Magic Memories: Arcane Denial

Discussion in 'Single Card Strategies' started by Oversoul, Apr 12, 2017.

  1. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I recently watched this amusing video deck tech for a Leovold Commander deck. The list there is pretty solid, although substantially different from the Leovold deck I'm working on myself. But the most glaring omission is Arcane Denial. I'd have pointed it out in the comment section, but a few others already have. With Leovold on the board, you draw a card off Arcane Denial as normal and the controller of the spell you countered gets nothing (except tears). Besides being a good deal, it fits both the theme and function of this sort of deck perfectly.

    And this got me thinking about Arcane Denial more broadly. I've never even used it with Leovold, Emissary of Trest, as that card is quite new. As a matter of fact, I haven't even used Arcane Denial alongside Notion Thief, a synergy that I would have loved to exploit, had it been available in the good old days. But I got a lot of use out of the card. Uh, a whole lot, really. Like, a ton. My usage of Arcane Denial from about 1999 through 2006 was, well, excessive. So it occurs to me that there's a lot I could say about the card. And that makes it a perfect candidate for one of these "Memories" threads...
  2. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Even though I didn't have Leovold or Notion Thief to block opponents from drawing cards off Arcane Denial (nor Consecrated Sphinx to one-up them), I did play it in decks that discouraged opponents from doing so or punished them if they tried. As I've said in other threads, I was enthusiastic and prolific with blue/black control decks (and still am). Arcane Denial was convenient for the budget manabases (mostly just basic lands) I was employing because it only required a single blue mana. Some of the things that mitigated giving opponents cards included...
    • Underworld Dreams (a classic).
    • Black Vise, especially with prison elements.
    • Megrim and discard spells. Countering an opponent's spell sometimes left the opponent hesitating to take the cards during my upkeep, when they could become fuel for Mind Twist or Urza's Guilt.
    • Zur's Weirding. Sure, go ahead and draw that one. Nope, throw the other one away.
    • Control decks using milling as a win condition, such as the "Psychological Warfare" deck I described in the thread about Scalpelexis.
    • Phyrexian Tyranny.
    • Turbostasis decks and other decks relying heavily on prison elements, especially with Howling Mine and/or the aforementioned Black Vise.
  3. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    In some cases, Arcane Denial was used in decks that simply didn't care about letting opponents draw cards. In other cases, opponents were discouraged from drawing cards off it or could be punished for doing so. But my earliest uses of the card were in decks that included Arcane Denial despite the drawback. This is a bit of a muddled issue...

    -I didn't own a lot of cards anyway, and got a lot of bulk Alliances stuff in game store grab-bags, so the card was, at one time, some of my best available countermagic.
    -Mana Leak was the popular counter at the 1U mana cost, but I was still a new player at the time when it came out and didn't get a playset of it right away.
    -For scrubby casual gameplay, a hard counter, even one with a bit of a drawback, can be more valuable than Mana Leak. Because decks at this level tend to be slow an inconsistent, many key plays will be made with excess mana available. Mana Leak thrives against opponents playing on a tight curve. New players with limited collections and janky decks are actually lousy prey for Mana Leak.
    -Arcane Denial's drawback isn't actually as bad as it is sometimes perceived to be. I'll elaborate on that in another post at some point.
    -A hard counter at two mana is quite good. Really, that's the main thing. Yeah, there's nuance to the card, but most of the time you're basically using it like Counterspell. I have no plans to do one of these threads for Counterspell, but the card is very effective (amusingly enough, while the people here at the CPA are well-versed in Counterspell, it's likely that a majority of active Magic players today have little to no experience with the card). And most of the time, as a Counterspell knockoff, Arcane Denial is acceptable. I'd play it over Cancel any day.

    Anyway, Arcane Denial was a staple for my casual decks. In retrospect, I probably did overuse the card at points, but really, it served me well.
  4. Melkor Active Member

    This was my play group; Arcane Denial was just considered an acceptable hard counterspell with a drawback but not a big one. There was plenty of chafe in those decks, so letting your opponent draw two cards just wasn't as big a deal. Additionally, I think that since the other control elements were so strong relative to other strategies, you could afford to give up some card advantage in order to have a cheap unconditional counterspell.
    Psarketos likes this.
  5. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I said I'd elaborate on Arcane Denial's drawback and the perception of it later. Well, it's later now. Wait, what?

