Pondering Cabal Therapy

Find out why iconic Magic theorist Mike Flores thinks Cabal Therapy is the most superlative but also the most mislaid and misunderstood card in the history of Magic. Get ready for Legacy at SCG Open Series: Phoenix!

The most exciting game of Magic I played the week of SCG Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational was, without a doubt, a Sunday Legacy Open match against Dredge.

He opened on a City of Brass and Putrid Imp.

Okay, I thought to myself. Dredge. Dredge is a good matchup.

I have lost to Dredge innumerable times in Extended over the years, but I had—to that point—never come close to losing a Legacy game in this graveyard-on-graveyard matchup.

I opened on Aether Vial, smiling at the Nomads en-Kor and Cephalid Illusionist already in my hand.

My opponent discarded a Golgari Grave-Troll on his upkeep and proceeded to play a big Breakthrough. He turned over a total of 22(!) cards on that play, including two Narcomoebas, both (presumably "both") his Ichorids, and… No flashback cards.


The entire time I was chanting "no whammies, No whammies, No Whammies, NO WHAMMIES…" And in fact, there was not one whammy. No Dread Return, no Cabal Therapy.

In the orgy of dozens and dozens of cards going to the graveyard, I never noticed if he had a Flame-Kin Zealot or not, but I assume a Dread Return would’ve been a disaster; he had multiple copies of Bridge from Below. Worse, I thought, would be a Cabal Therapy. I had to assume he knew what deck I was, and though my hand was a great setup for a fast kill, it could be easily disrupted by a single Therapy.

But nope. No whammies.

He got in with the Imp (two power).

On my second turn I added a counter to Aether Vial, played a second land, and said go.

On his third turn he looked over the landscape of his vast, nearly-half-his-library graveyard. He looked, he saw, he made the right decision:

"Dredge Darkblast."

Well, before that, he returned two Ichorids to play. His small Darkblast Dredge didn’t flip any Cabal Therapies (think about how insane Cabal Therapy is with Ichorid), but he got in for a bundle—both Ichorids, the now two power Imp, and two Narcomoebas…half my life and more.

Now my opponent had made a great decision. Darkblast would indeed break up my combo, if indeed I had the combo assembled, and he had me on a one-turn clock.

It’s so rare that I can identify a decision and—wait for it—pick the right path. Most of the time, you’ll either play "automatic" / unconscious Magic and maybe gloss over your potential decisions or just make the wrong ones when they come up. I mean, at any given point there’s only one right play, and given the weight of the many, many possible non-right plays… The likelihood is that you’re not going to pick the best one every time.

But this time I did.

At the end of his turn, I played Lim-Dul’s Vault for my Cabal Therapy.

On my turn, I ticked my Aether Vial to two counters and moved to my draw and main.

I played the Cabal Therapy, cleared his Darkblast, tapped my Vial for the Illusionist, and hard cast the Nomads en-Kor.

The rest was a combination of Murderous Redcap and Lord of Extinction, stapled to The Mimeoplasm.

The second game was also exciting, at least for me. He had a Lion’s Eye Diamond + Breakthrough opening hand, I had the Force of Will… I guess it wouldn’t have been as exciting from the other side of the table.

So what happened in the above story?

My opponent made a great play!

He made a play that—given my likely path to victory—could lock out either of the fragile 1/1 creatures that make up the Cephalid Breakfast combo.

But here’s the problem:

Cabal Therapy.

Cabal Therapy is bar-none the most superlative card in the 19-year history of Magic: The Gathering.


Think about it.

It puts the "super" in "superlative!"

Cabal Therapy has been called the most skill-testing card in the history of Magic. Maybe it is.

Players like to quote their hit percentages… "I hit 60% of the time, blind," or, "I think I get them 80% of the time." What other card do they do that with?

It’s the most mislaid and misunderstood card ever. Ever.

Look at this decklist for a sec:

Note the numbers I not so subtly highlighted.

A bit after Gadiel’s PT performance, edt showed me a very similar Reanimator deck he had made for a Michigan friend; the only difference? Four Duress and only three Cabal Therapy.

"Why did you reverse these numbers?" I asked.

This was an era where The Rock, Suicide Black, and my own decks like Black Thumb and Playing Fair were all going eight-pack on disruption — four Duress and four Cabal Therapy played together were very common. But when you only had room for 6-7, at least among the best of the best, it was a Duress that got shaved.

"She isn’t that good; she doesn’t have the best knowledge of the format. She doesn’t hit with Cabal Therapy that often… She is more likely to hit with Duress," answered edt.

