We’ll always have Paris
So, unfortunately I was not able to participate in the Bazaar of Moxen last November due to frantic learning for my final exams. Ok, although the learning part is completely made up, I was pretty nervous about that and could not concentrate on anything really.
Flash forward, it seems we got a glitch in the Matrix. Luckily our beloved Bazaar organized the only European Legacy Grand Prix last month, which was – in fact – in Paris as well.
Now that the Pro Tour is in the books, we can take our attention to the second-most powerful format. Rumor says it might be the most skill-testing format Magic has to offer at the moment. So one could argue about that for hours and I for sure don’t intend to do so but I can tell you that there are a lot of little tiny decisions, which mostly have the biggest impact on the game. One wrong call and you could lose as much as a victim of Anton Chigurh.
Luckily the situations in a Magic game are – at least most of the time – not equal to a coin toss, so we got a better chance than standing up against a ruthless killer.
It is because of this fact that it is vital to know how to play the cards individually. Of course, context matters as always. But when it comes to learning to play with a deck I think that looking at single cards is more productive. Additionally, just as the knowledge of how to play a certain deck type like tempo or control, you can use the skill of playing these cards for other decks as well.
Ok, let’s round up the usual suspects, shall we?
We start with the heavyweight. By the time everyone should know to shuffle away the useless cards on top with a Fetch land or the like. But I have to emphasize the importance of having a shuffle effect already in hand. Sometimes it is right to skip your land drop or even your whole turn to not get Brainstormlocked, because I can tell you, there is nothing more unpleasant.
In whole articles have been written about how to play your Brainstorm correctly and why it is so efficient to wait with casting it until the last possible moment.
Brainstorm is a spell that needs information. The more you know about the game, the more you know what you are searching for and what you don’t need. Many of you will remember the era of Caw-Blade in Standard, where Preordain would become better and better with each turn gone by.
If we are playing against Canadian Thresh, we don’t want to get screwed off Wasteland and Stifle, so we are digging for lands. The problem here is that we don’t actually know whether our opponent has got these cards or not. Maybe we keep multiple lands after our precious Brainstorm and get totally flooded. After all, Canadian operates off just two lands, thus has a multitude of action-spells. The more we wait here, the more we know how many lands we really need.
On the other hand, if you are playing Canadian, then you have to take into account the need of your Nimble Mongoose to get to Threshold fast. Especially when you don’t play Thought Scour you want to chain your cantrips. Still, Brainstorm is more than a cantrip and Canadian needs to keep redundant lands off of its hand, so don’t be too hasty with this spell even in aggressive decks like Delver.
The hiding aspect is another big part of why this spell is so effective. If we are playing against a black mage, our Brainstorms get even better. Against Inquisition of Kozilek, Duress or Cabal Therapy we can let them miss completely by putting the cards back on top of your library that they are after. Thoughtseize is a different beast but it still minimizes the effect. This is especially important if we are playing with tutor effects like Stoneforge Mystic. Sometimes it is best to wait an additional turn to keep up a blue to protect the Batterskull from getting snagged by either Thoughtseize or Hymn to Tourach when BUG decks answer the Kor mostly with discard instead of removal.
Then again, playing against Storm there are situations where you don’t even want to brainstorm in response to a discard in fear of them going off when you hide all your counterspells. There you just have to trust your Brainstorm to hit something relevant when they take the Force of Will over the draw spell.
Speaking of Force, our card that matters can be sacrificed to the greater good as well as any other blue card. Knowing when to dig for additional cards and when to give up your Brainstorm can be tricky and is a hard decision most of the time. The common rule is to play it safe – therefore to pitch the card – when you can and to frantically search when you need even more than the counter for the spell on the stack.
Mostly compared to its older brother, I feel like this fishy spell gets an unfair treatment. Let us break down the different modes you can play this card:
The set-up. Ponder is one of the better turn one plays you can make in Legacy. Why is it better than Brainstorm? Well for starters you don’t waste your precious and can use it for better situations when you have a shuffle effect right away. But it also lets you better plan your next turns. Most of the time you don’t want all three of the top cards anyway and your starting hand should be good – or otherwise I assume you mulligan – so you can draw the second card the next turn and shuffle the junk away – or don’t have to shuffle away the good cards for that matter.
