Alternative Pitch: The Force of Will Story
- Gianluca Aicardi
Over the years, alternative costs have become common, appearing in a wide range of different forms, the most thrilling of which involve the opportunity to cast a spell by spending resources that aren't mana. Force of Will and its brethren are still the mainstays of this category, but are far from alone.
Back in the early times of Limited Editions, Magic cards only had one casting cost - the one printed in the top right corner. Soon enough, though, casting a spell would become a much more varied affair, involving a plethora of optional, additional costs like kicker, buyback, or awaken, but also all sorts of alternative costs that may sometimes dramatically reduce the cost of the spells.
In some cases, the rule texts will include a condition that, if satisfied, leads to a free spell. That's true, for instance, of a few of Zendikar's Traps (Archive Trap, Mindbreak Trap, Ravenous Trap, and Summoning Trap) and for a couple of madness cards like Basking Rootwalla and Call to the Netherworld.
The Pact cycle from Future Sight, to which we've already devoted an article, presents a delayed cost, while the suspend mechanic turns "time" into an asset, and in at least the case of Lotus Bloom, it's the only resource that's required to cast the spell. Other cards call for replacement sacrifices, like Fireblast with lands, Demon of Death's Gate with life and creatures, Salvage Titan with artifacts, and Hand of Emrakul with tokens.
The most common type of spells that give us the chance to cast them for a replacement cost are the ones that use the "pitching" mechanic, an unofficial wording that encompasses all the instances of replacing a casting cost with the sacrifice of one or more cards from your hand, either by discarding them or, more frequently, exiling them altogether. The first cycle of cards that implemented such an option was released all the way back in Alliances, when the game was still less than three years old. One of these early examples in particular was going to remain, at least to date, the best pitch spell ever printed, the one everybody thinks of when discussing the mechanic, as well as one of the pillars of the Legacy format: Force of Will.
As it happens in most mono-colored cycles, but especially in the older ones, there was a clear unbalance between those five cards. Force of Will's unparalleled strength resides in its being an exact equivalent of Counterspell, a crucial effect that's desirable in any deck. The remaining cards, two combat tricks, and two removal spells, while mostly useful, proved to be more of a mixed bag. The white member of the cycle, Scars of the Veteran, which prevents damage and permanently increases the toughness of a creature, has fewer applications than any of its companions. Pyrokinesis and Contagion both appear better, able to deal four damage or kill up to two creatures with a cumulative -4/-2 modifier respectively. Like Force of Will, Contagion calls for one life on top of the pitched card, perhaps because, unlike Pyrokinesis, it affects creatures with regenerate, albeit for half the total toughness. Even more popular was going to be the green representative, Bounty of the Hunt, a fractional Giant Growth with convoluted wording.
The pitching mechanic felt revolutionary at the time (Mark Rosewater has listed it as one of the innovations that players feared were going to "kill" Magic), but remained dormant for a few years afterwards. However, during this silent period, Stronghold would release Dream Halls, a way to turn every spell you cast into a pitch spell.
Season of the Pitch
Spells with alternative costs not involving mana would make a strong comeback in Masques block. Its first set, Mercadian Masques, featured a record 18 cards with some mechanic or other working to this end, including a rare cycle of pitch spells. Out of these, the most highly regarded is certainly the tricky Misdirection, another blue card ensuring a way for permission players to never be caught defenseless while tapped out, thus making it harder for the opponent to work around their tools of the trade. Second best has to be Vine Dryad, if only in virtue of her becoming part of a green stompy deck with very few lands, also including the previously mentioned Bounty of the Hunt as well as other alt-cost Mercadian additions like Land Grant and Invigorate.
The rest of the cycle didn't really work. Reverent Mantra was okay-ish, but would in time be replaced by better versions of the same effect, like Akroma's Blessing and Brave the Elements. Cave-In was essentially an overcosted Pyroclasm, whose alt-cost was made mostly moot by not being instant-speed. Unmask, despite the flavorful name, engineered too much of a card disadvantage for the player, defeating its own purpose – it makes for a good illustration of why it's too dangerous to allow pitch spells to discard rather than exile, as in that case Unmask would have become a staple of any reanimator deck.
