Removed From Game – Getting A Kick Out Of Kicker

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Monday, October 12th – If you’ve been around since the dawn of time, you know all about the power of Kicker. If you haven’t, now’s the time to take a look at some of the tough choices ahead that can make and break your next Limited game.

I get no kick from champagne
Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all
So tell me why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you?

Cole Porter, from the musical ‘Anything Goes.’

For those of you with long memories, Kicker was a hugely popular mechanic that brought a ton of interesting choices, particularly in Limited play, where the flow of the game can be so uncertain. Some of you won’t have been playing for more than a decade, and for you there are interesting times ahead, as correctly evaluating Kicker spells is one of the simplest ways you can outfox and outthink your opponents.

One useful way of considering Kicker costs is as if the particular card is actually two spells in one, and you are allowed to cast one or other of them. In other words, split cards, with the second spell both costing and doing more than the first. Once you start looking at Kicker spells in this way, it’s easy to see which spells you would never play with. To my mind, the Kicker spells in Zendikar come into one of these categories:

The spells you almost always cast UN-Kicked
The spells you almost always cast Kicked
The spells with legitimate choices to be made

On the face of it, we have all the information we need directly on the card. If a spell costs 4 without Kicker, and 9 with it, we’re clearly five away from the Kicker. But five what, exactly? Turns? Not necessarily. You could start by arguing that players don’t lay a land every turn, especially once you’ve reached what we could reasonably call the late game, anytime after about turn six-seven in Sealed. Historically, players tend to keep lands in hand at the back end of the game, either as potential bluffing for a card they don’t have, or as insurance against discard.

That would suggest that, whereas you might certainly hope to get to four mana on Turn Four, you wouldn’t necessarily expect that to be true of nine out of nine five turns later. However, depending on your deck, there’s every possibility you can get from four to nine much quicker than those apparent five Turns.

If we look at some of the Green cards, we see:

Frontier Guide — a chance to search out an extra land per turn.
Greenweaver Druid — tap for two Green mana.
Harrow — the loss of one land, but the gain of two, making a net +1.
Khalni Heart ExpeditionHarrow without the drawback.
Lotus Cobra — one extra mana per landfall.
Oracle Of Mul Daya — possibility of two lands per turn.

I’m not suggesting that all of these are going to be available to you all the time. Harrow and Khalni Heart Expedition are both Common, and Greenweaver Druid and Frontier Guide are Uncommon. You won’t see the Oracle Of Mul Daya that often, as it’s Rare, and Lotus Cobra is Mythic, so good luck getting your four of those in time for Christmas without breaking the bank. The central point is that you can’t simply translate the additional Kicker cost into Turns on a slavish one-for-one basis. If you have some helpful fixing, consider that the difference may be smaller than it looks.

Let’s start then, with the spells that seem to have absurdly high Kicker costs, and that you’re almost certainly going to cast Unkicked, if at all:

Conqueror’s Pledge
Sadistic Sacrament
Elemental Appeal

Cobra Trap gets you four 1/1 Snakes at Instant speed for six mana. In exchange for being a Sorcery, Conqueror’s Pledge comes in at one mana less, and produces two more guys. There’s a reason it’s Rare. Let’s apply our ‘split card’ test to it. Here’s spell number one:

Conqueror’s Pledge
Make six 1/1 Soldiers.

Here’s spell number two:

Conqueror’s Pledge
Make twelve 1/1 Soldiers.

The good news is, that spell number one is very good. At the very worst, it probably contributes to a vast bolstering of your defences, and has all sorts of synergy with (oops) Bold Defence or (really oops) Armament Master + Equipment. If you had the White spells to justify the triple White in your manabase, you’d play this every time.

Meanwhile, it is virtually inconceivable you would do anything other than laugh at spell number two. Eleven mana at Sorcery speed is going to happen somewhere around Turn fourteen, and that’s in your (presumably) heavy White limited deck that looks to make cheap early beaters and flyers, and maybe finish things off with an Angel. Turn fourteen? Please.