It also lets you keep a one-lander in contrast to its brother, because it got the shuffle effect built in. If you have to dig for a second land with Brainstorm and you do not find it, you are basically a dead man.
The second mode is the digging part. After the first few turns it gets more and more crucial to have the right card, the right answer for the problem the opponent presents. As Brainstorm gets better and better in these scenarios, so does Ponder too. I am usually not pondering in the midgame because I want to keep my options alive and potent. In this part of the game Ponder can be even better than its counterpart, because it lets you look at four cards instead of three, plus doesn’t lock you out of two drawsteps.
So how does one play with Ponder and Brainstorm together? Mostly you play them in one turn just at the last possible moment, because if you have other things to do – well then you should cast them instead, maybe it is enough anyway.
If we are looking for one specific card and this card only – e.g. Supreme Verdict against True-Name Nemesis or Nimble Mongoose, Detention Sphere against a resolved Sneak Attack etc. – we should cast the Ponder first to look at mighty seven cards with just two spells. The other scenario sees us needing just business of some kind, may it is stable lands against Canadian or a bunch of spells against Storm or Team America. So here we want to play it the other way around, using the Ponder to shuffle away dead cards we put on top first.
Speaking of which, our hero in this story gets better with other shuffle effects too, just like his older brother. Therefore we can use a second copy, Fetch lands, Stoneforge Mystic, a Zenith of some kind, Natural Order, a Path to Exile from the Zoo opponent or – if one game goes off crazier than usual – a discarded Eldrazi (to a Lady in black for example).
In other situations Ponder can act as a Brainstorm clone as well. With a shuffle effect right away, you will just draw whichever card is best for you. Without being able to shuffle or being able to just the next turn, you can hide your wanted card on top of your library by drawing a not-so important card first against a black mage just as with the other drawspell, which is more unexpected because it is unintuitive.
Now the shoe is on the other… table, which has turned. It might be completely logical to see that we want to wait with our discard spell against an open blue mana until we can counter the hated Brainstorm but believe me, players that actually do so are few and far between. Waiting for our Spell Pierce or Flusterstorm is even better than for obvious reasons. Let’s see:
So we are on the draw and our opponent plays an Island and passes the turn. Our hand contains a discard spell and a soft counter among other things. I know some of you might feel the need for speed but we can never tap out here. Just imagine they will respond with a Brainstorm, go to their turn, lay a City of Traitors and play the Show and Tell they hid on top. Now let’s look at the alternative. We pass with open mana and can even counter a second-turn attempt of the combo player. When it gets back to us we will tear their hand apart, countering an opposing “hiding” spell.
If you don’t have the help from blue instants, be aware that there are other ways to punish the opponent for brainstorming. Discarding an Emrakul after they hid the business spell on top is always a nice trick, but with spells like Surgical Extraction or Thought Scour you can mess up your opponent’s plans too.
There is another benefit from waiting with our discard spells of some kind. The other person can’t topdeck something to get out of his misery. The most obvious situation I mentioned above.
We are playing with Storm, say ANT, against Stoneblade. Now if we Duress them on turn one, Cabal Therapy them on turn two and go off on turn three, there is not only the chance of him having drawn an additional piece of disruption in the meantime but he also gets the opportunity to hide his cards with a Brainstorm. If we wait until turn three with our discard he has to choose between letting go of his Force of Will and keeping up a drawspell or hiding it and risking to get blown out of the window without anything relevant in hand.
This is as important in a fair matchup where you want to resolve something important. Not everybody can have the good old Vendilion Clique into Jace, the Mind Sculptor but you can try to imitate with Thoughtseize into Shardless Agent plus Ancestral Vision or something similar.
Ironically, against tempo decks like Canadian you actually want to cast your black magic as early as possible because here it acts as pseudo-removal. When to be able to get rid of an otherwise untouchable Nimble Mongoose is a quality card, you better be sure I will slam that piece of paper on turn one.
