Single Card Obsession - A Deep Dive Into Mesmeric Orb
Meet everyone's favorite (kinda useless) milling orb
Obsess. We all do it with our Magic cards. For days, weeks, even months, a single MTG card will taunt us, desperate to be played, desperate to work. “Use me,” it calls from the folder, “I can do great things.”
And, mostly, it won’t.
But that doesn’t stop the journey from being exciting! Join me on my Single Card Obsession, a series of articles here on Bolt the Bird where I dig deep into just one card, trying to make it do everything I want.
Even if I have to force it just a little bit…
Ah, Mesmo. I have a particular affinity (no pun intended) for this little card. So much so, that if I were an arty designer type, I’d make a little animation of the art to use here, with some googly eyes stuck on its shining ball to give it a little cartoony personality. It’d dance and stuff.
I’m not an arty designer (far from it), so you’ll have to make do with my words and a standard picture of the card:
I first became a little obsessed over ol’ Mesmeric Orb back in 2004 when it was first printed. Mirrodin was a fantastic set to draft and opening one of these bad boys sent you into a spiral of “I’m going to mill them out,” thinking that rarely worked, but was always fun to try. Milling in those days was hardly the powerhouse mechanic it is today, and any card that put more than a couple of cards a turn into the graveyard was impressive. Mesmeric Orb radiates promise. I mean, what if they have 20 lands and 20 tokens to untap? That’s like “mill you for 40”, right?
But it’s not about whether the thing happens or not, it’s about the promise. Don’t forget the feeling of promise; it’s delicious and drives us to continue.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of Mesmeric Orb and its single-card brilliance, however, let me share just one story of why I love it so much. It was Christmas 2004, in London, England. And we were playing the craziest Limited format of all time.
A Day of Ironman
Ironman. Not the avenger (though he’s welcome if he wants to join in), but the format. It’s a format for people with guts. Muscular Magic players with hairy chests and gold chains who still think it’s the 1980s. Iron Men.
The format is simple. It’s sealed, but with one significant change: if a card would enter the graveyard or exile zone, instead you tear it up.
Yes, you read that right: you tear it up. You take the card and you rip it into little pieces.
It’s a great format because it’s all about having a fun day out with your friends. You buy in and you expect nothing back. You play best-of-one rounds, and it’s knockout, and every single undamaged card in your pool after the round you hand over to the winner. Yes, all of them. Because, let’s face it, the winner has to make a new deck---half his old deck is in pieces in the trash.
Understanding the format, it’s easy to see just how ridiculously excited I was to open a Mesmeric Orb. In Ironman this card reads “Whenever a permanent becomes untapped, that permanent's controller tears up the top card of his library.”
Cue the evil laughter.
You can imagine the hilarity. I didn’t win that tournament, but I went a few rounds, and this was Mirrodin sealed, a format with Chrome Mox in it and they were expensive even then.
Go on, tap your land, I dare you.
And this, dear reader, is why I absolutely, completely, and passionately, love Mesmeric Orb.
Flash Forward to The Brothers’ War
The Brothers’ War is a very different set to the original Mirrodin, but there for us to love once more is Mesmeric Orb, snuck into boosters under the guise of being a retro artifact. It may not be legal in Standard, but its reappearance is great for historic players. Finally, Mesmeric Orb is available on Arena.
It’s time to obsess again.
Milling is a funny strategy. It’s really hard for some people to grasp just how completely and utterly useless it is in its raw form. I’m not one for going into deep theory (at least, not in this series), but the core of the idea is that unless there is something else going on (for example, you know your next card, or you have things that work from the graveyard), milling a few cards has zero impact. Zero. None. Nada. Zip.
Because the next card in your library is an unknown, it doesn’t matter if it gets milled---it’s no different from being shuffled in somewhere else.
If this is new to you, spend a few seconds wrapping your head around it. I can hear the cries of “but, but,” all around me, but trust me, I’m right.
With that in mind, playing Mesmeric Orb in a completely normal situation has no impact on the game. It’s a non-play, a do-nothing. Plus, it’s a symmetrical effect, pushing further the idea that it does nothing.
