Tricks of the Trade: Can’t Touch This 3


I have an itch, dear read­er. An itch I just can’t scratch. A lit­tle some­thing that has wormed its way into my brain and refus­es to leave. On rare occa­sions when the stars align, rivers run back­wards and sundry other mys­tic omens come to pass, a Magic card will amble into my mind and take up res­i­dence. I am over­come by the need to do some­thing with the card, be it fun or fair or so laugh­ably bro­ken that Lindsay Lohan thinks it needs help. It’s one of the more endur­ing and endear­ing qual­i­ties of Magic that even as a rel­a­tive­ly sea­soned play­er, some­times I can still dis­cov­er a card that shakes loose parts of the machin­ery in my brain and sends them ping­ing off in unex­pect­ed direc­tions, and today you’re all invit­ed to join me as I try to make the ridicu­lous work­able. Can it be done? I don’t know. At the very least, it promis­es to be inter­est­ing!

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Phage the Untouchable

Look at it. Just look at it, gen­tle read­er, and bask in the glory of what­ev­er cracked, degen­er­ate mind dreamed up such a clus­ter­fuck. Reading it is an emo­tion­al roller­coast­er of dizzy highs and bleak lows! Let’s take a more detailed look:

Cost — 3BBBB

A CMC of seven for a 4/4 crea­ture? In terms of basic stats it’s high cost, low value. No thanks.

When Phage the Untouchable enters the bat­tle­field, if you didn’t cast it from your hand, you lose the game.

…wait, what? What in the name of Satan’s fiery gonads is that? A con­di­tion­al ETB1 with the power to insta-lose the game? That’s about as desir­able as a shit sand­wich. Get outta here, Phage.

Whenever Phage deals com­bat dam­age to a crea­ture, destroy that crea­ture. It can’t be regen­er­at­ed.

Pretty stan­dard Deathtouch vari­ant. It never hurts to have, but it sure as hell isn’t worth the high CMC on the average-sized body, let alone the Damocles sword of “you lose the game” dan­gling over your nog­gin. Nobody in my meta plays Regenerate effects any­way, so the addi­tion­al lit­tle stinger isn’t much of a bonus. Moving on.

Whenever Phage deals com­bat dam­age to a play­er, that play­er loses the game.

Oh. Right. Well, then. That’s…huh. Loses the game, you say? I see. Sir, your ideas are intrigu­ing to me, and I wish to sub­scribe to your pub­li­ca­tion — I want that. I want it all the time. Drawbacks be damned, I want this card in every sin­gle deck I run and I want to dance in the rain of salty, salty nerd tears it pro­duces.

What a pack­age. Harsh, unfor­giv­ing, a double-edged sword that doesn’t care whose guts are hit­ting the floor. It makes my brain light up like an MDMA fiend’s Christmas tree. To explain exact­ly why, there will be a momen­tary digres­sion onto the topic of Magic’s pri­ma­ry psy­cho­graph­ics and their dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties. Bear with me.

Coined (or at least pub­li­cised) by Mark Rosewater, head of Magic R&D and pub­lic face/whipping boy of the Magic brand, the psy­cho­graph­ic pro­files of Spike, Johnny and Timmy attempt to broad­ly cat­e­gorise the three play­er types that Magic R&D caters to. Each have dif­fer­ent inter­ests and approach­es to the game, and in every set cards are includ­ed specif­i­cal­ly to please cer­tain pro­files:

·         Spike wants to win. His (or her; the names may be large­ly gen­dered but the atti­tudes are uni­sex) inten­tion is to find the most effi­cient route to vic­to­ry and take it. Spikes are the most like­ly to care about deck opti­mi­sa­tion and whether one card is strict­ly “bet­ter” than anoth­er, pre­fer­ring quan­ti­ty of vic­to­ries over qual­i­ty.

·         Johnny loves to play com­bos. The more com­plex and arcane the bet­ter. Where a Spike may eval­u­ate a new card on whether it is a strict upgrade of an old one, a Johnny con­sid­ers how the new and old cards inter­act. Often Johnny will dis­dain win­ning through sim­plis­tic means like beat­ing face, feel­ing that his deck has failed if he can­not pull off one of his big combo plays, and would rather win a sin­gle ridicu­lous vic­to­ry than a hun­dred straight­for­ward ones.

