Scathe Zombies Strike Back . . . in TIME!
Vestdan's earlier Mental Magic articles: 1 2
For those of you too lazy to look at those earlier articles, here’s a brief overview of the casual format. Mental Magic can be played with virtually any pile of Magic cards, the more random the better. Any card can be played as any card at all that has the exact same mana cost. Scathe Zombies can be Krovikan Rot, or Execute, even mighty Yawgmoth’s Will (if your group hasn’t banned it). Additionally, cards may be played face down as “Utopias,” a basic land that produces any color of mana (and may or may not have all basic land types, depending on each individual playgroup’s rules). This means there is no need for basic lands, making Mental Magic a great format if
you just have a few packs, or just finished a draft and the TO needed his land back. The format encourages thinking outside the box, and knowing LOTS AND LOTS OF CARDS.
Still the King
Still the King
Like Vintage, Mental Magic is a format that, despite massive cardpool, often sees the same cards played again and again in game after game. It doesn’t take too long before a Mental Magic playgroup hits upon what cards are the best for their particular style of Mental Magic, and those cards are always the first on players’ minds. Which is fair—after all, who could hope to remember ALL the cards ever printed? Skilled Mental Magic players will take time to plumb older sets for obscure, situational cards, and add those to their repertoire as well (Burnout is a fine example of this).
However, that said, newer sets always have something to offer, if at the least because they are newer and easier to remember cards from. The most format-defining in recent years had to be Ravnica: City of Guilds, and it’s impact can be summed up in one word: Dredge. There hasn’t been a more important mechanic to Mental Magic since Flashback (though Dredge wouldn’t be nearly as important if it wasn’t for the earlier Odyssey block mechanic). The graveyard becomes a second, harder to disrupt hand, and many Mental Magic games hinge upon graveyard advantage.
Even with all the nostalgia going on, Time Spiral block does throw a few new concepts into the game. The most important for Mental Magic has to be Split Second, because it flies in the face of the rampant disruption characteristic of the format. Basically all the Split Second cards are worth committing to memory—most of them are themselves answers, making it even harder to keep a threat on the board. Split Second appears on a few creatures, meaning your opponent will have to use actual removal against them instead of counterspells; but other than Quagnoth, which has an uncommon casting cost, none of them are too hard to deal with.
Suspend comes next, but I don’t see it having much impact. In normal Magic, your opponent has seven DISCRETE cards in their hand—letting them know ahead of time a spell is coming down doesn’t mean they’ll be able to draw the requisite answer, or even that such an answer is even in their deck. In Mental Magic, where cards exist in a quantum state of dozens if not hundreds of potential options, this is far less likely. However, a few suspend cards have effects while suspended, and these are very hard to disrupt. Aeon Chronicler is easily the best of them, though Benalish Commander and Roiling Horror are at least playable. Greater Gargadon is nice just as a way to sacrifice things (to keep your opponent from benefiting from stuff like Soul Rend, Artifact Mutation, etc.), but it’s probably not too likely you’d have in your mental magic stack unless you include ‘wild cards’ like my playgroups has. Finally, Epochrasite wins the “Most Annoying Card of the Year” award in my book, as it really forces you to find some way to remove it from the game.
Finally, the Grandeur mechanic from Future Sight can be quite potent, depending on the rules your group uses. In my thinking, “Card Names” become replaced by mana costs for Mental Magic, so Kindle counts all cards in all graveyards, Cranial Extraction would remove all copies of whatever mana cost you pick, and Grandeur can be very potent, potentially. However, as it’s still based on getting these creatures into play and getting them to stay there, nevermind actually drawing another card with the same exact casting cost, I’m not too worried about this causing too much craziness.
Free Card Advantage
If only for the fact that Time Spiral block brought Flashback back, it would be noteworthy. Because both players’ decks are statistically evenly matched, and because the answer cards tend to be much more potent (and rewarding) than threats, Mental Magic tends toward longer, controlling games, in which card advantage is key. This is why Flashback is so powerful, as it provides you with a spell without depleting the limited resources of your hand. Casting Inspiration is a two-for-one; flashing back Deep Analysis is a two for zero. While many of the Odyssey block flashback cards erred on the side of caution when it came to costing, more niche effects tended to have a cheaper flashback cost. Many a Slay has been countered by Alter Reality.
