The Dave Price Rule and the Upper Limit

Posted in Top Decks on September 17, 2009

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."

Once upon a time there was a two-drop called Millikin.

I found Millikin super-exciting when it first came out, partly because this was some years ago and I was friends with a onetime member of Team CMU (then Magic R&D, as these things go)—Nate Heiss—who was a devotee of Manakin (the original) and I knew that Nate had—inexplicably—done well for himself playing Manakin decks. Millikin lacked Manakin's one power, but offered so much burgeoning synergy in exchange.

Millikin was a slow "Llanowar Elves" outside of green. It could be played in a black-red deck to give that deck just a little bit of spice ... and at the same time a surprising amount of then-unexpected speed. Because Millikin was a citizen of Odyssey block, it could generate random interactions with lots of cards that had yet to be explored, and while it was helping out on the speed side, Millikin would be drawing extra cards (in a uniquely "Odyssey block" sense of drawing extra cards).

Like I said, I was super excited to try Millikin. Finally black-red decks could play Flametongue Kavu on the third turn—just like red-green decks—and with the rotation of Masques block to make way for Odyssey, the departure of Blastoderm and Saproling Burst helped to even the field even more as these color combinations looked to butt heads (you will have to stretch your imagination, maybe, to picture a time when the Big Bad Wolf of Standard was a simple green-red deck based around four- and five-drops). Sometimes Millikin would flip over Firebolt while setting up the Flametongue Kavu ... but it didn't matter. That would be gravy, not an essential reason to play it; it was good enough either way. The graveyard just made it raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The core functionality was helping you get to Firebolt flashback mana in a reasonable window.

Millikin would of course flip over Flametongue Kavu itself sometimes, which might seem like a sob story ... until you realize that it was just setting up Crypt Angel for the next turn! Everything was coming together (at least in my imagination) and it seemed like Millikin might be one of those simple but surprising card choices that goes from nobody-to-somebody in the blink of an eye, in the performance of just one tournament. The truly amazing games were the ones where Shower of Coals came online at full power; at the time, Prophetic Bolt (4 damage for five mana, net one card) was considered a very attractive and versatile spell, and Shower of Coals (potentially more damage and more net cards)—at least with seven cards in the graveyard, either as a result of an attrition war or an active Millikin—was even more powerful than the Blue Bolt.

"There's a problem with your idea, Mike," said my friend Chris Pikula when I told him how I wanted to play with Millikin. "You are assuming that you are going to get to tap Millikin ... even once. The problem is .... You see, Dave [Price] has this rule ... Millikin is a Weird Card. People don't know what to do about weird cards. Why in the heck is he playing with a Millikin? Dave has this rule, see. When you see a weird card and you don't know why someone is playing it ..."

"You kill it on the spot."

"That's right. You kill it on the spot."

And so, disheartened by this notion—this realization really—that poor Millikin would never make it to the promised land of the next turn's main phase, I aborted the entire project. And you know what? It was probably right. Chris was probably right. Millikin was just not powerful enough to put the effort in; it was just strange and just synergistic, but not the kind of two-drop you put on the mantle and point to proudly at Christmas time.

Today's card, on the other hand, is not a "Weird Card" in any way shape or form. It is just a killer. Millikin was not one percent as must-kill a mana producing two-drop as this week's Zendikar preview. So while yes, people will be desperate to kill it, this implementation that shows us just how cool—and how powerful—the landfall mechanic can be is more than worth building and working around and for. Meet the slithering stunner with the red set seal. Meet Lotus Cobra.

Lotus Cobra

As should already be obvious, this card is simply unreal.

It is half the mana cost of a Bloodbraid Elf, and twice as dangerous.

There are a fair number of cards that have pretty good abilities (or even marginal abilities), but because they are attached to 2-power two-drops, they are considered some of the best cards in the history of the game. Wild Mongrel. Meddling Mage. Dark Confidant. Each of these multidimensional two-drops has a Block Constructed Pro Tour win under its belt (or muzzle), and has seen play across the formats, from Block to Extended, and sometimes even Vintage.

The special ability on Lotus Cobra is more powerful than the special abilities on any of these cards (and equally attached to a two-power potential attacker).

The whole point of these kinds of cards (and, again, Lotus Cobra is one of them), is that all things held equal, they are crashing for 2 on turn three, putting the opponent on the clock, keeping everybody honest. But sometimes, even oftentimes, they just shine. The Meddling Mage that locks out the three-of combo piece in the opponent's hand. The Wild Mongrel that splits out a Violent Eruption, clearing the opponent's board just prior to the ear-splitting Red Zone crash. The Dark Confidant that only ever flips lands (which also puts your opponent on seething tilt).

Picture the most innocuous Lotus Cobra, the "mere" second-turn Lotus Cobra. Now imagine the opponent is going second and decides to play and pay for a Rupture Spire on his turn. It kind of sucks for him, but it's only turn three ... What's the worst that could happen?

(This, by the by, is far from the worst that could happen.)

You untap and play a land .... It doesn't really matter what land, but for the sake of non-sexiness, we'll make it some generic land (say a Forest) that doesn't do anything unusual. You get to make a free mana with Lotus Cobra (let's call it ), and you have access to the usual spread of three lands in play. That's four mana, and you use it to run out a Bloodbraid Elf. You don't win the lottery or anything ... "just" hit Blightning.

