The M10 Academy - Blue, Two
We're halfway through the Blue cards in M10 and as usual there's so much to talk about so let's dive straight in.
Hmm and we really are diving straight in with the kind of card that has all sorts of things going on under the hood. You should probably be able to guess by now that like Alluring Siren last week we're not about to play Merfolk Looter for her prowess in combat. It's all about her ability which at first glance might not look that good. You draw a card but you also discard a card. That's no advantage of a card whereas something like Divination gets us up a card at +1.
You're right to say that this aspect of the Looter is symmetrical. No sooner have you gained a card than you are required to lose that advantage. What Merfolk Looter introduces to us is the concept of Card Quality rather than Card Advantage. Let's suppose that both players have the same type of cards coming on top of their library. The next three cards will all be lands (which neither player needs because it's late in the game and both have all they need) and the following three are all creatures. You have Merfolk Looter your opponent does not and you've got a couple of 'spare' lands in hand.
First you draw land number one. You activate the Looter (hopefully you've remembered from last time that these tap abilities are Activated Abilities.) You see land number two and put it straight in the bin. Your opponent draws his first land and because he likes to bluff that he might have a powerful Instant he keeps it in hand. This is often good practice by the way since anytime you have no cards in hand you are giving your opponent what's known as Perfect Information. There is nothing for them to guess about your hand since you don't have one.
On the second turn of our experiment you draw land number three. In many games the end of your opponent's turn is when to activate the Looter but here where you're looking to gain a tempo advantage you go ahead and activate on your own turn once more. It's the first creature so you happily discard a land. You then cast the creature you just looted for and pass the turn. They draw their second land and pass.
You draw your second creature. You cast it and then go for the kill looting once more. You find the third creature and have enough mana to cast that too. Your opponent draws their third land. No prizes for guessing who wins in a 3 v 0 creature fight.
Our sample assumes that both players had exactly the same things coming to them and of course that's almost never the case. What is undeniable however is that the Looter player got to see six cards while the opponent saw three. That's three more chances of goodness of removal of evasion of bomb Rares anything. Technically you haven't gained Card Advantage but whereas they had no means of turning their Plains or Swamps into something better you parlayed them into a monster.
Every time you activate a Merfolk Looter you're saying 'I've got something here I'm not that fussed about let's go find something better.' Most of the time you'll be discarding excess land but there are times you'll happily ditch your Coral Merfolk or Wall Of Faith while you go in search of your Serra Angel or Snapping Drake. The more you play with the Looter the more you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how greedy you'll turn out to be.
In most Limited play lands represent somewhere around 40-45% of the deck so something like 17 land and 23 spells. If you get to activate your Looter maybe five times in a game you're going to see roughly three spells more than your opponent (on average). Even when you're seeing utter garbage turn after turn that's cards you won't have to spend seeing in your draw step. Every bad card brings you closer to your next good one.
An absolute staple of Blue Limited play the Looter is among the most powerful Common 1/1s money can buy and the underlying principle of Card Quality is something that you'll see in Constructed decks too.
As a 2/2 for three mana this isn't very exciting so let's see what we get from the abilities. First off note that word 'other.' Just like Captain Of The Watch the Sovereign doesn't grant its bonus to itself so it does indeed remain a 2/2. You might be tempted to think that giving +1+1 isn't that big a deal but the way cards in the game are costed means that almost any card that gets that power and toughness boost 'for free' is giving you a good deal overall.
In M10 there are precious few Merfolk so you're unlikely to be able to put together a full-on tribal deck in Draft (unless you're the recipient of some weird probabilities) but even with the ones we have we can see the possible impact of the Sovereign. At 1/1 for 1U Merfolk Looter dies to everything in sight. As a 2/2 courtesy of the Sovereign it can tangle and trade with a much wider range of opposing monsters. Coral Merfolk isn't great as a 2/1 for 1U but if you've already got the Sovereign on the battlefield Coral Merfolk arrives as a 3/2 which is well above the curve.
I mentioned last week that there is a Merfolk deck running around in Standard at the moment and that's largely because of the Lorwyn Block which had tribal synergies as a major theme. A lot of the cards that make the deck work therefore will be gone from Standard in October 2009 so the 'Fish' deck will have to be re-evaluated in the light of the new card pool available.
Back in Limited and specifically in Draft where you might be able to at least get a decent handful of Merfolk to go with your early pick Sovereign you'll look to use the tap ability making one of your Merfolk unblockable. In and of itself that isn't overly remarkable since even an unblockable 3/2 Coral Merfolk won't always be much of a threat. Where this ability comes into its own is when you have some way to make your sneaky attacker huge. Giant Growth means the Coral Merfolk attacks for six. That's a lot. Put Magebane Armor on it and suddenly you're attacking for five every single turn and that's definitely a Clock.
A lot of the time Merfolk Sovereign and other 'tribal lords' like it isn't going to be quite good enough for Sealed (because you can't find the numbers in your pool) not quite good enough for Draft (because without the Sovereign the other Merfolk are unexceptional) and not quite good enough for Standard (because there aren't enough Merfolk to support the overall strategy even with four of any of them available for your deck.) When it IS good enough though it can do a lot of fun things for you and as a result many players look upon fish decks with affection.