Time Spiral block only provided a few Flashback cards compared to its original block, but the general quality is quite high. Easily the most important of these new cards—one of the best Mental Magic cards in years, in fact—is
the simple Think Twice. is already a useful cost due to the wide (and growing) array of counterspells it represents, but this one card more or less makes the first one cast a slow cantrip. Mana Leak that Necropotence anyway, keep lands untapped during their turn as you would like to anyway, and get a nice extra card for the efforts the first time their turn ends and you have up. It’s a low-risk play—even if they counter it, you have lost nothing from your hand, and they have one less card and less mana on their turn. If it resolves . . . free card right before you untap. Because it is so cheap, the Think Twice flashback will be something both players will race for.
While that was the most important new flashback card, there are still several others to be added to standard Mental Magic playlists. Mystical Teachings works about like a more expensive Think Twice (though Deep Analysis should obviously be used first). Momentary Blink’s numerous uses are well documented by now, though was already useful as Ray of Revelation (and, on occasion, Dragon Scales). Ancient Grudge is another fine effect for an already-fertile graveyard slot, though it’s not always worth it to lose the chance at a Volcanic Spray or Dragon’s Breath. Strangling Soot makes even more godly, while last-pick Traitor’s Clutch can be useful punching a critter through if you don’t have the hand advantage to get back Death of a Thousand Strings or Exile into Darkness. Thrill of the Hunt is likewise a very efficiently costed combat trick, and should always be kept in mind against burn spells and such. Conflagrate can be a great finisher, though depending on how your group treats Utopias, Firecat Blitz is still far stronger if it works.
A few other graveyard effects in the block are noteworthy. Nether Traitor, like its inspiration Nether Shadow, is nice as a relatively free body to make your opponent find an answer to. Sword of the Meek is weak, but if you happen to be casting a utility 1/1 of some sort Monk Realist, Mogg Fanatic, what-have-you), there isn’t anything else a 2-cost artifact will do for you. Nonbasic lands just became a lot more powerful with Dakmor Salvage, not only giving you another delicious dredge, but giving you another powerful nonbasic land drop. Speaking of Dredge, Narcomoeba is a juicy little tidbit to get into play for free—but I’m not yet sure if I would, because the Think Twice flashback is that strong. Putting the 1/1 flier into play is probably the right call, as your opponent will doubtless find some way to kill it and you will probably get to flash it back soon after—but they’ll sneak the Think Twice under you from time to time.
Also back and ready for action is Nemesis’ Madness mechanic. Discard spells were already risky, what with cards like Mangara’s Blessing and the brutal Dodecapod running about, but now a wide array of black cards can turn opposing discard spells against their casters—plus their more traditional use with your own discard outlets. Call to the Netherworld is a cheaper but very situational Obsessive Search. At , Big Game Hunter will deliver ridiculous (if rare) reversals, but Psychotic Episode is a far more dependable choice. Dark Withering, Gorgon Recluse and Grave Scrabbler are also worth remembering, particularly the Scrabbler as it replaces itself in your hand. I’m sure Muck Drubb has its uses, and I’m sure some very impressive plays can be made with it simply because the card is SO situational as to be difficult to remember. Reckless Wurm is just as much a beating as it’s arrogant cousin, while (technically not a Madness card) Quagnoth at least stays in your hand (though is hardly an exciting casting cost, and Quagnoth is so bloody hard to deal with it might actually be worth casting). Finally, there’s Ichor Slick, which I don’t even consider as a
madness card. Most of the time, it reads like this:
Gotta love kicker, eh?
Gotta love kicker, eh?
Ichor Slick Sorcery
Target creature gets -3/-3 until end of turn. If you paid the Kicker cost, draw a card and this retroactively gains Flash.
Okay, so their wording is more elegant. But hey, a card that retroactively changes itself fits right into the temporal shenanigans of Time Spiral, right?
And here’s the kicker. . . .
(First of all . . . that is honestly the only reasoning I can think of for the naming of the Kicker mechanic. I mean, really, ‘Kicker’? What does that mean? Anyway. . . .)
