Too-Specific Top 10 – Virtual World Problems

(Gonti, Lord of Luxury | Art by Daarken)

Playmat Boundaries

Welcome to Too-Specific Top 10, where if there isn’t a category to rank our pet card at the top of, we’ll just make one up! (Did you know that Grab the Reins is the only mono-red card that allows you to gain control of a creature and sacrifice it all on the same card?)

In this time of social distancing, we’re all missing our regular playgroups among many, many other things. For Commander, at least, though, there is an alternative in the form of virtual EDH. (If you’re not familiar with how people are playing online, I highly suggest Commander Central’s podcast primer on the subject). For some of us, that may just mean watching streams or YouTube videos of our favorite content creators playing a few games, or it might mean actually rigging up a setup to play online ourselves. In either case, it has quickly become apparent that there are some cards that just don’t interact well when it comes to a virtual space where you can’t reach across a table to physically interact with cards.

The easiest ones to understand are those effects which would usually have an opponent physically handing you a card, Control Magic-style. While you can certainly simulate controlling another player’s permanent with a token of some sort, it can still be confusing in an environment where it can be difficult to keep track of the actual blurry and small cards on the screen, much less the one that is no longer anywhere real while being virtually represented hundreds of miles away. Scrambleverse, Puppeteer Clique, Akroan Horse, and Treachery aside, however, there are some cards that go past the tedious and difficult to outright breaking the game in a virtual setting. The most common example of this is cards that tell you to look at an opponent’s hand. Short of setting up a private channel between you and that player, there is no way to look at another player’s hand without also revealing it to every other player in the game.

As such, there are some cards that really should be avoided for the interim, until we’re back to playing each other face to face. So with that in mind….


Top 10 Cards You Shouldn’t Play Via Webcam

As you might imagine from me featuring Glasses of Urza up top, not every card you should probably avoid in a webcam EDH setting is necessarily a card you’d be playing in every deck, anyway. There are, however, some very good cards that fall under this category, which brings us to the question of defining what that category actually is.

Rather than getting into the extreme nitty-gritty here, let’s start with our criteria up front, as they’ll be in more vague terms than we’re used to:

Criteria: Cards that require crossing of physical zones between battlefields (e.g., Control Magic effects), cards which look at an opponent’s assets but don’t reveal them to the other players (e.g. Abandon Hope), and cards which search opponent’s libraries (e.g. Acquire). As is tradition, all results are ordered by EDHREC score.

While there are several corner cases that don’t quite fit within these criteria, as well as several others we’re going to be exempting, this is an excellent start. The basic idea here is to be considerate of others’ time and fun, as we always should be while playing EDH, and this criteria takes care of most of that. As for the corner cases…

Cards which have players choose between piles or have opponents make decisions in general can be more difficult in the virtual format, as it can be difficult to see which cards are which. I’ve personally found, however, that patience in listing out cards and reading them aloud can guide players through this process. It can be a bit tedious, but is definitely not a game-breaker as far as resolving one or two Fact or Fictions per game. With that said, if you’ve got an Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign deck, you might want to pack it up for the time being.

While cards that let you steal other players’ permanents can be quite difficult to keep up with, temporarily Annexing others’ spells is a bit easier to grok, even across screens. Of the above examples, Dire Fleet Daredevil is probably the closest to crossing the line here, given that it takes “ownership” of the exiled card for a full turn. Still, it’s fairly easy to figure out whether or not you’re actually going to cast it, and the affected player exiles the card whether you play it or not. All in all, a bit of a gray area, but something that players probably won’t have too much of an issue remembering and resolving.

Lastly, there are the planeswalker “ultimate” abilities which break these various rules. This is a bit of a judgment call, but I decided to leave these cards in contention, primarily because you should never evaluate planeswalkers based on their ultimates, as it’s rare that these hard-to-activate abilities will ever be used. To bring it to an example from more normal times, there is a reason I would never play Decree of Silence in any deck, but I do run Jace, Unraveler of Secrets in my Superfriends deck. Under most circumstances, it will take several revolutions of the table being fully knowledgeable about the possibility of having to deal with an Erayo, Soratami Ascendant-style emblem before it actually happens, with multiple chances for said table to do something about it. The chances of a table just scooping to the ultimate are also fairly high. In similar fashion, while Liliana Vess‘s ultimate of putting all creature cards from all graveyards under your control would be a nightmare to resolve over webcam, the likelihood of it happening is low, and the likelihood that it just outright wins you the game is high.

