So Many Insane Plays – Zero Variance: The Ultimate Mental Magic Format

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Monday, November 24th – In a break from his usual Vintage exploration, Stephen Menendian explores a Mental Magic format that showcases analytical thought in its purest form. Fans of Stephen’s exhaustive play-by-play articles will find this fascinating…

My grandfather kept a chess board in his parlor. Although I rarely saw him in there, I would sneak in during the day and stare at the graceful wooden board with finely sculpted figurines. Chess was a mystery to me, but I noticed that the pieces moved every few days, little by little.

My grandfather was fond of playing correspondence Chess. As an adult, correspondence chess strikes me as a gentlemanly sport for a time before email and the internet. My grandfather would notify his opponent of his move by post, and over the course of weeks and months, a game would unfold. Today, ironically, there are web-pages dedicated to the sport.

According to Wikipedia:

“Time limits in correspondence play are usually between 30 and 60 days for every 10 moves (plus transmission time in postal chess). This time allows for far deeper calculation, meaning that blunders can be less frequent.”

Magic has always been a table game. You sit down, roll dice, draw cards and play. Sure, it can be played on a computer, but it still has the same rhythm. Magic is the cha-cha of strategy games. It’s fast-paced, energetic, and often frenzied.

Until now.

Patrick Chapin and his friends devised the format I’m about to share with you as a Mental Magic variant, literally, in the sense that you don’t actually need cards to play it. Patrick laid out the rules of this format. In the spirit in which I discovered it, I have simplified and clarified them. They are as follows:

1) The Rules of Magic apply unless otherwise specified.
2) Players play cards as any card that exists in Magic. Once a card has been named (announced, discarded, removed from game), it cannot be announced by either player for the rest of game.*
3) Players may play only one spell per turn (like Limited Infinity).
4) There are no graveyards (just imagine that there is a permanent Leyline of the Void in play).
5) The Legacy Format banned list applies (optional).

The rules are notable for what they allow. You can play multiple cards per turn. You can lay a land, play a spell, cycle a card, suspend something, and so on.

In addition to those rules, Patrick had a rule which may or may not be needed: each player could also play “Utopia” lands. This was a basic land that produced every color of mana, and you could play as many of these as you wanted.

In terms of possible lines of play, this format resembles Chess more than Magic. This format contains the deepest and most intriguing lines of play of any Magic format I have ever encountered, including Vintage. Many will find this format boring. It is a gentlemanly format for the Magic connoisseur.

In exploring this format, my initial impulse was to identify all of the good cycling, Channel, Split Second, and Uncounterable cards in Magic. I made a list of these cards. I also identified all of the potentially useful lands in Magic. Those lists are available in the appendix.

Two of my teammates played a quick game, and I was struck by how unsophisticated I felt that game had been. There were so many possibilities. When people describe Magic as a game of over 9000 potentially interactive pieces, that literally describes this format.

Without playing a game or even testing a game against myself, I sat down to imagine how I thought a format like this would play out. I speculated that a control strategy should be superior to an aggro strategy because a properly crafted answer should trump a properly designed threat in a format in which you can play any card in Magic. On account of its symmetry, this format seemed suited to a 1-for-1 sort of deal, using cantrips (like Disrupt) and other marginal means of card advantage to get ahead. Being reactive rather than offensive would allow you to take advantage of your opponent’s plays in a way that playing threats would not.

Patrick challenged my team to a game, and I eagerly volunteered to play. What I thought would be a fun diversion quickly became something much more. The game sucked me in as I could hardly have imagined. I became obsessive. I spent hours and hours agonizing on it. When I got home from work, I would sit down and diagram possible lines of play and try to anticipate his responses.

Patrick and his friends, including teammate Brian DeMars, had a clearly defined understanding of how they viewed the format. My goal, if I played well, would be to actually influence how they viewed the format. For instance, they believed that at least one card, which they would not share with me, should be banned. In addition, they were insistent on using the Legacy banned list. Success, for me, would be having a good time, and hopefully making some decently impressive plays in the process.

Patrick let me decide whether I would be on the play or the draw. I settled on the play for one reason. If I wanted to play a particular Leyline, I would have to be on the play since only the first person to name a card would be able to play it.

Since I expected Control to be the superior strategy, in terms of “who’s the beatdown?” given the design of the format, I thought I was quite clever when I began with this:

Turn 0:

Me: Leyline of Lightning.

I imagined that this card would play well in the control role, allowing me to deal incremental damage over time.

I was tempted to play Leyline of Lifeforce as well just to prevent him from playing it, but I decided that I would just kill it if he played it, and then deal with whatever else he played.

The biggest question, one I posed directly, was whether he would play Unluckyman’s Paradise, and what he would do on my first turn’s upkeep, if anything.

I couldn’t wait to find out.