In Mental Magic, each card can be a wealth of possibilities, yet is still limited by what cards have been printed at its casting cost. As the game progresses, bigger effects start to hit the board, and it becomes harder to find answers to them. A glut of green cards can put you in a bad position against a creature assault; a glut of red cards doesn’t do much good if you need lifegain to survive. Kicker, and Buyback before it, have always been strong abilities in Mental Magic because they allow what seem like early-game casting costs to have useful late-game effects. Buyback gives you an effect at no cost in cards, while Kicker grants a greater effect to match the greater resources of the late game.
Both of these mechanics returned in Time Spiral block, but unfortunately in relatively small numbers. Only Wurmcalling and Sprout Swarm seem useful of the Buyback cards, and one has to be careful not to get too greedy with the former. Walk of Aeons depends on how your group treats Utopias (so many effects hinge off of basic lands, I advocate the ‘Utopias have all basic land types’ rule just to make them playable), but still seems risky and expensive even if you can buy it back. Evangelize can be quite powerful in a game where there are so few creatures played, but the buyback is so expensive and Miraculous Recovery is so much better at the cost I doubt it will get played much. Haze of Rage is more likely to be useful for its Storm as a finisher, at which point buyback is almost redundant. Kicker fared a little better, with a few lategame beaters at like Pouncing Wurm; however, got two very strong cards in Citanul Woodreaders—some nice card advantage for the late game and a blocker to boot—and
Ana Battlemage, with a brutal bleed of a blue kicker. Functioning in a similar “I have more mana than I know what to do with and need a bigger effect” way are several Morph cards, such as Thelonite Hermit and Shaper Parasite (and possibly Fathom Seer, again depending on your land rules).
Knowing ways to get the most out of a casting cost has another facet, however; more than knowing what cards at a given cost let you pay more for more effect, is knowing what cards at that cost have an unusual effect. Opponent manage to cheat out a hasted Krosan Beast that’s gonna kick your face, and the only card in your hand is 2R, and you’re at 2? Gone might not be the BEST answer, but you gotta work with what you have available. Bleeds tend to be overpriced and awkward, but knowing them could save your game. And Time Spiral block, Planar Chaos in particular, is full of off-color effects; however, many aren’t as useful as you’d think. After all, R&D was toying with the color pie, not ignoring it altogether. Harmonize is a nice gift to green, though sorcery-speed card draw is vulnerable. Sunlance and Erratic Mutation are both odd forms of removal worth remembering—Sunlance in particular is worth remembering, as Swords to Plowshares gets used quickly and Condemn doesn’t always work. Damnation is obviously useful, but Dash Hopes is worth remembering as a situational counter for the late late game. The main problem with the Planar Chaos bleeds is that they were mostly bleeding cards that shouldn’t be in their original colors into colors that can deal with them, or tricking colors into doing something that looks new, but really isn’t. After all, Wistful Thinking is just a filter card, Groundbreaker isn’t that different from Yavimaya Ants or Giant Solifuge, Venarian Glimmer is a proactive and less dependable Spell Blast, and wow, Seal of Cleansing in Green? Egads.
Mental Magic cards really are either proactive or reactive. Proactive cards almost always require you to give your opponent an opening to move against you; worse, reactive answers tend to be higher quality (or efficiency) to proactive threats. This holds true for bleeds as well, as the strongest bleeds are reactive cards. White gets the biggest boost, with situational counterspells Mana Tithe, Rebuff the Wicked, and Dawn Charm. Imp’s Mischief is a painful version of a potent effect, and Dash Hopes, as I mentioned above, can help seal a win. Also, though not bleeds per se, Street Wraith and Edge of Autumn’s mana-free cycling bear keeping in mind, if you really need to dig for answers and aren’t it. Simian Spirit Guide will see exactly as much play as it’s Elvish counterpart—mostly countering Daze and Disrupt, only being used for the tempo boost on rare occasion.
Finally, one casting cost just took on a totally new aspect: . Before, they were strong early game cards, Moxen or Black Lotus, but later in the game the tempo boost was negligible and the best you could hope for is a Mishra’s Bauble or simply a Utopia. However, now that Phyrexian Walker can counter spells, surprise block and then beat down, kill something scary,
find something huge and nasty, or totally ruin a huge fireball. In the long run, the Pacts are all highly mana-inefficient, and make you look really stupid if they cast Exhaustion or Mana Vapors on you right after, but the potential reward outweighs the risk for many of them at LEAST enough to warrant keeping one in your hand than simply making a land out of it.
