When I started playing Magic: the Gathering, Onslaught was considered the “old” block. It had just rotated out of standard to make way for Kamigawa, but the local gaming store still sold it because technically the local store only ran tournaments in the vintage format. This was enough for me to decide that there were some problems with the vintage format after playing it long enough, but that’s not the point. The point here is the awesomeness of the onslaught block and how it became so awesome by having everything fall together beautifully. This isn’t to say that Onslaught was a perfect set, but man did I love it. Here’s why.
Onslaught block was what really introduced me to the idea of what was called “Tribal” mechanics. Tribal mechanics are mechanics that benefit from use of creatures of the same type such as elves, goblins, zombies, or my personal favorite: soldiers. This was a very central theme to the Onslaught block, with all of the other mechanics falling into place around it. Now, I should point out that this was not the first time that creature type had been important in Magic, goblin decks as an idea were about as old as the game itself, but in Onslaught it was what the set was about! More importantly, you could build a (Creature Type) deck that was not goblins and that was also really good. There were also creatures that were multiple types so they could be used in either type of deck.
When I talk about everything falling into place around the tribal mechanic, I mean that there were a lot of non-creature cards that had effects based on creatures of a certain type and the second set in the block was even nothing but creatures, so the spells were replaced by creatures with spell-like effects.
Another thing is that Onslaught used common creature types. The game already had, and continues to have, plenty of elves and soldiers and goblins and zombies and clerics and birds and wizards and… well, you get the idea. This went a long way in securing the sets longevity, because it’s rare that there’s not a way to make a card that gives all soldiers a buff useful.
This will be important later.
Now, in the interest of being fair, Onslaught was NOT a perfect block. The colors were not balanced in power during the set (though they rarely are) and red felt like it got the most out of the tribal mechanic. Why is this? Well, because some of the colors got secondary tribes and had to devote powerful tribal spots in the set to those cards. Red had goblins. While there were some red Beasts, all of red’s powerful cards were for goblins. Every color had a warchief, which reduced the cost of creatures of its type and gave them a buff. Every color had a card called “(Descriptor) One” i.e. “Heedless One” “Nameless One” etc. that had power and toughness based on numbers of creatures of a certain type. There were a few other really powerful cards in each color, but these are the two that really come to mind. Now, in red these were ALL goblins. If there was a strong red creature, it was a goblin. Black could also reliably expect for its powerful cards to be zombies. In white, it might have been a soldier or it might have been a cleric. In green, it might have been an elf or it might have been a beast. In blue, there were wizards and illuisions, and to be honest neither of them were particularly strong. Green, white, and blue all notably had different creature types for their warchief and their “(Descriptor) One” cards. Beyond that, at least from my perspective like red just got more powerful cards. I played white, and I felt like I was playing a strong deck, but red had cards like Goblin Piledriver and Goblin Sharpshooter which were ridiculously powerful in (and against!) tribal decks.
Nonetheless, Onslaught remains one of my favorite blocks to this day and one of the major reasons is that it had so much cohesion. Even if there were some balance issues, everything went so well together, and that is super important.