Scathe Zombies Strike Back!
By Daniel Rezendes on August 16th, 2005 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
(If you missed my first Mental Magic article, read it here).
I’m pleased to see there is some interest in Mental Magic, so I’m back to discuss Mental Magic a bit more deeply. Let’s start with general strategy.
The goal of Mental Magic is summed up by a simple relation: My threats > their answers. But from that simple premise, effectively infinite play situations arise. You have to recognize when you are in control of the game, and how to stay in control of it; or, if not, how to TAKE control of it. Downright creature aggression tends to work very poorly, early on at least—removal and even sweeper effects are not very hard to come by, and it is a lot easier to derive advantage from answers than from threats. Why is that?
Well, in almost all cases, major threats—creatures especially—are played at sorcery speed. This means you must play them on your turn, and tap mana to do so (the bigger the threat, the more mana tapped down), and then hope your opponent has nothing to say about it. But that’s not likely—every card in their hand is a potential answer, and they should have more mana available to deal with your original spell than you will to their answer. Worse,
A nice answer... that gets even if you DO manage to get your threat resolved, you’ll probably be completely tapped out… leaving THEM open to do anything at all on their turn. In other words, you shouldn’t play a threat unless you have the further resources to back that threat up.
some damage in, too.
So, the early game tends to be both players jockeying for position—solidifying their mana bases, filling their hands, etc. The closest thing to "aggression" that typically happens early game is something like a Isamaru, Hound of Konda snuck into play—a cheap enough creature to play early, and small enough not to lose all your resources protecting.
The transition to the late game can come in various ways. It can be slow, with one player gaining card advantage one tiny bit at a time, or it can be in a sudden threat-response-response-response-response chain, going on until one player or the other is out of resources. The latter case usually only
When you start winning, you occurs when someone tries to play a severely game-altering threat like Necropotence. The result is the same—one player is out of answers, leaving the other only with the question of how to kill them. Usually, if the game gets to this situation suddenly in a big response war, there is still hope—after all, both players used a lot of resources all at once. However, if there has been a slow buildup of domination on one side, that is difficult to break free of—and this cerebral interactivity is the most common way a game plays out.
want to KEEP it that way.
Obviously, then, Mental Magic is a game won by compounding advantages. There are a FEW faster strategies, such as aggressive landkill, but you really have to draw the right cards for them to work, and they can easily backfire (Stone Rain tends to attract Teferi’s Response, or at least Skyshroud Blessing). So, let’s look at some classes of cards that can be used to build up your influence.
Card advantage is key in Mental Magic—fast aggro is simply too easily disrupted. Anything that lets you get an effect without losing a card is quite useful. Cantrips are the most simple, and oldest kind of card to do this. Execute, Slay, Afflict, Mind Ravel, Unhinge, Krovikan Plague… if you use any of these cards properly, you rid yourself of a threat, sometimes even proactively, without losing any cards in the process. End result—no effect on board, you gain advantage. Then, there are the cantrips that aren’t attached to a disruptive effect, like Recover. These cards are actually threats, of a sort—in this case, the card you get back from your graveyard will certainly be used against your opponent in some way, and you get another card atop that that they don’t even know the identity of. Like any card that nets you advantage at sorcery speed, this opens up the opportunity for your opponent to not only disrupt your efforts, but to gain advantage doing it—with a well-timed Force Void, for example.
Comes-into-Play Effects or Utility Creatures
Similar in effect to cantrips, but without the potential versatility of a drawn card. In exchange for that, you get a threat on the board. At the very least, you have something else for your opponent to deal with. The most obvious example is a card like Bone Shredder, but thinking a little laterally gets you ideas like Plague Spitter as well. At the very least, creatures like this deal with some problem your opponent has given you, and leave you a (usually small) threat of your own… or at least, a blocker. Though most creatures like this are, at most, 2/2, you may be surprised how much damage a little dork like that can deal in Mental Magic, as your opponent is loathe to waste a card on something so small.
Yay for keywords! These are like cantrips, only more expensive and they let your opponent know one of the cards in your hand. Sorceries with buyback are generally a bad idea, as they are inevitably expensive… seven mana for Brush with Death is a wee bit much for the slight, easily
Late game, poor Scathey won't disrupted advantage. Instants with buyback are great though— Corpse Dance is a fine end-of-turn play.
cut it... but if you pay a bit
extra, this guy will.
