Opt Is Better Than Serum Visions

Conventional wisdom only gets you so far in Magic! Ross Merriam is slaying sacred cows to explain why Modern’s best cantrip has changed! Which would you rather play at SCG Dallas?

For most people, change, even positive change, is difficult to deal with.
Over time we all get used to certain routines, whether it be a morning
coffee, a certain lunch spot, or a certain podcast on your commute. The
familiarity of these things breeds comfort and keeps us at ease for when
the parts of our life that are outside of our control throw a curveball.

This bias towards the familiar is also evident in Magic. While preview
season for a new set is stereotypically a place for the hive mind hype
machine to turn it up to eleven, cards that slot over an existing staple
are often met with heavy skepticism as many players are unwilling to
sacrifice the card they have seen perform well for an unknown quantity.

In my career, two instances of this mistake stand out. The first was
Restoration Angel, which I was skeptical of since I’d been so happy with
Dungeon Geists in U/W Delver as a source of removal for a deck that relied
on Vapor Snag, Gut Shot, and Dismember. The first week of Avacyn Restored
Standard I stayed loyal to my trusty Spirits, though my loyalty was quickly
proven foolish.

Second, was with the printing of the now infamous Siege Rhino. With
Polukranos, World Eater already in the format, I didn’t like the idea of
playing a 4/5 at the same mana cost and immediately being behind on the
battlefield. The idea of pairing Siege Rhino with plenty of removal solving
this issue didn’t seem to occur to me. I even wrote an article during Khans
of Tarkir preview season with an Abzan Aggro deck that was very close to
the lists that broke out at the Pro Tour weeks later, but missing the best
card caused it to underperform–funny how that works.

Moving past my own shameful decisions, I fear that the human tendency
towards the familiar has once again reared its ugly head. Serum Visions has
long been the butt of many jokes in Modern, usually centered around how
neutered the color blue has been in the format until recently. With Ponder
and Preordain banned, players were forced to scrape the bottom of the
barrel with a cantrip that is significantly worse. Having a cantrip was
important for many decks so the card has seen a lot of play, but I don’t
know many players who were happy to be using four slots on the likes of
Serum Visions.

Then, in Ixalan, Opt was reprinted. Opt is another subpar cantrip; I’m not
going to claim otherwise, but other than decks that want a ton of cantrips
like Storm, the card hasn’t seen significant play. It certainly hasn’t
displaced Serum Visions outside of some forward thinking Grixis Death’s
Shadow pilots some months ago.

I believe that the fact that Opt hasn’t largely displaced Serum Visions is
largely a result of players sticking with the familiar. The difference
between the two cards is small, but significant in several ways that can be
difficult to discern until you play with both of them, which I’ve been
doing in Blue Moon for a couple months now.

On the surface, the differences between the two cantrips are obvious. Opt
is an instant and lets you scry before drawing while Serum Visions digs a
card deeper with the additional scry. But each of these differences has
significant impact on how these cards play out in various shells.

Advantage Opt: Scry Before Drawing

That this change advantages Opt should be obvious by considering that
Preordain is rightfully banned in Modern and all that changed from it to
Serum Visions is the ordering of the scry and draw parts of the effect. But
why is this the case?

Simply put, gaining immediate access to the most cards off the top of the
deck is valuable. Serum Visions only provides immediate access to the
unknown card on the top of the library while Preordain offers immediate
access to any of the top three, with two of them being known. Opt provides
immediate access to the top two cards with one being known.

Cantrips are a way of effectively reducing the size of your deck and
gaining more consistent access to your best cards. The faster you have that
access then the faster you can put them to use. This is particularly
important in Modern with so many decks trying to kill you on the first
three to five turns of the game. The difference between having that
Lightning Bolt or Thoughtseize in your hand versus having it on top of your
deck can be the difference between stabilizing and losing the game.

Even if the game doesn’t immediately end, not having that piece of
disruption on time could mean they get to land a key planeswalker that you
would’ve taken from their hand or you take an extra attack from a Goblin
Guide that proves to be the difference between ending at two life and zero.
Or maybe by the time you draw that Lightning Bolt, their Champion of the
Parish is too big or they were able to untap and leave up Stubborn Denial
or Spell Queller for it.

A lot can change in one turn in Modern, so interacting as early and often as possible is important.

Okay, Ross. I get that. But I’m usually casting Serum Visions on turn 1, so
I don’t have extra mana to use on what I find anyway.

Advantage Serum Visions: Extra Scry

That’s a good point, eerie voice in my head! When you don’t have extra mana
to use, then the difference between scrying first or second is minimal, and
sometimes hiding a card on top of your deck with Serum Visions can protect
it from a discard spell. So, I will concede that when cast on turn 1, with
no other options for that mana (more on this point later), then Serum
Visions is the better card because the extra scry is the dominant variable.

That extra scry can be important in finding a critical second or third land
drop, setting up a turn 2 Search for Azcanta, or simply sending bad cards
in a polarized matchup to the bottom of the library. Every Stubborn Denial
drawn against Humans is akin to a mulligan so shipping those to the bottom
is close to drawing an extra card.

It’s also true that it’s quite common to see a Serum Visions cast on turn 1
when it’s in the opening hand. But I disagree that most Serum Visions are
cast on turn 1. Most decks with cantrips are playing a fair share of longer
games, whether they be control decks like (unplayable) Jeskai or U/W
Control or Grixis Death’s Shadow or even Storm, these decks see lots of
cards over the course of an average game and have ways to re-use cantrips
in the graveyard via Snapcaster Mage and Past in Flames.

