What Would They Play? Edward Drinker Cope of the Bone Wars

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: The Gathering.

Who was Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1871)?

Edward "Debate me, bro" Drinker Cope was born into a wealthy Quaker family in 1840 outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.1 It was clear that young Edward Cope was unusually precocious for his age, a fact that became clearer as his fascination with fossils in Philadelphia took hold from the age of about 6 onward. "Precocious", then as now, is often a predictor phrase of adult insufferability: Edward Cope quickly learned to read and write and wasted no time establishing that he was a genius, thank you very much. Which, while true, doesn't mean that one can't simultaneously be a truly titanic asshole and a genius.

Some things about Edward "Gentleman Naturalist" Cope that didn't change from childhood and followed him throughout his life:

  • An obsession with fossils (mammals, dinosauria, fishes; if it was fossilized, he was into it) and the natural world. He made his entire life a study of the dead and gone.
  • An endless sense of curiosity and self-aggrandizement, always at (for the time) breakneck speed; Cope was always willing to publish his findings and/or intuitions about the things unearthed by him (or someone else).
  • Terrible handwriting, to the point that it has made reading his correspondence troublesome in places and more than once made it difficult for future biographers trying to make sense of his documents (like our main source for Cope, author and historian Jane Pierce Davidson, whose book The Bone Sharp was an invaluable source for this article).
  • And perhaps the most relevant for our next section, Edward "I'll throw hands any time" Cope had a temper meant for boxing and a most un-Quakerlike relish of any sort of combat.

Snotty letters? Check. Relentless drive to bring down real or perceived enemies and rivals at any cost? Check. Actually getting into a fist-fight with a friend over a small point at the American Philosophical Society? Yes and yes! Behold this primary source quote from a man who knew Cope well, Osborn:

"Quaker by birth, [Cope] was a fighter by nature, both in theory and in fact. On one occasion, in the American Philosophical society, a difference of opinion with his friend Persifor Frazer, led to such violent controversy that the two scientists retired to the hallway and came to blows! On the following morning I happened to meet Cope and could not help remarking on a blackened eye. 'Osborn,' he said, 'don't look at my eye! If you think my eye is black, you ought to see Frazer this morning!'"

Cope's self-destructive tendencies lend themselves well to the choice of Ayara, Widow of the Realm as his commander. There was, after all, very little he wasn't willing to sacrifice to hurt his enemy. The ability of the rear face, Ayara, Furnace Queen, represents the frantic pace of Cope's excavations and his lack of concern with accuracy; a properly reanimated creature would stick around past the end of the turn, but not his.

All these traits combined to make a very brilliant (and incidentally, quite racist) naturalist, who was very much focused on becoming what we'd call a household name. Cope made many fascinating discoveries, but because this is an article and not a wholescale biography, we're going to skim over that and focus on the most famous part of Cope's life: the multi-decade long grudge-match with fellow paleontologist and polar opposite in temper and facial hair, Othniel Marsh. Their rivalry would ruin countless lives, cause great amount of damage to the earth and native cultures, destroy some fossils, taint both men's reputations, cost them friendships and comfort, and also set the foundations of the then-new science of paleontology.

The Elasmosaurus Incident: Bone Wars Begin (1868)

The Bone Wars weren't inevitable: Othniel "Studious and Steady" Marsh and Edward "I have my own paper to publish my discoveries and trumpet my opinions" Cope didn't hate each other on sight. They met in Berlin during the American Civil War, where they were both deeply involved in naturalism and paleontology and got along fine. Othniel was in many ways the nega-Cope in means, if not in aim: staid, deliberate as possible, he published relatively infrequently compared to Cope's frenetic pace and was much more of the new model of scientist, focused on method and rigor. Still, the two were mostly amicable until Cope made one of his soon-to-be proverbial bonehead calls in public. In this case, literally!

Cope was called upon to reconstitute a new sort of dinosaur, what is now called a elasmosaurus. He made a mistake that would haunt him and his reputation forever: he put the skull of elasmosaurus on the exact wrong end. That is, instead of the extremely long neck, he stuck it on the tail with the same bluff and exuberant assurance that he made his correct pronouncements. For Cope, publishing came first, being right somewhere a bit lower on the list. Bringing a creature's fossilized skeleton back in a creative (but vastly anatomically wrong) way was, as far as Cope was concerned, still a net win; he could always fix his pronouncements later (or, as he did on at least one occasion, frantically buy up all copies of a paper containing his confident, but also wrong, statements and hope that nobody saw them).

