We’ve waded our way through all 41 White cards, and looked at many of the principles that underpin the game of Magic. Next it’s time to turn our attention to Blue. Why? Because Blue is the next color to the right of White on the color wheel. Take a look at the back of any Magic card, and you’ll see the colors laid out in a pentagram-cum-circle. Because it’s sitting next to White, Blue is considered an Ally of White. On one level, you need never concern yourself with this, at least on a conscious basis, since nothing in the game (as yet) refers directly to bonuses or penalties to do with Ally or Enemy colors.
Rather, this philosophy runs through the entire game. Blue and White tend to work well together, in a way that Blue and Green do not. White works well with both Blue and Green, and so on. Where this Ally and Enemy business matters is that Magic is very much a game of synergy — the idea that 1+1=3, or ideally more. Without the math, it’s a game of the whole being equal to more than the sum of its parts. Which is still math I suppose.
Although synergy can be found in all sorts of unexpected places, and there have been plenty of decks that made a virtue out of playing Black-White, or Green-Blue, the fact is that Ally colors tend to fit more snugly together when it comes to deckbuilding for Constructed purposes. In Limited, this philosophy is harder to spot, since it’s often in your interest to shore up the inherent weaknesses of one of your main colors (Blue for example finds it hard to actually destroy creatures) with the strengths of your second (Red eats monsters for breakfast.)
So what can we look forward to with the Blue cards? Let’s get back to the M10 Player’s Guide:
Blue’s focus is the power of thought. In the hands of a blue planeswalker, dreams and imagination can become reality, and vice versa.
When you’re playing blue, you’re making a statement, “I am the more powerful wizard.” Cancel is the purest example of this, but countering spells is just one way that blue magic can bend reality. It also messes with opponents’ creatures, lands, and libraries while molding your own hand and library to your advantage. Perhaps Blue’s most powerful effect of all is to manipulate the fabric of time itself!
Blue doesn’t have the most powerful creatures — brute force is not its thing. But it doesn’t need them. In keeping with its themes of shiftiness and deception, blue creatures are the most elusive. Combine a few choice creatures that are hard to block with enough spells to keep your opponent off balance, and the game is yours! More than half the Blue creatures in the core set have some form of evasion. Many have flying, which mean they can’t be blocked except by creatures with flying or reach. And some can’t be blocked at all.
As you can tell, this is a very different kettle of fish from White. That’s part of the fun of the game, the fact that each color has such a different feel and outlook from its neighbors. Whereas White is all about Order and Chivalry, there’s nothing other than self-interest at the heart of the Blue mage. What the Player’s Guide is entirely right about is that Flying is a theme we’re going to return to again and again. And again. And that’s often something the other colors can’t deal with.
One way of approaching the five colors is to think of them as competing companies, all busily manufacturing creatures and spells designed to defeat their rivals. They all have the same goal — to win – but they all approach it in different ways. Because there’s a huge well of knowledge in all the colors, there’s not much that any given color can’t do at all, but there’s plenty of stuff that each of them struggles with.
One way that this demonstrates itself within the game is in the rarity of certain effects. Black likes to kill things. It’s been killing things for a very long time in a lot of very nasty ways, and has all the expertise in how to variously disembowel, skewer, asphyxiate and generally deadify anything that moves. That makes a card like Doom Blade wading in at Common a natural fit. Blue finds it much harder to destroy monsters. It can do it, with a card like Polymorph. But Blue isn’t used to actually killing creatures, so in the Blue factory the expertise of efficiently offing an opposing critter just isn’t there.
If you absolutely insist on buying from the Blue ‘company,’ this service is going to cost you 3U (that’s three mana of any kind and one Blue mana). It’s going to happen at Sorcery speed, in your turn. And it’s going to be Rare, with a potentially awful drawback. If you take Doom Blade out for a spin, it’s going to cost you 1B (one of any kind of mana and one Black), it’s going to be Instant, it’s going to be Common, and it’s not going to bite you in the ass.
As our examination of the set continues to grow, we’ll increasingly be comparing what’s on offer from one ‘company’ or color with what’s on the shelves of its competitors. That’s critical for two reasons. First, because as the Customer you have the chance to ally yourself with whatever combination of colors you like every time you sleeve up a Constructed deck. Second, especially in Limited play, you won’t always have the luxury of selecting from the full range of products, and that means compromise. Understanding what each color is offering you is one of the biggest keys to Limited success.
So, to business, and we begin with a card that’s been a defining icon of Blue down the years.
The double Blue requirement in the mana cost ensures that Air Elemental won’t often be cast by a player who isn’t majoring in Blue. Other colors might get beefier power and toughness for five mana, but not often with evasion. Large monsters with evasion often turn out to be a Clock in games. A Clock is any monster that, if left undealt with, will kill your opponent in a certain number of turns. Of course, that in theory applies to every creature you ever make, and indeed players will often facetiously refer to their 1/1 on Turn 1 as ‘a Clock,’ in this case one that takes twenty turns to get the job done.
More realistically, Air Elemental is legitimately a Clock. Imagine that it’s midgame in a Sealed deck tournament. Both of you have taken some damage, and you’re at 14, they’re at 12. The ground has clogged up with monsters that can’t profitably attack into each other. Then you drop Air Elemental. What’s the Clock? Well, it has summoning sickness, so can’t fly over straight away. Then you hit them for four, putting them to eight, then down to four, and then, if they still haven’t answered the problem, they be dead the following turn. That’s known in the trade as a three turn Clock.
On the one hand, that sounds like quite a long time, and you’re right that a lot can happen in three turns. On the other, it’s quite likely that neither of their (let’s say) two cards in hand can deal with it, and then they’re looking to the top of their library for answers. Whilst any flyer can at least stem the bleeding, there aren’t many four power flyers that enable them to tangle with Air Elemental and live. Damage spells, even super-efficient ones like Lightning Bolt, find it awkward to take down four toughness.
As we’ll see, Blue has a lot of powerful mechanics when it comes to Constructed play, and this is often balanced by the fact that Blue monsters for Limited are generally less than exciting. That doesn’t apply to Air Elemental, which is one of the primary reasons to play the color in Sealed action.