I shook my head and walked away.

Remember what I said about Cabal Therapy being the most mislaid?

There was a reason you shaved Duress first. The reason is that actually hitting with Cabal Therapy—while nice—was often perpendicular to actually winning. Who cares if you hit (sometimes)?

Say you only lose to a Surgical Extraction, but you have a sneaking suspicion (or you have leftover information from an earlier something-something) that he’s holding a Leyline of the Void? Which one do you name?

Would you rather name Leyline of the Void and probably hit?

Or you would rather name Surgical Extraction, maybe hit and maybe not…but always be sure that he had no Surgical Extraction to bedevil you?

I hope the choice is obvious!

You don’t have to hit with Cabal Therapy to make it awesome. That’s part of what makes it (maybe) the most skill-testing card of all time. You don’t name, necessarily, what you think they have. You often name what you think might beat you.

This is one-half of why I shook my head and walked away.

Remember what I said about Cabal Therapy being the most misunderstood?

She was playing a Reanimator deck. Part of what made Cabal Therapy so extra appropriate in this archetype was that you could Cabal Therapy yourself to discard your fat man…so you could Reanimate it! Some games it was like another Careful Study.

Cabal Therapy in 2012

So Cabal Therapy was first printed about a decade ago, in Odyssey block expansion Judgment.

And most people didn’t like it.

It was harder to work than Duress. Most players, initially, read how they had to be a bit better to be successful with it, missing how much better it would pay them back (if they were). The Mono-Black Control decks at the time (which often topped up on as many as four copies of Mind Sludge) would typically play…zero.

Over time, Cabal Therapy gained some momentum as redundant to Duress in Extended disruptive decks, until the point when it started to look really good with cards like Eternal Witness and Call of the Herd, piggybacking on creature-based card advantage. Until the point that it was everywhere, up to and including Goblins, and ultimately, on the first line over Duress typically.

So why is it interesting to talk about today?

Recently, a bunch of stuff happened.

I think it started with Tom Martell Legacy win with Esper Stoneblade. Tom didn’t play Cabal Therapy himself, but he did bring the overpowered Inquisition of Kozilek to the U/W Blade family.

His deck, with its Lingering Souls, started to become popular.

By SCG Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational, I had played against many Esper Stoneblade decks, and both Ando Ferguson (who had made Top 8 with Tom on his Esper run) and noted SCG grinder Brian Braun-Duin played Cabal Therapy against me. Both seemed very happy with it; clearly Cabal Therapy was super synergistic with both their Inquisitions (they could set up 100% likelihood situations of hitting) and their Lingering Souls (superb flashback fodder).

I think that Tom rode a trend that started even before his win, which was the reinvigoration of one-mana black discard spells due to the printing of Snapcaster Mage. You see, Snapcaster Mage makes any kind of fast interaction such as Duress and the like better. They are cheap and they have relatively high impact for what they cost.

Inquisition of Kozilek has become an over-performer (remember when it was maybe second fiddle to Thoughtseize?) because of the same phenomenon… As cards become cheaper on average, Inquisition of Kozilek gets better and better. Pretty much the only super common big spell it can’t hit is Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

So where does that put us with Cabal Therapy?

I had a Dredge opponent who played it.

I played it, too.

Cabal Therapy was everywhere! It’s already here and back.

Some of you are probably having problems evaluating what’s going on in this section. That’s because Cabal Therapy comes from a different era in Magic. There used to be a notion of Magic, which is that many or all the cards we played were about the same power level; this was called the "Tier Two Metagame." The skill came from players choosing cards and playing them together to achieve different synergies and advantages. Quite different from the current regime, which is largely about highlighting flashy, often very powerful signature cards.

Well one of those flashy signatures (Snapcaster Mage) has made some of these Tier Two guys relevant again. Inquisition of Kozilek is probably the "right" maindeck choice… But what about Duress or Cabal Therapy versus Blackmail and Encroach? Some of them are better than others. But which?

While I’m willing to concede that Inquisition of Kozilek—largely because it hits the most often, at least non-Jace cards the most often—is the most appropriate in the maindeck, I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t have a lot to say about Cabal Therapy in the age of Lingering Souls!

Cabal Therapy has two big things going for it:

  1. As I already said, hit percentage (part of what makes Inquisition of Kozilek so popular and the driving force of Thoughtseize’s popularity over Duress for years) isn’t necessarily that important. With Cabal Therapy, the cool thing is that you can name what will beat you rather than what you think they might have.
  2. That said, Cabal Therapy is all upside. What if you do hit? You can hit more than one card! You can flash back and hit even more.

