I don’t get it. Planar Chaos was a small set, and yet there’s a full 36 cards I want to talk about this week. Does this mean that Planar Chaos was massively strong, or just that I have a bunch of stories from this middle set? Let’s find out, and see what wants keeping.
One of the two clear winners in terms of sheer numbers of cards of interest (Red being the other), the White cards of note run into double figures. Aven Riftwatcher proved the perfect blend of flying defense, flying offense, and genuinely efficient lifegain, to the point that it was a staple of both Block Constructed and Standard. As a lesson about lifegain, however, it should be noted that Craig Jones managed to fight his way through a veritable flying forest of these with his Red (and Tarmogoyf) Deck Wins en route to Great British Nationals success in 2007. Unsurprisingly, the Riftwatcher was most potent with Momentary Blink, and that’s a sentence I could use a lot more than once. Next up is Crovax, Ascendant Hero. In Sealed Deck play this guy was one of the most unfair canings seen for a while. With no mana in his return-to-sender activation cost, the Legendary beatstick was well-nigh unkillable, short of Split Second chicanery. It was his last ability that took him into the realms of Constructed, with his inbuilt ‘Night Of Souls Betrayal’ type effect making him a boardsweeper of sorts. It’s a testament to the resilience of the Faerie counterspell suite that he wasn’t seen more often as an answer to Bitterblossom, but at six mana he was just too much.
My next three cards never set any format on fire, but all have interesting tales attached. At the height of the frenzy surrounding White Weenie (just before Pro Tour: Yokohama, remember) attention turned to how to win the White mirror match. This enormous monster (Dust Elemental) turned out to be the answer, as you essentially cast a one-sided Wrath. This was, as far as I’m aware, first piloted by Willy Edel of Brazil in the infamous Premier Event the weekend before the Pro Tour. Unlike most Pros, Edel kept faith with the small White men, and the weenie-hating control-happy Pro Tour made sure he paid for that decision.
Magus Of The Tabernacle was a card that belonged to the cycle of Magi that didn’t do an awful lot, although at Grand Prix: Krakow the American star Paul Cheon found a use for it. The story that I’m about to tell doesn’t show Paul’s talents in the best possible light, but I’m happy to tell it for two reasons. First, it gives hope to us all, however humble, that the best in the world are human too. And second, he won the Grand Prix anyway, and there are lessons there too, as we’ll see. Let’s set the scene. Cheon and his teammate Luis Scott-Vargas had decided, following a Summer season in which LSV had won not only U.S. Nationals but Grand Prix: San Francisco as well, that they would make a clear push for Pro Points in a bid to reach the highest Levels for 2008. That meant a first European foray onto the Grand Prix circuit, and Poland was the venue for the first Standard Grand Prix after the appearance of Lorwyn. This was the tournament that featured Cryptic Commands, Deserts, and Guiles in the hand of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Makeshift Mannequins, Shriekmaws and Mulldrifters with Olivier Ruel, and a kind of catch-all Blue-White Pickles control deck brought by the Americans. Ruel and Cheon would, by the back end of Sunday, go on to play one of the truly great matchups, with the game played mostly in their heads, far above most of the spectators privileged to see them in action. But that so nearly didn’t happen. Rewind to Saturday afternoon, and Cheon, in only his 3rd match of the weekend, is at 5-0. He’s under severe pressure, with only a Magus Of The Tabernacle (you knew I’d get there eventually) in play. His opponent turns his men sideways, and puts Paul on notice that he’s dead next turn. As Paul prepares to untap, he’s heard to say, ‘better find something good.’ He draws his card. It’s a land. He passes the turn, his opponent attacks once more, and Paul loses. Then LSV, watching from afar, says, ‘Why didn’t you attack with your 2/6 Magus when he was at 2 and had no blockers?’ Oops. No, oops doesn’t really do it justice, because that’s the kind of oops that costs people very dearly. Except for Cheon it didn’t. That failure to shoot into the proverbial empty net was the last time Cheon lost the entire weekend, ultimately taking down Amiel Tenenbaum of France in the final. Many players would have been destroyed by that kind of blunder, perhaps even more so given the distance travelled, his reputation as one of the world’s best, and what was at stake. That weekend guaranteed Cheon the highest Level in the game for 2008. However, next time your opponent’s at 2, and you have the win on the board, I, and he, recommend you turn your man sideways.
