If I'm writing a preview article, it can only mean one thing—Shadowmage Infiltrator is being reprinted in Modern Masters 2015 Edition. That's right—two years ago, you got Dark Confidant…and now you're getting me.
I know a lot of you are asking the obvious question: "Why Dark Confidant first?" I go to tournaments all the time and people come up to me and say, "I wanted to get a Shadowmage for you to sign, but I couldn't find any. Could you please sign this Island instead?" Look around at a Modern tournament and there are Bobs everywhere—on tables, under glass, in trade binders. It seems like everyone has at least four, while the demand for Shadowmages is so great that there's nary a one to be found. Thankfully Wizards of the Coast has finally recognized this problem and has taken a major step to meet the overwhelming demand.
I have made a great many mistakes in my magic career. I played White-Blue Control instead of Necro at the first Pro Tour. I played Blue-Red Control over Necro at Pro Tour Dallas. I played White-Blue Control over Cadaverous Bloom at the first Pro Tour Paris. I just played ChromantiFlayer in Belgium (other poor deck choices edited out for space). I didn't block a Wolf token this one time.
But Shadowmage Infiltrator is my favorite mistake. I think back on what could have been. Dark Confidant, Meddling Mage, Snapcaster Mage, Psychatog! I also never played a Psychatog deck when it was good. Maybe I just didn't like playing control enough.
Art by Tomasz Jedruszek
When I won the invitational in Sydney all the way back in 2000, I already knew the card I wanted to design. As someone who'd played a lot of decks with Wrath of Gods and Counterspells, all I wanted was a way to kill all my opponent's creatures and then also be able to counter their next threat. Not too much to ask for, right? This was just after Urza's Saga, and the lovely untap lands mechanic—as seen in cards like Palinchron, Frantic Search, and Time Spiral—had just debuted. It was one of the best-balanced Standard formats in a long time. And by that I mean possibly the least-balanced format ever.
So, why not take Wrath of God, add a mana to the cost, add another color (blue), and have it untap your lands after? Then I subtracted back a mana so the Wizards' design team could "balance it" after they decided it was broken. Thus was born "Wrath of Leknif." Sorcery. 1WWU: Bury all creatures. Untap up to four target lands.
If you don't know what "bury" means, find someone who remembers the Clinton administration and ask.
Sadly, about five days after its birth, "Wrath of Leknif" was laid to rest. There were a number of spurious reasons given.
First: Some people thought that my naming choice was a little bit hubristic, replacing "God" in the name with Finkel spelled backwards. I don't see it.
Second: Wizards just had some eensy weensy problems with the untap lands mechanic during a period affectionately referred to as "Combo Winter." Sure, no one was going to combo off untapping lands to cast Wrath of God but, in their perfect world, all evidence of this mechanic would be stricken from history. They wanted to take it out behind the woodshed, put it out of its misery, and then bury the pieces of its dismembered remains throughout the world so that it could never see the light of day again.
Third: I was the first person to request something other than a creature for their card, based on the rationale that "creatures suck." Wizards realized this was something they hadn't considered and decided they wanted all the invitational cards to be creatures.
Given these constraints, I went back to my favorite creature of all time: Ophidian (props to David Humpherys for playing with this first). The reality was that I only played Forbiddian at 1998 Nationals because it was a lot of fun and Nationals wasn't that important a tournament. Later that summer, at Worlds, I played Deadguy Red instead since it was a much better deck. But, what if there was a better Ophidian? So, I made it hard to block by giving it "fear" (find the old timer you asked about "bury"), plus had it deal damage AND draw a card when it attacked. To balance it and keep it in flavor, I replaced a colorless mana in the casting cost with a black.
Whenever you make an offer and it gets accepted without change, it doesn't mean you did a good job. It means you didn't ask for enough. Still, in a universe where Psychatog was never made, it probably would have seen a lot of play. Find that old timer again and ask him what creatures used to look like, because it's nothing like what you're used to. Instead, Shadowmage ended up being a fringe-playable card. It showed up in decks and sideboards here and there, but never really had its day in the sun. And it has not aged well.
Which is why we've gotten almost to the end of the article and I've talked almost no strategy. There is no strategy for Shadowmage Infiltrator. If you put it in a serious Constructed deck, you are wrong. If you take him highly in a Cube draft, you are also wrong. If you play him in a Cube draft, you are likely, but not definitely, wrong. I haven't seen the rest of Modern Masters 2015 Edition, but I suspect Shadowmage will be playable but unspectacular. Which is about the best he's been in a very long time.
Overall I'm happy to see Shadowmage Infiltrator reprinted. I've signed tens of thousands of copies and, of course, it's the card I most identify with in Magic. I was lucky enough to be reprinted with the same art back in Time Spiral (the original art is awesome, right?) and to procure the original painting by Rick Farrell two years ago. While I'm sure this reprint won't be nearly as attractive as the original version, I look forward to drafting him, casting him, and, most importantly, drawing cards with him.