Force of Will
With great power comes great responsibility and it is often that it,s not used properly. So the first question you have to ask yourself – besides if you,re being lucky – is:
“Can I beat this spell without countering it?” Because, you see, throwing away two of your best cards is a pretty big downswing for every strategy or plan you had before. So maybe you got a different answer to the problem, which your opponent is representing, may it be in form of a Thoughtseize against a Stoneforge Mystic or a Liliana of the Veil for a True-Name Nemesis. Even against a Show and Tell there are possible scenarios where I can see not forcing the issue – like with an Oblivion Ring in hand and a Karakas on the battlefield.
So after you thought about this process and found the spell to be guilty on all counts, there is another thing you have to think through:
“Can I win this game with having this spell countered but losing two cards in the process?” Most of the time this is the moment where, against combo, you have to decide whether to use your last blue card and brainstorm to find some ideas or to give up your two best cards. If the storm player still has a full grip afterwards, I cannot see myself winning without any other cards to interact with them, except if I am winning the next turn.
Against fair decks it gets a bit trickier. In an attrition war, you actually don’t want to force anything when the outcome does not make for more card-disadvantage than a 2-for-1 – Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Liliana of the Veil come to mind. The best thing to do really is to wait for a Brainstorm and then shuffle the Force of Will away, which leads us directly to the next point.
Sideboarding out Forces is still undervalued and should be done way more often than it is right now. Playing the pitch card in the Maindeck is a necessary evil to have an answer to every danger that lures in the deep of the format. But that is exactly what the Sideboard is for. In Games 2 and 3 we have all the possibilities Magic has to offer so we should better be able to answer every single thing – what makes the counterspell obsolete most of the time.
Against Tempo decks it gets even worse. When your Force of Willm worth two cards, gets countered by a Daze or a Red Elemental Blast then you know what the word miserable really means.
What did you say? Why should we talk about Fetchlands?
You see, above I talked about how the shuffle effect of Ponder is one of the advantages over his counterpart Brainstorm. Now imagine if one only you could get this effect in ones deck for free and even 8 to 10 times! That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?
The way I see it is that we got half a spell in our Fetchlands. Using the effect is irrelevant most of the turns in a given game. On the other side, in most games there are at least one or two scenarios where you really need this kind of effect.
The most common use is to shuffle away cards you put back on top or something you did not like in your Ponder. But there are other ways to look at the top of your library besides our beloved cantrips.
First of all, there is the Brundle-Fly. We can let the trigger to transform our Delver of Secrets resolve and, given that we do not want the top card, use our land still in upkeep. Even if Mr. Goldblum did teleport, there is a chance we refuse to draw the spell, e.g. a Daze in later turns or a situational card we do not need like a second Ancient Grudge
Other ways to peek at the top of our library include Sensei’s Divining Top, a blind trigger of a Counterbalance, an active Sylvan Library or scry-effects from Jace, the Mind Sculptor and the like. Do not be the one who fetches at the opponents end step just to find a Brainstorm in your next drawphase.
Even in decks without the powerful blue spells, there are enough reasons not to fetch right away. The one and only reason people tend to do that is because they want to thin out their deck. Which can be fine, but has such a small impact, that most of the time the upside in waiting is much higher.
Do you play against Stifle? Do you survive a double Wasteland over the next two turns? This is information you need to know. Depending on what the answers are you might not even want to thin out your deck, you want to draw lands! Maybe you need to fetch basics, maybe you need to pay heavy color requirements and therefore a lot of duals, who knows? You, if you wait.
It gets even more brutal when we talk Submerge
So we play against Canadian with our trusty Junk deck. Thanks to a Deathrite Shaman we could stick a Tarmogoyf with fetching only a Scrubland and wasting our opponent’s dual in the meantime. Now our Elf gets burned and we smash. After some discard spells plus a mulligan we don’t have anything left to play but Fetchlands. So we activate the first one to get a basic Forest to get around opposing Wastelands. The next turn we fetch again. Big mistake.
Suddenly your innocent end-of-turn fetch turns an opponent’s bounce spell into a hard removal. Even the first activation was a crucial misplay. If we don’t do anything, our opponent cannot even cast the Submerge for the alternative casting cost and has to wait until infinity and maybe even beyond.