In the 'Wild West' days of Magic when powerful spells were ridiculously overheated by today's standards Control Magic – which did exactly what Mind Control does – cost four mana. Like many powerful spells in the game the effect has been retained while the cost has gone up. As usual and for the first time this week I'll counsel against ignoring that 'just' one mana difference. Due to the way Blue decks tend to work at four mana Mind Control would be heading towards a Constructed card. At five that's a big investment that has to be made on your own turn.
Instead Mind Control is all about Limited and the real skill lies in getting the best value out of it. Clearly it's their 'best' monster that you want on your side of the table but is that the 2/3 Flyer that's beating you up or their freshly-cast 6/6 ground man? Come to that do you try to handle these without the Mind Control since you know they have a couple of amazing bomb Rares that you can't likely deal with?
As for the mechanics of the card if the monster you Enchant is currently tapped it doesn't untap when you get it. Instead it has to wait for the start of your turn. Similarly because it didn't start your turn in play on your side of the battlefield it fails the Summoning Sickness test and therefore can't attack straight away. Finally in order to Enchant a creature you have to target it and that means anything with Shroud is off limits.
Because it's Uncommon this is a card you'll see much more often than any of the Rares or Mythics and as such it's a card you make a small part of the equation when you're deciding whether or not to play with Enchantment removal (like Solemn Offering) in your deck. As swinging effects go it's very powerful in Limited because there's something pretty nasty about saying 'That guy is soooo good. Think I'll have him instead. Thanks.'
What would you say is the most important aspect of this card? Three possibilities: What it does what it costs to do what it does and when it pays the cost to do what it does. In concrete terms:
What it does – draw cards.
What it costs – it depends how many cards you draw.
When it pays – your own turn before or after combat.
We know that drawing cards is good. Having a card that's scaleable is also good. That's to say that we have some control over the cost and the outcome. For three mana we can simply replace Mind Spring with the top card of our deck. That's quite definitely worse than Divination so why might we do it? How about we've already used Sage Owl to know what the top card is and we really want it sooner rather than later? Perhaps we want mana open for our opponent's turn.
The trouble is in finding the 'sweet spot' for this. At three mana you'd expect to draw two cards not one. At five mana you're drawing one card less than with Tidings a popular Constructed card in Blue decks. At seven mana the five cards you draw should put you waaayyy ahead of any opponent but when will you have seven 'spare' mana to cast it? This is the kind of fundamental tension built in to a card that makes Magic great.
In Limited this tension is less apparent. With fewer cards that can automatically generate card advantage like Planar Cleansing or Earthquake sitting in either Sealed or Draft decks games often come down to a card or two here or there. Particularly in Sealed spending your Turn Six drawing four cards is a beating against most opponents. Where this card becomes really interesting is when you attempt to apply it to Constructed and specifically when you consider that most important question:
When does it pay the cost to do what it does?
Rarely can there have been such a stark difference between the card it is – a Sorcery – and the utter powerhouse it could have been as an Instant. Just imagine the entertainment if Mind Spring was indeed an Instant. We'd sit there with it in hand with six mana on the table and pass the turn. Our opponent would attack we'd take a reasonable amount of damage. He passes the turn. At the end of his turn when he can't possibly cast creatures or sorceries or artifacts or enchantments just Instants we tap out and draw four cards. Moments later we've untapped and the counterspells we've drawn are in prime position for use.
Now let's imagine we've got seven mana in play but this time he has something to do like casting a big nasty Garruk Wildspeaker. We cast Negate countering the Planeswalker. Now we have five mana open. Even though that five mana will only let us get three cards rather than the five we might have hoped for we still do it at the end of his turn because we're out of counterspells and three cards might well be enough to restock our hand with something useful.
Now let's put ourselves in a spot of bother. Mind Spring is our only card. They attempt Garruk Wildspeaker and if it lands we've got problems. As an Instant we cast Mind Spring for three find Negate and then cast it all while Garruk is on the stack.
That's what happens when card-drawing spells are Instants. Utter insanity and you feeling very very dirty. That's dirty in a good way.
Mind Spring in case you've missed it isn't an Instant. It's a Sorcery and therefore presents us with all kinds of problems. With six mana open we could draw four cards. That's great but then if our opponent casts Garruk we're done because we've tapped out on our turn. Suppose we have Negate in hand already. Maybe we spend four of our mana and draw two cards. That's a very poor return at a Constructed level even though it's our own decision not to get maximum value from the Mind Spring. If he casts Garruk we can cast Negate and feel smug that we didn't get too greedy. If he passes the turn we've just wasted two extra cards we could have drawn.
In terms of the options a card like this provides Mind Spring is a home run. In terms of getting those options right game after game Mind Spring is like a hand grenade. And all because of when you have to pay the cost.
Sorceries and Instants. Definitely not the same thing.
And here right up next to Mind Spring is the counterspell we've just been using in our examples Negate. In Limited terms this is mostly worse than Essence Scatter since it will have far fewer potential targets (creatures tend to outnumber spells by about two to one in Sealed and sometimes even more in Draft.) That said it's the kind of card you might Sideboard in if you've seen a Planar Cleansing or such in the opening game.
Constructed then is where we need to look and in our Mind Spring entry you could see just one example of making every mana count. If we need three mana open for Cancel we lose one card extra from the Mind Spring. We've spoken before about sometimes needing to counter two spells in a turn and with four mana a pair of Negates does that. A pair of Cancels requires six mana. That difference isn't just two mana it's two Turns. Two Turns! By Turn Six having double Cancel available might be way too late.
