstract during this period.|
Limited: Mirage was the first set with limited in mind. Granted this was for Rochester drafts buying starter decks, but it was still designed with it in mind. This would become a big argument for ills plaguing the game now, but in this set, commons still had value. So it's hardly it's fault.
CIP Effects: The '187' creatures first appeared in this block, eventually becoming a standard on which all creatures are judged. It's often said, in this day, that a creature that doesn't immediately impact the board, with the exception of 'Goyf, is simply unplayable, and it's not uncommon for a set to feature numerous CIP effects across multiple colors and rarities.
Multiple use cards: In this day and age, it isn't that uncommon to see cards with multiple modes, however, before this, it was almost unheard of. Sure Antiquities, Fallen Empires and Legends had a few creatures with multiple effects, but that was usually pretty obvious on their intention. However, this set introduced the first 'Charms', spells with three different, but minor effects, and the Guild Mages, cheap creatures with different abilities depending on the ability you chose to pay for.
Strong Multicolor theme: Yes, Legends, Ice Age, and Alliances all had multicolored cards, but this was the first set where they actually served themes, instead of just being featured. Sure Ice Age almost managed to hit this, but sadly missed the mark. Instead, Mirage block managed to give these, especially enemy pairings, cohesive identities, some of which looking back now, are just strange.
Flash: This was the first set to experiment with the concept, feature the likes of King Cheetah, Benalish Knight, and Winding Canyon to feature the mechanic, as well as the 'instanchantments'.
|While great design space, the new blood soon decided just to give them flash.|
As you can see, many elements of old and new are present in the block, for better or worse (mostly better). Unlike Tempest, which would change the game forever, this instead showed both what the game was, and what it could be, in a magical short time. Even the tournament scene, with both type 1 and type 2 having an absurd amount of deck variety and play ability. While Tempest would be the start of what would become 'combo winter', this saw a good balance of aggro, combo, and control decks in a way that would irritate second party sources in these times.
The final thing, is the change of the story. I mentioned how the flavor text is said in the past tense on Mirage, something that would disappear soon.
In previous stories, while certain characters were prominent, it was less about them, and more about the setting. Under Mark Rosewaters ideals, he came up with a team of heroes to follow, and swiftly lost control of that team. (That is a story for another time). This would become a major focus on story telling through the cards, by telling not settings, but of characters. I'll admit, I love the Weatherlight, I like Kamahl, but the best story was one that lacked major characters, Ravnica: the City of Guilds. While the book was disjointed from the cards themselves (they were made in almost complete isolation from each other), its fine for what it is. If you ignore it, the setting on the cards, told by the cards are like that of an older set, just settings, a theme, and a few prominent characters to give the world some depth.
With the Weatherlight Saga, you get a heroes gallery, and a rogue's gallery. It's not about the Planeswalker, but it's about them, but at least they stayed consistent until the story was over (unlike the
|"...the new beginning for Magic"|
This would ultimately become a major theme, first the Weatherlight and Urza, then Kamahl, then Glissa Sunseeker, and then the New Walkers.
So should it be considered old school? Yes. It's the culmination of several years of trial and error, and while not everything we loved about M:tG in it's early days, it's certainly pretty damn close.
However, it shouldn't be embraced by any of the old school community, simply because of how many good cards are present in the block. So many game changers were released in this set, it's almost mind boggling, and while few cards are expensive, many cards are powerful, Cadaverous Bloom, Elephant Grass, Dwarven Miner, Doomsday, Kaervek's Torch, Flash, Neekratal, Uktabi Orangutan, Rogue Elephant, River Boa, Undiscovered Paradise, Celestial Dawn (aka Bleach), Impulse, Memory Lapse, Squandered Resources, Early Harvest, Empyrial Armor, that's just off the top of my head. Including this block, even with IA block would literally push out everything but the best cards of 93/94, and while that amount of chaos sounds entertaining, it would get stale fast.
Mirage is half the reason Combo Winter started to begin with.
So the next time you want some old flair for an EDH deck, don't forget to check out Mirage block. While not the pure blood of MtG, it was a good hurrah of the end of the first golden age of M:tG.