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 hasn’t been found, or a card that makes it work simply hasn’t been printed yet. Then, you have cards like High Priest of Penance from the Gatecrash set, a creature that just screams “rattlesnake!” but turns out to be pretty much a dud in the long run.
Looking at the effect of the High Priest, you may think: “wow, for two mana this can blow up any non-land my opponent controls!” All that has to be done is have damage dealt to it. That 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 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, it seems that the High Priest was created 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.
Back in those days, keeping back a couple of High Priests to block seemed like a good strategy in Standard. I’m actually a bit surprised that this guy didn’t get more love at the time. Sure, you saw him played on the fringes of Standard. But, the only thing you could do to make him worth playing was find a way to make him indestructible, so you could use his effect multiple times.
Actually, there was definitely a way to do this in the very same set: Boros Charm. It turns out you usually would use Boros Charm to make your team indestructible after a Blasphemous Act, which deals 13 damage to every creature. What you were trying to accomplish at that time was to deal that 13 damage to your Boros Reckoners. Those creatures had the ability to mirror that damage to your opponent’s face.
Needless to say with that sort of damage output, such a deck 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.
Alas, you’d much rather run Cartel Aristocrat in the two-mana slot to give your key creatures repeatable protection. The High Priest’s effect is nifty, yes. But, while it’s a sweet attrition-based card, there was no room for it in the deck despite being useful in the strategy. An attrition-based red/black/white deck never really took off with this card in it. So, the High Priest became an under-appreciated, under-played rattlesnake card. In a format that wanted to sacrifice and not ping for damage, it just didn’t fit.
That being said, the High Priest basically was in the wrong Standard format. It definitely did its job in Limited where drafting White/Black was a very solid strategy. Nowadays, it shows up in the occasional white/black Commander deck, typically alongside Orah, Skyclave Hierophant. Even Commanders like Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim that are typically leaders of Cleric Tribal decks can now find better Clerics to play. Despite a reprint in Commander 2018, High Priest of Penance often found itself being replaced in the Aminatou, the Fateshifter decks that featured it.
As Clerics gain more support, the High Priest is finding fewer homes. It’s never really found a real home outside of Return to Ravnica block Limited. While solid in design, the High Priest of Penance is now just one of those bulk rares that sits in a box somewhere wondering what could have been.
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