Where this idea gets tricky is that multiple plays on Turn Four are much more likely to come from an Aggro (aggressive) deck and that more likely means multiple monsters rather than multiple spells. In that scenario you'd rather be playing with Essence Scatter than Negate and that working out of which two mana counterspell you need is something that takes a wide understanding of the Metagame (what you believe the tournament as a whole will be playing.)
Where Negate really shines is in the Control mirrormatch. That's a match where both players are playing similar cards to each other and often with a near-identical gameplan. In the Control mirror you'll look to lay land every single turn get mana advantage counter their threats and eventually successfully resolve something like a Jace Beleren whose Card Advantage you can ride to victory. The actual point at which you kill your opponent won't be done by Jace but it's the extra cards you drew that effectively won it for you. In this world of 'every mana counts' Negate at two mana trumps Cancel at three or the powerhouse Lorwyn Rare Cryptic Command at four mana.
Play for long enough and you'll find that sooner or later you go through a run of having the 'wrong' counterspell in hand what feels like All The Time. That's the tradeoff. Cancel has the ultimate Utility (which is just a posh word for all-round usefulness) since it counters anything. If you want to pay less than three mana for a counterspell sometimes it just won't get the job done but anytime you get to put a spell in the bin for just two mana you're doing good even in the higher standard of Constructed Magic.
In Limited play evasion is powerful since it regularly produces a threat that must be dealt with sooner rather than later. Unblockable is weapons-grade evasion. Comparisons with Flying are almost all favorable the exception being that Phantom Warrior doesn't get to block an opposing Flyer.
So the plus points. Their Flyers can't get in its way. Nor can anything else. Although he's only a 2/2 there are ways to make the Warrior much bigger either temporarily or (even better) permanently and in most circumstances your opponents can only stand and watch and pray they're still on enough life to survive their defences being sliced open.
There are two more subtle effects. First because Research and Development know that Flying is a very powerful mechanic in the game they print plenty of cards to help deal with that. The ability Reach enables Flyers to be blocked. A card like Windstorm in Green can take down multiple Flyers at Instant speed. None of this subset gets to touch an Unblockable guy because just like the artwork implies he manages to 'slip through the cracks.'
The second subtle impact the Warrior can have on the game is this – he adds directly to your threat count the number of cards an opponent may have problems with. Whilst a huge Fireball will always be a threat and a massive Sphinx Ambassador should also be bad news for them most of the time these are the kind of cards that involve a huge outlay of mana. It's a simple fact of Sealed and indeed Draft play that there isn't enough removal to go around.
Suppose your opponent knows from an earlier game that you have Sphinx Ambassador in your deck and he has very few answers to it. For just three mana you drop the Phantom Warrior and begin hitting them for two every turn. After three or four hits of this nonsense it's a good bet that they're going to start thinking about aiming their Doom Blade at your man. They want to save their small amount of removal for your enormous Mythic Rare but meanwhile you're steadily clubbing them to death and there's very few ways they can prevent it.
Obviously if they're at 1 life and you make a 1/1 that represents a terminal threat to them so in that sense anything could be a threat given the right circumstances. My point is that for three mana Phantom Warrior regularly becomes a card that opponents are obliged to deal with and any time a straight up removal spell gets aimed at this it's advantage you.
Do Not Buy A Used Car From This Man.
We're back with our Corporation analogy. If you met a sales representative of the Blue corporation you'd be extremely impressed with the wide range of Flyers they've manufactured down the years with a proven track record in killing opponents. You'd be awed by the vast array of Counterspells that seem to have every possible variation of 'Just Say No' written on them. You'd thrill to the power of drawing card after card after card.
And then he'd give you a glass of champagne and a vol-au-vent usher you away from the main party lower his voice conspiratorially and say 'We also do a very nice line in removal spells. Should you be interested I can hook you up with a lovely little number called Polymorph. Only four mana does zero-to-death at Sorcery speed tricky little bunny all round. Don't have many available but if you want I can get you to the top of the list. Frankly I think Polymorph proves our commitment to removal here at the Blue corporation. Yeah... Blue – the new Home of Removal. Catchy.'
Catchy like swine flu.
'Destroy target creature. It can't be regenerated.' These are good words to see no doubt. At four mana you're not getting a good deal but contrary to what our Blue salesman just implied that's not what Blue's good at anyway so we can cope with that. At Sorcery speed removal is far less effective than at Instant speed. Again maybe we just have to live with that.
Where Polymorph goes horribly wrong is all that text underneath the good words. Assuming for a moment that you're attempting to get rid of an opposing monster (which is less likely with Polymorph than you might suppose) the 'morph' bit of the card name gives you a clue to what happens – they get a different monster back. You want therefore to aim Polymorph at something that you're overwhelmingly desperate to kill since putting an average monster in the bin can often leave you in more trouble than you were before as you watch them reveal their bomb Rare merchant of doom from the top of their library thus trading a moderately irritating 3/3 for a 5/5 Flyer with a great ability.
Even when you kill something good can you really be certain it's their best monster out of their deck? Even if you are sure and you simply have to use Polymorph or die the fact is that you just traded four mana and a card of yours for no cards of theirs. When you think how hard you sometimes have to work to generate a single +card in terms of Card Advantage to voluntarily go -1 has been known to make grown men weep.