Summoning sickness has two main downsides. The first is that your freshly-summoned creature can’t attack. In a way that’s only half a drawback, since it applies to pretty much every creature in the game (unless they have Haste)and that makes it very much an even playing field. Also, your creature can block ‘straight away’ i.e. on the opposing turn.
The second downside applies to a much smaller number of creatures, and should be high on your thinking when you consider the value of playing them. In addition to not being able to attack, creatures can’t tap to activate their abilities. That’s where we get to Alluring Siren. As a 1/1 for two mana, it’s very unexciting. We’ve already seen that two mana in White can get you much better power and toughness, and although White is particularly good at producing small efficient monsters, every color has cards that put Alluring Siren to shame.
That means that we’re going to be playing the Siren for its ability. When might that ability come in handy? For starters, it’s going to happen on their turn, before combat. That’s when we get to force their hand. As long as the creature we want to target doesn’t have Shroud, we can target it, so the ‘target creature’ part shouldn’t be too problematic. Nor should the ‘if able,’ because although there are effects that could enable our opponent to tap their creature before combat, thus making it unable to attack, that in and of itself might not be a loss to us. Watching them jump through hoops to make one of their monsters irrelevant seems fine.
Of course, what we really want to happen is to force their 2/2 monster to attack, allowing us to block profitably with a 3/3. At that point, not only are we trading 1-for-0 (that’s one card of theirs dying for no cards of ours), we also present them with a potentially nasty ongoing problem. As long as we have a big blocker sitting at home waiting for the Siren to do her work, there may be times when our opponent can’t sensibly play a monster from hand, knowing that it will duly be Allured into our hungry clutches.
All this is upside, and if I was acting as an agent for Alluring Siren, I’d be really earning my money, because even I would think it’s good after reading those last couple of paragraphs. The downside is considerable though. That 1/1 power and toughness really does make it the frailest of the frail. If it’s proving remotely problematic to our opponent, any removal spell is going to kill it. Whilst it’s true that forcing a removal spell out of their hand is always good, it’s a grim argument that says,’Look at the rubbish I made him spend his removal on.’ Here’s a better idea — play with good cards.
The meat of the problem, though, lies with Summoning Sickness. When it arrives on the battlefield, Alluring Siren has an effectively blank text box. It can’t attack, and can’t use its ability. The following turn, which goes to your opponent, it’s still functionally a blank. It’s highly unlikely you want to block with it, since it’s almost certain to die, and Summoning Sickness hasn’t yet worn off — this happens when a creature starts your turn under your control.
Then, we’re back to your turn. It could theoretically attack, but again, there aren’t many situations where that’s going to arise, and when it does, you’re going to wish Alluring Siren was almost any other creature, since almost any other creature is going to hit harder. Finally — finally! – we’re back with your opponent, and now we get to use the ability. That’s assuming that they have a monster small enough that we can run it into something bigger of ours.
There are occasions where this sequence will occur, and if you ever get to do it multiple times you’ll not only feel extremely dirty for having accomplished this, you’ll also almost certainly be about to win the game, because killing monsters for free is a bit naughty. If you fancy playing it, play a few Sealed games, and imagine an opponent playing it against you. Would it wreck your dreams of global domination? Or would you laugh it at for being an overcosted 1/1?
This series is aimed at players who might not have played a ton of Magic, or at least those who have taken the decision to look into the game more deeply. I want therefore to be as open as possible, and avoid long-held prejudices, good or bad. One of the things that Blue does best is say ‘no’ to opposing spells. Generally speaking, this information is greeted in one of two ways.
In one camp, there are the players who like to cast their spells unmolested, and therefore consider anything remotely resembling Cancel to be an abomination and an active negative factor in the game and their enjoyment of it. Then there’s the second camp, who go all warm and fuzzy inside at the thought of denying their opponents the satisfaction of successfully resolving a spell. Me? If my house was burning down, I’d rescue my counterspells, my children, and my wife. In that order.
That said, I’ll now lay my ‘I love Counterspell’ prejudice aside, and attempt to be fair and balanced. Long-time players will tell you about the days when saying no to a spell without restriction i.e. ‘Counter target spell’ cost you two mana, and was called (shockingly) Counterspell. You should ignore these conversations, since many other things were different many years ago, including life expectancy in the mid-30’s, no TV, and only an outside toilet. None of these are good reasons to decry the fact that Cancel says no to absolutely anything, unless that card 100% explicitly says it can’t be countered. Whilst there are very few of these in the game, that very fact ensures that they are something you should be paying attention to if you’re considering running a Control deck with counterspells in a Constructed event.
That question of what you’re going to do if you can’t counter a spell, and it manages to hit play, is a key component of any Control strategy. Apart from those ‘cannot be countered’ spells, there are plenty of spells that are going to get past you, either because you’re tapped out, have no counterspells in hand, or because it’s the early part of the game and you haven’t got as far as three mana.
Right there is the fundamental issue with countermagic. You have to be ready at all times to deal with opposing threats, and that means constantly leaving mana open for your opponent’s turn. The more mana you have to leave open, the harder it is to do other things with what’s left. In the case of Cancel, by Turn 5 you would only have two mana spare if you wanted to leave Cancel mana open for their turn.
They, meanwhile, could be busting out multiple Elite Vanguards, Veteran Armorsmiths and the like, and there’s no rule that says you can’t make them all on the same turn. Indeed, what makes rush decks so backbreaking is that they can dump their hand onto the battlefield very, very quickly. If your counterspell costs three mana, and the spell you’re countering costs one mana, they’re definitely going to have the edge. That’s why Control players love cheap counterspells, and why three mana is quite a bit to pay for what is ultimately always a one for one trade. Their monster or spell goes away, your Cancel goes away.
Predominantly, countermagic resides in the realms of Constructed Magic. This is true for several reasons. First, because you’re allowed four of any given card, and there are plenty of different counterspells out there (we’ve got several more to look at later here), it’s possible to put eight, ten, maybe fourteen counterspells in your deck, greatly increasing your chances of having one in hand when you need to say no. Second, there’s no problem in Constructed with finding the all-powerful spells that sweep the board clear, like Planar Cleansing. In Sealed play, or Draft, finding cards that deal with the threats that slip through the cracks is much harder than in Constructed. Third, you’re just not going to be able to assemble an authentic suite of counterspells in Limited.
