Throughout the history of Magic the Gathering, there have been cards that seem to be good on paper, but in practice simply don’t pan out. Sometimes the right combination of cards hasn’t been found, or more likely, a card that makes it work well as part of a winning strategy hasn’t been printed yet. For example, you have cards like High Priest of Penance from the Gatecrash set, a creature that just screams “rattlesnake!” But, it turns out that the High Priest was pretty much a dud in the long run.
On paper, the High Priest’s ability, looks pretty good. It’s easy for you to think: “wow, for two mana this can blow up any non-land permanent my opponent controls!” All that has to be done is have damage dealt to the High Priest, which doesn’t seem particularly hard to do. But, on a 1/1, who’s going to take the time to block it or use a damage based spell on it?
In Return to Ravnica/Gatecrash Limited, the High Priest was particularly annoying if you kept it back on defense to block someone’s biggest creature. In a sense, it has deathtouch, because as soon as it’s dealt damage it blows up something. So, why not choose your opponent’s big creature? That being said, looking back, it seems that the High Priest was designed mostly with Limited play in mind. That’s still true today, as Magic sets are designed to function as Limited-friendly environments in and of themselves. After all, the spirit of Magic that creator Richard Garfield intended was that you could pay a reasonably fun game with cards from just a few packs.
Back in 2013, keeping back a couple of High Priests to block seemed like a good strategy to use in Standard. Plenty of white and black decks competed at high levels in tournaments at the time, too. It’s a bit surprising this guy didn’t get more love at the time. He only was played on the fringes of Standard, and when he was, it was as part of a sideboard plan. The only way that he saw play was to pair him with Blasphemous Act, which deals 13 to every creature on the board. So, some Aristocrats decks at the time would board in three copies of each the High Priest and Blasphemous Act.
Interestingly, there was a way to make this strategy better, by finding a way to make your own creatures indestructible. That way, you’d keep your creatures and be able to let the High Priest get his Penance multiple times. Actually, there was definitely a way to do this in the Gatecrash set: Boros Charm. One of the modes on the card could make your team indestructible, which made it so Blasphemous Act would be a one-sided board wipe.
The reason that High Priest of Penance didn’t see more play? There was actually another creature in Gatecrash that was a better combination, Boros Reckoner! Whenever the Reckoner is dealt damage, you deal that same amount of damage to target opponent. So, why use High Priest of Penance to destroy nonland permanents when you could send 13 damage straight to your opponent’s face instead? If you had two Boros Reckoners in play, that was 26 damage, and likely game over, since you start with 20 life.
Needless to say with that sort of damage output, such a deck built around the Blasphemous Act/High Priest of Penance combo was pretty good. It also featured Vizkopa Guildmage to give you lifegain and whittle down your opponent’s life was pretty good. The deck was full of “oops I win” conditions that made Magic so fun for me over the years, or not so fun depending on what side of the board you’re playing.
Yes, you could have played High Priest of Penance in such a deck. But, again, there was yet another creature you’d much rather run in the two-mana slot; Cartel Aristocrat could give your key creatures repeatable protection. The High Priest’s ability makes it a sweet attrition-based card, but there was no room for it in the deck despite being useful in the strategy. While it would show up a few times in sideboards at high-level tournaments, overall the High Priest became an under-appreciated and under-played rattlesnake card. In a format that wanted to sacrifice creatures for value, pinging your own creatures for damage didn’t fit into the top strategies of the time.
Basically, the High Priest entered the wrong Standard format. It definitely did its job in Limited where drafting White/Black was a very solid strategy, as evidenced by the numerous top Orzhov decks of the time. Like many fringe rare creatures, though, High Priest of Penance did find a home in Commander. In fact, it shows up enough in the format to be chosen as a reprint in the Commander 2018 preconstructed deck, which featured Aminatou, the Fateshifter as its main Commander.
The trouble is that the best decks for High Priest of Penance to slot into are Cleric tribal decks. Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim once played the High Priest pretty much just as another Cleric, but as Clerics have gained tons of support and strong creatures in 2020 and 2021, there just isn’t a place for him. Even while he still appears in various Orah, Skyclave Hierophant, Ravos, Soultender, and Tymna the Weaver lists, many lists can find better Clerics to play.
Sadly, despite how good the High Priest can be in the right situations, it never really found a real home outside of Return to Ravnica block Limited and the occasional sideboards. Some players have tried it in the Pioneer format, where it can be an interesting surprise card against aggro decks. While solid in design, the High Priest of Penance is now just one of those cards sitting around in game store bulk boxes everywhere wondering what could have been.
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