Commander Spotlight: Faces of the Past

Welcome back to week forty-eight of Monday Magic: COVID Edition. It’s been 373 days since my last summoning, and the most interesting thing I can conjure up with respect to that fact is that…373 is a prime number?

From a practical perspective, prime numbers aren’t all that fascinating. They simply exist as one of those confounding values that occasionally trip us up or frustrate us when trying to divide something up equally. The natural world doesn’t really consider them all that appealing either, as prime numbers (at least larger ones) aren’t all that bountiful by comparison – which makes sense given how many mathematical actually patterns exist in nature. Coincidentally one of the rare exceptions to this are the life cycles of cicadas, which are either 13 or 17 years, and 2021 is due for a particularly notable showing of them in the very near future. So there’s that.

Within mathematics though, prime numbers are hugely important, and with good reason. They sort of make up the entire framework of whole numbers: every number is either itself prime or it can be broken down into combinations of prime numbers. Prime number frequency starts off fairly common but slowly decrease the higher you count, and the formula for determining that was one of the earlier achievements in number theory. All but one prime number is odd. 2 and 3 are the only two prime numbers numerically adjacent to one another. Personally, there’s also a certain curious appreciation for the fact that there is no rhythmic pattern to when prime numbers appear in the number line. If anything, prime numbers are simply what’s left over when you remove all the other numbers that can be broken down somehow. They are completely individualized in that regard. They don’t do anything spectacular in and of themselves. They simply…are.

So, yeah. That’s all I really have to say about 373. Mathematically it’s among a class of numbers with a unique property. Generally speaking, it’s just another day in the life of a pandemic. A pandemic that is slowly, inch by inch, shot by shot, starting to look like it may give us back at least part of our much coveted sense of normalcy in the next month or two, but a pandemic nonetheless. One in which we’re not yet out of the woods.

Which means, alas, it will still be a bit longer before the clarion call goes out to once again bring a bunch of Magic geeks back to the gaming table. Soon. Well, soonish. But not yet.

That eventuality, however, at least thematically brings us to this week’s card.

As with the rest of these articles of the last year, rather than bringing up Magic-centric topics or a specific discussion point, I’ve mostly resorted to showing off Magic cards I’ve wanted to put into an EDH deck for some time but haven’t for one reason or another. This particular card resides somewhere in between. Because on the one hand it is true that this card has been on my “to use in EDH” list for a long, long time. On the other, it also exists as a means of reminiscing about seeing said friends again, as part of the reason it ended up on my multiplayer wish list to begin with was my concerted effort trying to convince one of them to specifically add it to their deck in the first place.

Today we have: Faces of the Past

Name: Faces of the Past

Edition: Scourge

Rarity:  Rare

Focus: Board Control

Highlights: The Onslaught block was a veritable gold mine for tribal-based cards and effects, with many highly potent cards of that time either still in use today or have actually been replaced with slightly less powerful versions because the originals were deemed to be too much for whatever Limited or Standard environment they were trying to be reprinted in. Pushing tribal effects wasn’t hard to do during this time since most prior efforts were fairly weak (as we recently attested). For a block all around tribes, they worked. In subsequent sets though, some were deemed to probably be pushed too far. Faces of the Past is not one of those cards.

Like many cards from the Scourge set, Faces of the Past plays with tribal in less direct ways, and so their efficacy isn’t always as in-your-face obvious. I’ve seen this three mana enchantment past over time and time again over the years, not because it’s especially complex or detailed, but rather because they usually don’t stop to think about the tactical ramifications the card offers. At the time, there was also a lingering sense that its usefulness was primarily limited to decks of a very specific archetype and not all that broadly applicable.

They were mistaken.

This cheap and easy to cast enchantment has a modal trigger stating that whenever a creature dies, you may either tap or untap all creatures that share a type with the now-corpsified critter. On the surface this is pretty straightforward. But its text belies its versatility, especially its board implications in multiplayer settings. For one, there’s nothing stopping you from sacrificing one of your own creatures to force the trigger – say to untap your entire board in combat or as a means of setting off another round of creature activations. If someone happens to have the same creature type(s) on the board as you, it can also serve as a punitive way of tapping down specific creatures, even if the odds of that aren’t guaranteed from game to game. All with no mana involved.

However, the key aspect missed to most with Faces of the Past is what the card doesn’t say: it doesn’t have to be your creature. Faces of the Past triggers whenever any creature dies.

See where this is going now?

All of a sudden, if any other player at the table is running a tribal-themed deck, or even a deck with multiple creatures of the same kind, losing a single one to combat or spot removal could result in their entire battlefield getting tapped down. Conversely you could aid a player on the ropes by letting them untap the rest of their board; Faces of the Past is ripe with table politics potential. Your creatures need not even be involved at all. And even if full-on tribal cards aren’t in use, there are enough common creature types that float around Commander games that help avoid it simply sitting there inertly an entire game.

That all being said, its does have two mild concerns which could give some pause. The first is that while you can use it actively by putting it in a deck where you can force its effects frequently based on your own arsenal of creatures and tricks, as aforementioned its efficacy in a more generalized multiplayer deck is an inherent unknown and will vary from one playthrough to the next. This is not a deal breaker by any stretch, however. Some games it could swing entire outcomes, while others its presence will be more muted. But it’s rarely completely useless on the battlefield. If nothing else either your opponents may need to think more carefully about their decisions or they’ll completely forget its existence, allowing you to capitalize at key moments.

The second concern is more understandable, and that is that Faces of the Past is a creature-driven enchantment based off death triggers. While that is merely the other side of the coin from triggers off entering the battlefield, there’s a perception that ETB effects are easier to manipulate and occur with slightly more frequency than ones off a creature dying. Statistically this is true, but only to a point. Instead, this is a distinction made that’s more born out of an emotional feeling than a logical one (more creatures equals good, less creatures equals bad).

Still, ask anyone who has used Faces of the Past in a deck how easily it can shake up a Commander game just by sitting there, and the usual response is some variation of pleasantly surprised.

I say this, of course, after having experienced it first-hand. For said friend eventually did add it to their deck, and I watched players on the receiving end of unexpected creature tap-downs more than once – including one which resulted in an opponent left completely defenseless and being eliminated in the process.

Here’s hoping we don’t have too many more prime number days before we get a chance to see such antics again in person.

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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