Weatherlight was a set chock full of remarkable cards... that has, over the years, generated comparatively few remarks. Weatherlight's Standard was very strange, a window to today's multiple-block-structured Standard formats. Right before U.S. Nationals in 1997, Ice Age was reinstated, bringing Swords to Plowshares back with it, which served to overshadow the new set in the short term. Weatherlight was sandwiched between Impulse or Vampiric Tutor from Visions and the rapid-fire team of Jackal Pup, Mogg Fanatic, Wasteland, and Cursed Scroll in Tempest. World-shattering as it was in cases... the set was, at the time, somehow overshadowed.
Foremost among Weatherlight cards was a little instant that absolutely flabbergasted... everyone. When Abeyance was first printed, it was very nearly a true Time Walk (this was during a time in Magic history when "Everything [was] a Time Walk" including Man-o'-War, Memory Lapse, and even Arcane Denial next to Winter Orb), because at initial tournaments "abilities requiring an activation cost" included tapping lands for mana! Abeyance! Pow! No turn for you!
Believe me, it was a rude awakening to show up at a PTQ and find yourself unable to play spells.
Then, right before the Extended Pro Tour, reason prevailed and Abeyance was transformed into merely a very good spell (go ahead and play your creatures)... Which caused some deck designers to complain about a last-minute change in the metagame!
As you can see, this little spell caused quite a commotion. It isn't difficult to see... After all, Abeyance has a uniquely outstanding three-word phrase tacked onto the end of its rules text, the panacea of playability, that holy grail of two-mana instants. Of course it got noticed and of course it got played. Even after Abeyance's term as a Time Walk was up, it was still popular as an anti-combo card. Eventual Pro Tour Champion Matt Linde became, temporarily, the most popular player on the planet en route to his 1998 US Nationals win when he answered Mike Long's Cadaverous Bloom combo sequence with three wicked syllables... "Abeyance?"
Rishadan Port is probably the most reviled card of all time, followed by Cursed Scroll... but in its era, Ophidian inspired any number of nicknames, none of which are printable on this website.
There has never, ever, been a card that inspired a feeling of such utter un-fun futility as Ophidian. If you were hit once... It was like the game was already over. In those days gone by, the blue Counterspells were cheap, plentiful, and many times renewable. You know how you hate playing an awkward-mana spell, say three of your five mana or some such, and you get hit with Remand? Try Memory Lapse... when the opponent is hitting you with Ophidian. You don't get to play another land; you get to play the same spell... but Ophidian is going to ensure that if it is any good, it won't resolve the next time, either. Sorry, awkward mana man.
Playing against Ophidian was kind of like playing against a completely non-interactive combo deck. The games could be dramatically one-sided, with one player miles and miles ahead of the other... The only thing was, that instead of winning quickly on turn three or four and leaving you with a dirty feeling of having not sat down to play, Ophidian would take dozens of turns to win, grinding you down with a relentless staccato of no damage at all.
As horrible as it was to play againstOphidian... It was amazing to play behind, and inspired numerous great players to the early heights of their careers. Brian Kibler won his first Grand Prix with a Brian Schneider Ophidian deck, and Jon Finkel's most famous creation, arguably, was Forbidian, his Forbid + Ophidian blue control strategy (those two cards played quite well together). Most striking of all for me was seeing Ophidian in play the first time, in front of Dave Price at a local Ohio PTQ (he made Top 8). What is that? I asked, confused. Wasn't Dave the King of Red?
"Are you kidding? This guy is beatdown!"
Before there was dredge... There was Buried Alive!
I know it probably seems novel to you, reading this in 2007 after years of Hermit Druids, Cephalid Illusionists, and Flame-Kin Zealots, but Buried Alive was a rough deck to play against in 1997. If you weren't prepared to play against Ashen Ghouls, you were punished, and severely. If you didn't understand the math, that your Incinerate wasn't really getting you anywhere, you got killed. Wrath of God? Garbage. Phyrexian Furnace? The in-set solution was quite often too slow.
