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The Best Card Ever... Plus or Minus One

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The letter B!ack around 1997 and 1998 there was a well-traveled catchphrase that Impulse was the greatest Magic card of all time. Impulse... Really?



Kind of a weird choice for the greatest Magic card of all time, no?

Impulse—given us in the context of Visions (which might still be YT's favorite set of all time)—was and did a great many significant things. It was, as part of a set that offered useful and desirable (but, with the exception of Fireblast, "not broken") effects, all at reasonable costs (again with the exception of Fireblast)... Might have been the useful-est, desirable-est, and reasonable-est of that very positively oriented bunch. Impulse helped to usher in a whole new way of thinking about Magic cards and balancing mana from a land count perspective. The great Alan Comer (today a Hall of Famer) taught us the doctrine of one- and two-mana cantrips, and illustrated how we can use our cantrips early to dig for land, and late to dig for game-winners... a strategy and method of deck design that the aficionados of Preordain continue with their game-winners even today, some fourteen years later.


Impulse guided the paths of Mono-Blue and White-Blue Control decks to higher and higher levels of design sophistication. It was essential for the very existence of the Prosperous Bloom deck that won the Mirage / Visions Pro Tour in Paris. And in later years, Impulse continued to contribute to Combo Winter decks like High Tide, and later Extended Pro Tour winners like Blue-Red Donate.

So Impulse helped raise the level of intellectual rigor of the game despite an inextricable coexistence with Fireblast-driven alternatives while simultaneously driving important deck after historical win (meanwhile players from Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Jon Finkel to future Magic Online master Worth Wollpert commingled their Impulses and Fireblasts, exploring the (deck) design space in different ways)... but for all the work it put in, Impulse was not itself "broken." There was nothing inherently "too" good about it. It was the perfect balance of cost and card power. No one was arguing Impulse was superior to Ancestral Recall or Time Walk, but it was an amazing expression of R&D exercising cost control even as they exerted creativity.

Impulse was, as you now know, the greatest Magic card of all time.

I think you can tell we all really liked an Impulse.

I asked Mark Rosewater at a Pro Tour New York in 1999 why they didn't just reprint Impulse.

"It was too good," Mark told me. "We can't give players that amount of digging in Standard... at least not at that cost."

So we haven't had a legitimate Impulse in Standard in over ten years.

Now some years after the heyday of Impulse there was a bit of a controversy around how blue could or should draw cards, extra or otherwise. Fact or Fiction on four mana was... too good. Ultimately, blue mages were consigned to sorceries like Compulsive Research and Concentrate... good, but not exactly what they wanted. The thinking was that blue mages wanted to leave up mana for Counterspells, and by being forced to cast a three- or four-mana sorcery main phase to keep pace, they didn't get the full flexibility afforded them by being, you know, blue.


Sure, there were some nice interactions (like dumping a pair of Firemane Angels to your Compulsive Research, or paying the discounted flashback on a Deep Analysis), but for the most part, blue mages didn't like this sorcery stuff one bit.

Today we have a different set of operating rules as permission-happy blue wizards (Azure Mages, if you will). Today we typically see a blue player invest in sorcery-speed mana once (say the aforementioned Azure Mage, or ideally some kind of "Jace" Planeswalker)... and then we can for the most part leave up countermagic mana while drawing cards either for free or at instant speed by cashing in on that initial investment.

Regardless, when Time Spiral block hit the shelves, the policy against instant-speed card drawing for blue was apparently changed. We got interesting options like Think Twice and a truly universe-changing alternative in Mystical Teachings.

These cards had the card type of an Impulse but offered some very different incentives and limitations.

Think Twice was far less powerful a digging card than Impulse (for the same cost), but its flashback option gave it a card advantage incentive—again at instant speed—that was very attractive for mages like a Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and his then-followers. Velocity and redundancy and smoothing out opening hands, all at once.


Mystical Teachings was a much more powerful card than any previously minted Impulse or Think Twice. Instead of plucking "something" from a limited palette of one to four cards from the top of your deck, Mystical Teachings let you get (in the appropriately built deck)... anything. If your deck was full of Instants, Mystical Teachings could get most of your gas, on demand. You could build it on a redundant basis, or you could fill your deck with bullets (one of this, one of that, an answer for this, lots of flexibility with relatively lot commitment)... and you would have the tutor to get what you wanted, more or less when you wanted.


Like Think Twice, Mystical Teachings gave you the option of flashback card advantage hand-in-hand with the attractiveness of its instant card type. Flashback two-for-ones are in some ways better than "regular" two-for-ones, especially when playing against another blue mage. Your opponent might counter the first one (or a black mage might make you discard it with a Duress), but it's going to take another one to stop the re-buy. You can bank on your graveyard like an extra card in hand, saving up for a rainy day turn.

On the other hand, Mystical Teachings cost four mana (the Zvi Mowshowitz cutoff for "has to be able to win the game all by itself"), and required you to play black in order to take advantage of its back end.

