BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — KX’s coverage of the most expensive cards from all of Magic has been unusual in relation to the seasons at hand in North Dakota. During the height of the summer, we introduced you to the Ice Age block — and now, as the weather slowly begins to cool, the temperature on Tersiaire is heating up. Still, a timeline is a timeline, and as such, it’s time to discuss Alliances, the original finale of the short series of sets.
While players were gone exploring the backwater Plane of Ulgrotha, the condition of Terisare improved significantly when the Half-Elf Planeswalker Freyalise discovered that the Sylex Blast responsible for the deep freeze also bound several nearby planes together, forming a ‘Shard’ that trapped both worlds and Planeswalkers. She then used the energy of a passing Plane to cast the World Spell — which not only broke the Shard, but also ended the Ice Age in the process. During this new period, known as The Thaw, the remaining races and groups were forced to readjust to the warmer climate. Unfortunately, there is still a danger to be found in this new world. An undead army created by the necromancer Lim-Dul for the express purpose of world domination now threatens the safety of all of Domianria — meaning that old rivals who fought amongst one another in the cold must put aside their differences and band together if they are to have any hope of survival.
To say Alliances came hot on the heels after the disaster that was Homelands is inaccurate — the gap between the two sets was the longest recorded in Magic history. Nonetheless, it served as the return to the main story at hand, and according to some, a return to form for the entire game following the rough period.
Alliances, as part of what would later become the traditional style of ‘Block’ releases, did not introduce any new keywords to the game, instead opting to expand on the already-existing themes introduced in Ice Age. While the Snow mechanic was deemed an abject failure and saw very little support (Mark Rosewater would later go on to state that it was only included in Alliances for thematic reasons), other themes, including Legendary Creatures, Cantrips, Allied Colors, and Cumulative Upkeep saw multiple new additions. The most popular type of card to come out of the set, though, were ‘pitch cards’ that could be cast by paying a cost other than Mana. One of the other more intriguing additions was the introduction of a race of sentient gorillas to the Plane — which the design team evidently thought was so silly that they renamed every card in the set to feature ‘Gorilla’ in its name out of protest (this has nothing to do with the actual story of Alliances, but we found it entertaining).
When one looks at the dichotomy of strong cards between Ice Age (which introduced what many believe to be the best Black card in the franchise’s history) and Homelands (which gave us… whatever these are), it leads one to wonder which side of the power pendulum Alliances would fall into. Fortunately, it leans far more on the former side than the latter — and nowhere is that clearer than in the prices many of the set’s most famous cards fetch on the market. We’ve taken average market prices from MTGGoldfish in order to determine which cards from the set were the most valuable members of the proverbial Alliances between paper and players.
#5: Thawing Glaciers
Although The Thaw is generally seen as a good thing, the sudden climate shift still took a heavy toll on the residents of Terisiare. When the ice around the continent rapidly melted, many areas experienced heavy flooding, resulting in tremendous damage and loss of life. Sometimes, however, this can be a good thing, as when these walls of water pass, they can reveal even more ground to rebuild on. This is exactly the idea behind what is perhaps the most underrated card not only in Alliances, but in the entire Ice Age Block — Thawing Glaciers.
As is fitting for the natural wonder the card is based on, Thawing Glaciers is very slow to activate — especially because both it and the land it fetches come in to play tapped. Still, this does little to devalue the fact that Glaciers essentially grants players the ability to always play a land during their turn. It’s almost impossible to find a player who doesn’t want the ability to gain extra Land placements, especially when these Lands can be pulled directly from the deck (thus stopping them from being drawn later at times where more creatures or spells are needed). The fact that this effect also does not count towards a player’s one land per turn limit means that those who do draw Lands won’t be forced to leave them in the hand upon using Glaciers’ effect. It’s also noteworthy for possessing a tremendous amount of synergy with the Landfall mechanic (which activates whenever the card’s controller plays a Land) — as bringing in a free Land and then playing the typical one per turn allows players to trigger the powerful effects of cards like Avenger of Zendikar, Moraug, Fury of Akoum, Tatyova, Benthic Druid, or the many forms of Omnath multiple times in one turn. Returning to the hand during the end step instead of being sacrificed also means that Glaciers can be used as fodder for effects that require bouncing Lands (such as Tameshi, Reality Architect) without sacrificing any field presence, as well as a guaranteed trigger for any Landfall effects on the next turn when it is once again placed on the field. While the card is certainly not one that is meant to be played early, in the late game, it serves as an excellent way to fuel Mana-hungry builds and Land-based tactics alike — effectively transforming it from a peculiar example of older game design into a frighteningly effective value engine.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of searching through the history of Magic for these price guides (aside from having an excuse to write about trading cards) is that we have the opportunity to discover unique pieces of the game’s history that may have slipped under the radar. While it’s fun to discuss the obviously expensive and powerful cards of the franchise (and even its disastrous failures), learning about these often underappreciated cards is a joy in itself. Thawing Glaciers, while not as well-known as other cards from the Ice Age block (or even in Alliances), is a perfect example of a hiddem gem that — and our correspondent notes that it will probably make an appearance in one of his own decks in the near future.
