Like many people, I suspect I have my best deviant ideas in a nice hot morning shower. And about twelve months ago, a real doozy hit me.
Before I explain, let me first ask you all a question. Stick your hands in the air if you remember Psionic Blast. Go on…stick them up there. Now, take them down if you just looked at the mouse over image or checked Gatherer.
Yeah…I thought so.
I was first introduced to Psionic Blast while reading one of the original Magic novels, the William R Forstchen novel Arena. I remember thinking how cool blue direct damage was, since back then direct damage was primarily the province of red. Since then, Psionic Blast has seen print a whole five times. This lead me to consider the question – can one actually kill with something like Psionic Blast?
Let’s nip that question in the bud straight away: yes, one can kill with Blast. I myself ended a game in a Legacy tournament a few months back with a surprise blast to my opponents’ face. This leads to the big question, however: can we scale Psionic Blast up enough to finish off an entire Commander pod?
Profiling the Target
I want to start by talking about what we’re trying to actually take down here. As Commander players, we talk about “pods”. We describe the pods nominally by the number of players involved. Commonly, this seems to sit around the 4-to-5 player mark.
Let’s think about that for a second. Each player has 40 life, assuming no life gain shenanigans. A pod of four players means three other players to kill; three separate targets with a total of one-hundred twenty life points to nullify. Three other players’ worth of threats and counter magic. Thirty points of poison. Sixty-three commander damage…or just some other infinite combo/instant win trick. For every player we add to that pod, we add forty more life, eleven more poison, twenty-one more commander damage and/or a few more iterations of infinite loops.
I just wanted the enormity of the situation to sink in for a second. Now we know what we are trying to do, however, we need to know what tools we have to make it happen.
The Blast from the Past
When trying to build a theme deck, we deliberately choose to narrow our toolkit. As such, we need to understand what our tools can actually do. Let’s break down what Psionic Blast actually brings to the table.
Firstly, the best thing about Psionic Blast is that it is instant speed. This means you can throw this thing in response to something lethal going on the stack. You can throw it in your opponent’s turn to allow you to hold counter magic up. You can toss it out ing in your draw step to just be insulting. This flexibility allows you to hide your hand and to go hard for the kill when it is not being anticipated. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Secondly, Blast hits a target creature or player for four damage. That is 33% more mileage than a Lightning Bolt. Direct damage is always awesome. You can’t stick dudes in the way. You can flick it at pesky planeswalkers.
The best bit is that direct damage can win us the game.
There is a third thing that Psionic Blast does. (I am sure you have all been waiting for my commentary on this with bated breath.) Blast has a flaw. As a part of the resolution of the spell, the controller of the spell also takes two damage. This is a problem. If we could hypothetically get enough copies of Blast on the stack to kill a player, it would cost us half our own life to kill one opponent. To kill two foes, we would die in return.
Rain of 10,000 Arrows
It is a numbers game. Pure and simple, to kill a given player, we need to generate ten copies of Psionic Blast on to the stack. I’d like to break this down a little further here, as there are a few elements that need to be addressed if you want to actually build a deck to kill a table with Psionic Blast through direct damage.
Surviving the backlash damage-
There are three main things we can do here, and your options are going to be dependent on the colours you choose to run your deck with. Lifegain can counteract the damage you are doing to yourself. Lifegain is likely going to put you in a variant including green, white, or (at a stretch) black.
Alternatively, staying well in the field of blue, the ability to “Tinker” in robots like Platinum Emperion or Platinum Angel to prevent your life total change or outright game loss solves the problem. You could use Lich’s Tomb to reset your game after a kill, or you could play Urza’s Armor[card] and copy it to prevent one damage from each of the Psionic Blasts that would be dealt to you for each copy.