With the caveats worked out, then, let’s move on to our list!

10. Mind’s Dilation

(6,687 Inclusions, 4% of 179,608 Decks)

This one is personally a bit crushing to me, as I introduced this seven-mana monstrosity to my local playgroup and it’s become somewhat of a staple. I’m sure that this list will have many a pet card that we all enjoy playing with and against, however, so I’ll try to keep my feelings out of it. Mind’s Dilation is usually good for two free spells of varying quality with every rounding of the table, and as such it doesn’t always live up to its high mana cost from a power level perspective. I’m still not surprised to see it make the top ten, however, as I don’t think most people playing it care much about the power level perspective. Mind’s Dilation is a wild cavalcade of randomness, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting game of EDH and make it unique, while also not going full chaos vis-a-vis cards like Scrambleverse and Possibility Storm. It’s just a slow battlecruiser of a value card, allowing you to plop it down in the late game and see if you can rip the right cards from your opponents’ libraries to pull out a win with a perfect storm of chance. Resolving this one via virtual games, however, is sure to make a big hassle every single turn.

9. Blatant Thievery

(6,768 Inclusions, 4% of 179,608 decks)

While I personally think Insurrection is a better high-mana finisher, Blatant Thievery nonetheless lives up to its full cost of seven mana in a bit better fashion than Mind’s Dilation. The chances that you’ll be able to grab a full engine from pieces scattered around the table is at least middling, and even if that isn’t the case, you can usually simultaneously give yourself a huge boon while destroying the plans of at least one player. My favorite that I’ve personally seen was punishing a Meren of Clan Nel-Toth player for running Leyline of the Void against their fellow graveyard decks, but I’m sure just about everyone that’s seen this card played has seen some wacky circumstances that made for a decent story. And at the end of the day, isn’t that why we all play Commander?

8. Villainous Wealth

(6,905 Inclusions, 14% of 51,095 Decks)

I was actually surprised to see that Villainous Wealth only saw play in 14% of eligible decks. As many people are now discovering with the new cycle of Ultimatums, the biggest drawback to three-color spells is just how few decks can actually play them. With that said, if you can play Villainous Wealth, why wouldn’t you (outside of say, a pandemic)? Sure, there might be a few decks that have their reasons, but in most cases you’re in the right colors to have ludicrous amounts of mana, and Wealth will generate loads of value and the same kinds of stories you’ll get from Blatant Thievery. Sultai players that are already a fan of this card should be packing this up for now, but I can guarantee that they’ll be bringing it back in once they’re sitting around tables once more. And as for everyone else, you might want to give it a try once normal play resumes; you might be surprised at how much you like it.

7. Jace, the Mind Sculptor

(7,884 Inclusions, 4% of 179,608 decks)

If you don’t look closely, you might miss why the most infamous Jace has made this list. After all, Brainstorm and Boomerang don’t cause people to groan from their small corner of the internet, so why should that change by slapping them on a planeswalker? And all in all, I agree. I personally would play Jace, the Mind Sculptor online with no qualms (if I could afford one). Where he does technically meet the qualification, however, is in his +2 ability. While most times the player whose top card you look at will be you, you can technically target other players with it. It rarely comes up, but sometimes you know an opponent has stacked their top card with a tutor or a scry, and you can knock it off of there. In a virtual game, however, your opponent and the whole table have to see the card before you can make the decision to tuck it, making it technically impossible to achieve.

In actual reality, though, the distinction between looking at and revealing isn’t that great, and it’s a corner case issue, anyway, as most times you’ll just look at your own library. Jace, the Mind Sculptor may have made the list, but in all honesty he’s probably fine to play unless you’re a complete stickler for rules or you’re specifically playing him as a means to stack your opponents’ libraries in some fashion.