Most hilarious way to lose
Most hilarious way to lose
Now for some more general stuff here—responses to various types of threats or problems. The easiest answers are, of course, counterspells, several of which I’ve already mentioned. Besides Rebuff the Wicked, Mana Tithe, and Dawn Charm, white also gets some potent situational counters in the rescue creatures (particularly Stonecloaker, as it removes a threat from their graveyard too), Plated Pegasus, and Seht’s Tiger, which promises to be very potent. Black’s Imp’s Mischief, Dash Hopes, and Muck Drubb are all . . . interesting. Reiterate can counter a counterspell, at no loss of cards if you can afford to buy it back. And of course, blue got some fine new additions to its arsenal. Nix and Delay are fine annoying situational counters, while Cancel further deepens the rich array of counterspells. Dismal Failure is a nice mirror of Dismiss—which is better really depends on what knowledge you have of their hand, and how likely they are to madness off the discard. Venser, Shaper Savant is quite versatile, but I prefer him countering my own spells than ‘bouncing’ theirs. Speaking of countering my own spells, Spellshift could be useful if they counter one of your instants or sorceries, as remains really shallow when it comes to quality counterspells. Logic Knot ain’t bad at all, while Spell Burst with buyback is great if you’re close to wearing down your opponent’s hand (though Power Sink is probably the better play if it’s their turn, tapping them out to leave you a wide opening). Finally, Draining Whelk is a scary, scary thing, though giving up an Opportunity for a creature that can still be Terrored depends on how much you can back it up.
If they manage to sneak something annoying into play, Time Spiral block naturally provides an intriguing new array of answers. For White, Sunlance I already mentioned, and Serra’s Boon can get the job done if you’re that desperate. Patrician’s Scorn is a neat, potentially free Tranquility effect, which white has surprisingly few of as yet. And the tasty Tivadar of Thorn follows in the tradition of Knight of Mists as a stylish answer to an over-specific threat. Blue gets some really strange situational cards (which are some of the best if you can remember them), such as Pongify, Ovinize, and Erratic Mutation, while Snapback bears remembering if only for being a pitch spell. Black, already doing well in this category, gets some important additions. Midnight Charm is a nice way to kill fragile creatures with a bonus, while (depending yet again on land rules) Tendrils of Damnation can be downright absurd. Grave Peril is an interesting sort of focused Hesitation, but probably not terribly good. Smallpox is exciting as a bigger Innocent Blood at a cost with surprisingly few reliable spot kill cards (Death Stroke needs the target to be tapped, and Vicious Hunger only hits small things). gets Sudden Death and Sudden Spoiling, both notable simply for uncounterability, which is huge. Death Rattle is a welcome addition to a woeful casting cost, with a useful
effect you can easily discount to as low as . And of course, there’s that little Damnation card, kinda like Barter in Blood but may have a few narrow applications the Barter doesn’t. Red gets a few nice cards at already-packed mana costs; Lightning Axe does have more reach than most removal spells for , but should only be used if the need is most dire (or you’re discarding Basking Rootwalla). Sudden Shock is pleasantly uncounterable, while Orcish Cannonade has become my burn spell of choice at . Ghostfire is an elegant answer to pro-red critters, Sulfurous Blast is a nice versatile sweeper, and the uncounterable Word of Seizing promises to ruin a few days. Then there’s several situational cards, like Sulfur Elemental, Stingscourger, Hammerheim Deadeye, and my personal favorite, Scattershot, which can double as a victory condition if you play things right. Conflagrate I already mentioned in the flashback section, and Molten Disaster is a superb uncounterable sweeper/win condition. Finally, even with the bleed madness of Planar Chaos, Green’s ability to hit creatures is basically the same as it ever was save for the dubious addition of Unyaro Bees. However, a couple potent new Naturalize effects (including the delightfully uncounterable Krosan Grip… see why answers are better than threats?) are useful, as there are still more Disenchant variants to chose from. Riftsweeper must have some uses, too, somewhere, I dunno… As for gold . . . if you’ve already played Vindicate, well you can play it again for twice the price with on a sliver body, while Harmonic Sliver is a fair, if unexciting use of a .
