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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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 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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