The third of this little trilogy involves Saltblast. Never destined for Constructed, this was nonetheless absolutely fine as a piece of White removal, a fact that had not escaped the attention of Ervin Tormos when it came to the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Geneva. Unfortunately, even in Limited Magic can be a game of matchups, and Tormos ran into the then-unknown Shingou Kurihara with a deck that was able to essentially ignore the Saltblasts that Tormos had drafted. Game after game, Tormos drew the more-or-less dead cards, while his Japanese opponent took full advantage. Let’s be clear, the strategy Tormos chose was perfectly fine, but the way the matchups fell left him an overwhelming underdog in the quarter finals.
Talking of matchups, it’s odd to think that what appeared to be nothing more than a fair-to-middling Limited card suddenly found itself in the forefront of the white weenie hordes. But Shade Of Trokair fitted the curve perfectly, with an early Suspend leaving a hefty beater ready to come online, frequently at the same time as Serra Avenger, or an irritating Griffin Guide. Another card that straddled Limited and Constructed was Whitemane Lion. In Sealed and Draft, the Lion was great at returning one of your creatures that was about to die, or that had comes into play abilities. One of the things you most wanted to return with Whitemane Lion was Calciderm, a Blastoderm variant that really did live up to the hype, turning sideways in hyper-aggressive fashion, taking out chump blockers left and right before being returned by the Lion (thankfully it couldn’t be abused with Momentary Blink — another top thought from R&D). The Lion also made an appearance in the Constructed Wild Pair Slivers deck, since it could trigger the Wild Pair repeatedly, simply by returning itself to hand, enabling the player to search out a ton of naughtiness. A great example of an apparently simple card being used to do very complex things.
The last two are pretty unexciting, but both had uses. Sunlance was never really more than a sideboard card in Block, but it was an awesome card to get in Draft, where such straightforward removal was a major boon to White. And finally we had Mana Tithe, a prime example of a card that changed far more by its existence than by actually being played. Choosing whether to wait a turn and play around potentially non-existent Mana Tithes proved to be one of the more frequent and interesting challenges confronting players at all levels of the game, and even when decklists were exchanged (as in the Top 8 of Yokohama for instance) the game became whether they had been sideboarded in or out. And as anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of Force Spike (the ‘real’ Mana Tithe) will tell you, it’s not a pretty feeling when you get it wrong.
And now I’m unhappy. So unhappy that I’m going to check the spoiler to make sure that I’m not imagining things. I have two cards to talk about in blue. Two. Okay, I checked. There really are only two cards worth mentioning, and that means that blue in Planar Chaos was rubbish. I suppose if I really wanted to push things I could mention Riptide Pilferer which briefly appeared in a Block Constructed aggro mono-Blue deck as a form of card advantage. Ah yes, the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped. Still, at least the two cards worth talking about are Any Good. Body Double has been a central component of Reveillark and has been the cause of more head-dropping and shoulder-slumping than most cards in Standard. As for the other Blue card that made a splash, it showcases exactly why I enjoy Block Constructed. Whilst a card may not be really Standard material, put it in a smaller gene pool and suddenly it feels as filthy as a Turn 0 Flash kill in Vintage. That card is Aeon Chronicler, card advantage engine par excellence, and a win condition four or even more turns before it actually hit play. Sometimes synergy is a tough concept to get across, but here it was all in one card — the card you draw every turn while you wait to unsuspend it just makes it bigger and better when it does arrive. This was one of the main reasons that Pull From Eternity became a card worthy of a maindeck starting slot. Filthy Blue power at its finest, which is just as well, as even typing the words Aquamorph Entity, Tidewalker, and Primal Plasma are threatening to bring me out in a rash.