Cope's slipshod reconstruction is represented with the type of reanimation exemplified by Ayara, Furnace Queen: fast and frequent, but temporary. Besides Ayara, his deck includes Whip of Erebos and Feldon of the Third Path as ways to temporarily reanimate creatures every turn. For the most dramatic impact, he reanimates creatures with powerful enters-the-battlefield or attack triggers, including Dinosaurs like Etali, Primal Storm and Trumpeting Carnosaur. The carnosaur can conveniently put itself into the graveyard to reanimate; discard outlets such as Rotting Regisaur and Strongarm Tactics set up other reanimation targets .

Worse still for Cope, this was an absolutely unforced error: there are specific ways to tell which way a spine is oriented (towards or away from the head), he had months with this fossil, and nobody was hassling him, and he still got it exactly wrong. As his nemesis Marsh would later note:

"The value of [Cope's] aid in this department...may be judged from the fact that after a long study of this group he did not even know the position of the quadrate bone; mistook ilium for the ischium; and after investigating a very perfect specimen [of elasmosaurus] he placed the head on the end of the tail and restored the animal in this position as the type of a new order, Streptosauria!" (emphasis in original).

Photo of a mounted skeleton on a transparent background
A completed Elasmosaurus with the head on the right end: at the end of the neck.

In short, Marsh implied what he would later outright state about Cope: that he was a dilettante, constantly sloppy, impulsive, and almost completely without value as a paleontologist. 
Those are fighting words, and we already know how Edward Cope felt about fighting. The Bone Wars had begun.

Bone Wars I: Wyoming and the Western Archaeology Sites

The Bone Wars between Cope and Marsh took place over a baffling array of arenas: geographic, academic, taxonomic (both men repeatedly named the same species different names; and in one memorable 1884 incident, Cope gave the scientific name Anisonchus cophater to a newly discovered species, named after Marsh and his allies, collectively "Cope-haters"), scientific, economic (both men tried to get the other's government funding for digging pulled on many occasions), reputational, and criminal. The only scruple they seemed to share was not hiring assassins to off the other; everything else was pretty much on the table.

One can imagine that, in a multiplayer Commander game, Cope would nevertheless focus his aggression toward the one opponent he felt slighted him the most. Toward that end, his deck includes several Curses to make that player's life a living hell. Curses of Disturbance, Opulence, and Hospitality encourage the other players to join in his attacks on his enemy, and Curse of Misfortunes helps find them. Curse of Vengeance captures Cope's growing spite at each of Marsh's new publications and provides him with a big reward when his enemy is finally defeated.

Among the most dramatic incidents place in dig sites in Wyoming in the late 19th century, where there were fossils aplenty to be discovered and named for the glory of the discoverer, never mind what the previous inhabitants of the land might have to say about it! To quote a BBC article on the matter:

"Outside the realms of their squabbling, both men [Cope and Marsh] committed palaeontological crimes on a much larger scale. Their most active years coincided with the intense conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers. Many expeditions - Marsh's early work in particular - were undertaken alongside military escorts. Cope, with fewer government connections, usually went unaccompanied. Marsh, typically, turned to politics to establish influence, publicly supporting the Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud (Maȟpíya Lúta). His actions may have been guided by his desire for the fossils in Red Cloud's lands, as well as the publicity that came with weighing into public debate. 'He was not enthusiastic about Native American culture,' says [David Rains] Wallace [author of The Bonehunters' Revenge].

"Besides their considerable monetary value, Adrienne Mayor describes the rich significance of the fossils among Native American tribes, who told creation stories about how these creatures turned to stone, passed down for generations.

"As well as dispossessing Native American lands of vast quantities of fossils, both Cope and Marsh subscribed to popular racist ideas of the time that held the white male to be the pinnacle of evolution. In one letter, Cope eagerly described robbing a Native American grave to examine the human remains in this light. Marsh, too, would plunder graves for the same reason."

But no matter: both men were racists and didn't give a damn about the human costs of their discoveries. The ends, not the means, were what concerned Cope and Marsh. Human lives were reckoned insignificant compared to fossilized bone and the reputation that came with them.

Skull(haha!)Duggery! Phantom Trunks!

Cope and Marsh's only shared pastime, aside from paleontology, was accusation; they made it an art. Both men accused the others of hiring spies in their respective crews (which seems to have been absolutely true: to paraphrase from her biography of Cope: "A counter-spy or double agent is still a spy.") At least once, when Marsh's men had to move to a different dig site, they received orders to destroy the fossilized bones they'd uncovered rather than risk Cope's men recovering them. Both men's teams harassed the other, including name calling and rock throwing. Cope was certainly not above stealing his rival's finds, and his deck includes some reanimation spells specifically for this purpose, like Ashen Powder. A favorite play of his would be to respond to his opponents' reanimation spell with an instant-speed Nurgle's Conscription or Macabre Mockery on the same target (You reanimated this? No, I reanimated this!).