·         Timmy just loves Magic. The inter­ests of the other two don’t even amount to a blip on Timmy’s radar. If he sees a cool card, he wants to play it. Big mon­sters and crazy spells are the point of the game for Timmy, whether they are synergistic/efficient or not. He just wants to make the big, splashy plays that look awe­some and make him feel good.

Supposedly, every play­er shares one or more of these qual­i­ties, even if they’re not aware of it. Some peo­ple pos­sess all three to greater or less­er degrees. I know I do, and which psy­cho­graph­ic stands dom­i­nant changes depend­ing on my mood. What I find inter­est­ing about Phage the Untouchable is that she grabs the focus of all three parts of my mind:

The Spike in me sees the lat­ter abil­i­ty, a poten­tial­ly sim­ple way to knock oppo­nents out of the game, and finds him­self in a fan­ta­sy dream sequence where visions of Whispersilk Cloak dance through his mind. He can visu­alise oppo­nents falling in the early turns, unable to strike back, and he likes it.

The part of my mind that is Johnny is rifling fran­ti­cal­ly through the fil­ing cab­i­nets of my brain, search­ing for exploits and trick­ery to mit­i­gate the down­sides and accen­tu­ate the pow­er­ful pos­i­tives. How to twist Phage’s first abil­i­ty around, turn­ing what seems like a neg­a­tive into a game-winning play, excit­ed at the thought of doing what nobody expects.

My inner Timmy is quiet most of the time, shout­ed down by the other two per­son­al­i­ties, but he’s still lurk­ing back there. He’s the one who stops me trad­ing my Garruk, Apex Predator away even though it’s a colour com­bi­na­tion I rarely play, because it’s so cool! He doesn’t care about the degen­er­ate antics Johnny is fas­ci­nat­ed with or the sleek effi­cien­cy Spike seeks; he just thinks Phage the Untouchable is a buck­et of crazy awe­some­ness that will make a big splash when she hits the table, and that’s fun!

With those three all com­pet­ing for atten­tion, it’s no sur­prise that Phage has lodged in my brain. There’s some­thing in there for every­one, and I def­i­nite­ly want to take advan­tage of that. The only ques­tion is what to actu­al­ly do with her. Played as a Commander, that first trig­ger will be a bitch; Commanders begin the game in, and fre­quent­ly return to, the Command Zone. They may be re-cast from there at any time they could nor­mal­ly be played, but it is not tech­ni­cal­ly part of the hand2. Meaning that with Phage as the Commander, the first time she was brought into play would trig­ger her abil­i­ty and the game would be over, for her con­troller at least. If this could be cir­cum­vent­ed she’d be an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful leader in a quasi-Voltron3 build, focused on eva­sion rather than stat buffs since Phage doesn’t need to do a lot of dam­age to kill — a sin­gle point will do. As to get­ting her on the board, oth­ers have writ­ten pieces on the var­i­ous tricks to throw her down with­out killing your­self, but they don’t real­ly appeal to me. Too clunky for Spike, not enough flair for Johnny and poor Timmy doesn’t under­stand why we’d have to jump through so many hoops just to play a neat spell.

As one of the 99 in anoth­er deck, Phage would still be use­ful but wouldn’t make too big of an impact. Unblockable antics aside she’s just a 4/4 with Deathtouch, and oppo­nents who couldn’t get rid of her would just chump block her attacks each turn. Spike doesn’t like her chances, and doesn’t fancy wait­ing around in the hopes of find­ing a chink in an opponent’s armour to slip through. Johnny finds such a tac­tic dis­grace­ful­ly pedes­tri­an. Timmy likes the sim­plic­i­ty but not the lack of impact on the game state – a fiz­zled play or one that fails to sig­nif­i­cant­ly move the game along just isn’t as fun as some­thing that shakes the game up.

