Ideas Unbound – Mental Magic

Thursday, August 12th – I usually introduce Mental Magic to people as a game of Magic where nobody ever gets manascrewed. Usually, that’s more than enough to get them interested, but if they still hesitate, I tell them about a game of Magic with hundreds of options, where you can sculpt the game in any way you desire.

I usually introduce Mental Magic to people as a game of Magic where nobody ever gets manascrewed. Usually, that’s more than enough to get them interested, but if they still hesitate, I tell them about a game of Magic with hundreds of options, where you can sculpt the game in any way you desire.

First, the rules.

Mental Magic is played with two stacks of Magic cards. Each player receives one stack of cards, which becomes their deck. Usually, the stacks are obtained by grabbing the leftovers from a draft. Decking is rarely relevant, but if you want to count out sixty-card decks, feel free to do so. Otherwise, split the stack into roughly equal halves and prepare to battle.

Mental Magic is played similarly to regular Magic. Players may play one land per turn, cast spells, attack, and so one. However, any card from your hand can be played face down as a basic land with no subtype that taps for any color of mana. As with regular land, they untap every turn, remain in play until destroyed, etc. Most people refer to these lands as “Utopia” lands.

However, instead of playing a card face down as a land, you can also play a card as though it were any card with that same casting cost, or activate an ability of a card with that same casting cost. For example, when holding Grizzly Bears, you could play it as Tarmogoyf or play Sylvan Library instead. You could send a flier to the ground with Plummet, or even play lowly Grizzly Bears itself.* You could even cycle Lull… and once you’d cycled Lull, you could replace the draw with Life from the Loam! If, after dredging Life from the Loam, you again cycled Repopulate, you would have the Grizzly Bears chilling out in your yard, waiting to be flashed back as Moment’s Peace or Krosan Reclamation!

However, once a card has been named once in a game of Mental Magic, it cannot be named again. You might have a second Grizzly Bear in your hand, but you cannot play a second Tarmogoyf, nor can you cycle Lull or dredge Life from the Loam. You could, of course, play it as a land, or as Wild Mongrel.

Cards only have a name when they are in play or an ability of the card is on the stack. Otherwise, they are treated at face value. You can play Grizzly Bears as Tarmogoyf, but if your Tarmogoyf dies, it becomes Grizzly Bears when it is in your graveyard. Similarly, the Slay that destroyed your Tarmogoyf will be Barony Vampire when it goes to your opponent’s graveyard. If you cast Ostracize, you have to take a creature card; you can take a Grizzly Bears, but not Giant Growth.

Lands function similarly. You can, of course, play them face-down as a Utopia land. But, if you wish, you could also play them face-up as any non-basic land of your choice. You could also play them as spells that have no mana cost; for example, you could use a land to suspend Ancestral Vision, or splice Evermind onto an Arcane spell.

Players cannot search their library. The nature of Mental Magic obviously makes any sort of tutoring very powerful. Further, resolving tutor abilities usually takes a long time even if the player is only deliberating between a few options.

Mental Magic can be played using the card sets available to any format, but most players stick to Legacy-legal cards. When you include Vintage cards like Ancestral Recall, Fastbond, and Time Walk, games become unbelievably degenerate, but the Legacy card pool is quite reasonable. You could use smaller formats (Extended, or even Standard) but because a lot of the fun in Mental Magic is the myriad of options available to you at any point in time, deliberately limiting your options to such a small card pool takes a lot away from the game.

There are, however, some cards that, while perfectly innocuous in Legacy, need to be banned in Mental Magic. Exploration, for example, is almost unbeatable. Being ahead on mana is very strong in Mental Magic, and if you play Exploration and a land, and games where you power out Avalanche Riders on turn 2 then Plow Under on turn 3 aren’t any fun for the other guy. Burgeoning and Summer Bloom need to go for similar reasons. Songs of the Damned is another offender. A player who begins cycling and dredging on turn 1 can use Songs to generate disgusting amounts of mana on turn 3 or 4. Argothian Enchantress is unbelievably powerful if left unchecked, but is difficult to remove at all and is virtually impossible to remove for value. I know some people who think that Enchantress is perfectly reasonable, but I am of the opinion that Enchantress is too good; even if your opponent kills it, they’ll be tapped out going into turn 3, and now you can Stone Rain them, and things just go downhill from there.