To showcase the different landscapes of the plane that emerged after the Thaw, a series of ‘Replacement Lands’ — one of every color, all related to one of the major factions on Tersiare. Each of these demanded the player sacrifice a long to play them, but made up for this by proving extra Mana in addition to additional effects (such as the ability to power up creatures or create Soldier tokens). Blue’s entry into this list was Soldevi Expeditions, and is named after the inquisitive machinists of the Soldevi city-state. Appropriately enough, the card reflects the group’s focus on ingenuity and archaeology by allowing its user to ‘dig’ for what they need.
Compared to some of the other Lands on these lists, Excavations has a decent ability offset by an unfortunate cost. Granting two Mana, including at least one colored Mana, is by no means a bad effect, and the added effect to Scry (look at the top card of your deck, and choose to either keep it there or send it to the bottom), which is not typically found on Lands for such a low cost, means that it can easily help players fix their upcoming draws if they do not need the Mana it provides — and there are plenty of cards, like Kenessos, Priest of Thassa or Galadriel of Lothlorien that can repeatedly translate this effect into multiple instances of card advantage. The only issue is that the cost to play Excavations is somewhat steep when compared to other Lands that can tap for two Mana — and while the Land does come in untapped unlike Dimir Aqueduct or Azorious Chancery and includes the Scry effect, it is worth noting that these Guild Bounce Lands have several other advantages over Excavations (particularly that they return a Land to the hand instead of destroying it, that this land can be tapped, and that they add two individual colors instead of a colorless and a Blue).
Excavations, for what it is, is a decent Mana source with a helpful ability attached to it. Blue and the Scry mechanic go hand in hand, and having a Land that can do both is a unique and useful asset. Mono-Blue players or those who utilize Scrying as a major part of their strategy could certainly make do with including a copy of Excavations in their deck — provided they can pay the cost of funding the dig, of course.
For some Magic players, it’s never enough to have the ability to play their own Magic cards — they also want to be able to use other peoples’ as well. Such is the idea behind the many ‘mind control’ effects available in the game. There are plenty of cards that allow one to take control of not only the creatures of others that see play in many strategies, but even manipulate the entire turn of an opponent — and true control freaks will even utilize Commanders like Sen Triplets or the Haldan/Pako partnership who exist solely to allow the player to not only use their own cards, but everyone else’s as well. Despite being one of the earliest examples of this stealing ability, however, Helm of Obedience sees little play alongside these much-maligned manipulators.
The ability to both mill an opponent’s deck and steal one of their creatures is a powerful one — but seeing as how Helm is one use and immediately takes the first creature it sees, such an ability tends to be more prone to misses than hits. With the exception of decks like Eldrazi or ‘Stompy‘ strategies (which use gigantic creatures to overwhelm opponents with brute force), there aren’t actually many decks that run enough high-cost creatures to both outweigh the price of the Artifact and guarantee a valuable prize. Despite this, it is helpful that Helm of Obedience does not destroy itself if the opponent does not reveal a creature — meaning that the effect can be reused every turn until it connects with a target. That isn’t to say it’s useless: one creature is better than none at all, and the fact that it does not go away until it hits means that it can serve as a decent place to dump excess Mana into and a method to chip away at resources in decks like Codie, Vociferous Codex that tend to not use creatures at all. There’s even a way to use Helm of Obedience to immediately kill an opponent — as Helm’s effect mills cards until they place a certain number of cards or a Creature in their Graveyard, the effect of cards like Leyline of the Void, Dauthi Voidwalker, or Rest in Peace (which all prevent cards from being sent there) will cause the Artifact to instead eat through their entire deck in one fell swoop. Although Helm is indeed incredibly effective in the right circumstances, the rigid limitations mean that these glorious moments are few and far between.
While Helm of Obedience is often seen as more of a gimmick than anything else, it’s a unique Artifact that has the potential to create some truly hilarious stories at the table when it manages to grab the perfect victim. We like to imagine that players who frequently utilize the Artifact discuss their best Creature captures in the same way that Fishermen recount their catches.