Instead, in Sealed and Draft these spells tend to function as ‘pseudo-removal,’ in this case removing the spell before it actually hits play. For the most part, spells like Cancel come in from the Sideboard when your opponent has shown you a card in a previous game that absolutely wrecks you. Maybe they’ve been lucky and got a Planar Cleansing, or a Baneslayer Angel, and you know that if they resolve that spell, you’re toast. That’s the time to Just Say No in Limited. As for Constructed, there are few more powerful effects in the game than being able to say no to whatever your opponent throws at you, and whenever a new set is printed, you should look to see what counterspells are available, because there’s a very high chance that some of them are going to make the Constructed grade.
Many players are thrown or put off by the 0/0 in the bottom corner of cards like Clone. Doesn’t that mean it will die? It’s true that any monster that has zero toughness is destined for the scrapheap, but it’s also true that there’s a window of opportunity for you to prevent this happening. That’s the bit in the text box, which allows you to make Clone a copy of any creature on the battlefield.
The wording on Clone is pretty interesting, since it goes out of its way not to target the creature it’s about to become. That means that a creature with Shroud (meaning that it can’t be targeted) can still be copied by Clone. That said, if you should ever happen to cast Clone when there’s no other creature on the battlefield, your intuition is correct — Clone will go straight to the graveyard.
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to say repeatedly that ‘may’ is one of the most important words in Magic, as in ‘you MAY do such and such.’ There are two important ramifications of having that option, rather than it being an imperative that the game insists you do. First, there are plenty of ‘may’ cards where choosing not to do something is every bit as strategically viable as doing that something. Never assume that just because you may do something, you should do it. You may go jump off a cliff, but that probably doesn’t make it desirable.
Second, it’s not necessarily in the interests of your opponent to remind you about that ‘may’ option you have at your disposal. Mesa Enchantress says you may draw a card, but if you forget, it isn’t up to your opponent to remind you. Instead, you’ve ‘chosen’ not to. The best players in the world almost never miss a ‘may’ option, and they mostly make the right choice.
Meanwhile, back to Clone, which is patiently waiting to enter the battlefield as a copy of something. But what should that something be? We’ve already said that it can’t be alone on the battlefield, but if you’re spending four mana you’d like it to be something pretty decent. That means you’re going to choose the ‘best’ creature on the table. As a rule of thumb, you’ll start with the biggest guy out there, but often evasion is more important than simple big numbers.
It’s often worth holding back until one of the players makes something genuinely huge. If it’s you, making another via Clone should be backbreaking. If it’s them, you’ve done something that’s literally as good. For the most part, making a copy of some innocuous 2/2 is something you should only do if the game is in a very advanced state, and you’re either going to win the next turn with that extra monster (however pitiful), or you desperately need another blocker to survive.
One final note. Magic is full of so-called ‘corner cases,’ rules that you can spend hundreds of games playing without ever coming across them, and then one turns up to bite you in the ass, or other tender parts. One such is the Legend rule. In simple terms, there are some cards that have Legendary status. An example of this would be Akroma, Angel Of Wrath. You know this because it says so, right underneath the artwork: Legendary Creature — Angel. One clue to her status is also in the name. Most monsters in Magic have generic names, carefully designed to imply that there could be more of them. Serra Angel, for example, isn’t legendary, and neither is Elite Vanguard. You could have whole squadrons, fleets, whatever, of either of these. But Akroma, Angel Of Wrath, and all other Legendary creatures, are designed to be unique. There’s no way that she can fight for your opponent if she’s already fighting for you.
If you have a Legendary creature on the battlefield, and your opponent attempts to cast the identical Legendary creature, the game throws a slight hissy fit, and puts both of them into their respective graveyards. There’s no room to do anything about this, it happens the very moment the second copy hits play. Hopefully you can see where this is going. Suppose your opponent does indeed have Akroma, Angel Of Wrath on the table. Now suppose that you tap four mana, one of which is Blue, and cast Clone, making it a copy of their Akroma. The Legend rule kicks in, and both copies die.
Finally, in what amounts to a footnote to a footnote, now is as good a time as any to mention that the five Planeswalkers in M10 — Ajani Goldmane, Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, Chandra Nalaar, and Garruk Wildspeaker — all work as if they are Legendary. Yes, I know that word isn’t written on the card, but that’s largely because they aren’t Legendary Creatures. They’re Planeswalkers, and there’s a ton of differences between the two. That said, there is only one Ajani Goldmane, and if he’s on your side, your opponent casting the same card will result in the exact same consequences as for two Legendary Creatures. They both vanish to the graveyard immediately.
Crikey. All that information from a simple card like Clone. Whatever next?
What a fantastic concept, delivered awesomely in the artwork. Your land looks like it’s one thing, but it’s actually another. A great blend of flavor and mechanics. What is it good for? You can probably tell from the term ‘mana fixing’ that there is an implication in there somewhere that your mana is in some way ‘broken’, and needs fixing. In that sense, cards like Convincing Mirage act as a kind of bandage, attempting to stem the bleeding that your lands are causing you.
Let’s see how that works. You open a hand of Clone, Convincing Mirage, Griffin Sentinel, Razorfoot Griffin, and three Islands in your Blue-White Sealed Deck. On Turn 1 you lay an Island. You add a second on Turn 2, and then Enchant one of them with Convincing Mirage, turning it into a Plains. (You could have chosen a Swamp, Mountain, or Forest too, but that makes a lot less sense.) On Turn 3, you lay a third land, and use your two Islands plus your Miraged Plains to cast your Griffin Sentinel.
What you’ve essentially done is been able to keep an unplayable opening hand because the Mirage allows you to make a Plains. The value of the card rises if you’re playing more colors, since the Mirage can make any basic land type. This has implications for deckbuilding. Suppose that, instead of being just Blue-White, you were still based in those colors, but wanted access to all the others. The construction of manabases to support your colors is a massive branch of Magic theory, and I don’t propose to go into lots of detail. That said, you might end up with something like 7 Plains, 7 Islands, and one each of the other three basic land types. That’s because, with Convincing Mirage, you’re effectively playing with a second Swamp, Mountain, or Forest — whichever one you need most at the time.
Each way we have of accessing a particular color of mana is called a Source, as in ‘a Source of Blue mana.’ A Plains can only ever be a Source of White mana, a Mountain of Red mana, and so on. Convincing Mirage represents a source of any of the five colors of mana, and that’s powerful in the right deck.
