If you’ve been staying current on my articles, you’ve likely started to notice some patterns within my decks. As often as many top tier Legacy decks grow
out of a common core of blue cantrips plus free counterspells or black discard spells plus Deathrite Shaman (or both), my experimental decks tend to follow
some well-worn paths.
Two weeks ago
was hardly the first time I wrote about the Veteran Explorer + Cabal Therapy + Deathrite Shaman (+ Gitaxan Probe, usually) shell, and it won’t be the last.
These cards are powerful, they work toward a common goal of playing Standard-costed cards in Legacy, and they’re disruptive enough to allow a high-curve
deck to survive the early game. Since so many of the underutilized cards in Legacy are higher up on the curve, it stands to reason that many of those decks
want mana acceleration and flexible disruption. If you’re inclined to build decks that look like my Planeswalker Control deck or my Recurring Nightmare
deck, I would recommend investing in those cards – they’ll return their value many times over.
The other core set of cards that I enjoy returning to is the artifact acceleration deck. This one is a little more varied, mostly because there are
multiple ways to build it. No matter what you do, though, you’re probably going to play four Mox Opals.
The “Mox Opal plus artifact lands” core setup is best with a low colored-mana count, a low curve, and cards that are incredibly powerful if played even
just one turn ahead of schedule. I’ve used Mox Opal in Affinity, Auriok Salvagers, and U/B Tezzeret to great effect. The reason why you don’t want
stringent colored-mana requirements in a Mox Opal deck is because the best way to activate metalcraft is to play Mirrodin’s artifact lands.
The artifact lands – while powerful – are not great at fixing colored mana. Realistically, they’re closer analogues to Ancient Tomb than they are to
Underground Sea. Furthermore, once you decide on playing a critical mass of artifact lands, you’re far less interested in playing Brainstorm, since
fetchlands and dual lands are probably not a prominent part of your manabase. As it turns out, the part of Brainstorm that makes it good is “the Legacy
experience”, aka shuffling your deck once per turn.
Brainstorm isn’t great in Mox Opal decks for two reasons. The first, as I just detailed, is that they don’t shuffle their deck that much. The second is a
little more nuanced, but it explains quite a bit about proper Legacy deck construction. I’d like to delve into that reason a bit more, as I think there’s a
lot to talk about.
This is going to sound like the most obvious thing in the entire world, but Brainstorm costs one blue mana. In order for a deck to want to cast Brainstorm,
it has to be willing to trade the time it takes to cast Brainstorm (the expense of that blue mana) for card selection. If that trade is worthwhile,
Brainstorm is very powerful. If that mana could have been used to play a card that impacts the board or to play a three-drop instead of a two-drop, it
might not be such a bargain. To better understand this, I want to use an example from several years ago, when the community tried to put Brainstorm in a
deck that didn’t want it.
Back when Merfolk was good, people used to ask if Brainstorm could be fit into Merfolk. In a very basic sense, it was a great question – here was a
successful blue deck that didn’t play Brainstorm! Wouldn’t it be improved by adding the best card in Legacy? Surely everybody must be missing something –
it can’t be right to just not play Brainstorm in your basic Island deck.
It was entirely correct to not play Brainstorm in Merfolk. For starters, the manabase was shaky on blue mana – decks tended to play twelve or thirteen
basic Islands as their blue sources and regularly missed being able to cast a Lord of Atlantis on turn two. Adding in fetchlands in an era where everyone
was playing four Stifle would have been suicidal.
Next, you may have noticed that I brought up casting Lord of Atlantis on Turn 2. That’s because Merfolk is full of Grizzly Bears and Gray Ogres. Sure, they
all have a Glorious Anthem attached to them, but you’re probably not winning a late game by drawing 2/2s for two off the top of your deck. Merfolk wanted
to end the game by Turn 7 or 8. Casting Brainstorm early doesn’t figure into that plan very well. Casting creatures early – and getting as many as possible
onto the board as quickly as possible – was the main modus operandi.
Brainstorm is often lauded for its ability to mitigate flood. Merfolk, however, had precious few lands that it wanted to get rid of. Instead of using
Brainstorm to mitigate flood, it used Mutavault and Wasteland. It could easily use all of its mana every turn and win on Turn 4 or 5. Brainstorm doesn’t
figure into that very well, especially if part of that game plan involves hardcasting multiple double-blue two-drops.
