Thirty X spells in their historical context, along with two special guests.

X-Week Special: XXX X Spells, More or Less

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The letter I! greatly enjoy the break from theory and PTQ Top 8 analyses that usually drives forth the relentless engine of Swimming With Sharks presented with the odd theme week. This one is X Week, which editor Kelly Digges described to his typewriter-jockeying minions as "... dedicated to all things X: X spells, Tenth Edition (which will have just released), the letter X, the variable X, The X-Files..." (Who knew Mark was actually going to title his article that?)

I often like to approach the fun theme weeks with discussions of lists of like cards. This time I went with spells that included a mana cost of "X" (you can go into Gatherer, input "X" in the first field, then check only "Search mana cost" in the second)... and I got back 146 cards. Now I like to read, quip, and certainly write, but not really 146 cards worth of writing. I mean who really cares about my opinion of Borrowing the East Wind (which will never see table space in front of the average Swimming With Sharks consumer) or for that matter that the cleverest thing I can say about Endless Scream is that it's more-or-less strictly better than Bloodcurdling Scream?

Okay, that's not precisely true. There is something else to say about Endless Scream. In 1998 there was a four-slot—that's right, four-slot—Pro Tour Qualifier in I believe New Jersey. Erik Lauer, now known alternately as the Mad Genius (possibly the most significant deck designer in the history of the game) or as a member of R&D, made Top 8, along with Tony Tsai, so both Team CMU and Team Deadguy were represented. Erik's draft went south and his opponent's was exactly the right draft to beat Erik's deck. It was the middle of a stalled game, and poor Lauer had a Mogg Raider and not much else. But not exactly nothing else... The Mogg Raider was enchanted with Endless Scream. This became a problem when the opponent played Circle of Protection: Red (black-red has no way to deal with that, especially in Draft). It started to look grim for the Mad Genius, who attacked every turn to tap a land, but got no further ahead. The opponent was sick, I suppose, of having to tap a land on an otherwise locked board (he couldn't very well block), and dropped Cloudchaser Eagle.

The Head Judge of the tournament actually failed to suppress his gasp of "You $%#&@ scrub!" It was inexplicable. Erik saw his spot and sacrificed the Raider targeting somebody or other, which also put the Endless Scream in the graveyard, leaving the Circle of Protection: Red the only enchantment on the board. Huzzah! Good guys win! Right? Well, no. Erik lost anyway. It was all crying and foul, brackish, emotions for the rest of the day, or at least for the next five seconds. You see, Tony was already qualified for the Pro Tour, and Erik had finished first after the Swiss rounds. When Tony won, his slot passed down, conveniently, to Erik.

That's actually all I have to say about Endless Scream.

Anyway, I certainly don't have 146 of those in me, so I decided to cut to, I don't know, the X best X-spells in the history of competitive Magic. Of course my list was past X by the fourth letter in the alphabet, so I decided to go to XX (which seems pretty arbitrary). It turns out that after my first cuts I was exactly at 30 cards (well 31; see Kaervek's Torch, below) which means that I could cleverly base my deck on XXX, which I can only hope will make for some interesting Google searches down the line. I added another bonus card, pulling the list to 32 (it doesn't actually have "X" in its mana cost, but proves an interesting exception. Here's a hint: ctrl+f "Arashi" to find out what—or who, as the case may be—I am talking about.)

The list isn't exactly the best, or even most important, cards. I didn't choose Disintegrate for example, even though it is probably technically a more significant card than opening entry Abandon Hope. After Blaze, Demonfire, Fireball, &c. I figured that variety might be a wee bit desirable. I hope you enjoy this, and end up agreeing.

The List

I. Abandon Hope
Abandon Hope has all kinds of things going wrong for it. First of all, I hadn't written The Firestorm Principle yet, so the average player didn't really have the language to manage the card disparity inherent in this card. Lauer and of course Buehler had already actually broken Firestorm when Abandon Hope first saw print, but the difference there was that Firestorm cost one mana to wreak its mischief whereas Abandon Hope linked its exchanges directly with mana. That said, the card was played. Some people tried to use it as an excess card dump in Necropotence decks, but that never worked out, even with Dark Ritual; the red decks were too good. Others used this to dump big guys for reanimation purposes. I can't remember any of those decks being significant, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lan D. Ho could.