    Arcane Denial has its fans. A long time ago, I was in a tournament and cast it. My opponent reacted strangely and I interpreted this as him being unfamiliar with the card. I started explaining how it worked, and then he countered my Arcane Denial with his own Arcane Denial. He wasn't confused by an unfamiliar card, but rather surprised that he ran into another Arcane Denial user. Even though I got trounced in that match, it is a memory I regard fondly. We were both playing monoblue control-combo decks. His deck was actually extremely poorly positioned against mine (his deck was too slow to reliably stop my broken Academy deck), but I had such incredibly bad draws (and mulligans) that I was easily beaten in two games. But I found his deck fascinating and never saw another one like it again. It was a disruptive blue deck with Sol Ring, Thran Dynamo, Grim Monolith, and Copy Artifact generating large quantities of mana to power out Braingeyser and Stroke of Genius, eventually winning with Mind over Matter fueling Thran Dynamo mana to deck the opponent with Stroke of Genius. While this is superficially similar to Tolarian Academy combo decks, it requires more turns to set up and is more reliant on control spells. It was creative and smooth. I was impressed and almost glad that his novel concoction advanced in the tournament instead of my lazy, overpowered deck. Anyway, that was my most memorable encounter with another Arcane Denial fan. We are out there. But we're not that common.

    Most players seem to consider Arcane Denial a bad card. The reason isn't hard to understand. Two words: card disadvantage. And for competitive Magic players, those are some dirty words indeed. Card advantage is an important strategic consideration in the game. Having card advantage is good. Letting the opponent have card advantage is bad. Card advantage was the secret behind the success of The Deck. Appreciating card advantage is what separates the skilled players from the n00bz. Card advantage is love. Card advantage is life. All hail card advantage. What's the card advantage on Arcane Denial? Well, the math is simple enough to work out. You counter one spell for one card of your own, then you get one card via "slowtrip" and your opponent gets two cards the same way. Total net card advantage: -1. And that's bad. Case closed.

    Force of Will also has a net card advantage of -1. But that one has extenuating circumstances! It can counter a spell for free! That's important. And it's worth the card disadvantage. Counterspell itself costs UU for a net card advantage of 0. But it's still, rightly, considered a good card because of the potency of being able to counter a spell. Changing the cost to 1U, there are other options, but they're all constrained in some way, like Remove Soul (only countering a certain kind of spell) or Mana Leak (giving the opponent the possibility of paying a price to keep the spell from being countered). Arcane Denial is a hard counter with a less severe color restriction than Counterspell. Is that worth the card disadvantage? I contend, in this case, that it is. The particular details of the card disadvantage matter. With Force of Will, you have to throw away a card from your hand, specifically a blue card. Arcane Denial doesn't force you to pay an extra cost, but just gives your opponent two cards to replace the one that was countered. Those two cards come off the top of the opponent's library, so they're random cards. But the spell you countered was presumably something important, not something random. That's the distinction. You're not just handing your opponent a card, but rather stopping a spell that you presumably needed to stop, and replacing it with something random. And there's another factor. As a counterspell, Arcane Denial is used in one of two ways...
    1. On your turn to counter an instant played by your opponent.
    2. On your opponent's turn, to counter something that you really want to stop.
    In the first case, if you're successfully countering an opponent's instant, it is very likely being done as a means to ensure that something very important to you happens, either forcing through a spell that could win you the game or stopping a desperate combat trick by your opponent. It's highly likely that an Arcane Denial you're casting on your own turn is either being cast to win you the game on that turn or to protect the card that is going to win you the game soon. And both of those are very much worth giving the opponent the option to draw two cards at the beginning of the next upkeep.

    In the second case, which is more common in controlling decks, you are giving your opponent card advantage, but in addition to countering a spell, you're providing your opponent with two card draws and yourself with one on your own next turn. The majority of cards that your opponent might draw won't do anything for your opponent until the turn after that. But you're very likely to be able to use the extra card that you drew from Arcane Denial. That constitutes tempo advantage for you! It's not anything awe-inspiring. By itself, it's not ordinarily worth the card disadvantage. You wouldn't normally play a spell that just gives you one card and your opponent two cards on your next turn. But it should definitely be considered a mitigating factor. Attached to a hard counter, I'd say it's worth consideration.
  6. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Oops. I had already started my previous post and had to log out and log back in, so I missed Melkor's post, which is a more succinct version of the same general conclusion I had.
  7. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    While I did play Arcane Denial even in some hard control decks (I believe I used it in my Forbidian deck), my most extensive use of the card was in control-combo decks. And here's the past where I get all Comboist Manifesto on this thread and blather on about theory...

