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Attention to Detail #8 – Clear Your Mind
by Jordan Kronick
January 5, 2006

It’s the New Year. This is a good time to allow yourself to become a bit more relaxed. The holidays are over and everyone calm down a bit. Get out your yoga mat and find your favorite position. Light some incense (I wouldn’t recommend doing this near a smoke detector) and allow visions of perfect draws and mana flooded opponents come to your mind. This is a good time to fully explore your mental health.

But this is still a Magic column, so we’re going to talk about Mental Magic. It’s sort of like yoga, isn’t it? Maybe not, but it’s probably my favorite way to play Magic and I have a feeling that it will be something new to at least a few of my readers.

So let’s start with the basics – what is Mental Magic? Mental Magic is a format for playing with paper cards which doesn’t require separate decks or even one deck, really. The format is best played with a big stack of random commons from a variety of sets. How it works is this – each player may cast any card in their hand as any card with the same mana cost (which means that the colors matter, not just the sum total). So for instance, I could use my Dizzy Spell as an Ancestral Recall. Or a Force Spike. Or a Wandering Ones. There’s just one catch – each named card can only be used once. So the first player to draw a card that costs one blue mana is likely to very quickly use it as an Ancestral, before their opponents get a chance to do the same. In addition to being usable as any card with the same cost, you can play one of your cards face down each turn as a land. These lands can tap for one mana of any color and are generally not considered to have any land types though they are considered basic. This is to prevent any nonbasic or type-specific hoser cards from completely unbalancing the game. Mental Magic is all about the fun, after all.

Both players draw off the same deck, and it’s a good idea to use a rather large stack of cards for this. I’d say at least 200 and probably a bit more. Of course, you can always add more to the bottom of the deck if it seems to be getting a bit thin. Nobody’s going to win by decking with one deck, anyway. With a very large deck size, it can make searching cards a bit of a pain, but usually that’s not so much of a problem. Instead of looking for a specific card when you search, you’re probably looking for a specific casting cost. That can make searching a lot easier, especially if it’s a fairly common mana cost. Another neat thing about searching is that the card you’re searching for probably won’t be getting used for what it says. You could use a Worldly Tutor to find yourself a Wandering Ones – and then use that as an Ancestral Recall! Just remember that unless cards are on the stack or in play, they are what they say they are. So you can’t use Enlightened Tutor to search for a White Knight and say it’s a Crusade. It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. After a few turns you’ll start to get the idea.

So what good is this format? Why is it better than more normal formats? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s better because it trains your mind to look for the out. It helps you improve your (here’s the plug) Attention to Detail. Playing Mental Magic will teach you to think quickly about what the best possible solution is to any given situation. For instance – let’s say your opponent has just dropped a Rod of Ruin as a Juggernaut. The 5/3 menace is going to do some real damage to you, but you’re sure that you’ve got answers in hand. In your hand you’ve got a Grizzly Bear, a Dusk Imp and a Grey Ogre - three cards that normally wouldn’t pose much of a threat to a Juggernaut. But in Mental Magic, each of these cards provides a whole slew of answers for the big guy. You could use your Grizzly Bear as a Naturalize. You could use your Dusk Imp as a Dark Banishing. You could use your Grey Ogre as an Urza’s Rage. Each of these cards has essentially the same effect here. It will trade one for one with the Juggernaut. Now, anyone can play Mental Magic like this. Coming up with answers is very simple. The trick is to find ways that your answers can serve an addition purpose to get you ahead in the game. Because just as fast as you can answer your opponent’s threats, they can answer yours. So what would be the best card to use as a way to stop the Juggernaut? It’s a simple answer, but I would say Smash. Cantrips are incredibly important in Mental Magic. They are the simplest way for you to get card advantage, which is the most likely route to victory.