Now, that does change if one of you mills to nothing, and that’s its first promise, but on its own, a single Mesmo is unlikely to create such a situation.
In order to make this card work, we have to make sure that the game is not a completely normal situation. We have to redefine it on our terms.
Making Milling Work
There are a few ways to change the state of play to make Mesmeric Orb have an impact. Let’s take a quick look:
Aim to mill them completely out: This means adding other cards that mill (or multiple Mesmos), and is pretty much the most basic idea we get when seeing the card.
Remove their graveyard: With the cards going from library to graveyard, Mesmeric Orb could accidentally give them an advantage. We need to mitigate that.
Get an advantage when we mill ourselves: Ah yes, the old “put what we want into the graveyard” idea. A good start.
Make them fear it: Excuse me, what? But yes, Mesmeric Orb is often at its best as a psychological weapon.
With these thoughts in mind, it’s time to actually look at deploying this glorious artifact.
Winning With the Mill
I tried it. I really did. The truth is, though, that Mesmeric Orb alone is unlikely to win the majority of games by milling. You need to pair it with other mill cards (of which there are many, unlike in 2004 when it first came out), and when you do so, you immediately start to see a pattern; a dark and dirty truth: Mesmeric Orb is the weakest mill card in the deck.
It’s true. I blush to say it, love the card as I do, but it’s just not a good mill card. Take a look at a few cards in the competition:
This little 0/3 wall hammers three cards a turn in the early part of the game, six if you try even a little bit with sacrifice/fetch lands, and if you want to get clever with land search, more even than that. Test Ruin Crab vs. Mesmeric Orb in a hundred games and you’re going to like this guy more. There’s no disadvantage to you (it’ll even block!), and its creature-based fragility is often no worse than Mesmo’s artifact-based vulnerability.
Tasha’s Hideous Laughter
OK, it’s a one-shot effect, but this can be brutal, often taking more than ten cards straight into exile. Add a couple of tricks to cast it twice, and it’s devastating, again, generally outperforming a Mesmeric Orb in tests.
Half your library? Or eight if you are short on mana (or they are short on cards). When viewed against this little sorcery, Mesmo is often embarrassing.
This shares a lot with Mesmeric Orb, in that it sits there and does its thing, making it the clearest analogy, and, yet again, it tends to do better.
The list goes on and on...
What does all this mean? Is Mesmeric Orb useless at the very job it was designed to do?
Not at all! It means that if you want to build a purpose-designed blue mill deck for competitive use, then Mesmeric Orb is probably the wrong tool for the job.
But then, who wants to do that anyway? This is Single Card Obsession where we want the card to be fun and work, not some tournament deck strategy guide. I say “Pah” to mono-blue mill, we’re not your friend, anyway!
If the point is to drop something into the graveyard and then get it sneakily and trickily onto the battlefield, then surely Mesmeric Orb is a great tool. We can mill ourselves to the card we want while our opponents suffer the whole milling thing as a side strategy, right?
Only this is a bad idea, too. Like the win-by-milling idea, the truth is there are far better ways to run a reanimator deck. In The Brothers’ War, we have some amazing cards we’d like in the bin, and a whole load of great ways to get them into play. Strategies like Portal to Phyrexia combined with Repair and Recharge, for example, or simply powering out an unearthed Cityscape Leveler. It feels like Mesmo should be our friend for this.
Indeed, I tested these ideas to death. Weeks of clever reanimation strategies using all sorts of big creatures or artifacts and ways to get them back.
And the result? Mesmeric Orb underperformed when pitted again most of the blue or red draw and discard cards. Not only did these give more control over what went into the graveyard, but they were faster and often had other great advantages (like producing treasure tokens or drawing extra cards).
Another knockback for the mighty Mesmeric Orb.
So, What Is Mesmeric Orb Good For?
It seems I’ve been quite negative up to now. Surely, this fabulous card has some value.
Indeed it does; remember that fourth point on the bullet list from earlier?
Make them fear it.
This is what Mesmeric Orb is really perfect at. Just like that Ironman tournament back in 2004, drop Mesmeric Orb on the table and your opponent stops and stares. They don’t have a plan. They don’t have a strategy. They have one thing: abject, absolute, fear.