So here’s a thought. What can we do with Phage’s first trig­ger that makes it work for us? Let’s think about the word­ing. It’s an ETB trig­ger, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean it affects us. It’s per­fect­ly pos­si­ble for crea­tures to be passed around dur­ing a game like a joint at a Cypress Hill con­cert, whether by creature-stealing spells, clone effects or grave rob­bery. Phage’s insta-kill trig­ger is pow­er­ful enough that any oppo­nent who can steal her will prob­a­bly want to. Is there some way to inten­tion­al­ly pass Phage to anoth­er play­er and then trig­ger her ETB abil­i­ty, boot­ing them out of the game? Johnny loves this idea. Spike grudg­ing­ly accepts it, for a win is a win is a win. Even Timmy is pleased by the idea, even if it isn’t as straight­for­ward as he prefers to be, because it’s a big crazy move that is bound to have oppo­nents pay­ing atten­tion.

Switching own­er­ship of Phage won’t be a prob­lem. The eas­i­est method is the clas­sic Switcheroo, straight-swapping one of an opponent’s crea­tures for Phage. Unfortunately one of the eas­i­er options, the Djinn of Infinite Deceits, has a restric­tion that won’t let us exchange Phage as she’s a leg­endary crea­ture. Still, the switch is the easy part of the plan; plen­ty of cards will enable the exchange. The tough part will be trig­ger­ing Phage’s ETB abil­i­ty once she’s out of our hands. The first option I con­sid­ered was obvi­ous­ly the use of blink4, but unfor­tu­nate­ly many of the all-star blink cards (Momentary Blink, Banisher Priest + any sac­ri­fice out­let, Deadeye Navigator) have the draw­back of return­ing Phage to the bat­tle­field under her owner’s con­trol, and since we don’t want to kill our­selves with her ETB trig­ger, that’s not exact­ly ideal. The switch-and-blink strat­e­gy, I fear, is unwork­able. That’s doesn’t mean there isn’t a way, though…

The actu­al meth­ods I’ve come up with are slight­ly more com­plex, but are bound to be hilar­i­ous nonethe­less. Firstly, we have the Phage +Endless Whispers +lit­er­al­ly any sac­ri­fice out­let combo. Once the Whispers are in play, it’s a sim­ple mat­ter of cast­ing Phage from our hand and then killing her, which should eas­i­ly be do-able (mana per­mit­ting) with­in a sin­gle turn. Pick an oppo­nent, sac­ri­fice Phage, and then once she comes back into play her ETB trig­ger goes off and that oppo­nent is out of the game. It’s sim­ple, it’s sweet, and it will hope­ful­ly result in an expres­sion of shocked baf­fle­ment quick­ly giv­ing way to impo­tent nerd rage. Delicious! Alternatively there is poten­tial skul­dug­gery with a Grave Betrayal +Donate sort of scheme, first play­ing the enchant­ment and then trad­ing or pass­ing it to an oppo­nent, and then as above by sac­ri­fic­ing Phage. Once she hits the grave­yard, said oppo­nent is forced to dredge her back up and put her back into play, los­ing the game.

Doesn’t that just sound filthy? It’s the sort of play that nobody is going to see com­ing. Best of all the effects can be used to set up a favourable board state for your­self with other cards; in a mul­ti­play­er game, one oppo­nent can be the unlucky recip­i­ent of Phage and once she’s dead anoth­er finds them­selves in con­trol of Abyssal Persecutor, keep­ing you safe for as long as it’s on the board. Why not go the whole hog and build a deck that’s filled with sim­i­lar shenani­gans, focused not on win­ning but on forc­ing oppo­nents to lose? It may be a sub­tle dif­fer­ence, but it’s an impor­tant one when it comes to our strat­e­gy. Obviously we will want to go five-colour, just for the ridicu­lous Door into Nothingness, because just look at the bloody thing. Any time you can run such a sim­plis­tic way of forc­ing some­one from the game, you’re going to want to. All the bet­ter that the artifact’s sac­ri­fice require­ment sends it to the grave­yard rather than into exile, allow­ing it to be recurred for mul­ti­ple uses by the likes ofSharuum and Treasure Hunter.