What about Sadistic Sacrament? Spell one:

Sadistic Sacrament
Steal the best three cards left in opposing deck, and send them packing.

Spell number two:

Sadistic Sacrament
Steal almost every spell left in the opposing deck, or even every land if that’s good for you.

With Conqueror’s Pledge, the difference between six and twelve guys may not make the difference in the game. They all die to exactly the same spells that six die to, like Marsh Casualties and Seismic Shudder. With Sadistic Sacrament, the stakes are much higher, since the Kicked version may well say ‘you win the game’. That won’t be true if they have the win on board, or in hand, but if you have anything resembling parity when you cast this, they’re done for, purely on the remaining strength of their draws alone. On Turn nine (let’s say), with twenty-four cards left in their library, you’re going to leave them with nine remaining, and at least seven or eight of those should be lands.

Although a much smaller effect, if you know your opponent has legitimate bombs that will beat you, ensuring you don’t have to face them could be well worth it. If your Black-heavy deck has plenty of removal and some discard, this also has a useful detrimental effect on their draw quality. I suppose if you were Green-Black with a ton of acceleration, you might try to get all the way to ten, but basically this is a small but useful spell as a pre-emptive answer to bomb threats.

It’s entirely possible that Elemental Appeal is just bad. Ball Lightning was next to friendless in M10 Draft, and spending an extra mana, and a colored one at that, for just one extra point of power seems a very rough deal. About the only good thing you could say about the Kicker on this is that by the time you cast it, it’s just conceivable that all the removal is gone, and you’re into topdeck magic mode. At that point, this is almost certainly a win condition, but the times that your opponent has no counterspell, no First Strike, no tapper, no ping, no direct damage, no removal, and no fog…that doesn’t happen very often.

I spoke about Gigantiform last week — it’s tremendous at five, and utterly irrelevant at nine except one time in the next twelve months where you’ll open two and win because of it.

That brings us to the spells that you’re almost always going to Kick if you possibly can:

Aether Figment
Rite Of Replication
Tempest Owl
Blood Tribute
Gatekeeper Of Malakir
Goblin Bushwhacker
Torch Slinger
Unstable Footing

A 1/1 Unblockable dude for two mana is less than thrilling. Phantom Warrior is a 2/2 Unblockable for three mana, and that’s usually only a proper threat if it’s either late in the game and only needs to swing a couple of times, or it’s been equipped with something awesome like Magebane Armor. In either case, the key to Unblockable is the Clock – the number of turns it’s going to take to get the job done. Aether Figment kills your opponent shortly before I learn to build Sealed Decks correctly, and that’s currently estimated at 2034, and I don’t mean just after half past eight.

As a 3/3 Unblockable, Aether Figment becomes a serious issue, killing on its own in three turns from just over halfway (nine life.) The fact that it won’t come down until Turn five only makes it more of an issue, as early removal is likely already in the graveyard.

Rite Of Replication is, of course, a fine spell at four:

Rite Of Replication

Copying the best monster in play is always fine and dandy, but if that monster happens to belong to your opponent, you’re actually just catching up with the Rite, rather than taking control. For that, you need to get to nine mana. At that price, you want a spell to say ‘you win the game’, and it’s hard to see that not working with this. Even a random Green fattie like Territorial Baloth is the best thing around — so no comedy Rares or Mythics to showcase the Rite being good — making five of them gets you twenty power of monsters, plus the fact that the following turn that becomes thirty-two power of monster when you trigger five lots of Landfall.

I’m sure you can find all sorts of comedy outcomes from this card, but I’m going to set the bar quite high with these two fine examples from the Magic Online Beta that’s currently going on. In example one, it turned out that Wilt-Leaf Liege was the best monster to copy, which left me with five 12/12s and a 13/13 Trampler. Cheeky. Example two was much better, at least if you like a giggle. I felt quite good about having cast Iona, Shield Of Emeria, but I didn’t set it to Blue. My opponent cast the Rite, and proceeded to make five copies. As the triggers started resolving, we both began to see the awful truth — that with five copies he could name each of the five colors of Magic and leave me only able to cast Artifacts and Lands.

