Combat has always been a central component to the game of Magic. In fact, while the earlier years of the game saw combat as a secondary facet due to the general middling power of creatures versus comparatively more powerful spells and effects, it has been been a divine quest of sorts in the modern era to ensure that creatures and spells exist in parity with one another in terms of importance.
Or at least, parity is the claimed goal.
In reality, what current designers envision is creating environments where spells and creatures exist on roughly equal power levels from a macro perspective, but who also insist that games of Magic should be decided by combat a majority of the time. Which is why to many to many long-time players it can sometimes feel like the game has titled in the other direction – where creatures are more powerful than spells.
Of course, all you have to do is look at formats like Legacy, Modern, or Commander, to see that dangerously effective creature-lite decks are as still as common as ever. But as a normal design practice for Limited or Standard, creatures are deemed not just a central component towards eliminating your opponent but the way it should be done most of the time.
How combat looks varies depending on the colors, sets, and formats involved, but most of the time it’s going to be as simple as using your creatures to get through your opponent’s creatures in order to reduce your opponent’s life total. The three simplest creature-based ways to accomplish this are some combination of a) having more creatures than them, b) have larger creatures than them, and / or c) have creatures that they cannot block.
The latter most concept revolves around evasion, something that has been baked into the game since its very beginnings and came in several forms. The most common and the longest-lasting among those are Flying and the weirdly anti-evasion-but-still-qualifies-to-a-degree-as-evasion, Trample. Over the years, though, we have seen a variety of other options, including Landwalk, Protection, Shadow, Fear, numerous conditional blocking abilities, and all manner of variation of straight up ‘this creature is is unblockable’.
Fear in particular had a long and storied run as a regularly used evasion option for Black creatures, stating that a creature with it could only be blocked by Black or Artifact creatures. Which, like many of the original evasion options, came with a very feast or famine mentality. Sometimes the effect was incredibly useful, and sometimes it didn’t matter at all. Landwalk, for instance, was effectively discontinued because Wizards didn’t like the fact that a creature with Forestwalk was either completely pointless in games where there were no forests and lopsidedly powerful in games where there were. Fear was partially viewed the same way. If you didn’t have Black or Artifact creatures out, that creature was unstoppable in combat, but if you did, it was completely nullified. Their larger issue, however, was that it was uniquely (or thereabouts) tied to a single color, which severely limited its use. Which is why they retired Fear in favor of a new ability, Intimidate. Intimidate worked the same way, excepting that the blocking options changed from just Black/Artifact to Artifact or the color(s) of the Intimidating creature.
In time, though, Intimidate came to be seen as a problem too, so much so that R&D has effectively shelved it. The main issue is twofold. First, it turns out that the feast or famine gameplay wasn’t removed; all it did was change the color to worry about. Second, Intimidate was…not that flavorful. It wasn’t indicative of something to worry about, perhaps because of the paltry 31 creatures printed with Intimidate, 23 of them had a power of 3 or less. By contrast, only five such creatures had a power of 5 or greater.
The one thing they all had in common? They were all Black creatures. Probably because the concept works best in that particular color, as it had since the game’s inception.
Intimidate just wasn’t nearly as exciting-sounding as Fear. A creature intimidated by another can still put up a fight against it. A creature fearful of another is going to have a much harder time. Not impossible, just more difficult. Which is what the Fear ability represented so well.
And so, in recognition of Fear, an ability many didn’t appreciate until it was gone, we welcome this week’s card pick.
Today we have: Mask of Riddles
Name: Mask of Riddles
Edition: Alara Reborn
Focus: Creature Evasion / Card Draw
Highlights: Mask of Riddles is one of the small subset of colored artifacts, and an even smaller subset of just six colored equipment pieces in the entire game. Yet most of these artifacts work particularly well in Commander games, as evidenced by the fact that this is (rather unintentionally) the third of those six equipment to be showcased in this series. Part of this is because several of these cards had already demonstrated their effectiveness as creature abilities, instants, or Auras, and were transposed into a card type that has a much higher chance of sticking around for multiple uses. In the case of Mask of Riddles, it is a direct translation of Sleeper’s Robe, an Aura that saw extensive use in both casual and tournament play at one point thanks to its low cost of providing both evasion and card draw.
Sleeper’s Robe itself proved so liked, in fact, that it went on to become Shadowmage Infiltrator just a couple sets later, one of the more iconic creatures in Magic history. To a point where many players only know the combination of effects from its various creature reprints rather than the original source. But I digress.
Mask of Riddles was the third such iteration of this combination of abilities. The first of these grants the equipped creature Fear, providing an evasion ability to any creature you control. This could be a small creature that you want to try to get through their defenses for some kind of trigger or a larger one with the intent of dishing out large amounts of damage. Evasion options in Commander are always handy, and this card is no different.
Moreover, if you don’t have a specific creature to benefit from connecting with your opponent directly, Mask of Riddles has that covered too. Its second ability states that whenever the creature deals combat damage to a player, you draw a card. Even a token creature with Mask of Riddles suddenly becomes a useful means of dealing damage and drawing cards, let alone what you could do with a more impressive target.
The Mask also alleviates the concern of running basic creature enchantments such as Fear or Sleeper’s Robe in EDH. Auras always run the risk of the 2-for-1 loss problem, in that if you lose the creature you lose the enchantment too, but that concern is significantly amplified in EDH decks if the Aura in question is rather simplistic, as Fear-granting ones typically are. As equipment, Mask of Riddles solves this problem by dropping back to the table instead, granting you the ability to attach it to another creature later on – at the corner case cost of not being able to grant it to an opponent’s creature should the political need arise. Like both the Robe and Infiltrator, Mask of Riddles is cheap to get out: it costs a surprisingly low two mana to cast and just another two to equip, which is pretty economical given what it provides strategically.
The main drawback / limitation to Mask of Riddles, admittedly, is its color scheme. Blue is already known for being a high evasion color, and Black traditionally the color of Fear. So it is constrained to decks already running those effects and doesn’t open itself up to new means of evasion exploration in the same way that say, Executioner’s Hood or Whispersilk Cloak potentially does. However, don’t let its familiar abilities fool you into thinking it’s anything but an effective and flavorful card.
One could even say in the right hands this equipment could be a little…scary?
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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