Chains of Mephistopheles

Posted in NEWS on September 10, 2004

By Wizards of the Coast

Reprinted with permission from StarCityGames

As many of you may know answering rules questions online is not a new thing for me. I’ve been dong it at various message boards for years. One thing that I’ve noticed is that these boards will get deluged with similar questions all at the same time. Usually this happens around the release of a new set with questions on new cards or mechanic. Sometimes it is two friends who go to different boards asking the same question in an effort to prove the other wrong.

It's not always new cards and mechanics that get people thinking or have the potential to create confusion. One thing that surprised me in the first few days of answering the email that comes to the Judge at Starcity was the number or questions regarding a very old Legends card, Chains of Mephistopheles. I received five different emails about that card in just over a day. (In fact I also noticed a few threads regarding it on a couple of message boards as well.) At first I was confused as to why this was coming up, until I discovered that this card is making a mark on the current Type I scene

First of all let’s look as the current Oracle text for Chains of Mephistopheles:

Chains of Mephistopheles
If a player would draw a card except the first one he or she draws in a draw step, that player discards a card from his or her hand instead. If the player discards a card, he or she draws a card. If the player doesn't discard a card, he or she puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

That’s a lot of text. However, one thing to keep in mind is that even with all that text it is only one ability. More specifically it is a static ability that creates a replacement effect. The fact that is a static ability means that the ability is ‘on’ and applied for as long as the Chains is in play. (Or for those sticklers out there, for as long as the Chains has the ability. It is possible to remove this ability with Opalescence and Humility or Humble.)

Replacement effects as a concept are pretty easy to understand, you replace one event with a another. They are also easy to identify by their use of the word ‘instead’ instead of performing A, perform B.

So what’s the big deal? Why all the questions about this one card? The reason that the Chains’ effect causes such difficulty is due to three factors: the replacement effect is rather complex, when multiple cards are drawn you are actually replacing multiple events and things get messy when you have multiple Chains in play. Let’s break down each of these difficulties one at a time.

Chains of Mephistopheles Replacement Effect

Chains of Mephistopheles’ replacement effect doesn’t replace card drawing with some other action as much as it replaces card drawing with an entire different process. First let’s look at a simple replacement ability that replaces what happens when you draw a card:

Obstinate Familiar
Creature -- Lizard
If you would draw a card, you may skip that draw instead.

With Obstinate Familiar in play you may chose to replace card drawing with not drawing a card. If the controller of the Familiar takes advantage of this ability we have the event of ‘Draw a card’ replaced with, ‘Don’t draw a card.’

As mentioned above, Chains is much more complex. The Chains’ effect replaces the card drawing event with one instruction, and then depending on whether that instruction was completed or not, you will get one of two possible additional instructions. Basically, if you would draw a card, you instead discard a card. Then, if you did indeed discard a card, you will actually draw a card now. If you did not discard a card when you were instructed to, you will ‘mill’ the top card of your library. Written out the instruction of ‘Draw a card’ is replaced with ‘Discard a card; if you do discard then draw, if you didn’t discard then ‘mill.’’

Keep in mind that this discard is not a choice; if you have a card in your hand you must discard it when dealing with this Chains replacement ability. The portion of the Chains’ replacement ability that has you ‘mill’ a card is there in case your hand was empty and you could not discard a card when you were instructed to by the first part of the Chains’ replacement effect.

And once again, this is one single replacement effect and it is only applied when you would draw a card. It is not applied to other instances where you discard cards. At least one of the questions that I received was about the interaction between Wild Mongrel’s ability and the Chains. If you discard a card to activate Wild Mongrel’s ability, the portion of the Chains’ replacement effect that allows you to draw a card when you discard one is not applied. That instruction is only applied if you discard a card when dealing with the first part of the Chains’ replacement effect. Let’s imagine that Wild Mongrel’s ability did not require discarding a card to activate it, but instead you drew a card to play the ability (As if the Mongrel wasn’t good enough already). If this were the case they you would apply the Chains’ replacement effect, as you apply replacement effects even to the payment of costs.

Keep in mind that if the effect that causes you to draw cards has further instructions, you carry out those as well. So with Chains in play Merfolk Looter’s ability resolves as ‘Discard a card; if you do discard then draw, if you didn’t discard then ‘mill,’ then discard a card.’ Considering how complex Chain’s ability is, it is very easy to forget to follow other instructions like this.

Also be aware that there are some effects in Magic that seem like card drawing, but are not. Fact or Fiction is a good example. When Fact or Fiction resolves the cards that are divided into two piles are still technically on top of that players library, and then the chosen pile goes to the appropriate players hand without being drawn. Necropotence is another example. When using Necropotence’s ability you remove the top card of your library from the game and later put this card into your hand. It may have a similar result, but it’s not drawing so the Chains effect is not applied.

Finally, an individual replacement effect is only applied to a single event once. That is why a single Chains will not cause a player to draw and then discard his entire deck. If instead of simply drawing you discard and then draw due to the Chains, the Chains’ effect is not applied again to this ‘new’ draw you do make. The event may be modified, but it is still considered to be a single event.

Drawing Multiple Cards

Drawing a card is a fairly easy thing to understand. You take the top card from your library and add it to you hand. This happens all the time, at least once every turn and often more than that. Simple huh? Fine, let’s make it a bit more complex.

