A secret to everybody

Trickery, misdirection and riddles are tools for any conjurer worth their salt. History is riddled with examples of cunning characters using cryptic means to hide the real meaning of what's going on.
In recent years, perhaps the most talked about example of a message hiding in plain sight is the letter from then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California State Assembly. Statistically, taking the first letter of all the sentences in an article and have them form a new sentence simply will not happen unless it was the writer's plan all along; it is almost impossible for this to happen by coincidence. Particularly if the sentence turns out to be something as poignant as this ;)
Old Magic sets took the ideas of misdirection and trickery and ran with them. Sure, there are face-down creatures and some sense of hiding in plain sight in more modern sets as well, but the first face down cards were of a different caliber. Threading deep into the unknown with cards like Camouflage, and in particular the glorious Illusionary Mask.
Illusionary Mask is one of my hands down favorite cards. Something about the perplexing art and plain silliness spoke to me from the first time I saw it in 1995. And not to mention how weird the rules on this one used to be. Chaotic is an understatement.
Let's say that you have a Goblin King played face down under the mask and attack with a Mon's Goblin Raiders. Unless the opponent has no mountains in play, the Raiders can't be blocked. Even though the King is completely hidden information, its rule text still applies, and the Raiders are in fact 2/2 mountainwalkers.

For a long time, this was the cause of a lot of rules headaches. Opponents didn't even have to show the face-down cards after the game, so an unscrupulous player could technically cast a basic land under the Mask pretending it was a creature to help empty the hand in face of a Black Vise. Really against the rules of course, but unless a judge was close at hand you had no way of knowing.

That problem was addressed with the release of morph creatures, and the Onslaught rules specified that you had to reveal any face-down creatures with the morph ability at the end of the game. Humility from Tempest made this a little more complicated however. Every creature ability was removed with Humility - the face-down creatures technically didn't have morph when it was in play - so would you have to reveal them at the end of the game anyway?
Not that Humility were needed to make the masked creatures in 93/94 cryptic though, they literally had nothing to distinguish them in the original rules. 0 abilities. 0 characteristics. Beyond being a creature card, a masked card was simply a black box. Cards like Terror could attempt to target them, sure, but you never knew if it would actually have an effect or just "fizzle" due to the creature being black or an artifact.

Over the first three years of its existence, the Illusionary Mask didn't see much play at the top tables. New cards are constantly added to stir up the meta of course, and in 1996 Illusionary Mask met its first BFF.
1 mana would best case give you a 2/3 before the printing of Mirage, and that was deemed powerful enough to warrant a ban of Kird Ape in Extended. 1 mana for a 12/12 trampler is pretty damn bonkers, in particular when you could set up the combo fairly easily with Enlightened Tutor from that same set. Right up until a few years ago, iterations of MaskNought were a strong enough strategy to see competitive play in Legacy. In the earlier days, MaskNought was powerful enough for vintage. Dreadnought got a bunch of powerlevel errata after it was released - in particular to avoid shenanigans with cards like Pandemonium - but the Mask combo was never nerfed.

Detractors could argue that this removed some of the mystery from the mask, as you pretty much always knew what 1-drop creature was hidden under it, but it was still a cool synergy. Look at this sweet Vintage MaskNought deck (as shown in Stephen Menendian's History of Vintage):
Eternal or casual formats are the only possible homes for mask strategies, as it is a reserved list card that never got printed in a Standard legal set. Given the unique ability and rules luggage, it is highly unlikely that a comparable card it will ever see print again.

Of all the cards in ABU, Illusionary Mask may be the one with oracle text furthest from the printed text, just to make it work with current rules. These days, creatures hidden under the Mask are always cast as 2/2s without any abilities, just like any other face-down creature, which leads to a few strange interactions one might argue goes against "the spirit of the card". Other than removing all the strange static abilities, the creatures now have power and toughness that can be interacted with.

Why does that matter? Well, for instance a card like Infest can now kill all the face-down creatures, which it couldn't before unless they had a toughness of two or less when face up. Whatever stats the creature may have when we see it face-up are ignored as long as it is hidden. That removes a lot of the mystery around a face-down creature as we now know what they are; 2/2 colorless creatures with no abilities nor mana cost. Hellfire will destroy a masked Juzam Djinn for instance, which is disheartening for so many reasons. Explain to me how Demonic Hordes can be killed by Hellfire or Terror but survives both a Cleanse and an Exorcist just because it was lurking behind a mystical mask.
Masking creatures as 2/2s instead of ?/? could have upsides however. After all, two is an actual number. So who could possibly enjoy being a vanilla 2/2 instead of their normal self? Kobolds, that's who. Ornitopther also I guess. Flush out a handful of 0-drops under the Mask, have them come into play as facedown 2/2s, and then just throw them in sombody's face with Sword of the Ages. In newer formats you could also add Pandemonium; then you'll just need 5 Kobolds to win on the spot. Lifetime Johnny-achievement right there.
Lately we've seen some cards with high morph costs and powerful abilities that trigger when they are turned face up. Ultimately these creatures may become the new tech in Mask builds, as they have some value even if you fail to draw the Mask itself. Synergy is important, but avoiding the trap of getting stuck with Dreadnoughts in hand and no Mask in play may be worth sacrificing some power for.
It's no 12/12 for 1, but a 5/5 for GG that gives you five 1/1s when it dies is nothing to scoff at.

Onslaught opened the door for face-down creatures with morph triggers, instantly upping the ante for the tricksters among us. New sets will keep coming and eventually we might see a card that just begs to be played face down for its mana cost and then flip up for free. Dreadnought might have been the first tournament-worthy partner, but I am certain the Mask will find new friends as new cards keep entering the scene.

One last thing before we go, as it would feel amiss to end a 93/94 post with a picture of Hooded Hydra rather than some sweet 93/94 tech. This seems like a better note to wrap up on:
Chances are that this is one of the posts that will be forgotten in the scurry, buried deep among the more conventional content of tournament reports, rarities and deck techs. Or you could perhaps find this story in two or three years and suddenly realize it was more to it than met the eyes. Maybe this is what you are looking for, only you don't really see it yet.


  1. This post aged well, as you said. I think I finally get it now ;)


  2. Peeling back each layer of the onion...
    - DFB

  3. Carl-Henrik Åkesson25 juli 2018 22:48

    Indeed we are.

  4. At the end of the path. I got bogged down by the hexed scriptures and was lost in the details. But better late than never. :)

  5. Is this the post you're referring to at the end of your 2018 retrospective?

  6. found it... but where's the key?
    -Paul K.

    1. Didn't you listen? The key is protected by a holy book I cannot reach.



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