The majority of cantrips pilots of these decks cast are later in the game
when they have the excess mana to utilize extra cards so immediate access
is more important than the extra scry. There are some decks that are trying
to play a hyper-aggressive game, Puresteel Paladin Combo for example, and
in those decks, I’d rather have the cantrip that looks at more cards, but
these decks are the exception, not the rule.

Advantage Opt: Instant Speed

This is the most important difference between the two cards and the one
that I think firmly puts Opt ahead in the cantrip hierarchy. There’s a ton
of value in being an instant, some of which has to do with interaction with
specific cards like Terminus, and some that apply more generally to
fundamental principles of Magic.

First, another illustrative comparison. Remember Hero’s Downfall? It was a
format-defining removal spell while in Standard, and I’ve seen it dip into
Modern decks from time to time, too. It was one of the reasons Mono-Black
Devotion was as successful as it was.

Now consider Never. Same mana cost. Same rules text except it’s a sorcery.
You even get a bonus card from the Return half. It’s not a hugely powerful
card, but free value is always welcome. You could draw an analogy to Return
being comparable to the additional scry from Serum Visions. But Never has
been a big player during its time in Standard, not even close to the
resume’ of Hero’s Downfall.

Instant speed made all the difference. Leaving up mana and using the
removal spell on a freshly cast creature, especially one with haste, made
it so much easier to curve into Desecration Demon or whatever else you
wanted to do on turn 4. The instant speed was also important in combination
with Pack Rat, where you could make another copy in response to a removal
spell or use your Hero’s Downfall if your opponent’s battlefield looked to
outpace the Rat plan.

Flexibility is one of the most important concepts in Magic; when a card has
lots of options to choose from, the floor on its usefulness shoots up
because you only need one option to be good for the card to be effective.
The obvious examples here are modal cards like Abzan Charm and Cryptic
Command, but it’s also the principle that powers cards like Snapcaster Mage
and Vendilion Clique, and it’s no coincidence that all those cards are

Similarly, when you’re deciding between two plays that look close, it’s
generally right to go with the one that leaves you with the most options so
you can more effectively maneuver against the unexpected or the unlikely.
The ability to wait and play reactively without losing tempo gives the
advantage of playing with more information. It’s like a mini-Gitaxian Probe
you get for free. Even freer than Gitaxian Probe normally is.

In any deck with lots of other one-mana spells, which is to say the vast
majority of them because one mana spells are great, the flexibility of Opt
is apparent even on turn 1.

Consider the situation where you have a Lightning Bolt and an Opt/Serum
Visions in your opening hand. With Serum Visions in your hand, you’re
forced to decide immediately whether to hold open the Lightning Bolt or
cast your cantrip. If you hold up and your opponent doesn’t play a
creature, you waste a mana. If you play the cantrip and they have a
creature you want to kill, you aren’t able to play a turn 2 Logic Knot or
Thoughtseize+Death’s Shadow.

With the Opt instead, you can wait and react to what your opponent does and
as a result your draw flows more smoothly. A similar dynamic exists with
any other one-mana interaction like Stubborn Denial and especially Spell
Snare, but even without another option for that opening mana, waiting to
see what your opponent is playing can inform your cantrip.

Serum Visions, on the other hand, sounds like I’m being poisoned by an evil wizard.

How often do you cast a turn 1 Serum Visions, look at the two cards from
scry, and think to yourself, “I have no idea if these cards are good or
not?” You can, and likely should, blame yourself for utilizing your spell
poorly, but not using that mana has a cost too and with an instant-speed
cantrip, you can make a more informed decision while not wasting that
mana–the best of both worlds.

The optionality of being an instant is nowhere more apparent than when you
draw a Snapcaster Mage. Nearly every deck that plays a significant number
of blue cantrips also plays Snapcaster Mage because it’s one of the reasons
for playing those kinds of decks. As I noted above, Snapcaster Mage comes
with a lot of built-in optionality, but helping it out by playing
instant-speed cantrips is important for unlocking its full potential on
that front.

Flashing back an Opt with Snapcaster Mage may not seem like the exciting
play, but it’s an important one to have in the bag, especially in matchups
where you need to get aggressive like combo or Tron. In those matchups
you’ll often want to hold up counterspells and if they don’t induce you to
use them, then establishing a clock is important. Throwing a spare
Lightning Bolt at their face is fine for this, but flashing back an Opt and
finding more land drops or more interaction is even better.

You may be tempted to save that Snapcaster Mage to Flashback another piece
of interaction, but pressure is very important in these matchups and if
your opponent has counterspell protection, the extra mana needed to use
Snapcaster Mage in that way can be a liability.

In control mirrors, using Snapcaster Mage this way lets you gain card
advantage and apply some pressure without committing mana on your own turn.
That pressure can often force the opponent to blink first, setting you up
to win the first key counter war and thus, pull far ahead in the game, so
it’s another great option to have at your disposal.

In order to maximize cards with high optionality, you need to know when
each option is best rather than lock in on the most powerful one or the
most common one. Opt is the card that not only leaves you with the most
options but helps you to utilize your other cards more effectively, while
Serum Visions is more often a liability in that respect.

It’s kind of embarrassing that this critical advantage of Opt is right
there in the name and most of us still missed it. Having the option to opt
for option A or opt for option B because you drew an Opt is good. Serum
Visions, on the other hand, sounds like I’m getting poisoned by an evil
wizard. That’s bad. I’m usually not one to read so far into things like
this, but in this case it was right in front of us: If you’re a blue deck
that can take advantage of instants in some way, then you should probably
be playing Opt over Serum Visions.