What makes a card ‘good’?
Is it solely the power level of the card and how much ability it offers you compared to the casting cost? Does that only apply to cards which give you straight up advantage by themselves, or does that also apply to cards that enable powerful combos and important synergy?
Or is it measured by perceived entertainment value to the player? There are an abundance of incredibly powerful Magic cards that see regular gameplay, but many popular cards over the years have fostered reputations for being effective but not all that fun to play against (or sometimes even with).
Or is a card deemed good because of its presentation? After all, a card is more than just its printed text. Cards of objective strategic worth can easily come across jarring at times if it’s not packaged right, showing just how much the more subtle aspects of a card can be overlooked. From matching the artwork and flavor text to the card effects and the plane it’s representing, cards can lose their luster if their other visual traits don’t match up.
These factors are routinely parsed when players opine about the inherent value of a card, and unsurprisingly, there isn’t always universal consensus on whether or not it’s ‘good’. What’s usually missed in all that discussion – and rather obvious from the outside – is that a player’s opinion is usually shaped in part on whether or not that particular card fits into the style of Magic they like to play. As has been espoused often here, not every card is designed with the same player or format in mind, leading to some wildly disparate card opinions when discussed among the larger Magic-playing body.
For instance, one of the most famous cards in the game is Tarmogoyf, a highly expensive card that is a staple among competitive decks in Modern and Legacy formats. Nearly every longstanding tourney player will attest to its potency and overall worthiness. Naturally, to them, Tarmogoyf is incredibly good.
You know who doesn’t care much at all about it, though? Commander players. In that format, it’s pretty weak and rarely worth considering slotting. There are way better creatures to choose from that will be far more useful in their exploits.
For this week’s card pick the opposite is true. In this card’s case, it has generated an incredibly polarized pool of opinions as it has circulated over the years. Since its release, it has been often overtly dismissed by duelists and tournament players as too slow, too costly, and too much of a risk to be worth using. Yet within the casual multiplayer crowds the takeaway is much, much more positive.
Today we have: Celestial Mantle
Name: Celestial Mantle
Focus: Life Gain / Creature Buff
Highlights: The Zendikar set wasn’t particularly known for having an abundance of powerful White cards, but it did give us Celestial Mantle. This set the scene for the card’s split opinion pretty much since it was released, with those trying to find ways for White to be competitive in the meta of that time period and not believing Celestial Mantle was part of the answer. Which, admittedly, it probably wasn’t. But just as quickly as the competitive circuit dismissed it, Celestial Mantle went on to become a darling among multiplayer casual fans just as quickly thanks to its ability to create massive life gain with relatively little effort.
Despite its high casting cost for an aura at six mana, Celestial Mantle is a very straightforward card. The first and easily overlooked effect is that it gives the enchanted creature +3/+3, turning even 1/1 tokens into a moderate threat. Which, thanks to these numbers and the artwork’s color scheme, makes a nice callback of sorts to Divine Transformation, an early White aura that, yes, did actually see a fair amount of use among casual players in the game’s early days. (At least until Serra’s Embrace entered the scene…)
The second, and far more explosive ability, is Celestial Mantle’s life gain trigger. In this case, it states that whenever the enchanted creature deals damage to a player, you double your life total. In standard Magic games this can be handy to get you back or above 20 life after connecting with an opponent, but in EDH, where life totals already start at 40, doubling life totals can get out of hand in a hurry. Just getting through on one attack with the enchanted creature can take you from 40 to 80 life, and a second time through takes that 80 very quickly to 160. Naturally, it can get out of hand in a hurry if you’re able to get through your opponent’s defenses.
Which brings us to the card’s one obvious limitation and why some tend to dismiss this card: Celestial Mantle has no built in evasion. Although it provides a creature buff and scary combat trigger, it doesn’t actually help your creature get through to said opponent. And you need to hit them for the card to have any effect. If your opponent has a strong defense, this can be prohibitive. Therefore, for some players its cost to benefit ratio is off.
Of course, what is often missed by such players (and why it is much better suited for multiplayer formats), is that all you need to do is have that creature deal damage to an opponent. Any opponent will do. With more opponents to choose from, taking a more opportunistic approach ensures you’re far more likely to get the trigger to go off than in a 1 v 1 game.
Rather, the true limitation to Celestial Mantle is that the card does paint a rather notable target on itself, and by extension the enchanted creature. For one, for maximum effect you’re likely to be attacking the weakest player with it, and depending on your play group that may not go over well. Plus, even 1-2 successful life doubles is enough to put players on guard, and they will do whatever they need to do to stop that further. Just the threat of it can turn the table against you for fear of the mere possibility of it going off.
That said, most of the time getting it to trigger at least once is alone enough to make it well worth six mana.
Which is probably why so many players find it so darn, well, good.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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