I guess you all know that, when I talked about the Fetchlands being a free spell, I was not totally honest with you. There is a price to pay and sometimes you are not even able to. The problem with paying one life is that most of the time one does not think about this tiny downside until we hit the red numbers. Of course you should not activate your land when you are at 4 life, staring down a fully transformed Insectile Abberation. But should you do it when you’re at 7? What about 10 life?
When you brainstorm, most of the time you want to keep your Fetchlands over duals because they are another effect you can use. Sometimes it is the other way around. Be aware you are always in a race with life points.
I’ll finish this discussion with one of the hottest cards right now. As a four-of, it was a key part in Turtenwald’s victory at the last Legacy Grand Prix, held in Washington D.C.
So, analyzing the card we see that it is a one-for-one at best. The reason it is still such a powerhouse in the current metagame is its manacost. Being able to trade up in mana is great but it’s kind of a curse as well.
Greed is good, so we want to get the most out of our spells and wait with our Pierces until we finally can hit a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or a Sneak Attack. A four mana to one mana trade! Well, how many turns did you keep mana open and did not play your counterspell because the opponent did not present a spell juicy enough?
When you play the UW Control Mirror in Standard right now, you know not to tap out because of the chain reaction this sets free: The other player can counter your spell, then untap and safely resolve his own threat which you must answer on your own turn again and so on. Although we got our fair share of free casting cost counterspells in Legacy, this rule still applies sometimes – not because of being helpless when tapped out, but because of the cost it is to you to keep mana open at all times when playing with Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm and the like.
In Legacy, mana is so limited that not only does Negate-junior counters almost everything, but you cannot afford to pass on a chance to use it in most games anyway.
Plus, no matter how good to counter a three-drop may be, countering a Brainstorm can’t be much worse. Your opponent’s deck is full of good cards, no matter how much they cost, that’s why they play them in the first place. When you play with Spell Pierce you basically trade one mana and a card for one of their first spells they cast, which is better than an alternative most of the times. Let me quote Owen on this one:
“I’ve found the best way to defend against Sneak and Show is to counter each and every Ponder/Brainstorm they come up with without using your final Force of Will. This means that you should aggressively use your Daze and Spell Pierce without disrupting your own game plan. […] Some things that are important to remember about the matchup are, first of all, Daze and Spell Pierce do eventually become dead cards at some point. […] Another thing to note is that your own deck has an incredibly low land count, so often you want to just fire off that Spell Pierce so you get the best use out of all your mana every turn and it doesn’t rot in your hand.” (Turtenwald, 2013)
Ok, let us sum this up:
Brainstorm – It is better to wait until the last possible moment to use it, but in some decks we have to balance it with our need for Threshold (Nimble Mongoose, Cabal Ritual). We can hide good cards against discard but need to identify the situations where we have to let go of these cards to have an out with the draw spell against a combo kill. Do not get Brainstorm locked!
Ponder – Again it is better to wait with this as well. Do not undervalue the shuffle effect. When we are looking for one specific card, we play our Brainstorm before the Ponder, when we are looking for more business and got spare cards the other way around.
Thoughtseize – Against blue mages, a responding Brainstorm can spoil our black disruption, so we need to find a situation where the opponent is unable to cast it. Against Tempo, we want to catch the threats in their hand, so we cast the discard as soon as possible.
Force of Will – When you need the pitch card to win the game after the spell on the stack, you cannot use the counterspell. In a midrange battle, you want to shuffle away the Force. Remember to sideboard it out in some matchups.
Fetchlands – Fetchlands cost life. They are spells so do not use them without thinking about. Be aware of library manipulation from you as well as your opponent.
Spell Pierce – Play this as soon as possible. Only keep mana open when you know you will counter something. Brainstorm and Ponder are very good targets for it.
That’s it for today.
I hope this gave you some new information and/or insight on how to play your spells in Legacy. Join me next time when I go over how to play against some of these and other cards and give you my list of most underplayed cards in the format right now.
Until then, Jasper