6. Emrakul, the Promised End

(Helms 198 Decks, Rank #388; 7,731 Inclusions, 2% of 341,449 Decks)

We’ve reached our first commander, and thankfully, it’s not a popular one. And really, why would it be? Having a Mindslaver in the command zone sounds fun and all… for the person playing it. For everyone else, though, I imagine the responses vary from, “Hey, you don’t happen to have another deck, do you?” to “All right, so everyone kills the Emrakul player, right?” Which is kind of sad, as the player getting an extra turn afterward is kind of a cool aspect of the card, as is it being cheaper based on Delirium. (By the way, as was made abundantly clear to me last week with my Umori article, did you know that Tribal is actually a card type? That’s right, with just a sorcery, a Crib Swap, a Spear of Heliod, and Dryad Arbor in your graveyard, Emrakul, the Promised End costs a mere six mana!) In any case, it’s not surprising to see that Emrakul, the Promised End is more popular in the 99, where she will come as more of a surprise, draw less hate, and allow you to play colored spells in your deck. No matter your feelings on Mindslaver effects, however, you probably want to take this particular Eldrazi out for the time being. The good news is that putting it on the sidelines will tick down your deck’s average converted mana cost by one point all on its own!

5. The Eldest Reborn

(8,398 Inclusions, 5% of 177,041 decks)

It still surprises me to find that The Eldest Reborn is the most popular Saga. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, however, given that it’s in a popular color and is one of the only Sagas to be generically good no matter your deck’s strategy. While I personally lean away from goodstuff whenever possible, the statistics as they are definitely show that I’m rather lonely in that viewpoint with regards to this particular card. Add the fact that this particular Saga is an uncommon that’s still under a quarter two years after it was originally printed, and I suppose I should be less surprised at how popular it is. Regardless of all that, however, this one isn’t a hard ‘no’ when it comes to online play, as often you’ll use its last tick on recurring your own creature anyway. For me personally, I’d lean more toward restricting myself to my own graveyard rather than removing The Eldest Reborn from my deck entirely, but at some point it’s all about willpower, isn’t it?

4. Sepulchral Primordial

(9,029 Inclusions, 5% of 177,041 Decks)

Getting the best creature out of each opponents’ graveyard after you’ve spent an entire game putting cards there is a great feeling, and that’s just if you’re playing fair. If you instead are repeatedly recurring this little Avatar and looting the entire tables’ graveyards over and over again, Sepulchral Primordial gets downright unfair. For now, however, you may have to find another expensive value engine to abuse that’s been getting a little less love. Might I suggest Demonlord Belzenlok? He’s been just outside the 99 looking in since he was printed. A Demon gets lonely.

3. Gonti, Lord of Luxury

(Helms 641 Decks, Rank #172; 12,088 Inclusions, 7% of 177,041 Decks)

I actually would have guessed Gonti, Lord of Luxury was at least in the top 100 commanders, despite getting to be a bit older and being mono-color. I know I was still running into Gonti builds all the time prior to the lock-down, even if they’re the example everyone uses when it comes to what not to play in our current situation. While resolving one Gonti trigger might be doable, you would be doing so by revealing everything to the table at large, ruining the surprise factor of the card, which is a huge part of the reason that people are a fan of Gonti in the first place. Add in the fact that you not only have to keep track of which cards you’ve stolen, but then also mark them on your own battlefield somehow once you actually cast them, and it just doesn’t seem worth it. Then combine all that with the fact that most decks playing Gonti are looking for substantially more than one trigger, and well… there’s a reason they ended up as the representative image for this whole article, despite only being number three on the list.

2. Etali, Primal Storm

(Helms 505 Decks, Rank #204; 12,940 Inclusions, 8% of 162,369 Decks)

Etali, Primal Storm may not have secrets to worry about like Gonti does, but this little Dinosaur can still create all sorts of problems in a webcam environment. Sadly, this means that I’ve had to retire one-fifth of my Elder Dinosaur Highlander “Precons” for the time being, along with removing Etali from two other decks. I imagine I’m far from alone in having to take these measures, however, as resolving one Control Magic can be problematic enough over webcam without having to do three on the stack all at once, possibly multiple times a turn. For now, at least, us red mages are going to have to rely more on our Outpost Sieges than our Stolen Strategys.

1. Gitaxian Probe

(14,323 Inclusions, 8% of 179,608 Decks)

While I’m sure we all weep for the red mages unable to play their much-needed card advantage engines, there will be perhaps a tad less remorse when it comes to the blue mages losing a free draw spell. Luckily, probably most blue mages will go on playing as usual, just ignoring the “look at target player’s hand” portion of the card entirely. After all, wouldn’t you be happy paying two life to dig down a card deeper into your deck while keeping your Storm counts ticking ever upward? As we covered in my top ten list for cards that have been banned, but not in EDH, Gitaxian Probe has never been a fair Magic card. It turns out that not even removing a full sentence from the card really fixes that, and I for one am not in the least surprised.


