A Farewell To Snapcaster Mage

In this ode to Snapcaster Mage before it rotates out of Standard, Pro Tour Dark Ascension Top 8 competitor Matt Costa talks about its effect on the way we perceive modern Magic.

Around this time nearly two years ago, Snapcaster Mage was spoiled, and it changed the world.


Okay, so maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Maybe I’m even a little biased, but here are the facts. Since Innistrad was printed, I’ve only played one Standard tournament without Snapcaster Mage in my deck. One. I have a problem. I’m too attached, and soon it will all come to an end.

I feel like I’ve grown with Snapcaster. With it by my side, I’ve made Top 8 of a Pro Tour, three GPs, and found myself on a team with some of the smartest minds the game has to offer. Most importantly, I’ve learned a ton about both deckbuilding and in-game decision making. I’d like to think that I would’ve improved anyway, but Snapcaster forced me to catch up. It forced me strive to achieve, to be worthy of its true potential. If only Tiago Chan realized the addict he created.  

The lessons in this article may have been learned through the lens of Snapcaster decks, but they definitely apply to Magic in general. Many are even tasks made easy by Snapcaster Mage, things we may have to work even harder to find in the future. But first, a history lesson:

Above are three decks I’ve played in the last two years. The first is my 4-2 Standard deck from Worlds in 2011, a last-ditch attempt to hold on to Caw-Blade. This was a tournament where U/W Delver as we know it was almost fully legal, but the closest people could come was Phantasmal Bear

The middle deck is U/W Delver in all its glory, complete with a low land count, a massive amount of cantrips, and the full complement of free spells. This was a deck that pushed efficiency to the extreme.

The last deck is probably the one with which you’re currently most familiar, as it’s one of the most popular decks in Standard. The opposite of U/W Delver, the Flash deck thrives on flexibility and versatility both in card choices and gameplay.

With these decks in mind, the journey begins.

Specific Interaction and Sideboarding

Take a look at that U/W/R Flash deck for a minute, particularly the spell column. This is a deck with a variety of answers, all targeted at specific matchups. Specific cards even. (I’m looking at you, Voice of Resurgence) Why the diversity? What allows us to get away with it?

I’m not going to lie; all the blue card draw doesn’t hurt. A deck with so much card advantage can afford to draw a dead Pillar of Flame against control or Counterflux against aggro. More importantly, this deck has access to a “best” answer in every matchup. And it has access to it again and again. Snapcaster Mage is, simply put, the best spell you’ve already drawn that game. Magic, like many other games, is no stranger to the “snowball” effect, where a player gets ahead and then continues to press that advantage often insurmountably. Snapcaster Mage is a card that thrives in these backbreaking situations. The second Pillar of Flame. The second Thoughtseize. The second Dissipate. What looks like a two for one is often much more when aimed at a critical card.

Find your best answer, your key point of interaction, and then hammer that point until the game is driven home. This is the way to beat linear decks, as anyone who’s ever had the displeasure of playing Mono-Red Aggro against U/W/R Flash can tell you. As for decks with more diverse threats, Snapcaster allows Flash to play a more diverse set of answers because it amplifies the power of every spell you draw. The beauty is that the first answer usually buys you the time to afford the extra 1U cost of the second one.

Let’s take this idea a bit further. Remember that sideboard card that destroys a matchup? Celestial Purge against Zombies; Dispel against Sphinx’s Revelation. You can sideboard in the best fathomable card in a given matchup and then double the copies you draw. That sounds like a great way to win post-sideboard games to me.

I almost forgot. You get a 2/1 creature on top of all that.

How can we apply this beyond Snapcaster Mage? Where can we find this in the real world?

I’ll admit that using the best card in Legacy to illustrate my point might be a bit ambitious, but Brainstorm is the glue that holds the format together. Brainstorm allows a Legacy player to play efficient, powerful, and specific interaction and not get punished for it. Swords to Plowshares against Storm? Brainstorm it away. Force of Will against Jund? Shuffle it back in.

Without cards that amplify the power of your best answers, you are forced to sacrifice matchups by hedging too far in one direction. The alternative is to play less powerful cards that have broader applications. I really like versatility, but a deck full of Izzet Charms isn’t going to cut it. You need power. This is why hyperefficient counterspells have historically been so good. When you can answer anything cheaply, it creates opportunities for deckbuilders.

One last example of this lesson in action comes from our former “best deck in Standard” Junk Reanimator. Junk, a clunky deck with lots of card advantage, was also spectacular at exploiting other decks’ weaknesses. It didn’t just cast one Thragtusk against a creature deck; it put Thragtusk into play over and over again. Restoration Angel, Unburial Rites, Grisly Salvage—all three are cards that allow you to find or amplify a powerful effect. Those sideboarded Acidic Slimes might have been a bit annoying when they destroyed a single land, but they were absolutely devastating when they did so three turns in a row. The deck was great because it would find a weakness and then exploit it repeatedly.

Managing Efficiency (The Ambush Viper Effect)

I’ve spent much of this article talking about power and efficiency in terms of answers. Typically, a more expensive answer is more powerful or encompassing. The cards that break this rule are, in turn, some of the most powerful spells in the game’s history.

