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The Best Card in Casual Magic

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This article was originally published on playunplugged.com and forms part of the Blackborder.com / Playunplugged.com partnership.

By Mike Eaton, Play Unplugged

(Author’s Disclaimer, and you’ll see why: This article is not an indictment of strategy, competitive play, or the desire to win a game. The views expressed in this article come from a place where the point of building decks is to be creative, and where competitiveness is sacrificed for creativity, when necessary. Often, this results in a “bad” or unplayable deck, which never gets to do what its creator envisioned. The best card in casual play is then, I believe, one that helps your creative vision to bear fruit, without having to sacrifice it for more frivolous things, like the mana curve, or answers to threats.)

The “Best Card in Magic” is a topic that comes up every so often — whether from new players who want to see how cool the cards can be, or from experienced players who want to know if others agree with their appraisals.

If we’re talking about which card is the most useful, a card that is mentioned more often than not is Impulse. It runs at Instant speed to look through your next four cards, allowing you to keep the best and to chuck the rest. Our friends at Wizards of the Coast posted an article mentioning the Impulse phenomenon when they started talking about one of its heirs, Innistrad’s Forbidden Alchemy. Put simply, Impulse helps your deck do what it wants, intelligently and reasonably, and that’s how it got its reputation.

Feeling impulsive?

Casual games — at least, the more memorable ones — are not often focused on the intelligent or reasonable. Instead, they often focus on the bizarre things that this game was only marginally intended to do.

In celebration of the chaos, today I’m going to examine some of the best cards for casual play and try to determine which card is simply the most useful for a creative deckbuilder to get his or her machinations to work.

The Contenders

Reliquary Tower goes into any deck, is uncounterable, and lets you keep as many cards in your hand as you like. Even Jin-Gitaxias can’t stop the rock, because you can’t reduce a maximum hand size that doesn’t exist.

A few cards fill similar roles as the Tower, and they have their pros and cons, like Venser's Journal (Gain life / Costs five mana), Praetor's Counsel (Effect never ends / Costs eight mana . . .), and Library of Leng (Discards go to the top of your library / THE SAME). Reliquary Tower is simply the most user-friendly and efficient way to keep All Your Draws. And it adds mana to your mana pool!

One major complaint among casual folks is that we build these imaginative, flavorful, semi-absurd decks, and because of the nature of the game, our favorite card won’t get to see play. If you’re running Demonic Tutor, and your opponents follow conventional wisdom (“Don’t counter the tutor; counter what’s coming.”), you’ll get to draw exactly what you wanted, and you can cast it at least once. That’s enough for most folks to feel like their screwy deck has done its job.

Joiner Adept lets all of your lands, even Reliquary Tower, tap for one mana of whichever color you want. Since casual players are often inclined to let each-others’ decks develop and leave a 2/1 creature well enough alone (if you don’t attack with it!), this young lady can often help any crazy deck you throw together play all of those special cards you wanted to try together. Casual games can’t abide the mana squeeze, but Joiner doesn’t even know the meaning of those words.

Has your opponent played a card that bothers you? End it! Easy to say — and if you have Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, easier to do. Sure, he costs eight mana of three different colors, but buddies like Joiner Adept can help you out with that. And Bolas’ abilities can either steal creatures or destroy noncreatures; no permanent is safe!

Nicol Bolas, draconic might personified!

(Honorable mention, here, goes to Karn Liberated, who is strictly easier to use at least once, but just doesn’t have Bolas’ panache. I mean, getting stronger by eating another planeswalker? Not a bad life.)

And when you want to do something awesomely creature-based as many times you feel like, and there’s a creature involved, Enduring Renewal is there to help. Revealing your hand isn’t as bad when you’re not playing competitively, and there is no shortage of cards to bring back creatures you’ve had to mill because of Renewal’s draw trigger.

Pro tip: If you have two replacement effects on your card draw, you get to choose which one you want! Another of our nominees, Tomorrow, Azami’s Familiar, lets us not only Impulse (OK, for three instead of four) all our proposed draws, but gets around Renewal’s downside. (And a good time was had by all!)

Aluren lets all players cast creatures for free as Instants, provided they cost three or fewer mana. While this can lead to utter, game-ending chaos, it also can allow decks to develop for players who toyed with four or five colors and can’t get their mana to work out. It can let you play all your creatures on one turn with built-in Tempest combo card, Recycle. It has flavor text about ripping out Squee’s spleen. There is nothing un-fun about this card.

Orim's Prayer (not to be confused with the extraordinarily un-fun Orim's Chant) is just the card to stop that wiseguy who just created a googolplex of tokens because everyone wasted their counterspells on Woodfall Primus. He might kill everyone else at the table on one turn, but with one or more Prayers, it’s going to be a little harder to get you. Also, it’s a great political card, because anyone swinging at you deals one less damage. Until the game gets late, it’s much less attractive to attack you — after all, you’re just sitting there with a four-cent defense rare. It should buy you just enough time to play whatever sick beast you’ve been sitting on since Turn Two.

(Honorable mention for a lifegain-for-creatures card is Soul Warden. If you get up to make some food and get distracted during the game, your opponents are obligated to tell you how much life you gained, because her ability does not say, “May.” I suggest paying attention, though, because many a player has been taken down in multiplayer just for having the gall to keep asking about his missing Warden life.)

