As I mentioned the other day there is at least one more story I want to tell from the latest iteration of the great – nay legendary – tournament series At the Mountains of Madness on the Jutland ridge.
But this one has nothing to do with my performance, the deck I played, my teammates or even my opponents. This has something to do with a crazy game I witnessed between rounds.
A game between Kristoffer Hvitfeldt on a really cool Reanimator deck and notorious LIC member, party starter and chaos instigator Peter Fryland on a Story Time deck.
Yep. Complete with four Shahrazad (which is the correct spelling here – just remember it is a all the way through). We haven’t talked much about it, but Shahrazad was rather recently unrestricted in the Swedish restricted/ban list of Old School Magic. I think it was something a lot of people missed, and truth be told, it will probably not have as big an impact on the format as the restriction of Mana Drain or the unrestrictions of Maze of Ith, Time Vault or Recall.
But it was unrestricted. So now you can play four of them. But should you do so?
Okay. The card is in many aspects one of the greatest cards ever to have seen print. It is incredibly flavorful, the art is cool and the effect is unique. Let’s get back to the effect later.
I must admit I have never read One Thousand and One Nights. Shame on me, I know. It is on my list, but as I have mentioned elsewhere, I mostly read smarty-ass non-fiction books. I will get to it at once, I promise.
But if I understand the plot correctly, it is about an insane king who decides that all women are unfaithful, horrible beings and so he kills them one by one after having married them and slept with them once. Great guy!
Scheherazade (which I guess is another official spelling of her name) offers to be his bride, and on the weeding night she tells the king a story. But she never ends it, so the king cannot execute her in the morning. He has to know what happens next.
And so she tells stories for a thousand and one nights. Which makes the king pardon her (for some reason which differs a bit from the different versions of the story, but the point is that she survives by telling stories).
In other words she drags out the time in order to benefit and live.
And that is why I think this is one of the best designed cards flavor wise. Because it is exactly what the card does, it draws out time.
That gets us to the effect of the card.
In all its simplicity the updated text on this elusive, legendary Arabian Nights rare goes like this:
Players play a Magic subgame, using their libraries as their decks. Each player who doesn’t win the subgame loses half their life, rounded up.
Not a too bad text, actually.
The original text may be more flavorful and in the OS spirit, but it is also somewhat more difficult to understand, it goes:
Players must leave game in progress as it is and use the cards left in their libraries as decks with which to play a subgame of Magic. When subgame is over, players shuffle these cards, return them to libraries, and resume game in progress, with any loser of subgame halving his or her remaining life points, rounding down. Effects that prevent damage may not be used to counter this loss of life. The subgame has no ante; using less than forty cards may be necessary.
While this wall of text explains a lot more than the updated text, it also states some rather useless or unimportant points. But one important thing to notice, is that in the updated text every player who does not win the subgame, loses half his or her life in the main game. Rounded up. That means if the subgame is a tie, both players lose half their life points.
Okay. Probably not something that will be important very often (but if time is running out, and you are up against a pillow fort on one life and you play Shahrazad, this is good to know).
So let’s stick with the updated text for now (not least because this is the one that counts at least when playing Swedish rules). To understand what the card does, one has to know what a subgame is. Which is actually what the original card tried to explain.
There are a couple of pages of rules explaining exactly what a subgame is. I will not put them on here, but you can find them right here.
The most important thing to understand is this:
A “subgame” is a completely separate Magic game created by an effect. Essentially, it’s a game within a game. The “main game” is the game in which the spell or ability that created the subgame was cast or activated.
This is rather self-explanatory and easy to pull off. Remember, though, that if you play a Shahrazad in a subgame, you will create a new subgame where the first subgame is now the main game. Easy, right?
The other important thing to know and understand is this:
As the subgame starts, an entirely new set of game zones is created.
This may also be easy to understand, but it is a hell to pull off. This means that you have to put aside all cards in your battlefield (and remember which of them were tapped or had counters on them and how many!), the cards in your graveyard and the cards in your hand. You also really have to remember how many life points you had left. This is not trivial. Especially if someone would be insane enough to play a Shahrazad within a subgame (I look at you Peter Fryland, but this I will get back to).
Okay, so that is the card. It only costs two white mana to play, so maybe it should see some play, now that it is even unrestricted?
Not really. I mean you probably shouldn’t play Shahrazad.
Above, I focused on the subgame part of the cards rules text, but there is more. Every player who does not win the subgame will lose half their life points in the main game. Right. Shahrazad is a direct damage spell, apparently. Or is it?
Let us do some math (and please apologize my very poor math, it is luckily by no means what I do for a living!).
If your opponent is at 20 life when you play your Shahrazad, you will damage them for 10 if you manage to win the subgame. Great!
If they are at 16 life, and you win the subgame, they will take eight damage. Still a lot for a white WW-costed sorcery. As a damage spell, Shahrazad is rather great all the way down to you opponent being at 10 life. That will still be five damage for WW.
