Deep Analysis – Tricky Cards: Cryptic Command

On Saturday, September 6th, StarCityGames.com will be exhibiting at Your Move Games' 5K Magic Day in Boxborough, Massachussetts!
Thursday, September 4th – At the start of the current Block Constructed season, Richard Feldman resolved to attack the format with tricky, interactive Blue strategies. Through the development of Counter Elves, he learnt that cards like Cryptic Command ask an opponent very difficult questions. He looks back over his Block experience, and showcases the power of the four-mana Swiss Army Counterspell…

I can’t say this was my favorite Block season, but the approach I took to it taught me a lot. If you recall, my stated goal for PTQs was to attack the format with a tricky, interactive, Blue deck. I wanted to play something that would let me set traps for my opponents, and create opportunities for them to misplay. While this never brought me closer to a blue envelope than the quarterfinals, restricting my deckbuilding options like that illuminated some things I’d been missing.

Let’s look at the deck I was kicking around before I adopted this strategy: Triple Tribe.

Looks similar to Counter-Elves, no? For reference:

A lot of the core concepts are there. I had Changelings and several different tribes empowering my manabase to include many different colors. I had Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Doran, and Chameleon Colossus to let me keep pressure on Faeries.

The most egregious omissions from the main were Thoughtseize and Crib Swap. Granted, Crib Swap was not yet important at that point in the metagame, and I couldn’t reliably cast Thoughtseize on turn 1, but I would have wanted to include both regardless if I had continued playing this non-Blue deck throughout the season.

The real difference comes when you compare the Blue cards I gained when transitioning to Counter Elves. I speak specifically of Cryptic Command, Broken Ambitions, and Sower of Temptation. Let’s Compare Cryptic and Broken Ambitions to Brion Stoutarm and Firespout for a second.

Firespout and Broken Ambitions stack up relatively well. If your opponent doesn’t play around Broken Ambitions – particularly on a critical spell like Mistbind Clique, Bitterblossom, Makeshift Mannequin, Oona, Cloudgoat Ranger, or Mirrorweave – he can get blown out by it, and likewise he can trip himself up by playing around it when I don’t have it. The same is largely true of Firespout: if my opponent doesn’t play around it and plays out too many small creatures, I can blow him out. Likewise, if he holds back for fear of the Spout because I convince him I’ve drawn it, he is committing a potentially game-ending misplay.

That’s all well and good in the abstract, but thinking about the specifics of the format, the usefulness of the two spells to set traps diverges quickly. Five Color Control just does not care how many Firespouts I draw, and in fact it will most often be a very poor draw for me. Since I have no Thoughtseize, Faeries can actually trap me in game 1 with Spellstutter Sprite if I have been foolishly sandbagging Firespout to try and hit more Faeries with it. And the three-mana sweeper is only great against Kithkin until they play a Forge-Tender, at which point they no longer really need to play around it. Sure, I can still set a trap (the ol’ slump-your-shoulders when you actually have Firespout and Nameless Inversion), but only a combo with a second removal spell will let me do that.

Now, though, let’s compare Cryptic Command and Brion Stoutarm. Wow. What a difference. If not for his rarely-used throwing arm, Brion Stoutarm would be the quintessential Big Animal. Four for four power, a big butt, and lifelink. The only traps you can set with Brion are on-table, so the only opponents who will fall for them are the ones who can’t do math or who don’t adequately assess your on-table options. To be fair, there will be plenty of opponents at PTQs who will fit that bill, but you cannot expect to gain any ground with him against another skilled opponent.

But Cryptic Command?

The possibilities are endless. How do you play around a card that taps all your guys, counters a spell, and bounces a guy – while cantripping if only one of those three is desirable if two are not. “Unsuccessfully” is how a lot of people play around it. Cryptic Command was easily the ultimate trap card of the format. If you draw two Cryptic Commands, everything changes. You now have a new win condition: if you get out enough power to take down half of your opponent’s life total, pretty much all you need to do is resolve those Cryptics on his end step. That’s a scenario you can often walk your opponent into, since even if he is playing around one, it’s much harder to get the read on “he’s got two Cryptic Command” than it is for just the first one.

Sure, another part of it is that Cryptic is much more powerful than Brion – but just having overall more powerful cards in my deck than my opponent has in his is not enough to secure a win. I still need to be able to pull out victories when the draws are seriously lopsided in my opponent’s favor, and that’s where setting up traps comes in.