Then we realised Iona was Legendary. Beta…so much fun.

Tempest Owl is a horrible 1/2 Flyer for two mana. I suspect it’s a pretty horrible 1/2 Flyer for seven mana as well, but at least that version does something useful, and at a time in the game (Turn seven) where you might well be looking to punch through the last half a dozen points against an increasingly stable defense. Kicked, this leaves the defense in tatters.

Regular readers will know how disappointed I was in Blood Tribute, which worked at the Pre-Release precisely once. Losing half their life sounds like it’s quite good, until you realise that the better your deck is, the worse Blood Tribute is. If you get them to ten, it’s an expensive Lava Axe. If you’re wanting them to still be at very high life, then you’re likely to be much lower, and you won’t have a turn spare to simply not impact the board in any way. As the Control deck, you absolutely need to have the spell Kicked, and as the beatdown, it’s a horribly inefficient burn spell.

Black also has Gatekeeper Of Malakir. There’s nothing wrong with a 2/2 for two, of course, but it’s going to be very infrequently that you can’t afford to find the extra mana to put an opposing monster in the bin. Apart from anything else, if you’re under pressure to the point where you’re thinking about needing it in play, there’s a good chance that you really need something dead the following turn even more. Yes, you might cast it as a chump blocker to stay alive, but you’ll almost always be miserable if you do.

Red has three cards in this category. Goblin Bushwhacker is probably horrible either way, but it’s certainly horrible without being Kicked. Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that the game allocates the bonus to the creatures that are on the battlefield when this resolves, and anything you cast subsequently won’t have haste or the +1/+0. In other words, make sure this is the last creature you play on that turn.

As a Gray Ogre, Torch Slinger is a moderately rubbish 2/2 for three. At five, it’s a moderately rubbish 2/2 for three, with a highly useful kill a small man clause. Just like the Gatekeeper, you might have to cast him to stay alive as a chump blocker, but similar feelings will ensue.

As for Unstable Footing, this is almost a Kicker spell ‘in reverse’. This is really a five mana Instant speed Lava Axe, with an incidental ability. Under very narrow circumstances (i.e. responding to a Fog or Safe Passage-type effect), you might only pay one Red for this, but that’s a spell you’d never play maindeck:

Unstable Footing
Damage can’t be prevented this turn.

Never, ever, ever. Come to that, there aren’t that many times you’d play Lava Axe in Sealed, even as an Instant, but that at least would happen sometimes.

We’ve now looked at twelve of the twenty-four Zendikar spells with Kicker. Relatively speaking, they’ve been the easy half. Now we get to the dirty dozen that actually present you with some choices that might make a significant difference to the game, as long as you choose right. Here they are:

Bold Defense
Kor Aeronaut
Kor Sanctifiers
Into The Roil
Sphinx Of Lost Truths
Heartstabber Mosquito
Marsh Casualties
Vampire’s Bite
Burst Lightning
Mold Shambler
Oran-Rief Recluse
Vines Of Vastwood

Bold Defense is overcosted at three mana for what it does, which is Glorious Charge for an extra mana. That said, you don’t have Glorious Charge in Zendikar, so deal. It’s not that often that this will directly win you the game un-Kicked, although if you turn a multi-trade into a three-for-one that will often prove decisive. However you slice it, there’s a massive upgrade from three to seven mana, and any half-awake opponent is going to suspect something when you pass the turn with seven mana up. At the very least, they’ll be on the alert for traps various.

Thing is, that probably doesn’t matter. In any serious combat rumble, +2+2 is a difference maker, but having all your guys gain First Strike is the reason you might seriously think about waiting to Kick this, since that probably involves a one-sided Wrath Of God against them. That’s generally Game Over, which is exactly what you want for seven mana.