Snapcaster Mage offers a different take on this tradeoff. Inherently inefficient, Snapcaster adds mana to the cost of any spell, offering a 2/1 body that typically wouldn’t be worth 1U. You rarely find players complaining about this because what Snapcaster lacks in raw efficiency is made up for by the card advantage provided.

The versatility of Snapcaster Mage is where most players normally lose value. Many games are lost by inexperienced players who use them too early and then find themselves stuck with the wrong answers in hand later in the game. However, another subset of games are lost because players find themselves holding on to the card and waiting to take full advantage of it. In doing so, they may be losing out on opportunities to conserve other resources, like mana or their life total. AJ Sacher once described Brainstorm as “too good to cast.” While his intentions were in the right place, I’d imagine that AJ and many other Legacy players have lost their fair share of games because they didn’t cast it soon enough. Remember that U/W Delver deck?

The extreme version of this situation arises when it’s correct to cast Snapcaster Mage as just a 2/1 creature, an “Ambush Viper.” These spots are often very hard to find, mostly because players are so well trained in extracting the maximum amount of value from their cards. It’s hard to describe them all, but this play may be correct if you are short on lands, aren’t planning on putting spells in the graveyard any time soon, have redundant Snapcasters, or fear the presence of a future hate card like Scavenging Ooze or Relic of Progenitus. The truth of these situations is that often the mana efficiency or life gained by the play creates “virtual” card advantage. Remember that U/W Delver deck? All those free spells allowed Ambush Viper to do its best Silvergill Adept impression.

This lesson applies to more than just Snapcaster Mage. People are often afraid to play a card that isn’t as effectual as they might’ve hoped or use a card at low efficiency. An alternative situation is failure to recognize the impact of your own actions on your opponent’s resources. A mana-screwed opponent may be praying for you to cast a creature into their removal to allow them to use their mana efficiently when it would otherwise go to waste.

Appreciating the impact of your decisions on both your resources and those of your opponent is immensely important. The best spell is one that uses your resources as efficiently as possible while making it equally as awkward for your opponent. This is why you often see players casting a Sphinx’s Revelation or other instant on the opponent’s upkeep. The classic example from recent Jund mirrors is forcing the opponent to cast a Bloodbraid Elf on to an otherwise empty board to make the cascade weaker. More importantly, it was up to the player with Bloodbraid Elf to recognize these situations for what they were.

The really tough plays to make, on an emotional level, are the ones that look “wrong” on the surface. A player can make the easy, automatic play 99 times in a row, but that isn’t worth a whole lot if they aren’t able to recognize the spot that is only slightly different.

The Sacred Cow

Jund is the most popular deck in Standard. I board out my Snapcaster Mages against it. You must think I’m crazy. I’ve spent an entire article gushing about how powerful this card is, and now I’m telling you to board it out against the most popular deck. It took a perfect storm of circumstances to arrive at this strategy.

Over the past few months, Jund has always had access to graveyard hate of some kind in the form of Ground Seal or Scavenging Ooze. These cards on their own aren’t necessarily enough to ruin Snapcaster, but they do create significant diminishing returns on Snapcasters as the game goes on. The first one may hit, but the second is much less likely to do so. In addition, Jund is a rare matchup where the 2/1 body is very irrelevant. Again, this isn’t always a deal breaker, but Jund is far too efficient a deck for a Regrowth to be good.

Perhaps the most important factor to recognize is that the nature of U/W/R Flash changes against Jund in post-board games. The most common cards to side out are Pillar of Flame and Azorius Charm, two of your cheapest and most efficient Snapcaster targets. If I were replacing those cards with other cheap spells, this would again not be a big deal, but instead I sideboard in cards like Detention Sphere and Thundermaw Hellkite.

From the Jund perspective, I’ve seen far too many players keep their Thragtusks in against decks like the G/W Elves deck built by Zvi Mowshowitz. I get that it’s the best card in Jund, but it should be one of the first cards to cut in that matchup. Most people don’t even see Thragtusk when they sideboard, just like they don’t really see their lands. This can be a huge mistake.

Hopefully that illustrates how important it is to reevaluate all your cards in a new situation. Even your best cards can bad in context. There aren’t nearly enough players who side out their Tarmgoyfs or Lingering Souls—cards that are often way worse in particular matchups than you could possibly imagine. How many times have you left Doom Blade in against a mono-black deck in Limited? I bet it’s more than you’re willing to admit. (Yes, I’m looking at Yu, Jarvis). Some of my favorite stories in Magic are about crazy sideboard plans—just ask Paul Rietzl about his Relic of Progenitus sometime.

In only a few short weeks, this fairytale will be over, but I’m excited at the thought that I may get one last opportunity in Baltimore to hang out with a certain 2/1. Luckily for me, Snapcaster Mage isn’t some standard, run-of-the-mill card. Instead, we will forever talk about its lasting legacy and effect on the way we perceive modern Magic.

I have one last card to praise: Glacial Fortress, a truly amazing Magic card. It took writing this article to realize just how many Standard tournaments in a row I’ve played with that one since it far outweighs Snapcaster Mage. You guys remember when Bloodbraid Elf was legal, right? It’s fair to say that my Fortresses may not be in the best condition. Until then, I can only hope to keep up the streak with Hallowed Fountain. Or Azorius Charm. Or Sphinx’s Revelation.

Farewell, Snapcaster Mage, you’ll be missed by everyone.

Matt Costa