A few weeks ago, the online poker community was struck by an earth-shattering event. The Department of Justice indicted the owners of the three largest
poker sites in the world, including PokerStars, Full Tilt, and Absolute Poker, on a laundry list of charges from illegal gambling to money laundering.
The .com versions of their web addresses were quickly changed to FBI “this website has been seized” pages. American players were suddenly
barred from playing or withdrawing their money, leading many professional players without a source of income and many recreational players with big
questions about whether they’d ever see their buy-ins again. While PokerStars and Full Tilt have since made arrangements to work to return funds
to US players, the situation for players at Absolute Poker is less clear. They continue to accept US players in defiance of the indictment, though
earlier this week, the company officially filed for bankruptcy.
It’s not surprising to anyone familiar with the poker world that Absolute Poker is, even now, engaging in some kind of shenanigans. This
isn’t the first time they’ve found themselves in the middle of a mess. Several years ago, online poker was rocked by another major
controversy, this one square on the shoulders of Absolute Poker, as part of fellow network site UltimateBet. Some enterprising players on the 2+2
forums, a poker strategy discussion site, discovered a pattern of unusually high win rates among accounts playing mathematically suboptimal strategies
at the high stakes heads-up no limit tables. As they and others continued to dig, they found more and more of these accountsâ€”over one hundred in
allâ€”that consistently made plays that made no sense unless they knew the contents of their opponent’s hand.
Turns out they did know. UltimateBet had a tool in its system that turned on “god mode,” creating “Superuser” accounts that
could see the hole cards of other players. The controversy was traced back to none other than Russ Hamilton, winner of the 1994 World Series of Poker,
and a consultant to UltimateBet. According to details that have been rooted out, Russ claimed that he wanted a way to allow him to catch suspected
cheaters on the site and had the Superuser tool created. Ultimately, he ended up using that tool to cheat players on the site out of millions of
dollars, spread out over those hundred-plus accounts that he’d use for a short period of time and then abandon before people caught on. When the
scandal broke, many players were compensated for their losses involving the superuser accounts, but the incident did irreparable damage to the
company’s reputation in the industry.
Knowledge, as they say, is power. See how big of an advantage you have when you know what’s in another player’s hand?
That’s why the card that has me the most excited from New Phyrexia is Gitaxian Probe. I was one of the biggest advocates of Peek back in its
heyday, though I’m not sure it’s fair to say Peek had much of a heyday, since it was never quite appreciated in its time. Anyone who has
watched my Magic Online video series knows how much I go on about the value of information (and then occasionally walk into a spell I should have known
my opponent had, but that’s neither here nor there…). Magic, like poker, is a game of hidden information, and those who are capable of
extrapolating that hidden information from their opponent’s playâ€”or those who can glean it through other meansâ€”are richly rewarded.
Gitaxian Probe pretty much feels like cheating.
You see, while cards like Duress or Inquisition of Kozilek can get you the same information as Gitaxian Probe, you pay a twofold price. The first price
is the mana, which may seem obvious, but the fact that Gitaxian Probe can be played for free has quite a few implications. Say you’re playing U/B
against Caw-Blade, and you Inquisition them on the first turn, and they don’t have a Mana Leak but do have a Jace. On your third turn, you can
tap out for your own baby Jace, but if they’ve drawn a Mana Leak in those few draw steps, they’ll be able to land their own Jace and crush
you. Do you go for it?
The answer is almost certainly yes, and those times when your opponent has drawn a Mana Leak feel like a punch in the gut, but such is the way of
discardâ€”it does nothing to the cards waiting on top of your opponent’s deck. Neither does Gitaxian Probe, of course, but it lets you know
if the coast is really clear just before you’re about to make a play that could spell victory or defeat, all at the low, low price of two life,
which is a bargain compared to one mana when it really counts.
