Commander Spotlight: Essence Backlash

Although I’ve been playing Magic since the days when Mono and Poly Artifacts were still a thing, in all that time I’ve never been drawn to the tournament scene. Like many others, I don’t play Constructed in any way, shape, or form. Nor do I want to. While the appeal of these competitive formats is completely understandable, it’s simply not an environment that I enjoy.

Yep, they were a thing.

Yep, those happened.

Take the two eternal format Legacy and Vintage. These are two formats that have almost the entirety of Magic’s library to work with. Both are renown for having decks costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars to build (although still arguably cheaper in the long run than Standard), and their games are very quickly decided. That is, if you haven’t already won by turn three or four, you probably won’t.

The single time I’ve ever participated in a Legacy event was about almost a decade ago. And it involved Slivers.

No, really.

It was in the late spring of 2003, and Legions had just reintroduced Slivers to the game. A friend of mine was so excited that he built a casual deck to make use of them. A few weeks later, my play group was interested in trying out a tournament at a local card shop, and the next one on their calendar was Legacy. Originally, it was to have been an Extended tournament (the precursor to Modern), but they couldn’t generate enough interest, so they changed it. I wasn’t all that interested in participating, but they insisted, one even offering to cover any related entrance fees. So, for a lark, I relented, bringing along his Sliver deck as my choice.

His five color, 90 card Sliver deck.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the deck, and in a casual multiplayer setting it worked fine. But this endeavor was doomed from the start.

I don’t even recall my first opponent as it was over so quickly, though I believe it was a Red / White burn deck. I got a few creatures out each time before I died, quite apropos, in a fire.

My second opponent took the approach you are more apt to see in Legacy. This was the era of the Psychatog decks, and his had all the hallmarks of it: Fact or Fiction, Counterspell, Brainstorm, Mana Leak, Force of Will, some sideboarded Diabolic Edicts, and a whole bunch of Revised dual lands. He also splashed in White – mostly for Swords to Plowshares. I don’t think I ever got more than two or three creatures on the board in either game, although I did actually damaged him both times before Psychatog munched on my skull.

While that was all going on, I was also watching a neighboring player tear through opponents because of a relatively new card called Worldgorger Dragon and how it interacted with Animate Dead.

That’s Legacy for you.

Although I don’t thrive in that sort of scene, I appreciate those older formats because you get to use practically whatever cards you want. Mind you, most players don’t – tournaments tend to get homogenous with their deck builds – but the option is there. Plus, outside of casual settings, they’re the only place where you can actually use a good ol’ two mana Counterspell.

I have long enjoyed Blue, and for the first half of the game’s existence, Counterspell was the standard-bearer of counters. Other counters existed, but it they often had to provide some sort of extra incentive to the player to get them to spend more than two mana on it, such as exiling the spell or letting you keep the card.

However, the powers that be determined that such a paradigm wasn’t sustainable, and they shifted everything up one. Counterspell was stopped after Mercadian Masques, and after trying out a few variants here and there, Cancel became the new vanilla counter. Three mana variants have stuck around in block-centric forms, but if you want to get a counter with a decent bonus nowadays, it’ll cost you four mana or more.

Ask any Blue mage and they will tell you, Commander format or not, spending more than three mana or needing additional colors for a counter better be worth the effort. Let’s look at what one of those may be.

Today we have: Essence Backlash

Essence Backlash

Name: Essence Backlash

Edition: Return to Ravnica

Rarity: Common

Focus: Counter Magic / Damage Dealing

Highlights: Counters are straightforward; the advantage of being able to counter another player’s card is pretty self-evident. This is one of three counters that also deals damage, and it is probably the most cost effective of the lot.

Essence Backlash is an upgrade in many ways to Suffocating Blast, for instance, because it’s less mana intensive to use, dealing damage equal to the creature card’s power to the player instead of a flat 3 to a creature. In an EDH setting, such extra effort simply to do 3 damage to a creature probably isn’t worth it.

Similarly, the newcomer Mindswipe can deal more than three damage to the spell’s controller, but Mindswipe is a conditional X style counter. Even in a Commander game, that may be more of a mana commitment than some would prefer – unless the intention is focused on dealing damage first and countering second. Then fire away.

Compared the other two, Essence Backlash is more restrictive in that it only counters creatures. Yet that’s not as bad as it seems. Commander is a format that has no shortage of creatures, and big creatures at that. Stopping even a 3/3 creature puts Essence Backlash on par with Suffocating Blast in a worst case scenario. Given the format you’re playing, you are going to be contending with far more potent problems.

Not to mention, a higher cost counterspell usually means you’re going to sit on it a longer anyhow, letting Essence Backlash scale well as the game progresses. If you’re spending the extra mana and extra restrictions for an added effect like damage, you want it to count. This one does. A late game Essence Backlash easily stops giant late game creatures. And if you’re lucky, you may just take the player with it.

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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