All this talk of Brian Schneider, Grand Prix–Toronto, and Weatherlight in general has me misty eyed. Now seems as fine a time as ever to re-live the epic battle between Dragonmaster and Shadowmage Infiltrator (from The Ten Greatest Battles of All Time):
On July 4th weekend 1997, Justin Gary was an unknown who had somehow stolen the U.S. National Championship and Bob Maher was some little kid. Jon Finkel, coming off of a U.S. Open win, was on his way to having the best Magic weekend since Dennis Bentley won the U.S. Nationals crown a year earlier. Kibler had yet to have his moment in the spotlight, with his Grand Prix–Toronto (or Pro Tour–Canada, as the pundits call it) win still a month in the making, but he, too, had won a grinder—the very last one—to qualify for Nationals. Finkel was armed with his then-trademark Counterpost deck, Kibler with multicolor Burned Alive he'd designed in concert with fellow deckbuilding guru Brian Schneider. Finkel's Counterpost deck was armed to the teeth against traditional Buried Alive decks, complete with Swords to Plowshares, Serrated Arrows, and Circle of Protection: Black waiting in the sideboard. Kibler's deck, however, as has since become something of his trademark, was hardly traditional.
The deciding Game 3 was a fast and furious one, with Kibler's Knight of Stromgald followed quickly by Buried Alive for a trio of Ashen Ghouls, while Finkel cantrip'd through his deck and put land into play with the mighty Thawing Glaciers. On Finkel's fifth turn he tapped out to drop a Serrated Arrows, all but stopping the future Dragonmaster's undead army in its tracks, and played out his Thawing Glaciers to continue digging for land. Kibler would have none of it, however, and after sending in his Knight unscathed, couldn't help but crack a smile when he played his sideboard bomb.
Hall of Famer Finkel will be battling at the Javitz Center at this week's World Championships!
Weatherlight offered numerous red cards of note, from Raphael Levy's Fire Whip to Dave Price's Lava Hounds and Goblin Vandal, to Randy Buehler's Firestorm (especially Randy Buehler's Firestorm)... but not one of those cards was as frustrating to play against as Æther Flash.
I distinctly remember showing up for the first Mir/Vis/Lite (Mirage / Visions / Weatherlight) Constructed PTQ of the season, meeting up with superstar Pat Chapin in Columbus, OH (and having personally won two PTQs within the previous seven months, mind you)... and feeling like I had never played tournament Magic before.
In Æther Flash—especially in the same debut tournament as Abeyance—I found a stop sign that more completely eviscerated the under-prepared than basically any other card I have played against before or since. There was just nothing, nothing, that some decks could do against this enchantment, resolved. I was playing a black-blue beatdown deck with Man-o'-War, Fallen Askari, and Nekrataal... Not one of my maindeck creatures could live through a single Æther Flash. It was like the game started off with Meddling Mage set to my deck. I was reduced to siding in my Sand Golems (Sand Golems are twentieth century technology that you may have heard of via old and dusty books... Think of them as really bad Dodecapods) because I didn't have anything else with toughness three or greater.
Believe it or not, I didn't get there.
Of all the cards in Weatherlight, including the world-warping Abeyance and the door-opening Buried Alive, in my opinion, the most significant was Gaea's Blessing.
Originally positioned as an answer to annoying Millstone decks (Millstone was the then-preferred kill method for Blue-White Control), Gaea's Blessing eventually became the win condition of choice, itself. Brian Schneider used to scoff at Kjeldoran Outpost (one of the most sit-there finishing cards in the history of do nothings)... Real men, he said, only needed a pair of Blessings to kill; that, and the will to play fast enough!
Gaea's Blessing made the early Oath of Druids decks possible. Just as it would defend a player from being decked by Millstone, so too would the Blessing keep you from your own "bad" Oath.
Gaea's Blessing hung out next to Abeyance on the cantrip all-star squad. Together with Howling Mine and a couple of Counterspells, they kept the opponent from doing—from being able to do—anything... forever.
Thanks to a breath of fresh air by the name of Time Spiral, Gaea's Blessing has been made relevant again today. A sometime inclusion in Mystical Teachings decks, primarily for the mirror; it is also a powerful infinite combo enabler and superb Brain Freeze defense.
I have always loved the flavor text on this card. For some decks, it has always been a terror to play against.