Another question I had was whether there was a way to get a critical tempo advantage using Spirit Guides early on in the format. I eventually sort came to the tentative conclusion that hand size could quickly become a determinative factor. If one player emptied their hand too quickly, I could see how they might get locked out of the game. This was another reason I only played one Leyline.

I had 6 cards in hand.

Patrick: Before the game begins, I will remove Dust Bowl from the game and play Gemstone Caverns.
I have no effects during your upkeep.
I have 5 cards in hand.

Fascinating! Patrick was making an unmistakable statement about this format by removing Dust Bowl. I recognized that cards like Wasteland and Ghost Quarter were going to be important, especially since I imagined that cards like Boseiju could be very powerful. Patrick’s play verified my hunch.

Turn 1:

Me: I played Utopia.

Before racking my brain exploring the plethora of options, I wanted to get a stable mana source into play. I figured that even if this play caused me to suffer a minor loss in tempo due to the opportunity cost of not playing a more important land like Wasteland or Boseiju, I reasoned that it was just as important to be able to play Red Elemental Blast, Spell Snare, Force Spike, or some other early counterspell for whatever he might attempt.

I had five cards in hand.

Patrick: On my turn I will play a Wasteland and go to my end step.
Five cards in hand.

Turn 2:

Now the game begins to take shape.

Me: I played turn 2 Crystal Vein.

How did I settle on this play? After a full review of the lands of Magic (see Appendix for my list), here were the options I seriously contemplated:

Turn 2 Land Options:

1) Utopia
2) Boseiju
3) Ancient Tomb
4) Crystal Vein
5) Ghost Quarter
6) Vesuva
7) Ancient Spring

Here was my reasoning, taken directly from my notepad (in fact, this is the first time I’ve fully published my notes for my game with Patrick — I’m curious to see what Patrick thinks of my analysis!):

Option 1: A Second Utopia.
Merits: The idea behind here is just solid mana development. It makes me impervious to Wastelands and Vesuva. It also puts the onus on him to play more non basics.
Downsides: Seems generally inferior to more mana development that could be gained by playing Ancient Tomb or Crystal Vein.

Option 2: Boseiju, Who Shelters All
Merits: Incredibly powerful card which I won’t have to deal with if I play it first.
Downside: Probably results in immediate Vesuva. Will rewind the game functionally one turn. Moreover, could be used later in the game for better effect.

Option 3: Ancient Tomb
Merits: Mana development is good. Allows me to play cards like Word of Seizing immediately with two Spirit Guides.
Downside: Damage is bad, although I can reuse many times.

Option 4: Crystal Vein
Seems better than Ancient Tomb since I can get a single burst of mana out of it, but can also use it to play things like Mana Leak.

Option 5: Ghost Quarter
Is great once Trickbind and Word of Seizing have been used. Prevents him from being able to Wasteland my lands once Trickbind has been played.

Option 6: Vesuva:
Seems like the worst option.

Option 7: Ancient Spring
Possible turn 3 play, not earlier.

I felt like it would be valuable to have at least two usable mana available so that I might play cards like Mana Leak or Trickbind without having to expend a Spirit Guide.

After that brief analysis, Ancient Tomb and Crystal Vein stood out as the better turn 2 plays, although I lacked much confidence in my decision. Because of my lack of confidence, I selected Crystal Vein instead of Ancient Tomb.

Five cards in hand.

Patrick: I will play Mikokoro, Center of the Sea. End my turn.
Five cards in hand.

This was a very intriguing play. In terms of lands that draw cards, I would have thought that Scrying Sheets or Nivix, Aerie of the Firemind would be better, since they are one-sided.

I called Brian DeMars, not for advice — I was very clear that I didn’t want him to help me out — but to clarify the rules about Scrying Sheets and Nivix. In his view, those cards weren’t legal under the rules they had constructed, although I didn’t see them as inconsistent with the rules Patrick had presented. I also considered the possibility that maybe Patrick hadn’t thought of those cards. I did, after all, comb through the entire Magic library.

Turn 3:

Me: I played Boseiju, Who Shelters All and moved to my endstep.

I had 5 cards in hand.

At this point, my teammates started to chime in, saying how boring this game had been thus far. So I shared my notes with some teammates — again, not looking for help or advice, but just to give them a sense of my thinking.

Here are the turn 3 options I gave serious consideration:

1) Ancient Tomb
2) Ancient Spring
3) Vesuva
4) Boseiju
5) Ghost Quarter
6) Utopia

At this point, the lines of play begin to branch out, so I put my plays into outline form. Again, here were my notes, with comments in brackets.

