As I survey the wreckage of my Zendikar Prerelease experience, it’s quite clearly time to close the doors on the Academy, at least for now. Just like any Magic set, there are many cards in M10 that you may never play with, or against. There are certainly some cards you should never be choosing to use competitively, and we’re going to start with some of those in a moment. But the Academy was never about just didactically announcing which cards were good and bad. It has always been a journey of discovery, articulating many of the unspoken truths that all good players know, but tend to find it hard to explain.
As your attention turns to Zendikar, and trying to make sense of Landfall, Kicker and the rest, use the fundamentals of curve, of efficiency, of the color pie, of tempo, of card advantage… all the tools for better Magic are illuminated through M10, a set that in my view has been just about the most efficient teaching tool in the history of the game. As always, however you’ve chosen to use the Academy, enjoy your game…
Let’s see what the Player’s Guide has to say:
“Artifacts are magical relics or constructs. Since most can be cast with any color of mana, they can easily be put into any deck! Some artifacts provide awesome, game-changing effects that every color should have equal access to. A few do things that one color can do more efficiently, but other colors can’t do at all. Equipment cards represent weapons, armor, or other items that can be worn or carried by creatures to give them extra power, toughness, and abilities. The cool thing about Equipment is that they can be passed from one creatures to another. It’s even left behind if the creature that’s holding it leaves the battlefield!”
Key to understanding Artifacts is that idea that everyone gets to use them. As we’ve talked about repeatedly in past weeks, the different ‘Corporations’ (the colors) all have a different ‘price list’ for what they have on offer. Black removal is going to be cheaper than Green removal. Green creatures are going to have higher power and toughness than equivalent-costing Blue creatures, and so on.
Everyone gets to play with Artifacts, and that generally means that they are going to be positioned at a cost that’s more expensive than a color that’s strong in that department. You only need to look briefly into Zendikar to find the perfect example of this in Stonework Puma, a 2/2 for three mana with no abilities other than its Ally status. By no means unplayable, this is nobody’s idea of great value. You should bear that in mind when evaluating Artifacts, since a huge slice of the game design involves the idea that everybody shouldn’t have access to certain effects. In other words, if a card is being made freely available to anyone who wants it, you better make sure that wanting it is a good idea.
You may be wondering why we’re looking at five cards all together. That’s because they’re what’s known as a Cycle, a series of cards that have similar or identical effects, each relating to one of the colors. In the case of this Cycle, they all work identically. For two mana, you get yourself the opportunity to gain some life. How much life? Well, one life for each spell that gets cast of the particular color (White for Angel’s Feather, Black for Demon’s Horn, and so on.)
Beginner players are often taken by this Cycle, and most good players will simply deliver an icy stare at anyone exhibiting the lunacy of playing with them in a competitive environment. Let’s see if we can explain why they’re so bad.
First up, remember the rule about cards that don’t have power and toughness and don’t impact the battlefield in any way. That instantly means we should be cautious, since we have these two drawbacks to overcome. In this case, we have the added disadvantage that the card does nothing when it enters play — at all. Nothing. We have to wait until somebody decides to pull the trigger with a card of the appropriate color.
Now let’s do some Sealed deck math. Most Sealed decks use two colors, with or without a splash that’s likely to involve only a couple of spells, so we’ll ignore the splash for now. Assuming that all colors are used roughly equally in Sealed play, your opponent will be playing the color you ‘want’ roughly 40% of the time. Again, assuming an even split, you’re looking at about a dozen spells of the chosen color in their deck. Now we’ll be generous, and say the game is going to go pretty long, and you’re going to get to about Turn 13 or so, taking us through half our deck. Our opponents will, on average, have seen about half a dozen spells that could trigger our lifegain.
Of course, we won’t always have our Kraken’s Eye available in our opening hand, so again, on average, we’ll get it down about halfway through this fictional game. From our opponent then, we can expect to gain somewhere in the region of three life — that’s if it’s already part of the 40% of the time when they’re playing the color you need.