Kicker (and friends)
First, let me rant: why the hell is this ability called "kicker?" What quality do all these cards share that can be described as "kicking?" I mean, does Orim normally heal you a little, but a lot more if she kicks you? The only thing I can think of to explain it is the idiomatic expression, “But here’s the kicker!” as in, “Sure, it’s only a 1/1 trampler for , but if I pay extra, it’s actually 6/6!” And every time I think that, I die a little inside.
Kicker is a marvelous ability in Mental Magic, especially later on in the game when you’ve got mana to spare. It lets you get lots of oomph out of small casting costs. Nightscape Battlemage and its kin are all fine cards to play, netting several utility effects and even leaving a critter on the board to play with. If your opponent is down to three cards and you’ve got the extra lands, try Bog Down. You won’t find yourself casting kicker cards without the kicker too often, as there are usually better cards with the effect you want, but if it gets the job done, why not?
Allow me include Entwine here, as the flavor is mostly the same—cards you won’t play often early game (though the only example at Scathey’s casting cost, Wail of the Nim, has early game uses no other cards I can think of do) but may as well later on.
Similar, but not as easy to use, is Splice. Splicing requires you to have two usable cards in your hand, though you only risk one. Like Entwine, there aren't MANY cards you'll want to splice (or, more aptly, splice something onto), but it's something to keep in mind. Instead of using that as a holy day against one attacker, you could try casting it as a Spiritual Visit to chump... and maybe add one a Glacial Ray or Soulless Revival--though this does bring up the side effect of giving your opponent information on your hand.
Games are almost guaranteed to last long enough for both players to get to Threshold, and these cards give you a late-game effect for early-game costs. Treacherous Werewolf is… not a good example, but I’m working with Scathe Zombies here, and a 4/4 for isn’t a bad deal. I think I heard Scathey groan something about green having lots of good cards like this tho… consider the Werewolf’s cousin Werebear (not bad for early game mana expansion, either), or the ultimate in cost-efficiency, Krosan Beast.
When Scathey wants a friend
in play... RIGHT NOW. Combat
tricks come in odd places.
Get it? Because it’s from your graveyard. Ha-ha! Seriously, though, I’ll get to this one, just be patient.
Wait a minute, aren’t upside-down cards already lands in Mental Magic? Well, yeah technically so. But if you play with your lands and creatures commingled, you have other problems, honestly.
Morph plays just like it does in normal Magic, only moreso. What I mean is, a Morphed creature really CAN be different things… but still limited by casting costs. To make things easier, my play group usually allows you to pay and put ANY card into play as a 2/2 Morphed creature… but you can only unmorph it as a card with morph with its casting cost. So, sure, you could put a non-basic into play as a 2/2 for , which isn’t technically accurate… but it’s not really threatening anyway.
Most of the useful Morph critters you’ll find for card advantage are from Legions—Aphetto Exterminator, for example, though I’ve seen some people have fun with Ebonblade Reaper. Honestly, though, there are usually easier, less mana-intensive ways of doing things utility Morphers try to. Nine times in ten, a morphed creature will be an Exalted Angel… or a Goblin Taskmaster played just to scare you.
There aren’t many of these, and obviously none of them cost , but hitting all five colors is no difficulty here. Etched Oracle is tehmazing, truly, but like any other threat, it needs backup to be resolved. Once it gets into play, at the very least it will net you a few cards, and will likely get some damage in as well. Along with this comes the ‘bleed’ cards rumored to be in Ravnica—with expanded effects based on what color of mana you use in the colorless. Those promise to add yet another level of utility to Mental Magic.
Not many of these yet either, and largely situational. The Instant ones are the only real playable ones, though I could conceivably see someone getting a kill with Tendrils of Agony. But Scathey’s best friend here is Reaping the Graves—for an instant after a long counter war, this can net you four or five cards easily, ready to use on your next turn. These things really shine in multiplayer.
Madness (and friends)
There aren’t many of these, but they are wonderful situational cards. It’s not often you can get some true Madness abuse the likes of which successful decks can be based around, but your opponent makes you discard often enough it’s good to know when you can turn it around to your advantage. Some of the best cards for this don’t actually have Madness though… Look for Pure Intentions predecessors; there are some real gems.
There are all ways to get the most out of the cards in your hand and what permanents you put into play… that’s all well and good. But the late game is usually dictated not by what’s in play or even what cards are in your hand, but in your graveyard. Indeed, in Mental Magic multiplayer, it is a sign of fear and respect when someone Tormod’s Crypts you.