But was it good enough to win a game all by itself?

Do "its Block Pro Tour" and "multiple Grand Prix" and "lots of PTQs and stuff" count as "a game"?

Though I can't recall anyone ever mistaking Mystical Teachings for the greatest Magic card of all time (and to be fair, there were close to ten years of competitive tournaments between the printings of Impulse and Teachings), it is at least arguable that it has had a greater singular impact on Magic, at least in recent years. It's probably fair to say that they were both pretty good during their respective heydays.

Today's Innistrad preview brings together many of the defining elements of both Impulse and Mystical Teachings.


The Form

Forbidden Alchemy closely echoes the basic form of an Impulse. It is an instant that lets us look at the top four cards of our deck, keeping one. We don't draw the card (which can be important for factors from Underworld Dreams to Zur's Weirding), but we get to keep the awesomest of the quartet. Unlike a Mystical Teachings, we can use Forbidden Alchemy to draw a land if we need it, or some other kind of non-instant spell.

Now of course the card doesn't cost two mana.

I don't know that two mana for an Impulse would be overpowered for Magic in 2011 (compare Impulse to Preordain or Ponder; it offers more but also costs more), but Forbidden Alchemy isn't exactly an Impulse, is it?

The Function

You don't put the other three cards that you didn't keep from Forbidden Alchemy #1 on the bottom of your deck, the way we used to with Impulse.

You put the extra stuff in your graveyard.

Wow. That is much more powerful!

I don't know a single Innistrad card more than you probably do at this point, but I know from other previews that there are a fair number of graveyard interactions going on in this set. Moreover, I know that there are all kinds of cards that have seen play over the years that would probably get along just fine with the freebie graveyard-filling proffered by a Forbidden Alchemy.

Here are the first ten beneficiaries that I thought of; I am sure you can stretch your own hallucinations for more of the same (no idea if any of these would "be good" ... just that they would all get along):

Accumulated Knowledge
Ancient Grudge
Anger
Dread Return
Genesis
Haakon, Stromgald Scourge
Life from the Loam
Narcomoeba
Raven's Crime
Riftstone Portal

So you start out with a one-for-one that can be more than one. You trade a Forbidden Alchemy for whatever the best card of the next four would be... but if you dump a flashback card or three, an engine like Haakon, or an outlet like Raven's Crime, you are getting quite a bit more function than "just" an Impulse (and Impulse was at one point the greatest Magic card of all time).

Remember the ability of a Mystical Teachings to "bank" extra cards in the bin? Even if we don't consider the extra ability, Forbidden Alchemy—in the right deck—can be doing just that.

But why ignore...

The Flashback

Now whether or not you have any of the previous segment's A+ Number One SuperGas online, Forbidden Alchemy gives you essentially the same kind of card advantage as a Think Twice or Mystical Teachings, all by itself. That is, it is a self-contained two-for-one in the form of giving, then giving again, from the graveyard.


On the one hand, no; Forbidden Alchemy is not quite the Demonic Tutor that Mystical Teachings was in an instants-laden deck. On the other hand, it has three compelling plus signs that make it, in context, potentially even better.

The Cost
The cost on this card makes it pretty unambiguously playable. It is too expensive to lower your mana count the way Impulse and Alan Comer taught us to do, but the graveyard side effect is too powerful as an add-on for a two-mana cantrip. That said, it is cheaper than Mystical Teachings... and while the jury might be out on power v. raw power, being cheaper certainly has some sway.


The Color
The truth is, if you are building for big ups from the graveyard, you may want to be heavily in black anyway... but there's plenty to do with Forbidden Alchemy before even looking to the color of its flashback cost.

New blue options like Snapcaster Mage seem positively devious.... Forbidden Alchemy, dropping a Stoic Rebuttal, flash down Snapcaster Mage, give the aforementioned Stoic Rebuttal Flashback, counter your opponent's whatever.


The Collection
In the right 60, Forbidden Alchemy can drive an engine of unbelievable inevitability, piling extra card over extra card. One of the common Mystical Teachings plays from Time Spiral days was the old "Teachings for Teachings" ... This card can be doing the same thing, as many as three times over, every single time, depending on how you build your build.

Yes, you might Alchemy the next Alchemy straight into your hand... but don't forget that keeping something else and burying that next Forbidden Alchemy instead might be just as "Teachings for Teachings" in terms of card advantage, depending on how much mana you have got.

Forbidden Alchemy | Art by David Rapoza

Ultimately? You can leave up countermagic mana while burying your opponent under that avalanche of card advantage that makes some players absolutely abhor the Azure... and let's be honest: That's exactly how blue likes it.

The best card of all time? I doubt that anyone would mistake Forbidden Alchemy for that. But might it be as format defining as Mystical Teachings over the next year or so? I certainly wouldn't bet against.



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