This is clearly absurd to play, unless we can adjust it utterly in our favor. That means having the right one of the cycle for one of our colors, because at least then we might expect to gain up to half a dozen life in a typical game. The thing is, although it isn’t technically ‘lifegain’, playing almost any creature, however hideous, is going to ‘gain you more life’ than one of these more often than not. Consider something utterly sub-optimal like Acolyte Of Xathrid. For one mana, you get to put this in front of an opposing monster. If it’s a Runeclaw Bear, you just ‘gained’ two life. Warpath Ghoul blocked saves you three, and chump blocking against a Craw Wurm is preventing six damage.
You might be thinking that Draft would be a better place for these, and in one respect you’d be right. If you can be mono-color, and have the appropriate life-gainer, you can certainly hope for a better return. Equally, if you happen to play against someone else with a mono-deck, you could theoretically sideboard your lifegainer in.
In reality, the best possible scenario for these is for Dragon’s Claw as a Sideboard card against a mono-Red Constructed deck. Why? Because Red burn decks are designed to deal exactly 20 damage before running out of steam. It’s inherent in most burn decks that there isn’t a lot of card advantage. They look to simply win with their one card per turn, before slower decks can grind out card advantage and pull clear off disaster. If you make Dragon’s Claw on Turn 2, and another on Turn 3, their Lightning Bolt to the face actually only deals you one damage, and that’s a massive dousing of the burn flame.
Meanwhile, I came up with Acolyte Of Xathrid as a card I’ve yet to see played, and yet I would play this over any of the lifegainers almost every single time. And that says a lot.
Coat Of Arms
I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for this, but this is one of the cards that gets completely misread by huge numbers of players, and huge numbers of players lose games because of it. To make sure this isn’t you, read it carefully and remember: Coat Of Arms may have been played by you, but it applies to everyone. Yep, if you have two Goblins in play, both will get +1+1. Meanwhile, if your opponent has three Elves in play, they’ll all be getting +2+2. And you’d pay five mana to let this happen?
Well, no, you wouldn’t, not if you’re sane. This card has been around a while, and it’s no coincidence that it wasn’t in the Lorwyn block, which relied massively on Tribal decks (i.e. 18 Kithkin in a mono-White deck for Draft, and so on), rather than M10, which as we’ve seen has minimal opportunities to reach critical mass in any one Creature type, typically cresting at around the five mark (maybe a pair of Elvish Visionary, a Llanowar Elves or two, and an Elvish Archdruid.) In other words, this is basically irrelevant for Limited, especially because of the ‘everyone benefits’ clause.
Five mana is a lot, even in Constructed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment with this. At the very least, it’s a ton of fun the first few times you get half a dozen Goblins into play by Turn 4, and then turn them all into 7/7s and 8/8 with this. Make a second copy, and you’re off to the land of absurdity. In the wacky world of Magic, this is something I highly recommend you try sometime at a Friday Night Magic, or just in casual play. A tremendous amount of fun, with the occasional possibility of Constructed use.
If you’ve played a reasonable amount of M10 Limited, you’ve doubtless arrived at the correct conclusion that you reach eleven mana approximately never. I suppose if you had Merfolk Looter active, and perversely decided to keep hold of land and discard spells, you might end up with the magic number you need to cast this, but if you play enough you’ll find even more outlandish scenarios than this. The main point is, that if you have this in your opening hand, 95%+ you’ve effectively mulliganed to six, because you’re never casting it.
Of course, that whole Indestructible tag is pretty exciting, and tends to be equated with winning the game. I mean, if it can’t be destroyed, and it’s 11/11, and has Trample, what could possibly go wrong?
Blinding Mage, Pacifism, Ice Cage, Mind Control, and Entangling Vines all spring instantly to mind, plus a ton of one-offs and temporary hold-offs like Cancel, Essence Scatter, Fog, Safe Passage etc. Oh, and being on more than eleven life is quite good too.
If that eleven mana is a problem for Limited, how about Constructed? Here, the Colossus has an honorable moment in the spotlight, since it belongs ideally in the Tooth and Nail decks of days gone by. Like many Constructed decks, this worked by generating ‘unfair’ amounts of mana via the trinity of Urza’s Power Plant, Urza’s Tower, and Urza’s Mine, lands that together provided seven mana off just the three of them. With the spell Tooth And Nail cast with Entwine, it was possible to ‘cheat’ the Colossus into play, and from there, dealing it was a lot more problematic.
