Friday, 16 March 2012

[SCD] Cornelian Choices with Bad Cards: Phyrexian Portal

Probably one of my favourite cards over time has been Invasion's Fact or Fiction. It rewards everything from correct piling and correct pile choosing to building your deck to take advantage of a lot of cards going into your graveyard. It even spawned an acronym to illustrate it's power in conjunction with the mighty Psychatog: EOTFOFYL (End of turn: Fact or Fiction. You lose!) Sometimes it spawned choices that meant you were damned irregardless of how you split your opponent's piles, there was essentially no good splits for you, just degrees of how bad it was going to get. The card spawned pages and pages of internet ink debating the ins and outs of the card on topics such as the benefits of the 1-4 split and when you should go 3-2.

My favourite part of the card, however, was not making the piles but forcing the choice on my opponents and then turning their choices into decisions that best reflected what I wanted at that time in the game. I'm often surprised at the extra importance some players give to certain cards: Why should I worry unduly about letting the 1-card Wrath of God pile disappear when the remaining cards will more easily win me the game? Sometimes with Fact or Fiction, the 1-card pile is the right answer because that's the one card that the opponent fears the most.  With Phyrexian Portal though, where they know the others aren't going to the graveyard, the choice for you is harder. The psychology of the presented piles is the game within the game.

Unfortunately, Fact or Fiction is not a Commander staple, though it does crop up from time to time. What does a one shot of this sort in a 100 cards deck serve you compared to the 3 or 4 copies that were de rigeur in 60 cards decks when it was legal? Some would argue "not much" though there are some compelling arguments for those who want to churn through cards and fill graveyards. Sadly, it's not a card that has seen much love and I miss it.
In its absence, I've been finding a lot of joy in a very (very) bad junk rare from alliances: Phyrexian Portal.

Now, don't make any mistake here, this is a bad card, you probably shouldn't ever play it. Some players, upon seeing it for the first time, immediately look for a way to get around the potentially crushing exile effect. As the exiled cards are exiled face up there are a couple of possibilities depending on your color mix: Riftsweeper and Pull from Eternity will both recover cards into your graveyard or library, however, unless you’re able to churn the Riftsweeper through some sort of loop, you’re probably not going to be able to rely on it. Add in that Riftsweeper itself it could be one of the cards that is unwittingly exiled in a face down pile and you may begin to see how unreliable such a solution is.

So yeah, bad card.

Before we go look at the what the card does, here's the Oracle Text:

3: If your library has ten or more cards in it, target opponent looks at the top ten cards of your library and separates them into two face-down piles. Exile one of those piles. Search the other pile for a card, put it into your hand, then shuffle the rest of that pile into your library.

What it doesn't do like Fact or Fiction:

  •     It doesn't allow you to see both piles. You must make a blind choice based solely on the number of cards in each pile and your read of your opponent.

  •     It doesn't put the un-chosen cards into the graveyard. One of the incidental strengths of Fact or Fiction was that the un-chosen pile was put into the graveyard. Occasionally, given the format, it mattered more what and how many cards you put into your graveyard than which cards you chose to take into your hand. Here the un-chosen cards are pretty much lost.

  •     It allows you to activate the effect multiple times.

What it does like Fact or Fiction:

  •     It forces your opponent to make a choice: into which of two groups of cards should they put a particular card. They must not only make this choice, but also make a decision on the size of each pile. Like Fact or Fiction, Phyrexian Portal doesn't stipulate the size of the splits and 1-9 splits are as possible as 0-5 Fact or Fiction splits. 0-10 splits are also possible, though I’m not sure why you’d want your opponent to have a choice of 10 unless you’re colluding with them to try to overcome a third player.

  •     It forces you to make a choice. Now that you have seen the two face-down piles, which one do you take?

Essentially the entire fun behind the card is in these last two bullet-points: What is your opponent going to do and what are you going to do with whatever information you have gleaned from his process? If he splits it 1-9, is the 1 card so dominating right now that it will win you the game right there or is your opponent so good at mind games that he's just fucking with you and placing a basic land apart with signals that it's some ├╝ber-spell? If you pass on the "1" pile, you're potentially missing out on the exact card you need to win the game right now. Potentially. Is it worth the risk of exiling the remaining 9 cards to find out?

I'd say that the answer is "No" 99% of the time. I think you can allow for yourself to get punked the once this actually crops up for better card selection in the remaining pile, even if that pile is 9 basic lands. Your chances of getting something worth playing are so much higher if you take the larger pile. Imagine that you're running this out on the third turn with no acceleration and play no land before activating on turn 4. You have drawn 11 cards from your 99, 3 of which are lands. Given the trend for about 40 mana sources in a deck, of the remaining 88 cards there's 37 mana sources and 51 spells if you have no other mana sources in hand. That gives you a rough ratio of 4 mana sources for every 10 cards revealed to your opponent off the Phyrexian Portal. Now, we all know that bad luck laughs in the face of statistics such as this and you can just as easily have a 10-spell reveal as a 10 mana-source reveal.

