Ask The Pros:
What's Better Than An Elephant With a Hammer?
spent the entire first draft walking between the tables, looking for elephants. Well, not just any old elephants, and especially not Loxodon Menders. The card I was looking for does feature a large elephant in the art, but the actual focus is on a different subject: the gigantic hammer that is lofted high above its head. Loxodon Warhammer has been one of the most talked about cards in Mirrodin, with some players saying they'd take it almost over anything, and others like Ken Krouner saying it's expensive and unwieldy enough that they like it less than Mask of Memory.
Of the twenty-five Warhammers that I personally saw opened, a full twenty-four of them went to the player who opened the pack. The only person brave enough to buck that trend was Justin Scheider, who selected Barter in Blood over it. When asked what prompted that pick, he said that his table had at least seven Rustspore Rams, along with an unusually high number of other artifact removal spells. Rather than spend all day playing out an expensive piece of equipment that would often be destroyed, he decided to select a card that would always have a profound effect on the game.
No one questions the fact that an unanswered Warhammer will almost always end the game in short order. The humongous life swings it generates, combined with the relentless effect of the trample, mean that the player with the Warhammer can keep trading his creatures away to great effect. Even a mana Myr becomes a fearsome monster for an extra cost of three. There are only a few good answers: instant speed tapping, defenders with first strike, or of course, artifact removal. Then, of course, there's killing your opponent before he even gets a chance to use it.
No one is more conscious of these answers than the pros, most of whom have a variety of cards that they'd be willing to take over the Warhammer. Almost everyone would take Oblivion Stone or Molder Slug, but here are some of the other ones they listed:
Grab the Reins(Eugene Harvey)
Quite a few people call Grab the Reins the best uncommon in all of Mirrodin, elephants with big hammers be damned. Eugene cited the fact that Grab the Reins isn't vulnerable to removal and that it will always do what you want it to do as reasons to take it over the Warhammer. Or, more succinctly, because "it's retarded, it just wins the game." Even better, it's flexible: sometimes it wins the game by stealing a key blocker, sometimes it throws a creature to the dome for the final points of damage, sometimes it allows a creature that's about to die to combat damage to take out one last target on the way out. And then, sometimes it does all of the above at once.
Arc-Slogger (Gabriel Nassif)
As this format has matured, players have started to realize that being an artifact is quite a downside in this metal-heavy world. With everyone picking cards like Shatter higher than ever before, large fleshy creatures like Fangren Hunter have seen their stock rise. Nassif agrees with this to the point that he would take the large red beast, Arc-Slogger, over the Warhammer. Besides the fact that Arc-Slogger can't be killed by Shatter or Deconstruct, he also doesn't value equipment as highly as other players, instead preferring to rely on his creatures to carry their own weight. Another compelling reason is that, when I talked him to, he had just lost to the 4/5 red creature in two games straight.
Icy Manipulator(Carlos Romao)
Carlos was quick to say that he doesn't have too much experience with the set, but he felt that he would probably take Icy Manipulator over Loxodon Warhammer. Icy Manipulator, in its return from the old days, gets even better in a world filled with equipment that have to be moved around at sorcery speed. So you have an 8/5 flying, trampling, life-gaining Skyhunter Cub? Tap it. A 3/3 Neurok Spy that draws cards when it hits me? Tap it. Not only is it a force on defense, but when you've gained control of the game, it works offensively as well by nullifying key blockers. When you consider that this is all happening for the low cost of one mana a turn, you've got an artifact that's worthy of being picked high. Higher than Loxodon Warhammer? Carlos thinks so, and I'd have to say that I might agree.
Betrayal of Flesh (Adam Horvath)
In specific circumstances, Adam felt that he would take Betrayal of Flesh over the Loxodon Warhammer. A very aggressive Black/Red deck that's filled with removal might want a card that can both remove an opposing blocker and bring back a fresh attacker more than it wants an unwieldy piece of equipment. Also, he feels that Blue/Black makes the worst use of inefficient equipment since it's already the slowest archetype out there. Then, of course, there's the argument that Betrayal of Flesh isn't vulnerable to the removal that hits the Warhammer. So in either one of those color combinations, he would at least think about taking the instant speed creature kill.
Mask of Memory (Osyp Lebedowicz)
Fun-loving Osyp might "occasionally" poke fun at Ken Krouner in the forums of his popular Dilemma series, but here he shows that he actually does have some respect for the man's unorthodox pick orders. Mask of Memory is faster, more efficient, and has arguably just as devastating an effect on the game as Loxodon Warhammer does. In fact, I don't know if I've ever seen a game where a player has managed to come back after being hit with a Mask of Memory for more than one turn. One downside to the Mask is that it doesn't grant any additional toughness or evasion, so you need a creature that can get through on its own. With creatures like Neurok Spy and Leonin Skyhunter, though, the Mask is a behind-the-scenes game winning force.
Blinding Beam (Antonino De Rosa)
Now this is unorthodox. Antonino, when questioned, said that he's never lost a game where he's cast Blinding Beam. When you draw the right mixture of lands and spells, you can't lose, because this card has such a devastating effect that you'll win every race. On top of that, when you're in trouble, the card will buy enough time that you can hopefully draw a bomb or removal spell that will let you back into the game. I don't know if this is enough to compete with the sheer power of the Warhammer, but Antonino seems convinced.
Myr Enforcer(Ben Stark)
"Bens, first pick, first pack, Myr Enforcer or Loxodon Warhammer?"
"Myr Enforcer, obviously."
Yes, this conversation did happen. Yes, Ben might be the only person at this tournament who would have given that answer. His reasoning? Affinity is the best deck to draft, and Myr Enforcer is simply better in that archetype. Warhammer is still good, but it's not the same as a 4/4 that comes down so cheaply and comes out so aggressively. On top of that, this is a Rochester draft format, so if you pass the Myr Enforcer, the guy after you will take it and he'll cut off all of your affinity cards on the way back. Ben feels it's better to ship him the Warhammer, let him be happy, and then he'll hook you up with the deck that you want.
When a set has been around for several months, everyone knows what cards are good. There are enough articles on the Internet and enough conversations about card evaluation that anyone who pays attention can tell you the cards that are worth picking first. What separates the top players from the rest, however, is that they aren't satisfied with knowing what cards are good and what cards are bad. They need to know exactly how good the cards are, how well with they fit into different archetypes, and what cards they would take in what situations.
Everyone knows that Bosh, Iron Golem is good, and that Icy Manipulator is good, but when you're sitting down at your first Pro Tour draft table and they're both staring you in the face, do you freeze up or do you know the correct pick?