Next up is Kor Aeronaut, and this has a great tension to it. On Turn Two it’s a nice tempo play, and without an answer will quickly rack up the damage as the ground begins to clog up. However, making it on Turn Four when your two or three drop has found the first roadblock in the way is an excellent way of continuing the pressure, plus adding to it with the flyer once the bonus from the Kicker has gone away.

Whilst it’s unlikely that you would save this much beyond the four or five mana point, simply because you’d be giving up the opportunity to get damage in, and run the risk of being outclassed in the air once 4/4s for five start coming online, drawing it late can be fabulous. Even with the body being irrelevant, granting wings to your 5/6 is almost certainly going to either bring out a removal spell or flat out kill them.

What I like most about this guy is that the math alters according to whether or not your opponent can deal with it quickly. If you know they’re Black-Red, then holding off is probably good, since even when they kill it, you’ve managed to get an extra two or three damage in with your early ground guy taking to the air once. If they’re Green-White and show little signs of removal, you want it out there as quickly as possible, since across Turns Three and Four you deal four damage, and the Turn Four bonus is likely to only be to a three-power guy at best. This feels like a card where good players will definitely have an edge over the rest.

The last White card of the bunch is Kor Sanctifiers. What you do with this depends on what you think it is. Is it this?

Kor Sanctifiers
Destroy target Artifact or Enchantment. When you do, put a 2/3 Kor Cleric into play.

Or is it this?

Kor Sanctifiers
Kor Cleric
When Kor Sanctifiers enters the battlefield, destroy target Artifact or Enchantment.

What’s the difference, you may well ask? Well, it’s a question of function. If you’ve put this card in to deal with opposing Artifacts and Enchantments, you’re basically thinking of it in the first way. You’ll wait until there’s a decent target for your spell, and then take the free body that comes attached to your spell. If you’re thinking of it as a guy, it’s killing a random Artifact in passing that’s the bonus.

In other words, this is a card where you really need to know why it’s in your deck. The fun with this one is that you could spend the entire game waiting for an Artifact or Enchantment that never comes along, and the Sanctifiers has been functionally blank throughout the game. Also, although 2/3 for three isn’t exceptional, that three toughness puts a comprehensive stop to a lot of early guys.

If you have a naturally positive outlook, you’ll already be imagining their Platinum Angel as you topdeck the removal Sanctifiers with free 2/3. If you know that the world is out to get you, you’ll have cast it approximately three seconds before the Platinum Angel lands to ruin your multiverse.

Blue is up next, and has Into The Roil and Sphinx Of Lost Truths. Unsummon sees very little love in M10, and there’s a stack of difference between one and two mana, so the idea that you might hang around to Kick Into The Roil seems awful. Still, if you’re going to play with it at all, at least the possibility of replacing it with something good. You also have the chance to pull off something Unsummon can never do unaided, which is bounce their guy during combat, saving you a bunch of damage, and then topdeck a counterspell off the Kicker to stop it for good when they recast it.

The Sphinx is really interesting to me because of its power and toughness. At 4/4, you wouldn’t hesitate. You’d just run it out there, and as long as you had something unexciting in your one or two cards in hand, you were basically getting the best card or even the best two out of the next three straight into your hand. Awesome deal.

It isn’t 4/4, it’s 3/5, and that changes things both ways. On offense, you’re somewhere in the one to two turn range slower in terms of killing off your opponent. From twelve life, Air Elemental or Serra Angel does the job in three hits, the Sphinx Of Lost Truths in four. At higher life totals, the difference is more pronounced. Also, if your opponent has a 4/4 flyer of his own, this becomes a full-time deterrent, since it can never profitably attack without outside aid.

Taken together, that argues for holding on for what is only two extra mana to get kicked. However, without a fat flyer on the other side, this is a serious threat, especially as five toughness isn’t easily dealt with either by Red damage or middle-rank flying blocking. Even if you spend just the two extra turns getting mana six and seven together, you’ve given up six damage for the three cards you get.