Once in a great while, a creature hits the board and actually manages to attack. Combat tricks stand as the third-line of defense against such threats (again, see how hard it is to actually get damage through?) Time Spiral block has contributed greatly to this area, due in large part to the new keyword, Flash. Every color now has several more creatures it can throw into combat unexpectedly, from Drudge Reavers and Crookclaw Transmuter to Havenwood Wurm and the almighty Teferi, Mage of Zhalifr. Besides that, Scout’s Warning can make any ol’ creature a surprise blocker, and Even the Odds is a nice situational Raise the Alarm variant. Stonewood Invocation is a hugely powerful way to save your creature from some damage, and usually smash face for an additional 5. Angel of Salvation is a nice combat trick, but nowhere near as scary as Bogardan Hellkite. Finally, if worst comes to worst and you find yourself low on life, there are a few new options— now has Jedit’s Dragoons, 1W gets a Fog effect with Dawn Charm, and Aven Riftwatcher makes me smile inexplicably. Also, if you’ve already used Pernicious Deed and Putrefy and still have a card (not TOO unlikely, as you can dredge it twice), Darkheart Sliver is a decent bear that can give you a nice life cushion.
Yes, finally, down to that piddly detail of mental magic that actually involves winning the game. Offensive spells that actually improve your side of the board or make them closer to dead. First and foremost, there are the card advantage spells.
What? Those count as threats? In a word, yes. In a three words, bloody hell yes. In a haiku,
Advantage in cards
Makes lead so devastating
Victory comes next.
Blue gets the best goods here, of course. Fathom Seer can be superb if your Utopias count as Islands, not only drawing you two cards, but giving you access to the cards you played as lands. Careful Consideration is actually a filter spell, but with a little setup (some madness cards or flashback cards you don’t mind losing) it can be a huge play at the end of the opponent’s turn. Foresee is interesting, probably too clunky as a sorcery but Scry can be nice or useless depending on the makeup of your deck. Finally, Aeon Chronicler is absolutely amazing. It does require you to tap a bunch of mana on your turn, which is a drag, but if you can have a little left over for defensive spells, or if you simply don’t think your opponent can kill you on his turn, this becomes a one-sided Howling Mine. More importantly, an uncounterable one-sided Howling Mine. Green gets some decent stuff as well, though annoyingly/characteristically sorcery speed. Harmonize and Citanul Woodreaders I already mentioned, the latter a fine late-game card (better than just plopping a Pyknite down to cycle at least), while Nantuko Shaman and Llanowar Empath work largely the same way (I’m not convinced the Empath is any better than Striped Bears. I look forward to trying out Heartwood Storyteller, as it will at least almost always replace itself if they try to kill it. It involves playing around, but we’ll see. Magus of the Library is fragile, but it’s also versatile and emulates the single most powerful card in Mental Magic (the first card my first playgroup banned). Plus, not like you’re doing much else with that . Pickings are slim in the other colors, with Pit Keeper (which is quite good) and possibly Haunting Hymn (which is really expensive, but what do you want for instant speed discard?) Then there’s some non-basic Lands, which are already joyfully powerful. Urza’s Factory generates the biggest tokens of any
token-makin’ land yet, which is always a fine way to spend the end of the opponent’s turn. Kher Keep makes the smallest, and that actually might be useful—after all, who is threatened by Kobolds? You could build up a little swarm before your opponent bothers to care. Llanowar Reborn and New Benalia are intriguing ideas for late-game land, when you need effects more than more mana, but there are already better answers (namely, the Onslaught cycling lands). Keldon Megaliths I love, but I’d never want to be in position where I could use them. Finally, Zoetic Cavern is hugely amusing, as your opponent will try to kill it fearing an Exalted Angel, at which point you can let it die or turn it into a land—basically, it’s a colorless discard spell that might do a little damage and might leave a land behind afterwards. Sounds fun.
Like standard Magic, games come down to damage (though decking can occasionally occur). Unlike real Magic, it generally isn’t a steady stream of damage that wins the game; more often, it’s occasional jabs when something like Mystic Snake remains in play a few turns, stabilization, then resource attrition until one player works and opening in his opponent’s resources (runs them out of cards or even simply gets them tapped out), and wins the game in one big turn. Sometimes, it involves a combo like Basalt Monolith and Power Artifact. Most of the time, however, it’s good ol’ critters.