The other cost to using Duress or Inquisition for informational purposes is the card itself. Again, that seems obvious, but there’s more to it
than lies on the surface. Only in those instances when you completely whiff with Duress or Inquisition are you really down a card, but you’re down the
resource of a discard spell to use at a future time. Those of you who have followed my infect video series know that I talk at length about the
appropriate times to use your Inquisitions based on the game state and the texture of your hand. Sometimes you Inquisition them only to see they have a
pair of Stoneforge Mystics, and you would’ve been better off waiting until they played one of them so you could take their Sword. With Gitaxian Probe,
you gain full information to play optimally without expending a resource in the process.
I’ve seen some people mention that they feel like Gitaxian Probe is a card that doesn’t fit into decks that already have discard, but I
disagree. I think Probe complements discard well, in that you can make informed decisions about when to play your discard and when to hold it for
further value. If you Probe your opponent on the first turn, and he kept a hand of Jace, Mana Leak, Gideon, and lands, I would certainly rather hold on
to my Inquisition for at least future informational purposes than take his Mana Leak much of the timeâ€”but in those times that a Mana Leak is
exactly what I don’t want my opponent to have, I can play my discard spell and take it too!
One card that Gitaxian Probe is very effective against is Spell Pierce. Spell Pierce is one of those cards that is dramatically better when your
opponent doesn’t know whether or not you have it. The danger of getting blown out by Spell Pierce causes people to spend their mana inefficiently
all the time. But with Gitaxian Probe, you can know whether your opponent has a Pierce when it counts and either slam down your planeswalkers when the
answer is no or wait to develop your resources further when the answer is yes.
There’s huge buzz out there about the Deceiver Exarch/Splinter Twin combo that New Phyrexia will unleash upon Standard, and that, too, is a deck
that makes Gitaxian Probe solid gold, both in it and against it. In the deck, Probe can give you the “all clear” signal so you can go for
it without risk of losing your Exarch to removal in response to your Splinter Twin. Against the combo, it provides much-needed information about when
it’s safe to advance your own game plan. The Splinter Twin combo deck can threaten to win on turn four of every game without anything on the
battlefield except land, so it can be tough to play against it without information. You can tap out for Jace and just die when your opponent untaps!
Gitaxian Probe lets you know when you’re in danger and when you can afford to actually play spells without risk of losing instantly. Seems pretty
important to me.
The list goes on. Is your opponent secretly a Tezzeret deck or can you safely tap out for Jace against his Tumble Magnet? Does your opponent have a way
to kill your Stoneforge Mystic if you invest a bunch of mana into equipping it? Does your opponent have a Summoning Trap that’s going to get you if you
hold up mana to counter his Titan? And hey, maybe Memoricide isn’t so bad if you can actually ensure that you get some value from their hand too.
That said, as good as Gitaxian Probe is, I don’t think it’s a card that’s just going to go into every deck. I’ve seen a lot of
people talking about Gitaxian Probe being shoved everywhere, from Charbelcher to Elves. While the information gained from Probe is generally valuable,
it’s useless if you can’t do anything with it. What is a Charbelcher player going to doâ€”not go for it? It’s not like they have
disruption to dig to, or can wait and play out resources to try to play around the Force of Will they know is in their opponent’s hand. Sure, it
increases your storm count by one, but that’s hardly going to make the difference between victory and defeat, and if it is, there are probably
free spells you could choose that would have an actual impact on your game.
A lot of people have asked me what cards I’d play from New Phyrexian in my Infect deck, and while I haven’t given it much thought, Gitaxian
Probe is certainly among them. That said, Gitaxian Probe is among the reasons that I’m not thrilled about the idea of playing Infect anymore. Not
that Probe is specifically a bad card for the deck, but because playing Infect means you can’t punish people for using Phyrexian mana. I expect
Phyrexian mana to make Standard that much faster and bloodier, and that’s not a world that benefits Infect. If Mono Red rises up again to truly
punish those who are careless with their life total? Maybeâ€”but even they get access to Dismember to kill Phyrexian Crusader and Skithiryx, and
the cost they pay is negligible at best.
I haven’t gotten started on actual deckbuilding for the new Standard yet, but I’ve done a lot of brewing in my head, and I’ve got
some sweet ideas. You’ll have to come back over the next few weeks to hear those, thoughâ€”I can’t give away all of my secrets at once.
After allâ€”knowledge is power.
Until next time,