Getting enough copies on the stack-
Based on the math, we have to assume that your opponents have taken no damage. As I said above, that means forty life, which dividing by four means ten copies of Blast (Hey! It’s just like playing [card]Tendrils of Agony storm combo in Vintage!). Here’s a list some of the obvious ways we can get copies of the spell on the stack as we see if we can count that high:
- Split Decision (Depends on the vote)
- Riku of Two Reflections (Can fork the forks for twice the mileage)
- Chandra, the Firebrand (Second Ability)
- Djinn Illuminatus (Replicate)
- Dual Casting (Requires a creature)
- Echo Mage (Requires being levelled up)
- Increasing Vengeance
This is not by any means a comprehensive list. As you can see, however, we can easily pack enough Forks in a deck to kill a player; the problem with the Forking method is that it is highly card-and-resource intensive. I can see this easily killing one player at a time, but odds are you would need to recur the sequence to be able to kill off the second and third players; this likely involves things like Yawgmoth’s Will or Past in Flames. Graveyard recursion will allow you to go a second round. You could also use mass shufflers like Time Spiral to recycle your spent deck and reload your hand.
If you are lucky and your playgroup (unlike mine) leaves enchantments alone, you could stick a Cast Through Time into play to cause your previous sequence of spells to all have rebound. I would be advocating using (at a minimum) a blue and red shell, and more likely adding a third color for such a deck. It needs the Fork spells, which are basically all red and blue. The deck also (obviously) needs Psionic Blast, which is blue as well.
If you really wanted to be a masochist, do this in mono-red, as Char is functionally identical to Psionic Blast. However, cutting blue from your list cuts out a lot of your efficient draw power, and also Omniscience; a deck like this is probably going to want to try to run Omniscience in order to not bottleneck on mana due to all the forks needing to be played.
Honestly, I am not a fan of this plan. There are just so many things that can go wrong here. You have to survive the backlash, and you have to dig out all the Forks and resources several times to make the kills.
But what if there was another way?
The Priceless Expression on your Opponent’s Face When they Realise What Just Happened (For Everything Else, There’s Mastercard):
I’d like to explain a different (and quite disgustingly hilarious) interaction I stumbled onto one morning during an aforementioned hot shower musing. Now, I’d like to state for the record here that I am not going to just jam a decklist up as a part of this thing. The aim of my game is that I want to share with you all the horrible ideas surrounding what can be done with cards and how they can be abused in unexpected ways, and my hope is that this will inspire some of you to take on some of these concepts and ideas and build your own decks.
By all means, if you have found a better way to engineer the board state, keep me posted. I’d love to know.
Cutting to the chase, the question I asked myself was “Is it possible to kill an entire table in one go with Psionic Blast and/or Char?” As you can see already, trying to use the four points of targeted direct damage to kill all players is going to be prohibitively resource-intensive and fragile to the point of being a glass cannon.
This is where I asked myself, “Well…what about the backlash damage? Is there a way I can make that lethal for my opponents too?” The key to this is that I need a “must” ability – it can’t be optional. I also need this to hit all my opponents. I’m going to shortcut a little here, as I had been at the time of inception discussing two different solution cards to this problem with various people, so I want to name them and discuss how this core interaction works.
Hive Mind is a love/hate card. It has some sweet potential for mayhem. However, people generally just use it to cause everyone to die to their own Pacts.
As such, Hive Mind has a bad reputation. For our purposes, Hive Mind means that when I cast Psionic Blast/Char, all my opponents will also have a copy of Psionic Blast/Char on the stack. If you are running the numbers at home, you’ll remember that the backlash damage of our champion spell is two, and you’ll also remember that we’re assuming players to be on full health and thus a full forty life. Simple division tells us that for a player to die to Blast/Char backlash damage, they have to resolve twenty copies themselves.
Again, I am looking for a card that will copy Psionic Blast/Char. Something that forces my opponents to copy the Blast. Something that will generate another nineteen copies per opponent. Fork effects are useless, because my opponents can simply copy and aim the Blasts at me to kill me off.