Throughout all this, Cope continued to assail Marsh. Even as an experienced naturalist (Cope was an expert in the evolutionary history of horses, in no small part thanks to the aforementioned extractive fossil-collection processes), he was prone to theorize first, confirm second. He was about as hasty as a paleontologist can be. Edward "Hold me back, bro" Cope, in one famous example, insisted that the newly discovered megafauna Dinocerata simply must have had trunks (they, in fact, did not), and even when he got fossils out of the ground, they were sometimes assembled wrong (see the previous elasmasaurus incident).

Get them out of the earth, get his name on them, who cares what comes after or before: that was the ethos of Cope and Marsh.

Subterfuge and Slander: Peckerfights in the Papers!

The physical conflicts in the west were followed by voluminous and venomous article and broadsides in the scientific periodicals of the day.

Cope's desk (possibly with the "Marshiana" drawer open) Credit: American Museum of Natural History

Cope even had a specific drawer in his work desk solely dedicated to the errors of Marsh. By this point, it will not surprise you to know that he even had a name for this special drawer: he called it his "Marshiana". He and Marsh had been exchanging written broadsides in the American Naturalist, impugning each other's intelligence and diligence. So vituperative and bitter was the constant back-and-forth between Cope and Marsh in the analog r/Paleontology forum for years, that eventually the editors of the Naturalist refused to carry anything by either Cope or Marsh. They wrote: 

"We regret that Professors Marsh and Cope have considered it necessary to carry their controversy to the extent that they have. Wishing to maintain the perfect independence of the NATURALIST in all matters involving scientific criticism, we have allowed both parties to have their full say, but feeling that now the controversy between the authors in question has come to be a personal one and that the NATURALIST is not called upon to devote further space to its consideration, the continuance of the subject will be allowed only in the form of an appendix at the expense of the author."

In short, Cope was willing to sacrifice his reputation, relationships, and everything else to lash out at Marsh. Likewise, in Commander he's ready to make huge sacrifices to crush an opponent. He can cast Malfegor and give up his hand to ruin everyone else's board position, or sacrifice all his creatures to Soulblast and finish off his favored enemy. Or why not give up both hand and permanents with Hellcarver Demon? Most petty of all, Kaervek's Spite can deal those last five points of damage at the mere cost of his hand and all his permanents.

Edward "not overly constrained by restraint" Cope very helpfully regularly aired his views in a newspaper he bought a controlling share of (The American Naturalist, in case you were wondering) in 1878. Once he did so--what a shock--it was open season on Marsh. Indeed, he did not limit himself to this: he was perfectly happy to publish other people attacking Marsh in print, like his buddy Osborn!

Dead and Buried

Cope and Marsh's Bone Wars were devastating to the natural world. They slandered and attacked each other to the detriment of themselves and everyone they knew (and quite a few people they didn't). And between the two of them, they discovered (or militantly re-discovered and then renamed out of spite) almost every sort of dinosaur a casual dino-fan can name (or was in Jurassic Park, which may come to the same thing). Ultimately Cope, while undoubtedly brilliant and entirely unrepentant asshole, died alone after his wife left him and from a host of lingering illnesses.

Edward Drinker Cope's full decklist is below!

The Bone Wars: Edward Drinker Cope's EDH Deck

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Commander (1)
Creatures (25)
Artifacts (9)
Sorceries (7)
Enchantments (12)
Lands (37)
Instants (9)

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  1. Quaker history is fascinating, and the horizontalist, absolute pacifist sect is one of the few surviving parties from the brutal English Civil Wars that made it over to what is now America and survive to the present day. Quakers, thanks in no small part to many committed radicals, like Benjamin Lay, became key players in the fight for slave abolition and civil rights in the Northeast and resisted any and all calls to arms by the state no matter the cause (however, in some shameful incidents, this did not stop some of the more unscrupulous Quaker families from owning slaves or from making shot for firearms in the 17th-18th centuries and selling that ammunition, ostensibly for hunting). There is an oft-repeated joke in Pennsylvania historical circles that the "Quakers came to the New World to do good, and ended up doing well", which underscores the unpleasant fact that some Quaker families were content to cooperate with capitalism, imperialism, and exploitation and found themselves comfortably middle/upper class.


What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.