Monday, March 14, 2016

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Holy Strength (Eighth Edition, 2003)

Meat and potatoes. It's hard to think of a simpler Magic card than Holy Strength here. It was published in the first Magic set - 1993's "Alpha" - and remained a staple of the game's "core sets" for almost twenty years. It was never really a "good" card, per se, although there are definitely certain circumstances when you would want to play it. But it was a familiar sight for multiple generations of players, enough so that it - like many other underpowered staples from the game's early days - was nevertheless a welcome presence.

The concept behind Holy Strength is not just simple, but rudimentary in such a way that it serves as a useful teaching tool. Holy Strength is an Enchantment - that is, a card you can cast that becomes a static ability, one that stays on the board and continues to be in effect unless and until another effect removes or alters it. In this case, Holy Strength provides a small boost to one of your creatures: a +1/+2 boost, to be precise, meaning one additional point added to their strength (the amount of damage they can dish out) and another two points added to toughness (the amount of damage they can survive). Say, for instance, you have one creature on the board - let's go with another relatively weak but sentimentally favored Core Set staple, the immortal Grizzly Bears:

So if you cast your Holy Strength on your Grizzly Bears, your Bears go from a respectable, if not particularly exceptional, 2/2 to a 3/4. That's nothing to sneeze at. Under certain circumstances, as I said, this is a perfectly respectable play. For instance, if you're playing Limited, where your card pool is, um, Limited, and you have to construct a deck out of a random pool of cards, there are times when you'll need that stalwart Grizzly Bear to fill the mana curve on your Green / White Selesnya deck.

But more often than not, if you're playing Constructed - any format Constructed - you will have access to better cards than Grizzly Bears and Holy Strength. Maybe even a card like . . . Anurid Brushhopper.

There is nothing really exceptional about Anurid Brushhopper. It's got a weird ability that you can't imagine using unless you built an entire deck around taking advantage of it - either a deck that needed you to discard a bunch of cards, or needed lots of blinking creatures, preferably both. But what makes it useful for this exercise is its stats - it's a 3/4 for CMC 3, or to be more precisely, for one green, one white, and one generic mana. That's the exact same price you'd pay for a Grizzly Bear with a Holy Strength attached, only on one card instead of two. It's more powerful because it's strictly better - essentially, one card that can do the job of two. If you had a choice between playing one Anurid Brushhopper or a Grizzly Bear with a Holy Strength, you'd be a fool to pick the latter unless there were other circumstances at play.

Magic is a numbers game. The decisions you make while building your deck all contribute to, hopefully, creating some kind of numerical advantage. If you've only got sixty cards in your deck (the minimum for Constructed, which for reasons of maximum efficiency its usually not a good idea to go over), every card has to pull its weight. Every card has contribute to your advantage - and if one of those cards is devoted to giving a small buff to another card, well, that's a very inefficient use of that precious slot. This is why Auras in general - not just Holy Strength, but most Enchantment cards dedicated to boosting creatures - can be a dicey proposition. One card that can't even function unless you have a creature on which to put it is an inefficient use of a card slot, unless the effect granted by the Aura is sufficiently powerful to overcome that weakness. Holy Strength isn't very strong, and even though it's cheap at just one white mana, it's just not worth it in most instances.

But it is cheap, and it is simple, which make it a great card for illustrating certain facets of the game - such as the usefulness (or lack thereof) of Auras, and the importance of card advantage. And if you're playing Limited, and need a cheap white spell to fix your curve - well, there you go. You probably have ten copies of the card stuffed in a shoebox somewhere. Even if you've never played Magic, you've probably got a few copies stuffed in the insulation of your house.

The other interesting thing about Holy Strength is that it's one of a matched pair with another card from the game's earliest days . . . UNholy Strength.

In terms of gameplay, Unholy Strength is slightly better than Holy Strength, inasmuch as black is the color much more likely to play cheap and aggressive creatures that could benefit from the kind of early-game boost a cheap Aura like this can provide. But that's not why it's interesting. Can you guess why this card, of all the 295 cards that made up the first Magic set, caused a bit of a ruckus? In 1993? It may not have inspired a Tom Hanks-starring made-for-TV movie about the hazards of fantasy gaming, but Magic did it's part to upset conservative parents across the Bible Belt, too. (For more information on this topic, check out this longer piece by Magic's own Mark Rosewater.)

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