MTG: The Force Check

In Magic: The Gathering‘s oldest formats, Legacy and Vintage, one of the most important spells that exists is a card printed originally all the way back in Alliances from 1996, Force Of Will. What the card does is pretty simple; it counters a spell, but it costs one point of life and a blue card out of your hand to do it, and, crucially, no mana.

I’m going to say some nice things about Force of Will here, but I want to make sure you understand I don’t think that the card’s a good thing. It’s more that, like the many diseases of Montgomery Burns, older formats have enough broken nonsense going on in enough broken ways that Force of Will fills an important part in the ecosystem. It’s one of those funny things about big enough games that grow over time; the mistakes sometimes can cancel each other out.

It’s also a namesake for an effect (multiple other cards are called ‘force of’ something to represent they can be cast for free), and the phenomenon known as a Force Check.

The majority of the Magic: The Gathering content I watch these days is Legacy leagues, recorded by BoshNRoll and ThrabenU. No great reason why those are the only ones that interest me, but it’s very much tied to those two people and their ability to engage my interest. It means that I see a lot of Legacy over the course of the past two years, and that’s one of the formats where Force of Will is legal, and important.

There are entire decks where, unimpeded, they just win the game on turn one or two, game one; decks like Oops All Spells, Manabond Lands, and Reanimator — which isn’t to say those decks are overpowered or a problem, per se, please don’t mistake me. It’s that these decks have such powerful ways to win the game that they can put you to a force check; they ask you, before they know anything about what you’re doing, before they’ve even see you play a single card, Do you have force of will? And if you don’t, you probably lose on the spot.

This is a really interesting game state to see in action, because Force Checks aren’t the same thing as having a powerful turn one combo or the like. Force checks can be like Manabond, a card that can allow a land-based deck to play out a bunch of lands all at once and only needs to work once to do something overwhelming. Reanimator decks don’t rely on a force check; they can attack your hand, make sure the coast is clear with cheap or free spells, then boop your face with a powerful spell. But sometimes they don’t have it, and the opponent has nothing, no way to protect themselves or to save themselves from a potential problem…

So you throw it out there.

If they have it, you have spent two of their cards for whatever you were doing. Knocking two cards out of someone’s hands is a perfectly good thing to do, and typically, Force of Will is a limited resource. Your opponent has to draw it, your opponent has to have it, and then they need to have a card to feed it. And yeah, it’s a good card, but…

… if they don’t have it…

… If they don’t have the one broken card to save themselves…

You win the game.

And so you check.

If you watch enough Legacy you start to look for the Force Check. When you watch a player like BoshNRoll, you’ll see a lot of times when he has the Force but nothing to give to it, or worse, a Force but has to give up an important card to do it. That yes, they stopped the win, but because the card that got given up to do it was a Murktide Regent or an Uro, and that means that even if they stop their opponents from winning, that moment is when they lost the game anyway.

It’s a really interesting dynamic. It also disappears when the decks can’t do Blue Things, which is another, different problem.

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