There are also tricks you can do that have nothing to do with your own deck at all. A card like Serpent Of The Endless Sea can’t attack unless your opponent controls an Island. What if they’re playing just Red-Green, and only have Mountains and Forests? Easy. Use Convincing Mirage to turn one of their lands into an Island, and your Serpent can attack after all.
Now the downside. Any time you cast a spell that doesn’t directly impact the game position, you’re giving up some initiative to your opponent. Suppose they’re playing a straight Red-Black deck. They have 9 Mountains, 8 Swamps, and 23 actual spells, of which 18 are creatures. In order to play their Sealed Deck this way, they will have given up on playing some of the best spells from other colors. You, meanwhile, have gone down the five-color route. While you’re drawing Convincing Mirage, and turning one of your Islands into a Swamp, they’re drawing a creature, casting it, and hitting you about the head with it.
As always, what we’re talking about is a tradeoff, between the increase in power you get by being able to play the best spells of more colors, versus the consistency of a two or three color deck and the lack of need for mana fixers. Particularly in Sealed, where creatures dominate, a spell that essentially says, ‘I’m doing nothing whatsoever right now, but you’d better watch out later’ is something to be handled with care.
I started this week with the idea of each color being a Corporation, manufacturing creatures and spells, each of them with their own speciality. Cheap monsters are not the speciality of Blue, and that’s evident from Coral Merfolk. Statistically the same as Elite Vanguard in terms of power and toughness, the Merfolk costs a whole mana more.
So why play it? Well, first, you might not be playing White or have access to cheap ground beaters. Second, even if it doesn’t come down on Turn One, it still trades with any two toughness monster. That’s important, because the strength of Blue tends to come later in the game, when it can churn out the flyers that are going to dominate the skies. You don’t want your Wind Drake to be blocking, you want it to be killing your opponent. Any time you get to trade a Coral Merfolk one for one, you’re probably happy.
Incidentally, this is the first Merfolk we’ve seen in the set(and I’m not talking about the name, but specifically the creature type). For many years, this has been one of the major creature types in Blue, and that means there are plenty of the fishy ones around. From time to time, there are enough good ones to all come together into a dedicated Merfolk deck, sometimes known as ‘Fish’ for obvious reasons. With Lorwyn Block cards still in Standard at the time of writing, now is such a time, so spend a bit of time familiarising yourself with the Merfolk that are available. We’ll be meeting some more later.
Didactically speaking, four mana Instants are bad Instants. First, you have to leave all that mana open for the right moment, badly hampering your other plans much of the time. Second, your opponent will smell a rat when you do nothing with that mana when you have cards in hand. Third, because there aren’t many Instants that are in that price range, depending on their experience there’s a decent chance they’ll know to within a few possible cards what it is. This is even more true when you attempt to ‘choreograph’ combat. One of the current crop of U.S. Pros, Steve Sadin, refers to this process as ‘orchestrating plays,’ another musical analogy. The fact is, however you describe it, what you’re trying to achieve is a sequence of events that you’ve planned for and your opponent hasn’t.
The trouble with Disorient is that it won’t necessarily trade for an opposing card. In order for that to happen, you need to have a blocker in place, ready to destroy the now weak as a kitten attacker. If they’re attacking with evasion (Shroud means it can’t be targeted, Flying gets through if you can’t get to the air, and Unblockable is, er, unblockable) then all you’re doing for four mana is negating one hit from their man.
That’s an atrocious use of four mana and an entire card. I use that word ‘entire’ deliberately, because one of the most fundamental lessons to learn about Magic is that every single card is an incredibly precious resource. That’s why the words, ‘draw a card’ on a card are so exciting to many players. That’s why any time you trade two for one you’re doing well, because you’re now one card ‘ahead’ in the game.
Just like almost any card, there are circumstances where Disorient can shine. They have a Trample monster, like Stampeding Rhino, and even with your Coral Merfolk valiantly blocking, it will do you the last points of damage. You block, cast Disorient, your Coral Merfolk lives, and maybe you get to kill them on the backswing.
This is one of the most fascinating cards in the set. In years gone by it was called Counsel Of The Soratami, coming out of the Champions of Kamigawa set. Other than the name change, these two cards are identical. In Sealed, there’s a very good chance you’d play a card like this. Sealed is often the slowest of all Sanctioned Formats (remember, those are the versions of the game where tournaments are recognised by Wizards of the Coast and their Judge Program, the DCI). You’ll frequently have the time to cast this sometime in the midgame, and if you cast it after about Turn 5, you may well be able to do something else with your turn as well.
It’s worth remembering that the ‘two cards’ is a bit misleading. It’s true that you get to look at two more cards from your library than before you cast Divination, and it’s also true that those two cards go into your hand. However, in order to make that happen you had to spend three mana and cast (ie cause to leave your hand) the Divination. Suppose you start your turn with no cards in hand. You draw Divination. (One card in hand.) You cast it. (No cards in hand.) It resolves and your draw two cards. (Two cards in hand.) The net result of a Divination is plus 1, not plus 2.
That’s not to say that going a card up is something to be sniffed at. On the contrary, with Sealed decks often very finely balanced, simply generating one extra card can be the difference. It’s also true that ‘digging’ through your library gets you nearer to your best spells, which in Sealed are often the bomb Rare cards.
So why did I say this was one of the most fascinating cards in the set? Well, a bit like Convincing Mirage, Divination is a card that doesn’t directly impact the game in any way. It might be a significant step towards you winning the game because of the cards you drew off it, but in and of itself it cannot make you win. That means you need to decide whether you can afford the time to cast it, and the space in your deck. As Formats constantly shift and evolve, the answer to that question changes right along with it. In Sealed, you’ll almost always find the time. Sometimes, this is more than good enough for Draft, where there are sufficient early creatures with decent toughness to mean you can sit on Defence and happily take a turn out to restock your hand.
Where this question becomes most interesting is for Constructed. Blue doesn’t like to spend mana on its own turn, because it effectively turns off its countermagic for the following turn. There’s no getting round it, Divination forces you to spend that three mana (that could used subsequently on a Cancel) on your own turn. You might justifiably be thinking that you would just wait until you got to six mana, cast Divination, and still have Cancel mana up for your opponent’s turn.
