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Attention to Detail #11 – A Personal Favorite
by Jordan Kronick
February 3, 2006

This week, over at the official Magic site, voting began for the 10th annual Magic Invitational. For those of you who aren't familiar with the institution, I highly recommend that you check out the assorted linked articles that you'll find in the announcement. Here's a short synopsis though;

The Magic Invitational brings 16 of the best professional players from around the world together to compete in 15 rounds of Magic using five different formats. It's a free trip for the players and a great chance to play cards and have fun. What's the prize for this most elite of tournaments? Why, your own card of course. Unless you've been living under a rock or are simply very new to the game, you probably know about the past invitational winners' cards. Here they are in chronological order of printing.

Avalanche Riders (Darwin Kastle)
Rootwater Thief (Mike Long)
Meddling Mage (Chris Pikula)
Shadowmage Infiltrator (John Finkel)
Sylvan Safekeeper (Olle Rade)
Voidmage Prodigy (Kai Budde)
Solemn Simulacrum (Jens Thoren)
Dark Confidant (Bob Maher, Jr.)
“Unluckyman's Paradise” (Terry Soh) (this one will be coming in Dissension, this May)

Most of the cards in that list have seen significant tournament play. Some didn't quite hit the mark. And with the exception of Soh's card, each of them is a creature. I guess when you get to have a card with your likeness, it's easiest to imagine yourself as a creature than anything else. Although it should be pointed out that Mike Long is pictured as the victim of the Rootwater Thief, rather than the creature itself. Perhaps this was an omen of some sort. That's another column in itself.

So the first thing that everyone says when they hear about the invitational prize for the first time is “you know what I would make if I won?” It's perfectly natural. Every Magic player would love the chance to design their own card. And while I'd love to explore lots of people's choices for Invitational prizes, I'm not going to do that. This is my column and I'm going to use this space to talk about the card I would make. And once you read it, I'm going to have to defend it by showing you my favorite deck of all time. Without further ado – the Chainbreaker.

Chainbreaker – B
Enchantment
Whenever an opponent would discard a card due to an effect you control, that player draws a card.

What is that you're saying? That's the worst card you've ever seen? All it does is completely negate one of black's most longstanding and efficient methods of winning? Well, sure. But it does one more thing than that – as the name implies, it breaks something wide open. In this case, that something is my favorite card – Chains of Mephistopheles. I'm sure all of the younger players out there didn't even know that Chains existed. Heck, even someone who's been playing Magic for a decade might not know about this obscure card. Here's the Oracle text. You can pretty much disregard most of the printed text on the card, as it's received more errata than you could shake a chain at.

Chains of Mephistopheles – 1B
Enchantment
If a player would draw a card except the first one he or she draws in a draw step, that player discards a card instead. If the player discards a card, he or she draws a card. If the player doesn’t discard a card, he or she puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

Maybe that didn't clear things up. Some cards are pretty hard to understand unless you see them functioning. Chains of Mephistopheles basically alters the game so that anyone who draws more than the usual one card a turn is going to have to discard a card in order to get access to another one. Originally envisioned (I would assume) as a way of stopping the powerful card drawing effects of the day like Ancestral Recall, Timetwister and Wheel of Fortune, Chains eventually became adopted as more than just sideboard material. The trick to the card is that if you have two in play, the effect is cummulative. So, for ever card beyond the first one that your opponent wants to draw, they'll have to discard two cards. And if they can't? Well, then they don't get to draw that card. At this point, it's still just a way of punishing card draw that your opponent might use. The key comes in forcing your opponent to draw. Originally, I used Howling Mine to accomplish this. This was back right around the time after Legends came out. There wasn't much to choose from when it came to forcing your opponent to draw cards. That used to be considered a bad thing! Imagine that. With a Howling Mine in play, your opponent's turn looks something like this:

Draw a card.
Discard 2 cards.
Draw a card, if two cards were discarded. Otherwise, just mill the card off the top.