Option 1: Ancient Tomb
Upsides: Playing Ancient Tomb here has a number of upsides.
a) If he goes to ‘End of Turn, activate Mikokoro,’ I can respond by tapping my Utopia, Ancient Tomb, Crystal Vein, and an SSG and play Word of Seizing, taking his Wasteland and killing his Mikokoro. Granted, it is unlikely he will make this play, but Ancient Tomb gets me into this play without having to sacrifice Crystal Vein.
b) I have mana development so I can play later game Time Stop and then Obliterate or cards of that order of magnitude first.
For example, Turn 4: Ancient Spring, turn 5 Utopia (or other land), on his upkeep Time Stop. Turn 6 Obliterate! [Note that this play is not very good, but I didn’t realize how poor it was at the time].
c) I have general mana superiority.

a) Ancient Tomb deals damage to me.
b) It doesn’t give me colored mana to play either Word of Seizing or two counterspells in one turn (like Complicate).
c) It may induce an inferior or weak turn 4 land drop.

Option 2: Ancient Spring
Upsides: Best Mana development. Allows me to proceed with subsequent Time Stop and later Obliterate.
Downsides: Does not allow me to Word of Seizing him if he goes to activate Mikokoro without blowing both Spirit Guides.

Side question: what are the ramifications of me blowing both Spirit Guides if he activates Mikokoro? I will gain a card, going to 6, then lose 3 (not including Crystal Vein), ending with 3 cards in hand to his 6 cards in hand, and his 1 land in play to my 2.

Option 3: Vesuva
Upsides: This allows me to kill Mikokoro immediately. Also, it prevents him from playing Vesuva
Downsides: It allows him to play Boseiju, at which point I probably lose!
I can’t make this play.

Option 4: Boseiju
Upsides: Prevents him from playing it.
Downsides: Likely makes him play Vesuva immediately, which will cut me off from it. If I can somehow get Vesuva into play first, then I can play this card and protect it with Trickbind, etc.

Option 5: Ghost Quarter:
Upsides: Gets a great card onto the table.
Downside: Allows him to Word of Seizing me and get card advantage out of it.

Option 6: Utopia

Before settling on one of these options, I wanted to give some thought as to what I thought Patrick might do on his turn.

Here were four options I considered for his turn:

1) Utopia
2) Boseiju
3) Vesuva
4) Ghost Quarter

My evaluation of the various options didn’t help me come to a decision. Rather, my fear of him playing Boseiju was the biggest motivator, and I decided that I didn’t want to have to consider what would happen if he played Boseiju every turn, so I decided to play it first.

But the more I considered the play, the more powerful it seemed. I could stop almost anything at this point. I could Force of Will and cycle Ghost-Lit Warder or Complicate. I could Trickbind a Wasteland. I just needed to get Vesuva down next turn so that he couldn’t kill my Boseiju as a state-based effect.

Patrick: I activate Mikokoro.
We each have 6 cards in hand.
I will assume you do nothing because if you try anything on your endstep, I will use Misdirection on it, etc.
On my turn I play a Volcanic Island.
Go to my endstep.

Board state is I have Gemstone Caverns, Volcanic Island, Wasteland, and Mikokoro
You have Utopia, Crystal Vein, Boseiju, Leyline of Lightning
We each have 6 cards.
Dust Bowl is removed from the game.

All I said in response was: “Okay.” But as you can see from my reasoning, one play I was toying with was playing Word of Seizing on him taking his Wasteland and aiming at one of his other lands. Apparently, he either didn’t see it, or thought that I didn’t see it. In any case, I declined to pull the trigger.

If I played Word of Seizing on his Wasteland in response to his Mikokoro activation, he’d end up with 6 cards in hand and lose both Wasteland and Mikokoro if he didn’t play a Stifle effect. I’d end up with just Utopia and Boseiju in play and only 3 cards in hand to his grip of 6. That seemed terrible. I’d lose a bunch of cards to get, what, a minor tempo advantage?

Turn 4:

I decided on a different approach.

Me: “I will play Vesuva, copying Mikokoro and move to my end step. I have 6 cards in hand.”

This line of play was determined by my previous play. Remember, I said that if I could get Vesuva down after Boseiju, it would be hard to imagine how he could deal with it. To be candid, I thought I won the game with this play. Every single potential line of play that he might make to try and stop Boseiju could be countered. Obliterate? Time Stop, Venser, among other plays. Decree of Annihilation? Stifle, etc.

I remember lying down to sleep that night at my girlfriend’s house with smug confidence that I had just sealed up this game!

Patrick: Cycle Renewed Faith.
Untap, play a Rishadan Port.
We each have 6 cards, go.

Renewed Faith was a card that I had made note of in my list of cyclers, but I didn’t have an opportunity to tap down at any time since I had to protect Boseiju at all times. Patrick continued his trend of playing land-destroying/limiting lands with Port. This only made me salivate over the prospect of playing a Teferi’s Response, which I quickly became obsessed with.

The play of Port meant that I would have to play another Blue-mana-producing land, since he could tap down my Utopia.

Turn 5:

Here were the options I looked at:

1) Ghost Quarter
2) Ancient Tomb
3) Utopia
4) Ancient Spring

If I play 1, 2, or 4, he can Port my Utopia and Wasteland Boseiju and there was little I could do to stop him. That left option 3, which is how I played it. In retrospect, I could/should have probably explored alternatives to Utopia, such as dual lands.