There’s the rub, though. In some Constructed Formats, you can build your deck in such a way that you can spend that turn getting +1 on cards. Sometimes, though, Turn 6 will look like an eternity away, and suddenly you’re having to cast it when you don’t want to, leaving yourself open for bad news coming from the other side. If you want to know how fast a Format is, working out the usefulness and potency of a spell like Divination is one of the best ways to do it.
Djinn Of Wishes
Sometimes, Magic gets a bit overwhelming. OK, a lot of the time Magic gets a bit overwhelming, and that’s why websites like this one are so popular, because we like to lighten the load. Djinn Of Wishes has a lot of text on it, and although we’ll examine it all, it’s the first bit that should be front and centre. For five mana, we get a 4/4 Flyer. In Sealed, and realistically in Draft, you would never ever not play with this card if you were playing Blue. So far, this is an exact copy of an Air Elemental. Indeed, when you’re evaluating cards that you’re unfamiliar with — something that’s going to happen every time you go to a Pre-Release for example — it’s a good idea to compare something you don’t know with something you do. In shorthand, therefore, Djinn Of Wishes goes in the file as ‘Air Elemental +.’
Ah, but + what? Four mana allows us to remove a counter, and play a game of lucky dip with the top of our library. Here are some possible outcomes:
It’s a cheap creature — okay, we paid four mana, but we still get our two mana creature onto the battlefield at instant speed, meaning we can do this at the end of our opponent’s turn, giving them minimal time to prepare. We can also activate this once our opponent has declared his attackers, but before we get to block, and that makes their attacking much more problematic, as we hurl something into the fray at the last minute.
It’s a land — ah, a swing and a miss. If it happens to be your turn, and you haven’t laid your one land for the turn, you can use the one revealed with the Djinn. Otherwise, your only benefit is that you won’t draw that land next turn, increasing your chance of drawing something useful.
It’s an expensive creature — yippee. We got to pay less than the going rate for our creature, and again, got to cast it in a place that fundamentally we’re not allowed to. Any time you get to ‘break the rules,’ you should be getting a significant advantage from it. If we get a big guy onto the battlefield before blockers, there’s every chance we can create a favorable block that will generate a one for none, where their monster dies, and ours doesn’t.
It’s a spell — this is a bit more complicated. There’s no compulsion to do something that’s not in your interest, like aiming a removal spell at one of your own monsters, but there are times that there isn’t much you want to hit on the other side. That’s tough, because if you don’t use the spell right then and there, it gets Exiled, so you won’t be likely to see it again. Worse, if you have very few answers in your deck to a particular card, and the Djinn reveals one of your answers, you’ll have to throw it away on something that’s maybe less of a threat.
It’s a spell, part two — ah, now this is the really sweet bit, the one you’ll remember and tell your friends about. This is where you’re not looking for a game-winning advantage, but you’re desperately scrambling around to avoid defeat. This is the scenario where they have their huge army already attacking you, with insufficient defence in the way. You frantically spend four mana, and find Safe Passage on top of your deck. You play it for free, take no damage, and kill them the following turn. Carnage.
It’s a spell, part three — This one is even more tricksy, so much so that it’s the kind of thing Constructed players like to pull off. Say you have your Djinn on the battlefield, but have no cards in hand. Your opponent draws for the turn, and looks at your tapped Djinn. Three mana later, and Assassinate has been aimed at it. You respond by spending four mana, and find on top of your deck… Negate. Now you can use Negate for free to counter the Assassinate. Carnage again.
Most players, regardless of their experience or lack thereof, will quickly learn that a 4/4 Flyer is good Limited news. The best players will work out exactly when to use the ability on Djinn Of Wishes (and with eight mana you can go looking twice in a row on the same turn) and occasionally when not to.
Strictly speaking, this is worse than Cancel, since it does less. It forms one half of a pair with Negate, which we’ll get to next week, allowing me to tell you the exact same things as for Essence Scatter, secure in the knowledge you’ll have forgotten all about it in the intervening seven days.
Although Cancel is the default benchmark for countermagic, this is in fact arguably better, since, if you want to defeat a creature spell, this gets the job done for one mana less. Once again, it’s important to remember that ‘just’ one mana is in fact a huge difference maker. At two mana, from Turn 4 onwards you have the possibility of countering two spells in a single turn, and that’s particularly useful when many creature decks will be trying to spew out multiple monsters.
What we said about all countermagic being more about Constructed play continues to be true, but it’s less true for Essence Scatter than the other Blue counterspells in M10. Because it only costs two mana, it’s relatively simple to leave the mana available without crippling your own aggressive gameplan in Sealed. Second, Sealed is (you’re getting the hang of this idea by now) all about creatures, with most decks typically running anything up to 18 or so in their 40 card deck. That means that Essence Scatter is going to have a lot of potential victims, making it unusual to be stuck in your hand with nothing to do.
The exception to this is, of course, in the late game, when you’re trying to deal with what’s already happened. Looking to the top of your deck for a miracle to find Essence Scatter staring back at you is a pretty miserable experience, and it’s one of the main reasons counterspells continue to be a niche market in Limited play.
As for Essence Scatter in Constructed, in a Metagame (an estimate of what decks people are playing in a given tournament) packed with creature decks, this is a perfectly viable card to bring in from your Sideboard, and might even be worth testing in your maindeck if you feel you need an answer on Turn Two when you’re on the play (going first). Never phenomenal, always efficient, and always one for one, it’s the very definition of a modern, precision counterspell.
As we go along, we’re starting to see trends develop. Of course, we’re only a quarter of the way through the set, and some of the overarching themes are best served by checking out many hundreds, or even thousands, of cards. That said, we’re already aware that ‘may’ is a word to look out for on cards. We’re aware that ‘draw a card’ is something to cause extra interest. And now we get to add the word ‘search’ to our list of pulse-quickeners.
It’s inherent in a game with the restriction of only being able to play four copies of a given card in your deck that most of the time you aren’t going to draw that card on any given draw step (the bit of your turn when you draw your one card for the turn.) There are multiple ways we can improve our odds of seeing one of those crucial cards. Convincing Mirage is an example of effectively playing an extra copy of a given land by converting one of our others. Divination draws us further down our library, getting us more than just one card per turn, and bringing us closer to the particular card we want.