But wait, there’s more! For added wicked­ness, we can drop Hive Mind into play and from there, the world is our oys­ter. Forcing other play­ers to copy our spells may not sound too ben­e­fi­cial, but what if our spell is Intervention Pact at a table where nobody else is play­ing white? There’s a whole cycle of these zero-mana instants, one for each colour, which guar­an­tees that unless you’re fac­ing up against a fel­low five-colour play­er every­body is going to get screwed over by the mana require­ment of at least one of them. Cast it dur­ing your turn and then pass, and watch a frus­trat­ed oppo­nent fall to an unpayable upkeep trig­ger. We could play Transcendence and then use Puca’s Mischief to toss it over like a hot pota­to, cack­ling mani­a­cal­ly as our oppo­nent finds them­selves dead from hav­ing too much life. How about using the same trick to pass across Forbidden Crypt, fol­lowed by Bojuka Bog or Primal Command to empty out the opponent’s grave­yard and force a loss upon their next draw step? The level of sheer bas­tardy involved is joy­ful to con­tem­plate.

As for who will lead this five-colour storm of dick­ish­ness, for me the only real choice is Progenitus. Of all of them, he seems to best fit the theme – pro­tec­tion from every­thing means that oppo­nents attempt­ing to crip­ple him will have their work cut out for them, and in a pinch the 10/10 body can pro­vide a quick route to vic­to­ry if all of our cun­ning schemes have foundered. Not quite as sneaky or ele­gant as our other win con­di­tions, but it’ll have to do, and Progenitus’ var­ied pro­tec­tions do fit quite smooth­ly with the over­all mes­sage of the deck; aban­don all hope, ye who sit oppo­site!

Magic has near-infinite vari­ety and pos­si­bil­i­ty, and while some routes to vic­to­ry are glar­ing­ly obvi­ous, I hope I’ve demon­strat­ed today the sheer poten­tial avail­able for decks which go against the grain. With good plan­ning, prac­ti­cal­ly any­thing can be exploit­ed, and I encour­age all of you read­ing this to give it a go your­selves. What cards have you always yearned to do some­thing awful with? What paths to vic­to­ry do you feel are as yet unex­plored? Let us know in the com­ments just how you’d go about break­ing the cards you’ve always want­ed to.

See you next time!

Notes:
  1. The com­mon­ly abbre­vi­at­ed form of Enters The Battlefield, a spe­cif­ic type of trig­gered abil­i­ty which acti­vates when…well, you can prob­a­bly work it out your­self. []
  2. I’ve heard a rumour that, for Commander pur­pos­es, the card has been errata’d to enable cast­ing from the Zone, but haven’t seen it sourced to any­where rep­utable. Take it with a pinch of salt. It seems to me that with­out the poten­tial land­mine of her ETB trig­ger, Phage would be much too pow­er­ful a Commander in the hands of any com­pe­tent play­er. []
  3. Voltron (for those of us out­side of North America who grew up watch­ing dif­fer­ent TV shows, I sug­gest “Megazord” as an alter­nate name, with the mean­ing being much the same) is an inter­est­ing deck arche­type which cen­tres on the Commander, buff­ing it with arti­facts and enchant­ments to cre­ate a beast of a crea­ture and hop­ing to end the game in a sin­gle, mas­sive attack. It’s one of my favourite styles to play, albeit one of the trick­i­est to pull off suc­cess­ful­ly. []
  4. Another com­mon deck type, blink decks make use of com­man­ders such asRoon to repeat­ed­ly re-use pow­er­ful ETB trig­gers, usu­al­ly by exil­ing and then return­ing the trig­ger­ing card to play. Very pow­er­ful, very annoy­ing to play against. It’s hard to kill some­thing that won’t stand still long enough to be hit. []

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.

  • The best use for Phage I’ve seen is with Volrath’s shapeshifter. The shapeshifter copies the first card in the grave­yard (if it’s a crea­ture) and also lets you dis­card any­thing you like.
    Have the shapeshifter copy some­thing unblock­able (or with tram­ple, you only need a sin­gle point of dam­age to get the win) then after they declare no block­ers, dis­card Phage from your hand.
    The shapeshifter was already in play so Phage’s abil­i­ty won’t kill you and once it deals dam­age, the oppo­nent is gone.
    This also has the advan­tage that you don’t need to find 3BBBB to cast her since the shapeshifter only costs 1UU. :)

    • Not a bad plan! I love that Magic has such ver­sa­tile ways to abuse the liv­ing hell out of a card like Phage :-P

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