CASUAL FRIDAYS #115: Tale Of Two Games

If one piece of advice will get you on the Pro Tour, it’s this: Whenever there’s a Spreading Plague on the board, always Quash the early Illusion/Reality, rather than Misdirecting it to your own Beloved Chaplain.

The worst card in Apocalypse made one game unforgettably enjoyable. The worst card in Odyssey – and all of Magic – made the next one unforgettably stupid.

Game One: Spreading Illusion…Or Reality?

We’re at the local Y, throwing my children around in the pool between us, when Pete lets me in on an idea he’s got for a deck. Actually, it’s an idea for a deck he’s done before.

“I want to redo that Spreading Plague deck,” he says while lifting Christina, my six-year-old daughter, onto his shoulders in the middle of the pool. When Invasion first came out, Pete did what any sane person would do and built a deck with the Plagues, and artifact creatures. It worked well.”But this time I want to add in some stuff – Sway of Illusion, Spiritmonger, that sort of thing.”

“I’ve got a way better card than any of those,” I bragged.

“Really?” His eyes got wide as he threw my daughter off his back with a splash.”What is it?”

“It’s two cards in one, my friend. Illusion/Reality.”

“Illusion/Reality? What’s that?”

“Think hard. It’s the blue/green split card that we never look at because it stinks so bad.”

He kept looking at me, waiting for more. Christina had managed to right herself behind him, and was now dog-paddling with a hurt expression toward the side of the pool.

“Well,” I continued,”I’m not sure of the exact text on both sides, since I never read it thoroughly after the first time; but if memory serves, the blue side changes the color of stuff, and the green side destroys an artifact. So in a Spreading Plague deck, you could change the color of a creature in response to another one coming into play… And then you could nail any artifact creatures that Spreading Plague couldn’t reach.”

I thought Pete would eat that up. I mean, it’s really silly, when you think about it, but effective – and Pete loves doing silly but effective things in his deck.

But apparently, some kind of efficiency bug was eating at him.”Man, I don’t know. It’s such a bad card. I’m not sure that it would work.”

“Of course it will work,” I said in that kind of tone where you absolutely question the listener’s sanity if he believes otherwise.”How could it not? The Plague penalizes colors and boosts colorless. The best possible card to go with it must be one that plays with colors and penalizes other colorless decks, right?”

As far as logic goes, it was only adequate; but I could tell Pete might give in and build the deck. I dropped the matter, anyway; Christina had leapt onto my back and was dunking me to get a ball out of my hand. (She’s fairly ruthless and, I think, she was still bitter about me distracting Paul enough to dump her off his back.)

A week later, there are six of us at Theo’s house and we’re settling in for an emperor game. Random die roll puts Theo and I as lieutenants on Carl’s team, and Pete and Dave as lieutenants for Gary. Pete lines up against me, and in the early game starts lining up swamps.

I don’t think about it much, other than to be happy that I’m playing my new blue-white deck with Beloved Chaplain and Zephid’s Embrace, and no one seems to have a Hurricane handy since there’s no green on the board. I’m laying out a flood of efficient white creatures, and even get a Kjeldoran Outpost down, while Pete seems to have trouble getting anything beyond a Primal Clay and Chimeric Sphere.

Theo’s white-red-blue deck (Iridescent Drake and Squee’s Embrace) seems to be hanging up a bit against Dave’s red-black rush deck… But no one is in danger of dying yet. Carl (red-black-white, removal and damage effects) and Gary (blue-white, Unnatural Selection/Pure Reflection) are both doing their part to help their teammates.

(Let’s all pause for a moment here, because I’m so proud that my team, without even consulting with each other, fell very close to the ideal color-placement for emperor: Theo had early drops and red in his lieutenant deck to Carl’s left; Carl was playing heavy removal and protection using red, black, and white; and I was sealing Carl’s right side with a white/blue defensive deck capable of countering key threats from the emperor. Theory becomes reality! Cats become dogs! Geeks get sexy! And so on, and so forth, into the alternate universe.)

On turn eight or so, with nothing but swamps in front of him, Pete lays down the Spreading Plague.

I let out a whoop, and even though Pete hasn’t put down islands or forests, I know those Illusion/Reality puppies are in there.