Another important thing is knowing which casting costs will serve you best on down the line. Suppose you’ve got a Drudge Skeletons and a Rootwalla in your hand. Your opponent just cast an Ertai, Wizard Adept and passed the turn. Ertai is a pretty nasty card and can seriously hamper any strategy if he isn’t removed quickly. So what do you use? You could easily just use the Drudge Skeletons as a Terror and be done with Ertai. But is there a better answer? Even if you can’t think of a good cantrip-type effect, it’s important to choose the best card to lose. The best choice here, in my mind, is to use the Rootwalla as an Unyaro Bee Sting. It’s a pretty terrible card, but it does allow you to kill Ertai and keep the Drudge Skeleton in your hand. With a casting cost like that, you could use it as a Demonic Tutor and find any casting cost you need. Looking for the strangest choice possible to answer a threat is part of the fun of Mental Magic. And sometimes it will let you save your better cards for later.

So let’s talk specific sets. There’s a lot of mechanics that have been released throughout the history of Magic which have strong impact on the world of Mental Magic. It’s also probably a good idea to list some of them off just so I can explain how the rules work in this very strange world. I’ll also take some time to list some of my favorite Mental weapons that came from old sets long gone.

Alpha-Beta-Unlimited

I have to start here. Most of the cards in ABU are pretty well known. Infamous things like Black Lotus and Time Walk and Ancestral Recall. But don’t forget that there’s other cool old cards from these sets that are perfectly legal in Mental Magic. I’m talking, of course, about Chaos Orb. You may have used a Chaos Confetti or a Goblin Skydiver or even a Falling Star, but unless you’ve really played with a Chaos Orb, you’re missing a large chunk of life experience. For those too young to remember, Chaos Orb costs 2 mana. That’s pretty darn cheap for a card that can potentially destroy anything. And don’t be afraid of practicing your flips.

Other than the Chaos Orb, the Power 9 is the most important thing going. Or rather, the Power 4. You see, the Moxes just aren’t very useful in Mental Magic. First of all, the chances of running into a 0-cost card in your pile are pretty slim. There are lands of course, but Moxes are pretty low on the list of cards you want to be dropping these for. Lotus is another issue entirely, of course. Managing to drop a lotus on turn one can give you the incredible swinginess of old Type 1. It’s a beautiful thing. Time Walk and Ancestral Recall are both used usually within the first two turns by one player or another. If at all possible, you want to be the person to use them. Don’t bother saving them for a rainy day. If your opponent draws a card that costs U, they’re probably going to use it right away. And then it’s too late for yours.

Arabian Nights

There’s a surprisingly small number of cards in Arabian Nights worth mimicking. Most of them are too narrow or strange to have any huge effect. There are a couple exceptions, of course. In any big pile of commons there are likely to be a few land. Things like the common guildlands from Ravnica or Cloudposts and Artifact Lands from Mirrodin. Normally, you would just throw these down as your land for the turn. But don’t forget that you can play them as other specific lands! And Arabian Nights has one of the best – Library of Alexandria. Newer players may never have seen the Library in action, but it is truly a thing of beauty. In a format where card advantage is king, the Library rules. Beware however, that land destruction is pretty easy to come by. Every Grey Ogre is a Stone Rain. Every Rootwalla is an Ice Storm. So try to get some use out of your Library early. Don’t just save the card drawing for a rainy day. Some of the other lands from Arabian Nights might save you as well. Desert is pretty worthless, but Island of Wak-Wak and Bazaar of Baghdad both can come in very handy.

Of course, besides the lands, there’s always Juzam.

Antiquities

Unsurprisingly, Antiquities has a lot of junk in it. Who really wants to use their artifacts as this stuff when it could be turning into Skullclamp, Jitte or Sword of Fire and Ice? There’s one very important card to mention here though. And that’s Mishra’s Workshop. Like the Arabian Nights lands, Workshop can be had pretty easily no matter your pile of commons. In most sets this won’t be much of a concern but in Mirrodin it matters. If you’re using a big pile of Mirrodin commons, then most of your cards will end up being Artifacts. Just don’t forget that sometimes you might actually want to use one of the pieces of junk from Antiquities. It all gets Shrapnel Blasted just the same.