Secondly, it is even more prohibitive to generate nineteen pseudo-storm with Forks than it is to simply fork Psionic Blast at my opponents for the kill in the first place. A discussion about the good and bad uses for the card Radiate pop up on Commander blogs and forums all the time. The usual complaint is that someone sawVindicate get Radiated, wrecking a game by destroying all permanents and land on the board.
Radiate is an interesting card, though.
It can only target an instant or sorcery card that targets a single permanent or player. It cannot target itself, it cannot target counter magic, and it cannot target a Fork effect. It places a copy on the stack (under the control of the player who resolved Radiate) of the spell it targeted for each other legal target that spell could target. If you are still following along at home, that means your opponents will also copy Radiate under the Hive Mind effect.
If you have done this right and there is nothing else on the stack, your opponents will now have multiple copies of Psionic Blast on the stack.
How exactly does this kill? The trick is to have enough valid targets on the board for each opponent to generate through Radiate enough copies of Psionic Blast/Char to receive enough backlash damage so that they die as a state based action in reverse “APNAP” (Active player, non-active player) order before you die yourself. The key here again is that Blast and Char only target players and creatures. You can use this in several ways, the easiest of which is to put a huge token horde (approximately twenty creatures per opponent) of creatures in to play. (You could just naturally have twenty creatures on the board as well.) You could also use effects like Living Lands or Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Kormus Bell to turn all lands into the creatures.
You would also need to find a way to keep those creatures alive; personally I use Bubble Matrix to do this job for me, as it reduces all damage dealt to creatures to zero. I also suggest doing all this under the protection of something like City of Solitude or Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir to ensure that your opponents do not wreck your delicate glass cannon with counter magic.
And what a magnificent glass cannon it is…
Closing It Down
I’m not going to lie – this combo comes out of nowhere. It’s really spectacular to execute, and requires a very good awareness of the board state to navigate it safely to completion. It also generates what I feel will appear to your average casual player to be a very confusing board state, so if you want to try this deck, you may need to be patient with your victims as you explain to them just exactly why the rules of Magic state they are now dead.
A quick note – we here at GDC are all about defending the social contract. My personal opinion is that we can play with powerful cards and combos, providing we just be respectful about it. This weapon may not be right for your group, but if you want to try it out, talk to your mates. You never know – they may also want to break up some elements of your group that may be a little stale with some fresh creativity and deck strategies.
Bonus Section – How to Explain the Stack:
Remember- your board state requires the following:
- 20x Permanents between yourself and the player to your left that are legal targets for Psionic Blast/Char.
- 1x Way for the permanents to survive the Psionic Blast/Char damage.
- 1x Hive Mind
- 1x City of Solitude/Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir (Optional but recommended for protection.)
Cards in Hand:
- 1x Psionic Blast/Char
- 1x Radiate
Sequence of Actions:
1) With Hive Mind in play, cast Psionic Blast announcing yourself as the target, and announce retention of priority. Do not pass priority if you do not have a City or Teferi in play, and do not allow them to let Blast resolve or for them to add another spell to the stack.
2) Place the Hive Mind triggered ability on the stack and retain priority. This is the trigger that causes your opponents to get the initial copy of Psionic Blast, and this trigger is irrelevant.
3) Cast Radiate, targeting the copy of Psionic Blast that you targeted yourself with.
4) Allow the Hive Mind trigger on the Radiate to go on the stack and pass priority. If you are under City or Teferi, your opponents can do nothing. Otherwise, here is hoping that they do not have countermagic.
5) The Hive Mind trigger on Radiate resolves, and your opponents copy Radiate in APNAP order. Note: they can only target the Psionic Blast that you targeted yourself with.
6) The top Radiate on the stack resolves. That player now copies Psionic Blast for every legal target (including themselves).
7) The Psionic Blast copies resolve one by one, and the player eventually dies as a state based action to lethal backlash damage. Any remaining spells controlled by that player are removed from the stack. The next element on the stack at this point will be the next opponent’s Radiate.
8) Rinse and repeat through steps 6 and 7 with copies of Blast fizzling for dead players and permanents that no longer exist until you are the last man/woman standing.