This is the kind of card that you should always look out for whenever a new set comes online, to see if there’s a deck looking to find a good use for a ton of mana. If there is, this becomes a prime candidate.
Okay, now the Player’s Guide about Artifacts includes one of the more inventive uses of the word ‘cool.’ Put simply, Equipment was one of the great steps forward in the game, because until Equipment came along, most of the things that they did — grant extra power, toughness, and abilities — were at best marginal and at worst unplayable. That’s because they were Creature Enchantments, or Auras, with all the inherent capacity for card disadvantage that still exists in cards like Oakenform or Holy Strength.
As an Aura, you’d stick your Gorgon Flail on your sacrificial victim of choice, put it in front of something big, and suck up the two-for-one card disadvantage. Now, with the advent of Equipment, the Flail gets to stay around, ready to help out your next little guy in an unfair fight. That starts to seem quite attractive, as who wouldn’t want to trade a Runeclaw Bear and an Elite Vanguard for their Craw Wurm and Stampeding Rhino?
At this point, I need to share the filthiest play I’ve yet heard concerning M10. I was relating to friends my enjoyment at killing someone with the combo of Goblin Artillery and Harm’s Way. Yes, I dealt them two, and then had the first two damage the Artillery would have dealt to me to them instead, and they died. Since I was at three at the time, I felt pretty good about life (you know, still having some).
My friends had me beat however, by adding Gorgon Flail to the mix. Goblin Artillery dealt two damage to an Enormous Baloth, and then Harm’s Way redirected the first two damage that would have been self-inflicted onto an opposing Craw Wurm. Since the Artillery had Deathtouch via the Gorgon Flail, thirteen power of monsters went to the bin at the cost of one life, a tapped Artillery, and a Harm’s Way. Ridiculous.
Although seen primarily in a defensive role, the Flail can prove surprisingly effective on offense, where double and gang blocks start to become a very bad idea. Add in the bonus of an extra point of damage on your unopposed flyer or Phantom Warrior, and you start to have a neat little package that’s especially good when many of your monsters are weak (can you say Red/Black decks?).
Let’s start with the worst case scenario. You cast Howling Mine, and pass the turn. Your opponent draws two (one for the turn, and one from the Mine), and one of those two cards is a Naturalize. They destroy the Mine. No two ways about it, the first benefit from this beloved old-time card goes to the opponent, so you better have a plan that involves more than ‘let’s both draw extra cards, because it’ll be fun.’
The obvious place to have such a plan is Constructed, where the Mine has featured periodically down the years. Largely, this has been part of a ‘milling’ strategy, named after Millstone, a card which allowed you to send cards directly from the opposing library into the graveyard. Eventually, they would run out of cards, and the rules say that when you have to draw a card and can’t do so, you lose the game.
Intriguingly, there’s also a Limited deck that makes legitimate use of this. Since it’s basically poor in Limited, you can expect to pick one up very late in the Draft. Another card that’s basically worthless is Traumatize, which puts the top half of the opposing deck into the graveyard. And yet another card that’s really horrible is Tome Scour, which puts the top five cards into the graveyard.
It’s their very horribleness that makes this particular strategy viable, since nobody else at the table is going to be competing with you for these cards. A couple of Tome Scours will see an opponent down to less than half their library as early as Turn 3, Traumatize turns twenty cards left into ten, and Howling Mine ensures that the game could be over by Turn 10. Since Blue and White are ideally suited to playing a defensive game, with cards like Pacifism and Ice Cage, Negate, Cancel and Essence Scatter, Harm’s Way and Safe Passage, the two Walls, and Divine Verdict, Blinding Mage, and even Angel’s Mercy, it’s possible to construct a Draft deck that’s pretty close to unbeatable… if you can get the cards.
Forget the +2 on the front end, it’s the +4 Toughness that makes Magebane Armor such an absolute beating to play against. A Centaur Courser becomes a 5/7, and you’re simply not taking that down without multiple blockers or a Giant Growth. Add in the fact that, like all Equipment, the Armor sits there ready to turn the next humble little guy into a proper beatstick, and you have one of the prime reasons to be grateful you decided to play Naturalize.
