September 26, 2012
By Imshan AKA Sinis
While reading about Commander decks on the internet, it’s easy to become lost in the sea of optimal card choices, or the phenomenon of ‘pimping’ decks with foils, altered art, or signed cards. While devotion to a diversion is not something I discourage, many players find the excesses in EDH particularly troublesome, especially when their regular playgroup will occasionally win out with sheer card quality. The fact that Commander significantly overlaps with Legacy and Vintage makes many of the cards we’d like to include in our decks extremely expensive.
In particular, powerful cards associated with Legacy like revised dual lands, Sensei’s Divining Top, Force of Will, and Vindicate all carry a heavy sticker price. Even strictly casual cards, like Death Baron and Lord of the Undead have inflated values. If Magic is just a goofy hobby to you, spending hundreds of dollars building or improving a deck might leave a bad taste in your mouth, even when you want to stay competitive with your local group or the folks at your local game store. The good news is, there are often alternatives to powerful cards that are only slightly inferior to their exorbitantly expensive counterparts. This week, we’ll take a look at expensive blue cards, and what they can be replaced with.
Force of Will
The first card I want to address is Force of Will. It has no restrictions on what it can counter, has a very manageable alternate casting cost, and, at the time of this writing, costs anywhere between $60 to $80 across card condition. I find that few players vocally complain about Force of Will, but players who are highly critical of their card choices and analytical about the games they play take notice Force of Will’s impact and its absence. Force of Will can counter a threat, or stop someone from countering your threat, and it can target any card type. The truth of the matter is, there simply isn’t another card with both the efficiency and flexibility Force of Will offers. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t viable alternatives, especially for a stereotypically slower format like EDH.
For those in the midrange budget, the best alternative I can suggest is Pact of Negation. Not only does the card have wicked-cool art, but it costs $15 to $20, will counter everything Force of Will counters, and will spare you the second blue card Force of Will requires. Moreover, if you are using Pact of Negation to defend an offensive play that will win you the game, there is a chance that there won’t be another upkeep for you, making it truly free. On the bad side of things, Pact of Negation will require you to pay 3UU on your next upkeep or you’ll lose the game, so counterspells in the early game are not an option like they are with Force of Will. Pact also offers the risk in the face of land destruction; if you’ve got five lands on the table when you use Pact, you’ll have to sweat a whole table’s potential Strip Mines, Tectonic Edges, and other land destruction, which might cost you the game.
The second best alternative is Glen Elendra Archmage, which offers its services in the $7 to $12 range. While the counterspell provided by Glen Elendra Archmage is not strictly ‘free’ and has some restrictions, it is extraordinarily efficient, and can typically counter two spells over its lifespan. Glen Elendra Archmage will also typically counter the worst threats that will take effect immediately, or stop all the typical answers your opponents will be using. The ‘non-creature’ clause is deceptively restrictive; most of the cards you’re going to want to counter are not creatures.
If you’re not into throwing bills for cardboard, there are still other options. The ultimate budget options are Foil, Intervene and Turn Aside. The price of these cards is not worth mentioning, but all are powerful options for the budget player. Foil is the most like Force of Will; the mana cost is a bit more manageable, but the alternate cost is hefty. It can counter spells without restriction, and without the worry Pact of Negation creates. One advantage to Foil is that you could conceivably discard an Island and another land in the late game when they are not needed, you could discard a creature for something like Animate Dead, or you could discard a card with Madness. Force of Will offers none of these options by exiling the card spent in the alternate casting cost, and requiring it to be blue.
Intervene and Turn Aside both do basically the same thing; they both counter a spell that would deal with a creature threat, allowing you to power it through. Often, a player with Force of Will will use it to provide protection for an expensive threat. If you’re into creatures like I am, Intervene and Turn Aside only require you to keep one mana open to deal with whatever removal your opponents will send your way. These spells have other merits as well; Intervene is effective when another player is attempting to attach an aura to one of their creatures, or trying to use a combat trick like Berserk. Turn Aside can also protect your non-creature permanents, like enchantments or artifacts.
If Force of Will is expensive, Mana Drain is reserved for the financially reckless. With English copies costing between $120 and $150, and Italian copies commanding slightly less, most EDH groups I play with have never even seen Mana Drain, despite the fact I live in a massive urban center where a copy or two can be found for sale on the right day. Mana Drain produces a powerful effect, and it only becomes stronger in a format known for high mana cost spells.