So Exploration, Burgeoning, Summer Bloom, Songs of the Damned, and Argothian Enchantress are typically banned. Some favor banning abilities that would allow you to return lands to your hand, e.g. Trade Routes and Meloku the Clouded Mirror, on the grounds that they virtually draw cards given the nature of Utopia lands. I tend to disagree; lands are so important to Mental Magic that I feel that going down on lands is a steep enough drawback to drawing cards that Meloku et al are fine.

Now that the rules have been laid out, what are the best strategies in Mental Magic?

Because no one ever gets manascrewed or mana flooded, most players instinctively look towards card advantage to get an edge on their opponents. This is pretty reasonable; if you can just two-for one your opponent at every opportunity, eventually he’ll run out of cards.

Most creatures, however, are invitations for your opponent to get a two-for-one on you. Green and White creatures are vulnerable to Slay and Execute. Low-toughness beaters can get hit by Afflict. Even if your opponent can’t remove your creature and get a card out of it, he can usually steal some tempo with a card like Lightning Bolt or Doom Blade. The only creatures that are safe are cards like Striped Bears and Kavu Climber, but they’re pretty slow and have fairly anemic bodies for their cost.

If you can’t eke any cards out of your creatures, what about your spells? Blue card drawing is one obvious way to get ahead on cardboard. Casting Impulse and flashing back Think Twice is a nice little line, but the ultimate way to generate card advantage is to end step Fact or Fiction (take the three card pile) and untap into Deep Analysis. Either spell resolving puts you up a considerable amount of cards, but what’s even more pernicious about Fact-Deep is how hard it is to fight. Even if your opponent manages to get your Fact with Burnout or cycled Complicate, you still pull ahead with Deep Analysis.

Buyback is another ability that makes it easy to generate card advantage, but most buyback costs are prohibitive enough that it’s hard to get much value out of them. Still, you should be on the lookout for opportunities.

You can also be more aggressive about your card advantage by using discard to get ahead. There are many simple two-for-ones at three mana; Unhinge, Waking Nightmare (splicing Evermind) and Stupor are all quite valid. Fugue, Three Tragedies, and Hypnotic Cloud are also solid options when you have more mana. Discard, however, carries considerable risks. Your opponent may have Divert or Rebound for a devastating blowout. Even without those shenanigans, though, your day can still be ruined pretty quickly if your opponent discards 1R (Guerrilla Tactics), U (Psychic Purge), 2W (Mangara’s Blessing), 2GG (Obstinate Baloth), or even something as simple as W (Pure Intentions) or 5G. (Quagnoth). And that doesn’t even take into account all of the cards with madness.

I don’t force my opponents to discard very often, in case you can’t tell.

Potential pitfalls of “discard a card” aside, the card advantage game is a reasonable plan. It does, however, tend to put one behind on tempo, and strong opponents can take advantage of that, timing their threats for when you were planning on casting some card draw or something similar. There are three specific tempo-related archetypes I want to discuss: land destruction, beatdown, and combo.

Land destruction plans are usually pretty simple; you mostly just want to deny your opponent any resources. Drawing a 2R card is pretty key for this plan, because not only can you use it to cast Solfatara, you can return it on your next turn as Squee, Goblin Nabob and Turf Wound your opponent on his next turn. Once you’re two lands ahead of your opponent, you can usually find some way to press your advantage fairly easily; Ogre Arsonist and Plow Under are two of my favorites. The Solfatara plan can be quite powerful, especially if you’re on the play with something like Birds of Paradise. Still, it’s eminently beatable; Gilded Light or any counterspell is a powerful answer to Solfatara, and you can Cremate the Squee. If your opponent goes after your lands directly with Stone Rain, you can trump him with Skyshroud Blessing, Teferi’s Response, or Divert.

I mentioned above that beatdown decks made one vulnerable to two-for-ones, and that’s certainly true… but if you can avoid the 2B blowouts from Slay and Execute while getting your beat on with Red and Black cards in the early game, it can be a valid plan. One- and two-mana creatures usually force your opponent to answer them immediately lest you get an opportunity to untap and defend them with permission in the style of CounterSliver. This will usually force your opponent to tap out, which allows you to start getting a lot of value out of haste creatures.

