But it makes sense when you think it through.
Only one other Black card (hey there Skeleton Archer) includes the recently updated “any target” templating used to deal damage to players, creatures, or Planeswalkers. So it’s still odd to see those words appear on a Mono-Black card. It’s even odder to see them appear as part of a Drain Life effect, in which you gain life equal to the damage dealt.
But Black has had access to versions of this effect for most of its existence, even after the “any target” update. Eight or so other Black, Modern-legal cards can currently damage any target and gain you life, though none of them actually say the words “any target” on them.
In an attempt to figure out what made Smiting Helix trigger my “that ain’t right”-sense, I’m going to break down each of the three effects contained within the words “deals 3 damage to any target and you gain 3 life.” And maybe after I’ve confirmed that Black can deal damage to players, creatures, and Planeswalkers individually, batching them all together as “any target” won’t seem so weird.
Deal 3 Damage to Target Player and Gain 3 Life
Black most definitely can deal damage to a player and gain life equal to the result. However, that effect has most often been written out as “Target player loses X life. You gain X life,” rather than “Deal X damage to target player. You gain X life.”
Roughly 60 to 70 Modern-legal Black cards use the “lose life, gain life” phrasing, while only 10 or so use “deal damage, gain life.” And only two of those (that I could find) deal damage strictly to players, rather than players and creatures.
In the past, Black’s propensity to make opponents lose life was used to set it apart from Red’s damage dealing effects. Black mages consumed your spirit, while Red mages hit you in the face with a lightning bolt. This difference in phrasing reinforced each color’s underlying flavor, but also created a bit of unnecessary mechanical overhead.
In Magic, dealing damage is different than forcing a player to lose life, and certain rules within the game interpret these actions differently – despite the fact that, from a game mechanics standpoint, they’re pretty much the same. This can lead to feel-bad moments where new or less-experienced players don’t understand the difference between damage and life loss. Even for more experienced players, the difference adds a bit of additional complexity.
To simplify things, R&D has been experimenting with Black solely dealing damage, instead of both dealing damage (on cards that affect creatures, players, and Planeswalkers) and causing opponents to lose life. As a player, I enjoy the flavor of Black causing opponents to lose life, rather than take damage. As a technical writer, I understand why Magic R&D wants to streamline their templating such that players don’t need to remember the difference between damage and life loss.
Either way, it seems the battle between damage and life loss will be decided once and for all this year (with life loss likely coming out on top). For our purposes, it’s enough to prove that Black has the ability to deal damage to a player and gain life. Black’s always been able to do this thing, especially when the effect is paired with dealing damage to a creature.
Deal 3 Damage to Target Creature and Gain 3 Life
We’ve already shown that Black can deal damage to a creature and gain life equal to the damage dealt. But Black dealing damage to creatures still FEELS weird, and cards like these are likely why:
Black outright destroys creatures or gives them -X/-X far more often than it deals damage to them. This (again) differentiates Black from Red, setting it up as a more lethal and debilitating color. Red mages hit your creatures in the face with a lightning bolt (it’s really all they know how to do). Black mages tear your creatures’ spirits from their flesh or infect them with enfeebling sicknesses.
However, when a Black card needs to affect both a creature and a player, it has to deal damage. A player can’t get -X/-X or (outside of sliver border) be destroyed. So a Black spell that represents stealing either a creature or player’s essence has to deal damage, as that’s the only way it can affect both of its intended targets.
That explains why cards like Smiting Helix (which can target creatures or players) deal damage – but it doesn’t explain why some Black cards deal damage to creatures without targeting players! My suspicion is that spells like Feast of Flesh and Douse in Gloom were somehow determined to be too strong as -X/-X spells, and so got changed to dealing damage. Either that, or they just slipped through the cracks.
With Smiting Helix’s ability to deal damage to creatures explained away, let’s move on to slightly weirder territory: Black spells dealing damage to Planeswalkers.
Deal 3 Damage to Target Planeswalker and Gain 3 Life
Black dealing damage to Planeswalkers seems weirder than it dealing damage to players – despite the fact that, for most of Planeswalkers’ existence, those effects have been exactly the same!
Again, up until the Dominaria “any target” update, any card that could damage a player could damage a Planeswalker instead. After the update, most Black cards that could damage a player were updated to be able to damage Planeswalkers as well.
However, no Black card can damage Planeswalkers without being able to damage players, which is likely why Black’s ability to do so seems so weird. And while a number of Black cards reference destroying or exiling Planeswalkers, none of them explicitly reference damaging them (at least, not as currently printed):
However, Black does have another Planeswalker-damaging effect in its arsenal. Black can remove counters from permanents, including Planeswalkers’ loyalty counters – which is essentially the same as damaging them!
The most “damage-adjacent” version of this ability was just printed in War of the Spark, but Black has notably been removing Planeswalkers’ loyalty counters since Zendikar.
Will we see a Black spell that damages only creatures and Planeswalkers (and gains life) in the near future? Honestly, it seems likely, if only because there are so many Red spells that are already templated such that they can’t hit players. In some future set, R&D will likely want to give Black an efficient Drain Life-esque spell that can deal with small creatures and damage Planeswalkers, without the ability to target players. War of the Spark apparently didn’t warrant it (Sorin’s Thirst is close but not quite there), but given Magic‘s longevity, some other set will.
For our purposes, we’ve proven that Black has the ability to damage Planeswalkers, both as part of “any target” spells and (indirectly) through removing loyalty counters. So Black can damage players and gain life, damage creatures and gain life, and damage Planeswalkers and gain life.
So What Makes Smiting Helix Seem So Weird, Then?
I think it is just the use of the words “any target,” and the direct, in-card comparison to Lightning Helix, that makes Smiting Helix feel so weird. After all, this is only the second time we’ve seen the words “any target” on a Black spell. Seeing those words used to duplicate a marquee Red-White effect (down to the exact templating) is slightly jarring – until you stop to consider that, yes, Black can do that effect, too.
Of course, weird references like this are what Modern Horizons is all about. I’ve loved seeing the off-the-wall effects and in-jokes that Magic R&D came up with when allowed to cut loose, and hopefully, whoever designed Smiting Helix will appreciate that at least one blogger wrote nearly 1,300 words about it.