II. Blaze
I really like Blaze. It was one of those cards that taught us to be better than we were. It brought us out of the silver spoon days of our spoiled and fanciful youths and forced us to roll up our sleeves and make do. Blaze is almost precisely analogous to Volcanic Hammer, a card that is so far and away worse than Incinerate and certainly Lightning Bolt, yet found a home in numerous fantastic decks. Blaze was maybe not the perfect tool given what we knew, what we had seen before, but was nevertheless good enough to score numerous impressive finishes. I'd cash in my obligatory Honolulu reference, but I've got Invoke the Firemind down the list a little bit. Instead:

I was close to both Lauer and Mowshowitz at the heights of their deck design prowess. I always revered Erik for being first at almost everything, but I think that history will record a different former R&D Intern as the most significant deck designer of all time. For my money, at least today, that title belongs to Zvi.

III. Blazing Shoal
Speaking of significant deck designers, in recent years there has been almost nobody as consistent and surprising and all-around awesome as Tsuyoshi Fujita. For most of his career, Tsuyoshi was known for efficient, successful, but not particularly inventive deck lists. Much as Guillaume Wafo-Tapa finally built a different deck with his Wild Slivers finish, Tsyoshi made Top 8 in 2005's Grand Prix–Seattle with his brutal Sneak Attack listing:

Tsuyoshi Fujita's "Sneaky Go"

Dragon Tyrant? Blazing Shoal? Through the Breach? What a deck!

Take a million.

IV. Braingeyser
Braingeyser is one of the classics. It has been played in more than one strong deck, notably Academy decks of various eras, but I will always remember this one as one of the few kill conditions in the original (or at least early) The Deck, which is generally credited as the starting point of Magic strategy:

V. Breakthrough
This is one of my favorite cards. BDM and I spent years trying to make it good. Breakthrough is one of those cards that, different from Blaze, wasn't about making do with less impressive tools, it was about changing the way we look at, well, everything. One of the two basic paradigms in Magic since Weissman are "getting two cards for one equals good," but Breakthrough made it okay to look at card economy a little differently in exchange for Threshold in the Werebear decks. It was a minor skill tester, too. It isn't necessarily intuitive to figure out that you discard to your Wild Mongrel before playing Breakthrough sometimes (you aren't going to keep one or two of those cards anyway).

VI. Chalice of the Void
The most recent Extended format is probably close enough in most of your minds that I don't have to say too much about this one. Chalice is awesome on two or on one, and in some formats, players just dump it down for zero on the first turn because they don't have anything better to do. Hey! It counters Moxes, Black Lotus, etc.

VII. Chord of Calling
Chord of Calling is just an awesome card. It has played a role in numerous impressive decks, most recently the appropriately named Project X. There are probably more important Chord of Calling stories in the annals of Magic experience, but this one is mine.

My teammates Paul Jordan (LOL) and the GP Champ Steve Sadin went X-1 each in Week One. Paul lost in the first round (but Steve and I got there) and Steve lost in the last round. That meant that besides my first round win, I needed to win exactly one match to get us not only plane tickets to Charleston, but a completely blameless record in our first and (then) only ever event. In that last round fight, I donked a match I should have won with a really complicated Beach House variant (Combo Deck), and I was heartbroken. Going into Week Two of the Team PTQ season, I switched to a much easier to play green-white Glare of Subdual deck that nevertheless featured numerous singletons and innovations, because that's how I roll.

When I was on the fence before the second PTQ, I played a Magic Online match that shone on me hot and loud, like walking past the burning bush. The matchup was my green-white deck versus short lived It! Girl! Ghost Dad. I had Loxodon Hierarch and six untapped lands. He had Ghost Council of Orzhova, Tallowisp, some 2/2, and six of his own. On his turn, Ghost Dad tapped for Thief of Hope, triggering Tallowisp, searching up Pillory of the Sleepless, kolding my Hierarch. Tapped out, he swung.

During combat, I tapped to Chord for Nikko-Onna, destroying the Pillory. Elephant fought Ghost Council, Nikko-Onna got in front of 2/2; the Tallowisp... Well, that one got in for 1.