I remember a Pro Tour as late as 1999 or 2000 where some versions of Tinker were playing three copies of Phyrexian Colossus. I mean, you can't untap one either with its own ability or Voltaic Key if the opponent has Null Rod... so the strategy became to hit once, Tinker your Colossus for the next Colossus, hit again, repeat.
Before there was Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, there was Winding Canyons! A colorless land that could fit into any sort of a deck, Winding Canyons was played (albeit not as a "Tier One" card, necessarily) in primarily blue control decks. This card made mid-game attack situations difficult in the same way that a certain 2UUU Wizard from Time Spiral does, albeit in a much less devastating capacity.
Winding Canyons was efficient in that it offered a unique effect... but didn't require any extra deck space when played in a single color deck. The coolest thing about it, I always thought, was demonstrated in Andrew Cuneo's original Draw-Go. You could activate Winding Canyons, then play a Steel Golem on your opponent's turn; without passing priority, you could play anotherSteel Golem in response. Because the first Steel Golem was still on the stack, there would be no prohibition on the second (or any other creature). Thus, two Steel Golems could play on the same team, at the same time.
Practical Tactics of Ophidian
Most blue control strategies fall into one of two families: "protect the position" (Brian Weissman) or just "counter everything" (Andrew Cuneo... and most recently Guillaume Wafo-Tapa). The Ophidian mages offered a third strategy, and one that might be useful to those of you interested in maximizing your chances to win with modern analogues like Ohran Viper or to a lesser degree Shadowmage Infiltrator.
Out of the way!
The Block Ophidian players focused on getting their Snakes through. That was it. Now obviously they borrowed a little Weissman in that if it could kill Ophidian, they'd probably counter it, but in sharp contrast to Morphling, Masticore, and Meloku mages of the future, they added an additional condition: If it could block, they'd counter it; failing that, they'd bounce it. Though they preferred Man-o'-War (who wouldn't?) to get blockers out of the way, the battling blue magicians of 1997 were fine with temporary solutions like Boomerang. Why? Ophidian was more than just a creature, and more than just a source of card advantage. Ophidian represented the initiative. So long as Ophidian was hitting, that meant the blue player had forward momentum, meaning that the opponent didn't, and that he was looking at more and more cards. While a Memory Lapse might be the best card to stop anything that might try to stop the Snake, a card like Boomerang was fine... Think of it like this: It might not be Jayemdae Tome for the turn, but JalumTome isn't half bad, not when you get to tap all the opponent's mana and possibly get other attackers through. After all, they weren't really dropping cards if they were picking up new ones with the insidious Snake.
Ophidian was a perfect example of a card that defined, or at least changed, the field of battle. The opponent would invariably play differently when Ophidian was in play, with most of his plays likely keyed on getting rid of it. The blue player could use this to his advantage: The opponent's plays would become more predictable, and especially nervous players would run out whatever potential solutions they had as quickly as possible... In a way this was beneficial to the blue player; the opportunity to fight and hopefully win a lot of card-on-card brawls would help to keep the blue mage from drawing so many cards he'd have to discard (picking up two or more per turn will do that).
Two nights ago BDM hosted a great open bar / booster drafting event here in New York ("basically heaven" -Tim McKenna), where fifty or so international pros, local New York Magic players, and everyone in between was welcome, had a great time, etc. They closed up with a Chinatown dinner around 3am.
Tonight (Thursday, 6 December 2007) we are gathering at Katz's Famous Delicatessen on the Lower East Side at 8pm. You may have heard of Katz's via one of my many references to New York's oldest and best delicatessen, and you've definitely seen the lovable Meg Ryan excited over the food if you've seen When Harry Met Sally.
Who: Me, unnamed other members of the Top8Magic crew, and you (you're invited)
What: Delicious deli sandwiches, Magic conversation, etc.
Where: Katz's Deli, 205 East Houston Street, NY NY 10002 ("Houston [pronounced HOUSE-ton, NOT Hyus-ton] and Ludlow" to a cabbie)
When: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 8pm
Why: You love Magic: The Gathering and/or delicious food and/or michaelj
PS: Need a little luck? The last time there was a Pro Tour in New York members of the Car Acrobatic Team ate at Katz's with yours truly the first night of the Pro Tour. You know how they ended up after fueling themselves with Katz's pastrami!