Innovations – Snapcaster Mage Is Too Good

For people on the fence about Snapcaster Mage, Patrick Chapin wants to kill those doubts. Snapcaster Mage may be one of the three best creatures in Vintage and will be crazy-good in all other formats.

Warning: Spoilers!

I wonder if there is even one reader out there who actually avoids reading a Magic article because it leads with “Warning: Spoilers!” My theory is that some non-zero number of people are drawn by the promise of spoilers, as it is a subject that is quite “up their alley.”

Today’s topic is basically just one spoiler, as it deserves a column all its own (many in fact). This card actually makes a claim to being the best blue creature ever printed. It scales in power proportionate to format, so while it may be the best Vintage and Legacy blue creature ever, it is merely going to be great in Standard (as opposed to Psychatog; Meloku, the Clouded Mirror; Keiga, the Tide Star; Mistbind Clique; and Consecrated Sphinx).

Today’s topic is in the same league as Dark Confidant in Vintage, the same league Mulldrifter would be in Standard. It has power, efficiency, flexibility, and more. What card do we speak of? In case the article title didn’t give it way, it is Snapcaster Mage:

Regardless of what else is in Innistrad, there is basically no way Snapcaster Mage isn’t top 5 cards in the set. In fact, there are 159 cards not yet spoiled, as of this writing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best card in the set, long term. The final Invitational card (for now…) Tiago Chan had originally submitted was a land that taps for colorless and has Channel — 2 UU, Discard this: Counter target spell. I must say the new version that R&D and he created is much more interesting, and possibly even more powerful (particularly in powered formats).

Snapcaster Mage has been met with mixed reviews, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. On the surface, the card is interesting, but is it really that good, when you have to pay the flashback cost? After all, doesn’t that mean you have to set up what amounts to four mana for a Nekrataal (when combined with a Doom Blade) or three mana for a Sea Gate Oracle (when combined with Ponder)?

In many regards, Snapcaster Mage is actually more powerful than Eternal Witness! What makes Snapcaster Mage so good? Mana efficiency, flash, and being a blue wizard… plus the whole instant-speed card advantage, utility, and power.

How much should Snapcaster Mage cost? Well, 1 U for a 2/1 is the baseline, but not making any Constructed decks. Flash puts him already slightly ahead of the Sealed Deck curve, but still at least half a mana away from playability in Constructed (since let’s be honest, a 2/1 flash for U without the Phantasmal drawback would definitely see play).

So how much is it worth giving a card in your graveyard flashback? Recoup did it for 1 R (with the promise of flashing it back for 3 R later). Recoup saw tournament play even at that cost, which is miles away from Snapcaster Mage.

Would you play with an instant that cost zero and gave a card in your graveyard flashback until end of turn? Absolutely! That card would be crazy good! It is like a Call to Mind that costs three mana less and makes you flash the card back instead of recurring it. That it’s also an instant means I actually think such a card would definitely see play at U, let alone zero.

Now let’s ask ourselves, would we play with a creature that costs 1 U for a 2/1 that draws a card? Hell yeah! That is Silvergill Adept, without the drawback! Silvergill Adept is one of the best Merfolk ever printed and one of the biggest reasons to play Merfolk. Having a Silvergill Adept that requires sorceries and/or instants instead of Merfolk is way beyond what we could hope for. If that was all it did, it would still be a tournament staple.

Now, we combine them to see it’s even better than that! To begin with, Silvergill Adept doesn’t have flash. A cheap cantrip creature is the perfect body to put flash on. It can surprise trade with Dark Confidant or Gaddock Teeg. It can take down a planeswalker that wasn’t ready. It helps launch an alpha strike next turn or provides a much-needed chump-blocker. You can even hold up counterspell mana, and then when your opponent does nothing, advance your board while gaining card advantage. More than anything, though, Snapcaster Mage provides a surprise body that is ready and willing to pick up a Sword when your opponent thought the coast was clear. It is this last ability that makes me think that losing Squadron Hawk isn’t actually going to decrease the number of Swords being played in Standard.

In addition, if your deck is built right, Snapcaster Mage’s ability is actually better than drawing a card. As long as you have a critical mass of potential sorceries and instants, you have the option to get whatever you want most in this situation, or just draw a card. Snapcaster Mage suggests we play with utility spells as well as cantrips to ensure we are always getting good options with him. The larger variety of spells you play, the better variety of options he presents you when you play him. In addition, cheap cantrips both provide flashback options as well as help you find the utility spells that you want in this matchup (so that Snapcaster Mage can reuse them).