#2: Force of Will
Counterspells have had a long history in Magic: The Gathering. As a unique type of magic only available for those using Blue Mana (for the most part, at least), . But not every counter is as straightforward as ‘play card, stop other card’ — it takes knowledge of strategies, perfect timing, and clever use of limited resources to make a counterspell truly count And as this entry proves, sometimes, a decisive blow can come when your opponent least expects it.
Ironically, the ability to negate any opponent’s spell itself is not the primary draw to Force of Will. While counterspells are a time-honored tradition that has lasted throughout all of Magic’s history, the generally accepted cost for an all-encompassing, straightforward counter is two to three Mana (examples of this idea include Mana Drain, Neutralize, Didn’t Say Please, Hornswoggle, or the eponymous Counterspell itself) — meaning that a counterspell with a higher cost will often need an additional effect for it to be worth the price (Spell Swindle makes up for the cost by creating Treasure Tokens, Forceful Denial allows the player to play another card for free, and Draining Whelk enters the battlefield as an often mighty creature). This, of course, is because one is not actually meant to cast it for this excessive cost. Force of Will’s extra effect essentially allows a player to retain the ability to counter a spell without needing to leave Mana open during an opponent’s turn, as well as letting them save open Mana they do have for other uses. While exiling an additional Blue card from the hand can at times be a great cost, ensuring that you are able to stop a huge play from one of your opponents (such as the placement of a Commander, a key combo piece, or a game-ending card like Craterhoof Behemoth) can be well worth the price. As far as free counterspells go, it also strikes a nice balance between accessibility and use– while Force of Negation, Disrupting Shoal, and Fierce Guardianship have lower costs to activate, Force of Will can be used to counter creatures, does not rely on any other factors being present, and has no adverse effects on the player in future turns like fellow zero-cost counter Pact of Negation. This effectively makes Force of Will the ‘Gold Standard’ for free counterspells — a position which it is unlikely to be ousted from anytime soon.
Any deck that features Blue is sure to be running a series of counterspells in its arsenal, even if they aren’t ones as expensive as Force of Will. When playing against opposing Blue decks, it’s always best to prepare for the worst by bringing ways to circumvent counters, or have a backup plan in case your ultimate strategy is defeated by a well-timed counter. And above all else, never be fooled into thinking that a Blue player can’t have a counter ready even if their Mana pool is empty. Considering the price of this card, it’s unlikely that many players at smaller game stores will be carrying a copy… but it never hurts to be careful, right?
Honorable Mention: Storm Crow (Priceless)
While we’re on the topic of Blue cards in Alliances, it would be a crime to not mention Storm Crow — the 1/2 Bird that somehow became the unexpected breakout star of the booster pack, and a beast that many players state is more powerful than all of the Power Nine combined.
To the untrained eye, this creature seems fairly underwhelming even for something one would find in a ten-cent card bin — so why do Magic players young and old alike refer to it with such reverence? The answer lies in a history of sarcasm, power scaling, and memetic mutation occurring shortly after this set was released. While Alliances as a whole was often considered to be a mediocre set by fans, it was noted that the Blue cards it contained — particularly Force of Will and Diminishing Returns — were generally far stronger than anything else in the booster pack, and that the set had in a sense created a clear power gap between Blue and the game’s other colors. The most common example used to get this point across was Force of Will — which some players stated immediately made every single Blue card in the game’s history ‘strictly better’ than most simply due to the fact that they could be exiled to pay the counterspells’ alternate casting cost. In response to these criticisms, players jokingly began suggesting that by this logic, Storm Crow — which was generally seen as little more than pack filler — was also incredibly overpowered, for the sole reason that it was a Blue card that was printed in Alliances.
In response to the joke, many Magic players began singing the praises of Storm Crow by noting all of the bird’s amazing strengths (most notably, its astounding power to fly over things and end a 20-life game in only 20 turns). These jokes were only strengthened by the fact that one of the cards’ original flavor texts — which states that a sighting of the bird tells you when ‘the worst is coming’ — could be read as Storm Crow itself being ‘the worst’ (I.E ‘the most deadly and dangerous card in the game’), humorously suggesting it was even stronger than players originally thought. The final testament to its imagined strength, however, was when the Planeswalker and machinist Urza (the man behind the Sylex Blast that plunged Dominaria into the Ice Age) was revealed to have made this statement in the franchise’s tie-in novel regarding the Brothers’ War:
‘Then Urza sighed and said, “I’m a storm crow, Tawnos. A bird of ill omen. Disaster follows in my wake, and I don’t want to hurt her anymore. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. Only a fool would be at my side.”‘ -The Brothers’ War, Page 345
With this comparison in place, fans joked, the bird was as strong as one of the most mighty and mythical figures in Magic history — or, perhaps, that Urza (who was prone to overselling his strength to begin with) was simply trying to prop himself up by comparing his meager power to that of the almighty Storm Crow. This effectively propelled the bird from a small community in-joke to a figure of legend, and to this day, players state that Storm Crow is the single strongest being in the Multiverse. Just looking at Storm Crow’s page on the official Magic database will present many five-star ratings, many of which plainly state that the bird is ‘strictly better’ than infamously strong cards like Progenitus or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, and even its mere presence in a deck is enough to scare opponents into surrendering. Further discussions suggest that the incredibly powerful ‘Storm’ mechanic was in fact named after Storm Crow, and that the card is an automatic inclusion in any deck — even those who do not actually use Blue.