I mentioned that you might not aim Polymorph at their monster. Suppose you laid a Zephyr Sprite on Turn One and it did a few points of damage in the early game. You're being aggressive but the Sprite isn't getting the job done any more. So you cast Polymorph and hope that you'll turn your 1/1 Flyer into something much better. You still lose a card to do this though.
Because 'Destroy target creature. It can't be regenerated' remain good words you may feel the need to play this occasionally. But really Do Not Buy A Used Car From This Man.
Bonus Information: As one leading Judge told me earlier today Polymorph is really a Combo card masquerading as a removal spell. Step One – make a token monster such as a Bitterblossom Faerie a Dragon Fodder token or some such. The key is that the creature in play has to get there through a card that isn't itself a creature. Step Two – cast Polymorph as early as possible. Target your own token. Step Three – reveal your own library until you reveal one of your only three creatures in the entire deck. Two of these are called Progenitus. One of them is called Darksteel Colossus. Step Four – win shortly thereafter.
This is a complicated spell to talk about because it behaves very differently depending on the kind of Magic – the Format – you're playing. For most of you reading this you'll be seeing Ponder in Sealed or Draft play and possibly in a Constructed Format like Standard. For the most part I'll confine my comments to these Formats.
At one mana Ponder is nicely situated because you'll frequently not have a one cost monster in your hand (or sometimes even in your deck) that you'll want to make on Turn One. That allows you to set yourself up for the early game with Ponder. The first ability has much in common with the card coming up next Sage Owl. Look at the top three and re-order them. If you have cheap creatures in the top three you might be able to order them so that you can lay your two and three-drop creatures in the right turn order rather than drawing them the 'wrong' way round. If you have land coming you can make sure that the one you need to 'turn on' your second color is there on the top for you. Or you can get the removal spell from the top three into your hand ready to cover early moves from your opponent.
It's the next bit that takes Ponder so much further than Sage Owl. Sometimes you'll find three land on top of your deck or creatures that won't help you deal with the Unblockable monster that's almost killed you. At that point having re-ordered them as you must you select the 'you may shuffle your library' option. Although there's a tiny chance that those same three cards will randomly reappear at the top of your freshly-shuffled deck the reality is that you've given yourself a chance to get something good when you next get to draw a card. That turns out to be right away because Ponder is a Cantrip. That's the word we use to describe a card that uses 'draw a card' to replace itself. It's a way for the game designers to spice up smaller effects and encourage people to play with them. This tends to work since 'draw a card' can be very powerful.
So the summary: Look re-arrange get one of them. Or: Look re-arrange get one of something else. This is all fine.
In terms of Constructed Ponder sometimes turns up in dedicated Control decks where the deck wants consistent draws (what it gets from the top of the deck) and has nothing to do on Turn One or will have a spare mana later in the game to improve things. It's also useful in a deck that actively needs to wade through the library in order to find crucial pieces of the puzzle and that can mean a home for it in Combo decks.
Where Ponder gets an enormous upgrade in power is in some of the older Formats. Extended has seven years of cards which could be in the top three. That's a ton of good stuff to find. Once you get to the Eternal Formats of Legacy and more especially Vintage Ponder goes nuts. In simple terms this is because Vintage has several monstrously powerful cards that enable you to get multiple mana for free. These cards such as Mox Ruby or Black Lotus are among the most sought-after the most powerful and the most expensive cards the game has ever seen. Ponder hugely increases your chances of finding one of them and playing them on Turn 1 and Vintage games can frequently be decided that quickly.
Ponder is so powerful that it is Restricted in Vintage. That means that you're only allowed to play one copy of it in your deck rather than the usual four. As you can imagine that radically reduces the chances of you being able to play it and cast it on the first turn.
In Formats that don't threaten to kill you on Turn 1 it's good but amply fair.
So we've already seen the problem with Sage Owl. It does less than half of what Ponder does for us. Although we get to see one extra card down into our future drawings we can't change what those cards are by sweeping them away in the shuffle. With Sage Owl there is no shuffle. If you've got four lands on top of your deck four turns later you will have drawn four more lands. There's no get-out clause.
If your deck has given you something reasonable to work with you can certainly arrange to put pressure on your opponent with a smooth series of plays or make sure that you have Counterspell backup three turns earlier than you might have done but these are very much Limited effects.
At 1/1 even with Flying you want Sage Owl to be in your deck for its ability rather than its power and toughness and with all the good bits of Ponder taken out that won't always be a decision you can justify.
Serpent Of The Endless Sea
Unlike removal Blue has a long and noble history of producing cards like this – simply put a fatty with a drawback. To be honest Serpent Of The Endless Sea or 'Sotes' as he isn't known to his friends is on the lower end of these fatties with drawbacks down the years. The drawback is that he can't attack unless your opponent controls an Island. Sometimes they won't be playing any. Sometimes Blue will be their splash color and they can live without playing an Island until very late in the game.
Whenever this happens you're functionally playing with a Defender that only gets to block. This isn't as bad as it might seem because one of the reasons for the existence of cards like this is that Blue can actually do with finding some cards that have some decent power and toughness and can clog up the ground. That's because a predominantly Blue deck knows that as long as it's still alive and at a healthy life total it's going to eventually win with its flying monsters. With a big body keeping things tight on the ground there's going to be no need for Blue to block with things like Wind Drake and that's good news because blocking with Wind Drake is rarely bringing you closer to winning the game. Attacking with Wind Drake now that's the correct answer.