With damage on the stack, I played Shining Shoal, moving the Ghost Council damage to Tallowisp and triggering Nikko-Onna's ability, which simultaneously reloaded her for the next enchantment in his enchantment-based deck, killed all his guys, and left him tapped out. I of course had gas down and gas in hand.

I knew I had to play green-white after this dramatic turn.

I mean, that sequence was obviously a beating, but why is it such a legitimately great story? I actually talked about it on my Podcast on Listener Pselus heard the Podcast and tracked me down for my then-unpublished deck list. It got him a PTQ win that very weekend (the first of many I hope)... in part because he pulled off the exact same awesome play.

VIII. Condescend
This was just a tight little puzzle piece. We've played this model from Power Sink to Syncopate, but for my X ManaBlue Mana, Condescend was the best. It's not very good in the abstract (you are often guaranteed to be paying more to counter than the opponent played for his card) but you can hassle a bit and burn the spell to take a peek at your top two... Of course when you actually stick Condescend it is some kind of beating.

Like a lot of the popular cards on this list, Condescend was featured in more than one successful deck. However the one that I always remember is Phil Freneau's from the Mirrodin Block PTQ season. Phil was part of the Team ABU drubbing of the Invasion Block Pro Tour (four copies of their green-red deck in the Top 8, even if Zvi won). In Mirrodin Block, Phil played Tooth and Nail... but spashed blue for Condescend and Serum Visions. Adding a color actually helped make his deck more consistent. The eight Scry spells helped set up his Cloudposts and draw into the eponymous theme card.

Phil Freneau's "Counter Tooth"

XIX. Crime // Punishment
Crime // Punishment gets a full medium-awesome from me, but has never gotten all the respect it deserves from most critics. In Block we played Crime // Punishment as kind of an extra Savage Twister... Though the cards did different things (everyone played this card for Punishment, but Osyp always maintained that the Crime side was a legitimate finisher), they did get kind of lumped together. Following is an embarrassing bit of coverage from PT–Charleston (yeah, we got there despite my Week One screwup in the finals). From Ted Knutson's Charleston Blog:

"Apparently Jordan was getting beat down by a Watchwolf with a Signet, Crime // Punishment, and a Temple Garden in hand, and was trying to figure out the most optimal way to get rid of it. He and Sadin put their heads together and then decided to play the dual land untapped, taking two, then cast the Signet before casting Punishment for two. They were then immediately dismayed when their newly cast Signet went to the graveyard along with the Watchwolf, leading me to wonder: Is it possible for bad play to rub off?

Regardless if this and doubtless other gaffes in the first three rounds, Flores and team Two-Headed Giant find themselves sitting pretty at 3-0."

I've made some questionable decisions in my time, but I definitely didn't direct that one.

X. Death Cloud
This card is really interesting. It's kind of like Necropotence; Death Cloud forces you to build your deck in a certain way, and direct your actions, strategically, with a certain form, in order to break it. You see, Death Cloud is symmetrical, but gives its player the opportunity to bias against one of its axes to fake card advantage. The most common way was to drop your entire hand so that when you played a Death Cloud wrecking everything, you wouldn't have a hand to lose, meaning the opponent was losing more than you even though you were spending a Death Cloud and he wasn't. Another way was to invest cards in the board that would not be affected by Death Cloud, most notably artifacts. A third way was to play cards that would pay you back, for example Solemn Simulacrum. Here is a deck that did all these things:

Lucas Glavin, probably the most underrated deck designer in the United States, if not the world, put together Manning's U.S. Nationals Top 8 deck. I'd say Lucas (in this same tournament) was the only person to have ever stuck all four Plow Unders and lost a game... but I did that myself just a few months ago in an Extended PTQ (embarrassing).

XI. Death Denied
I was getting ready to write about Gadiel's Gifts Ungiven win in Philadelphia over Kenji, and how great Death Denied was... But then I remembered this was a Saviors of Kamigawa card, and didn't actually get played in that Pro Tour. Oh well. A worthy inheritor, at least.