The jokes surrounding Storm Crow’s mythical reputation have not been lost on Wizards of the Coast, either: the ‘Unstable’ joke set featured a clear shout-out to the card in the form of Crow Storm — a sorcery that makes multiple token copies of Storm Crow, and appropriately possesses the ‘Storm’ mechanic. The original card even received a new full-art foil variant in a 2020 April Fools edition of their Secret Lair series of cards dedicated to “the best Magic cards of all time”, and to this day, it remains one of the fandom’s favorite cards to joke about alongside the likes of Colossal Dreadmaw (the two legendary joke creatures have also been featured together on a special event exclusive card). This memetic potential means Storm Crow is more well-known than almost everything else Alliances has to offer, and is at the very least worth a mention in any column discussing the pack.
#1: Lake of the Dead
Dark Ritual, an Instant which allows a player to pay one Black Mana to get three in return, is a simple, but infamously powerful Magic card from the early days of the game, released as part of the same series as Ancestral Recall (a member of the infamous Power Nine). While not nearly as costly or overpowered as Recall, it has since become a legendary card in its own right, and finds its way into almost every Black deck that has space for a copy. As a result of this legacy, many other one-use cards have been introduced that provide players with sudden Mana surges. And while these are powerful on their own, attaching a similar effect onto a more permanent card that allows it to be used multiple times — like Lake of the Dead, for instance — you have not only yet another piece of evidence that Lands reign supreme as the most expensive offerings MTG has to offer, but also an incredibly powerful card in its own right.
Lake of the Dead is essentially a reusable copy of of Culling the Weak — a variant of Dark Ritual that offers even more Mana than the original, provided that the player sacrifices a creature upon casting the spell. In many cases, while sacrificing a creature and a land to power the card initially seems to be even more of a drawback, there are plenty of ways to use it to a player’s advantage, especially in Black. Creatures like Reassembling Skeleton and Gravecrawler can easily be killed to fuel the Land and then resurrected using less Mana than they create, and the card can even be used to activate the ‘death triggers’ (abilities that occur when a creature dies) of victims like Junji, the Midnight Sky and other creatures that profit when their allies kick the bucket (Pitiless Plunderer, Blood Artist, Zulaport Cutthroat, etc.) Even without these assistants, however, it serves as an excellent way to quickly get enough Mana to power out strong cards ahead of the expected curve. Four Black Mana is a tremendous upgrade to the only other Land with a similar effect (Phyrexian Tower only gives the player two), and when combined with powerful death triggers and the reanimating abilities of Sheoldred, Whispering One or Meren of Clan Nel Toth (who also gains Experience Counters whenever a creature is fed to the lake) that can frequently bring them back to abuse these abilities further, the Lake can be turned into both a Mana generator and a sacrifice outlet. The only major downside to Lake of the Dead is that like any other Land’s Mana ability, it can only be used once per turn — but taking into consideration just how powerful this effect is even when compared to similar combination pieces like Ashnod’s Altar or Phyrexian Altar (what is it with Magic and Altars?), this is a completely understandable limitation.
Although the initial cost of sacrificing a Swamp and need to feed the Lake one’s own creatures may be a turn-off in many strategies, any deck that throws away its own creatures as part of its plan would find immense value in running this rare Land. Much like other costly cards, however, this impressive power is held back by a lack of reprints, as well as a massive price tag — meaning that it only finds its way into the most high-budget builds.
If we’re being entirely technical, Alliances does not mark the actual end of the Ice Age — as a result of the retroactive removal of Homelands from the block, the ‘true’ last entry into the series is actually 2006’s Coldsnap. However, as this column discusses packs in regards to release date rather than plot, it will be quite some time before this story reaches its final conclusion. Until then, join us next week as we begin the Mirage block — featuring a new plane, new characters, and plenty of costly cards to write about.
What are your thoughts on Alliances? Do you have an urge to use any of the lesser-known cards on this list — and most importantly, have you accepted the glory of the almighty Storm Crow? Be sure to let us know your own memories and picks from the pack on our Facebook pages!