Given that scenario, most creatures used in Mental Magic will either be relatively small ones played for some other effect (Tin-Street Hooligan, Benalish Knight; this style of card I discussed in the sections for their effects) or massive and efficient game-winners (Krosan Beast, Akroma, Angel of Wrath). Somewhere in between there is room for decently costed creatures to poke through from time to time, but to make the cut they have to have quite a bit going for them. For one, they should be very cheap, so that you can have enough mana left over to have some hope of keeping them in play, and so that whatever card is used to ‘answer’ it is of equal or greater cost. Second, they should be aggressively sized for their cost, to make the risked card worthwhile. Third, it should have some built-in resiliency, so it is harder for the opponent to ‘solve’ (including some leaves-play or sacrifice effect, meaning their solutions aren’t likely to give them additional advantage). Isamaru, Hound of Konda fits the first two rules well, and sees a lot of play. Troll Ascetic is quite a good play once you get to six mana, as you have enough left open for a counter or at least a regeneration use. Ravenous Baloth is a bit on the expensive side, but it hits hard and any answer short of Sudden Death only nets you life (in other words, Slay doesn’t draw a card, etc). Possibly the best creature of all for these criterion—if you have Threshold, at least—is Nimble Mongoose, which has Shroud and beats for 3, all for a mere . With this all in mind, let’s look at Time Spiral cards Mental Magic might enjoy.
gets two new beaters in the form of Serra Avenger and Knight of the Holy Nimbus. Serra Avenger works great turn four on, leaving you enough mana for interaction, beating in the air, and even being around to block if they happen to have any critters running about. And it’s cheap enough that you don’t feel too cheated when they kill it. Nimbus Knight is a tad less efficient and a tad more resilient, but dies horribly and hilariously to Knight of the Mists—so watch out for that. Tombstalker is black and big, so not as easy to kill as a French vanilla creature should be—but more importantly it can be Delved out quickly with extra cards from dredging. It will still most likely fall to a Swords to Plowshares or a Wallop, but if you can get it for a mere you’re still doing alright. Just be careful not to remove anything too useful, and be mindful of threshold, as there are many more efficient creatures to be had that way. I’ve liked Keldon Marauders since it first came out, as it delivers 5 damage split into doses small enough your opponent often doesn’t feel like trying to stop them. And even if they do fire some removal at it, you still get 2 damage out of the
deal and they’re down a card, so it’s all upside much of the time. Tarmogoyf is replacing Werebear in Legacy Threshold decks for good reason—this guy is nucking futz. With the rampant dredging that goes on in Mental Magic—including the for Tarmogoyf itself thanks to Life from the Loam, this can easily be a 4/5 or 5/6 turn four or so. Hedge Troll and Sedge Sliver, like Sedge Troll, depend on your Utopia rules, and are hugely efficient if you play them the same way I do. Calciderm, like its Fading forebear, is a real pain in the neck to deal with, basically eating several chump blockers or smashing their face a few times if they can't find an Edict effect.
Some threats are just efficient
enough to sneak into play.
Some threats are just efficient
enough to sneak into play.
Finally, it’s appropriate to end with finishers. These are the cards you actually use to win the game, when not using the ‘flail about wildly’ method of just getting a little damage out of every card you have available. One of the simplest routes to victory is ‘Big Creature’ + ‘Haste’ (Dragon’s Breath or Reckless Charge, most likely) + ‘Lots of Pump, usually including Berserk’ Already this plan is improved, as Fatal Frenzy is a more expensive (read: fair) version of the same thing. Might of Old Krosa can also give a massive boost if you know the creature is going to be unblocked—maybe because you used Spirit en-Dal on it. Creatures with built-in Haste make this even easier, and Groundbreaker and Mirri the Cursed both work well in this regard, as they both have some form of evasion. Fortify and Haze of Rage promote swarm strategies, while Storm Entity, Grapeshot, and Ignite Memories are all potential victory conditions in their own right. (My favorite recent victory used Grapeshot with a storm count of ten; the tenth spell was Equal Treatment.)
Well, there you have it. My characteristically lengthy, just-about-comprehensive review of the all the new cards from Time Spiral block for my favorite format. If you have any questions—or fancy a game over Workstation—send me a PM. Until next time, may your dredging be fruitful.