Legends

Legends is a huge set. One of the most important things to remember about Legends is that is there were a lot redundant cards printed. It was seen as a standalone set, though not very well designed as such. However, this means that there’s a lot of little tools that you can use to expand your repertoire of spells. Let’s say Holy Day and Fog have both been used already in a game. You really need to stop a big alpha strike from your opponent. Well, then use Darkness. Your opponent will never expect you to stop their whole attack with a Blood Pet or Plague Beetle. I also want to make sure to mention one of my favorite Mental Magic cards – Avoid Fate. One of the most common casting costs that you’re likely to find a lot of is G. Whether it’s Giant Growth or Llanowar Elves or Wild Growth or whatever, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up flush with cards that cost a single green mana. Avoid Fate is one of the coolest ways to use these up. As it was originally printed, Avoid Fate countered any Enchantment or Interrupt that targets a permanent you control. Of course, these days it’s gotten some errata so that it actually makes sense. Now it counters an Aura or Instant that targets a permanent you control. That means you can stop a Control Magic or Lightning Bolt or Terror for only one green mana. They’ll never see this counterspell coming. And it’s a lot better than just playing a Scryb Sprite.

The Dark

Ah, my favorite set. It’s a bit low on the power curve after Legends. You won’t be finding any Mana Drains here - but there’s some important to remember cards. Maze of Ith, my old favorite, is just as useful these days. Late in the game when you’ve got plenty of land in play already and you draw more common lands off the deck, you’ll want options like this to use them up. The flavor of The Dark is that it explores a world where the limits of power are pushed – and the consequences for pushing. This translates into a lot of cards which have very odd casting costs. You won’t be finding many commons from other sets that will let you cast Niall Silvain, Blood of the Martyr or Psychic Allergy – but then, why would you want to?

Fallen Empires

There’s really only two cards to remember when Fallen Empires comes around. The first is Hymn to Tourach. Anyone who’s never been hit with a Hymn needs to experience it. It’s a little less devastating in a format where individual cards are less impotant, but still solid. The second card is Goblin Grenade. Coming up with a goblin to sacrifice is pretty much as easy as finding a red card. There’s goblins of every imaginable casting cost, and Grenade has just about the highest damage to cost ratio that you’re likely to find.

Ice Age Block

There’s surprisingly few cards from these sets which matter much. Necropotence has a pretty tricky casting cost that you’re none too likely to come across. Jester’s Cap is all but useless in the format. There’s an important card from the end of the block, however. Force of Will is just as powerful here as it is in any other format. If your opponent goes first, there is always a chance that they’ll use a Dark Ritual and a Black Lotus to throw out some huge monster of a creature or a big giant Mind Twist on turn one. Being able to pitch your Tidewater Minion to stop it seems like a solid trade.

Mirage Block

Again, a block without a lot of true standouts. One important thing to remember are the instant-speed enchantments in the set. If you really need to kill a 1-toughness creature, then you can use Grave Servitude. If you really need to save your creature, you can use Ward of Lights. And let’s not forget the ability to quickly save your creatures, too. Reality Ripple can save any of your creatures from destruction. Just make sure that you’ve already used up Time Walk or this is something of a waste. There’s more important cards towards the end of the block. Things like Abeyance and Empyrial Armor can be as huge here as they were in their element.

Tempest Block

Finally we get into the true era of modern power. Tempest gave us some real gems. Cursed Scroll is certainly the most remarkable of these. 1 casting cost artifacts are extremely common in just about every set that you’re likely to have commons from. It’s even worth using a 2U card as a Trinket Mage just to go find this incredible piece of hardware. Of course, finding something to use as a Skullclamp isn’t bad either.

Urza’s Block

I really don’t have to spend much time telling people how amazing the cards from Urza’s were. It’s pretty easy to find ways to get to use these old gems in Mental Magic. Yawgmoth’s Will can be absolutely devastating as usual, but you have to be a bit more creative with it. Sure, you can cast those cards out of the graveyard, but you need to come up with new cards for them to be! Other incredible cards are just as good. Memory Jar, Time Spiral and Morphling each dominate in their own way.

