Larry Niven’s Nephew

Posted in Feature on September 14, 2006

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Originally printed in Alpha, Nevinyrral's Disk was one of the stars of early Magic. Once players got past the initial distress that they might be blowing their own things up, they found more and better ways to exploit its symmetrical nature. They learned to use Nevinyrral's Disk like its Alpha contemporary, like a variation on Wrath of God, blowing “everything” up, sure, but tuning their decks and in-game boards to erase the opponent's creatures while maintaining an advantage. Later still, they learned to bias their decks around certain types of permanents, carefully not playing cards that were vulnerable even when the metagame dictated those cards might be good. For example, Nevinyrral's Disk became famous as a combo- or Prison-breaker, knocking down boards covered with other artifacts like they were dominoes, while the Disk's own master did not play - and therefore could not lose - a lot of non-lands.

Not surprisingly, this star of early Magic found a home in the most important and pervasive deck of the early Pro Tour.

Leon Lindback PT1 Necro/Circa February '96

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The early Necropotence players did not really understand what they were doing, and became highly reliant on Nevinyrral's Disk to remove their own Necropotences from play after gaining short Braingeyser-like bursts of card advantage rather than riding the power of the Skull down to that last life point as would better-informed mages. Though Lindback's deck at the very first Pro Tour played four copies of Necropotence and only two maindeck copies of Nevinyrral's Disk, this was eventually thought to be unusual in the first 1-2 years of Constructed PTQs, where three Necropotences became more common, and Internet pundits were telling the unaware that it was the Disks they had to be afraid of.

This is not to say that they shouldn't have been afraid of the Disks! While it is true that creature decks had to mete out their threats carefully against a potential Disk, Prison (Winter Orb backed up by one or more Icy Manipulators) was hell on Necropotence, and Nevinyrral's Disk was an important answer to that stifling defense. That said, this dependency in a White removal matchup also showcased a key weakness of Nevinyrral's Disk, namely that it entered play tapped.

Think about it: Had Research and Design made Nevinyrral's Disk, but let it come into play untapped, they would be making a card possibly just better than Wrath of God. Not only would it have lacked any colored mana requirement, this conjectural Disk would have had a kind of rapid fire capability that would have made it unfair at . At though…

The Necropotence deck wanted creature defense in a world full of Whirling Dervish and White Knight, but more strategically (if not importantly) some way to remove their own enchantments so they could go back to boring old "normal" card drawing. Black's more methodical ally had its own plans for the Disk, and eventually boasted dozens of powerful decks utilizing their common cause. You can make arguments for either Necropotence or the Blue decks being more degenerate (my vote goes with the Skull), but one thing you can't deny is that the Blue decks were cleverer about their Disksploitation.

Future R&D superstar Mike Donais was once merely the terror of the online Magic universe, long before Magic Online was a glimmer in the back of Wizards' eye. Mike was a master deck designer, member of the Canadian National Team, and respected rogue throughout the 1990s. Here is an example of his Standard work close to a decade back:

Mike Donais

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Ghost Ship
Nevinyrral's Disk served multiple functions in the Ghost Ship deck. Generally speaking the Blue decks with the great Counterspell bases were formidable at keeping things off the board, but were less effective at protecting themselves once something actually resolved. In that sense, Nevinyrral's Disk was an important defensive measure, sort of a non-White Wrath of God, a Wrath of God that still fought Winter Orbs and other annoying permanents, thank you very much. The really cool synergy in this version was between Disk and the Ghost Ship.

Ghost Ship wasn't as big as some of the other creatures you could play at the time, but it basically did everything. You could block an Erhnam Djinn forever and force the opponent to play a second legitimate threat and only then you could blow your Nevinyrral's Disk for card advantage (the Ghost Ship would, of course, survive). This strategy was very similar to Mike's Counter-Post deck from Canadian Nationals in 1997, where he played no Swords to Plowshares but instead forced the opponent to play multiple creatures via Icy Manipulator to get Wrath of God value, with the Icy left behind, of course, to tap down any post-Wrath threats and start the stall cycle all over again.

Even with builds like the Ghost Ship deck as historical artifacts, we still credit Team CMU vet and Car Acrobatic Team superstar Andrew Cuneo as the originator of the Draw-Go strategy.

"Draw-Go!" by A. Cuneo

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Steel Golem
Just as Donais broke the already (probably) broken Nevinyrral's Disk with Ghost Ship interaction, Cuneo exploited several clever implementations in his innovative deck. He could use Winding Canyons to temporarily blank the drawback on Steel Golem (activate Winding Canyons, play Steel Golem, in response play Steel Golem), or Argivian Restoration to "play" a second (lost) Steel Golem next to one already on the board, obliquely circumventing the drawback. Argivian Restoration was really there for the precursor of the topic of this article, of course, to renew spent Nevinyrral's Disks.

However the real day-ruining play of Draw-Go was Nevinyrral's Disk + Capsize (especially Capsize + Buyback). The first time I activated a Nevinyrral's Disk and picked it up in response to wipe my opponent's board, then untap with the intention of re-playing the Disk (with Capsize still in hand) I was rewarded with a hand shot in the sky and that most beautiful of exclamations, "Judge!"

You see, up until this point, people thought that you had to sacrifice Nevinyrral's Disk like some sort of Pernicious Deed, because even if that wasn't how it worked, that was logically how it felt (which probably led to the Deed's eventual templating).

This deck was a terror: Dancing Scimitars or no, there's a reason we remember Cuneo.