Honorable Mentions

I figured I’d tee off the honorable mentions this week with some cards that don’t quite meet the criteria we set out above, but that I would still advise against. As mentioned at the top when talking about Fact or Fiction-type effects, Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign and other cards that repeatedly give opponents choices that are going to take a long time to figure out over teleconference should probably be leaned away from for the time being. In the same vein, those of you playing Tasigur, the Golden Fang decks may also want to retire them for the moment. Lastly, while not many people are playing Telepathy overall, it can be a fun card that makes games more memorable and full of logic puzzles. In the current environment, however, cards which flood the table with information are probably better left unsleeved, given that that information will constantly have to be explained in detail.

The Top 50

While a top 10 is usually a fine way to go about things when the goal is to figure out which cards are the best or the most popular in a certain subset, it feels a bit limiting here when the goal is to list off popular cards that we may want to take out of our decks for the common good. With that in mind, I dug a little deeper this week and came out with a full top 50 cards for people to peruse. Speaking for myself, I know I keep on running into cards in my decks that I just hadn’t considered as far as the online environment, so hopefully this may jog all of our collective memories and keep us from having embarrassing moments online.

11. Puppeteer Clique
12. Expropriate
13. Dack Fayden
14. Oblivion Sower
15. Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh
16. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
17. Bribery
18. Praetor’s Grasp
19. Geth, Lord of the Vault
20. Life’s Finale
21. Molten Primordial
22. Treasure Nabber
23. Humble Defector
24. Portent
25. Mindslaver
26. Reins of Power
27. Stolen Strategy
28. Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
29. Captivating Crew
30. Angrath, the Flame-Chained
31. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
32. Mishra’s Bauble
33. Assault Suit
34. Willbreaker
35. Mnemonic Betrayal
36. Akroan Horse
37. Urza’s Bauble
38. Dimir Charm
39. Crown of Doom
40. Vendilion Clique
41. Knowledge Pool
42. Extract from Darkness
43. Acquire
44. Zedruu, the Greathearted
45. Coveted Jewel
46. Thieving Amalgam
47. Yavimaya Dryad
48. Helm of Obedience
49. Ghastly Conscription
50. Tariel, Reckoner of Souls

There are some continued corner cases in our top 50 that I felt were worthy of some mention here. Molten Primordial, Captivating Crew, and Angrath, the Flame-Chained are all great examples of Act on Impulse effects, as is Treasure Nabber if you expand the definition and the length just a tad bit. While it’s tempting to include these sorts of effects as no-go’s, I’m not sure that I entirely agree. Your mileage may vary in your online playgroup, but from the limited experience I’ve had so far with these effects, they’re fairly easy to manage given their short-term nature. All in all, I included them anyway, but it may be a discussion you want to have with the people you’re playing with to see if people think that they’re a problem.

In similar fashion to Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Portent and several other “look at the top card of target player’s library” cards are only a problem if you use them on your opponents. If that’s not your main intent and you can hold yourself to actually using them on just your own library, I doubt anyone will notice, much less say anything.


What Do You Think?

We find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances, to put it mildly. Despite that, however, I find myself grateful that we still have a way to delve into our favorite hobby, and am actually enjoying taking some better cards out of my decks to instead try out some options that otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut. With that said, I know not everyone is willing or able to give online play a chance, and would love to have better numbers out there for how it’s affecting the format.

And finally, what cards have you run into that have created problems in your online games? Do you not mind people playing Control Magic effects over webcam, or do you think they’re not worth the hassle and confusion? Have you found ways to make these various cards work despite the difficulties?

Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see you at the desk upon which we’ve carefully constructed a cardboard cellphone holder with clip-on lantern for ambient lighting.

Doug has been an avid Magic player since Fallen Empires, when his older brother traded him some epic blue Homarids for all of his Islands. As for Commander, he's been playing since 2010, when he started off by making a two-player oriented G/R Land Destruction deck. Nailed it. In his spare time when he's not playing Magic, writing about Magic or doing his day job, he runs a YouTube channel or two, keeps up a College Football Computer Poll, and is attempting to gif every scene of the Star Wars prequels.