Flashback is a major part of this – every card you can cast from your graveyard is pure card advantage. You risk none of your board position, none of your hand… all you’re out is the mana. Your opponent can still react to whatever you are trying to do, but often, that requires them using a card, which means you’re still ahead. There are even a few reactive graveyard cards… don’t let Scathey know I told you this, but Slay, Execute, and even plain old Dark Banishing are easily countered with an Alter Reality.
There’s more than Flashback, however. Plenty of cards have built-in recursion effects. Grim Reminder lets Scathey come back for more fun, and everyone’s favorite goblin savant
Halfway to Threshold, and can does so for free – but just once per game, remember. The Scourge Dragon, um… Auras, allow some free improvement of late game dudes, and as in real life, Dragon’s Breath is the best one. Probably the most powerful graveyard effect, though, is Genesis. This li’l bastard is a difficult card advantage engine to overcome, though not at all impossible. But it does bring up a few prickly points…
load up your graveyard with
lots of unfriendlyness.
For one, you can’t just name cards in your graveyard just to make them unplayable. There has to be a reason to do it—either the card you are naming does something (Ghastly Remains), or some other effect targets the card(s) specifically (Forked-Branch Garami). The one class of cards to consider making an exception are those that depend on graveyard order: Death Spark, Nether Shadow, and Volrath’s Shapeshifter come to mind. That would be up to your play group, but I am inclined to having cards like this actually need to key off the right type of card—like, Volrath’s Shapeshifter needs an actual creature card with power and toughness in the lower right on top of your graveyard to work.
But if I cast Living Death, can I bring every card in my graveyard come back? No, that doesn’t seem right. SO, the ruling for cards that effect or count certain types of card in your graveyard, like Songs of the Damned, it keys off the actual cards fitting its conditions. So, a Cruel Revival can bring back any card you can name as a zombie (and if you need some countermagic, remember Drowned) or already IS a zombie; but if you have a Soulless One in play, it would count the number of cards in your graveyard that actually have the Zombie subtype printed on them, regardless of what’s been named as what in your graveyard. That’s the fairest way I’ve come up with.
One final note: the Graveyard is Scathey’s favorite place, and he brings all sorts of buddies back from there. Recover, Death’s Duet, Reaping the Graves, all solid cards… but very
Don't stop at just using your many endgames come from the end-all, be all mightiest of Scathey’s incarnations, Yawgmoth’s Will. Get this puppy resolved with a stocked graveyard; it’s hard not to win.
own graveyard as a resource
Other Rules Issues
There’s a few other problems with the Mental Magic rules I outlined in my first article. One of the more important is rules for land searchers—since there are only a handful of lands in your deck, and they’re all non-basic, how does Sakura-Tribe Elder work? Wood Elves? The former is actually easier – since Utopias are basic land, simply pull a random card out of your deck and put it into play as a Utopia, without even looking at it (though you can peek at it once it’s in play). It becomes a little crazier when the land doesn’t come into play… though this is wacky, I suggest randomly suggesting a card from your deck as before, then putting it into your HAND face down—your opponent gets to see it, you don’t. You can only play it as a Utopia. Make sense? Good and happy.
As for things that tutor for a specific basic land type… um er ah… well, one of the variant formats (keep reading) takes care of that. But if you keep Utopia as a basic land type, the best you can do is use the same procedure, and just mark the tutored land to remember it’s only a Forest or Island or whatnot.
That brings me to another subject… tutors. Demonic Tutor and the like have no problem, but cards like, say, Merchant Scroll that ask for a specific kind of card, use the same rules as for the graveyard. Merchant Scroll’s target has to be blue in any case, and can either be a card you can name as an instant (but after naming it, it can’t be what you name it as), or is already an instant. I thought for a while about choosing one or the other, but I figure it’s actually less confusing if its both—at least, harder to be wrong.
There’s an even more specific class of card that needs attention, though: cards that ask you to NAME a card, like Cabal Therapy and Gifts Ungiven. The solution I’ve come up with here is, whenever something asks you to name a CARD, you instead name a CASTING COST. That makes some of these cards – ESPECIALLY Gifts Ungiven – absolutely stupidly powerful, to the point that, if you use these rules, Gifts Ungiven should be considered for banning in your playgroup. I’ll get to that in a minute.
There’s one other card type that needs consideration still: cards that let you put more lands into play. Exploration is tremendously powerful in this format, much less Fastbond. The solution I’ve used is that the additional land drops have to be land cards – either non-basics in your hand, or ‘lands’ you’ve tutored for. This renders the cards nearly useless, but otherwise, they’d have to be banned… I’ve not figured out any better way to solve this quandary yet, and am open to suggestions.
