Commander Spotlight: Mages’ Contest

The game of Magic has a lot of things in its favor. It includes a continually expanding and evolving stock of new material, a firmly entrenched market presence with a highly vested consumer base, and nearly limitless possibilities when it comes to creating and experimenting with deck ideas across well over a dozen different recognized formats. Because of this success it has earned a lengthy and vaunted lifespan, having outlasted all of its original CCG competition, and in some ways, the entire CCG model as a whole, considering that market demand has largely turned towards CCG alternatives. Its success can be seen in players at all age brackets and on nearly every continent, and under the wing of one of the largest game companies in the world, so long as Magic keeps making money, there’s little reason to believe it’s going away anytime soon.

Yet even the most ardent Magic enthusiasts will admit that the game is far from perfect. There are issues of complexity creep, of the aforementioned money pit nature of CCGs in general, and of a distinct feeling that the game encourages a ‘pay to win’ mentality, whereby in many formats the players most likely to win are those who invest the money into getting the most powerful cards available for their deck – usually at a hefty price tag.

And then there’s the culture of the game itself.

Contrary to popular thought, Magic players are not a monolithic group. Due to the variety in formats, venues, and play styles, Magic groups vary wildly in terms of their demeanor and preferences. There are completely laid back Pro Tour players who participate strictly for the challenge and there are plenty of casual players who hyper-tune their decks to a point where they simply make the game not fun to those around them. And due to the inherent winner-take-all nature of the game, there exists at all levels players who’d rather play their deck at you than with you.

Despite numerous attempts at making the game more diverse, welcoming, and inclusive – both within the game and with its audience – the one thing Magic has been unable to fix completely after 25 years is a way of curtailing some truly awful behavior by a portion of its fan base. And no, it’s not just at the outer fringes as some would like to believe.

Although Wizards has stated that Magic is approaching parity levels on the casual scene, its higher profile tournament scenes have always been dominated by straight young men for pretty much its entire existence. While numerous women have (and continue) to show that they’re every bit as good Magic players as their male counterparts, it doesn’t take long to find examples of how sexism, entitlement, and gatekeeping continue to plague areas of the fandom such as those. The most recent example of this happened as recently as November, when a well-known MTG cosplayer decided to give up the game due to persistent issues of harassment, bullying, and a sustained effort by some to impose on others what their definition of a ‘real’ Magic player is.

As if that sort of definition actually exits.

I don’t have any deep answers on how to address the nagging issues of toxicity and general douchebaggery that seem to persist in Magic, especially given the combative nature of the game itself. Yet I do believe that if every player adhered to what we’ll call Magic’s Two Rules for Good Wizardry, then it would curtail a lot of this behavior fairly quickly. They are:

  1. Be a good sport at all times, whether you’re winning, losing, or simply just engaged in conversation.
  2. Don’t take the game too seriously. It is, after all, just a game.

That’s it, really. It’s not a complicated concept. Nowhere does it say that you can’t be courteous even while playing to win. Likewise, there’s no reason that chatting about cards, strategies, and personal preferences ever has to degrade into personal attacks. Magic makes different cards and products for different audiences; just because you may not like something doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to someone else.

One of the nice things about Commander, though, is that – for the most part – those who partake in the format tend to really embrace Rule Two by using cards and themes that might otherwise be dismissed by the larger community. To celebrate that fact, this week’s pick is an example of a card that doesn’t take itself too seriously, all while still giving you something surprisingly worthwhile in the process.

Today we have: Mages’ Contest

Name: Mages’ Contest

Edition: Invasion

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Counter Magic

Highlights: Mages’ Contest is one of just three cards that asks players to bid life in exchange for some kind of effect. Because of this, most players tend to look at it rather askew, as if it was an Unglued card that accidentally somehow made its way into black border printings. Yet while its ability is rather original and unorthodox, its effect is anything but. For if you buy into using Mages’ Contest, you are rewarded with something most coveted indeed: a bonafide Red Counterspell.

Red has a been given a scant handful of counterspells over the years (seven in all), and 4/7 of them specifically only target Blue or artifact spells. In fact, Mages’ Contest is unique in that only two of the seven have the unrestricted potential to counter anything (the other being the much harder to leverage Planar Chaos), making it much more useful than it may seem at first glance.

The catch, of course, is that there is no guarantee the counter will work. For three mana, Mages’ Contest effectively sees whether you or the other spell caster is willing to spend more life. If you win, you’ll lose that much life but get to counter the spell. This can be a costly exercise, true, but if you’re staring down a game-changing spell such as a one-sided board wipe or the final piece of a combo needed to win the game, for instance, it’s generally worth a shot since doing nothing may cause you to lose the game anyhow.

Plus, attempting to counter something in monored is simply something players won’t see coming, giving you fun surprise factor.

Because of its volatile (and potentially costly) nature in life payments you’ll want to be judicious in when to use it. Admittedly this is much less of an issue than it may first seem, though, as given that it’s such a rare commodity effect-wise to begin with, most people are going to prefer to save it until needed.

Moreover, Mages’ Contest is a prime example of a card whereby even if you lose, you win. That is, even if you fail to counter the spell as a result of them willing to pay more life than you, they are going to lose that much life instead, turning it from a counterspell into a highly effective direct damage spell. Case in pint: given its casting cost, even getting your opponent to spend 5 life for their spell to resolve will already put it above the standard damage curve. And given that it’s Commander, chances are the payment will be higher than that on average.

Yes, you may not be able to guarantee countering a spell with Mages’ Contest, but seeing the outcome of the spell is also part of the fun. If you wanted a guaranteed stop, play Blue instead. Instead, this card allows you to play a game of magic-based chicken and see who blinks first.

And sure, there are occasions where winning the counter bid may come back to hurt you later on, but hey, that’s part of the gamble too. It is, after all, only a game.

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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