The downside to Sotes is that he's less of a fatty than you'd like. We've discussed the fact that five power is the benchmark for being a seriously large monster and that often comes with similar toughness. For this to really hold the fort on the ground you'd want it to be at least a 4/4 and ideally a 5/5. Don't get me wrong if you're getting a 5/5 for five mana in Blue you've got a terrific deal but that doesn't alter the fact that that's what we're looking for in that role in the deck.
The stars in the power and toughness box tells us that Sotes is scaleable and that his power and toughness are going to chance throughout the game according to how many Islands we have in play. You might be thinking 'Awesome. I can play with a ton of Islands and he'll be enormous.' If you did play with a ton of Islands that would be true. In reality Sealed play won't allow you to play with that many. If Blue is your major color in a 'two plus a splash' deck you might – might – run as many as eight Islands. On average even in a 10-12 turn game you'll see four Islands. When it arrives on Turn Five it could easily be as lowly as a 2/2 and certainly a 3/3 is statistically likely.
If you are going to play with it one little trick you might be able to pull off in Limited is to force your opponent into having an Island using something like Convincing Mirage. However praying to see a particular basic land on top of your deck so that something you've already cast might become good isn't something you want to do very often and that means that in M10 Blue has a tougher time shoring up the ground than it might like.
In Sealed stalled games happen a lot. Both players make ground monsters both players kill opposing threats with some removal both players go back to staring at each other across a table covered in big fat non-evasion stall-makers. Quite apart from the ridiculous complexity of twenty monsters sitting on the board eventually you start to run out of table. As a result R&D tend to put a few 'stall breakers' into the set. Sleep my friends is a stall breaker. Here's what tends to happen.
You draw Sleep. You tap your opponent's four monsters. You send your four monsters in unopposed for 10 damage. Maybe your opponent is already dead but maybe the stall developed early and they're still just about breathing. They untap their lands but not their creatures. At best they might have a couple of cards in hand so they make two new monsters. You still have four. You untap and attack with everything again. They block where they can but die to the two 'spare' monsters.
Not losing to a successfully resolved Sleep is a tough trick to pull off. Yes you can sometimes be forced to use it as a temporary respite against a threat you can't yet deal with permanently and under those circumstances it's not very good. But mostly you'll play loads of Sealed games where you know that the stall is just fine because you have Sleep for the win. (My guess is that Sleep For The Win is exactly what this card got called in R&D.) And there's very little your opponent is going to do about it.
What a solid citizen the Snapping Drake is. It's the kind of staple creature that sits right at home in almost any base set. Does it Fly? It does. Does it have bearable toughness? Yes. Does it have enough power to take things down and also be a legitimate threat over a reasonable time-frame? Absolutely. As a Common it's going to see plenty of play in Draft and if you're playing Blue to not play it in Sealed is practically inconceivable.
Magic is full of excitement and there's nothing exciting about the Drake. But while exciting cards are the ones we remember you will win many many games with efficiently-costed cards that are utterly fair break no 'rules' and just go about their business of beating people. Snapping Drake is such a card.
If Snapping Drake is the working stiff Sphinx Ambassador is the global CEO with royal blood in his veins. Seven mana is right at the top of the chain in terms of mana you'd generally be prepared to play in Limited. Although you have way more mana than that in your deck you're going to take in the region of 8-10 turns to assemble your seven mana meaning that without some form of acceleration you're unlikely to be able to cast the Ambassador at its theoretical earliest slot of Turn Seven.
The ramifications of that are far-reaching. If the game is going to last ten or fewer turns there's every chance you'll never get to cast the Ambassador. If the game lasts fewer than seven turns you never will. If Sphinx Ambassador is in your opening hand even if the game is going to go long you've effectively started with a six card hand for much of the game. If it subsequently becomes relevant great but for a long time during the part of the game where most duels are decided it's essentially a dead card that might as well not be in your hand.
Therefore any time you commit to playing something costing seven or more (and yes this is an arbitrary line but one where far fewer cards are printed than at six mana) you need to do a little bit of extra justification for all those times you won't be able to cast it because the game was too fast.
Thankfully Sphinx Ambassador does that justification for you. Any 5/5 Flyer is a fabulous monster in Sealed. Everything else on the card is just gravy not least because in order for the rest of the words on the card to be an issue you have to have just smashed your opponent in the face for five. 'Ow ow ow ow ow. Wait there's more?!?' Yes hitting your opponent for five whilst still having a 5/5 Flyer ready to hit them next turn is usually more than enough to send them running for the hills.
That said Sphinx Ambassador comes with a cute little subgame that also has a very real strategic purpose. The cute little subgame involves stealing something from the opposing deck and as long as they don't guess what you've chosen you get to keep it. Yes yes very good you stole their second best remaining monster because they thought you'd go for their best monster etc etc yawn. Look you're going to beat them to death with your 5/5 Flyer. By all means enjoy this stealing business.
