Welcome readers,

This is not going to be a normal article. Rather than a deck article, this is solely about one card that appeared in the lovely block of Kamigawa. Since its initial printing, it's been printed 4 additional times. Due to it's "catch-all" ability, this is one of the few cards in Magic's history that I feel should be in the majority of Modern decks’ sideboards. However, it sees far less play, and a partial reason to this may be that people don't know how to use said card.

Let's start with a simple bit of text about what Pithing Needle actually does: For the low cost of {1} you get to name a card (ANY CARD, so long as it’s legal in the format you’re playing in) and it's activated abilities are no longer are allowed to be activated… unless they're mana abilities. Well, let's attempt to dumb this down for everyone, and by dumb it down I mean show the rules for Mana Abilities (since it's the only restriction) and Activated abilities(the important one!), and explain them in simpler terms.

What IS a mana ability?

According to the rules, activated abilities that are mana abilities meet the following conditions:

  • They could add mana to your mana pool
  • They don’t target
  • They aren’t Planeswalker loyalty abilities

For a more detailed explanation, check out section 605 in the Comprehensive Rules.

What does that actually mean though? Well, if I were to cast Pithing Needle and name something like Birds of Paradise , you can still tap the bird for mana, so effectively the Needle did nothing. However, should I be playing against Krark-Clan Ironworks (further known as KCI) and I name it, it again makes no difference, the KCI can still be used. KCI reads as "Sacrifice an artifact: add {2}" so some people may 'forget' how the rules work, and just assume because I named the card it can't be used, or because they don't know what constitutes a mana ability.

A harder example of this is Deathrite Shaman , despite not being Modern legal, it begs a good question can the " {Tap}:Exile target land from a graveyard. Add 1 mana of any color to your mana pool". Is Deathrite Shaman a mana ability? No, because it requires a target, so it can be shut down quite effectively with Pithing Needle. Whelp, it was nice using you for something useful Deathrite!

Other Activated Abilities

Once again here's the rules on an activated ability (which are actually simpler to understand): "602.1. Activated abilities have a cost and an effect. They are written as “[Cost]: [Effect.] [Activation instructions (if any).]” ( Again, just look up rule 602 for more)

What's that mean for those who don't understand? Lets use a few different examples. If an opponent has an Arid Mesa out, and you cast your Pithing Needle, if the opponent doesn't crack the land, and allows you to name Arid Mesa, then they can no longer activate it to fetch a land from their deck. You just virtually stone rained your opponent. Congrats, your opponent has dead lands in the deck! They aren't able to pay the life to search out a usable land so unless there's an ability giving the land the ability to tap for mana, it's just sitting there doing nothing!

Next example is Planeswalkers, we're gonna use Tibalt as the card to name, suddenly his abilities are even more useless! Final "simple" example will be Mindslaver , all you have to do is name it and they can no longer steal your turn!

Another small bit of ruling regarding Pithing Needle: If, for some reason, you can't think of the EXACT (Yes it can matter as will be shown in a moment) name of a card, you are allowed by judges to describe said card to the best of your ability (ie "The Jace that brainstorms for 0" is certainly Jace, the Mind Sculpter). The reason why this is important is because of some issues regarding names, the most famous (I'll leave the actual situation for you to look into if you wish) being the wrong "Borborygmos" being named. So there's 2 variations of this card, one named Borborygmos, the other named Borborygmos Enraged. One clearly is the right target, as it lets someone discard a land to deal 3 damage to a target, whereas the other only puts a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control when it deals combat damage. Now most people will know what you mean if you said "I'll needle, naming Borborygmos" but at the competitive level, make sure you aren’t shortcutting anything when there may be a confusion of names.

Finally, we've learned the useage of Pithing Needle now, but most of the situations were all known things, so let's now delve into some... weirder situations. First one, playing versus Tron, and your opponent has World Breaker in the graveyard, well, that's a scary thing that can be activated anytime... So let's remove it from the equation! Pithing Needle it and suddenly they can't activate the ability to return it to their hand. Pithing Needle doesn't care where the card is located, or if it exists in the match-up/format at all, so long as it's an actual magic the Gathering card, so Karn Liberated in hand gets affected by a resolved Needle naming Karn, Liberated.

Pithing Needle also doesn't care about what type of card, it can be a land (can name fetches, Wastelands, Nephalia Drownyards to make them only tap for mana if possible), Artifacts, Creatures, Planeswalkers, Enchantments and even Instants or Sorceries! Let's look at one imprtant instant in Modern,Lightning Storm. If Lightning Storm goes on the stack, after being needled, that means it only deals 3 damage, rather than being allowed to add more charge counters to make the damage higher.

Man, it's not like Needling targets can get any weirder right? Wrong... So let's continue this. Let's say for some reason your opponent is playing Underworld Connections, you can name Underworld Connections if you want, but it doesn't help you. They can still tap said land for the ability of drawing a card. Instead, we have to go a step further down the line, and name the land instead. Same goes for the previously played Splinter Twin, you would name either Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite, not Splinter Twin. For an even further annoyance, let's complicate a board-state some. Opponent just ultimates Koth the Hammer, and casts Blood Moon. Not only can you not name the Emblem (because it doesn't technically exist), but if the opponent has non-basic mountains, you need to start naming non-basics in addition to basic mountains to avoid the damage! So a Blood Moon'd Arid Mesa can be named so it can't tap for damage, but it will still tap for the Red mana it provides now.

How common is Pithing Needle in Modern?

According to MTGTop8 as of today, Pithing Needle is only in 11.3% of decks' sideboards, at an average 1.6 per deck, and 1.5% maindeck, with an average amount of 2.6 copies. I feel this is a tad unfair for the card that has so much upside, and it should be a little bit higher use in decks, the number per deck is fair, but the number of decks using is not. The card is a great catch-all for the format, and for the low price of {1}, there's no excuse as to why it's not played. It's playable in any deck's sideboard, and can sometimes just win you a match.

Hopefully moving forward, when deckbuilding, you'll consider the one card that'll fix up a fair number of your matchups and toss at least one poor little Pithing Needle into that sideboard of yours.