And sure enough, they were. The islands and forests came down before too long, and then the fun really began.

At least four cool things happened that game as a result of what may be the worst card in Apocalypse, in conjunction with Spreading Plague (which ain’t exactly beating down the door of the Invasion Top Ten Club):

  • First, Illusion worked above its station, saving Gary’s Puppeteer’s at key moments and fooling around with Carl’s Shivan Zombies, which were now coming out to wipe the board of red and black.

  • Second, my Kjeldoran Post became relentless board control on Gary’s white creatures, and (for this game) a far more efficient tool than his Selection/Reflection combo. It was the one card that Illusion/Reality could not stop. (And we all know how critical it is to have cards that can sneak through the Illusion/Reality lock!)

  • Third, Theo had an Iridescent Drake with Squee’s Embrace in play, and a second Iridescent Drake in his hand with a second Embrace in the graveyard. He swings for four, then plays his second Drake…Which kills the first Drake, sending the first Squee’s Embrace to the graveyard (and the first Drake back to his hand). Then the Embrace already in the graveyard comes up to enchant the Drake. This was actually unintentional – Theo completely forgot about the Spreading Plague, until we reminded him – but the net effect was to untap his enchanted creature after he attacked. Pete was too far away from Theo to use Illusion/Reality to mess with this math; but after Dave died (to the Drake beatdown) and ranges of influence collapsed, he did use a Reality to smash Theo’s sole blue source of mana, a Fellwar Stone.

  • My favorite moment regarding Illusion/Reality involves a strategic mistake I made. With 2UU open, and Misdirection and two Quashes in my hand, I chose to Misdirect (ACC, pitch a Quash) an Illusion/Reality Pete cast to save one of Gary’s creatures. (I had it save one of my own, instead.) What I should have done was Quash the Illusion/Reality, which was the second one Pete had played, so that I could get the other two out of the game. As it was, by the time I Quashed the third, he had the fourth in his hand and cast it in response, making the Quash far less effective.

Folks, if one piece of advice will get you on the Pro Tour, it is this: Whenever there’s a Spreading Plague on the board, always Quash the early Illusion/Reality, rather than Misdirecting it to your own Beloved Chaplain. It’s the difference between a Top 8 and an 0-2-and-drop, I’m sure of it.

I have offered all of the detail on this game to demonstrate that Apocalypse was a clear winner of a set, not just because the good cards were so good; but because the bad cards were usable if you were creative enough.

Let’s contrast with the worst card in the next set: Odyssey’s Battle of Wits.

When Ironic Card Titles Aren’t Funny

Now, I’ll admit it: I’ve been looking for a reason to really lay into this card, instead of just pinch and poke at it like I’ve done for the past couple of months. And after this week, I’ll try really hard to shut up about it.

I stand by my statement when Odyssey came out, that the set is a real thoughtful limited set. Since then, we’ve seen some really neat surprises (e.g. Entomb, in New Orleans) that have laid lie to the common theory that Call of the Wild and Shadowmage Infiltrator are the only two rares worth spit in the set for Constructed, as well.

So I hope the folks in R&D realize that this isn’t a real rant. This is more, well, like a rant that will only count if there are two hundred or less adverbs in my article at the beginning of my sign-off phase.

I can understand Atogatog. No, hey, listen, don’t run away – this is important. Atogatog is meant to be an impractical creature that only works in a couple of different kinds of decks. You get this thing down and win with it, and you’ve worked hard to make it happen. It won’t happen that often, but the thrill is in the hunt, so to speak. Ditto to Devouring Strossus, Reya Dawnbringer, even Scoria Wurm. I’m not crazy about creatures like this, as I prefer truly good ones that also happen to have great multiplayer application; but I value the freakier beasts for what they are: Monuments to impractical fun.

This philosophy not even limited to creatures. Carnival of Souls, Oath of Mages, Sorrow’s Path, maybe even Pale Moon – these are all cards that are bad, yet lovable, because they are limiting to tournament players, but serve as opportunities to casual players to show that they can, indeed, be paths to victory. My Break this Card Contest has built its reputation off of these sometimes questionable, sometimes downright awful, cards.