Don't let that blind you to the actual cool bit of the ability. Suppose this is game one and you're going to nail them with the Sphinx over two turns. Deal them five have a look through their deck and write it down. That's right write down every card in their deck (you probably don't need to bother with basic lands.) Did they have a mass removal spell? How many Flyers do they have? Any Countermagic? How much card draw? What are their key threats for you to deal with? Should you sideboard something in to kill a nasty Artifact? Don't rely on your memory to do this. Write it all down. If it's good enough for 2005 World Champion Julien Nuijten (and he wrote everything down his opponent ever showed him) it's good enough for you. Information is massive in Magic and you just got a ton of it for free. Now that's a reason for Sphinx Ambassador to be Mythic.
Coming soon: The most comprehensive about-face yet seen in the Academy to date.
I've just explained that free information is good. Telepathy looks like it gives you free information in the sense that you get that information delivered to you every time your opponent draws a card. If they draw two cards with Divination you get to see them. If they draw seven cards with a nine mana Mind Spring you get to see it. Every creature every Sorcery every Instant. You see them all.
Telepathy is a hideous hideous card that scores a ten for flavor and a number for gameplay usefulness that is so vanishingly small it might as well be zero.
The key to this apparent turnaround is that there are relatively few times when knowing what's in their hand is beneficial. Monsters are likely to be played exactly as before as if you didn't have that information. Occasionally you might get to 'play around' an Instant in their hand by attempting to force them into using it on something of your choosing rather than theirs since you could play slightly differently knowing that they had the Lightning Bolt giving them the chance to kill your 3/3 before running out your 5/5.
On the face of it this might be more useful in Constructed where they might be running a whole suite of Countermagic and it might be handy to know exactly which of your spells they could counter at any one time. The problem with this scenario is not that Telepathy is expensive – at one mana it's about as cheap as you get – but that the inherent expense of an Entire Card is a huge one.
Think of it like this. Ponder doesn't directly impact the game state when you cast it. It simply improves your situation further down the track. Telepathy also doesn't directly impact the game state but there's every likelihood it will in no way improve your situation. Indeed in many cases it will simply allow you to know how your opponent is going to beat you approximately three seconds earlier than you would have found out without the Telepathy.
'Read my mind. Yes that's right you're playing Telepathy so I'm going to kill you.'
Some ideas in the game are inherently sexy and having an extra turn is one of them. In a two player game players have a turn each and even when it was Snakes & Ladders or Ludo watching your opponent Miss A Turn was always the height of amusement for a four year old. Or it turns out a 14 24 or 34-year-old because the feeling of attacking with a bunch of guys and then doing it all over again before your opponent can even draw their next card is a deliciously dirty feeling.
As you may have spotted by now Magic is a tad more complex than Snakes & Ladders and Time Warp is the kind of card that gets Combo players salivating. The thing is since there are very few four year olds playing the game Magic players tend to take a more potent (or greedy) approach to taking an extra turn. What if we had lots of turns in a row? How about every turn for the rest of the game? Now that would be really really exciting.
Finding the specific cards that can do this could take you many hours of tedium wading through set after set after set. You might suppose that such a deck could only ever spring out of one of the humungous Eternal Formats but finding a way to 'go infinite' has sometimes been technically available in Formats as reasonably contained as Standard or even Block Constructed (which uses cards just from one year’s worth of cards. Right now that would be Shards of Alara Conflux and Alara Reborn. It wouldn't include M10 because M10 is a Core Set and isn't part of the Alara Block).
At its most basic the idea is to cast the Time Warp and then find some way to get it back from your graveyard. This is known as Recursion because (surprise!) you're going to do the same thing again next turn with not only the same card Name (Time Warp) but the actual same physical card you cast the previous turn. At the point at which you can give yourself theoretically infinite turns the ways to win are whilst not infinite considerable. Even a humble Prodigal Pyromancer will kill an opponent across twenty of your non-stop turns and since you can draw your entire deck one card at a time eventually you'd have enough mana in play to cast a lethal Fireball.
To be honest how you win is far less important than the key ingredients:
(a) How to find the cards you need.
(b) How to get the mana you need to play and recur Time Warp every turn.
(c) How not to lose before all the insane entertainment can begin.
Very much a specialist Constructed card a Time Warp deck is the kind of thing that's utterly unworkable for years at a time and then suddenly comes out of nowhere because of an unheralded set of interactions with cards in a new set. As for Casual play who doesn't like to take extra turns? I mean really who doesn't like to take extra turns?
This costs a single mana which should instantly raise the possibility of it being useful in Constructed since we'll often have a lone mana spare in the mid to late game or as our opening on Turn One. Who is that target player going to be? Why us of course. That's because we're going down the route of a classic strategy of old known as Reanimator.
Going back a few years Black – an Ally color of Blue - was extremely good at getting cards from your graveyard back into play. By and large such cards didn't care about the size of the creature they were bringing back just that there was a monster in the graveyard sitting there waiting for Exhume to bring it back to life. As long as you populated your deck with enormous monsters you'd be able to do incredibly unfair things on Turn Two.
Things have changed since those days. Two of the largest monsters in the game Darksteel Colossus and Progenitus both specifically preclude this kind of nonsense from occurring since the moment they would go anywhere near the graveyard they are unceremoniously kicked back into your library. In a way Reanimator strategies fell victim to the fact that most players love big monsters and as long as you had cards like Exhume in Standard the biggest monsters were a danger to the health of the Format. How about a 9/14 Trampling Autochthon Wurm on Turn Two? A card like Tome Scour could help you do this never mind the fact that the Wurm notionally costs twelvety billion mana of colors you're not playing. With Reanimator it didn't matter.
