I’m a big fan of alternative casting costs. Like planeswalkers, they generate additional decision points during game play, and that adds to the interactive quality of that play experience. It’s no surprise that I run Unmask as a four-of in the sideboard of my typical Dredge builds.
New Phyrexia brings us a new flavor of alt costs in the form of Phyrexian mana, giving us the option of arbitraging life in favor of paying colored mana.
With that comes a new flavor of fears, of course – bleeding the color pie and offering overpowered “discounted” options.
Although it seems entirely appropriate that New Phyrexia should be the bringer of new fears, as usual the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground between Phyrexian mana destroying the game and having no impact whatsoever. Today I’m going to take a look at just how much Phyrexian mana bleeds all over the color pie, and which of the Phyrexian cards are all stars, simple roleplayers, or traps for the unwary.
The perpetual fear of color bleed
The whole idea of the color pie and cards being “color appropriate” or not is something that we’re acutely aware of largely because designers like Mark Rosewater have let us know. You’d have an intuitive feel for it while playing the game, of course, but I don’t know if we’d have nearly as many arguments about cards breaking the color pie if we hadn’t had the opportunity to read about it.
But given the potential for paying something other than a colored cost for a colored card, it’s reasonable to ask just what this does to the color pie…and how much that matters.
Coloring our flavor, coloring our gameplay
We appreciate color distinctions for their impact on the storyline behind the game first of all. It’s a little weird when things appear in unexpected places across the colors – which is why some older cards can seem so tremendously out of place.
On the gameplay side, the restrictions imposed by the color pie give the game definition. It’s the reason that even in a fairly restricted environment like Block Constructed play, we have a handful of best decks instead of a single optimal build.
This explains why people get worked up over cards and mechanics that blur the borders of the color pie – they have the potential to negate entire archetypes. Essentially, they threaten to reduce our options.
And that would make the game pretty boring.
Artifacts already bleed
There are twenty-six cards in New Phyrexia with Phyrexian mana in their casting costs, along with another eight (all artifacts) that include Phyrexian mana in their activation costs. Of the twenty-six cards in the Phyrexian-costed set, twelve are artifacts.
Mark Rosewater had this to say about Phyrexian mana:
This is at its most literal when we take a look at the colored Phyrexian artifacts. I’ll check in with Magic R&D one more time and point you at this article by Aaron Forsythe about the kicker mechanic.
If that’s too much for you to read right now, it boils down to the idea that most mechanics can be templated as kicker.
With that in mind, take a look at Moltensteel Dragon:
Intuitively, this is a 4/4 flyer for 4RR with an alternate cost involving life. Seen instead through the lens of kickerifying the mechanic, it’s sort of an updated Su-Chi.
Essentially, it’s a 4/4 flyer for 4 colorless and 4 life, with “Kicker RR: If you paid the kicker cost, you don’t lose 4 life.”
This isn’t just an academic exercise in rewriting card text. Instead, it highlights that it would not be especially weird for there to be an artifact with a life loss drawback that you could pay off with mana. Or, to put it another way, it’s not so much that these Phyrexian cards bleed the color pie.
Instead, it’s that New Phyrexia has a bunch of artifacts that happen to have a color every so often, and that work a little better with that color than with the others. One of the nifty consequences of this is that while New Phyrexia seems to have significantly fewer artifacts at a glance, in fact, the percentages break down like this:
Scars of Mirrodin – 39% artifacts
Mirrodin Besieged – 32% artifacts
New Phyrexia – 29%
Back on point, this means that fundamentally, the color pie is about as intact circa New Phyrexia as it was before the set appeared.
At least, you know, for permanents.
Enforcers of the color pie
One other thing to keep in mind as you consider plugging Phyrexian-costed cards into off-color decks is that mana costs are not the only restrictions that keep us from playing every card in every deck.
Sure, you’d love to have access to a powerful, instant-speed removal spell at any time instead of having to wait for the creature to attack. That would be tremendously helpful…but is it 4 life helpful? Is it 4 life helpful when you’re likely to have to lean heavily on all of your removal to live through the Mono-Red Aggro matchup and that alternate cost on Dismember is a good 20% of your life total?
Most of the time, the answer may well be “no,” and thus the color pie is enforced even when you can cast the spell for its color-free cost. Similarly, paying 2 life for Mental Misstep is likely to be worth it much of the time in Legacy, but that play will be at its most effective in a deck that has other countermagic to dramatically enhance the overall power of countering someone else’s one-mana options.
Sure, a Legacy Zoo deck can easily afford 2 life to fire off a Misstep under most circumstances…but what that 2 life payment buys your Zoo deck is probably way less than you’d get by loading in another four burn spells, some copies of Path to Exile, or other cards that more directly address the deck’s needs.
To fully bring this somewhat theoretical discussion back to actually building and tweaking decks, consider that can do it and should do it are two very different things. Any deck can run an off-color Phyrexian-costed card, but in general these cards will still be much more effective when played on-color.