    While I don't recall seeing this theory spelled out meticulously, others have definitely hinted at it in the past. This relates to cases in combo deckbuilding and gameplay that involve access to cards and the potential for opponents to access cards. Specifically, there is a difference in how card access can be looked at in combo decks relative to other archetypes, and this is of special significance for cards that give both players access to more cards. Since I've never seen anyone else give it a name, I'm going to call it, let's see...

    Timetwister Theory! Because of the card Timetwister, of course. Timetwister is one of the Power 9, having a reputation as one of the most powerful cards in the game. It is a mainstay of combo decks in Vintage, where it is still a legal card, albeit restricted. The card's effect is symmetrical: both players shuffle away their hands and graveyards and draw a new hand of 7. So you get a fresh hand of cards, but so does your opponent. Worse still: you pay the mana for the spell, so your opponent is getting a new hand for free. From the perspective of a control or aggro deck, this is a problem. The effect of Timetwister is quite pronounced for only three mana, so one could imagine cases in which it might be good utility, such as an aggro deck using Timetwister to refill its hand after dumping everything, or a control deck grinding out the game to establish a strong board position, then using Timetwister to get back the spells from its graveyard. But paying mana to give the opponent cards is still an issue there, which is part of why the card is essentially nonexistent in full control or aggro decks (the fact that it's a $1000 card probably has some bearing on the situation too, but shut up). And that's where combo is different. Combo decks in Vintage are all too happy to use mana-producing spells, float mana, then fire off Timetwister from a mostly emptied hand, get seven more cards and find something powerful to use the floating mana on, hopefully winning the game before the opponent even gets another turn.

    Now, even for combo decks, using Timetwister does give the opponent a new hand. In Vintage, Timetwister can happen so fast that it might take away a good hand that an opponent was hoping to keep, replacing it with random cards, and sort of "unmulliganing" the opponent. While that does happen, the card is nevertheless consuming mana and giving the opponent a fresh hand of 7 cards. Overall, this can still be bad. Both players get new cards and you're the one paying for it. Yeah, either player might get a better or worse hand off Timetwister, so sometimes you're paying mana to give your control opponent a better chance at having answers ready to stop you, or to give your aggro opponent a better chance at having the threats needed to outrace you. But combo decks inherently break this symmetry. Timetwister might give the control player answers or give the aggro player threats, but it can give the combo player cards with which to win the game. If both players are drawing cards off something, your opponent can get utility, but you can get a chance at victory.

    The part where the opponent gets to draw cards is still bad! You'd rather not have your opponent get a chance at drawing the card that might stop you. But even if the opponent is getting something, it's not as good as what you're getting. And that's how combo is different. When another player draws a card, it might be a card that brings the player closer to victory by presenting a threat to the opponent's life or by disrupting the opponent in some way. When a combo player draws a card, it might be a piece of the puzzle that wins the game outright. In a sense, your cards are more valuable than your opponent's cards, and drawing more cards, while valuable for either player, is better for the combo player. Timetwister is an extreme example, but the same principle applies on a smaller scale to other cards. This even applies to Arcane Denial.

    If one accepts Timetwister Theory, it is still a bit of a stretch to value the measly one-point "slowtrip" from Arcane Denial, especially when it gives the opponent two cards. But the important part about Arcane Denial is still that it is a very cheap hard counter. In a control-combo deck, a deck that is using substantial control elements, but hoping to ultimately set up a combo finish, I contend that Timetwister Theory applies at least a little bit. Yes, letting the opponent draw two cards is undesirable, but being able to stop the biggest, most important threat and then drawing a card for it is good. And since we're combo control, we value drawing a card more than we value not letting the opponent draw a card, and sometimes (although on average, not quite) more than letting the opponent draw two cards. Remember, if we're countering something on the opponent's turn, the cards are being drawn on our turn. As a combo deck, that might be the last turn. We might already have Grim Monolith and Stroke of Genius, with Arcane Denial helping draw us into Power Artifact. Meanwhile, our opponent might draw lands or creatures, making those card draws irrelevant. Yes, the occasion on which Arcane Denial happens to give the opponent the right instant to stop us is unfortunate, but we were already firing off Arcane Denial to stop something, so if our luck is just that poor, with Arcane Denial blocking one must-counter and giving the opponent another one, we were already in a bad spot. After all, the same thing could happen with Timetwister.

    And if we're using Arcane Denial on our own turn? In a control-combo deck, we're probably protecting our combo, so the card draws might not even happen anyway, and we're basically using a Counterspell except it costs 1U. In the less likely event that we're casting Arcane Denial on our own turn, but it isn't the kill turn, it's still the case that we protected our combo, and while we do give the opponent two card draws for more chances to disrupt our plans, we also draw one more card, and it might be one that wins the game.

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