While it is bittersweet to have Snapcaster Mage come just as Preordain rotates (the best one-mana cantrip since Brainstorm), we still have Ponder, Gitaxian Probe, and even Visions of Beyond. If you are playing a deck that wants Ponder or Gitaxian Probe, then presumably it is at least as good as a random card in general (even though you have to pay the mana or life).

Note: Phyrexian mana interacts favorably with Snapcaster Mage, so you can actually pay the two life, instead of the blue when you flashback Gitaxian Probe. Snapcaster Mage doesn’t do what we’d want with Force of Will, Gush, or Ancestral Vision, however.

So, even if your only option is flashing back a cantrip like Ponder or Gitaxian Probe, you are already getting your money’s worth. The thing is, Ponder would be a lot stronger if it were a split card that also featured “(1 U) Instant — Counter target spell unless its caster pays 3,” and “(1) Instant — Pay 4 life: Target creature gets -5/-5. Multikicker B Gain 2 life for each time this was kicked, but pay no more than BB in this way.”

Snapcaster Mage gives you the best of both worlds. Early on, his ability to copy a cantrip (giving you a better Sea Gate Oracle) or a removal spell (giving you a Nekrataal) is awesome. The longer the game goes, though, the better options you have to get even more value out of him. But wait, it gets even better!

Snapcasting a Ponder still has to be done at sorcery speed, since the Mage doesn’t actually give the card flash. That said, you can obviously Snapcaster Visions of Beyond (or Brainstorm or Opt) at instant speed. Visions of Beyond is a particularly exciting option, since early on it provides a cantrip to ensure that your Snapcaster will always get value. Then, later in the game, the ability to upgrade to Ancestral Recall is huge.

Plays like this start to make Jace, Memory Adept a lot more exciting. Using JMA to turn on Visions of Beyond was already intriguing. Now that we have added ways to recur our Ancestrals and so many cards are rotating out, there is new room for such a strategy. Remember, we can JMA ourselves for ten, not just our opponents. Often it will be easier to get twenty into our own yard than our opponent’s (if we are in a hurry), plus this gives us a very powerful way to tutor for Visions of Beyond (the main incentive for such a strategy). Even if we didn’t draw Visions of Beyond, if any one of those ten cards is a copy, we can easily Snapcaster it and begin to overwhelm our opponents with card advantage!

Additionally, Visions of Beyond has excellent synergy with Sword of Body and Mind. Sword of Feast and Famine is still the most powerful, but it is possible that we will see some decks with a mixture of the two. Between JMA and the “bad” Sword, we are starting to talk about a number of ways to turn your Visions on.

Snapcaster Mage does not treat all potential flashback targets equally. Because you have to play the spell this turn and (usually) with mana, you generally get slightly more value the cheaper the card. This is because you are already adding two mana to the cost of the card you are flashing back (in exchange for options and the cantrip 2/1 creature). Increased mana costs do not scale arithmetically. It scales proportionately to the difficulty in hitting those spots on the curve based on the resources you start the game with.

For instance, spells that cost one, two, or even three (if you don’t have a low land count) don’t scale up in real cost quickly. With a moderate mana base, even fours are no trouble. Once we get to five, however, we are talking about a realistic chance that you can’t play it on the fifth turn. Even if you can, you still had to wait a full turn compared to the spell played on four. In general, a good rule of thumb is that spells that cost five cost almost 150% as much as spells that cost four. This is the real root reason why five-cost planeswalkers generally don’t compare to four-cost planeswalkers. Six-drops cost almost 150% as much as five-drops in real cost, and so on. In terms of tempo and opportunity cost, a six-drop normally costs you about twice as much as a four-drop and should give you twice as much value.

What does this have to do with Snapcaster Mage? Cards that cost one are usually properly costed compared to cards that cost two. This ratio mostly holds up when you go to the difference between three and four. Additionally, the 2/1 cantrip body you get in real cost is generally about half the cost of the card. Every additional mana doesn’t just add to the cost of the spell you are flashing back; it is adding to the real cost of the 2/1 (since you didn’t have that creature in play the previous turn, etc.). This means that a spell that costs three doesn’t just cost 150% more in real cost for the spell effect compared to a two-mana spell; it also makes the body cost 150% (for the same body).  

This equation gets worse and worse as you go up the chain (though variable spells, such as X spells and kicker spells work quite well, since they give you an outlet for extra mana later). Even if you have a four-cost spell that is twice as powerful as a two-cost one, if you are paying six to Snapcaster it, you are effectively paying four for the cantrip 2/1 (the selection makes it not terrible, but it’s no longer such a good deal).