Now, that’s not to say that you should play Naturalize, or Solemn Offering, because you’re worried about this card. It’s Rare, and even if you’ve seen it in the Draft (which partly begs the question why you didn’t take it, because it’s very nasty), the chances are you won’t have to face the deck that it’s in, and even then that you won’t see it in Game 1. If you do come up against it, however, it’s going to go a long way toward ruining your day, unless you have a plentiful supply of chump blockers and the ability to race through the air.
Like all Equipment, you don’t have to wait for your monster to die before you suit up a different monster, and with the cost only being two mana, it’s usually possible to attack, cause some carnage, and then make one of your defensive guys a mountainous roadblock.
Think about it like this — a 2/4 is a solid monster at most stages of the game. That’s what you get to piggyback onto something else, time after time. This is one piece of armor that plays for keeps.
Mirror Of Fate
Once upon a time, there were no deckbuilding restrictions in Magic. Those rules lasted for approximately three seconds before players worked out that the game was broken played that way, but during those three seconds a lot of foolishness got built, including a deck that went something like:
20 Black Lotus
Assuming that you had all three of these core components (I think we can agree they were all quite key to the success of the deck), you cast two Lotuses on Turn 1, sacrificed them for three Green and three Red mana respectively, cast Channel, paid 19 life, and then Fireballed your opponent to death, all before they’d had a turn.
Apart from historical curiosity, the reason I share this nugget with you now is to explain one possible, utterly marginal, use for Mirror Of Fate. Suppose you have your opponent down to three life. Since this is a ‘Mirror Of Fate’ deck, you’ve cunningly packed your Sideboard with burn spells that will see them dead. Stacking the top of your deck is generally very powerful, but Mirror Of Fate has yet to demonstrate this. Overall, this presents a real deckbuilding challenge, with little promise of major rewards.
You’d be right to wonder what possible benefit there might be to playing a creature with zero power and no meaningful abilities, but there are a couple of scenarios where you might choose to do exactly that. First, the unexciting ones. If you’re low on creatures, and high on Equipment, this provides a reasonable target. Let’s face it, an Ornithopter with Gorgon Flail on kills anything, more or less, and an Ornithopter with Magebane Armor is a legitimate threat. Turns out, that Flying ability isn’t so worthless after all… until the Armor removes it, of course.
Then we move to Constructed, where this features in a deck called Affinity, a mechanic that came out of the Mirrodin Artifact-heavy setting a few years ago. In this context, it was the fact that Ornithopter cost nothing that made it such a good fit. See, Affinity allowed you to reduce casting costs for each Artifact you had in play, so effectively Ornithopter got to double as free mana. With a pair of these and a land, you could power out something grotesque at a bargain-basement price. Later in the game, the evasion provided by the Ornithopter made it a prime candidate for loading a ton of +1+1 counters and a tasty little item called Cranial Plating, the combination of which tended to end games on the spot.
If you ever get the chance, you should certainly put together an Affinity deck — it’s one of the most perfect examples of synergy within a deck as you’re likely to meet, and it’s aggression par excellence.
There are very few circumstances where you’ll want this in Limited. If you’ve just been beaten by a row of three Blinding Mages, or Prodigal Pyromancers, you could just about argue the case for bringing this in from the Sideboard. It’s important to remember the wording though. Facing an army of Llanowar Elves, this does nothing, even if that’s the card you name, since the ability is classed as a Mana Ability.
Also, I’ve seen Pithing Needle set to Soul Warden, which doesn’t get you anywhere either, since the ability on Soul Warden is triggered, rather than activated. If you’re a newer player and are struggling with the distinction, think of it like this. Triggered abilities kind of happen whether you choose them or not. They’re just there once the circumstances are right. Soul Warden says ‘Whenever another creature enters the battlefield, you gain 1 life.’ As soon as a creature enters the battlefield, the game goes ‘Ping!’ to itself, and you gain a life. This would happen if you were busy making the tea, washing your hair, or formulating an updated theory of thermodynamics.
