In 1994, Magic: the Gathering was only turning a year old, but it had already taken the world by storm. Seen by many as as the card game answer to Dungeons and Dragons, Magic quickly made the gaming and fantasy rounds the world over.
That year, the game scored its first major convention: Dragon Con. The Atlanta-based convention was and still is the place to go for anything remotely big fantasy or sci-fi wise. Wizards of the Coast wanted to come in with a bang. But, even though it was arguably the hottest card game, previous years' "hottest draws" seemed to taper down. They needed interest. They needed something to include people in. They needed swag. But not just any swag - free Magic card swag.
And that’s where the Nalathni Dragon came in. 10,000 Dragon Con visitors received postcards that could be sent in for the free promotional card. And, originally, that was it. You’re there in pre-Olympics Atlanta, and you get a neat card. Done. Thanks for venturing out to The Big Peach in mid-July's peak humidity.
However, after players found out about the Atlanta-specific promo, they got a wee bit angry. Not everyone could afford to go to Dragon Con, and those that wanted the card after the fact had to pay hiked-up, secondary market prices. After all, the cards also came with a certificate of authenticity, and you couldn’t even say you got those with the power nine or indeed any card. So, to give everyone a chance at it, Wizards of the Coast made it the first card to be included as an extra in The Duelist Magazine in late ‘94.
The dual-unorthodox method, despite some initial fan backlash, turned out to be a pretty good idea. A second printing for the magazine made this an much more widely accessible card. However, the ensuing controversy post Dragon Con made Wizards of the Coast leery of giving out special promo cards that weren’t really part of a deck. Fans didn't really like to do special things that cost (sometimes more than just) a few extra dollars just to get a single card. And the company didn't want to have Magic cards be promos in cereal boxes a la Pokemon cards in five years. So they nipped it in the bud after the one and only Nalathni Dragon.
And despite the company still releasing promo cards, such as those found in the original Magic: The Gathering novels, various comic books, as tournament prize support, and so on, they haven’t really done any like what they did with Nalathni Dragon since, making it one of the oddest cards to be distributed in the game's history.