Mana Drain’s effects are hardly duplicated at all in Magic. There really aren’t many cards to compare to it, but the ones that are similar enough to mention command almost no monetary value. Mana Drain’s nearest cousin is Scattering Stroke. On its face, Scattering Stroke costs twice as much and works half as often, and yet, it is still powerful enough to run in the right kind of deck. If you’re fond of Trench Gorger, Mana Severance or Endless Horizons, you dramatically raise the chance that you will clash against an opponent’s land while you flip a non-land (presumably with a converted mana cost greater than zero). If you play with top-of-deck manipulation, like Crystal Ball or other scry mechanics, you can guarantee a favourable clash while having something to spend it on next turn.
The next nearest cousin of Mana Drain is one that I’m terribly fond of: Drain Power. When set next to Mana Drain, Drain Power skips countering a spell, but gives you everything one opponent can offer right away. I view this as a variable Dark Ritual effect, but can often generate staggering amounts of mana. Sadly, this card does not work very well if your target has a mana dump (like Ant Queen, or a costly instant in their hand), but, it works often enough, especially when the game starts to slow down later on.
Lastly, Counterlash is like Mana Drain in principle, even though it isn’t mechanically similar. Counterlash carries the obvious disadvantage of costing six mana, and requires a matching type between the countered spell and the spell you want to fuel. Sadly, this will also fail to power up spells with X in their casting cost. Counterlash’s failings end there, and like Scattering Stroke, its strengths are manipulable. One way of taking advantage of Counterlash is to use powerful cards with more than one type, and a variety of card types in your deck construction: if you counter a creature or an artifact with Counterlash, you can play Blightsteel Colossus. If you also keep a variety of powerful enchantments and sorceries around, like Decree of Silence or Recurring Insight, respectively, you can very much reap the benefits of Counterlash.
When I first started playing Magic, people referred to the most powerful cards as the ‘power nine’. When I returned to Magic at the beginning of 2011, I suddenly discovered that people had begun to refer to the most powerful cards in Magic as the ‘power eight’, excluding Timetwister from those hallowed ranks. I immediately agreed. This might sound silly, but Timetwister was a card I was always skeptical of, given how similar it was to Wheel of Fortune, which was powerful, but perhaps not the stuff of legends. One day, I acquired one for very cheap, and started to play with it. My mind was changed, especially when I realized it could be recurred by Relearn, Regrowth and similar cards.
Timetwister is also very expensive; one of these will run you $300 to $450 bones at current, is continually increasing in price, and are fairly hard to come by, at least in my neck of the woods. Unless you can find a real bargain, it’s pretty much off limits to most players. So, what’s a budget player to do? If you’re part of the crowd that finds Pact of Negation’s price palatable, Time Spiral will treat you just fine, if not better. Copies can be found relatively easily in the $20 range, and Time Spiral arguably works better in EDH, where reaching six lands is common. Of course, you can’t recur it with Relearn or similar cards (well, not without Pull from Eternity or Riftsweeper), but, it’s practically free, and can give your game every bit as much kick as Timetwister will.
Alternatively, for the true budget player, Time Reversal and Diminishing Returns are worth almost nothing. Diminishing Returns costs one more blue mana than Timetwister (and $299 to $449 less dollars), and also exiles the top ten cards from your library. That last part is not for the really faint of heart, or players who really depend on particular cards for combo. Perhaps more importantly, unlike Time Spiral and Time Reversal, Diminishing Returns does not exile itself, and can be recurred by Relearn and its ilk. Of course, you probably will not want to recur and recast it excessively, as it lives by its namesake and will slowly obliterate your library.
Aside: Diminishing Returns also holds the honour as what I perceived to be the first attempted reprint ‘fix’ of a card in the power nine, followed by Lion’s Eye Diamond, meant to mimic Black Lotus in Mirage, Time Warp, of the Time Walk type in Tempest, and Mox Diamond as a generic modernized Mox in Stronghold.
Time Reversal is my least recommended of this bunch: it can’t be recurred, it costs the most out of all the alternatives, and it still gets included in many of my decks anyway. The mana cost is hefty, to be sure, but it still serves all the functions of a Timetwister, and those functions – drawing a bunch of cards, scattering any sculpted hands for combo, and hating out all the graveyards – are still very good. Given that people are often willing to play Deep Analysis for one less mana, or a combined amount of one more mana and three life, Time Reversal will often be just as good, if not better.
I know a lot of folks who love to drop big money on Magic. People foil out their decks, get optimal, expensive cards, and treat Magic like a real luxury good. That’s cool, but I also know a lot of other people who would just as soon pay in pocket change for Magic instead of with their chequebook. If you’re part of the latter, I hope you’ve found this helpful and interesting. If you’re part of the former, give some of my budget choices a try in addition to what you already run. I know that once I created a deck with Timetwister, Diminishing Returns, Time Reversal and Time Spiral in it, I had a great deal of fun from the rush of power that came with all the card draw.
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