If I played Utopia, he could Port one of my Utopias on my turn, but I could play Teferi’s Response to kill his Port and use Boseiju to pay for it, making it uncounterable. I could then use the other Utopia to Trickbind his Wasteland if he tried to Wasteland my Boseiju.

Me: “Utopia, and move to my endstep. I have 6 cards in hand. There’s gonna be some fireworks now. Let’s get to it.”

That’s me talking smack.

I was pretty excited. I had a solid plan to protect Boseiju, and with every turn I would strengthen my position.

I had overlooked one card that exists in Magic, Patrick’s only out…

Patrick: Eot, Wipe Away your Boseiju, Who Shelters All (leaving Wasteland untapped.)
Five cards in hand.
You have seven.
Still on your endstep.

Wipe Away was in the list of Split Second cards that I came up with, but somehow I didn’t account for it as an answer to Boseiju. Seems obvious in hindsight. Yet so disappointing!

At this point, Brian chimes in and chastises Patrick for playing the “banned” card. Apparently, as I found out later, there is a concern that turn 2 Wipe Away on a land is too good as it creates an insurmountable tempo advantage. I am skeptical, to say the least.

This is the first time in the game so far that Patrick has been “spelled out.” Should I capitalize? I thought about it. I could play Fact or Fiction, Gifts Ungiven, any number of spells. I could even Word of Seizing him, removing two Spirit Guides from game, Wastelanding his Port. But he’d lose only 2 cards and I’d lose 3. Granted, he’d lose two lands. I’d be down to 4 cards in hand to his 5. I’d have 3 lands in play to his 3 (after he makes his turn’s land drop). I just didn’t see a good enough spell to play. If I played Thirst For Knowledge, I’d get one more card in hand, but I’d be tapped down, so if he played something on his turn, I’d have to Force of Will it, negating the card advantage I gained. Alternatively, if I played Fact or Fiction, the same result would occur. I’d net one card advantage, but then he could make me lose it by forcing me to Force one of his spells.

Patrick: Untap, Play Oboro, Palace in the Clouds.
My board is Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Gemstone Caverns, Volcanic Island, and Oboro.
Go to my endstep.
Five cards in hand.

You have Utopia x2, Crystal Vein, and Leyline of Lightning
seven cards in hand.

Oboro! Fascinating! Around this point in the game, I realized that I probably made a mistake playing Utopias. In fact, Utopias probably don’t even need to be a part of the game. Oboro is good because it is a land that can later become a spell. Islands may actually be very important because of cards like Thwart, which are Ancestral Recall in the late game. Volcanic Island is obviously the most powerful Island you can play, since it fuels Red Blasts, Word of Seizing, burn/removal spells, and all the like. Underground Sea is good, but not quite as powerful. Basic Island, and Snow-Covered Island, seems really good too.

Turn 6:

His mana:
Gemstone Caverns, Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Volcanic Island, Oboro.

My mana:
Utopia, Utopia, Crystal Vein.

I have Leyline of the Lightning in play.


1) Ancient Tomb
2) Utopia
3) Ghost Quarter
4) Ancient Spring
5) Shivan Gorge
6) Winding Canyons

Now things get really complicated:

If I play Ancient Tomb, I can:

a) Play Word of Seizing
b) Pass the turn
c) ?

If I do (a)…
I will have him Wasteland his Port. He will likely Teferi’s Response the Wasteland. If he does, he will then only lose one card to my card. Then he can untap and play a spell that I have to Force. I will have 4 cards in hand to his 5 cards in hand.
That makes (a) a poor play.

If I do (b)…
That makes my mana development solid, giving me 5 mana on the table.
He will likely tap one of my Utopias, eot.
If he does, I can play Teferi’s Response (6 cards in hand), tapping that Utopia and Crystal Vein. If he tries to counter me (going to 4 cards in hand), I can play Ghost-Lit Warder unless he plays Last Word. To play Last Word, he’d have to use a Spirit Guide and go to 3 cards to my 6. He’d untap, draw a card and play…?

If I do (3), it will get a key answer onto the table. It will also prevent him from playing it.
However, it will allow him to get something out of Word of Seizing.

That rules that out…

If I do (4), it will leave me with just 3 mana on the table, one of which he can Port. He can then Port the other land and then play a seven-mana spell if he uses both SGs. Also, I won’t be able to Teferi’s Response him.

If I do (5), I get that on the table, but I won’t be able to do the Teferi’s Response trick that he may walk into.

Option (6) is a future play I’ve put here to keep in mind.

Me: I will play Ancient Tomb and move to my endstep. I have 7 cards in hand.

Patrick: On your endstep Wasteland your Ancient Tomb. Responses?

At this point in the game, I had finally developed a formal analytical approach to better evaluate this format. I came up with a scoring scheme that helped me track who was ahead and how I could better evaluate lines of play. I decided to give a point to each card in hand and to each land in play.

