Friday, 8 December 2017

“In Praise Of” Part 2: Spell Blast, by Brother Stebbo

Part Two of an occasional series where members of the London Old School community reflect on their favourite cards.

“Thither he will come to know his destiny.
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.”

- William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 3, Scene 5)

Probably my favourite aspect of Magic is its counterspells. They are inherently strategic, and automatically enrich the game, providing great depth. When they are going against you, they can feel truly vindictive. When you successfully cast a spell against a blue player, it almost seems like an elaborate ruse where you don’t quite understand how the pieces came to be where they are and how your spell resolved.

As a blue mage, there are those wonderful looks of disappointment, frustration or resigned inevitably on the face of your opponent, as their favourite spell, or a match-saving play, is countered. Then there's the endless poker-game or mental battle within the game of Magic itself - where your opponent is constantly trying to figure out if you have a counterspell, especially when you have two blue open.

When you think of unconditional counterspells, one naturally is drawn to the eponymous card from Magic's first set, complete with that classic camp 80s high-fantasy art by Mark Poole. Then there is its bigger, restricted, brother Mana Drain with its sinister, mysterious otherworldly art by Mark Tedin. 

The Famous Five.

Bold, situationally courageous mages will then turn their minds to the 'Blasts' of Red and Blue, often in the context of a sideboard strategy, or perhaps an Avoid Fate. Beyond that, invariably a mage running counterspells beyond the Famous Five will soften their resolve and turn to the conditional Power Sink generally looking to punish an opponent tapping out to make either an early play on curve or a devastating late-game play, or instead seeking a narrower line where they need their opponent to tap out.

A mage who has softened their resolve, turning to conditional countermagic!

There is however another option that I feel blue mages all too easily neglect: Spell Blast. 

Here Comes the Sun.

Spell Blast is a wonderful card, which relies on a mage having a deeper understanding of the meta and their opponent's capabilities. To the naïve, it may appear too narrow or too inefficient. However in the right hands it can prove a permission weapon of surgical precision.

One of the best uses of Spell Blast is also perhaps its most obvious: from turn one it is a one-mana counterspell against enemy Moxen or a Black Lotus. Whilst it may seem that this is 'small game' for a counterspell, stopping an early mana rock can be devastating; preventing an early, back-breaking play, potentially turning off a supporting colour or, in the case of ‘Blasting’ a Mox Sapphire, preventing an opponent having double blue open early. Fortune therefore may well favour the mage with the gumption to deploy their bonus countermagic early doors.

At two mana the Famous Five are more efficient unconditional counters, however options will come where you can give an opponent’s three or four drop a good Blasting, thereby enabling you to save your more efficient counters for a later battle.

The mid to late game, however, is where Spell Blast truly shines. Often by this juncture decks are playing off the top and not able to string two significant spells together. Often rival blue mages may not be able to protect their threats with counterspell back-up. Here, providing a blue mage has built their mana base correctly and has been playing a land each turn, they can expect to be, at least, on parity with their opponent for mana come turn six or later. Accordingly Spell Blast can be used as a hard counter to virtually any threat an opponent plays, with the blue mage having ample mana to pay the cost of “Opponent’s Spell’s CMC + 1”.

Most threats in Old School cost four mana or less, save for Serra Angel, the Hive and a suite of typically 'one-of' six drops such as Shivan Dragon, Mahamoti Djinn and Triskelion. This means Spell Blast can play a fine supporting role to the Famous Five as a flexible tool capable of unerring accuracy.

And don’t forget, Blasting a key spell doesn’t have to just look great on the battlefield. You can look and feel great as well by raising those arms aloft, back-muscles glistening in the Dominarian sun, and emulating this fine card in person as it resolves! Just make sure you’re on good terms with your opponent first…

Because of course, like all Old School cards, Spell Blast has amazing art. Brian Snoddy has done an amazing job in taking a relatively simple concept, and creating ambiguity and intrigue through the perspective and colours involved in this abstract piece. Why are we standing behind the mage? Why is their back so ripped? Do they have a tail? Are they naked? Are they the Blastor or the Blastee? So many questions…

To my mind, I’ve always seen the art as depicting a mage’s spell being incinerated by a searing volley of raw energy. It’s a cross between someone getting a very dodgy tan at some cheap Tolarian salon and someone achieving momentary enlightenment, only to realise that the key message from the presentation is that their spell is getting a Blasting as they stared at the sun too long.

This irreverent look at the countermagic of Old School has touched on an established hierarchy, and one that is not going to change under the current rules. But I’d urge you to give Spell Blast a go next time you’re looking to fill that 60th slot. It’s a fun card which will make you think differently about both how to deploy your countermagic, and how to deploy your spells when playing against a mage with one blue (or more) open.

Because despite burning brighter than the sun, somehow they never see it coming.

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