I think you can see where this is going. If your opponent doesn't have any cards in their hand at the beginning of the turn, they're going to end up losing both of the cards they could potentially have drawn that turn. Now there's three flaws with this plan that prevented Chains from being truly competitive.

First of all, the opponent gets a chance to cast the first card drawn in response to the trigger of the Howling Mine. So if the first card off the top of the deck in a turn is a Disenchant, you could be in big trouble.

Secondly, the combo affects you as well. So if you're going to put it into play, you don't want to have zero cards in your hand or you'll be locked out of your deck as well (except for Instants off the top, of course).

Thirdly, this combo requires three cards – two of which are duplicates. It's hard enough to assemble a combo like that these days. Back before Enlightened Tutor, Vampiric Tutor or any of those, it was absolutely ridiculous.

So, Chains remained my pet deck for a couple years. I would bring it out to play against weird creations of my friends, but I never had competitive luck with it. It was far too fragile and complex to stand up to the quick weenie decks and powerful Armageddon decks and burgeoning Control decks of the day. And then, like a beacon of light, a new set fell into our laps. That set was called Mirage. You may have heard of it? Well, Mirage gave the deck two incredible weapons. The first of these was the above-mentioned Enlightened Tutor. Chains was always a black/white deck. It used the black for the combo and also for the incredibly powerful discard effects of the day (like Mind Twist and Hymn to Tourach), and white for the amazingly good removal provided by the trio of Swords to Plowshares, Wrath of God and Balance. Balance was often the last card to be cast in a game, as the use of it would simultaneously set up the combo by removing all of my opponent's cards and kill all of their creatures. Oh, and of course it wiped out all of their land too, assuming I had a Zuran Orb. It's pretty hard to imagine a way out of that situation even using today's cards.

The second important piece of the deck that fell into place with Mirage was Anvil of Bogardan. The Anvil quickly became a popular card, but probably for the wrong reason. Here it as as it was originall printed:

Anvil of Bogardan – 2
Artifact
Each player skips his or her discard phase.
During each player's draw phase, that player draws and additional card, then discards a card.

How did a weird little card like this become incredibly popular? Not because of the card draw, that's for sure. You see, there used to be a little card called Necropotence. You may have heard about it dominating every single tournament format for years. Anyway, Necropotence was printed to say that you only got the cards from it – you guessed it – at the beginning of your discard phase. So with an Anvil in play, the Necro player couldn't get any more cards. And let me tell you – it was no easy thing back then (or now) for a solid black deck to get rid of an artifact. Nevinyrral's Disk was their only way out, and that was slow and vulnerable to removal. Anvil allowed a lot of decks to survive when they really shouldn't have. And mine was one of them.

Let's take another look at the lock, this time with Anvil. Suppose you've got a Chains and an Anvil in play. Your opponent's draw step now looks like this:

Draw a card.
Discard a card.
Draw a card.
Discard a card.

So now we've cut what was a pretty complex combo down to two cards, without losing much efficiency. The flaw here is that it still allows for instants to be cast. However, that's just one of the little problems that would have to be solved through luck or wild new ideas.

You may be looking at the above combo and marvelling at it's simplicity and – dare I say it – elegance. Or you might be looking at it and saying “how the heck did you kill them”? Well, you've got a point there. One thing that the Chains combo doesn't do is finish the job. It can set the opponent up for a very long wait as they hope to dig for a Disenchant at the right moment, hopefully to eventually kill them by decking them. Or you can be proactive about it. All thanks to one of the most vicious cards ever to come out of the Brothers War – The Rack. This one has been a friend to black players for ages. It has been replicated many times, but none have ever been as successful as the original one-mana Rack. With one of these in play, you can finish your opponent off in seven turns with the Chains lock in play. With two in play? Well, it's much faster. And let's not forget that part of the Chains deck is discard. So it's entirely concievable that you could rip your opponent's hand apart with Hymns and finish them with The Rack before you even lock them down. In a situation like that, getting a Chains into play even without an Anvil means that its very hard for them to recover their hand to a level where they stop taking Rack damage.