But wait! What is the prerequisite for this damage? You have to WIN the subgame. How do you do so? Either by your opponent scooping, by them not being able to draw a card from their library, or – the most normal way of winning – by dealing 20 damage to your opponent. Okay. So in a game where your opponent has gained zero life, and you have dealt zero damage, by playing Shahrazad and winning the subgame by dealing 20 damage, you will deal them 10 damage.
Read that again.
Shahrazad is actually not a direct damage spell, it is a life gain spell. For your opponent.
Here is the real math:
If your opponent is at 20 life, you play Shahrazad and win the subgame by dealing 20 damage, you will still need to deal 10 more damage to win the main game. Effectively you will have to deal 30 damage all in all. That is 10 life points to your opponent right there.
It gets worse if you play the card with your opponent on less than 20 life points. If they only have 10, you will effectively give them 15 life points. Or at least you will have to deal 25 damage to kill them. Instead of just the 10.
Shahrazad is a really weird card. Who would want to play this card?
Madness in the mountains
As I mentioned: Great guy and chaos instigator extraordinaire Peter Fryland would.
And so he did. He had thrown the princess into an otherwise rather stock burn list with basically all spells that administer direct damage to the die of the opponent: Lightning, Forks, Psionic Blasts, Vise and power and restricted cards to tie all together.
His reasoning was exactly that Shahrazad was a direct damage spell. But as I watched the game (and became kind of a judge and helping hand in trying to figure out to what subgames piles of graveyards, battlefields, hands and life totals belonged) it got very clear, that it is not.
At one point Peter and Kristoffer was two subgames deep, and it was completely impossible to understand what was going on – or what player to actually benefit from the subgames. For a deck like reanimater (as Kristoffer was playing) the leaving of several main games can become a problem because he may lack some of his key cards, when he is two-three games deep. And Peter did win these subgames, but it only resulted in him taking eight life points from Kristoffer in the main game, and then Kristoffer more or less turned the game. When Kristoffer was at five life points he managed to remove the last counter from an All Hallows Eve and thus cluttered the battlefield with strong critters.
Peter, in his turn, tries another Shahrazad but at this point it was directly problematic for him, because he tapped out, to basically deal three damage to Kristoffer (who just conceded the new subgame on my advi… Orders!). And then it was Kristoffers turn, and he attacked and killed Peter.
Of course the last play was a mistake (on purpose) from Peters side (he could have double bolted to end the game right there and then), but he was also lured by the beautiful princess and her stories! He wanted to tell more!
He wanted to keep on playing that epic match. And this I am always able to understand and honor.
What is she actually good for then?
But it is also one of the exact reasons why Shahrazad has been banned and restricted almost all of her life. The card is not very good in itself – actually it is almost better for the opponent than for the one playing it – but it drags out time, almost endlessly. Remember that the card is not removed from the game when cast! When you are back at the main game, you will still have three Shahrazads in your library and one in your graveyard!
This is why I think it is one of the most flavorful cards in the entire game, and why I think it flavor wise is a stroke of genius. Play wise, though, it is not. Even though the idea of a subgame is fun and quirky and I like it a lot, it just sparks so many questions, and on this card in particular, what you get out of winning the subgame is so bad for dealing 20 damage. In newer iterations (all silver bordered) of cards that provoke subgames (Enter the Dungeon, The Countdown is at One and Tug of War) the designers figured this fundamental flaw out, and on all these cards the subgame starts at either five or one life points. That makes a whole lot more sense!
What would it take, to make Shahrazad playable? Besides starting the subgame at five life points, it is hard to say. If it halved the opponents life AND killed all his lands or discarded his hand or let you draw seven cards or whatever, it just might be good enough. Then it could be a card to turn around tricky situations, a bit like Balance. But we just have to remember that it always comes down to you winning a game against the same opponent with the same deck that you are playing against in the main game. If you can win the subgame, then surely you can win the main game. If odds are against you in the main game, they probably will be in the subgame too.
Therefore, no matter what the price will be for winning the subgame, I would argue that it is never enough to make the card great.
And therefore, simply and regrettably, the card is just not good enough. Many cards are not good enough, and I play them anyway, but in this case – even though I really love the card in many ways – it simply makes absolutely no sense to play.
Or at least it only makes sense in very specific situations.
I believe Shahrazad is exactly a card for drawing out time (which is another very important reason why this card, play wise, is horribly designed!). Or at least that is the most obvious use of the card. In all circumstances I would argue that it is basically always a sideboard card. When to board it in? Either when your opponent has some trick to gain him a lot of life. But mostly if you have won the first game and are rather certain that you will have a lot of trouble winning the next. Then the best thing to do may be to draw time out long enough, that the round ends 1-0 in your favor.
This could be a valid tactic in a very aggressive Pink Weenie, where you know that your opponent will probably have lifegain and/or lots of extra creature removal post-board. Or in a burn deck where your tactic is to burn your opponent game one, before they know what hits them, and then – when they board in their lifegain, counterspells and Circles of Protections, your best bet may be to slow things down by telling stories within stories.
But what do you say? I know it is strong heresy to call a legendary Arabian Nights rare bad, especially one as flavorful as this, but am I right, or does the card have merits besides great storytelling?