Magic Memories: Scalpelexis

Discussion in 'Single Card Strategies' started by Oversoul, Feb 15, 2017.

  1. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I used to play a lot of blue/black control, and that will emerge as a common theme in these vignettes. I played other colors too, but I was enamored of the blue/black combination and early on happened to get some pretty good cards for casual decks in those colors. But in this case, it wasn't me! I bring up Scalpelexis because of a deck built and piloted by my longtime friend Nick, former CPA member Al0ysiusHWWW.

    I joined the CPA when I was still in high school. At the time, I didn't have a job and my family was struggling with money. I wasn't buying new cards and my collection had stagnated, with a range of cards, but nearly everything I owned was from sets between Ice Age and Planeshift, with some Fallen Empires and Revised thrown in for good measure. In high school, I was sort of defined as the guy who only played with the old cards, while my classmates were playing Threshold decks and such. At one point, I traded all of my cards newer than Prophecy over to Nick, who intended to sell them, and the two of us had a sort of pact to only play with pre-Invasion cards. There are some old forum posts here at the CPA (from 2004) where I mentioned my self-imposed pre-Invasion restriction. It seems strange in hindsight, but it was mostly just a whim that extended itself out into something bigger because I had no money and because Nick had joined me in the endeavor.

    Nick broke before I did, and the deck he built with "new" cards was called "Psychological Warfare." It was, relative to the stuff I saw in my local playgroups back then, a monster of a blue/black control deck. It would probably look silly and archaic today, but back then it was a force to be reckoned with. It had many of the usual suspects for blue/black control: stuff like Duress, Hymn to Tourach, Force of Will, Counterspell, etc. It might have even run Sinkhole. I forget. All this stuff was pretty affordable back then. Legacy wasn't a format yet and there wasn't a huge market for those cards. The deck took its time establishing control and began setting out to get rid of the opponent's library. the main mill cards I remember were Millstone and Grindstone (another card that is now on the expensive side but was cheap back then). Many decks were monocolor, heavy in one color, or ran a lot of gold cards with similar color combinations, and Grindstone could get several hits off such decks. When Nick piloted Psychological Warfare, his preferred method for finishing his victims was Guiltfeeder, which could often win in a single attack. But Guiltfeeder wasn't the card that scared me. Scalpelexis was.

    If I was playing a control deck, I probably wouldn't have enough flying blockers to stop Scalpelexis, and even if I killed one, I might not have anything to get rid of the second one or the third one. If he got two of these on the board, it was almost certainly game over. If I was playing an aggro deck, a 1/5 blocker was a problem and if he could slow me down or remove my threats, it could make short work of my library. If I was playing a combo deck, I was in a frantic race to get my key cards into my hand where they'd be safe from Scalpelexis. Gaea's Blessing, my favorite anti-mill tool, was useless against the card. Sometimes a single Scalpelexis would eat 20 cards. Sometimes I'd find the tools I needed to break through Nick's counterspells and kill every Scalpelexis, but the damage was already done and my library was too depleted to finish him off before I'd be decked.
  2. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    On one occasion, a Scalpelexis trigger ate twenty cards off the top of my library, and that was followed up by a second Scalpelexis trigger. I was frustrated, but I had no flying blockers and my creature removal had been stripped from my hand before the little brain-eaters had hit the board. The biggest problem was basic lands. I was using Islands and Swamps, but any time Scalpelexis hit two of the same basic land in four cards, it went on to eat another four. So I attacked that problem the only way I could think of: snow-covered lands! This was before Coldsnap, so there was no chance of my running into a Zombie Musher. For all practical purposes, snow-covered lands were the same as regular basics, except they had a different name, so they wouldn't interact with the ability of Scalpelexis. I haven't played against the card in over a decade, but to this day, I still build decks with a 50/50 split between regular basics and snow-covered basics. Technically, this doesn't apply all that often, as many of my decks have too few basics for me to bother. But if I'm running more than ten or so of the same basic, yeah, I tend to dip into the box of Ice Age cards for some proactive Scalpelexis mitigation.
  3. Melkor Well-Known Member

    Scalpelexis is one of my favorite cards, I had one that did a lot of heavy lifting, even in decks where it was in no way optimal, I liked it so much that I'd force it in.
    Oversoul likes this.
  4. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I don't think I've played with or against the card since my friend's old deck was taken apart, but it definitely made an impression (I wish that we'd saved the decklist). Like I said, it's had me putting snow-covered lands into casual decks ever since.

