Onslaught Card Spotlight: Complicate

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Long before Five Color or DC-10 – infinite mana Magic – were ever the rage for casual play at tournaments, even before two on two or three on three booster drafts were the standard pastimes for pros and amateur players alike – there was Mental Magic. Simple, elegant, and a true test of Magic knowledge, Mental Magic provided a way for players to break out of the routine of Constructed and Limited formats while maintaining the many levels of strategy that are inherent in the original game. Enthusiasts could be seen between rounds at tournaments playing cards face down before anyone had ever heard of Morph while onlookers tried to discern what all the other permanents in play were simply by their casting costs.

The popularity of this variant has significantly waned in recent years, but there are some players – myself included – who believe Mental Magic to be one of the most interesting and challenging ways to play the game. For those who don’t know how the format works, Mental Magic is played just like normal Magic, except for the fact that any card you draw can be used as either a land that produces every color of mana – in which case it is played on the table face down – or any spell with the same casting cost as the card in question. Thus, a card that costs Green Mana can be played as Llanowar Elves, Birds of Paradise, Giant Growth, Exploration, Mirri's Guile, Emerald Charm, Mtenda Lion... the list goes on. The catch is that each uniquely named card can only be played once over the course of a game – if your opponent plays Birds of Paradise first, you can’t play a Birds on your own turn, nor can you play two Birds of your own.

Because of the unique flexibility of every card in your hand, games of Mental Magic are rarely decided by early beatdown, simply because it’s impossible for the opponent to be short of lands, removal, or creatures of his own without a truly miserable draw of bizarre casting costs. This leads to Mental Magic games generally turning into battles of attrition, in which each player tries to present threats that replace themselves, or stop his opponent’s threats with cantrips of his own. This can lead to bizarre board situations like a Pyknite attacking into a Carrier Pigeons and one player Confounding the other’s Feral Instinct, only to have the Confound countered by Burnout.

Catch all that? That’s only a small number of Mental Magic’s staple cantrips, all of which can slowly but surely turn the tide in a game. Enough Pyknites and Striped Bears and Arctic Wolves, and pretty soon you’ll have a grip full of cards while your opponent struggles with his paltry two or three. Much of Mental Magic’s strategy revolves around being aware of such cantrip effects not only so you can use them yourself, but so you can avoid walking into those cantrips your opponent might play. A one toughness creature is just begging to be killed by Zap or Flare, an enchantment or artifact by Aura Blast or Uktabi Orangutan, or a white or green creature by Execute, Slay, or even Soul Rend. Playing around such two-for-one effects is nearly as important as using them yourself, because every card counts.

Perhaps the most important cantrip in the format is a little known – at least, outside of Mental Magic circles – counter from Ice Age called Force Void. The mere existence of Force Void defines the early turns of a Mental Magic game, because there’s nothing more frustrating than tapping out to play a spell only to have your opponent counter it and draw a card for your efforts. Disrupt, at least, can only target Instants and Sorceries, and there are far less cards that cost Blue Mana than cost 2 ManaBlue Mana, so it comes up with considerably less frequency. The threat of Force Void often leads to neither player tapping out to cast a spell as long as the opponent has three lands untapped, and it makes playing first comparable to the extra card gained from drawing first simply because of the window of opportunity to slip a spell under an opposing Force Void. Remember Invasion block, with all its Grizzly Bears to get under Exclude? That’s exactly how Mental Magic is with every spell – that is, at least until someone casts Force Void and it’s gone for the rest of the game. Walking a spell into a counter that lets your opponent draw a card feels like nothing short of a mugging.

Enter Complicate. Complicate is not unlike a Force Void plus Mana Leak split card. You can either cast it as a somewhat overcosted Mana Leak or cycle if for an effect identical to that of Force Void – either of which is a fairly attractive option in the early turns of the game. If your opponent taps out, you can make him privy to the feeling of being punched in the gut while his spell goes to the graveyard and you draw a card. If he simply taps low, you can at least get the satisfaction of saying no. And once even Mana Leak is no longer an attractive option, you can simply cycle it for something that might be more useful. Can you really ask for more than that from a counter?

With the gold counters from Invasion blockAbsorb, Undermine, and Dromar's Charm – all rotating out, control decks are faced with a decided lack of effective three casting cost countermagic, and Complicate seems poised to step up to fill this role. The departure of Fact or Fiction from the environment – as well as Nightscape Familiar – means that the effectiveness of Circular Logic in dedicated control decks will be significantly diminished, and as such they will be forced to look for alternatives like Complicate. They will not, it seems, be disappointed.

Complicate will certainly see play in control decks in the new Standard environment, as well as in Block Constructed. It will likely prove to be too expensive for faster formats like Extended, but even there it can’t be completely counted out. Card advantage is a good thing, and countermagic is a good thing, and – like Dismiss or Disrupt before it – Complicate merges these two good things into something that will in all likelihood prove to be great itself. Not only that, but unlike Disrupt, Complicate can simply be cashed in for another card as soon as its window of effectiveness has passed.

Will Complicate become a staple card in Constructed formats? Only time will tell. If it does, however, one thing is for certain; tournament competitors will start to learn to fear three untapped mana the way Mental Magic players have for years. Maybe this time around Force Void will be given the respect it is due.

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