Magic 2010: Presence of Mind Review (Part 1 of 2)
Thus far in our coverage of Magic 2010, we’ve explored the origin of the set as the first core set release to contain new cards. Up through Tenth Edition, core sets were exclusively reprints of existing cards, and were released once every two years. While this allowed for a rotating collection of reprints to help define the standard metagame, it had more than a few drawbacks as well.
For one thing, reprints of existing cards meant that many players already had them from the original sets, and so weren’t always enthusiastic about acquiring more. Second, in the absence of a unifying whole or theme, the sets suffered from a bit of a disjointed feel as cards from different stories and worlds were thrown together in a patchwork.
If you could summarise the aims of the Magic 2010 designers in a single word, it would be resonance. As developer Tom LaPille put it,
In some ways, Magic 2010 is a creative reboot. We want Magic cards to feel like resonant and recognizable fantasy. To accomplish this, we chose cards with resonant concepts and made new cards to represent ideas we liked that had not yet been made into cards. In other ways, Magic 2010 is a design and development reboot. We included cards that had mechanics that we loved and had good concepts. Where we found cards that had effects that we felt represented Magic in the way we wanted but had poor fantasy concepts, we changed the concepts and made a new version. We also made some cards that we have wanted to make before but did not have room for in previous sets.
So how did they accomplish this? According to Aaron Forsythe, there were four primary means used to convey the feel and flavour they wanted from the set. The first of these was concept. We mentioned in our review of We Are Legion the disconnect noted by Wizards between traditional fantasy tropes and some of the more proprietary creations heavily employed in Magic’s later sets, like Kavus and Baloths. Although you won’t see many Unicorns in the “advanced” sets due to flavour considerations, images like those are fair game for the new core set since they’re ones that non-Magic-playing fantasy fans are already well-familiar with.
The second approach was to subordinate colour pie to flavour where it was appropriate. Forsythe uses the example of Entangling Vines and Dehydration. The latter saw print as far back as Mercadian Masques, but when looking for a resonant Green spell that felt like an “entangling vines” effect from any number of fantasy role-playing games, it fit the bill perfectly. Voila, swap for and you’ve got a new Green common!
Third was a willingness to stretch the power level, again where it made sense to do so. The poster child for this approach was the reprinting of Lightning Bolt, an iconic and too-powerful spell in Red. The last time Lightning Bolt had seen print was in Fourth Edition, and in some ways the game of Magic had spent the intervening years trying to forget that the card had ever been printed. The final avenue of design for the set came from a similar place, but rather than highlight strength it highlighted elegance. This was personified in the card Fireball. Never the easiest of X-spells for the new player to understand, it nevertheless encapsulated the essence of what casting a fireball was all about. More mana, bigger boom!
The combination of these four design elements lead Wizards to craft a core set unlike any other in the game’s history, and it is a testament to that success that we are approaching the fourth iteration of the new standard with Magic 2014. On that note, we now look to a deck that combines flavour and power with Presence of Mind.
At its heart, Presence of Mind is very much a skies deck, though its name might lead one to conclude that there’s a bit more subtlety and nuance here. Although it has a few of the usual shenenigans one might expect from this colour pairing, its creature suite is quite straightforward. In our last review (We Are Legion), we looked at a deck that started out on the ground, then took to the air with its backup air force once the ground game bogged down for the last few rounds of damage. Presence of Mind is not dissimilar, though it largely skips the opening-phase ground game altogether and heads right for the skies as soon as it can, with a few ground-based options more designed to congest than to attack.
Not for nothing we find a Zephyr Sprite as the deck’s opening one-drop, a simple 1/1 creature with flying. The Sprite actually carries a bit of interesting history to it, as it’s a reskin (“functional reprint”) of the classic Flying Men from the game’s first-ever expansion, 1993’s Arabian Nights. For a single mana, this is quite an efficient creature, and Wizards soon decided after printing it that it was too strong to give to Blue, a colour which shouldn’t expect to see high-efficiency creatures on the low end of the mana curve. It was replaced in 1999 when it appeared in Mercadian Masques as Cloud Sprite, updated with a drawback to achieve the balance Wizards felt the card needed to offset what it offered. For another look at how strong Wizards felt about the need to offset a simple 1/1 flier with a drawback, Odyssey’s Thought Nibbler provides a great example as well.
Flying Men proper would not see print again until it was reprinted on a Timeshifted sheet for 2006’s Time Spiral. Instead, in the intervening years it moved over to White, a colour which could expect high efficiency for its Weenie creatures. It appeared as the Suntail Hawk in 2002’s Judgment, and Lantern Kami two years later for Champions of Kamigawa.
When it came time to design Magic 2010, it was a toss-up between Flying Men (reskinned as Zephyr Sprite) and Cloud Spirit. As Mark Rosewater relates, those without developmental background felt that there would need to be a drawback, but in the end the unfettered Flying Men made their triumphant return. Although Zephyr Sprite would be a one-and-done card, being left off of the core set design file the very next year, it’s interesting to note that Wizards produced a ‘strictly better’ version at uncommon in Magic 2013 with Jace’s Phantasm. The legacy of the Flying Men lives on!
Moving on to the two-drops, we find another 1/1 flier with the Sage Owl, a reprint from Weatherlight. The Owls are very useful, letting you dictate the course of your next few turns. Though it might not be readily apparent, this also represents a level of mana fixing, as it can help ‘even out’ your land draws to a small degree. If your next land is five cards away it won’t help you any, but it can get you the land you’re looking for ahead of schedule if it happens to be amongst your top four cards in your library, or push a few to the bottom if you’re already mana-flooded.