Activated abilities are where somebody gets to choose to make them happen. Prodigal Pyromancer says, ‘Tap: Prodigal Pyromancer deals 1 damage to target creature or player.’ You choose for this to happen, by tapping the Pyromancer. This is it ‘activating’, and that’s exactly the kind of shenanigans you get to stop with Pithing Needle. From time to time, Constructed decks evolve that rely on Activated abilities, and that’s exactly the time when Pithing Needle starts to show up in Sideboards.
Anything that does something this powerful is going to radically change any game, but I would argue that most Limited games that feature the Angel are anything but heavenly. Let’s start with how to play if we’re the ones with the Mythic on our side. It’s possible that we’ll treat it as any other 4/4 Flyer, a more-efficient Air Elemental. This is fine if we’re ahead in the race and aren’t concerned about it dying.
If we don’t want to die, and are going to hide behind the ability, doing nothing with our Angel is exactly what we need to do. Sending it into the red zone dramatically increases the number of spells that can get rid of it, opening us up to cards like Divine Verdict, Assassinate, any kind of block + pump, as well as less likely combinations of double Harm’s Way, or even (and you know it’s not your day if this happens) Jump + block! Then again, if you’re going to sit behind the Angel, you have to protect it from all possible harm. Once you get put below the normal standard for dead i.e. zero life, you then have to protect it from some additional spells like Unsummon and Excommunicate. Then we add in all the regular spells that just put it in the bin, and protecting your Angel becomes a highly difficult task.
Of course, there are going to be times where you have no answer to the Angel, at which point you simply pack up and go home, but in my experience games can go very, very long, with the Angel player at something like -16 life, and then you Unsummon it, and they lose.
Rod Of Ruin
A classic example of Investment at work, this is going to be your entire turn most of the time, unless you randomly have some small monster kicking around mid-game which you can tack on once you’ve spent four mana on this. Then you need another three mana before it does something, and the something it does can vary quite a lot in effectiveness.
If you use it to destroy a Prodigal Pyromancer, you have done much good work. If it killed a Stormfront Pegasus in response to a Giant Growth, you have done well, and your opponent has not. If you put your opponent from one life to zero, I trust you can see that your Investment has paid off. But if you put them from sixteen to fifteen, it’s less obvious that Rod Of Ruin is doing good things.
At this point, it’s worth remembering the more subtle effects than outright killing things. Effectively, it grants one extra power to the monster of your choice, once per turn cycle, on either offense or defense. A 3/3 kills a 6/4 when you get to finish it with the Rod, and even a humble Sage Owl can off a Snapping Drake with the Rod’s help.
Because your opponent can only guess where you might spend that ‘extra point’ of power, attacking and blocking becomes harder for them. Sometimes, this will result in them not blocking at all, meaning the Rod essentially acted as a burn spell, causing them to take extra damage just by being on the battlefield. Similarly, they may choose not to attack, at which point the Rod acted as lifegain.
The beauty of it is that while it’s doing all this versatile stuff, it’s making it’s ‘boring’ use — taking one life away at the end of the opposing turn — more and more valuable, since they’re often either taking extra damage, or giving you more turns, both of which make each point the Rod actually deals better. In sum, an expensive piece of kit, but well worth it.
Buried in the archives are a small collection of cards that do extremely odd things that have no obvious use. Spellbook is there. Seven is the maximum hand size, but that only kicks in at the end of the turn. If you want to go up to 36 cards in hand at some point during a massive Combo turn, you don’t need a Spellbook to do it.
In some dim, dark recess of the mind, I recall French Pro and future Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif responding to the question, ‘Is there any purpose to Spellbook?’ with something convoluted about a Constructed deck that once used it to reasonable effect, but it’s a good bet that you’ll have to play Magic for a very, very long time before you see one actually played.
For an initial outlay of five mana, this provides you with two abilities. The first, Shroud, is only useful if the equipped monster is actually worth protecting. Mist Leopard has Shroud, and that has bothered players approximately never, instead deciding to, let’s say, kill it with any monster of two power or greater. You get the point. Shroud is only as good as the monster you’re trying to protect.