I can’t honestly tell you that there’s much more strength in depth from our next color. Blightspeaker was great in Black-White Draft decks, since they searched out all your gorgeous cheap white Rebels, and because it was common and players were comfortably locked into their colors by the time PC came around in TS/TS/PC Draft, you could end up with two or three of these, and then the lifeloss could be ridden to victory. Another card that was never going to make it into Constructed but provided any amount of comedy in a Limited environment was Enslave. What was so great about this from a design point of view is that it managed to tap into the idea of being totally unfair and gratuitous without actually being either. It was in Sealed that this really gave value, as at six mana it was just in time to, er, oh yes, Enslave the enormous monster that your opponent had spent all game trying to accumulate the mana for. It was that second bit that was the work of genius. Talk about rubbing salt into the wounds. So much fun.
That leaves the two big hitters. Once again we find Split Second with a card that offered tremendous strategic possibilities for both players, Extirpate. Why both players, when the whole point of Split Second is that you couldn’t do much about it? Well, at the top levels of the game, once you knew Extirpate was coming in, an elaborate game of bluff and risk/reward ensued, where you would allow apparently important cards to land in the graveyard, tempting your opponent into removing something from the equation, leaving you free to start the fun and frolics of, for example, Mystical Teachings recursion. Extirpate was a card that the better you were at the game the more use you could get from it, and the more you could outplay lesser opponents holding the same cards as you. I love cards that allow for playskill, and whereas a card like Circle Of Protection: Red is pretty apparently useful against Red decks, a card like Extirpate was only ever as good as your knowledge of the format, opposing decks, opposing decks post-sideboard, and myriad possibilities of a game of bluff and counter-bluff.
Just before we get to the finale, a quick mention for a few cards that never really got past the tempting stage to actually doing something worthwhile. Mirri The Cursed was hyped in advance, but turned out to be a two-toughness monster, which is another way of saying dead. Roiling Horror came from the same stable as Aeon Chronicler and Detritivore, but there wasn’t a deck that made this worth playing. A card that players were simply aching to abuse was Waning Wurm, but Vanishing 2 was too tough a nut to crack. Another card that set deckbuilders a challenge that they weren’t quite equal to was Null Profusion. Featuring the three best words in Magic, ‘draw a card,’ it was inevitable that the Profusion would find itself the target of many harebrained schemes in assorted bedrooms around the world, as the Mad Scientist brigade did their bit for King/Queen/President/Despot (delete as applicable) and Country. Let’s be honest though, the real value of the Profusion was watching it go horribly wrong for the opponent who just couldn’t chain it all together and locked themselves totally out of the game.
So, of course, we come to not only the signature card of Black, but the signature card of the set, Damnation. I have mixed feelings about it, but one thing should be said up front. I’m a latecomer to the whole ‘Magic art rocks’ party, since until I became involved in my Coverage role I didn’t generally spend much time thinking about which cards looked nice, I just cared about what they did. If you own a copy of Damnation, do me a favor and just take a moment to look at it. And I don’t mean look up the artwork on Gatherer, I mean actually pull it out of the folder or the deck that it’s currently sitting in and just look at it. I’m not going to bother with going down the route of whether or not you ‘like’ it. Instead, I’m just going to ask you to acknowledge that as a piece of artwork it totally reeks of power, destruction, decay, and magnificent terror. In the last few years I can’t think of a card that more perfectly complemented killer artwork with super-desirable gameplay. Although there may have been cards that more people felt they needed four of, the almost sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach thrill of finding a foil Damnation in a booster is something that doesn’t come along very often. Having said that, there was plenty of dismay that White had been robbed of its divine right to Wrath Of God, a part of the wider discussion of color pie and color bleed. Whatever side of this debate you lie on (and for the record I don’t care especially if Wrath becomes Purple) this card sticks out an absolute mile.