Stars , traps, and everything in between
Even with those warnings in mind, there’s still a lot of promise in the family of Phyrexian cards. Although most of the twenty-six will see play in Limited or nowhere at all, a handful seem like good bets to be legitimate star players in upcoming Constructed formats, a few more will be solid choices, and some look awfully good, but are likely to be awful.
Let’s take some candidates in that order.
The star players
You’re going to see so much ongoing discussion about this sucker in Legacy that you don’t really need me to add a lot more. As formats become faster, more powerful, and deeper in terms of access to card options, converted mana costs tend to flatten down into the 0-3 range. As others have already pointed out, everything from Brainstorm through Wild Nacatl falls into Mental Misstep’s domain.
In fact, there’s probably a lot more power and utility living at the one-mana mark than at Spell Snare’s two-mana perch, giving this mini Force of Will (Force of Inclination, perhaps?) some real legs in Legacy and Vintage.
In other formats…probably not so much, honestly. But being so Eternal playable is plenty good already.
My first pass on Metamorph was “Oh, a potentially colorless-costing Clone. Neat.”
Then I actually read the card.
“…as a copy of any artifact or creature on the battlefield.”
And suddenly, I’m impressed.
I know that over in Eternal formats, the dream is to copy whatever horrid monstrosity your opponent just Tinkered our or Reanimated, but back in the land of Standard, the idea that you can pack something – a Shaman-tutorable something, no less – that can mirror out everything from Swords to Titans is exciting.
Thanks to David Kotsonis and Geoff Matteson for confirming that the Metamorph does, indeed, become a full copy of the thing in question (so no, it’s not a 0/0 Sword that dies on the spot).
Note that while this would be a “neat” card if it were costed as Clone, the fact that you can drop it for the same price as a Sword goes a long way toward making it a legitimate choice for cutting away at your opponent’s edge, whether that edge is based on equipment or a big beater.
If mono-black Infect – or really, any non-blue Infect – becomes an otherwise reasonable choice in post-Phyrexia Standard, this card will play a part. At the three-mana mark, this is basically another Divination, with the add-on of proliferate for the price of 2 life.
Three mana, 2 life, draw two cards, take them a step closer to death, ramp up any planeswalkers you may have out, add some -1/-1 counters to your opponent’s creatures.
Seems good, right?
In black, Dismember is a house, killing a wide swath of creatures – although, as is often the case these days, it falls just below the “killing a Titan” bar. I don’t think I’d want to play this in a deck that featured no black mana at all, as having to make the full life buy-in for a Snuff Out effect is pretty harsh. However, Dismember is a perfect option for a deck that merely splashes some black, since it will sometimes be castable as a 1BB, but will never, ever get stuck in your hand – and you can still tailor your overall mana base to favor other colors.
Of the color pie deviations, Act of Aggression strikes me as the most profound in terms of its impact on Standard going forward.
Earlier, I talked about how the other constraints of archetype tend to help enforce the color pie. After all, having the option of paying 4 life for Dismember is fine, but being forced to always pay 4 is not, and that’s why we likely won’t see a lot of Dismembering going on in Caw-Blade decks.
On the other hand, there are a lot of non-red aggro decks that would be happy to drop 4 life in exchange for stealing your Titan and beating you to death with it.
I could easily see Act dropping into the sideboard in all manner of black, black-green, green, green-white, and white aggro decks. If I could pack a quartet of Acts in my current G/W Vengevine deck, I think I almost certainly would. Act of Aggression is almost perfectly positioned to be the ultimate cross-color all-star, as our current use case for Act almost always revolves around killing your opponent with their own creature before they either (1) combo kill you with Valakut or (2) stabilize and draw out of reach.
Neither option cares whether you’re +/- 4 life at the time.
The corollary to this versatility is that as long as Act is in the format, you’re going to have to think very hard about whether you can afford to tap out to play a fatty against literally any aggro deck.
“Act, take your Titan, kill you.”
I admit to being unsure about this one. A bizarre sort of crossbreed of a fixed Survival of the Fittest with the Rebel mechanic from Masques block, Birthing Pod is the kind of card that seems as if it will be broken in some way. This is especially likely if it can be ported into a deck that can afford to churn away some life, since this changes this from turn four, cast, turn five, activate to casting and activating on turn four (or just moving up to casting on turn three, of course).
I’m not sure what the final use of this card will be, but there are lots of options waiting to be explored.
Steady on, lads
Away from the heights of potential Phyrexian stardom, we have a set of solid contenders living in the middle ground of “likely to be good from time to time.”
Hey, didn’t I just tell you how terrible this card is?
Well, no, actually. I did suggest that most of the time it does nothing, and that it would be useful only under certain circumstances. But as a circumstantial card, it has potential. If a Vengevine deck, for example, becomes the hotness at some point, you may want something like a Surgical Extraction to cheaply and quickly disrupt that deck’s engine. Perhaps, as some readers have suggested, Innistrad will bring with it a plethora of graveyard effects and suddenly Extraction will become a vital player in Standard.