Masques Block

The two most hated cards of Masques Block are all but useless in Mental Magic. Rishadan Port becomes far less important when any card can be played as land and it’s impossible to be color-screwed. And Lin-Sivvi is all but useless unless there’s other rebels in your stack of commons. Oh well, at least Brainstorm was around.

Invasion Block

Invasion is probably the most tricky block to deal with. Unless you’re using Ravnica, most Invasion cards will be impossible to cast. But there’s more to the block than just multicolor stuff. Kicker is an extremely important mechanic in Mental Magic. Being able to use your smaller cards as much larger effects can matter in a format where there aren’t a lot of high casting cost cards to produce those huge effects. Being able to turn your Grizzly Bear into a Kavu Titan with Kicker can make a big difference.

Odyssey Block

Odyssey provided one of the most interesting things ever to hit Mental Magic – Flashback. The way Flashback works in Mental is this – you can cast any card in the communal graveyard as a Flashback spell as long as they have the same cost (and that Flashback spell hasn’t been cast yet in either its normal or Flashback form). There’s not a huge number of cards that can take great advantage of this, but there are some important ones. Firebolt and Deep Analysis both have very common casting costs and both produce important effects. It can be easy to forget that these options are open.

Another important thing in Odyssey is Threshold. Since the graveyard is shared, Threshold will likely be attained very quickly. This means that Werebears and Nimble Mongooses and Possessed creatures are all very important to the format. Beware though that there are a much larger number of ways to clear the graveyard than normal. Any old Disenchant can be a Morningtide when you want it the least.

Onslaught Block

Morph provides a very interesting split among the people who play Mental Magic. Here’s how I prefer to play it – you can play any card face down as a Morph creature, as long as it shares a casting cost with a real Morph creature. You can only turn it face up (Morphing it) if that creature has not been cast or turned face up yet this game. If a player is found to have cheated (let’s say by playing a face down creature using a Darksteel Colossus – there aren’t any Morph creatures that cost 11) then scold them a whole lot and maybe throw some cards at them.

Mirrodin Block

Mirrodin is probably the most interesting pool of cards to use to produce your deck for Mental Magic. The high number of artifacts makes people have to stretch their memories for older more powerful artifacts to use. And sometimes you end up using some pretty funky stuff when you run out of other options. It’s good fun. Probably the most important card to remember the existence of for Mental Magic from Mirrodin block is Rude Awakening. In a game where you can easily build up a large number of lands and produce lots of mana, this can be an absolute wrecking ball.

Kamigawa Block

Honestly, Kamigawa is pretty dull as far as Mental Magic goes. The casting costs are fairly ordinary. The only graveyard-affecting ability is Soulshift, which is of limited use unless your pool of cards happens to be Kamigawa. Still, remember the big important cards. Umezawa’s Jitte will show up in just about every Mental Magic game you play. It’s honestly more important to remember to have a way to stop it than it is to remember to cast it. Someone always remembers that part.

Ravnica

Ravnica presents the newest cool option for Mental Magic – with Hybrid Mana. Think about it. Boros Recruit could be used as either a Savannah Lion or a Lightning Bolt. Gaze of the Gorgon could be a Three-point Mind Twist or an Erhnam Djinn. There’s so many cool things you can do with Hybrid Mana! It’s only going to get more fun as more sets are released. I will love to try some Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Mental Magic. With so many Hybrid cards, it’s like doubling the size of your Mental Magic deck!

I have one last important strategy tip for anyone who’s lasted this far in the article – bounce is good. Any card that can bounce a card back to the hand is important. Since cards cannot be simply recasted as the same thing, bouncing can be a very effective way of removing threats. And there’s another more tricky option, too. Having a way to bounce your land means being able to save important casting costs for later. Let’s say you’re staring down a Force of Nature and you remember that one of your lands in play is actually a Drudge Skeleton. You could use a bounce effect to return that land to your hand and then cast a Terror! It’s sneaky and it’s underhanded. And those are just the skills you’ll need to get through a game of Mental Magic. Give it a try, I think you’ll like it.


 

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