An absolute stack of cards to chat about here in a color of surprising depth and variety. Coming in right behind Damnation in the pre-event hype list came Akroma, Angel Of Fury. There was a ton of information on the card, the essentially irrelevant bits being flying, trample, protection from white, protection from blue, 6/6, and firebreathing. That’s not to say that each of these factors weren’t useful from time to time. Of course they were, and won any number of games as you might expect from a firebreathing 6/6 flying trample multiple protection creature. But what made her interesting was the first and last parts of the card. The first, ‘Akroma, Angel Of Fury can’t be countered’ put it firmly in the category of Scragnoth and Boseiju, Who Shelters All as a proper Pain In The Neck (TM) for Blue decks, and made her a perfect fit for Green-Red Mana Ramp decks who were looking to punch through the Blueness. What really made her a fun card was the last ability, morph. Just like with Willbender, Vesuvan Shapeshifter, and Brine Elemental for Blue, the Akroma player had to decide when to offer up an innocuous face-down card and when to put their heavenly one into play and ultra-vulnerable, knowing that if they got to untap with 6 mana up they were getting a real bargain basement price on their killing machine. Sometimes this decision was forced upon them, as they just couldn’t afford to wait to try and reach eight mana. Thanks to Radha, Heir To Keld, it was possible to swing for the fences with Akroma as early as turn 4. Radha turn 2, morph turn 3, lay the fourth land, attack with Radha and morph, add two Red from Radha and unmorph Akroma. These were generally games won by Mana Ramp.
Next up was a real metagame card, useless in Limited but a real sideboard standout in Block Constructed, Detritivore. One of the more entertaining games to be played on long car journeys to tournaments is to imagine certain cards dropped into current environments. Imagine Night Of Souls Betrayal (all creatures get -1/-1) in a world of Faeries and other tokens. As MagicDave suggested in response to my Back To Basics (tee hee), just think what carnage Price Of Progress would wreak on Five-Color Control decks. Yet Detritivore has been available in Standard, and hasn’t really been seen. Given how long the control mirrors tend to go, this really surprises me. Perhaps there have just been better options, or perhaps people have fallen into the usual way of thinking, along the lines of ‘out of Block, out of mind.’ Either way, Detritivore saw plenty of action at Pro Tour: Yokohama, and was an automatic on the shortlist for the rest of the Block year. Talking of metagame cards and Yokohama, could any card have been more truly metagame than Sulfur Elemental? Sure, it was 3/2 with Flash and Split Second, but it only saw play because of the last line: White creatures get +1/-1. That made it a stalwart of the anti-White plan, although increasingly two were necessary to actually begin to shut things down, and even then you were sometimes facing 7/3 Calciderms and 5/1 Serra Avengers. An even more efficient White shutdown card was Blood Knight, since with first strike and protection from white it was pretty tough to get through without the help of Griffin Guide.
It’s been a while since the words ‘cute’ and ‘Rich Hagon‘ got into the same sentence, so I’m glad to have been given the opportunity by Fatal Frenzy, a card for which ‘cute’, (in the sense of ‘devious and tricksy’ rather than ‘I’ve noticed you around. Would you go to bed with me?’) was invented. Antonino De Rosa and Ben Rubin were amongst the Red players in Yokohama who saw the inherent comedy, and power, in a 9/7 Greater Gargadon coming off suspend that accidentally became an 18/7 trampler. Ultimately it didn’t get sacrificed at the end of turn, since the opponents were busy shuffling long before main phase two, let alone end of turn. Like I say, (and like I am), cute.
Up next is a card that puzzled me by its use, Keldon Marauders. I played with it a few times in Block and never really seemed to get the best out of it. To say that, in theory, it deals five damage over three turns for just two mana is clearly correct, but most of the time in Block it seemed to bounce off a Wall Of Roots. Still, anecdotal evidence apart, it’s clear how the Marauders was a worthy Block card. But it went further, outgrowing those narrow confines and turning up in Standard, and right now it’s considered a likely starter for putative Red decks come Pro Tour: Berlin at the end of next month. Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, and baulk at the idea of voluntarily putting one of my monsters in the bin, something I’d have no problem with, Rift Bolt, say. Turns out that Keldon Maruaders isn’t really a monster at all, but a three-turn burn spell that happens to briefly have power and toughness attached.