Pop Mesmo in a completely unrelated deck (not advised!) and watch as they race around throwing artifact kill spells at it even if you have other, genuinely needed, artifacts on the table.
One key to a good (and fun) Mesmeric Orb deck is to play on that fear.
The other thing that came across in all the testing was the mana cheapness of Mesmeric Orb. It hits the ground fast and works really well in decks that don’t really want to stretch above four mana spells. This was one of the reasons it just felt wrong in big-thing reanimator ideas.
With those things in mind, here are some cards with which Mesmeric Orb really shined.
The Best MTG Cards with Mesmeric Orb
Here, after a lot of testing, are my favorite cards to pair with Mesmeric Orb in historic play. Not particularly competitive (run a different deck if that’s your thing), not always original, but ever so much fun.
Leyline of the Void
Yes, you can use any other graveyard hate, and a lot of instances felt they asked for Tormod’s Crypt instead, but Leyline of the Void is the absolute, undeniable king here. In your opening hand, it’s a beating, as a turn two Mesmeric Orb means they are watching cards go into the abyss from the get-go. This really plays on the fear aspect.
Sure, if their deck doesn’t even consider reusing cards once they are in the graveyard, then there’s no technical difference between Mesmeric Orb with Leyline of the Void, and Mesmeric Orb without, but the fear is palpable. And, if their deck does use the graveyard (and so many do), you just wrecked them.
Leyline is a wonderful opener for games that follow up with Duress, Thoughtseize, or other cards of that ilk, and all of that discard backs up the Mesmeric Orb to allow it to do its thing.
Wow, do I love this! Midnight Clock is a one-sided “give me all my cards back” that breaks the symmetry of a Mesmeric Orb with a cheap card that’s also a mana rock. If your Mesmeric Orb deck is looking to run blue mana, then this is a must-have companion.
Commit // Memory
Another favorite. From the graveyard, Memory replenishes everything (just make sure you exile their graveyard first), and Commit is often a brutal slap round the face to threats from the other side. Great utility and another blue staple, in my opinion.
For an equally-cheap two mana, recommission provides a great way to get things back from the graveyard, including any destroyed or milled copies of Mesmeric Orb itself. It’s also good at giving reuse value to Tormod’s Crypt. If Mesmeric Orb is the focus of your white deck, then this is a great addition.
Assemble from Parts
This one is an Arena-only card with the “perpetual” mechanic that paper players don’t have access to, but it’s worth a look if Historic is your format. Not only does Assemble from Parts provide a cheap pseudo-reanimation tool for some great creatures, it also provides a way to add a card to the library after you accidentally mill yourself out, giving you that all-important final draw step. Very fun, especially with some of the crazy creatures out there like Phyrexian Fleshgorger or Xanathar, Guild Kingpin.
Have Mesmeric Orb and Leyline of the Void on the table? This gets you back any creature or planeswalker while removing the biggest threat your opponent has out. A great utility spell for black Mesmeric Orb decks.
An oldie but a goodie, Gaea’s Blessing provides green decks with a way to break the symmetry of Mesmo in a very clean and efficient manner. Its cheap cost and “draw a card” utility add huge value to odd green-based Mesmo mill decks (and they are very odd!).
By far my favorite card in the black Mesmeric Orb builds I have played with, the Arena-only oddball of Gitaxian Recycler builds its own strategy with the self-milling orb. Each copy has the easy potential of nine damage, and there are times when you end up with no less than eight copies of this in the bin, ready to storm out and hammer an already-despondent opponent. The perfect pairing!
Final Thoughts on Mesmeric Orb
The world of Magic has changed since Mesmeric Orb’s first printing back in Mirrodin. Milling as a strategy has seen hundreds of new cards, and tournament milling decks exist that do the job so much better than Mesmeric Orb ever could, but there’s something about this little two-mana artifact that just makes it all-around more fun. Maybe it’s the symmetry, maybe it’s the nostalgia, or maybe it’s the fact that it’d look really good with googly eyes.
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