The moral of the story? Snapcaster Mage works well with cheap spells.

Kudos to Wizards for keeping this one a rare and not a mythic (which it easily could have been). I like mythics existing, but it is nice when the Lotus Cobras of Magic break on the side of rare—utility cards that every serious tournament player that plays the color is going to want access to.

While cheap spells tend to be good in every format, the more highly powered the format, the better the best cheap spells tend to be. This leads us to conjecture that Snapcaster Mage might be at his best in Vintage, as well as becoming a regular fixture in Legacy. Let’s start with Vintage.

Right off top, we have Thoughtseize, Mental Misstep, Spell Pierce, Preordain, and more. Already, we are talking about some excellent spells plus a body that trades with Dark Confidants, Gaddock Teeg, and so on. Once we start factoring in restricted cards, things get out of hand quickly. First, the big one is obviously Ancestral Recall. Snapcasting an Ancestral Recall costs the same mana as Merchant Scrolling for it, a play that has already been restricted. It is even better than that, however, as it is all instant speed, plus it gives you an extra card in the form of the 2/1 body. This play is why I think Snapcaster Mage will take its rightful place as one of the three best creatures in Vintage (along with Dark Confidant and Blightsteel Colossus).

It isn’t just Ancestral Recall, however. Mystical Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Brainstorm, Demonic Tutor, and Time Walk are all unbelievable flashback targets that can be absolutely backbreaking. Snapcaster Mage’s synergy both with restricted cards and with much of the best disruption ever printed is going to shake up Vintage more than any card has since Jace remixed the format.

Snapcaster Mage will surely appear in a wide range of aggro-control decks, random blue Dark Confidant decks, and more; however, I am most excited about him in Skullclamp decks. Talk about a creature born to wear a Clamp! I would play 1 U 2/1 draw a card, but he is so much more.

Most of the Skullclamp decks I had been working on featured only a light splash of blue, but Snapcaster Mage is going to change all of that. There is a lot of competition for space in the deck, so it will be interesting finding the right balance of disruption (Thoughtseize, Spell Pierce, Mental Misstep, Red Elemental Blast?), restricted cards (do we want Vault/Key? Tinker/Blightteel/Thirst?), creatures (Dark Confidant and Snapcaster Mage are the easy ones; then we consider Stoneforge Mystic, Gorilla Shaman, Vendilion Clique, Spellstutter Sprite, Kataki, War’s Wage, Meddling Mage, Phyrexian Revoker, Qasali Pridemage, Trinket Mage, Aven Mindcensor, Goblin Welder, Grim Lavamancer, Cloud of Faeries, Cursecatcher, Bitterblossom, manlands, and more), and support cards (Aether Vial seems hot! Can we support Force of Will? I sure want to!)

One support card that I think is going to be good enough for both Vintage and Legacy is Riptide Laboratory. Snapcaster Mage’s creature type Wizard is perfect for exploiting with the Lab, letting you turn him into a card advantage engine every turn. In Legacy, we will mostly be recurring Brainstorms, Swords to Plowshares, Counterspells, and Mental Misstep (in the delusional fantasy world where Mental Misstep isn’t banned). In Vintage, the advantage of getting to flashback a spell every turn will be game-winning very quickly.

Aether Vial could work great in both places, as it can help free up some much-needed mana to operate your Lab. These sorts of decks can get glutted with two-drops, which is generally the best scenario for Aether Vial. Additionally, these decks naturally want Wastelands, which are the perfect complement to an Aether Vial strategy.

In addition to bouncing Snapcasters, Riptide Laboratory also works great with Spellstutter Sprite, Vendilion Clique, Stoneforge Mystic, and Trinket Mage, as well as well as Grim Lavamancer, Dark Confidant, Meddling Mage, Qasali Pridemage, Aven Mindcensor, Cursecatcher, Cloud of Faeries, Venser, Shaper Savant, and more. The ability to reuse enters the battlefield triggers, dodge removal, get out of bad fights, and use your mana efficiently has already made Riptide Lab a star in other formats. Snapcaster Mage has good chances of pushing it into both Vintage and Legacy.

Regardless of what the best homes for Snapcaster Mage end up being, he is three things:

1) Undercosted (compares favorably to Silvergill Adept in a Merfolk deck).

2) Versatile (cycling Brainstorm or Gitaxian Probe is already good value, but that he gives you extra of whatever you need most is just incredible).