Ideally, you’ll get your opponent to exactly ten and kill him with Hidetsugu’s Second Rite, but most opponents will see that coming when you orchestrate ways to get them to exactly ten. It’s usually easier to try and put them at eleven, twelve, or thirteen and use a burn spell to put them to ten when they’ve tapped out on their turn, before untapping and hitting them with Second Rite.

If, on the other hand, your opponent manages to duck your Second Rite, you’ll usually be in the midgame with your opponent at nine or so, except you’ll be down a few cards. Usually, the most efficient way to win from this position is to set up a small storm turn and finish your opponent with Tendrils of Agony, Ignite Memories, or Pyromancer’s Swath with Grapeshot. Dark Ritual and Cabal Ritual are the obvious mana accelerants, but Rite of Flame and Seething Song are also fine, and can be returned to your hand as Death Spark and Squee, Goblin Nabob respectively. With your opponent tapped out, it’s usually pretty easy to set up a couple of Rituals into Reaping the Graves, which should allow you get more acceleration and a kill card to finish your opponent off.

Or, you can move in on the combo plan from the outset, doing almost nothing but cycle and dredge cards and wait for your opponent to tap out (Or do it yourself with Mana Short) so that you can pounce. Ideally, you’ll just cycle and dredge until turn 3 or 4, at which point you can explode. You can dredge into Dark Ritual (Darkblast) as well as Cabal Ritual (Golgari Thug), and if you bin a card that you can trigger as Death Spark, you’ll also get Rite of Flame. Manamorphose will fix any color problems while triggering the Eidolons that you’ve dredged into. Entropic Eidolon can then become Empty the Catacombs, and with such a huge hand your Sandstorm Eidolon will generate a huge amount of mana as Inner Fire. Finding some storm spell to kill with usually isn’t difficult, but even something as clunky as Zombie Infestation/Mass Hysteria will suffice.

You’ll notice that most of these strategies rely, in part, on the graveyard. And, indeed, your graveyard is a valuable resource in Mental Magic. It gives you access to cards with flashback and card that can return from your graveyard to your hand. If you cycle and dredge aggressively, Disentomb and Raise Dead become virtual tutors that duck the “no search” rule. The corollary to this, obviously, is that graveyard hosers are also quite powerful. Cremate and Coffin Purge are notable for their cheap cost and free card, but don’t forget about Headstone or Rapid Decay. Repopulate and Krosan Reclamation are also strong answers to graveyard strategies, and Loaming Shaman is one of the best of all.

Some sample Mental gems:

B — Raise Dead, Coffin Purge
1B — Night’s Whisper, Cabal Ritual
2B — Reaping the Graves, Stupor
3B — Gravedigger, Ancient Craving (Portal has a lot of duplicate cards…)
3BB — Guiltfeeder, Annihilate

G — Birds of Paradise, Lifelace
1G — Repopulate, Manamorphose
2G — Call of the Herd, Viridian Shaman
3G — Striped Bears, Channel the Suns
(2GG – Nature’s Resurgence)
3GG — Stunted Growth, Gigapede (Hmm, synergy…)

U — Disrupt, Divert
1U — Teferi’s Response, Alter Reality
2U — Complicate, Probe
3U — Hindering Touch, Fact or Fiction
3UU — Desertion, Treachery

R — Reckless Charge, Red Elemental Blast
1R — Burnout, Ancient Grudge
2R — Thunderscape Battlemage
3R — Empty the Warrens, Avalanche Riders

W — Path to Exile (heh), Mana Tithe
1W — Gilded Light, Abeyance
2W — Mangara’s Blessing, Wispmare
3W — Armageddon, Ray of Distortion

As you play more and more Mental, you’ll eventually want to learn every card with cycling, every card with dredge, every card with flashback, and every card with storm. I’ve made a spreadsheet with most of the common cards that you’ll want to know relating to those abilities.

Mental is a blast. Try it. You won’t be sorry.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

* Some Mental Magic players have a rule that you cannot play a card as itself. I believe that rule is unnecessary and unfun.