Now we turn the spoiler sideways, to remind ourselves of the three split cards that Red got given, one at each level of rarity. The common, Dead/Gone, was key to Block decks. Dead was well worth offing any number of irritating monsters, while Gone was the real star. Bouncing in response to Griffin Guide was one use. Watching the red Akroma flip up and pumped to oblivion was another prime use for this versatile instant, but perhaps the real winner was watching your opponent go all in on the eggs-basket-Greater Gargadon plan, and leaving them with no permanents whatsoever, a fate that befell red players far more often than they would have liked. At uncommon we had Rough/Tumble, a cardname that I’ve always loved, since Rough And Tumble was, as every Magic player knows, the horse that came third in the 1979 Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, before going one better the following year behind Grittar. You did all know that, right? Ahem. Right, back to cards. Rough/Tumble never really shone, although it came very close during the Super Sunday of Pro Tour: San Diego. In the Draft, where Jacob van Lunen and Chris Lachmann had taken slivers galore as per usual, John Fiorillo and Eugene Harvey had built a pair of decks that could potentially trump the slivers plan. While Fiorillo’s deck was basically packed full of medium-good cards without being spectacular, it was Green-Blue, and existed to keep the ship steady, while Harvey brought all-stars galore to the table, one of which was Rough/Tumble. With the sliver boys more or less having to commit to dropping everything onto the board in the early turns, the opportunity for an enormous cardswing towards the Americans was glaring. Only problem? Two-headed Giant only works when there are two heads, and after a free mulligan, Fiorillo watched from the sidelines as Harvey attempted the next-to-impossible in the semis, and came up short. That brings us to the rare of the trio, Boom/Bust. This found a neat home in Lightning Angel decks around the Summer of 2007, where the first part combined very nicely with Flagstones Of Trokair (negating the cardloss for you, but not your opponent) and the second part with Lightning Angel herself to go the distance unmolested, especially against decks packing the game-ending Hellbent spell, Demonfire.
We’re still not done with Red. Once we’re into the Timeshifted realm, there’s more quality entertainment, though not necessarily top class power. Molten Firebird was a card that casual players tried to break without success. At uncommon, Reckless Wurm was one of the few good reasons to play Red-Black Madness decks in draft. Prodigal Pyromancer finally gave Red the card that the original should always have been, while it stole Giant Growth from Green in the form of Brute Force. Simian Spirit Guide was used sporadically to generate, oh yes, mana, while comedy award went to anyone who seriously thought that Shivan Wumpus was any good. The clear winner from this group however, was a card you would never have expected to enter the global consciousness of the community, Pyrohemia. In Sealed, it was a beating. In Draft, it was a beating. At Pro Tour: San Diego, it was arguably the most powerful card in the entire format. See, in 2HG cards like Pyrohemia work for every player, and that meant that the base-red deck of a pair could reliably inflict 6, 8, maybe 10 damage in a single end of turn step. Almost nothing ended games quicker, and only Volcanic Awakening caused more distrust of the format.
We’re on to the downhill run to the finish, and Green isn’t going to stand in our way for very long. A great example of a card that got around its inherent drawback to become a virtue was Kavu Predator. While Grove Of The Burnwillows would subsequently allow for a modest improvement in power/toughness, albeit on a turn by turn basis, the big card that turned the Predator into a genuine focus for deck designers was Fiery Justice. If you could jump through the three-color hoop to play it, your 2/2 Predator was frequently an 8/8 moments later. Without the T word that would have been a pyrrhic victory, but with Trample it became a very scary threat. If memory serves, both David Irvine and Josh Ravitz piloted the Predator deck to great success, Irvine sweeping the Swiss rounds of Grand Prix: San Francisco with the deck.
Timbermare was a tribute to the sadly-departed wife of King of the Fatties Jamie Wakefield, a lady he referred to as The Lovely Mare. Tapping all other creatures was enough of an incentive to mean that this particular lovely mare was seen in Sunday TV action at Pro Tour: Yokohama, where Tomaharu Saitou found it a useful part of his Green-Red weaponry. Less successful was the Green Ball Lightning, Groundbreaker, although it did appear for a few weeks during a Block PTQ season. Right next to it on the print sheet was a simple little card that absolutely did make it to the top, Harmonize. This has been all over both Block and Standard since it arrived on the scene, and shows that the downside of Sorcery speed can sometimes be overcome by simple weight of reward. When you factor in that this was often a turn 3 play for Mana Ramp decks, ready to recharge their hands after Search For Tomorrow and Wall Of Roots type starts, it’s not hard to see why this has been so popular for Constructed. Since artist Rob Alexander assured me that it isn’t a self-portrait, the character in the artwork isn’t Rob Alexander, but if Rob Alexander ever goes missing and the police need a likeness, I won’t be pointing them to Healing Leaves…
Utopia Vow could have been renamed ‘Thanks,’ judging by the number of times I heard people say this as they were generously allowed to find exactly the mana they needed courtesy of an opposing Utopia Vow. This was an accident waiting to happen, and it happened a lot. Essence Warden did more or less what the original version used to, which was fine, while Gaea’s Anthem never really found a home. One card that did was Wild Pair, with the first-time-I’ve-mentioned-him-today Guillaume Wafo-Tapa again at the forefront of putting together a sliver deck that relied on the six mana enchantment to go, quite simply, nuts. This was a Combo deck that didn’t just go off by casting spells, it went off by casting a ton of creatures, and the synergy between the slivers once the Dormant Sliver engine of card-drawing got going was something to behold. Still a niche card though.