In a PTQ match against a Red deck, my life total was down to five, but I had a Chameleon Colossus beating down that had hit him down to 11. My opponent had been stuck on four lands for awhile and had several cards in hand. I had four lands, but had been declining to pump Colossus out of respect for Flame Javelin. In fact, at one point I even reached over to pump my Colossus post-blockers, but then backed off and left the mana up. My opponent didn’t know it, of course, but I was also holding Cryptic Command.

I knocked him to seven, and he decided to Puncture Blast the Colossus (his second Blast of the game) after declaring no blockers. His motivation for using it now instead of holding onto it is clear: if he topdecks another burn spell, he will want to cast it right away to try and burn me out, and will not have the mana to cast both the topdecked spell and the Blast unless the topdeck is Tarfire. If he topdecks a fifth land, he will want to cast one of the Demigods I am certain he is holding – one hit is lethal with me at five – and in that case Blasting here also makes sense because it may draw out a counter.

Now pretend you’re my opponent, and you’re just thinking of Cryptic Command as a regular counterspell. If you cast your only Puncture Blast and it is countered, you can untap and slam down Demigod if you topdeck the fifth land, and even if you don’t topdeck it, you’ll be able to cast something else because your mana is freed up.

However, the one case where this doesn’t make sense is the one that was actually happening: where Puncture Blast is countered by Cryptic Command. What actually happened was that I countered the Puncture Blast and bounced his fourth land.

I forgot to ask him after the match if he ripped the fifth land, but what certainly happened was that he re-played his fourth land and passed the turn. The fact that he did not take the chance to kill my Colossus (with Flame Javelin or some combination of Tarfires and Lash Out) let me know he either couldn’t, or had drawn his third Puncture Blast, or was willing to bet the farm that I didn’t have another counter and would definitely choose to pump the Colossus next turn (so he could kill it in response and get me to waste my mana). I didn’t think the latter two were very likely, and sure enough, I pumped it and killed him.

So what should he have done on my end step? If you ask me, nothing. Just untap.

Say I’m the Red guy. I decline to Puncture Blast on Richard’s end step, and untap. If I’ve drawn my fifth land, great. I play it and pass without casting Demigod. Now it’s Richard’s turn again and he attacks me with Colossus. If he pumps it, I respond with Puncture Blast, survive the attack, and untap to kill him with Demigod. If Richard does not pump it, I Puncture Blast it after declare blockers. If he lets it resolve, I take one, and am now facing down a 1/1 Colossus at six life. Big deal. If he pumps Colossus in response, I take five, then untap, play Demigod, and kill him. If he Cryptics the Puncture Blast, I untap, replay my fifth land, and kill him with Demigod. All of my options are great if I take the Colossus hit and give myself the extra turn to topdeck that fifth land.

Now even if I haven’t drawn that fifth land, a lot of new options are open to me. You saw above that if I’m holding Puncture Blast, there’s no question that I survive the next Colossus attack and then untap with all my mana available after replaying my bounced land. Even if that only amounts to four mana, the card I topdecked was – by definition – not a land, meaning it may have been the second Lash Out or Tarfire I needed to take out the Colossus if I could just get a turn free of countermagic (which the Puncture Blast would definitely buy me). It might also have been a chump blocker which could potentially delay the Colossus for another turn, giving me one last chance to topdeck my fifth land for Demigod.

It’s such an innocuous question: “Do I Puncture Blast my opponent’s Colossus?”

It seems the worst that could happen is that it’s countered, but “If he’s got the counter, it’s not resolving anyway.” The trouble is, Cryptic Command is no ordinary counter – there are consequences beyond just losing your spell that happen if you walk a spell into it, and sometimes you are literally better off sitting on your hands than opening up the possibility that your opponent might Command your spell.

And this is just one example of a Cryptic Command blowout. “Counter it, tap your guys,” or “Counter that, bounce your dude, or even just “Tap your guys, bounce your land so you can’t Makeshift Mannequin on my turn” are all huge blowouts – and the best part is, your opponent has to weigh the pros and cons of playing around each of them even if all you’re doing is leaving four mana up. You might be holding land, land, Goblin Balloon Brigade for all he knows, and you can still work to implant a read in his mind that you’re about to crush him if he doesn’t play around Cryptic Command.

So was it worth it? Was it worth forcing myself to play tricky, interactive cards like this?


I would have still been slinging Firespouts at the end of last season if I hadn’t forced myself to try four-color Cryptic Command instead. There may not be a Cryptic Command in the next Block, but there sure is in Standard, and there sure is in Extended. You can be sure I’ll be valuing tricky, Cryptic Command-like cards, be they Blue, Black, Green, Red, or even White, for a lot more than just their brute-force power level in the formats to come. If you’ve never tried an exercise like this, I suggest you give it a shot. You might be surprised how much you learn about the game.

See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]