Let me show you what I mean. Assuming his Wasteland succeeds in taking out my Ancient Tomb, here is what the game state will look like:

Patrick’s Board:
Gemstone Caverns, Volcanic Island, Rishadan Port, Oboro
5 cards in hand.

My board:
Utopia, Crystal Vein, Utopia
7 cards in hand

That would give me 10 points to his 9, although he’ll draw a card on his turn, so I count him at 10 points. Is there a way I can get ahead in the point count?

My Options:

1) Just Tap Ancient Tomb for mana or do nothing.
2) Trickbind
3) Teferi’s Response
4) Stifle


1) Do Nothing/Tap Tomb for Mana
As already stated, if I do nothing, we’ll be even in point totals, 10 to 10.
ME: 10 HIM: 10

Side note: If he tries to Port me, I can use the Tomb mana to play Teferi’s Response and he’ll be in big trouble. He’ll try to counter my spell, and then I can use a Spirit Guide and tap my other mana to play Ghost-Lit Warder.

2) Trickbind the Wasteland.
If I Trickbind, I go to 6 cards in hand, and it will still be 10 to 10.

However, if he plays a spell I have to counter, here will be my options:

A) I can counter it.
If I play Ghost-Lit Warder, which will cost me a Spirit Guide and the Warder, sending me to 4 cards. Then, I’ll be tapped out. On his turn he can play a land (going to 4 cards) and a spell I have to force, going to 3 and sending me to 2 cards in hand. At that point, I’ll have two cards in hand to his 3, and he’ll have 5 lands in play to my 4. He’ll be ahead.
ME: 6 HIM: 8
This line of play would put me far behind. Playing Trickbind and then Ghost-Lit Warder here is not advantageous.

B) If I don’t play GLW
If I just play Trickbind, to keep my Ancient Tomb around, I will go to 6 cards in hand and keep 4 lands on the table, for a total of 10 cards. He can resolve Fact, going to 7 cards and on his turn will play a 5th land.
ME: 10 HIM: 12

In short, if I play Trickbind, it will open me up for him being able to play a good spell. If I counter it, I am in trouble. If I don’t counter it, I’m in trouble. Playing Trickbind puts me behind no matter what, so I should avoid playing Trickbind. It’s worse than doing nothing at all.

3) Teferi’s Response
If I play Teferi’s Response, there are potentially two potential baseline responses from him.
A) Last Word. First of all, he can just play Last Word. There will be nothing I can do about it. I’ll go to 6 cards in hand and 3 lands in play. He’ll have 4 lands in play and then 5 cards in hand on his turn. ME: 9 HIM: 9 Because I get no advantage from this line of play, it seems worse than just doing nothing.
B) Any Other Counterspell. If he doesn’t play Last Word, and say plays any other counterspell, I can Ghost Lit Warder it, using a Spirit Guide. That will send me initially to 4 cards, but then the Teferi’s Response will resolve, sending me back to 6. I’ll have 4 lands in play. Comparatively, he’ll have 5 cards in hand on his turn and 4 lands in play. ME: 10 HIM: 9.

My conclusion here is that I find it hard to imagine that he wouldn’t play Last Word here.

If I play Stifle, I will go to 6 cards.

There are three responses:
A) Last Word
B) Generic Counterspell
C) Fact or Fiction

a) If he plays Last Word. He will go to 4 cards in hand. I will be at 6 cards in hand. I will have 3 lands. At the end of his turn, he will have 5. It will be 9 to 9.
b) If he plays generic Counterspell, he will go to 4 cards. I will play GLW and go to 5. I will have 4 lands. He will have 5 lands and 4 cards in hand at the end of his turn. If I don’t GLW, I’ll have 6 cards in hand and 3 lands and he’ll have 5 lands and 4 cards in hand. Either way: ME: 9 HIM: 9
c) If he plays Fact or Fiction, I will keep my land, which means I’ll have four lands. He will have 5 lands at the end of his turn and 4 cards in hand. I can GLW his Fact. I will have 5 cards in hand. ME: 9 HIM: 9.

I find it odd that playing Stifle here is actually superior to playing Trickbind. That’s very counterintuitive. Clearly, I can eliminate Trickbind from my list of options. It’s inferior to the other three. The basic question is: what’s my rubric for choosing among lines of play? Is it to analyze the worst case scenario and then make the decision that leads to the best “worst case”…? Or should I allow for the possibility that Patrick might make an inferior play?

Here is what ultimately decided it for me: I eliminated Option 3 on the grounds that if he played Last Word, I would be wasting the Teferi’s Response, a card I may want to use later on. That left option (1) and (4). As between those two options, I felt that it was worth trying to save Ancient Tomb, at least in theory. Ancient Tomb producing two mana felt very important to me. Thus, I decided to play option (4).

I find it difficult to imagine that I would have settled on this conclusion had I not conducted this extensive analysis.