Also, that ‘three cards’ is misleading. Assuming you have seven mana, you don’t need more land. One of those three at least should be land. Again, since you’ve got to seven mana, we’re clearly heading into the late game, so although a 2/2 probably won’t hurt, it’s unlikely to break the game open. Maybe you’re lucky, and the third card is a great piece of removal or bomb Rare. Thing is, as long as you have a single land in hand, you get access to that same killer card with the ‘Merfolk Looter On Steroids’ version of the card, simply discarding the land and unexciting spell to complete the draw three — lose three contract.

To me, it’s the closeness of the two costs that makes this card so interesting. The temptation is going to be overwhelming for lots of players to hold on for ‘just two more mana’, but at this stage I’ll hazard a guess that’s going to be the wrong play most of the time.

First up for Black is Heartstabber Mosquito, which strikes me as a pretty miserable card all in all, although cleverly designed for all that. A four mana 2/2 flyer with zero abilities is weak. However, Magic isn’t always about value for money, and if you get to deal six damage on Turns Five, Six, and Seven, you’re not going to complain about having had to play it on Turn Four rather than Turn Three.

We’ve already discussed the idea that seven mana may not be seven turns, but whenever you cast it, you’re supposed to be doing something massively game-changing. It’s relatively unlikely that the 2/2 body is going to be decisive, so we must hope that offing their best creature more or less ends proceedings. If that means nailing a Rampaging Baloths, mission accomplished. It’s when their best (and perhaps only) target on a removal-scarred battlefield is something less than stellar that you start to feel your mana isn’t being well-spent (although the flyer goes up in value late-game.)

One of the most interesting aspects of the card is the psychological impact of when you draw it. Suppose that you don’t have much acceleration, and that the Kicked Mosquito will land on Turn Nine. If you have the Heartstabber in your opening hand, Turn Nine looks a loooooong way away, and every turn you find yourself staring at it, knowing that the government may abolosh taxation sooner than you’ll get to Kick it. At that point, the temptation is to succumb, much like grandma’s spending money in the hot sticky hands of a child. Reason goes out the door, and you simply MUST spend it on something, nownownow.

Drawing it on Turn Four, especially if you’ve not got a play lined up in advance, is an open invitation to just lay it. Oh look, I’ve drawn it, nothing better to do, get it cast. Yet if you draw it any time after Turn Six, you’re into the realm of that sometimes-fatal ‘just X more mana’ to get the full value.

Most of the time, I think it’s going to be a fraction slow for Sealed, but not by enough to save you from hoping it all works out. In Draft (and this is from the lofty vantage point of zero Drafts with Zendikar) it seems highly unlikely to be anything other than a vanilla 2/2 for four.

Marsh Casualties is much more promising, although sorrowfully inefficient, once again proving that efficiency isn’t the be all and end all of good cards. Pyroclasm costs two for Red, and although you sometimes end up with some collateral damage, you’re probably setting yourself up for the least amount of pain. Marsh Casualties ensures that you don’t have to jump through hoops to keep your guys safe, since it thoughtfully aims itself exclusively on the other side of the red zone.

It might seem as if you would automatically wait until five mana to Kick this, but there are going to be times when the small version suits you very well. It’s entirely possible that you could create a three-for-one on Turn Five, simply by binning a Goblin Shortcutter, Plated Geopede, and Greenweaver Druid in exchange for two mana rather than five. That enables you to follow up with the first move of the next phase of the game with your remaining three mana.

Still using the example above. It’s worth remembering that just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done. While the Goblin Shortcutter isn’t setting the world alight with its awesomeness, you might be well satisfied with killing either the Plated Geopede or the Greenweaver Druid, even as a one-for-one. If they have a genuine threat, like a Prodigal Pyromancer or Merfolk Looter effect, using Marsh Casualties as a two mana removal spell seems perfectly fine.