This isn’t a remotely sanctioned format, nor will it ever be, so your group can make up its own rules. Here’s a few people responded to my first article with:
Utopia is all land types:
Fairly self-explanatory. Instead of being a 6th basic land type that taps for any color, Utopia’s type line reads “Snow-Covered Basic Land – Plains Island Swamp Mountain Forest.” 99% of the time, this plays the exact same as what I’ve described… but it does open up quite a few new possibilities, that I’ve liked more and more each time I think of it. For one, Tsunami = Acid Rain = Flashfires = Armageddon. For two, all the Mercadian Masques alternate cost spells come into play, along with the Domain cards from Invasion block, already maximized for ya. Plus, all seven Judgment Incarnations start working and Filth is better than Wonder! Definitely worth a try.
All cards of a casting cost are always ALL cards of that casting cost, at all times:
I don’t like this variant. This negates the “no card can be played more than once each game” clause, which is essential to the format. This shuts down all creativity… when is ALWAYS a Mana Drain, things get dull really fast.
A card can be cast as any card with the same converted mana cost:
This isn’t as bad, but I still don’t like it. Having to make the cards you have work for you requires you to exercise your creativity, which is what Mental Magic is all about.
Shared Library and Graveyard:
This simplifies some things, but complicates others. Sensei’s Divining Top lets you sabotage the opponent’s draws, and I don’t even want to think about how priority and graveyard effects work. Graveyards are as important a resource as hands or libraries in Mental Magic, and graveyard management is an important skill that sharing the graveyard negates. It could be made to work, it’s just a different format.
I’ve done this once, as it takes a while. Besides a Mental Magic set, you should also have a computer with some sort of spreadsheet open, and type in every card as it’s named. Play a match of 3 or 5 or 7 or some odd number of Mental Magic games, and it becomes confusing as to which games what cards were played in. Not as much in a Marathon, though keeping track is important – playing this way, any given card can only be played per MATCH. Around game 4 or 5, things tart to get really creative, trust me.
As I said in the last article, I’ll leave the details to you, but here’s some things to consider:
The easiest thing to do is just pick the Banned/Restricted list from Vintage, or the Banned list from Legacy, and use one of those. I find that to be boring and lazy, and many of the cards on those lists are perfectly fine. Powerful, yes, but the nature of Mental Magic decks make them impossible to fully exploit in the ways that make them ban-worthy.
Many groups ban any cards that let you easily bounce lands to your hand. These sorts of cards allow you to stockpile good cards in play as lands, and return them to your hand as needed, which can be VERY powerful. However, having to ban every Moonfolk in the game just seems stupid to me—maybe nobody in my group has truly broken this part of the game yet, or maybe we’ve just come to accept it. Meloku, the Clouded Mirror is superultrapimp, I’ll admit, but he also costs 5.
Any card that can gain you large card advantage, cheaply, is problematic. Ancestral Recall is a prime example – games become a race to cast this first, and, wouldn’t you know it, the player who does has a large chance of winning? Fact or Fiction and, under my rules as mentioned above, Gifts Ungiven are other examples of this. The worst offender, though, is probably Library of Alexandria. Simply FAR too powerful.
The oddest card on my group’s banned list is Goblin Charbelcher… because in our 300+ card stack we divvy up to play, there’s some 11 lands. You get Belcher out, activate it once, you win. It was funny the first few times, but no one card should outright WIN the game all by itself. And we even allow Channel/Fireball.
Shahrazad was probably the first card I banned. I don't wanna talk about it. But that just goes to show how customizable this is for different playgroups.
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this closer look at Mental Magic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cheaper format—and don’t mention Three Card Blind or Peasant Magic too me. The former uses cards like Black Lotus and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale (or, actually, no cards at all, but :P), while Peasant Magic uses GOOD commons and uncommons. My group’s Mental Magic set is 75% foreign jank… and it doesn’t change very often. There’s no need to fork over money for new tech, and the metagame is all in your head. Give it a try with your playgroup, you’ll have a great time.
And may some obscure Legends card guide your way to victory. Or Alliances. Lots of good stuff there, too.
VestDan is an aspiring author who is not above shameless self promotion: you can view the half-finished draft of his ridiculously long scifi/fantasy saga, here.
Thanks to Goblinboy for editing.
Thanks to iloveatogs for the banner.
By Daniel Rezendes on August 16th, 2005 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Daniel Rezendes
Journeyman Wordsmith and Magic player for over a decade. In recent years, I've stopped sucking at writing, which is always a plus. Would certainly not say no to a job offer from WotC's continuity department.