Hymns and Lizards

Posted in Feature on January 23, 2002

By Ben Bleiweiss

The other day, I thought to myself, “Ben, you have Anthony and Jay writing great articles about playing the game of Magic creatively. You have Mark and Randy turning in terrific columns about the Magic development and card-making process. Besides getting an inside scoop on some new cards, why would people want to read my articles?” And that was a good question, because my sphere of knowledge presented here comes primarily from the past. But as all good historians tell you (and please excuse my paraphrasing here), “You must learn from the past or be doomed to repeat it”. And, “It’s good to know your roots.” Also, “More than one mage was driven insane by the sound of the Millstone relentlessly grinding away.”

No, seriously, what you’ll find in this column is more than just a trip down memory lane. With all the different cards in Magic, it can be easy to forget a few here and there. Moreover, there are no two cards that are exactly alike in this game. Subtle differences will often spell the difference between winning and losing, and knowing the specific roles of seemingly identical or similar cards is essential. Sure, Pyroblast and Red Elemental Blast may appear to be the same card with a different name, but one of them can target non-blue spells (the Pyroblast) while the other cannot. So with a Pyroblast, you can target a Serra Angel, then Sleight of Mind the Pyroblast to read "white," killing her. You can’t do that with a Red Elemental Blast.

Even creatures that seem functionally identical are slightly different. Drudge Skeletons, Restless Dead, Unworthy Dead, and Walking Dead are all 1/1 creatures for that regenerate for . The Walking Dead aren’t skeletons, however, allowing them to survive an Engineered Plague that would kill the other three. Moreover, you’d have to get four Meddling Mages on the table to keep all of these black creatures from getting into play, since each of them has a distinctly different name. While these differences may seem insignificant, they are essential in the eyes of the game mechanics. Being able to come here every week and see exactly what options and permutations exist out there for a specific type of card or purpose (or even historical context) will help you keep your mind open for finding that ONE card you need to achieve your goals. Otherwise, trying to think of every Magic card off the top of your head will drive you crazy!

And speaking of going crazy, this week is all about madness at MagictheGathering.com. Here at Uncommon Knowledge, I’m going to explore the roots of madness's underlying theme from Alpha to Torment. As you may already know, madness is an ability that allows you to pay an alternate casting cost to a spell (the madness cost) when you would otherwise discard the card. One such example is Basking Rootwalla, an amazing creature in its own right. A direct descendant of Rootwalla (which saw successful tournament play at the Tempest Block Pro Tour – Los Angeles), this little guy fits comfortably into the "Stompy" curve even without his madness ability. Basically, you get a creature which you can drop on turn one as a 1/1 and pump up to 3/3 the very next turn! Even if you don’t pump him immediately, the threat of pumping him on the attack will most certainly keep your opponent from blocking with his early creatures.

What happens, though, when you take this already good creature and let him come into play for free? That’s right, with his madness cost of a big whopping zero, any time you are forced to discard this little guy, you can instead put him straight into play. Most green decks try to get their one-drop mana producing creatures into play before their non-mana producing counterparts; suddenly, black mages are faced with the prospect of a truly frightening curve: their opponent plays a first turn Llanowar Elves or Birds of Paradise, and then HOPES he is hit by a Gerrard's Verdict on turn two so he can drop down one (or two) Basking Rootwallas before his first attack! Suddenly the green mage is ahead on permanents, has a potential 3/3 creature on the board, and has not even slowed down his mana production. We won’t even go into what happens when you follow a turn-two Wild Mongrel with a free (effectively) 3/3 creature.

The madness mechanic was partially designed to punish discard spells, and it does an admirable job. In the entire history of Magic, there have been only a handful of cards that aimed for that same goal. In fact, there are more madness cards in Torment than cards designed to punish discard strategies in the entire history of Magic put together! And moreover, the madness cards in Torment are in general very reasonably costed without their madness abilities, and utterly undercosted with them.

THE CULPRITS

It all began, as most good Magic stories begin, with Alpha. Hypnotic Specter and Mind Twist (not to mention Balance and Disrupting Scepter) needed a foil, and it came in the form of Library of Leng. The Library later saw some play in trying to stop Necropotence decks, but never really met with much success. Even though you got the chance to play the card you would have discarded, you still lose card advantage and stop further library advancement, which really becomes sub-optimal when your opponent uses a Disrupting Scepter turn after turn to make the prospect of keeping a card (let’s say it was a Counterspell) useless, since you’d never have it in your hand when you needed it.

