Tuesday 17 October 2017

"In Praise Of" Part 1: Fork, by Brother Jonas

Part One of an occasional series where we ask members of the London Old School community to reflect on their favourite cards.

"The best move you can ever play in chess is not the best move.  No, the best move you can ever play in chess is the move your opponent least wants you to play"

            - Stephen Fry, The Stars' Tennis Balls

Fork is one of my favourite cards in Old School and receives a fairly heavy amount of play.  There is even a deck archetype, the Fork Combo, built around it.  So this article doesn't seek to defend the card, because that is clearly unnecessary.  This said, I feel that sometimes its utility is misunderstood and underappreciated. 

The fundamental reason why this card is in my Top Five of all time is that, to me, it just screams Old School.  The flavour is bang on - it speaks to the fact that red is meant to be the unpredictable colour.  A red mage should never be counted out of the game until it's all over.  The modern game has taken this tendency to extremes with red being imbued with excessive variations on unpredictable card draw.  This is a step too far.  But part of the fun of playing red is that you never know what might happen next - in Old School, your Wheel or Earthquake or Ball Lightning could be just around the corner.  Fork will rarely dig you out of a hole on its own, but it will bring a true element of chaos to the table.

The other element that for me is crucial to Old School is that it is a relaxed format which celebrates novelty and serendipity rather than grinding out results.  Fork embodies this tendency in the same way that some of the other iconic cards of the format do - Chaos Orb, Timetwister, Shahrazad.  Fork is an anecdote-worthy card - whether it's making a black mage ditch his hand to his own Mind Twist, nullifying a Time Walk, or forcing a player of The Deck to Disenchant his own Tome.

And Fork is also a leveller.  If you don't own blue power, then just play Fork and copy it when your opponent plays theirs!  A red Ancestral (or, better, Braingeyser for 6) is always a welcome development for the pauper.

Some plum targets for your Fork (picture credit: Old School Mtg)

This leads on to a second point about the card, which is that an experienced player will have to play around Fork.  Some people look at red and believe that it is just a colour that can be played on autopilot, with an unreactive strategy.  While it's true that part of the appeal of heavy-red is its brutality when the draw goes your way, to apply this across the board is a real misconception.  When I am playing mono-red I tend to have to go 'into the tank' as much as when I play The Deck. 

For instance, when games go long and people tend to count red out, Fork gives you the licence to disrupt an opponent's alpha strike.  Experienced players know this and will try and finish you with what they have left on the board - which gives you a chance to get back in the game with a top-deck.  At the last big London meet I played a very memorable game against Oli's RG Zoo build, where he had the Fireball in hand to finish me off but couldn't unleash it in case my Fork drew the match.  As it turned out, I wasn't bluffing and the battle of minds made the game feel like a real mental clash.  You don't need blue to have that feeling.

When you are playing against other colours, Fork becomes like a judo throw - using the opponent's own weight against him.  See also the quote opening this article.  For instance, counter mages hate having their spells countered - as soon as you bring Fork and Red Elemental Blast into your deck you are going toe-to-toe with them on the big counter battles.  As such, a rounded red player has to understand what it's like to play using the other archetypes.  For a player with COP:Red down to have to hold their Disenchant against your Factory in case you turn it back on their Circle is a truly tricky position to put them in - whether you have the Fork in hand or not.

When it comes to turning a player against themselves, at worst you are drawing out their counters and clearing the way for a Bolt or Chain to the opponent's dome.  In other contexts, you can force your opponent to take unwarranted risks - or believe that they will have to - by leaving the two red mana open. 

Thus far I have focused on copying the opponent's plays - but Fork also gives the red mage many options with their own cards.  In particular, Fork provides one version of what I call "the ninth bolt" (after Bolt and Chain) - which is the dream of every red mage.  Old School has Mana Clash, Storm World, Blood Lust, and Black Vise - but no true ninth bolt.  Fork is perhaps the closest we will ever come to that mythical card.  And if you are playing with Fallen Empires (not that we tend to in the UK), Fork opens the door to possibly the most egregious damage-dealer of all (along with Berserk): Goblin Grenade.  The Fork in hand during a Grenade either wards off the devastating Counterspell (and being on the wrong end of a two-for-one) or, even better, it allows you to inflict 10 points.  This holes most opponents below the water-line.

Bolts 1-8

Fork doesn't always shine.  On occasion it is a dead draw, and in a high-tempo deck this is highly damaging.  As a burn player, starting the game with two (or more) in hand is a bit of a nightmare, because in the early game you don't want to be sitting back with the mana open.  So how many to put in your deck?  With a strong red mana base, two is a good number, and if you are playing burn then three is a solid quota.  I used to be tempted to play four, but Karl H in the UK scene convinced me - I believe correctly - that unless the whole deck is relying on Fork, this many is excessive. 

Purists will say that a deck should have a strategy of its own and every element should support that course of action.  To view the card through this lens, it is true that it is impure.  When you look at some deck pics, you can see how every single card supports a single strategy and there's no doubt that there is a beauty in decks that are constructed in that way.

But this fails to acknowledge the card's amazing versatility.  More than this, Old School at its best is a social format which elevates the fun aspect of the game, and memorable plays, to a similar status to victory.  Few cards can deliver quite so many anecdotes-per-play, and for this reason alone I will remain committed to my Forks.


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