Gold and Land
Very few gold cards, only one land card, and no artifacts this time around. In gold it was mostly the afore-mentioned slivers that had an impact. Darkheart Sliver took you out of burn range, Dormant Sliver was your engine, Necrotic Sliver threatened to leave opponents with no permanents, while Frenetic Sliver was one of the more irritating cards to be seen in a long time. Meanwhile the cycle of Legendary Dragons were ideal for Sealed, marginal in Draft and pretty useless in Constructed. I’ll confess that something’s niggling away at me that I may have forgotten a deck somewhere along the line that one of them made it into, but I really can’t think of one. Help? And finally, help is certainly what numerous players got with the arrival of the mighty Urborg, Tomb Of Yawgmoth. I don’t know what Yawgmoth pays R&D (or more probably Creative) to get his pick of the cards, but between Bargain, Will and Tomb he’s not exactly done badly. If you think I’m kidding, remember that Ashnod once offended Brady Dommermuth, and all he ended up with was an Altar and a Transmogrant, and most of us don’t even know what that is, let alone what it does. The Legendary land had a phenomenal number of uses, of which sending Tendrils Of Corruption off the charts was only the first and most obvious. Using the Legend rules to suddenly ‘turn off’ the swamp supply was a neat trick in the mirror, and I certainly saw players die to their Slaughter Pacts after this happened. Like Damnation, this one simply reeked of Black, and was a card that almost anyone who played with it did so with relish, smacking it onto the board ready to do serious damage. A tremendous card.
I have a non-scientific theory (so don’t go disproving it please) that in the old style of Block design with large set followed by two small sets, the middle set of the Block represents a gentle downcurve, with plenty of excitement stored safely for the grand hurrah of the closing set. This feels all the truer when middle sets tended to bring you more of the same, perhaps with a slight twist, and where a huge amount of the mechanics seemed to come all at once in The Big Unveil in October each year (I’m going back to my early years, so thinking of Tempest, Saga and Masques Blocks as examples). That certainly doesn’t seem to hold true for Planar Chaos, which already had a tough time, given that there were the bonus 121 cards from Timeshifted Time Spiral, plus a Standard environment that already had a complete ‘extra’ set in the form of Coldsnap. Given this, there are a surprisingly high number of cards that I think are worth keeping safely in your collection. Here’s the initial list:
8 Aven Riftwatcher
4 Whitemane Lion
4 Mana Tithe
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Sulfur Elemental
4 Blood Knight
4 Kavu Predator
4 Aeon Chronicler
4 Body Double
4 Akroma, Angel Of Fury
4 Wild Pair
4 Radha, Heir To Keld
4 Urborg, Tomb Of Yawgmoth
The trouble with this list is that there are a bunch of cards that are pretty marginal, only have one dedicated use, or are relatively unlikely to come back and see play in wider formats. With that in mind, here’s the Essentials that no self-respecting deckbuilding collection should be without:
8 Aven Riftwatcher
4 Mana Tithe
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Sulfur Elemental
4 Blood Knight
4 Kavu Predator
4 Body Double
4 Urborg, Tomb Of Yawgmoth
Now we’re down to just four rares, and the likely total for this lot comes to round about $130, and it won’t surprise you to learn that more than half of that comes from the last three cards on the list.
Next time around, and thanks for sticking with me on this gargantuan trawl through the archives, we come to Future Sight and final thoughts on the Cards That Were.
As ever, thanks for reading.