Most of the non-pitching alternative-cost spells from Masques require the presence of the basic land type linked to their color, then propose different ways to replace the mana cost, ranging from just tapping a creature to sacrifice permanents. Just to bring up the most effective ones, Gush forfeits land development for card drawing, while Pulverize, more drastically, lose lands to produce a mana-less Shatterstorm. Snuff Out, which would later become a Liliana signature spell, is a suitable Dismember, albeit still suffering from black's historical inability to affect its own creatures. The already referenced Land Grant is a peculiar case, in that it demands a landless hand, then acts as a free tutor (for duals, to boot, and before the Onslaught fetch lands even existed), inspiring the green Johnnies of the time to concoct a quite successful list where it covered multiple functions: deck thinner, mana fixer, fuel for other green pitch spells.
A Matter of Land
Nemesis, the second set in the Masques cycle, further solidified the land-based alt-cost mechanic through two different cycles, one at common and the other at uncommon (plus one lone rare, Sivvi's Valor), establishing more categorically what each color was asking the players to do to avoid paying mana for their spells: white and black would work with creatures, tapping and sacrificing them respectively, while blue and red would traffic in lands, the former bouncing them back into hand, the latter sending them to the graveyard; and green would cause the opponent to gain life. The only truly memorable card from this bunch of attempts is Daze, a miniature Force of Will that just went to prove once more that blue was the color that most had to gain from these mechanics. A more situational third cycle also requiring a specific type of land on the opponent's board contributed at least one useful sideboard card in Massacre.
Prophecy went right back to the pitching well with a new monocolored cycle, this time using a discard cost instead of an exiling cost, due to the fact that in most of the cases, the mandated pitch was a land card, and discarding lands is safer as it usually only generates moderate value. Some of these cards are still remembered to this day, while others have been thoroughly forgotten. Almost all of them revisited a classic spell from their color: Abolish was Disenchant; Snag was Fog; Flameshot was a less flexible Arc Lightning; Outbreak was Engineered Plague for one turn; and Foil was once again Counterspell, but also the only card in the cycle to ask for another pitch on top of the land, making it too steep a price to pay, while hardly being sure the occasion to cast it this way will always present itself at any given turn. This said, it did see play, since it still was a free Counterspell after all, and it could set up graveyard shenanigans in a way no other pitch spell ever could.
The Pitching Hour
One thing Force of Will and the best of its followers taught us is that pitch spells can be as alluring as they are problematic, and with the next iteration of the mechanic we were going to see how they're also prone to create broken interactions in unexpected places. To find that we had to wait five more years, though, until Betrayers of Kamigawa gave us the fish-flavored Shoal cycle, putting a spin on the mechanic by caring for the first time about the casting cost of the pitched card. For once, the issues didn't come from blue countering spells while tapped out thanks to Disrupting Shoal, and not even from essentially harmless removals like the white Shining Shoal and the black Sickening Shoal. No, it was Blazing Shoal the problem child here, giving red a modern, massive, no-mana-required Howl from Beyond, provided the deck containing it was equipped with some large "red" cards to pitch to it, like Progenitus. The big rainbow Hydra would also prove handy to fuel a protective Disrupting Shoal and (along with even more larger-than-life Worldspine Wurm) Nourishing Shoal's incomparable lifegain.
All these new pitching tools caused the already lethal Infect archetype to go over the top in Modern, resulting ultimately in Blazing Shoal's emergency banning just one month after the format's inception.
And this pretty much marks the end of the pitch spells' career so far: they're too dangerous, too unpredictable to be allowed back into more closely nurtured formats like Standard and Modern. In 2006, Coldsnap, true to its fame of being a weird set, regaled the mechanic with a last hurrah in the form of the so-called "super-pitch" cycle: Sunscour, Commandeer, Soul Spike, Fury of the Horde, and Allosaurus Rider. They all require to exiled not just one but two cards from hand in order to zero their cost; some of them, like Commandeer and Fury of the Horde, generate effects significant enough to show up in Commander, regardless of their alternative cost; others, like Soul Spike and Allosaurus Rider, just don't make much sense at all.
Then, a few years after that, it was time for the Phyrexians to substitute life for mana; in two cases, Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep, this once again brought the cost of a spell down to no mana at all. Unsurprisingly, both of these cards also got themselves banned in Modern, after creating all manners of headaches for a long while – and Probe is restricted in Vintage while Misstep is banned in Legacy, too. Guess the old adage is actually true: you should careful what you wish for, indeed. Especially if what you wish for is to pervert one of Magic's most fundamental rules, the one that says you have to pay some damn mana to cast your damn spells.
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