I announced my play.

Me: I will tap a Utopia and play Stifle on your Wasteland.

I waited for Patrick’s response.

It was quick in coming.

Patrick: I will remove Simian Spirit Guide from the game and tap my three Blue to play Cryptic Command, I choose to counter Stifle and return your untapped Utopia to your hand. I still have a Port untapped.
If you let this stack resolve, the board will be:

Gemstone Cavern, Volcanic Island, Oboro (all tapped), Port (Untapped)
3 Cards in hand.
Life- 22

Utopia (tapped), Crystal Vein (Untapped), Leyline of Lightning
7 Cards in hand.
Life- 20

May I untap (or did you want to do anything before that stack resolves?)

Patrick made a play that is consistent with a branch of play I had already considered. If you are following closely, he made the Generic Counterspell play under Option (4). The difference, however, is that he used a Spirit Guide to do it! This is critical as he just expended another point to get another point.
If I stopped his Cryptic Command, it would be a huge play for me. I had already mapped out how I might do that earlier under the Trickbind analysis.

Me: I will tap Tomb, Crystal Vein, and Utopia and discard Ghost-Lit Warder to counter your Cryptic Command.

If My Warder resolves, board state will be:

22 life.
3 cards in hand
Oboro, Gemstone Caverns, Port (untapped), and Volcanic Island

18 life
5 cards in hand
Utopia * 2, Crystal Vein, Ancient Tomb

Patrick had no responses.

ME: 9 HIM: 7

The Stifle resolving against his counterspell and his expenditure of a Spirit Guide had pushed me another point ahead of him. He was going to draw a card on his turn, so he was only going to be one full point behind me. Still, I figured that this was critical and could probably take me into a long-game victory if I played flawlessly for the rest of the game.

I now wondered if I made the right play in not playing Teferi’s Response. Presumably, he would have made the same play, and I’d be even further ahead.

Patrick moved to his turn, and made an intriguing, and revealing, play.

Patrick: Untap, draw, Play Terrain Generator, Cycle Krosan Tusker (getting a Forest) leaving Volcanic and Port Untapped.
4 cards to your 5

Notice, Patrick made a mistake of assuming he had two lands untapped. I didn’t catch it though. He only had 4 lands in play, and cycling Tusker cost 3 mana.

With the cycling of Tusker, Patrick brought himself back to even with me. We both now sat at 9 points again.

With the play of Krosan Tusker, I took that as a signal that Scrying Sheets was also legal (and thereby Ghost Quarter).

It was time for me to start making bold moves. My confidence was growing and I was having a blast.

Turn 7:

Here are my notes:

22 life.
4 cards in hand
Oboro, Gemstone Caverns, Port, Volcanic Island, Terrain Generator

18 life
5 cards in hand
Utopia * 2, Crystal Vein, Ancient Tomb

Points so far:

ME: 9 HIM: 9

Tactical Options:

1) Land, Teferi’s Response + Decree of Silence (DECREE OF SILENCE IS UP!)
2) Play a bounce spell on a land, get him to Misdirect it, and then Decree him and win.

Land Options:
1) Utopia
2) Underground Sea
3) Nivix
4) Winding Canyons
5) Scrying Sheets
6) Wintermoon Mesa

What he may do, if I play Land, Go:

1) Eot, Terrain Generator
2) Eot, Rishadan Port
3) Eot, some small spell
4) Eot, nothing

Assume I play Scrying Sheets

1) If he activates Terrain Generator, and I do nothing, he’ll put a basic land into play. That will take him to 3 cards in hand and have 6 lands in play to my 5 lands in play. He’ll untap, draw a card, and play a land putting 7 lands into play with 3 cards in hand.
– a. If he does this, I can respond by using ESG (going to 4 cards in hand), tapping Ancient Tomb and Utopia and play Fact or Fiction (going to 3 cards in hand).
– – i. He Force of Wills me, going to 1 card in his hand. I will play Complicate, countering it, by tapping Utopia, Crystal Vein, and Scrying Sheets. Fact will resolve, and I’ll go back to 6 cards in hand. I’ll end the turn with 5 lands in play and 6 cards in hand (11 points) and he’ll untap and then have 7 lands and 1 cards in hand (8 points).
– – ii. If he doesn’t Force it, I’ll just go to 6 cards with 5 lands (11 points), to his 7 lands and 3 cards in hand (10 points). He can make me Force a spell, which will bring me down to 4 cards in hand.
– b. Alternatively, I can wait until he tries to play something on his turn. If he tries to play a two-mana spell and back it up with Decree of Silence, I can cycle complicate to match him.
2) If he just Ports me,
– a. I can try to Teferi’s Response with Utopia and Scrying Sheets. He’ll just respond with REB. It will be a one-for-one trade. I’ll be at 4 cards. He’ll go to 2.
– – i. However, if I played a Snow-Covered land, I can tap Snow-Covered Island and ESG (going to 4 cards) and play Teferi’s Response (going to 3 cards). If he plays REB (going to 3 cards in his hand), I can tap both Utopias, my Ancient Tomb, and sacrifice my Crystal Vein to cycle Decree of Silence (replacing itself). I’ll go to 5 cards in hand. He’ll still have 3 cards in hand. He’ll lose Port. So he’ll have 4 lands in play (5 on his turn). I’ll have 4 lands in play. My total points: 9. His total points: 8.
– – – 1. In that case I’ll have to deal with the possibility that he plays Scrying Sheets. I’ll have to either bounce it ASAP or Ghost Quarter it, losing a card either way.
– b. If I do nothing, he’ll tap down something good.