XII. Decree of Justice
A few years ago I made maybe the only deck ever that can legitimately say it was a 9-1 or so favorite over full-on Affinity (Skullclamp and all of it). My deck had a few vulnerabilities, including Flashfires out of a red deck's sideboard (of course Seth Burn convinced me not to play Sacred Ground, citing "The Fear"), Elf and Nail (then unknown), and Decree of Justice. Seth made Top 8 at Regionals with his, surprise surprise, red deck.

When he took up my deck to play in U.S. Nationals, the Dragonmaster Brian Kibler made what in hindsight seems like an obvious change: he removed Akroma to play main deck Decree of Justice; with so few ways to lose, he figured—and logically—that Decrees of his own would be great to keep the game even.

Brian lost in the Top 8... to... damn it... Affinity. This is kind of like having to admit that your Secret Force deck lost in the Top 8 to vanilla Sligh or your Turbo-Stasis deck bought it to Necro. These things happen sometimes, even to good people.

Brian Kibler's "G/W Control"

XIII. Demonfire
Simply the finest Red x-spell of all time. I can't imagine that I have to sell most readers on this fact.

XIV. Detonate
To the best of my recollection, Dave Price, the original fire god, invented this card for Deadguy Red. It is kind of like Repeal in that it is always more expensive than what it is killing, but that is okay on two fronts: 1) sometimes you are killing a 0 and one mana isn't very much, and 2) it's awesome to nug your opponent for X. Detonate graduated to main deck "one mana Sinkhole" status in the Artifact Land format. Masahiro Kuroda paved the way for countless Japanese Pro Tour Champions after him.

Masashiro Kuroda's "Anan Go"

XV. Disrupting Shoal
Kai Budde was the smartest when he previewed this card. A lot of players—myself included—looked at Disrupting Shoal and saw a poor Spell Blast (more mana to hard cast, conditional as a Force of Will) but Kai pointed out that in Constructed Magic (at least prior to the Tier Two era), everything costs the same, so you actually have a fair shot of having the relevant mana cost in your hand (most of the game being ones and twos).

XVI. Drain Life
This is one of the classics. A 1995 PTQ-winning tournament report I read changed my life. It mentioned that this card got good at about four or five mana. That comment helped to shape how I thought about game development, gave form to things that I kind of knew but didn't yet have words to express. For the best Drain Life match in the history of the Pro Tour, do yourself a favor and download Maher vs. Davis (BitTorrent) from Pro Tour–Philadelphia 1999.

XVII. Earthquake
In the early days, we didn't really understand basic elements of flying versus not flying as they were assigned to particular cards. Like it is pretty obvious that Flying Men is better than Fugitive Wizard. They are the same, only one can fly. So doesn't it follow that Hurricane should be better than Earthquake? What about Cockatrice versus Thicket Basilisk? In general, in both cases, the non-intuitive opposite is true. Earthquake is better precisely because flying is uncommon / less common than regular old gravity-bound transportation. I suppose Cockatrice is vastly superior to Thicket Basilisk in Limited, but for our Constructed (shudder) purposes of slapping a Lure on a creature (mondo combo alert), Thicket Basilisk was the better: Cockatrice was liable to get through the Red Zone without a block, and we had no need of that.

XVIII. Engineered Explosives
The absolute coolest thing I have ever heard implemented on this already fantastic card is overpaying its mana cost. Engineered Explosives has sunburst, meaning that with a cost of X Mana, you can pay 1 Mana or you can pay  Mana, if you only pay one color, it only gets one counter. Why does this matter? By overpaying, Engineered Explosives can dodge Chalice of the Void and Counterbalance... Great defense in the Assault / Loam deck.

XIX. Ertai's Meddling
Once upon a time, there was a card called Scragnoth. This card, while not "good" in precisely the way we think of "good" cards, was a serious problem for a small subset of decks. They couldn't counter it, they had a hard time keeping it off of them. A solution, if not the solution, was Ertai's Meddling, which while it does not counter Scragnoth, certainly sort of counters it, at least as long as you need it off the board. Dave Williams still owes me an Ertai's Meddling from a 1998 Neutral Ground Tempest Block PTQ that he won, playing Brian Schneider's customary end-of-the-season special.