Perhaps the most important message for this card is the same as for Pyroclasm, and it’s this: Don’t get too greedy, or you could be kicking yourself right along with the spell.

That leaves Vampire’s Bite. At a single mana, this is as cheap and cheerful as combat tricks get. If you’re going to kill something, that’s all you need to know. If you’re going to kill your opponent, that’s definitely all you need to know. Sometimes, though, you’re going to really appreciate the 5+ life the Kicker gets you. If you’re on defense, the ability to effectively nullify not only the monster you’re killing via the original Black mana, plus the ‘super-fog’ effect for another, could give you the time to re-establish your position.

In Red, there’s only one card to discuss in this section, but it’s a belter. Burst Lightning starts out as Shock, dealing two damage for one mana at instant speed, which at any other time in the last decade would have made it the best cheap Red removal spell around. With Lightning Bolt in Standard, that would make Shock at best your ‘number two receiver’, and that’s why the Kicker on this is potentially so interesting.

Is five mana for four damage a good deal? It is not. Is the ability to win games that you’d otherwise lose because they’re at three or four when you draw Shock, but it turns out to be the Shock+ that is Burst Lightning? Definitely.

We end with three Green cards, and I think they all have a fantastic tension to them. Mold Shambler is ideally Artifact or Enchantment removal that brings you a 3/3 body with it. However, six mana is a ton to destroy an Artifact that isn’t actually killing you Right Now, and if it is, you really want a Naturalize or derivative, not to hang around waiting for a turn you might not get.

Also, even as a Hill Giant, 3/3s are a decent, honorable part of many a Sealed deck, and if you’re getting ahead in the race, represent an authentic quickening of the clock. That’s why I like this card — you’re going to play it as a 3/3, moments before Eldrazi Monument comes down to destroy you, and you’ll think ‘if only…’.

Next is Oran-Rief Recluse, and the issue with this one is that it’s so good unKicked. Reach is a crucial part of Sealed, particularly in a color that wants to hold off the flyers until they have to start blocking your own Green fatties. This totally shuts down 2/1 flyers, and you can take a lot of damage while you wait to get from three mana up to six. That said, this doesn’t get near a Serra Angel, and the chance to put a heavyweight flyer in the bin and then still have a measure of air defense seems very tempting.

Most of the time, though, you may be sitting with a six casting cost conditional removal spell, waiting for a condition that never meaningfully comes. I suspect this is most often best played rather than held, unless you have specific information (from the Draft for example) about what nasty fat flyers your opponent may be playing.

That leaves us with Vines Of Vastwood, and I feel this is the most interesting choice of the whole lot. At one mana, you get to counter their removal spell on whatever your best guy is at the time. That’s terrific, especially as you’ll often be relying on your monsters to get the job done without too much spell support, so the ability to keep your big Trampler around for one more go-round is massive.

However, +4+4 is a lot, especially if it’s going on the afore-mentioned big guy with Trample. Even more ‘however’, the Kicker cost is tantalisingly within reach at just one extra mana. You’d think, on the face of it, that holding on would always be the way to go. Trouble is, of you want the +4+4 to be meaningful, it’s mostly going to be used on offense, to take out an opponent or at least a large chunk of them. Unfortunately, that’s where your opponent gets to respond to this and take out your man before it gets the bonus and becomes untargetable.

If you treat it as a hard counterspell for almost any removal, you’re probably going to get more value out of it than ignoring that aspect and treating it as a
+4+4 for two mana. Probably.

This has been a whistle-stop tour of a great mechanic, which was in part an exercise for myself, because I was so disappointed in it at the Pre-Release. Surely they wouldn’t have printed just a stack or irrelevant Kicker spells, where every choice was a given? They haven’t. You may well disagree with a few, many, or all of these evaluations, and that’s just fine. One thing is for certain — getting a kick out of Kicker is going to win you games, if you do it right.

As ever, thanks for reading…