In short, it was time for me to play Scrying Sheets. My biggest concern was that he’d put a Snow-Covered Island into play with his Terrain Generator before I could play it. Although, it was just a delaying tactic, as I could play other snow lands in future turns.

Me: I will play Scrying Sheets.

22 life.
4 cards in hand
Oboro, Gemstone Caverns, Port, Volcanic Island, Terrain Generator

18 life
5 cards in hand
Utopia * 2, Crystal Vein, Ancient Tomb, Scrying Sheets
Leyline of Lightning

Move to my endstep.

On my endstep, Patrick tried to put a land into play with Terrain Generator, but I pointed out that he didn’t have the mana for it, unless he wanted to use a Spirit Guide.

Once the confusion was cleared up, he made his turn 7 play:

Patrick: Draw, play Ghost Quarter. Endstep

At this point, Patrick was traveling to Italy, and some major work and life stuff was going on with me, and my free time dried up almost entirely. It was a week later before I was able to post my next move. I knew that I wanted to cycle Decree of Justice on his endstep, but I needed to figure out whether I would generate tokens, and if so, how many. It was about 7 days before I could take the time to calculate that out.

Board State:

22 life.
4 cards in hand
Oboro, Gemstone Caverns, Port, Volcanic Island, Terrain Generator, Ghost Quarter

18 life
5 cards in hand
Utopia * 2, Crystal Vein, Ancient Tomb, Scrying Sheets
Leyline of Lightning

HIM: 10 ME: 10

This a possible opening, an opportunity to play spells to get him to tap down a little bit. Most importantly, if I can get card advantage out of Scrying Sheets, even one card, I can get ahead. If I can get ahead, I can try to trade him one-for-one until I’ve worn him out and then won the game.

What are my options for Patrick’s endstep? I came up with basically four options.

1) Do Nothing
2) Cycle Something
3) Play Fact/ Stroke, etc.
4) Play Mana Short

1) Do Nothing
If I do nothing, there are basically two possibilities: one is that he’ll do nothing on my upkeep and the other is that he’ll Port me, probably on my Scrying Sheets, on my upkeep. For both lines of play, what are my best options?

If he doesn’t Port me, I’ll go and play a Snow-Covered Island and so that I can draw a card with Scrying Sheets. What’s really fascinating is that if he tries to Ghost Quarter my Scrying Sheets at this point, I can play Trickbind. If he then takes this opportunity to try to play a spell, like Fact or Fiction, I can tap two Utopias, Ancient Tomb, Crystal Vein, and use the Elvish Spirit Guide to play Decree of Silence! Unfortunately, I’ll be completely tapped down, so he can then untap and play something and protect it with Complicate if I try to Force of Will. However, he won’t likely have enough mana to do anything devastating.

If he does try to Port my Scrying Sheets, I have two basic options. I can do nothing, play the Snow Covered Island and pass, or I can try to Teferi’s Response the Port. The problem with Teferi’s Response is that Patrick can just then play Last Word. If he plays anything else, I might be able to stop it with Complicate, if I use the ESG first.

The second option is listed is cycling something, perhaps Decree of Justice. In response, he can:

A. Interdict
– 1. I respond with Red Elemental Blast
B. Play Fact
– 1. I can counter it with Red Elemental Blast,
– – i. He can Ghost Quarter me.
C. Sacrifice Ghost Quarter
– 1. Let it resolve
– 2. Trickbind it
D. Port my Utopia
E. Do nothing.

The third option is to play Fact or a draw spell. He could just respond with Commandeer to steal it for himself.

The fourth option is to play Mana Short. He could just respond with Fact or Fiction, going back to 7 cards. I can untap and play Snow-Covered land and play, I dunno, Capture of Zingzhou!

What ultimately led me to decide to pursue option (2) was that I didn’t want to deal with him playing Decree of Justice later on, and having to wipe out the tokens either with a spell or with something like Slice and Dice.

Me: On your turn 7 endstep, I will tap Utopia, Crystal Vein, and Scrying Sheets and announce the cycling of Decree of Justice.

My plan was to see what he did and then probably just make one token.

