"Most playable four-mana spells can win the game themselves."
—me, "[Common] Casting Costs"
A four-mana sorcery that destroys all the creatures in play can put serious hurt on a creature deck... not to mention netting quite a bit of card advantage.
Whip of Erebos... Erebos, God of the Dead... Chandra, Pyromaster... you can probably rattle off a list as long as your arm of four-mana spells capable of winning games on their own. We already know that good four-mana spells are often very good.
This is an article about more expensive spells; that is, largely more expensive than four mana. Which are the ones worth playing? When should you play them? How do they differentiate themselves from cards that "merely" cost four—that are already at the end-point of what should be capable of winning the game?
Time is of the Essence
Remember our hypotheticals around mana curve last week?
The arrogant Edgar, with his mitts full of Supreme Verdicts, never really got to cast a card. Edgar was overwhelmed—and overwhelmed early—by Gabby's onslaught of Tormented Hero, Thrill-Kill Assassin, and Lifebane Zombie on curve. Despite having a card that was tailor made to trump small-creature assaults.
Playing four mana cards at all—even when they theoretically serve an important function (like blowing up all the creatures against a creature deck)—must be done with strategic intent.
When considering an expensive spell, ask yourself this question:
Can I even get this [X-mana] card off before I lose the game?
This is an important consideration when you remember that there is only one viable end goal in competitive Magic .
And cards even more expensive than four mana?
You really have to pay attention to the speed of a predictable game!
You are going to have to play cards that are capable of either slowing down the rest of the room to your speed... or cards that bring your expensive spells up to the speed of the format.
Brian Selden won the 1998 World Championships with cards like Spirit of the Night and Verdant Force in his seventy-five. This might be remarkable in and of itself, but it is even more so considering the enemy of the day.
Selden was playing in a Standard format where opposing Red Decks could play a fast 2-power creature on turn one... and then follow up with a Wasteland, keeping their opponents at one—or even zero—lands.
Red Decks of that era were not only very good at getting their one- and two-mana cards up and running themselves, but quite capable of keeping their opponents from casting powerful spells before they were buried in beatdown and burn.
So how did Selden survive not just long enough to get to Spirit of the Night... but get there over and over, up through the Swiss, then through three near-lethal Top 8 matches to be crowned the World Champion?
Selden used cards like Wall of Blossoms to slow the opponent's beatdown to a standstill. Not only was Wall of Blossoms a superb defensive card (good-sized blocker with a built-in route to drawing extra cards), if the opponent chose to follow up a Jackal Pup hit with a Shock, he or she would not only commit mana for the turn, but concede card advantage to Wall of Blossoms's two-for-one.
He would slow down the opponent's forward-moving damage, get a little damage in himself, and also set up for a big play.
While some formats—like the ones with aggressive one-drops and Wastelands—start out very fast (hence, are fundamentally hostile to decks playing expensive cards) others, by default, play medium-to-large spells, setting a slower bar. Decks with five- and six-drop creatures (at least, those that get cast fair and square) tend not to win at a breakneck pace, so formats populated with these kinds of decks give you time to develop, build mana and resources, and get not just "big," but bigger.
Polukranos is a great creature—a baseline body that would make Juzám Djinn wince, with a substantial upside ability rather than a recurring downside every turn.
As a (1) large creature for a very reasonable cost that can (2) eliminate opposing creatures with a tap of a few lands, Polukranos, World Eater is the definition of a four-mana card capable of winning a game on its lonesome.
Top of the curve?
Stormbreath Dragon is an unambiguously awesome threat—fast Dragon; contextually evasive; Storm Seeker on a stick... with wings.
Like Polukranos, World Eater—a 5/5 for four mana—Arbor Colossus punches above its weight. A 6/6 for five mana, Arbor Colossus rounds out this monstrous trio with the ability to shoot Desecration Demon straight out of the sky with its special ability... not only with no loss of card advantage, but while gaining size!
Wow at four. Wow twice over at five (and especially in the case of Arbor Colossus) and a very good example of why you might invest in five mana to feast on an opposing four.
Polukranos, World Eater; Arbor Colossus; and Stormbreath Dragon have many things in common. They are solid, powerfully built creatures that are mana efficient relative to their—admittedly pretty thick—casting costs. They all have the monstrous ability.
And they are all big to begin with.
The ability to beat up on large creatures—no matter how many of them there are on the battlefield—can be a compelling incentive to lay out six mana in a format with extraordinary (and already expensive) four- and five-mana spells.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion got bigger.
In another iteration of Standard—say, one where creatures top up on 2/3 Thrill-Kill Assassins or Nightveil Specters—which would presumably come hand-in-hand with Duress, Thoughtseize, and Hero's Downfall... Elspeth, Sun's Champion might be much weaker. There might be many looks for a black deck to rip Elspeth out of her owner's hand inside of turn six; and once she hit the table? Hero's Downfall makes for the perfect solution. Heck, in such a Standard, the five-drop of choice might very well be a 2/4 common.
When going bigger, you necessarily have to have the context of what "bigger" means. Because the goal of most competitive games of Magic is to successfully conclude before the opponent does, playing big five-, six-, even seven-cost threats rarely works best in the abstract. If you are going to go big, it is important that you pick the right expensive spells to deal with what is likely to show up on the other side of the battlefield, so that you actually get faster (probably by slowing the opponent down)... rather than starting off at a slower pace, yourself.
Playing expensive spells isn't just about metagames that give you enough time to develop like a Standard where opponents summon four- or five-drops.
When your opponent's lands come into play tapped, you often have the time necessary for your lands to come into play tapped.
Playing expensive spells isn't just about slowing down opponents with blockers to steal time to develop, if that time doesn't come for free.
Sometimes, playing expensive spells is about grabbing the opponent by the lapels and imposing your will on the very rules of Magic: The Gathering.
Explosive mana engines can race even the fastest beatdown decks.
You could play a Grim Monolith on the second turn, then play a third Island. Tapping two Islands and the Grim Monolith could produce the mighty Morphling on the third turn, with open to defend it from removal!
In some formats, even fast Red Decks could get into the expensive spells game! If you couldn't handle a beatdown opponent's third-turn Arc-Slogger, it was probably going to kill you the next turn.
Arguably, the biggest incentive to playing expensive spells in general is that they win the games not just conceptually (the way we say four-mana spells are generally supposed to be able to)... but that they actually just win the game on the spot.
When Kiki-Jiki starts tapping to make extra Pestermites, he starts untapping for another go 'round right away. Take infinite.
Don't let Primeval Titan attack! Whether this creature is setting up Kessig Wolf Run or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, it has proved the scourge of both Standard and larger formats, often winning in just one or two turns.
How long can you deal with an opponent drawing—and casting—his or her best card, every turn, for the rest of the game... for free?
Expensive Spell Checklist
- Context: What is the pressing need to win with cards that cost this much, versus cards that cost four or fewer mana? ( Arbor Colossus vs. Desecration Demon or Elspeth, Sun's Champion vs. Arbor Colossus. )
- Speed: Will I have time to get this card off before I lose the game? How can I slow down faster decks to buy that time? ( Wall of Blossoms into Spirit of the Night or Wall of Omens into Baneslayer Angel or Gideon Jura. )
- Acceleration and Cheatyface: What tools do I have to get my expensive spells out faster than they have a legitimate right to be played? ( Rite of Flame into Ignite Memories or Farseek into Thragtusk. )
- Explicit Victory: Cards that cost four can win the game... what am I getting above and beyond lower casting costs to ensure victory, right now? ( How often does the opponent come back from a Cruel Ultimatum? )