The deck offers you a pair of Owls, as well as a singleton Coral Merfolk. The latter is a bit of a misfit, as the extra point of power doesn’t do much to offset its fragility and gives it a fairly brief shelf life in the red zone. Still, it can help prop up your defenses by trading out with an x/2 attacker, helping you slow the pace of action on the ground as you assemble your aerial army.
Helping you with that endeavour are a pair of three-drops in the Wall of Frost and Horned Turtle. Unlike the Turtle, the 0 power of the Wall means it won’t ever kill an attacker outright, but it does do a fine job of placing a chill on the red zone by locking down anything it blocks for a turn. A 7 toughness will survive most encounters, letting the Wall place a drag on your opponent’s best attacker each turn. The Turtle, on the other hand, is less stout as a 1/4, but being able to inflict damage and attack give it some utility as well. Finally, there’s a single Phantom Warrior here, another Weatherlight reprint that gives your deck the ability to deal damage each turn regardless of how congested the board state is. Although not a flier, the evasive quality of the Warrior makes him a perfect fit.
Moving on to the four-drops, we find a pair of Snapping Drakes augmenting our air force. Although Wind Drake was also printed in Magic 2010, Presence of Mind recognises that in a deck able to stall the game out a little longer, the extra power of the Snapping version makes it the better call. We also find our first rare card here in the classic Clone. Clone has been in the spotlight recently with the upcoming changes to the legend rule with Magic 2014, but in this environment- one that lacks legendary creatures- Clone does nothing more than it was designed to do- make a copy of the best creature on the board.
Just as a strictly-etter Flying Men was created with Jace’s Phantasm, the top of the deck’s mana curve represents another such pairing all on its own. First, there’s the uncommon Air Elemental, a card which had been included in every core set since the dawn of the game. A solid 4/4 body for five mana, it’s a simple card made much stronger by its flying. Then we have another evasive 4/4 at the same cost, one rarity level higher: Djinn of Wishes.
The Djinn of Wishes is another card that carries the intent of Magic 2010 bound up in its design. During the set’s creation, Aaron Forsythe compiled a list of standard fantasy themes and tropes he wanted to see in the set, and held weekly design competitions amongst Wizards staff to elicit suggestions. Designs would be mocked up and posted on a bulletin board, and employees could vote on which one they liked best. One of these contests was for a “genie of the lamp,” and Dave Guskin wn with a Djinn that let you tutor up three cards from your library and put them on toop in any order when it entered the battlefield. Flavourful, yes, but a little too strong- one it made it to development its ability changed to the current activated one. Interestingly, it was also a 3/4 initially, but again development nudged it up to its current power level.
The Djinn’s ability is strong, though it comes at no small cost of four mana per activation. Only a few cards are more expensive than this, so this isn’t really a way to cheat out larger spells and creatures. Instead, it’s all about card advantage- being able to play more cards than your opponent. To get the most from the ability, it’s critical to understand how it resolves, as it’s not entirely clear from the card. First, the timing restrictions of cards like summons and sorceries are waived. That means you can use it after your opponent declares their attack to essentially flash in a surprise blocker (assuming you reveal a creature, though the Sage Owls can help set up plays for you here). If you reveal a sorcery or enchantment, it can be cast, too- even if you’re using the ability at the end of the opponent’s turn. This can make a card like Mind Control even more brutal, since you are effectively giving the stolen creature haste rather than having to wait an entire turn to swing with it.
Where you don’t get away with ‘bending’ the rules here is with land. The only time you’ll be able to play that land is if it’s your main phase and you haven’t already played a land in the same turn. Hey, even genies’ wishes have limits, too! Even without the extra ability, this is still a second Air Elemental, and can give you a very solid presence in the sky.
Dominate the Mind
The noncreature supporting suite of Presence of Mind reads as something of a what’s-what of the standard effects for each colour. Unfortunately the problem with this approach is that it falls prey to the “jack of all trades, master of none” effect. Instant-speed removal, for instance, is limited to a single Doom Blade. That’s it. In fairness, there’s also a Mind Control, which has the effect of ‘removing’ a threat from your opponent’s side of the board and adding it to your own.
Other than that, if you want to get rid of one of your opponent’s creatures, you’re eighter going to need to counter it on the way in (with a Cancel or Essence Scatter), or force them to discard it with a Mind Rot first. Useful effects all, but wildly inconsistent. The countermagic suite gets an addition with Negate, which can counter a noncreature spell. A single Telepathy also makes sure you can counter your opponent’s best threat, but while it can give you a wealth of information it doesn’t actually do much of anything. You might know your opponent is holding a Giant Growth, for example, but if you’ve got no way to counteract that, then all this does is let you know what’s coming before it comes.
A pair of Divinations offer you some card drawing, which does increase the deck’s consistency to a small degree (drawing more lets you see the deck’s cards more often). Rise from the Grave gives a creature a second lease on life- and it doesn’t have to be one of yours. This makes a good combo of sorts with Mind Rot, if your opponent discards something fat and expensive early enough. Finally, Sleep has been likened to Blue’s version of Overrun, a card that can enable a game-winning alpha strike. In this case, it’s by prying open your opponent’s defenses, leaving them open and exposed. Unlike Overrun, Sleep has a defensive aspect as well, letting you essentially blank an opponent’s next attack and buy yourself some more time.
Now that we’ve toured the deck, it’s time to put it through its paces. We’ll be back in two days time to report on how well it did, see you then!