    I realize that the game has changed a lot since those days, especially for "mill" decks as a blue/black thing. This was before the days of Phenax or Glimpse the Unthinkable. In fact, it was even before the days of Raven Guild Master. Scalpelexis might not be a bad card for mill-based decks in today's climate, but relative to what some of the newer stuff can do, it isn't as impressive as it used to be. A five-drop that has to deal combat damage (albeit on a reasonably durable flying creature) in order for its ability to work is a bit more conditional than some other options. In a way, this is really too bad. It's not that I'm against the newer, more explosive options like Hedron Crab and Glimpse the Unthinkable. Far from it! But there was something special about the high variance and impact of Scalpelexis. It induced a kind of low-level dread/relief cycle with its in-built randomness, and emotional investment is a big part of the appeal of the game. That kind of impact is very different from "You have X cards remaining in your library, and if I make this play I can mill you for Y cards on your turn and then untap and mill you for Z cards on my turn..."
  5. Melkor Well-Known Member

    The randomness was the key to the enjoyment. Even putting aside the fact that there are just better things now, you can't really justify paying 5 for the effect.
  6. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    I blame power creep. Maybe the card was never amazing at five mana, but back when it was released in Judgment or maybe even when it was reprinted in Tenth Edition, a 1/5 flyer that could exile cards off the top of the library that much was, while not a competitive powerhouse, generally respectable. These days a five-drop creature had better be a lot more powerful for anyone to care. Piecewise milling is difficult to pull off in a lot of environments, which is why Grindstone went from something obscure that I hardly saw anyone besides Nick and I use to a card worth actual money following the advent of Painter's Servant. And the more recent decks I've seen that do employ piecewise milling successfully use means that keep defenses up and don't require attacking, such as cards that can mill opponents at the end of their turns. Even if it weren't on the expensive side, something that requires attacking in an archetype that emphasizes grinding out opponents over time isn't a good fit. It's a shame that it says "combat damage" or there could be some silly combos.

    Another problem is Scalpelexis is far too slow when it only hits four cards at a time, and the best opportunities for it to get more value are when opponents use a lot of the same basic lands and when they use a lot of four-ofs. For reasons totally unrelated to Scalpelexis, there's been a trend across several formats toward more diverse manabases. Even scrubby casual decks are probably not playing 20+ Forest or whatever, where that used to be more of a possibility. It seems like the most popular format for casual games where an old, kinda expensive creature could actually shine is Commander, and due to the highlander nature of the format, it's a dud, suffering the same problem as cards like Kindle, Squadron Hawk, and Quash.
  7. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Most of my experiences with Scalpelexis were across the table from my friend's deck, but I did get to play it myself and it was great fun. Scalpelexis was excellent against a popular card of the time: Gaea's Blessing. That card was ruinous for Millstone and friends, but easy prey for Scalpelexis. Most decks ran two copies, and it Scalpelexis could manage to hit both, then the opponent was completely exposed to my (friend's) deck's other milling. That either took a little luck or it meant that Scalpelexis was getting multiple attacks in and I was probably winning off that anyway, but not always. Sometimes it hit part of a library, was eventually dealt with in a control war, and opened up an opportunity to win off Guilt Feeder. Intuitively, having both cards in the same deck is a "nonbo" and it's certainly not something I'd have thought of myself, but Nick was a much more creative deck builder than I ever was. The deck wasn't primarily about the creature kill conditions, but about playing a slow blue/black control game that gradually wore opponents down, putting a clock on them with milling effects and leaving them desperate to find answers. Guilt Feeder was sort of the go-to finisher, but Scalpelexis was more versatile and a potential backup kill condition that often got the job done after opponents spent their removal getting rid of Guilt Feeder. The tertiary kill condition was to just draw the game out even longer and deck them with Millstone and Grindstone, but if the game ran that long, opponents usually succumbed to one of the two creature kills.
  8. Mooseman Isengar Tussle

    I remember a 3-player game including Killer Joe, where I was able to use Scalpelexis to win. It was in a random, 10 minute blue/black deck build, that only had one copy.
    The other player was even playing a Dredge deck and messed up counting the cards he had.
    It is a good creature to get damage through on decks that have to have 4 of each card.
    Oversoul likes this.
  9. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    On the one one hand, Scalpelexis triggers are bad for dredge-based archetypes, exiling cards from their shrinking library so they can't get them into the graveyard and use them. On the other hand, dredge-based decks tend to be so fast that a five-drop creature without any abilities that control the board isn't going to be enough to stop them. Cool thing is, anything can happen in multiplayer.

    I've thought of Scalpelexis for multiplayer-oriented decks, but it seems like it would be a target, as people don't want to have their stuff permanently taken from them before they even get a chance to draw it.
  10. Mooseman Isengar Tussle

    And a great target it is. Make them spend resources while you do something else.

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