Then there are cards that enable us to search our library in some way. These cards have historically been known as ‘tutors’, since a whole slew of them have been printed down the years — Worldly Tutor to get a creature, Mystical Tutor to fetch an Instant or Sorcery, and so on. The ability to get what you want out of your library at Instant speed for minimal cost has been recognised long ago as something that’s incredibly powerful, and the design of Fabricate reflects that knowledge. It isn’t especially cheap, at three mana. Critically, you have to do it on your own turn, making it increasingly likely that you’ll have to wait until the next go to actually cast whatever it is you’ve searched for.
Since, in addition to all this faffing about, and spending mana, and maybe wasting a whole turn to do it, and certainly spending an entire card (there’s that phrase again) to do it, this tutor business really needs to deliver something tasty.
In Limited, this shines by greatly increasing your chances of busting out your exciting bomb Artifact. Suppose you’re lucky enough to have found Platinum Angel in your Sealed pool, an incredibly hard nugget to crack for any opponent. In a 40 card deck, with a game that lasts (let’s say) 13 turns, you’re going to see about half your deck. In other words, you’ll see your Platinum Angel roughly half the time. If you play a tutor like Fabricate, you’ll now see at least one of these two cards three times in four.
If that sounds odd — if I double the number of ‘Platinum Angel’ in my deck from one to two, surely I double my chances of seeing one of them — let’s check the math:
With just a Platinum Angel, it can be in the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ half of the deck for us to see it. That’s a 50%-50% shot, assuming that we see half our deck. (A number I’ve used purely for convenience, since many Sealed games go shorter than this.) If I have both my Platinum Angel and Fabricate, the four possibilities look like this:
Platinum Angel in the ‘right’ half, Fabricate in the ‘right’ half — 25%
Platinum Angel in the ‘wrong’ half, Fabricate in the ‘right’ half — 25%
Platinum Angel in the ‘right’ half, Fabricate in the ‘wrong’ half — 25%
Platinum Angel in the ‘wrong’ half, Fabricate in the ‘wrong’ half — 25%
Only in the last scenario, where both cards are lurking in the ‘wrong’ half of our deck do we fail to find a way to access our Platinum Angel. If the increase from 50% to 75% makes you shrug — it’s just numbers after all, what does it really mean? – consider this. In a typical Sealed tournament of seven Rounds, each Round will average out at 2.5 games (an average of a 2-0 win to someone, and a 2-1 win to someone in the best of three.) That’s a total of around 18 games.
In our scenario, with Platinum Angel alone you’ll see it in nine of those eighteen games. With Fabricate as well, you’ll see it in maybe fourteen. That’s five extra games across a day of tournament action where they’ll have to deal with your killer Rare. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Platinum Angel is a card you can ride to victory 50% of the time all on its ownsome, Fabricate effectively read ‘You win two extra games today.’
We can quibble over the specific numbers, and I’m someone who finds the underlying probabilities in the game more interesting than many, but even if your eyes are glazing over, at least take this thought away:
Tutors are really, really powerful, and should always be respected, and given due consideration when it comes to Constructed play.
Coming in at exactly the same mana as Essence Scatter and Negate, Flashfreeze is much less useful for Limited than Essence Scatter, and potentially better than it for Constructed. In Limited play, there are going to be entire decks (Blue-White, Black-White, and Blue-Black) where it’s certain to be completely useless. That means effectively skipping your draw step on the turn you find it on top of your library. If it turns out your opponent is playing a stack of Forests and Mountains, by all means bring it in from your Sideboard, since at that point it becomes much better than either Negate or Essence Scatter or even Cancel, since it will behave as a Cancel for one less mana.
In some ways counter-intuitively, (as opposed to ‘counter intuitively’, which is something you should always look to do!), the very narrowness of Flashfreeze compared to either Essence Scatter or Negate contributes to its success in the world of Constructed. Whereas you can always find yourself with the ‘wrong’ half of Essence Scatter/Negate in your hand when a spell needs to be dealt with, against a Red-Green mage Flashfreeze will always get the job done. It doesn’t matter whether they’re casting a Red Instant like Lightning Bolt, or a Green Creature like Birds Of Paradise, or a Planeswalker like Garruk Wildspeaker or an Enchantment like Manabarbs… Flashfreeze counters them all.
In this situation, Flashfreeze becomes what we call a ‘hard’ counter, one that brooks no argument and allows no loopholes. That’s what makes it so appealing for Constructed sideboards. If you elect to play a Red-Green deck, and many do, you’ll face Flashfreeze sooner rather than later.
Everything in Magic has a cost, and you very quickly come to understand that for the most part that cost is going to be somewhere between one and seven mana, with a few notable exceptions. New players learn this incredibly quickly, and tend to dismiss it while their brain gets on with the information overload that is working out what hundreds of different cards actually do.
Although that’s completely natural, it’s also a big mistake, since the real key to understanding the success or failure of cards is working out what they do at the cost that they do it. If you’re someone that instinctively smiles when you read the words, ‘But is the fridge light on or off?’ then you’ll probably enjoy the similarly esoteric query, ‘How much should a card cost if it said “You win the game”?’
The fact is, cost is the absolute determining factor in how good a card is within the game. If it’s undercosted i.e. it gives you more than a card typically ‘should’ for its cost, then you’re on a winner. If it’s overcosted, you need to have good reasons to play it — your deck has no alternatives and simply must have the services the card provides, despite its prohibitive cost.
Hive Mind initially sounds like it might be really good. What if your opponent has a stack of removal spells or burn spells or even counterspells? Wouldn’t it be great if you could get to copy them via Hive Mind and send them right back at them? In a vacuum, the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ copying opposing spells and using it against them would be good.
Magic doesn’t get played in a vacuum. In Limited, they’re likely to have, at most, about seven or eight spells to go with their 15-16 creatures. A couple of these might be Enchantments. A couple of them might have already been cast before you get Hive Mind onto the battlefield. At least one of the others will be in the ‘wrong’ half of the deck. Suddenly, you’re looking at maybe using the ability once or maybe twice in an entire game.
Still with Limited, Hive Mind is another of those cards I warned you about earlier, a card that isn’t a creature and isn’t a removal spell. You need good reasons to play cards like these, and ‘he might cast something that’s worth copying’ probably doesn’t count.
