What was the most sought after card in the early, early days of Magic? Black Lotus? Ancestral Recall? No. Who needs fast mana or extra cards if you have the raw power of Lord of the Pit?
Richard Garfield wanted examples of all major fantasy tropes in the game, this included demons. Demons had a good start. On top of the good, ol’ Lord, we had Demonic Hordes, Demonic Tutor and the ante cards, which had a great flavor of taking a risk for some short-term edge.
Obviously, since the cards aren’t very good and ante fell quickly out of favor, the initial interest didn’t last long and most of the cards have fallen into anonynimity, except for Demonic Tutor, which is still a staple in all formats where its legal.
There were demons in Antiquities, Legends and Ice Age, nothing really worth mentioning, like most of the creatures of this era, but then Wizards of the Coast just stopped doing them. Why?
Apparently, the thinking was that the game was nearing breaking through into mainstream and they were afraid of a possible backlash from religious organizations. After all, it happened to D&D when it was finding its mainstream footing about a decade earlier.
The thing is, people change and pop culture changes. In the late 90s, Buffy fought demons on TV regularly. Also, the boycotts… They never work. When the baptists decided to boycott Disney back in the day, Disney didn’t even bother acknowledging it, even though on paper, there were roughly 40 million baptists in the US at the time. So, while other creatures have been retroactively changed into demons from several sets, creatures with the type ‘demon’ weren’t printed between Ice Age (1995) and Onslaught (2002).
In Onslaught and Legions, they tested the waters with Grinning Demon and Havoc Demon. They had the hallmarks of the demons of old. They were big and powerful, but came with a drawback. However, compared to the original Lord, the drawbacks were minor.
Demons got their big break in Kamigawa, where they were worshipped by the ogres and released from their prison to destroy the world when everyone else was distracted by the Kami War. Their drawbacks ranged from very bad to manageable to great. In fact, my personal favorite, Seizan, Perverter of Truth, is from this set.
From there on, demons have become a fixture. They are now the marquee large creature of black and at least every core set includes one. Some recent blocks have included plenty. Innistrad’s gothic themes were a great place to insert several demons and Ravnica has its own demons, particularly in the Rakdos guild or cult, with their own demonic leader. Desecration Demon, Griselbrand and Sire of Insanity are seeing some constructed play.
Looking back, demons seem to be a great indicator on how certain aspects of Magic’s design have evolved. In the beginning, huge creatures with big drawbacks were the norm. If you wanted something good, you’d have to work for it or pay for it all the time. Then, over time, they have loosened. Now, you can get great creatures without having to sacrifice something or take unnecessary risks.
In a way, the game has lost something, but at the same time, the game has gained much more by making creatures more playable. No-one wants to feel stupid by playing something powerful and then losing because the opponent could exploit the drawback or something you played.
Now, even the demons often come with no drawbacks or they are mitigated. Shadowborn Demon from M14 will be satiated at some point. Abhorrent Overlord from Theros may come with a very similar drawback to Lord’s, but it brings with it its own fodder and instead of killing you, it will just go away. Some, like Desecration Demon have much more innovative, interactive and interesting drawbacks.
From a broader viewpoint, its interesting to think that just twenty years ago, there was a feeling that some people will think even the concept and an image of a demon in a game would somehow be dangerous. Granted, there are still such people, but now the publishers understand they’ll never reach these people anyway and those people will grasp onto anything as evidence of something satanic, so to satisfy them, Magic would have to get rid of magic, which just wouldn’t work.
Demons are here to stay. They are important shortcut. Call something demonic, and we know what we are talking about, although in Magic, they have their own unique attributes, being beings of pure black mana (or red, in some rare cases).
Bonus bit of trivia:
I don’t know if this is true, but according to PVDDR, a famous Brazilian player, the original Portuguese version of Lord of the Pit demanded sacrifices in its honor.