Commander Spotlight: Citadel of Pain

The act of gaming is rooted so much in social interaction, it should come as no shock that even the most trivial parts of a game can foster a few stories. Whether it’s key plays, amusing antics by those involved, or even the occasional debate among friends, games are nothing if not a vehicle of bringing people together over a common activity.

And when you do that enough times, it’s inevitable that stories develop.

Whether it’s a one-time event that’s so preposterous, ridiculous, improbable, or out of the ordinary as to stand out, or a recurring series of antics or issues as to become predictable or routine, forging stories with those over shared interests are useful for the larger shared experiences we all have, but they also create great anecdotes to recall later on.

Now this could involve specific games themselves, such as an epic day of Twilight Imperium or a wild ride through the streets of Arkham Horror, or, in the case of Magic, it could come down to a specific turn, specific moment, or specific card.

Play with anyone long enough and the odds of this happening are almost guaranteed.

I’ve built up such Magic-related memories with the game, having played with dozens of different friends and family (and even a few strangers) over a 25 year span. I could regale people all day long with specific MTG-related moments seared into memory that are full of excitement, frustration, and laughter. Some are commonly experienced by most Magic players at some point such as miraculous comebacks, long pauses in gameplay for a rules check, or having to deal with that friend of a friend who joins in for one game and totally focuses more on winning than enjoying time with new people.

Of these myriad Magic recollections, only a few come during the era of Mercadian Masques. It was a time where my game groups were shifting and it was right before the first of three periods where I took a brief break from the game (in this case that lasted until Apocalypse).

Despite me not being highly active from the Nemesis-Planeshift era, I had plenty of newly made friends who were. And they had a wide-ranging opinion on the sets of this period. Some of them loved the multicolored Invasion themes, whereas others scorned and avoided them.

However, like most, nearly all of them avoided getting heavily invested in Prophecy.

…well, all except for one, who went the other direction. But that’s another story.

Prophecy is universally considered one of the worst Magic sets to date for a variety of reasons. But even accepting that, it did have its fair share of decent multiplayer-focused cards. Including this week’s pick.

Today we have: Citadel of Pain

Name: Citadel of Pain

Edition: Prophecy

Rarity: Uncommon

Focus: Damage Dealing / Board Control

Highlights: Prophecy was not exactly a high point in Magic’s lengthy set history. Not only was its storyline segmented from the rest of the Mercadian block, which led to some disjointed conceptual understandings, but the set itself leaned heavily into mechanics like rhystic magic that revolved around punishing rather than rewarding players – including this particularly punitive enchantment.

At the time, Citadel of Pain was an incredibly effective card in Red decks because its impact was very ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t. At this time mana burn still existed, so players were presented with a rather effective no-win situation. Because Citadel of Pain deals damage to each player at the end of their turn equal to the the number of untapped lands they had, they were given an onerous decision of how much damage they’d like to take.

If you decided to leave mana open at the end of your turn, say to be able to react to the actions of your opponents (or at least give the impression thereof), you would take damage for the pleasure of doing so. On the other hand, if you wanted to minimize any damage taken, you had to be able to tap that land for mana and then channel it into spells and abilities. If you couldn’t, you’d take damage from mana burn instead.

Which meant that damage-wise, your best option was to be completely tapped out and severely vulnerable to the whims of your opponents.

That was Prophecy for you.

When mana burn was eliminated, a number of cards were objectively weakened, including Citadel of Pain. Yet its most useful attribute – that of damaging those sitting on lots of untapped land – is just as potent as ever in longer multiplayer formats like Commander, where reaction and defense are often factored into deckbuilding decisions as much as going on the offense.

Here, Citadel of Pain doesn’t disappoint. For a paltry three mana, it forces your opponents to decide just how much mana they want to leave open from turn to turn and taking damage equal to the difference. In longer games where players routinely have 8+ land to work with each turn, this choice is especially important. If they can’t use that land, most players are going to willingly tap out some of it, but it’s also equally likely that players aren’t going to want to seem completely open to attack, meaning that they’ll likely leave a couple land open each turn just in case. This ensures that you’ll be doing at least a couple damage to each player each round, making it incredibly efficient damage dealing versus its casting cost.

That all being said, there are two caveats to be aware of. First is that the Citadel, being a true Prophecy era card, does not discriminate – so this will affect you as well as your opponents. Second, and tying into the first, is that people aren’t going to love having to make the mana vs damage choice for long, especially those who have copious amounts of land. Don’t be surprised if it – or you – becomes a target after too long.

But hey, it’s also the kind of card that has the capacity to create some memorable stories.

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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