Illusions of Grandeur

Posted in Limited Information on June 28, 2011

By Steve Sadin

I love undercosted creatures, even when they have obvious drawbacks. When your spells are cheap to cast, you are far less likely to succumb to mana problems. If I have a bunch of cheap creatures and removal spells in my deck, then I might be glad when I'm stuck on three lands, because that will mean that I've drawn a bunch of spells.

Whenever possible, I want to draft aggressive decks that will allow me to kill my opponents before they can cast their most expensive (and most powerful) spells. By doing this I put a magnifying glass on the otherwise barely visible drawbacks that my opponent's cards have. The fact is, being expensive, or otherwise difficult to cast, is one of the biggest drawbacks that a card can possibly have.

It doesn't matter how good a card is once it's on the battlefield if you never get a chance to cast it.

Sure it sucks when my Porcelain Legionnaire dies at the hands of a Blisterstick Shaman, or when my army of 2- or 3-power creatures gets shut down by a turn-three Blightwidow, or when my Illusionary Servant died at the hands of a Giant Growth in Magic 2010 Limited, but it's even worse to end the game with a Karn Liberated rotting away in your hand because your opponent was able to get off to a quick start with a Vault Skirge and a Suture Priest that you were never able to contain.

My preview card for today fits that bill very nicely. It has an effect that has traditionally cost you twice as much to cast (and has nonetheless seen its fair share of play in Limited and Constructed).

Ready to see it?

Because Phantasmal Image is a rare, it won't come up too often in Limited—but when it does, it's likely to do some pretty sweet things for only two mana.

Phantasmal Image has a lot of potential in both Limited and Constructed, particularly when paired with creatures that have "enters the battlefield" effects. Copy my Acidic Slime with a Phantasmal Image? Don't mind if I do! Why no, I don't think you'll mind bouncing another one of your opponent's creatures by copying your Æther Adept, but I don't think your opponents will be too happy when you make that play.

Phantasmal Image | Illustration by Nils Hamm

Your opponent has a legendary creature that's giving you fits? Get rid of it immediately with your Phantasmal Image!

And if you have a way to give your Phantasmal Image hexproof, then its drawback completely disappears. So if you copy your Aven Fleetwing or have a Lord of the Unreal on the table, then you're getting a steal of a deal for only two mana.

In Constructed, the ability to cast multiple Phantasmal Images in a single turn is huge. Nice Inferno Titan! I'll play two Phantasmal Images, killing your Titan and leaving you dead on board unless you have a particularly good answer at the ready.

The fact that most of the cards that people play that can target a creature are Swiss Army Knife type removal spells like Doom Blade, Dismember, or Dispatch makes Phantasmal Image's drawback almost nonexistent in Constructed, making it a two-mana Clone (which should be a particularly potent tool in control decks, Birthing Pod decks, Elf combo decks, and Ally decks, or as a sideboard option against Titans or in Squadron Hawk mirrors).

Birthing Pod

Even if Phantasmal Image doesn't find an immediate home in Constructed, it's definitely a card to keep in mind for everything from Standard to Legacy, especially if expensive creatures like the Titans are making a big impact.

But Phantasmal Image isn't the only illusion in Magic 2012. We've already seen two other, brand new illusions: Phantasmal Dragon and Phantasmal Bear.

Phantasmal Dragon is going to be a very difficult card to play correctly. Do you play it on turn four and hope that your opponent doesn't have anything? Or do you instead wait until you've slugged it out for a dozen turns, and your opponent's hand is empty?

If your opponent doesn't have an answer, then you're going to get one of the biggest bargains of all time when you cast a 5/5 flier for only four mana. If you have an accelerant, you'll be able to do that as early as turn three—the same turn that other players are casting things like Sacred Wolf or Warpath Ghoul. But if your opponent does have a Shock, or an Æther Adept, or anything else that can burst your bubble, then your Phantasmal Dragon won't be long for this world.

Unless I already know that my opponent's deck consists almost entirely of creatures, and will consequently have a ton of trouble dealing with my Phantasmal Dragon, then I would wait to cast my Phantasmal Dragon until after I've drawn out the bulk of my opponent's tricks and removal spells.

It's important to note that Phantasmal Dragon will be much better in aggressive strategies than it will be in controlling strategies. If you're playing an aggressive deck, then your opponent will be forced to use his or her removal spells earlier than would otherwise be wise in order to deal with your initial rush, allowing you to go over the top with your (extremely vulnerable) 5/5 flier.

Phantasmal Dragon | Illustration by Wayne Reynolds

I think that Phantasmal Dragon will be a worthwhile inclusion in almost every blue deck, but I am going to wait (at least) until I've seen the rest of the set before I make any assertions about how high of a draft pick this 5/5 flier made of mist will be.

Old Big Bear

Of the illusions that have been previewed so far, Phantasmal Bear is definitely my favorite. Fortunately for me, it's also a common, so I'm going to get a lot of opportunities to play it.

Phantasmal Bear | Illustration by Ryan Yee

Phantasmal Bear is a very exciting card (to me at least). Illusions are notoriously weak against utility creatures such as Gideon's Lawkeeper, so if your opponent shows you a couple of tappers and a Goblin Tunneler, then you'll probably want to sideboard out your Phantasmal Bear(s) for Games 2 and 3—but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't main-deck them to begin with.

The fact that Phantasmal Bear will die on the spot when targeted by a Pacifism, a Shock, a Titanic Growth, or even a Stave Off isn't really that big of a drawback. If your opponent is using a premium removal spell or a top-notch combat trick on your one-mana creature, then you are definitely coming out ahead in that exchange.

So unless your opponent is able to keep something like a Gideon's Lawkeeper or a Goblin Tunneler alive, then you're going to get a lot of value out of your one-mana Phantasmal Bear.

But Where'd the Lighter Fluid Come From?

Only a fraction of the set has been previewed so far, but I already know that I'm going to love drafting blue-red beatdown decks in M12.

As a one-mana 2/2, Phantasmal Bear can enable some extremely impressive starts in any format, be it Limited or Constructed. But when you pair Phantasmal Bear with bloodthirst creatures, you can do some pretty ridiculous things.

If you go first, cast Phantasmal Bear on turn one, and then hit your opponent with the Bear and cast a Stormblood Berserker on turn two, you're probably going to win. Even if you don't get that aggressive a start, if you're able to put some early pressure on and follow it up with an Æther Adept, and/or some fliers, then your opponent is going to need to do some pretty impressive stuff in order to get back into the game.

Once you're filling your deck up with cheap, aggressive creatures like Phantasmal Bear and Goblin Fireslinger—by the way, Goblin Fireslinger is an excellent way to trigger bloodthirst—then you will be able to put cards like Unsummon and Frost Breath to great use. While these types of cards are typically used for a marginal effect in slower strategies, if you're playing an aggressive deck they will allow you to get in that attack you need to trigger bloodthirst, keep the pressure on without losing any of your creatures, or clear the way for you to punch in those last few points of damage.

So don't shy away from the Illusions just because they disappear easily. Of the Illusions in M12, only Phantasmal Dragon has a significant drawback. Even given the fact that Phantasmal Bear and Phantasmal Image die easily, they're still significantly stronger than most other one- and two-drop creatures, respectively. And I'm more than willing to work with Phantasmal Dragon's drawback in order to add a four-mana 5/5 flier to my deck.

Don't forget to check the Magic 2012 Card Image Gallery daily. There are going to be a ton of new M12 cards previewed as we head steadily towards the M12 Prereleases on July 9-10!

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