Last week a reader criticized Cephalid Breakfast as folding to Surgical Extraction. Even if you discount the pure speed of the deck in game 1 situations (it’s so fast that if you have a Force of Will it often doesn’t matter what the opponent has), few players have Surgical Extraction in game 1 anyway, so whatever.

But more than that, look back to the most exciting game I played and how I used Cabal Therapy to sequence past what could very well have been a combo-locking Darkblast

Let’s put it another way: it doesn’t matter how many Surgical Extractions (or whatever) you have in hand. Cabal Therapy gets them all.

I have had at least a half a dozen games in the past few weeks where my opponent 1) had more than one Surgical Extraction in hand and 2) responded to Cabal Therapy with a Surgical Extraction on [something]. It was never anything that good because, as a combo deck, I didn’t necessarily expose anything that good. They just wanted to Extract me to get an Extraction out of hand because it was obvious I would name Surgical Extraction before going off.

So what happened next?

I would still name Surgical Extraction, of course!

Remember: you name what’s going to get you, not necessarily what you think they might have. It just so happened that in lots of these situations…another Surgical Extraction was exactly what they had! The first one was just to try to get me to name something else. Not. Falling. For. It.

Cabal Therapy and the Role of Disruption

Cards like Duress and Thoughtseize are very flexible.

They have been played in lots of different styles of decks, from Faeries to pure control to Suicide Black to jimmy-jammin’ ANT combo decks.

Against beatdown decks…they typically suck. Inquisition of Kozilek can be great against beatdown decks (take your one-drop…), but Duress has been an eternal "eh" and Thoughtseize, by the principle of equivalencies, can feel like you’re doing their job for them (beatdown has often been happy to pay a mana and a card to nug you for two…and here you’re paying the mana and tossing a card yourself).

Against control, you might be clearing a Counterspell before making your big play.

Against combo, the goal of disruption is usually to buy one turn. Even a great disruption card rarely does more than that; therefore, its efficacy is usually contingent on having a clock in play (you slow them down by a turn but you have to make use of it in a race). So when you’re Gadiel’s deck (above), stealing a turn can feel like GG if you’re clocking with Akroma. Or when you are ANT, check their hand and more-or-less like what you see… A turn can be pretty compelling.

But getting a turn is usually more about everything else and not the disruption spell itself.

Can disruption do more?

Sometimes, sure… But not realizing that the opponent can play around your disruption (or countermand with disruption of his own) is the first step in understanding your own standing…

… And the most important is probably establishing when and where you have a "bad map."

Avoiding Embarrassing All-Ins

Once upon a time there was a team called Cabal Rogue.

And one of the most famous deck designers on that team was all-time great man of the people Secret Force-r Jamie Wakefield.

Jamie Wakefield could turn a lowly Wall of Roots into a 7/7 Saproling factory and stomped all over the then-mighty red mages. His Natural Order strategy was as exciting to the people as it was embarrassing to the people he was stomping with it.

(Think about how people No RUG in Legacy with their Progenitus. This was like that, but you weren’t allowed to play Swords to Plowshares in Standard.)

One thing that held back the fame of Jamie’s deck was this other set of giant monster-making cards, which themselves sometimes made a Verdant Force (but other times didn’t). They played cards like Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare and Living Death.

(Think about how Survival of the Fittest got banned in Legacy; it was exactly like that, but they didn’t ban Survival of the Fittest in Standard…like…ever.)

Jamie wracked his fatty-founding noggin and eventually came upon the card Repopulate as a solution.

And by "a solution" I assume he caught his friend Alan Webter with a Repopulate once in response to the card Living Death. That one moment in time, I assume, etched itself into Jamie’s admittedly vast and wonderful imagination… Because for the rest of the time he could play Natural Order and his opponents could play Survival of the Fittest, Jamie’s solution was just to sideboard Repopulate.

For once in our lives Adrian Sullivan and I agreed on something.

"Jamie, this isn’t any kind of solution…"

"Please! Tell me how a Living Death deck can withstand a Repopulate! If anything, I will be ahead and they will be using their most powerful card! Haha!"

I mean, I tried in vain to explain how Survival of the Fittest worked. They have these cards like Uktabi Orangutan, Nekrataal, and Ghitu Slinger. They are just going to play around your Repopulate. You might get them once, but after that they’re just going to carefully two-for-one you, trish Trish TRISH. They’re going to death you by a thousand cuts rather than bowling you over with one big Living Death.