So I hear you asking another question - how tall is Brannon Braga? No, that wasn't your question? Maybe you were wondering something else - what does all this have to do with the invitational cards? What about Chainbreaker? Well, you could probably have figured this out for yourself, but I'll lay it down for you. Chainbreaker negates the need for The Rack. It negates the need for Anvil of Bogardan. It negates the need for White. In fact, it negates the need for any turn after the first if you do things right.

Here's the perfect turn in a world where Chainbreaker exists:

Island
Black Lotus
Sacrifice Lotus for three Black mana, cast Chains of Mephistopheles and Chainbreaker.
Cast Ancestral Recall targetting your opponent.

They are forced to discard three cards due to the chains. Then they draw the three. But the discarding forces them to draw three more. In order to get those three, they discard three. Then they draw three. Then they discard three. Then they draw three. Eventually, they run out of cards in their deck and lose. All on the first turn.

I'm hard pressed to find a single card besides Chains which takes advantage of Chainbreaker. It would doubtlessly be the least popular Invitational card of all time, and would simultaneously drive the price of Chains of Mephistopheles through the roof. It would turn my favorite card ever into a real tournament competitor. That's the kind of legacy I'd like to leave the world of Magic.

So there's really only one more thing to give you, this week. And that's a deck list for my favorite deck of all time. Unfortunately, there isn't one. You see, I haven't played a Chains deck in more than two years. I sold all of my powerful Type 1 (that's Vintage to some of you) cards years ago to pay the rent. These days, the most expensive thing I own is a Watery Grave – not my beaten up old Black Lotus. This being the case, I haven't had to come up with a list to adapt Chains to the new cards which have come out or the new decks that have come to dominate the world of Type 1. So, while I don't have a deck list, I'm going to run down some of the most important cards in the deck. While it might be tough to get this stuff together to build your own copy of the deck, I hope it will give you a bit of insight into the world of combo decks – and into the way my mind works.

Library of Alexandria was always an inclusion in Chains. In a way, this was ridiculous. It doesn't combo at all with Chains. However, the potential to get a few cards out of it before the combo hits was always too good to ignore.

Karakas and Urborg. I always replaced one Swamp and one Plains with these two lands from Legends. Urborg is pretty much useless. Karakas actually has a few uses, as you never know when a big ugly legend is going to show up. The real use was to dodge hosers for swamps and plains. Most type 1 decks would eschew something as old school as color hosers, these day. However, back in the mid-90s, the chance of running into a Karma was always a possibility. Or a Flashfires.

Demonic Consultation – I wasn't kidding when I said that times were tight in the world of tutoring back then. Before Mirage, this was one of the most important cards you could have. Of course, it's incredibly powerful. However it could also kill you. I can't remember how many times I used it naming 'Balance' in an attempt to win the game, only to have Balance flip right off the top of the deck – followed quickly after by all the other cards. Sometimes the chance for greatness is just too good to pass up.

Black Vise – some people who weren't around for the early days of Magic may not understand why a card like this was warranted in a discard-based deck. You see, back in the day, Black Vise was in every deck. Unless your deck intended to not only cause discard but also to win by a means other than damage (all in all a pretty rare combination), Black Vise was pretty much an automatic inclusion. Never has a card rewarded playing first more than this one. I've played many games where my combo never materialized, and it didn't matter. Black Vise finished the job that it started at the beginning of the game.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the Orzhov. The slow bleeding strategy that the guild uses reminded me of Chains of Mephistopheles. Although there may not be a vicious lock in Guildpact or any hope of Chainbreaker for the future, I hope you enjoyed a walkthrough on one of my personal favorites.

 

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