In Legends, Wizards changed the hosing-discard theme to triggering off the actual discarded card. Psychic Purge stood as a singularly ineffective deterrent to discard, since blue really didn’t stand to have much to gain by playing this card. Sure, you could discard four of them to a hand-clearing Balance, but that wasn’t very likely to happen. And chances are if you were playing blue, you weren’t in a position to race damage against a tuned black deck designed to destroy your hand; you’d much rather have two cards in hand that could stop a Hymn to Tourach (Force Spike, for instance) than deal 10 damage and lose 2 cards that would have been marginal otherwise.

Things got a little better and a little worse with Alliances. Guerrilla Tactics gave red a very usable update to Psychic Purge. This time, it had a good mana-to-damage ratio (2 mana for 2 damage), was an instant, and could hit creatures on the discard ability (instead of being limited to players). The Tactics saw a good amount of play, and probably is the best pre-Torment discard-fighter that wasn’t a creature. On the other end of the spectrum, we had Gustha's Scepter. The Scepter has a function that no other card in Magic has (to hide a card and get it back again), and was designed to duck discard spells on the first turn. Losing a card by playing the Scepter to begin with didn’t really help decks that were trying to keep cards in their hand, and the effect just wasn’t useful enough against discard, since you could only save one card at a time. Gustha’s Scepter didn’t see any serious tournament play until years later, where it was part of probably the best deck at Pro Tour - Rome. Instead of using it to punish opponent-originated discard, Brian Hacker piloted a Tolarian Academy deck featuring Gustha’s Scepter with the aim of protecting essential spells from Lion's Eye Diamonds and Time Spirals of his own.

There have been two creatures prior to Torment designed to punish discard spells. Sand Golem appeared in Mirage, and Dodecapod in Apocalypse. To cut straight to the chase, Dodecapod became the creature that Sand Golem could never be. It costs less without the discard-hosing ability, has the same power and toughness, comes into play larger after discard, and comes into play immediately as a replacement effect. The latter point is significant, because Sand Golem could be removed from the graveyard after being discarded, and would never hit play. For instance, your opponent could make you discard it with a Disrupting Scepter, and then use a Phyrexian Furnace to remove it from the game once the Golem's ability triggered. With Dodecapod, that never becomes a problem, since it just comes into play instead of making a short stop in the graveyard.

Urza's Saga provided a kind of half creature, half spell discard-fighter in Metrognome. When in play, it acted like The Hive, cranking out 1/1 tokens. But if you were forced to discard it, it put four 1/1 tokens right into play – quite a clock in the early game. Metrognome was occasionally used as a sideboard card when Duress and Stupor were popular in Standard.

 

Cards That Punish Discard
Alpha Library of Leng
Legends Psychic Purge
Alliances Guerrilla Tactics
Gustha's Scepter
Mirage Mangara's Blessing
Sand Golem
Urza's Saga Metrognome
Mercadian Masques Spiritual Focus
Apocalypse Dodecapod
Torment Basking Rootwalla

Which brings us to the last two anti-discard cards, Mangara's Blessing and Spiritual Focus. The only reusable punishers of the bunch, they are also the only ones giving you a positive net result in response to discard. Sure, you get a 5/5 creature with the ‘Pod, but you still are down a card. With these two, you not only get to replace the card you lost, but you also gain life. While the Focus might well be the best of the bunch, the problem was that there weren’t a whole lot of heavy discard-themed decks while the Focus was legal in Standard, so it never saw much play.

And lest I forget, any flashback cards or recurring spells – like Squee, Goblin Nabob (and any others I mentioned in my week-one column) fight discard spells just by the nature of their design!

So when you play with your Basking Rootwallas (and you should!), just remember that they really crown a new breed of card designed to fight discard decks. He comes from a history paved by some failures and some successes, but in his own right may very well be the cream of the crop.

Next Week: Win, Lose, or Draw

Ben may be reached at uncommonknowledge@wizards.com.

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