Can you imagine these situations?

Each one, sure.

One, the big and dramatic win over the desperate, bin-loaded Living Death?

… And every other game after that game, when Repopulate is actually terrible?

Well, disruption can be like that, especially when you assume one Surgical Extraction is going to completely beat a deck that has Grand Abolisher, Meddling Mage, Abeyance (and a repeat of maindeck Force of Will and Cabal Therapy) in any game you have your stupid Surgical Extraction.

"Oh," you might think. "Well, this hand is effing terrible otherwise but I have two Surgical Extractions. As he can’t beat even one Surgical Extraction, I assume I will just mise the infinite time I need to get like a bear which will take ten turns to beat him (but it’s not like he can beat one Surgical Extraction)."


Sure, you’re going to have games where Surgical Extraction is as good against one of the cards in his graveyard as Repopulate was against all the cards in Jamie’s opponent’s graveyard. In fact, you’re going to see a good number of those games in all likelihood, and you’re going to steal even more based on an opponent being 1) unaware, 2) too fancy, or 3) overconfident because you’re tapped out.

Sure. You’re going to get those.

But it’s important, as a disruptor, that you realize that there is such a thing as over-valuing a hand with what seem like relevant interactive spells.

In fact, when your opponent is prepared for your disruption/interaction, you might actually be the one on the wrong side of the GG column.

I recommend—especially when fighting combo—that you look at the interaction as "buying one turn" rather than "winning outright". Can you win outright? Sure! Especially (as above) when you have the right clocks in play or you’re a fast combo yourself.

Other times, the presence of a Surgical Extraction or well-placed Inquisition of Kozilek (or even favorite Cabal Therapy, as in this article) just trade for a Force of Will [and a Ponder] meaning he needs to proxy that Ponder with something else, not that you’ve auto-won.

Like Jamie’s sometimes all-in with Repopulate, I would encourage you to think back to the time before Gerry Thompson career-and-reputation-making Thopter Depths deck and consider when a Vampire Hexmage and a Dark Depths were just a turn 2 20/20 duo.

Yes, Marit Lage was big and could kill you in one stroke.

But wasn’t it also uber-vulnerable?

Path to Exile was already good against the final fold of this combination [again before the addition of Thopter Foundry]… But after boards? Repeal was even better!

I know I can recall excitedly rocking in my chair as I looked at the two Repeals and Path in my hand (whatever else I had)…

Like a hee-haw donkey: "Snap keep!" -me (and lots of you I assume).

God forbid that my opponent just took a turn before throwing away a guy and half his lands to set up a 20/20…

…to deploy a Chalice of the Void for one first.

I think, as a lover of disruption, a bringer of fair fights to a format where fast combo and expansive superpowers are viable, you will be happiest (and most successful) if you evaluate and use disruption (Cabal Therapy or otherwise) for the demi-Time Walk it can be rather than the table-breaking Repopulate you imagine it to be. Remember that disruption rarely wins by itself, and that its contribution to time should be weighed against the relative speed of the decks at the table plus your ability to pounce on that information…rather than falling into the opposite of the situation you initially imagined.


We split games.

The first one he got me with his stupid 20/20 combo.

The second was one of the most exciting games I have ever played. They gave me the whole seat, but I only needed the edge…and not even that! The turn I hit that Bloodbraid Elf

I played a Treetop Village.

He played a Thoughtseize; got me. Took my Punishing Fire.

I played a Tarmogoyf. "Nice Thoughtseize," I commented. And because this is a great retelling of an exciting game, I am sure one or both of us broke a land to get there.

He played a Dark Depths, knowing my hand, but did not have double black.

I played a Grove of the Burnwillows, which raised his eyebrow, and got in with my ‘Goyf.

Now he had the second black: Vampire Hexmage. I tapped my Grove. "Sure," he said, and made his 20/20 in response. What could I do? Wasn’t I R/G?

I looked at my deck. Played my fourth land. "Come on little Bloodbraid Elf. Let’s show him a berserk Berserker, shall we?"

Yep. There it was. Dead / Gone. Sorry Marit Lage. You dead. You gone.

The game didn’t take long from there. Lucky Bloodbraid Elf. Good clock.

I looked at my hand for the third. Blood Moon. Dead / Gone. Snap keep.

His first play was a Thopter Foundry. I looked at my Blood Moon. I looked at my Dead / Gone. I wondered, for a brief moment, how I could have been so excited a moment earlier. It didn’t get any better from there.