Forgotten Heroes: Power Surge
In this first installment of a new series, Forgotten Heroes, Sancho dusts off the red enchantment Power Surge. From being the terror of many a kitchen table, this card has now transformed into a nearly useless piece of cardboard and a reminder of an archaic set of rules from the old days.
The air is electric, despite the casual and friendly atmosphere at the table. The event's being live-streamed across the globe and giddy commentators joke about the picks and cards. All of this while trying to inform viewers about cards so rarely seen in modern Magic. One of them asks,
What does Power Surge do? as soon as the card hit the table. It's the rare card in the 13th pack.
You might have guessed that I'm talking about the much-awaited Beta Rochester Draft at Grand Prix Las Vegas 2018. Eight lucky Magic players got to open 25 year old packs of Beta and battle each other with the sometimes powerful and almost always expensive collectibles. This was the chance to open a Black Lotus and play it before it gets all sealed up in a protective casing. But Beta was more than just expensive cards and Power 9. It was a set from before the very concept of drafting Magic; a set with many undraftable cards and cards with confusing text that even the most experienced players find difficult to comprehend – and even cards that no longer have any real effect at all.
A Hill Giant, an Ogre and a Big Human Walk into a Casino
The last player to qualify for the draft, surrounded by Magic legends like Luis Scott-Vargas and Ben Stark, was Matthew Goslar from Big Human Gaming, who, quite fittingly, was a notch taller than the rest of the players at the table. Just as the commentators were musing about Power Sage's obsolescence in Magic, Goslar, who has the 7th and 10th pick for the pack, reaches across the table and grabs the card. Goslar told me later, "I was the last person qualified, so I didn't have the time to research like everyone else had, so I saw it as the rare and snagged it. I've kept it as a rare that may be worth more in the future... or as a keepsake for the event itself."
The Beta Draft was most likely the last time Power Surge will appear in the spotlight because, as the commentators quite correctly pointed out, the card doesn't do much in a game of Magic anymore. Just for comparison, consider that, among the red cards picked from the previous pack, were laughing stocks like Hill Giant and Grey Ogre. These cards are often pulled forth as prime example of how ridiculously underpowered and overpriced creatures were in early Magic. You can read Matthew Goslar's recount of the draft here or watch the drafting of the 13th pack here (if you jump to the beginning of the video, you will find an explanation of the Rochester Draft format).
An Old Spike Relayed
So, why is Power Surge deemed useless, and why was it printed in the first place. Let's do a postmortem on this forgotten hero. Power Surge is a red enchantment printed in the first five core sets of Magic, that is Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, Revised and 4th Edition. It costs two red mana to cast and all versions had the same illustration by Douglas Shuler (misspelled Schuler on the Alpha, Beta and Unlimited versions). The illustration depicts a bald male with what looks like a variation of a horseshoe moustache wearing, perhaps, a cape and an armor or a suit that could be out of Star Trek. The person in the illustration has his eyes closed in distress as lightning-like sparks impact or are emitted from the sides of his head.
The original version of the card reads: "Before untapping lands at the start of a turn, each player takes 1 damage for each land he or she controls but did not tap during the previous turn." This has since become "At the beginning of each player's upkeep, Power Surge deals X damage to that player, where X is the number of untapped lands they controlled at the beginning of this turn" in the official oracle text from Gatherer, the card database on Wizard of the Coast's website.
Burning the Rules
As any newer player will know, this is an effect which is easily circumvented. Why not just tap all your lands in the opponent's end step and begin your turn with all lands tapped? How did such a card even make it into print? Older players, especially players who began playing Magic before 2009, will know the answer - mana burn. Mana burn represented the idea that mana used by a planeswalking wizard (Magic player) to cast spells was seriously dangerous energy and had to be spent immediately to avoid being burned by it. In other words, any mana left in the mana pool at the end of a phase was turned into the same amount of damage to the player holding it – or in the word of the last printing of the rules still containing mana burn:
When a phase ends (but not a step), any unused mana left in a player's mana pool is lost. That player loses 1 life for each one mana lost this way. This is called mana burn. Mana burn is loss of life, not damage, so it can't be prevented or altered by effects that affect damage. This game action doesn't use the stack.
The rule wasn't relevant very often, but it could affect the game. This could happen when a player tapped a Sol Ring or when a player had to use a Mana Drain to counter a spell without being able to spend the mana during the following main phase. The red enchantment Braid of Fire could make mana burn a real threat to its controller by giving them more and more mana as the turns passed. But, of course, the card that made most use of the mana burn rule was Power Surge. Power Surge forced you and your opponent to play on curve or use all mana available from lands on each of your turns. It also punished blue players in particular for keeping lands untapped to save mana for counterspells. One card that specifically mentioned mana burn (though only in its reminder text) was the artifact Mindslaver from the expansion Mirrodin. This card specified that while you gain control over another player, you cannot use mana burn to damage that player.
In addition to punishing blue players for holding up mana, Power Surge was used in decks along with cards such as Manabarbs to put the opponent in a damned if you do and damned if you don't position, with Price of Glory and Citadel of Pain available for redundancy.
Take the Power Back
While Power Surge still may have some limited effect at the kitchen table when played in combination with Manabarbs, the 2009 rule change more or less spelled the death of Power Surge, even in a casual setting. According to an article on Wizards of the Coast's website published just before the release of Magic 2010, a month of playtesting without the rules for mana burn passed without mana burn ever coming up. Obviously none of the play testers had Power Surge in their decks.
This seems like a fixable problem though. It wouldn't even require the most verbose errata to restore the card to its former kitchen table glory. Since all cards can add or remove rules, Power Surge could simply be made to (re-)add the mana burn rule while it is in play by having its oracle text changed to something along the lines of:
At the beginning of each player's upkeep, Power Surge deals X damage to that player, where X is the number of untapped lands they controlled at the beginning of this turn. At the end of each phase players loose life equal to the amount of mana cleared from their mana pool.
Admittedly, giving Power Surge some of its old glory back will not make it spike from its current position as one of the lower priced rare cards in Beta – and Matthew Goslar probably won't miss out on a huge payday from not cashing in and selling the rare he drafted from pack thirteen at the event in Las Vegas. At the moment of writing, Beta Power Surges in near mint condition begin at just below 55 € on Cardmarket.
Ok, that was it for this first installment of Forgotten Heroes, now it is time to leave the word to you. Should Power Surge be updated? What are your favorite combos or synergies involving Power Surge? And are there any card you think deserves to be featured in Forgotten Heroes. As always, I look forward reading the comments and insight you share in the below.
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