3) His power is in a place that you actually want. Often cards like this require you to play cards you would normally not want to, such as Stoneforge Mystic, Spellstutter Sprite, or Silvergill Adept. The cost to play Snapcaster Mage? You have to play cheap spells?! That is the restriction?!

It is so strange that Snapcaster Mage has been printed at these numbers. Why does blue get a better Eternal Witness? Why does blue get a creature in Dark Confidant’s league? In what world is this card fair? Mulldrifter took people a while to appreciate, so it’s not surprising that people don’t immediately get how insane Snapcaster Mage is. His power is proportionate to the best cheap spells in the format, so it is actually possible that he is merely great in Standard, while being busted in powered formats, but even in Extended he seems kind of bonkers.

Another strange attribute of Snapcaster Mage is that he does interact with the graveyard. This means that maindeck Nihil Spellbombs gain utility, as well as whatever sort of Withered Wretch card gets printed in Innistrad. In fact, Nihil Spellbomb is actually quite effective against Visions of Beyond, as well. I wonder if such strategies will be popular enough to justify the Spellbomb, perhaps in some sort of Trinket Mage deck?

Snapcaster Mage changes the fundamentals so much that it is going to take some time to understand all of the implications. As a jumping off point, here are some initial sketches for Snapcaster Mage decks in post-rotation Standard, Legacy, and Vintage. This is only beginning to scratch the surface, though.

It is not clear if the best approach for U/B is to stick with winning with 6s all the time, to play Tezzeret, or as we see here, to adopt a Caw-Blade class of deck design. Snapcaster Mage lends himself so well to a Sword-based strategy, it is definitely where I am looking first.  

Azure Mage may be wrong for the new format, at least maindeck. One possible, crazy alternative is Invisible Stalker. They are probably too cute, but the synergy with Swords is worth exploring. It is very possible they should just be Perilous Myrs, Phyrexian Ragers, or some other disposable body. The U/B land from Innistrad hasn’t been revealed yet but is certainly going to be a card to watch for.

This list currently doesn’t feature any mass removal, which may need to change depending on how the format shapes up. It is possible that we can keep up with Tempered Steel with enough Nekrataals, but we may need more. The loss of Into the Roil also is more painful than one would guess at first, as we are dangerously exposed to artifacts and enchantments.

The formula for Legacy is a little more scripted:

Moving Snapcaster Mage into a Stoneblade shell is going to require some painfully tough cuts but is surely worth it. Snapcaster is also going to be a consideration for RUG decks, as well as any random aggro-control with a threshold-ish feel.

Snapcaster’s home in Vintage is hard to predict, as there are so many ways you can go with him. Most likely he will appear in small numbers lots of places, as well as possibly ignite a resurgence in Skullclamp-based strategies. Here is one possibility:

Innistrad builds on the successful model of M10, promising a flavor-based set done right. The cards look fun, and while there are more than a couple cards that set off warning bells as “dangerous,” the cards are not nearly as modular-based as Scars block. This means that there is going to be more possibility for good stuff and midrange decks, as well as decks that are not just all-in on one thing. Personally, I welcome the change.

Standard is about to experience a radical change. Basically every major strategy revolves around cards from Zendikar block and M11. Those sets leaving will make way for a strange new world that combines Scars block Constructed (a strange format in its own right that could have been cool if only it were deeper) with M12 (Titans, planeswalkers, Mana Leak, Day of Judgment, Ponder, Grim Lavamancer, Incinerate, Solemn Simulacrum, Chandra’s Phoenix, Azure Mage, Timely Reinforcements, and so much more), as well as all of Innistrad (Liliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage, Mikaeus, the Lunarch, Skaab Ruinator, new enemy duals, and so much more).

A fresh and exciting new Standard? One of the three best creatures in Vintage? Possible changes coming to the Legacy, Modern, and Extended banned list? This is going to be a very dynamic month, and those who position themselves to capitalize on all of the changes have even more opportunity than usual.

What Innistrad cards would you like to see discussed next week? Limit two votes per person. The top two vote getters in the comments will be explored at length, next week. See you then!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Top 10 Invitational Cards:

10. Rootwater Thief

9. Voidmage Prodigy

8. Sylvan Safekeeper

7. Shadowmage Infiltrator

6. Avalanche Riders

5. Solemn Simulacrum

4. Meddling Mage

3. Ranger of Eos

2. Snapcaster Mage

1. Dark Confidant

(Sorry Rakdos Augermage…)


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