But I don’t have to run a contest on Battle of Wits to know that it’s not a bad card like those cards are bad. Whereas those cards are bad because they expand our fun by challenging us, Battle of Wits is bad because its contracts our fun by limiting us.

Here’s our group’s experience with this card: Pete has a copy in a deck with 250 cards. (It started out as a 5-Color deck, but of course Battle of Wits is banned in that format – so the deck is just a large rogue deck now.) Out of many games, Pete has found and played the Battle of Wits twice. Both games, our group just asks the question: Anyone have a Disenchant? No? Okay, look at the top card of your library. Anyone? No? Okay, Pete wins, next game. Whatever.

Isn’t that a great Casual Fridays story? I wish I could write stuff like that up every week.

To win just about any Magic game, you have to manipulate your library, spells, and permanents to minimize the effects of luck and come out on top with a superior strategy. To have fun in just about any Magic game, your deck has to interact with other decks trying to do the same thing.

But to win in a Battle of Wits game, you have to be nothing but lucky. First, you need luck to get it, or a card that tutors for it, in a 200+ card (230+, really) deck. Then you need the basic luck we all deal with in getting the right mana. Third, you need luck in that your opponents must not have a Counterspell right then, or Disenchant for one round.

Let me put it another way: The next time someone has a Battle of Wits in their deck, don’t actually bother playing a game. Just have everyone reveal the top 20 cards of their libraries. If someone with a big enough deck reveals five mana sources and Battle of Wits, and no one has any countermagic or disenchants, just say that person won the game and start a new one.

You can’t do that with other cards. Take the closest relative: Coalition Victory, the only other recent alternate victory condition card. If you had a Coalition Victory deck (which Pete also has…hmmmmm…maybe the problem is Pete!) and revealed twenty cards off the top of everyone’s library, you’d have to have a Victory, and the right lands, and the right creatures, of course. But that’s only half of the story: Beyond countermagic in your opponents’ decks, you’d have to look at what removal they drew, from Boomerang to Rout to… Well, Illusion/Reality! You’d also have to look at what creatures or offense they have, and what you’d have to block in the early game. You’d have to look at what paths to victory other people were seeking and what counterspells might get used up. And of course, revealing the cards ruins a Coalition Victory game, since the point is not to be sure whether you’re going to get the Shivan Zombie or Plains you need to win the game. Do you block, tap out, attack at certain times? Who knows? You gotta play the game to find out, and if you know in advance it ruins the fun.

With Battle of Wits, knowing in advance has only the scantest chance of changing the outcome of the game, or ruining your”fun.” It plays, believe it or not, like a tournament combo – but without any of the clockwork efficiency that tournament players crave.

Constructed players don’t play it, because it’s inefficient.

Sealed and draft decks won’t run it, because they’ll never find it.

Multiplayer tables don’t play it, because it’s not fun.

So what’s left? 5-Color formats, where it has been banned.

So why make the card? None of the reasons I’ve read in articles or statements by R&D make sense to me. I mean, I get why it’s in the rare slot; I just don’t get why it’s in my booster pack at all.

It’s hard to know if alternate win conditions will continue to come out. If more do come out, I hope that they will be more involved in the game condition than counting cards in your library.

I’m optimistic. Even though Odyssey has a low-power reputation as a set, the last three cycles (Masques, Invasion, and Odyssey) have been amazing in their balance and their thoughtfulness. I don’t want my opinion on Battle of Wits to cast any doubt on how I feel about Magic. The Golden Age of Magic is now, we’re living it, and I won’t hear any nonsense to the contrary. Wizards just goofed on this one, and I needed to get that off my chest.

To sum up: Illusion/Reality, silly but effective. Battle of Wits, effective but dumb. One card can get used, however briefly, to enhance the game; the other can never enhance the game, almost by definition.

Well, okay, I can think of one way. (I’m trying to be a good sport, here.) If you could find a way, in your 200+ card deck, to get a ton of your library into your graveyard (say, Oath of Druids, with only a couple of creatures), and then played Battle of Wits, and everyone laughed at you and said you were really stupid for playing that card since you can’t win with less than 200 cards left in your library, and then, right before your next turn, if you managed to mill Gaea’s Blessing into your library… Okay, that would enhance the game.

One single game.

Sort of.


Anthony Alongi

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