Although the same is true of making a monster unblockable, (you wouldn’t want to make Acolyte Of Xathrid unblockable, I grant you) even a Phantom Monster is a genuine threat in many games, and there’s a good bet that you’ll be equipping something better than a 2/2 with this. Since many games come down to the one remaining threat that opposing removal can’t answer, this is a neat two-for-one package, in that it both creates a threat and simultaneously ensures that removal can’t answer it.
Back to the Player’s Guide one last time:
“Lands produce mana, and without mana, you can’t cast spells. About forty percent of a typical deck is land, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be basic lands. Terramorphic Expanse is great in any deck with more than one color because it can find whichever basic land you most need. The cycle of five rare lands that includes Dragonskull Summit is even better for decks with two allied colors since you can choose which color of mana to make each turn.”
Almost all double lands, or ‘duals’ as they’re known, have some kind of drawback. Here, you can’t pick and choose your color of mana on the first turn, since you won’t satisfy the requirement, and the land will come into play tapped. From there on, though, both colors are available any time you like, without penalty. Since the so-called ‘pain lands,’ which did you a point of damage whenever you tapped them for colored mana, were hugely popular in Constructed, you can see why these are awesome.
Since newer players are often parted easily from their powerful lands, trading them away for random big monsters and such, it bears repeating what the Player’s Guide says. Without mana, you can’t cast spells, and being able to pack your deck with basic land for free is absolutely not a reason to be playing fantastic facilitators like these.
If you’re even remotely serious about playing Constructed, the absolute first requirement on your list should be the best lands that money can buy, and those are rarely basic, and rarely anything other than Rare.
One final note — in any Cycle, there are usually stronger and weaker versions. Historically speaking, Green-White has been the least useful, with Black-Red not seeing huge amounts of play. As Control decks have tended to either go five-color or Blue-Black, the popularity of Blue-White has waned, and Red-Green (if playing Aggro) might not want the risk of having to come into play tapped. In other words, while they’re all good, and you ideally want four of all of them somewhere along the line, it’s the Blue-Black Drowned Catacomb that’s the star of the bunch.
You might expect a card that produces something as awesome as a 3/4 flyer would have a drawback like not producing mana in the meantime, so it’s a nice surprise that this fuels your progression up the mana chain, albeit generating generic mana. Once you sacrifice it, you’re left with a ton of decent man, that only really suffers from the usual curse of tokens, a susceptibility to bounce spells like Unsummon and Excommunicate.
This is the kind of Rare you want to open all day in Limited, since it pushes you in no direction at all, and allows you to know that no matter where your Draft heads, you have a quality flyer for your starting lineup.
Unlike Gargoyle Castle, this does not produce mana — ever. As such, it’s the perfect Turn 1 play when you have nothing to do, since you can sacrifice it for whatever mana most suits your opening hand needs, and be ready to put the freshly-laid basic to use on Turn Two.
That’s the upside, and there’s another. If you’ve got a splash, you can count the Expanse towards that, so you might only play one Mountain for your single-card Fireball splash, knowing that you can fetch it with the Expanse. In the event that you hard-draw the Mountain, the Expanse can just go fetch one of your main two colors, so it’s never wasted, especially if it’s finding a land that’s going to improve one of your spells, like Seismic Strike, Tendrils Of Corruption or Armored Ascension.
The downside? There’s no way round the fact that it doesn’t give you mana the turn it arrives. If your opponent is at five, and you have five mana and a Fireball in hand, seeing Terramorphic Expanse on top of your deck is a horrible feeling, since there are maybe twelve other land cards left in your library that said ‘you win’, whereas the Expanse doesn’t.
In Constructed, there are usually better options that have less downside, but for Limited you’d be hardpressed to find an occasion when you wouldn’t play it outside a mono Draft.
And… we’re done. Two hundred and twenty nine cards looked at from the ground up. I’d like to thank the many of you who have written to say how much you’ve appreciated this series. I’ve certainly learned a lot whilst writing it, and even if you’ve found one tiny nugget of information that leads you to a game win you might otherwise not have spotted, then it’s been worth the gargantuan time and effort over these last months.
Starting next week, a return to Removed From Game, with a tale of Prerelease humiliation and a Sealed Pool for you to ponder, plus articles that no longer resemble War And Peace.
Until then, as ever, thanks for reading…