These days Rise From The Grave is the card from M10 that makes Reanimator theoretically viable. We'll talk more about this in a couple of weeks but you know by now that for Constructed five mana is a sizeable commitment and by Turn Five aggressive decks are on the point of putting you to bed. Still that's the kind of thing that Tome Scour might get used for.
The other use is more obvious and much less good. As you'll probably recall one of the more unusual ways to lose a game of Magic is when the game calls on you to draw a card and you're unable to do so because you have no cards left in your library. This is known as Decking as in 'He Decked me.' Confusingly the strategy by which you get your opponent to the point at which he gets Decked is known as (stick with me) Milling named after the card Millstone which gave birth to the strategy.
A quick glance at the originator of the strategy should quickly show you that Tome Scour is no Millstone. Millstone got to do its thing turn after turn and after three activations outstrips Tome Scour. Even after a chunk of game has gone by getting rid of another 40 or so cards from a deck can be problematic and take a very long time. Tome Scour doesn't go a huge way to getting them dead. However...
This bad boy does. Half a library is a lot of cards going to the bin. Of course if an Aggro deck is looking to kill you on Turn 4 or 5 and is therefore planning on using a total of about twelve cards to kill you watching you spend five mana the turn before you die putting 22 cards in their graveyard is going to bother them not at all.
Clearly putting cards into their graveyard is only part of the battle. In some ways Milling or Decking is the ultimate Control deck because it almost always demands an ability to play for a long long time without dying. The notional Infinite Combo deck we described earlier based around Time Warp only needs to stay alive until it can stitch together its Combo but even after we're busily dumping our opponent's library into his graveyard we've still got many turns to survive.
That's where a certain Black card starts to look very very exciting. Next week we'll talk about how a Turn Five Traumatize can be Game Over on Turn 6 and for just five mana...If you're playing along at home go work out what card I'm talking about. It shouldn't be too hard and if you like the idea of Milling your opponent to death you're going to love that card.
If you're not attracted to Blue that UU casting cost rather than 1U is a real shame since it virtually guarantees that it can't be played outside a heavily Blue deck. Once you have those two Blue mana available it's as potent as it looks. In Limited you'd play it because it effectively nullifies any pump spell. 'You make your guy +3/+3 eh? Well Twincast just gave my guy +3/+3 too.' It also equates to any removal spell they care to fire off or indeed that you do if you have the mana spare. For six mana you can Divine Verdict one monster that's attacking you and off a second with the Twincast copy.
In Constructed the versatility of being able to copy any Instant or Sorcery is huge. Many Aggro decks will use a combination of creatures and Burn to kill you. That becomes much harder for them to do when you get to copy their Lightning Bolt and use it to kill one of their monsters. Where it can be fabulous though is in Blue on Blue matchups. I mentioned a while back a card called Tidings that let you draw four cards for five mana. One of the times this was most often cast was when the player badly needed to stock up on cards meaning they were often quite vulnerable. Interactions like this were pretty saucy as long as you were the guy with the Twincast:
Player A – Tap five cast Tidings.
Player B – Negate your Tidings.
Player A – No I want my Tidings to resolve. Negate your Negate!
Player B – Twincast copying your Tidings.
Player A – Bugger. OK your copied Tidings resolves.
Player B – Draw four cards.
Player A – Now my Tidings resolves?
Player B – Nah I've drawn another Negate. Negate your original Tidings.
Player A – Your turn.
In a Control mirror doing this to someone is almost always going to make you the eventual winner. I've watched someone win a ticket to the World Championships doing exactly this to their poor broken Nationals Top 8 opponent. It was deliciously vile.
One word of caution. There's quite a lot of rules associated with Twincast so if you're going to play with it at a tournament you should probably check them out. The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for Saviors of Kamigawa the set the card is originally from can help you with this available on magicthegathering.com.
For such a little card Unsummon has a ton of uses. It's the poster child for versatile in a game that's full of odd ways to make individual cards work for you. Because we haven't as a society yet worked out how to physically change the wording on cards to reflect their actual in-game use moment by moment Unsummon will always say 'Return target creature to its owner's hand.' In effect though Unsummon can say many different things in the course of a game. Here's a few of them:
'Remove target blocker.' You have a Flyer they have a Flyer. Oops they no longer have a Flyer. You attack and kill them.
'Alpha Strike is a go. I repeat Alpha Strike is a go.' You have one more monster than them but it isn't quite enough. Now you have two more monsters than them and it is.
'No your information was incorrect.' Your opponent can count. They Alpha Strike. You change the math. They can still count and they die on the backswing.
'Prevent 5 damage to target me'. Their enormous monster attacks. It's back in their hand before getting to deal damage.
'Counter target pump spell and prevent 8 damage to target me'. They attack and cast Giant Growth on their guy. You respond by bouncing it.
'Counter target removal spell.' You have a threat. They answer it with Assassinate. You return it to your own hand in response.
'Counter target Enchantment spell.' This time you've caught them in the act of trying to get Holy Strength onto their guy in the first place. Bounce in response bye bye Holy Strength.
'Destroy target Token creature'. Tokens behave like actual cards in many ways but when they leave play they're gone forever. They have a Broodmate Dragon plus one the plus one gets eaten. Just make sure you target the token not the original! (If you're not sure what the joke there is go read Broodmate Dragon. You really don't want to bounce the original.)