Now let's also assume that Phyrexian Portal is the worst card in your deck (shouldn't be hard really!). Every card revealed to your opponent that's not a mana source is now a spell worthy of having in your hand. As the opponent choosing, if there is the aforementioned 1 great card and lots of mana, the split is probably still better at something close to 5/5 than 9/1 as they are guaranteed to deprive you of at least 5 usable cards, even if they are only mana sources. Having 2 great cards and lots of mana make it easy to split with one in each pile. What do you do when it's 6 great cards and 4 mana sources?

If you split them straight down the middle, you cut out half of the great cards, as they will be exiled, but the remaining unchosen cards in the taken pile will get shuffled back in to the library. Are you willing to let that go? And, if so, which pile are you more willing to let go? Do you maybe shunt over an additional mana source into the "better" split to fake out your opponent into thinking that you don't care of they pick the bulkier pile? What about a full-on psych-out by stacking all the spells into the larger 6- or 7-card pile and keeping the mana sources in a smaller 3- or 4-card pile?

Don't forget that the person activating the Portal doesn't see the cards as they go into a pile as they would with a Fact or Fiction. You just see the back of 10 card sleeves split into two piles. How good are your Jedi mind tricks? And, in your multi-player group, knowing that it's closed information, which opponent do you choose: The guy who knows what he's doing or the guy who doesn't? If you pick a player who just randomly flips the cards into 2 separate piles of 5, it's really just a crap-shoot. You could be getting, and losing, anything. Someone who tries to choose "correctly" but has a weaker grasp of the cards he's looking at will be more inclined to make bad choices but you have to read that bad choice correctly. Someone who knows exactly what they are doing could play it straight up or try a bit of bluffing. You really need to know your playgroup well to the get the best out of this card.

Of course, Phyrexian Portal is not all bad. You do have cards that can help you decipher what is happening in the top ten cards of your library. Ancestral Knowledge is an obvious one, but tends to be a one-shot solution. Scroll Rack has much more promise as, with a large enough hand size, you get to look at most, if not all, of the cards you're putting on top of your library before your opponent looks at them. This way you can control some of what could be exiled, though I presume that most of the kind of players who would run something like Phyrexian Portal are not the types of players who really care that much what gets exiled!

Many thanks to Imshan for the rules spot that allows me to add in Mirror of Fate. For 5 mana, Mirror of Fate allows you to cherry pick from the exiled cards some of the more powerful ones that will help you win the game in short order. If you can get it up and running with some sort of artifact recursion support, there is potential there for a second or third shot at the prize. It seems like a pretty delicate balance that you’d need to strike between what you are exiling and what you’re bringing back, but I can see a situation where you get some choice cards into exile, pop the Mirror (which, very importantly, is not exiled with it’s own effect), recur the Mirror and pop it again to bring back the next pile of cards. 

This is probably something I’d use in a U/x deck rather than the Mono-R shell I’m currently using the Portal in as blue would give you access to Academy Ruins and a little more draw to churn through cards. I know people hate him, but I can see a very aggressive line of play with Mirror, Jin Gitaxis and Academy Ruins allowing you to both draw for the turn and draw 7 off Jin Gitaxis with each of the drawn cards being hand picked from your face-up exiled zone in addition to the Academy Ruins recurred Mirror of Fate. Of course, you can have this effect without the use of Phyrexian Portal, though planning for this eventuality allows you to tutor through the Portal with a lot less care for what gets exiled.

At worst, I suppose you could always run Labratory Maniac and hope for the best!

May your splits always be favourable and your Jedi mind tricks never fall on a Toydarian opponent!


  1. Long time ago I also added a Phyrexian Portal to my monoR Bosh deck and from the very first activation on I loved it. Soo many awesome memories. Like the one time I told my friends about the 5-5 FoF split (5 cards or 5 dollars) and when the Portal hit my friend offered me a 10-1 split for every activation... I also take the bigger pile 99% of the time but then again my decks also always need more lands ;)

  2. Phyrexian Portal is basically a 3-mana artifact with "3: Draw a card," except it's not "draw a card," it's much better because you get to choose from at least 5 cards, and in multiplayer sometimes even 10 if someone else is about to win and the situation calls for it. The card is better than Serum Tank and the thousands of other less playable Tomes out there, including cards like Journeyer's Kite except in rare cases. How you can call the card bad, let alone a "very (very) bad junk rare" is beyond me.

    I'm not saying the card is amazing in every deck. If your deck is heavy on card draw, then you're playing blue and don't need to be looking at artifact card draw in the first place. If you're tutor heavy enough that exiling cards breaks your game plan, obviously you don't want this. But most decks aren't either of those. Portal is a very solid card in a lot of white, red, or green decks that often risk running out of gas later in the game. I've built dozens of EDH decks and I see Phyrexian Portal as a staple of sorts (only I seem to play it, but it makes it into a lot of decks) rather than something to play just for laughs.