Emeria, the Sky Ruin will work more often than it was probably ever intended to in a large casual game. If you stay alive until Turn 8-10 to play your seventh Plains, then you’re probably going to get to use Emeria every turn until you win, or until your opponent can get around whatever mutant you tossed into your deck to exploit the Sky Ruin long enough to end you.

When you want to cast things two turns early, nothing quite beats Dark Ritual. Its companion pieces — Rite of Flame, Seething Song, and Cabal Ritual deserve honorable mention, but this first and best accelerator can lay your deck’s groundwork on your first turn, or it can just surprise that contol player who tapped out, thinking you didn’t have enough mana yet to play your biggest babies. As a conduit for gratification — a huge factor in this fight — Ritual is second to none for simplicity with power.

The fast track to power!

There are seven cards that I consider to be tied for the title of Biggest Boon, Meanest to Opponents, and are very casual-powerful, but none of which could quite make Number One.

They are: The five praetors of New Phyrexia, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. (Teferi may have an edge over the rest.)

Each of these seven cards says the same thing: “I get better. You get worse.” Unfortunately, none of these cards stands a chance in a one-on-one competitive duel, without a lot of help. In the right game, however, you can buy yourself enough turns to win the day as long as one of these lethal legends is slowing everyone down, but speeding you up.

Caged Sun is a six-mana investment, but it gives all creatures of your chosen color +1/+1 and all lands that produce your chosen color of mana extra mana. This is also known in certain circles as Phenomenal Cosmic Power, without the Itty Bitty Living Space. (I would argue that you get twice as much land, actually.)

Worship is a card that many casual decks just can’t stop. Often times, we build strictly-for-kicks theme or combo decks that just do whatever we built them to do, not to interact with other’s smelly deck, thank you very much. If you’re up against someone who can’t readily blow enchantments, and you can keep one indestructable or undamageable creature on the board, you’ll often hear this: “Hold on, let me think . . . I actually have no way to win this, so I’m scooping.” (Achievement unlocked!)

Privileged Position in duplicate makes all of your permanents untargetable — except by you. You’ll have a shield much like the Rebels did in The Empire Strikes Back, and I take that metaphor to its logical conclusion: You’ll get to sit in privacy for a while, and you’ll have a lot of snappy dialogue, but eventually General Veers will find you with his AT-ATs (which will probably be green sorceries that blow up enchantments) and take you down. Hexproof is a potent weapon, but it doesn’t have what it takes to be The Greatest.

Doubling Season is just silly, and most of us know why. It doubles counters and tokens. That means, among other things, that Ajani Goldmane and both versions of Elspeth are able to blow their ultimate abilities immediately. It means Darksteel Reactor only needs ten turns or less to win you the game (four, if you have a Gilder Bairn). It means . . . just about whatever you want it to mean. So many beloved casual cards use tokens and counters that Doubling Season almost won this prestigious award. But it was not to be.

For I Have Seen the Champion!

Even the playing field!

And it is Balance.

Balance, it seems, is just a simple card. It’s a sorcery. It costs two mana, one of which must be white. But it’s restricted in Vintage. It’s outright banned in Legacy and EDH/Commander. You can pick one up for about the price of a pack of fresh cards! How strong can it be?

Well, here’s an example on offense. In a multiplayer casual game (or Party Magic, as you may remember), you can play a deck that does nothing for several turns — and then, when everyone else at the table is done attacking each other and turns their sights at you, drop the earth’s meanest Balance. (After an estimated 20+ permanents get sacrificed, if you follow it up with one or more copies of Bitter Ordeal, then congratulations! . . . You are officially The Worst Person, and I love it.)

There’s a story somewhere on the Internets about Balance, and how when it was restricted, one kid who ran his card shop with a playset protested fiercely. “How could it be broken? It balances the game!” (Yeah, after everyone else has wasted ten turns, you know, playing cards.)

So often, slow and steady wins the multiplayer race, but Balance is the ultimate slow-decks enabler in all scenarios. While some of the cards we mentioned only get their full effect at the party table, Balance is a boon to your deck in any tense situation where your delightful homebrew’s strategy just isn’t sound enough. It lets you play a “bad” deck and still have fun, if you built it to do something fun instead of to win. I may never be able to fully defend this concept, but against an opponent who is just trying to beat you, this sometimes will be the only way you can have any fun with your deck at all.

Remember that Rush song, “The Trees,” the Ayn Randian nightmare where the taller trees get cut down because the smaller ones whine that they’re not equal? Yeah, it’s that. Balance is what Libertarians think Socialism means. Balance is putting the chains on Harrison Bergeron (without the part where they make him ultra-strong). And as unjust as all this may sound for a card that depicts the scales of justice herself, it’s the best card in casual play, without a doubt in my mind, because it gives any odd deck you want to build exactly what it needs: more time to catch up. You might think of Balance as a “cheat” card, if you’re a very competitive player, but our piles of joy have no greater weapon against finely-tweaked, tournament-savvy decks than this, whatever their strategy, theme, or goal.

Disagree? What do you think is the most valuable card to have at your kitchen table, when your Rampage-Banding All-Stars come out of the gate? Let us know on Facebook, or you can let me know @mikeatonjr on Twitter. (Such is the magic of the Internet!)

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