It is, in other words, a total roleplayer. For now, I’m not going to run any. But it’s also a card that at least as the potential to be useful, and being able to play it even while you’re tapped out could be a boon.
I already talked about this critter, and I can totally see it getting some air time in the right context. A 4/4 flyer for 4 mana and 4 life is plenty fine when your opponent is trying to control the air with a bunch of 1/1 dorks carrying +2/+2 Swords – especially when you can also trade in an extra 2 life to go to 5/4 and kill a one-turn-old Jace. Even in a deck that actually generates red mana, the Dragon’s Phyrexian roots give you the option to trade in some life (that you didn’t need anyway) to rush out an earlier, faster attacker.
Lashwrithe is another card that, like the Dragon, is most likely to see on-color play. However, like the dragon it also gives you the option of trading in some life in exchange for ramping up your aggression.
Although it’s our inclination to think of Phyrexian mana as a way of allowing color pie bleed, Moltensteel Dragon and Lashwrithe pretty decisively point toward an alternate, very aggressive value in Phyrexian mana. After all, if you’re the beatdown, why wouldn’t you pay some life to give your opponent a bonus punch in the face?
The true value of Hex Parasite seems likely to settle somewhere in between the positive hype and complete dismissal. On the plus side, the Parasite can be tutored up via Trinket Mage, and unlike Vampire Hexmage, can off a planeswalker without killing itself.
However, it’s eminently bounceable by Jace. More importantly, you’re going to end up pitching in a total of at least six mana to kill a turn-old Jace, even if you choose to donate 2 life to the cause. Most importantly, you need a highly improbable eight mana to kill a turn-old Gideon, which is just terrible.
The Parasite will probably see play, but it’s a modest planeswalker solution at best. Mostly, it will serve to push your opponent’s lines of play in certain directions – such as always leading with a Jace fateseal, for example. Will that be good enough?
Traps all over again
The excitement of alternate costs and “free” spells is almost certainly going to induce us to overvalue some of the Phyrexian options. You’d certainly be perfectly reasonable to believe that I was overvaluing some of them in my assessment already. However, I think three of our new Phyrexian options represent specific traps, being seemingly solid for Constructed play while actually having little to no reasonable application.
In addition to sounding like a Chicago bar, Norn’s Annex is likely to snare your eye with the twin promises of reduced cost and “Creatures can’t attack,” especially since that second property of the Annex covers not just you, but your planeswalker pals as well.
How cool is that?
Of course, there are problems.
First, this is one of those cases where the alternate costing runs counter to the rest of the card’s intent. Who plays a “can’t attack me” card?
Right, someone who needs to preserve their life total.
How bad is it to pay life up front for that effect?
Well, not so bad if the effect actually shuts down the attackers. You might want to spend 4 life for a Moat, for example.
However, the rest of the card plugs into the color pie in a way that renders it nearly worthless.
Will that Mono-Red player burn 2 life per creature to beat you and Jace to death? Of course they will. And Boros…Boros can just pay white, unless they’re too busy casting burn spells into your face and would prefer to just spend some of that life that you’re not threatening in any way.
The Annex is tempting, but it’s a mess.
Love the art. Love the callback to Wing Shards in the name.
And it’s exciting to think about sweeping your opponent while you’re tapped out and they don’t expect anything.
But when are you going to be attacked by a horde of X/1s? Even current 1/1 abuser of note Caw-Blade only has four of the suckers, one of which is usually swinging a +2/+2 blade in its treacherous little talons at any given time.
The “attacking creature” restriction means that Marrow Shards can ‘t even run the Zealous Persecution game, making your horde of creatures better than their horde of creatures and busting the Elves mirror wide open.
The intrinsic value of cards like this that basically only cycle most of the time is a whole topic on its own. The super-short version is that the upside involves compressing your deck, building storm count, and some other corner cases like dropping a Street Wraith in your graveyard to be mass-reanimated later. The downside involves being forced to waste tempo (pay U) or life (pay 2 life) to actually cycle the card and being stuck with opening hands that give you significantly less information to work with when deciding mulligans.
Like Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain, Gitaxian Probe can tempt us into keeping shaky hands. Unlike those cards, however, the Probe gives you no filtering power at all, and as a consequence has minimal “reach” into your deck. Even a shaky hand kept with a Preordain at least has the option of taking one of your top two cards or making a blind draw of the card they’re hiding. In contrast, a shaky Probe hand essentially says, “I believe I am Lola, and if I scream real hard, things will go my way.
In summary, we are neither scared nor ecstatic
I’m happy to tally Phyrexian mana as yet another in a long line of mechanics that will fail to destroy Magic, but will instead give us an interesting range of options to explore across Constructed formats for the foreseeable future. Although most of them won’t make the cut, and some of them are legitimately dangerous choices, I’m really excited to see whether my predicted star players will make the cut, and what they’ll do to the decks we build and how we play.
What about you? Which Phyrexian-fueled cards do you expect to see proliferating as New Phyrexia spreads?
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