Now let’s head to Constructed. By Turn Six, a huge amount of the game has already happened, and tapping out to cast something that might subsequently be useful again seems far from optimal. The one thing that you might reasonably want it to accomplish — being a source of free counterspells against a Control deck — is precisely the kind of thing it will never do, because the Control deck will simply aim a counterspell at it.
If you want a 173rd reason not to play with it, it’s symmetrical. That’s right, if you start spraying around Sorceries and Instants, your opponent can go right ahead and copy them. And it costs six mana. Six! I want anything that costs six to have a massive impact on the game. This almost certainly doesn’t. Bad times, every which way you look at it.
Believe me when I tell you that I’ve been squeezing out the potential goodness of every card as we’ve gone along, because there is goodness to be found in every card, however weak and feeble and overcosted it may be. Yet I’ve been incredibly harsh on Hive Mind. Sometimes, people like me, who write about the professional game, lose sight of other constituent parts of the Magic fanbase. It’s true that I can’t imagine ever recommending you play this in any kind of Sanctioned event.
The fact is, though, that there’s more to Magic than just the winning and losing of ranking points and Pro Tour Qualifiers (tournaments where you get the chance to win your airplane ticket to the next huge global tournament, where the winner gets $40,000. Yeah, truly.) For the more casual player, Multiplayer can be a ton of fun. Imagine a game with seven of you round the table, and someone casts Hive Mind. The next player casts Lightning Bolt to deal three damage to something or someone, and suddenly there are 21 points of damage electrifying the game. That’s a whole host of fun and frolics.
If ever you’re looking at a card and can’t imagine why anyone would ever play with it, it’s worth remembering that sometimes a card just isn’t ‘meant’ for you, and somewhere right now, half a dozen free burn spells are going on the stack to huge enjoyment. Multiplayer — the home for cards you’d actually gouge your eyeballs out rather than play.
With one power, the Turtle isn’t going to kill much. More importantly, with four toughness, the Turtle isn’t going to die to much. Whilst waiting to be outclassed by Green heavyhitters or Flying Rares, the Horned Turtle is a decent Limited monster for Blue, because it can effectively gain you a bunch of life, where life equates to time, and that’s exactly what Blue needs to get to the part of the game where it can afford the turn for spells like Divination, Fabricate and so on, which in turn sets them up for big turns later on. A bit like life insurance, nobody ever got excited about reading the policy document, but it’s quite nice to know it’s there.
There’s so much to like about this card, although not all of it is from a power level perspective. One of the issues with Pacifism, a card we looked at in White, is that stopping a creature attacking or blocking can sometimes only be part of the story. Indeed, for some creatures, they are absolutely not there to attack or block, but are designed to be useful through their abilities. Some examples of this that we’ve seen so far would be Alluring Siren, Undead Slayer, and Blinding Mage.
The abilities on these cards are called Activated Abilities, because — that’s right — you choose to Activate them. The two other types of Abilities you need to concern yourself with are Triggered and Static Abilities. Triggered Abilities generally happen once a certain condition is met. Soul Warden has a Triggered Ability, so whenever a creature enters the battlefield, the ability triggers, and you may gain 1 life. Static Abilities are pretty much what they sound like. Haste is a Static Ability. A creature doesn’t ‘gain’ Haste, or ‘get’ Haste, it just ‘has’ Haste.
Activated Abilities can be very powerful. All three of Alluring Siren, Undead Slayer, and Blinding Mage, have the opportunity to render a monster of ours more or less useless. Pacifism doesn’t stop them from doing their thing. Ice Cage does, and for exactly the same amount of mana.
Given that the White ‘corporation’ is a bit better at this sort of defensive card than Blue, and given that White would expect to pay three mana for this spell, not two, you’d expect that there would be some kind of drawback to Ice Cage, and there is. But how serious is that drawback? Enough to make it unplayable?
Working out the answer to that is among the more complex calculations you can make when evaluating a card. The first port of call is to ask yourself how many cards would cause the negative final ability to trigger. Any spell or ability will do this, so, assuming that we’re playing with just M10, we can work our way through the set and see what cards would cause Ice Cage to fall off. The actual numbers aren’t important — you can go do this yourself if you want a real insight into Ice Cage specifically — but we’re interested in the method, not the individual outcome. For now, I’ll mention that twelve of the fifty-six cards we’ve seen so far have the chance to target a creature with Ice Cage on it.
Once we have our raw number of possibles, we can weed out any that we think most people won’t be playing with. Indestructibility might be an example of a card like this. Then we can start to ignore the Rare cards, simply because they aren’t going to be seen that often. If they do, and they break the Ice Cage, you just have to shrug it off, but you shouldn’t be factoring them into your choice as to whether or not to play Ice Cage.
Then there are the cards that could target it, but almost certainly wouldn’t. Why on earth would your opponent cast Pacifism on his own monster, causing Ice Cage to fall off, but still meaning it couldn’t attack or block? If you want a convoluted answer, with you at one life and your Ice Cage on their Prodigal Pyromancer would do it. You’re going to have to play a lot of Limited Magic before you see this sequence of plays in real life however, so again, you’re best off ignoring it.
Now we’re getting somewhere. We have our list of mostly Commons and Uncommons that people are likely to be playing with, and would be probably happy to aim at a creature with Ice Cage on it. That leaves one final part of the puzzle. What does it bring to your deck? If you were based in Red and Black, and Ice Cage represented a chance to put a ninth removal spell in your deck rather than eight, it wouldn’t seem worth the bother. If you’re playing Blue-Green and have almost no removal, you’d play Ice Cage almost regardless of how many ways there were of shattering it.
What I love most about this card is the synergy between mechanics and flavor. If Magic were real, you’d feel really good about encasing some Bogardan Hellkite or other in a frosty prison. But even as you locked the icy shards into place, you’d be thinking, ‘But what if it breaks?…’
The Servant shares a similar characteristic with Ice Cage. As soon as it gets targeted by a spell or ability, it’s gone. However, there’s one very important difference. As a spell that’s used as often on defense as offense, Ice Cage won’t win you the game outright all that often. The scenario for that is removing the one remaining blocker that’s in the path of your Flyer or big beast over perhaps a couple of turns.