One question which I had not decided how I would respond was what I would do if he played Ghost Quarter. While Scrying Sheets seems incredible, Ghost Quarter was not advantageous for Patrick. I could find a basic land, and I’d be up on him again in points. Either I am eventually able to use Scrying Sheets, or he loses Ghost Quarter and I find another land. More and more I was leaning toward just letting his Ghost Quarter resolve, if he decided to activate it on me.

I waited for his next play, but it never came.

No doubt due to the length of time it took me to make the next play, Patrick’s interest had died out, and our game informally ended. Shards of Alara was being spoiled, and a bunch of new cycling cards were about to enter the format as well. It’s a good thing, too; this article is already quite long, so it is a perfect spot to wrap things up.

Play-by-play, here is a recap of our game:

Me: Leyline of Lightning
Patrick: Gemstone Caverns, pitching Dust Bowl.

Me: Utopia
Patrick: Wasteland

Me: Crystal Vein
Patrick: Mikokoro

Me: Boseiju, Who Shelters All
Patrick: Volcanic Island, Activate Mikokoro

Me: Vesuva
Patrick: Rishadan Port

Me: Utopia
Eot, Patrick Wipes Away Boseiju
Patrick: Oboro

Me: Ancient Tomb
Eot, Patrick Wastelands my Tomb.
I Stifle.
Patrick uses ESG and plays Cryptic Command.
I discard Ghost-Lit Warden to counter Cryptic Command.
Patrick: Terrain Generator, cycle Krosan Tusker.

Me: Scrying Sheets
Patrick: Ghost Quarter
Eot, I cycle Decree of Justice

End of Game.

Thoughts on the Game:

In retrospect, the land drops in my first five turns were probably suboptimal, with the exception of Boseiju, but not bad for the first time ever playing this format. Utopia probably isn’t a bad turn 1 land drop, but Volcanic Island is almost certainly the right play as it supports Thwart in the late game. Ancient Tomb definitely seems superior to Crystal Vein, contrary to my turn 2 analysis, although Crystal Vein is probably not as bad as you might think.

I think there are real advantages to being on the play or being on the draw. Clearly, turn 2 Wipe Away is a potentially tremendous tempo threat, with turn 0 Gemstone Caverns, turn 2 Volcanic Island, then remove a Spirit Guide to Wipe Away the first player’s only land. Still, even that play has risks. You go down in cards. If the other play can stay in the game, and I think they can, it’s a big risk. The Leyline of Lightning play also seems like a silly play, and a waste of a card. It’s difficult to imagine it being a threat because in the early game mana is so tight. It’s probably only good if your opponent is terrible.

The rules are not fixed, but can and should be tuned and perfected as more people learn and experience this wonderful format, and as consensus develops about what those rules should be. I am skeptical that Wipe Away needs to be banned, and I think the format could also be played under Vintage rules. It might make the format somewhat less interesting overall, but I can’t see a reason why it couldn’t be played under those rules. Clearly, cards like Library of Alexandria and Ancestral Recall would be very good, but I’m not sure they need to be banned. For simplicity’s sake, it might be easier to play with the Legacy banned list. This format also seems perfectly suited, like chess, for recording plays and studying the games afterward.

I encourage you to try this format with a friend, either by email or on a message board, or even on a long car ride. Please share your experience with me! I’d love to read about games other people have played.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and will enjoy this format even more. I’ll be happy to help answer questions and respond to comments in the forums.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian

* No abuse of this rule is tolerated. Cards like Tainted Pact cannot be used to remove the entire Magic database from existence.


Mana Variance Cheat Sheet, circa August, 2008

Key Lands:
Blinkmoth Nexus
Dark Depths
Dryad Arbor
Faerie Conclave
Ghitu Encampment
Ghost Quarter
Hall of the Bandit Lord
Ice Flow
Island of Wak Wak
Glacial Chasm
Keldon Necropolis
Kher Keep
Kor Haven
Mishra’s Factory
Maze of Ith
Mouth of Ronom
Nivix, Aerie of the Firemind
Rath’s Edge
Scrying Sheets
Shivan Gorge
Treetop Village
Winding Canyons
Wintermoon Mesa

Keldon Necropolis
Kher Keep

Key Cycling Spells:
Choking Tethers (taps a creature when it cycles)
Death Pulse
Decree of Annihilation
Decree of Justice
Decree of Pain
Decree of Silence
Renewed Faith — USE ASAP
Solar Blast
Slice and Dice
Sunfire Balm – USE ASAP

Arashi: XGG
Ghost-Lit Raider — 4 damage to target creature
Ghost-Lit Redeemer — gain 4 life
Ghost-Lit Stalker — target player discards four cards! 5BB
Ghost-Lit Warden — counter target spell 3U

Split Second:
Angel’s Grace
Krosan Grip
Molten Disaster
Sudden Death
Sudden Shock
Take Possession
Wipe Away
Word of Seizing

Last Word
Urza’s Rage
Wreck Havoc! — Uncounterable land destruction that costs RG2

Counter Activated Abilities:
Voidmage Husher