Now your opponent is down two cards in hand, down to 17, and is staring down an uncontested (at least as-yet uncontested) 5 damage hastily crossing the Red Zone. When the turn-three dust clears, your opponent is down close to 50% on life total, is down two cards, and hasn't made a third land drop yet.

(By the way, most players have to get at least a little bit lucky to walk away from a third-turn Bloodbraid Elf, let alone this third-turn Bloodbraid Elf.)

Here is a slightly sexier possibility:

Baneslayer Angel

Same deal ... "just" the second turn Lotus Cobra (but conveniently uncontested). Instead of a Forest you have a considerably sexier Arid Mesa. You run that out there and produce , then sacrifice it to go and get a Plains, which also produces . You have in play and can tap your remaining three lands to produce ... a Baneslayer Angel.

Now "just" a Baneslayer Angel might not seem that impressive, but on turn three? With no loss of card advantage? While actually hitting the opponent for 2? I mean, have you read Baneslayer Angel? The opponent will have to deal with basically the two most defining creatures in the format ... before even playing a third land. Again, this is only slightly sexier ... and yet will still correlate with a win the majority of the time. Decided, consistently, before the opponent has played a third land.

What if we cross the two examples?

Instead of a Baneslayer Angel against an empty board, we can pretend the opponent put something out (let's say he somehow convinced the judge to let him play a Millikin), and you decided to go for Bituminous Blast instead of Baneslayer Angel. Flip up Bloodbraid Elf, turn over Blightning ... That's a Millikin (or whatever creature), plus two cards from his hand (that is, three cards), and 8 damage—basically winning the cascade lottery—the functional equivalent of an Ultimatum (take your pick) all on the third turn, all without doing any kind of crazy stretching or searching ... Lotus Cobra just took whatever you drew, and gilded your opening hand with the glittering glory of its Lotus Petal coat.

Okay now ... Did somebody mention "Ultimatum"?

Let's start to explore the actually sexy possibilities. How about we treat this green card like an actual green card for a moment?

You open up with a simple Forest, tapping for Noble Hierarch.

On the second turn you play your Arid Mesa, and tap your Bosk, but save a mana with your Hierarch, producing Lotus Cobra (but leaving the Mesa, unused, on the battlefield).

Okay, now it's turn three ... time to rock and roll!

You play a second Arid Mesa, adding to your mana pool.

You crack your two Mesas, adding to pool, and searching up Mountains with each. Your Hierarch supplies a , your Forest supplies another, your two Mountains do their work, and you can splatter the opponent with a Violent Ultimatum on the spot. A simpler route—and likely nearly as insurmountable at that stage of the game—would be Identity Crisis. With one of these openings, especially on the play, it seems very difficult for the opponent to reasonably come back. Your opponent has nothing, you've still got a couple of cards in hand, and the threats are already on the board.

For its part, the Cobra will be attacking for 3 in the meantime.

What is cool about all of these scenarios is that the Lotus Cobra player is creating a tremendous advantage without wasting any additional cards. When a deck like All-In Red runs out one of its game winners somewhere between turn one and turn three, All-In Red is pitching essentially its entire hand, and will often have to invest in a Chrome Mox or Simian Spirit guide as the catalyst; Lotus Cobra piggybacks just playing land—something every deck has to do anyway—and diverts that simple action to explore a world of plenty and possibilities.

So what are the problems—if any—with Lotus Cobra?

The first problem is that its power will be known. This card is a thousand—no, a million—times the troublemaker that Millikin would have been. Wild Mongrel was a fine attacker, but its real mischief came from its Black Lotus-ness (Wild Mongrel was always shaving three mana off a 6/6, or two mana off a Counterspell or 4/4, or all the mana off a 3/3). The damage was just a compelling added-value feature, like automatic windows or heated lumbar support. Lotus Cobra is Denis the Menace. It's Klarion the Witch Boy. It's that box of Turkish Delight that the Queen has secreted in the sled. Lotus Cobra is small, but spunky, as much trouble—and potential energy—as a tiny atom, about to be split. In sum, over the long history of "lightning rods" few cards, from Hypnotic Specter to Birds of Paraidse, deserved the Lightning Bolt bull's-eye as much as Lotus Cobra. If you see it on the second turn, thank your lucky stars that Lightning Bolt was reprinted so you can do your duty (to yourself) and get rid of it before you find yourself staring down that third turn Ultimatum.

A card this cheap capable of generating so much free mana actually has a built-in problem: running out of cards. After all, if you play "regular" good cards, they are all going to be on the table. Therefore the cagey Lotus Cobra player will have to tangle speed and power with card advantage to keep the threats persistent. Obviously Bloodbraid Elf and Bituminous Blast generate some nice card advantage, and if you can actually fitter out how to fire off an Ultimatum, you are going to have more than enough resources. However a common implementation will probably be a variation on the third-turn Bloodbraid Elf. What about running out Ajani Vengeant or Elspeth, Knight-Errant? Four-mana planeswalkers are kind of self-contained value machines, and if you have a five-mana third turn, you can actually leave yourself with a Mountain open for the Lightning Bolt, in case the other guy is planning to lay down his own Lotus.

My prediction is that Lotus Cobra is going to be a format-defining creature card. But if it shows up across the table—and you're going second, even if you are itching to play your own—consider putting this snake on the endangered species list.

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