Too Darn Popular

Posted in Serious Fun on June 15, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

What to do about overplayed cards

Having spent several weeks dealing with off-game topics, I feel it's about time to return to some strategic considerations for casual Magic – particularly multiplayer Magic.

In my time on Magic Online, and my time in our play group with real cards, I've seen five cards maintain overly high popularity. Most, but not all, of them are coveted rares. These are not the only five cards to pay attention to; but they are cards to watch for in your own group. My bias happens to be a lot of time spent in two-headed giant games; I'm sure other formats have their bugbears.

Following is a description of each card, how it's used, and what you can do about it if it's driving you nuts. I'm trying to speak to both cardboard and online audiences here; non-online players will have even more options because of deeper (Vintage) card pools. Be creative.

My tone may come across a bit, well, crotchety at times here. But don't worry. I use two of the cards myself. If you play them too, don't sweat it. I'm just giving other readers tools on how to beat you. No need to take it personally.

1) TOOTH AND NAIL. The big creature-fetcher.

Tooth and Nail

How it's used: Generally Tooth and Nail is the centerpiece of mono-green or green-blue decks, in conjunction with insane amounts of acceleration, to bring out Darksteel Colossus, and/or Akroma, Angel of Wrath, and/or whatever other utility creature seems right.

Tooth and Nail decks don't normally "go off" much before turns five or six. Some can go faster, most go a bit slower. The worst you'll encounter before the "kill point" is a Sakura-Tribe Elder, or maybe a Troll Ascetic. Most of the earlier plays are stuff like Kodama's Reach, Serum Visions, and Sensei's Divining Top (see below). There are a lot of different builds, all with the same predictable (and, may I say, not horribly original) end.

Why it bothers me: "Bother" is a strong word. I just have seen it too much, and there's very little original space left in the idea. Lots of perfectly honest green mages have become sick of this card because it's been hijacked by the notorious "netdeckers". Back years ago, when green stank and the same people cursed Wizards for not printing stuff like Tooth and Nail, no one bothered copying mono-green decks. Ah, the cost of popularity!

What you can do: Countermagic and discard exist for a reason. Some players like these strategies even less than Tooth and Nail, but I have to say I am virtually never upset by a Cranial Extraction that targets me – because I'm just glad there are cards out there that can kill one-trick ponies like Tooth and Nail decks.

If you don't like that BU strategy, try some of these: Barter in Blood, Aether Spellbomb (for the off-color stuff), Bribery, and/or Clone.

In red, I like strange stuff like Confusion in the Ranks and/or Insurrection. Throwing the game completely up in the air can wreck decks that depend on late game heroics – they've often taken early damage, and they can't afford random chance. Another option is coming with SaviorsThoughts of Ruin, which will get many players upset. Well, they'll have to deal with it. Land destruction is part of the game.

In green, I suppose you could play your own Tooth and Nail deck; but that seems contrary to what I'm trying to accomplish today. I like Biorhythm here – even just throwing a single one in your deck can save the day. You've got a few measly snakes, they've got a Darksteel Colossus and a Kodama of the North Tree; they're at 35, you're at 10…and all of a sudden, you're at four, they're at two, and they're about to die. Good times.

For white, Reverse the Sands works much the same way. The critical thing is to be able to survive a single hit of the big creatures, so you can turn the tables effectively. Of course, you then need something to finish them off – a Glory in your graveyard can be a big help, though not as much against Colossus. Another way white can go: removal from game, as in Final Judgment, Second Thoughts, or Reciprocate. Sometimes these are dead cards against other decks; but in formats like two-headed giant, they can be lifesavers.

2) KOKUSHO, THE EVENING STAR: The legendary life-swinger.

Kokusho, The Evening Star

How it's used: Get two out in a two-headed giant game, and it's a 20-point life swing. Do it again, and you've won. Patriarch's Bidding is the least original path to doing this. Nezumi Graverobber is also common, as is more simple recursion such as Zombify.

Sometimes the other Champions dragons are also in the deck – most notably the blue or white ones. Folks, I get it. They're dragons and they're lovely. But please. The creative part of your brain begs you to move on.

Why it bothers me: Aside from the plodding predictability of it all, the deck controllers seem to have caught the same prideful virus. Almost to a man (and they're all guys, I know it), each player with this deck insists they thought it up themselves. Maybe that's true. But it's highly unlikely.

What you can do: Black has the best tool against decks like these. A single Withered Wretch can be devastating to a Patriarch's Bidding deck. If you suspect you're up against a Kokusho deck, do NOT play the Wretch early. Save it for when your opponent has four mana (one less than Bidding needs). Then play the Wretch and keep two mana open to remove at least two copies of the dragon from the game.

White and red also have some nice options, the most basic of which is removal from the game (e.g., Samurai of the Pale Curtain, Frostwielder).

Blue and green have a much harder time with stupid Kokusho tricks. Blue can counter the recursion spell; but countering the dragon itself is virtually worthless. Green just has to realize it's on a clock. Where's Night Soil when you need it, eh? I'll tell you – a slightly less powerful reprint of that card would be okey-dokey by me.

3) SENSEI'S DIVINING TOP. The interminable time-waster.

Sensei's Divining Top

How it's used: The top is used in all sorts of decks, but the most popular choice is in combo decks, because it helps you find critical pieces more quickly. By itself it can't win the game – but it encourages players to take greater chances with their decks. That alone is not a bad thing.