This is just nine of the ways in which Unsummon can make your Limited life better. Whether or not it's fit for Constructed play depends entirely on the nature of the card. At heart Unsummon is what we call a Tempo card. When it's at its best it's utterly shifting the pacing of the match. In the first three scenarios I outlined above they all led to your winning the game and in the third case your opponent began their turn believing that they were the one on the point of victory.
The problem comes with examples like 'prevent 5 damage to target me'. It's possible that denying them a single attack is all you need to win the game another massive Tempo swing. But if all you're doing is stopping an opposing monster from killing you you're really swimming against the tide because that same monster can most likely be recast in the second main phase immediately following combat. You're faced with exactly the same monster again next turn and you've burned through an Unsummon giving you one less card to fight the good fight.
It's certainly possible to imagine decks where Unsummon has a potential home and if you have in the forefront of your mind that it's all about Tempo you should start to see the possibilities.
Wall Of Frost
You know the bit in Crocodile Dundee (showing my age again) 'Now THAT'S a knife!'? That's pretty much what happens when White and Blue get together for a chat about Walls. Wall Of Faith at an expandable five toughness was perfectly viable for Sealed play. Wall Of Frost costs only three mana (meaning you get to put shields up earlier) automatically has seven toughness without you having to sink mana into it and does a good approximation of dealing with two monsters at once.
I say 'approximation' because there's a little bit of 'ouch' before that becomes true and even then it's not quite true. Let's say they have a 3/3 like a Centaur Courser. You make your Wall Of Frost and they end up with a 6/4 Craw Wurm to go with their 3/3. They attack with both. Deciding that they have no trick or burn spell to threaten your Wall you block the 6/4 and take three damage from the Centaur Courser.
On the next turn the Craw Wurm has been frozen into place and doesn't untap. The Centaur Courser could attack but that would be futile. Instead he has to wait for the following turn when both can attack and he can at least sneak in another three damage from the Courser at the cost of the Craw Wurm once again failing to untap subsequently.
Assuming there's nothing else going on to complicate matters without the Wall Of Frost the Courser and Wurm would have dealt us 27 damage across three turns and that's a lot. With Wall Of Frost in the scenario it deals us SIX damage. We saved 21 points of damage for three mana. That's absurd damage soaking.
Are there cases where Wall Of Frost won't be this good? Many many many. For three mana it doesn't need to be this good. For three mana in Blue it's terrific because as we've noted Blue likes to get to the part of the game where it can use its Flyers to attack rather than defend. Cards like Wall Of Frost fit this strategy beautifully. Frankly it's a good job it's Uncommon rather than Common because otherwise a lot of Aggro Drafters would be getting very irritated very frequently. As it is expect this to be a prime irritant whenever it crops up.
It still doesn't get to attack because it's still a Wall but it's a Crocodile Dundee sort of a Wall.
In order for there to be an average it's a good bet that at least a few cards will be on or near that standard. Wind Drake pretty much defines average at least in terms of getting what you pay for. A 2/2 for three without an ability would be poor. We'd call that a Gray Ogre named after the thoroughly uninspiring red card from the very first set Alpha. Thankfully Wind Drake has exactly the upgrade you'd expect from Blue Flying.
In Limited it's a guarantee that you'll play this if you're playing Blue and if you're not but still feeling vulnerable to attacks from the air or even want a cheeky alternate route to victory you might add this as part of a Sealed splash (though that's a bit of a stretch to be honest.)
The real home for solid but unspectacular cards like this is in Draft where because it's Common you can quickly accumulate multiples. We'll talk much more about this as the Academy progresses but there are going to be somewhere around three or four of these in every Draft. Since there are plenty of better cards and some opponents who just aren't touching Blue you have the chance to Draft multiples of cards like this and that massively increases your chances of having one to lay on Turn Three. With a Ponder and a Merfolk Looter before it and a Snapping Drake or two after it you've got the basis of a very nice speedy Blue Flying deck.
Constructed meanwhile generally demands cards that are well above average so it's rare for a card like Wind Drake to make the grade unless the Altran Flying Beatdown deck I talked about last week suddenly emerges again.
And if Altran Flying Beatdown does come back into vogue this will be a candidate for Turn One. In Limited this is quickly outclassed and you almost never have the cards to back it up to justify it as an opening salvo in a tempo war of aggression. That needn't be true in Constructed where hitting them for two or three in the early game might make the difference.
For the most part though the time that you really want to look at cards like this is when they're only part of the story. Take a card like Unstable Mutation which was last available a couple of years back in Time Spiral. Yes it has a drawback but the first priority is to find a creature for it to Enchant. Enter Zephyr Sprite (or Flying Men as it was called then). Turn One Zephyr Sprite Turn Two Unstable Mutation attack for four.
In short a card like this is at its most potent not for what it does but for what it enables you to do. Something to ponder. And that last word was no coincidence since Zephyr Sprite needs to be better than Ponder to justify its place as the Turn One play of choice.
And....we've made it once again. I want to take this opportunity to thank the many of you who've written such kind words to me through the unifying wonder that is email. Knowing that you're putting the Academy to good use is immensely gratifying. Please don't keep it to yourselves. There are millions of enquiring minds out there and at least three of them haven't started reading the series yet.
Until next week when we turn to the dark side of the color wheel and the beginnings of Black as ever thanks for reading.