XX. Invoke the Firemind
Originally our 'Tron deck for Honolulu had three Tidings. I'm not sure how this ended up happening in testing, but that became two Tidings and one Invoke the Firemind (Cranial Extraction?). Osyp decided he liked braining people for X (apparently more than drawing X cards, because he kept siding the Invoke out), so then we had one Blaze as well for the 1/1/1 split. Poor Invoke! I don't know that it has seen Standard play since Honolulu, though it was certainly a dangerous Drift of Phantasms do-everything singleton in Charleston.

Oh wait! There was that whole "I'm the best deck in the format" Heartbeat combo deck that came out of Honolulu, too. Hmmm. Well? Check back in two entries.

XXI. Kaervek's Torch (with special guest "VG")
This card will always hold a special place in my heart. I won a 1997 PTQ, the last of the season with, um, it. I got one of those degenerate decks with multiple X spells, and I used the Torch to win most of my matches in the Swiss. I remember playing against then-reigning U.S. National Champion Dennis Bentley and braining him with my Torch. He had a Memory Lapse. I did it again. He had a Power Sink. Do you have another? I sure did. Volcanic Geyser you!

The Top 8 was more of the same, perhaps more disgusting. Of the eight players in the Top 8 Rochester draft, six had Torches. My co-winner (two slots) David Bachmann actually had two Torches. Back then, one additional card was added to each pack so that each player would get two cards from each pack (eight Top 8 players, fifteen cards to a pack... you needed one more, or so they thought). It just so happened that they kept adding Torches (randomly). I actually won every game in the Top 8 with Torch. I didn't have a second X spell this time, but I did have two Elven Caches. I am not ashamed to say that I beat my friend and Top8Magic co-conspirator Matt Wang with Torch you, untap, Cache Torch, untap, Torch you.

He had Griffins.

XXII. Maga, Traitor to Mortals
This guy was built to be played with Heartbeat of Spring. The decks that ran him even in Kamigawa Block didn't have easy access to Black ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana... unless the sort of color-shifted Mana Flare was in play. In the awesome Team Trios Standard deck that came out of PT–Honolulu (Max Bracht's Top 8), Maga was special. I always got a kick out of the fact that a deck with one black source could so easily play the Black ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana, let alone that essential X.

A question that got asked, especially as the summer months approached and Demonfire was legal, was why play a triple black fourth color endgame card when Demonfire or any X ManaRed Mana was available. The answer is that you actually wanted a three for Drift of Phantasms... It made your deck more consistent (I know that seems strange) than having to raw dog a singleton.

XXIII. Meltdown
My first round of Pro Tour–New York 1999, I was up a game against the Hall of Fame's Alan Comer. In Game 2 I had stalled on two lands for too long while Alan developed, but finally got a third and tapped 2 ManaRed Mana for Rack and Ruin... Alan got kind of rigid in his seat , then quickly calmed down. "Whew," he said, peering down at his board of Grim Monoliths, Voltaic Keys, Thran Turbines, and Fluctuators. "I thought that was going to be Meltdown. Untap, kill you."

Meltdown would have been a gigantic beating at its inaugural Pro Tour, in a room full of cheap artifacts, many of which have seen Banned List and Restricted List space... So of course there were a total of two decks in the Top 8 sporting only a total of five copies! Granted, one of those decks won.

XXIV. Molten Disaster
This works on so many levels... Molten Disaster is the David Beckham of X-spells.

XXV. Prosperity
Prosperity is an important card in Magic history for a couple of reasons. Mike Long's win in Paris showed the world, essentially for the first time, that a combo deck could be the best deck... and this was in Block. On a personal note, playing, and playing against the Bloom deck—particularly with regards to Prosperity—over the next two summers taught me so much about Magic counting and informed my ability to analyze card economy.

In 1997 Eric Taylor had not yet introduced the world to his seminal theory of Virtual Card Advantage, and though most players understood the inherent economy of a Hymn to Tourach, they did not have the language to mathematically look at Prosperity. I think most people saw Prosperity as a -1 that happened to work in a particular combo strategy without really seeing how time so inherently intersects with card advantage. I think that a lot of players, when they don't know what to do, just go for a two-for-one, tap their mana, and leave themselves open for a big turn; I know I fall for this sometimes. Prosperity is kind of the contrapositive of this kind of tharn indecision. You seem like you are dropping cards—at least one, and you're the guy tapping mana—but in fact, when you stick it correctly, your opponent ends up with tons of cards he will never have time to use. He might as well have drawn stone nothing. It took a while for me to understand this clearly... at least until the summer of 1998.