Why it bothers me: I'm not a fan of the combo decks this artifact encourages. It's close to becoming an automatic "four of" in any deck that has to pull off one, big, complicated turn.

Worse, when playing online, the constant spinning of a top can be highly annoying. I don't care if you auto-yield or not – it's a pain to wait for. And inevitably, the top gets put back on the library and then replayed – so you have to reset the auto-yield.

Full disclosure – I have the top in one of my decks. But I have a cool reason for it – Psychic Battle. It's a fun use that gets people laughing. So I'll stand by that minor hypocrisy any day of the week.

What you can do: Because the top can disappear quickly, there's not much you can do short of Pithing Needle. I've managed to mess one or two players up by activating a Whirlpool Warrior in response to a draw activation; but that seems like an awfully long way to go. This is one we might all have to wait out, like Isochron Scepter (which, amazingly enough, I haven't seen in ages).

4) MIRARI'S WAKE. The self-pumper.

Mirari's Wake

How it's used: Like Tooth and Nail decks, Mirari's Wake decks are usually meant to lead up to a big creature rush in a single turn. (In fact, some Tooth and Nail decks use Mirari's Wake as an accelerant.) Favorite creatures include Seedborn Muse and Phantom Nishoba. You might also see an occasional trick like creature tokens (via Mobilization) or Rude Awakening or some such, as a Plan B.

Why it bothers me: After being initially impressed by the no-counters-on-your-phantom trick, I've just grown weary of where most of these decks are trying to go. Just once, I'd like to see something a little new with Wake – like a green-white samurai deck with Nagao, Bound by Honor. But alas – it's another Seedborn Muse helping another Phantom Nantuko grow bigger and bigger. Whee.

What you can do. Fortunately, as with Tooth and Nail, there are many things each color can do against Mirari's Wake. Of course, white and green can both just Naturalize and/or Disenchant it.

Black and red have several cards that can kill creatures, even when they're fairly large because of a Mirari's Wake or two. And of course, black has discard; and red has land destruction. (The number one cause of Wake deck failure, I'd estimate, is a player who keeps a questionable hand and sticks at two, or three mana. A good land destruction deck should be able to keep them there.)

Blue? Mainly out of luck. Countering the Mirari's Wake is certainly possible, and an Echoing Truth can take care of some of the decks that sport huge insect tokens. But once a single Wake is out, spells like Condescend or Repulse just don't have the same punch. Stealing is about the only option left – via Blatant Thievery or Memnarch. (Those cards have their own anti-fans!)

5) CONSUME SPIRIT. The penultimate monoblack "Plan B".

Consume Spirit

How it's used: If a deck is mono-black, it seems it almost always has four copies of Consume Spirit. (Mine certainly does.) It's removal, it's life gain, it's the last shot to the head. Very versatile, very easy to get, very easy to use with Cabal Coffers.

Why it bothers me: Consume Spirit has abruptly ended many games that I thought were conceptually interesting and complex. While I like that "to the head" spells like Consume Spirit and Fireball exist, I do wish I could occasionally slip into an alternate universe where the game I was enjoying continued on without the X spell.

What you can do: Why do I never see Divert or Shunt out there on Magic Online? (Come to think of it, why aren't I playing those cards? They'd nearly always be useful, wouldn't they?) In our play group, Misdirection gets some use, and so does Willbender. I'd like to see more players online use these cards as well. Not quite as good in these situations, but still helpful: Uyo, Silent Prophet; Twincast; and Mischievous Quanar.

Some players aren't good enough to recognize that white mages do have options to defend themselves (e.g., Shining Shoal). What they think will be a killing blow in a close game is instead an opportunity to tap themselves out and risk defeat. If you're a white mage and you see a Cabal Coffers with eight or more swamps, keep your mana open for life gain, damage prevention, and the other tools white gives you to survive. They're not perfect, but they can pull out the occasional game.

Green also has lifegain options, but I believe its best bet is to put such horrible and awful creatures out there in such great numbers, a black mage will have no option but to hit the creatures instead of you. This happens a lot. Green has an answer – extend away!

Honorable Mention: Lightning Greaves

Lightning Greaves

How it's used: Everywhere, to stop opponents from targeting their creatures and give them more chances to attack.

Why it bothers me: Here's another card I play with quite a bit myself. Greaves are darn good. (I use it with Godo, Bandit Warlord as a finisher in my samurai deck.) But I recently discovered the charms of good old-fashioned Fires of Yavimaya not long ago, which just made me nostalgic for the cool red-green flavor and pumpability. Thus, an honorable mention for the Greaves here.

What you can do: Actually, most players have already figured this one out. Black mages are playing Chainer's Edict; and red, green, and white players are shredding these boots with all sorts of instants. Blue decks will struggle against a Greaves in play, but it's nice that Condescend and Mana Leak will work on turn two fine, as long as you got to go before the controller of the Greaves. A rare option from Odyssey: Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor.

Why Didn't You…?

If you have a card you think is too popular, or a countermeasure against such a card, I encourage you to use the message boards. Let others know of your genius! It's not fair to save it just for me. I promise I'll read the boards and respond to the most innovative ideas and/or posts.

Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for over seven years, and has been writing far longer than that. His new fantasy young adult novel, Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace, was co-written with his wife MaryJanice Davidson, and comes out August 2005 from Berkley Books.

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