Randy Buehler credited his commemorative Worlds 1998 deck as "Cuneo" Blue despite playing rather a different cadre of specifics:

Draw, Go

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Instead of all the tricky Steel Golem plays, the "Blue Sligh" curve control deck ran a single, inexorable Rainbow Efreet. For this one, Randy and Erik Lauer relegated any Capsize day-ruining to the sideboard, but didn't exactly skimp on the Nevinyrral's interactions. Because Rainbow Efreet could dodge the Disk (not to mention stall the board) more cheaply than Ghost Ship, it was even more difficult to beat in a long game, especially control-on-control than the predecessor. With Ghost Ship an opponent still had some glimmer of Wrath of God or Terror hope; no such luck with the solo Rainbow.

Armed with the vast knowledge of every significant deck ever (much of which has been passed to you in the previous set of paragraphs), I was a bit shocked at the descendent of Nevinyrral's Disk:

I actually called up Scott Johns, half-jokingly, to comment that R&D had printed the card incorrectly. Didn't they want Black and Blue mages to have it and use it as adroitly as they did the original in the mid-to-late 1990s?

I didn't really need the answer I got. In Unlikely Flavorful Inspiration, Randy Buehler specifically said that R&D "decided that Black should not have the ability to sacrifice its own enchantments so [they] changed [Braids, Cabal Minion] to 'sacrifice an artifact, careature, or land.'" Anyway, White has had Nevinyrral's Disk for years, even if players didn't necessarily realize.

Akroma's Vengeance
Nevinyrral's Disk

Most people looked at Akroma's Vengeance and saw Onslaught Block's answer to Wrath of God when in fact - just compare the action text on both cards - it was a tip of the hat to the Disk. Despite costing two more mana than Wrath of God in Standard, Akroma's Vengeance was a key player in various decks in that format specifically because it was a Disk and not "just" a Wrath update. Unlike a card keyed just to kill creatures, Vengeance hearkened back to the Prison-breaking days of 1997 or so, and mopped up artifact lands along with any actual threats the sickening and cheesy Ravager Affinity player may have deployed. Here is my favorite Vengeance deck, which maximized the use of both that card and the version, along with spot artifact removal (though Kibler removed the actual copies of Akroma, Angel of Wrath in favor of Decree of Justice, which was admittedly probably right):

Brian Kibler

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So what about the new kid Magus on the block? Even with Ravnica duals, I am having problems imagining this card in a dedicated Black deck... but then again, I can't really think of any Standard-legal enchantments the cagey Black mage would want to divest himself of. The Blue mages, though, should be able to run very similar Boomerang shenanigans to the ones that made Cuneo famous.

Stalking Yeti
Speaking of the DragonMaster, when we were testing for Pro Tour--Toyko, Kibler often commented on how much he liked Benalish Heralds. At 2/4 for four mana, this was a card drawing engine that was also "quite the Moat." Kibler could lean back on the Heralds, net some cards, and stem the beatdown at the same time. Early in testing, it seemed likely that the opponent would have to spend more than one card to end the Heralds, and even if he got a solid 1-for-1 via Terminate, chances were that Brian would be up cards in hand anyway. Largely because today's Flametongue Kavu only does three damage, Magus of the Disk seems like it can work the same way, and unlike the Heralds, might actually make it into a Tier One deck or two.

Magus of the Disk will happily scare away Boros Guildmage and run interference for Watchwolf. When the opponent commits additional resources to the board, it can then go boom; if its master has some kind of Unsummon in hand, he can tip his hat to Mike Donais and his 1997 control decks and start the cycle all over again. Magus of the Disk creates interesting problems partly because its effect is so powerful, and partly because most of the relevant information is on the board. It will be obvious much of the time that a beatdown player can't get through the Magus, and getting the opponent to fire off his Wizard will many times be a skilled game of chicken. How much will the beatdown be willing to stake? Does that Azorius bastard have the bounce? Speaking of Azorius, I can actually imagine a scenario where the Green/White player taps for Chord of Calling with the Magus on the stack to grab the off-Guild Guildmage, ruining the U/W Magus player's short term. Like I said, with Magus of the Disk, many contests between beatdown and control will be skilled games of bluffs, feints, and surprise attacks.

As interesting as this card is, it will not be all sunshine and lollypops. Like Nevinyrral's Disk before it, Magus of the Disk has a key vulnerability: It comes into play tapped. This might seem unnecessary because creatures can't pull off tap abilities immediately, but that restriction cuts off anything but the most extravagant haste. Moreover, this card is a creature. Nevinyrral's Disk was vulnerable in that it was an artifact, but the historical decks that played it could rip apart the opponent's hand with Hymn to Tourach before committing the Disk, or defend the key artifact for that one turn with Force of Will even when forced to tap out. Not only have hand destruction and permission been toned down to more "fair" levels over the past ten years, you need only scan the various Top 8 deck lists to see that the world is much more hostile to creatures than it is to artifacts.

In all likelihood, I have seen more Time Spiral cards than you have, and I can genuinely say that I am more excited by this set than any other set, ever. I grew to love Ravnica Block, but my apprehension over multicolored cards tempered much of my pre-first kiss anticipation. For most other sets, even the ones I end up loving, I start out guarded. Not so with Time Spiral. My eyes bug out when I open my email box. I call and IM my friends on NDA or contacts at Wizards. I set my armies on the Orb of Insight to grasp any additional grain of data I can. Cards like Wheel of Fate and Magus of the Disk key directly on old, beloved, or terrifying cards. There is enough nostalgia in Time Spiral to get old timers like myself out of our sets, but they have been very clearly tempered with the reason of a decade of design and development. A straight translation of Nevinyrral's Disk would have been hugely adopted. It would have also been almost insultingly easy. Magus of the Disk, on the other hand, is the kind of card that offers a powerful effect, incentives against popular and predictable strategies, and also separates the deck designers from the pretenders. Spike will use this card to win and Timmy will get to blow up the world, but this time, I think, it will be Jonny who shows them how to do what they do in style.

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