Mike Long's "Wishing Well"

XXVI. Shining Shoal
I'm not going to top the Pselus-bogarted green-white story from Chord of Calling (above), so I'm not going to try. Shining Shoal was pretty underrated for a long time; I would say that it took Ghost Dad to put this card to the forefront where it belonged, but that's probably not true just because it was essentially default in Kamigawa Block. I think that most people thought of Shining Shoal as a white-on-white card and didn't realize that they could use it to close when they were behind on the board to TOGIT Three-Color, Gifts, or whatever deck had a 5/5 in play and not very much life.

XXVII. Sickening Shoal
Here is a Shoal that at least won a Pro Tour. I remember hanging out with Mark Herberholz and his asking me what I liked in Standard. Mark presented a mono-black control deck with Sickening Shoal "as its Contagion." It wasn't long after that Mark was in the Top 8 of Philadelphia with a very different Sickening Shoal deck, jockeying its Arcane tricks like it was Mental Magic.

Gadiel actually won.

XXVIII. Skeletal Scrying
Believe it or not, there was a time when black didn't have Wrath of God, and if they wanted a Wrath of God effect, they had to team up with white. This marriage, off-and-on since the early days of Alpha when Serra Angel came out on the back of Dark Ritual, continues today with the Orzhov. Well, before the days of Basilicas and Godless Shrines, Constructed Master Gabriel Nassif put together what was then yet another installment of his long line of innovative decks, decree.dec.

Gabriel Nassif's "Decree.dec"

Though not an obvious combination deck, decree.dec, a.k.a. Nassiferson, put a lot of cards in the graveyard with cycling or one-for-one attritions like Duress and Cabal Therapy. This let him set up Skeletal Scrying fueled—in both ways—by Renewed Faith.

Skeletal Scrying was played, of course, in some of the best Odyssey Block decks and has been touched on in various formats since, but I think this is where it was best.

XXIX. Stroke of Genius

High Tide.

I guess you can count PalinFlare, Fluctuator (Zvi's first Top 8), and Snap-Cradle (Chapin's unsung New York 1999 concoction).

This card made numerous careers, gave Hovi his second Pro Tour win, and put Budde on the map. Of the thirty-odd cards on this list, Stroke of Genius is almost undeniably the most significant.

"It was basically an efficient kill card for combo decks that served a backup role as a card drawer, or it was a mediocre card drawer for control decks that had Grim Monolith, but few better options." —Pat Chapin

Tommi Hovi's "Draw & Co."

Main Deck

60 cards

Ancient Tomb
City of Brass
Tolarian Academy
Volcanic Island

19 lands

0 creatures

Lotus Petal
Mana Vault
Mind Over Matter
Mox Diamond
Power Sink
Scroll Rack
Stroke of Genius
Time Spiral
Voltaic Key

41 other spells

Arcane Denial
Gorilla Shaman
Red Elemental Blast

15 sideboard cards

XXX. Weird Harvest
See Max Bracht's deck under Maga, above. This one is basically Prosperity 2006. Half the time the opponent didn't even have relevant cards to get when the Heartbeat player went off with Weird Harvest. The reason this worked is because Heartbeat could go for Drift of Phantasms; each Drift was essentially a Heartbeat of Spring or Early Harvest via transmute, or a game-ending Maga or Invoke. One of the cool things about the Heartbeat deck is that most combo decks have some degree of uncertainty. Not Heartbeat; not really. If you stuck the Weird Harvest and were still breathing, you by definition had all the tools and won almost all the time.

Special Guest: Arashi, the Sky Asunder
Arashi doesn't fit my criteria (an actual "X" in his mana cost) but as an uncounterable, instant Hurricane he was a superb answer. One thing I really liked about the guy when I discovered him around Champs 2005 was that he could PWN Meloku and Keiga even if the opponent had a hand full of Remands. 5/5 for 3GG is no slouch, either. A deck:

Next Week: Presumably Standard, maybe a little Block. See you then!

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