Illusionary Servant can absolutely win games outright. 3/4 Flying as early as Turn Three is ferociously quick for Sealed or Draft play, and three hits from this alone is almost half their starting life total. If they eventually make something that can target it, and generate a one for none to their advantage, you’ve still dealt a ton of damage for minimal cost.
Just like Ice Cage, if they already have a Blinding Mage in place, you can’t cast this without it being sent packing. The upside is pretty significant however. Four toughness on a Flyer is something you wouldn’t expect to find any time before five mana, especially if it’s allied to decent power.
There haven’t been many times in the history of the game that cards like this have made it to Constructed play, but from time to time Blue decks emerge that base themselves around a suite of efficient flying monsters, a bit of Tempo, and a few Counterspells. The most famous of these was Altran Flying Beatdown, named after a US player whose name was curiously neither Flying nor Beatdown, but Al Tran. Seeing two of these bearing down on you early in the game is the kind of thing that many decks wouldn’t like. Again, it’s not often that cards like this make the grade, but it has happened.
Our second Planeswalker, and like all of them Jace is a Mythic Rare. That means you’re unlikely to come across him very often in Limited, and even less often will you find your opponent has one too. As we discussed earlier, if they ever turn up on the battlefield together, they instantly head for their respective graveyards. There can be only one, Highlander fans.
Like all the Planeswalkers, you can only use one ability each turn, and only on your turn. With only three Loyalty, Jace is relatively easy to kill (an Illusionary Servant on the other side will send him packing in one hit). As a result, most players tend to activate his first ability as soon as he hits the battlefield. If you’re thinking that allowing your opponent to draw extra cards at your expense is a bad idea, you’re absolutely right. If you’re thinking that therefore you shouldn’t be using Jace’s first ability, you’re not absolutely right.
Although the first ability is symmetrical, the ability it enables to continue unmolested — the second ability where only you get to draw a card — is most certainly not symmetrical. Incidentally, there are a few super-rare circumstances where you will want the target player on the second ability to be your opponent, like when they have no cards left in their library, and would therefore lose the game. 99% of the time though, that target player will be you.
You should by now be getting the feeling that moving one card up on your opponent is a pretty major deal, and it is. By putting Jace’s Loyalty to five from the get-go, you’re ensuring that on subsequent turns you have a good chance of having Jace draw you a card via the second ability, and still be able to protect him from losing all his Loyalty.
In Constructed, Jace is a devastating powerhouse. With a deck dedicated to protecting him from harm, a pattern develops of both players drawing a card, then activating the second ability for two turns, running the Loyalty back down before recharging with the first ability. To be up two cards every three turns is utterly backbreaking against almost any deck, and enables the Control player to create the Card Advantage that all the Cancels and Essence Scatters and Flashfreezes and Negates in the world can’t provide.
As for the so-called ultimate ability, I can honestly say I’ve never ever seen it used. The circumstances under which you’d want both players to keep drawing cards to the point at which you could use it are vanishingly small compared to how often you’ll go in that three turn cycle described above with abilities one and two.
Seeing Jace across the table and thinking ‘Sometimes I get to draw a card too. How bad can it be?’ is something most beginner players do.
We finish this week with two variations on taking to the air. For such a small cost, Jump is surprisingly versatile. On their turn, making your Canyon Minotaur sprout wings during combat can often be enough to turn Jump into a removal spell, as your now gravity-free monster puts their no-longer-unblockable guy in the bin. On your turn, you get to defy the laws of physics, and send your biggest man to the skies. Since non-flyers at a given cost are generally beefier than their Flying counterparts, they’ll find it tough to deal with. This is generally most effective with Green monsters, which have both some of the fattest monsters, and the hardest time taking to the skies.
Levitation meanwhile is an ‘oops, I win’ kind of card. In Sealed play, we know that games can often become bogged down, with perhaps as many as half a dozen monsters on each side staring across the battlefield at each other, without a meaningful attack in sight. Levitation suddenly gives everyone on your side a lift, and in any of these kind of stall situations, you’ll almost always have enough power for an Alpha Strike victory.
What’s important about both these cards is their timing. As an Instant, Jump is very versatile, but if you’re using it on offense, remember that once a creature becomes blocked, it stays blocked. Giving your man flying after blockers is irrelevant. Does it Fly? Sure. Does that mean you get to damage your opponent? No, because their ground guy got in the way before the wings turned up. You need to cast Jump before blockers. The same is true on defense. Once you’re past declaring blockers, giving one of your monsters flying won’t suddenly enable you to leap up and get in the way of their Wind Drake. ‘Before blockers’ is a phrase you’re going to use a lot in your Magic career.
As for Levitation, the fact that it’s an Enchantment means that you have to cast it as a Sorcery. In one sense, this is no problem, since in the stalled board positions we’re describing, you’re intending to win that turn anyway by turning everything sideways. Leaving mana open for a rainy day doesn’t come into it. However, if your opponent happens to have an answer for Levitation, you’re going to die in spectacular fashion.
Because the defending player gets to choose his blockers in whatever combination he sees fit, the strategic edge in combat always goes to the defender. If you have a bunch of flyers and they don’t, that strategic edge is irrelevant. If you attack though, and they say, ‘Before blockers, get rid of your Levitation’ (which they could do with something like Naturalize for example), they then get to put blockers in the way at their convenience, and their convenience most certainly won’t be convenient for you.
In that sense, ‘oops, I win’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. More accurately, it’s likely to be an ‘oops, I’ve drawn Levitation. Have I won?’ and you pray they don’t have an answer.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly knackered. We’ve taken a look at the first half of the Blue cards, and as you can see, every card has a story to tell and lessons to teach us about the game. It’s a good bet that by the time you read this paragraph you’ve already put yourself through the preceding 11,000 words or so. I’ve been at this game for more than a dozen years now, and the simple act of putting these thoughts together is making me re-examine cards in a way I haven’t for years. If you’re suffering from information overload, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
As always, take your time. Go back and look at particular cards that have caught your eye. Talk to your friends. Explore the possibilities. If you’re feeling brave, now that we’ve got more than a quarter of the set done, why not take a look at the rest of the Blue cards, so you’ve already got some thoughts ready for the rest next week?
However you use the Academy, enjoy the game, and, as ever, thanks for reading.