There are plenty of spells and abilities in Magic that cause a player to draw more than one card, such as Ancestral Recall or the ability of Cephalid Broker. Any time you are instructed to draw more than a single card you are really being told to ‘Draw a card’ that many times. For example ‘Draw three cards,’ is really ‘Draw a card, then draw a card then draw a card.’ The reason for this is that the definition of drawing a card is, as pointed out above, to take the top card of your library and put it into your hand. There can only be one top card of your library at any given time, so you can only really draw that card. This is why when drawing multiple cards with Future Sight in play you reveal the new top card in-between each individual draw. Future Sight’s static ability is applied at all times, even in-between each of these individual draws.

Ok, so even that is not too difficult to understand. Let’s throw in what we learned about how Chains of Mephistopheles’ ability works. If ‘Draw three cards’ becomes ‘Draw a card, then draw a card then draw a card,’ then with a Chains in play that will become ‘Discard a card; if you do discard then draw, if you didn’t discard then ‘mill,’ then discard a card; if you do discard then draw, if you didn’t discard then ‘mil,’ then discard a card; if you do discard then draw, if you didn’t discard then ‘mill.’ This is because each time you draw a card is an event that the Chains’ replacement effect can change.

And it’s important to follow those instructions in the order given. In the example above where a player is instructed to draw three cards, if that player had at least one card in hand the end result is similar to that of a player drawing three cards, and then discarding three cards in that this player will end up just one card in hand. But if you have only one card in your hand and are instructed to draw three cards with Chains in play, then you will always end up having the third card from the top of your library as the sole remaining card in your hand.

Multiple Chains

Ok, now is where the ‘fun’ begins. Having more than one Chains of Mephistopheles in play has the potential to be two things; incredibly powerful and incredibly confusing. Applying the replacement of multiple Chains can be a hand and or library wrecker; a simple effect that causes a player to draw more than one card can strip their hand and cause them to mill a few cards. Here is how that works:

As mentioned earlier anytime you ‘draw a card’ is an event that the Chains ability can alter by replacing the process of drawing. Also a single replacement effect can only be applied to a single event once, this is why a single Chains does not cause a loop where a player’s entire deck is drawn. But when you have multiple Chains replacement effects each can be applied to a single event. Let’s start small with just one draw.

First you apply the effect of one Chains and instead of drawing once you will ‘Discard a card; if you do discard then draw, if you didn’t discard then ‘mill.’ Now assuming that you do have a card in hand and do discard a card, then the effect of this second Chains is applied to the process. Now the string of instructions is ‘‘Discard a card; if you do discard then discard another card; if you did discard again then draw if you didn’t discard then ‘mill,’ In the end you will have to discarded two cards in order to actually draw one. If you can’t discard two cards then you will take the top card of your library and put it into your graveyard.

Let’s throw in what happens when an effect that tells you to draw multiple cards. As shown above, you now have to discard twice a much in order to actually draw a card. This means that any draw other then the normal draw per turn will actually cause your hand size to go down. With two Chains in play and a starting hand of six cards your opponent plays Ancestral Recall targeting you, here is what happens. You deal with the first draw from Ancestral Recall, so first you discard two cards and then draw one. Now you have five cards in your hand. You discard two cards for the second draw instruction and then draw one, your hand is now four cards. For this third draw effect you discard two and draw one for your ending hand size of 3. Now you may have a net result of discarding three cards, but you at least got to filter through your deck somewhat, so you are not in a completely awful position.

What would happen if you only had two cards in your had when your opponent targeted you with the Ancestral Recall? For the first draw event you can discard two cards and then get to draw a card. However when you come up to the second draw you can not discard two cards, but you still have to discard the one left in your hand. Because you did not discard twice in this instance, you will not draw at all but will end up milling a card. Finally you deal with the third draw, you can’t even discard one card, but you will still only mill one. (This is because you don’t apply the effect from the second Chains to this third draw. You only apply the effect from an additional Chains if you do discard a card during the application of the first replacement ability and are then allowed to draw.) This situation was a lot worse than the previous one, your hand is now empty and you’ve milled two cards.

Believe it or not, but adding a third Chains does not make it that much more confusing. If you can understand how to deal with two in play then three is not much harder. With three Chains in play you now have to discard three cards before you can draw one; if you don’t end up discarding three cards for each draw event, then you mill just one card.

So there you have it, this card is so complex that I’ve managed to break down a few lines of rules text into a 2000+ word thesis. [sarcasm]But now that you’ve read this it’s so easy to understand that Chains of Mephistopheles should really be brought back and included in 9th Edition.[/sarcasm] In fact this card can be so confusing that I’ve sent this article to a few other judges who know their rules very well just to make sure I haven’t skipped some minor or major detail. Thanks to Ingrid, Pete, Jim and Nate – You know who you are. (And, as for all "Ask the Judge" articles, I edited this most excellent piece of work--Sheldon). Besides after rereading and checking my own work here a few times my head is spinning.

And just because I’ve written an article on this card does not mean that I won’t accept any questions about it for ‘Ask the Judge.’ I’m sure there is some aspect or interaction that I’ve forgotten to include, if you find it feel free to talk about it in the forums or email me. I hope this article has helped, and keep those questions coming. If there is enough support and interest in this type of article I may write another focusing on a single card or mechanic. (The most likely topic would be Standstill, I’ve gotten a lot of questions on that card in the past few days.)

Chris Richter, Level 3