Let’s jump forward in time and think about Brainstorm in, say, Affinity. Before you tell me that Merfolk and Affinity are nothing alike, allow me to draw
– Twelve blue sources (Island vs. Mox Opal, Springleaf Drum, and Seat of the Synod)
– Curve-out aggressive strategy aimed at ending the game quickly
– Extant flood protection (Wasteland/Mutavault vs. Arcbound Ravager/Cranial Plating)
– No game-breaking card to draw into
In order for Brainstorm to be good, you have to ask yourself some questions about your deck. I would recommend considering the above four points:
1. How easily can I cast Brainstorm plus the spell I want to Brainstorm into?
2. How aggressive am I? Do I have time to cast this?
3. How useful is my manabase? When I draw six lands, what do the last three do?
4. What am I hoping to draw with Brainstorm? If you don’t have a clear answer, question whether Brainstorm is what you’re really looking for. If you have
the same answer every time, question whether you want a cantrip instead of a tutor.
Even though Hall of Famers may conflate Merfolk, Affinity, and Delver Tempo decks as “aggressive decks”, Brainstorm is worthless in two and incredible in
the third. Falling prey to narrow and loosely-defined taxonomies like “aggro” and “control” and “combo” decks misses a lot of what’s going on. Now that we
know what to look for in a deck that wants to cast Brainstorm, let’s see whether a tempo deck wants Brainstorm:
1. How easily can this deck cast Brainstorm + the spell it wants to cast?
Very easily – almost all of the deck’s spells cost one mana or have a zero-mana alternative casting cost. Almost no options are lost by casting Brainstorm.
2. How aggressive is this deck? Does this deck have time to cast Brainstorm?
This is where my opinion has diverged from others’. I don’t believe that Delver decks are necessarily aggressive. It is certainly possible for
them to open on a Delver of Secrets and use all of their resources to protect it and stunt opposing development while Insectile Aberration attacks six
times. That is not the sole goal of the deck, otherwise it would play Wild Nacatl instead of True-Name Nemesis.
Delver of Secrets decks want Brainstorm precisely because their cards are incredibly efficient at trading on a one-for-one basis with opposing strategies.
While it rope-a-dopes an opposing player, treading water while Dazing a Hymn to Tourach or Swords to Plowshares-ing a Tarmogoyf, it’s looking for the angle
along which it’s going to win the game.
Maybe it’s going to cast Stoneforge Mystic with three mana up against a hand full of Spell Pierces and Dazes. Maybe it’s going to slam True-Name Nemesis
against a hand full of targeted removal. Regardless, it both has the time to maneuver the game into that state and wants Brainstorm to find the exact
combination of cards that it needs to execute its plan. That strategic versatility is fairly atypical of decks in general.
Gerry Thompson has spent untold hours looking for “the next Thopter Depths” – a deck that could win on turn two with a 20/20 token, play a grinding,
attrition-based game on the back of Thirst for Knowledge and Dark Confidant, or play to an inevitability endgame with Thopter Foundry and Sword of the
Meek. Twin-Blade was that deck for a while – it could close games on turn four with Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin; it could set up nigh-unbeatable
board positions with Squadron Hawk, equipment, and creature-lands; it could trade resources and reload better than anyone else; and it could play an
inevitability-oriented long game based on leveraging the power of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Delver of Secrets decks definitely have the time and inclination to cast Brainstorm.
3. How useful is my manabase? What happens when I draw a bunch of lands?
Delver of Secrets decks have a lot of ways to use extra lands. They are all fundamentally based around putting opponents in a mana vise with Wasteland,
Daze, and Spell Pierce, with RUG Delver typically taking things a step further and using Stifle to blow away fetchland activations. Being able to convert
excess lands into zero-mana uncounterable Stone Rains is a great deal. What else can be done?
To continue using the case of UWR Delver, the curve can go up a bit to accommodate the addition of True-Name Nemesis and Batterskull. The third land is
useful for Nemesis and the fifth land can be useful for hardcasting Batterskull. These additions both necessitate twenty lands and mitigate the increased
mana flooding that comes with a low-curve deck and twenty lands.
Beyond Wasteland, however, the manabase doesn’t do anything. It casts three colors of spells. After you get a Volcanic Island and a fetchland in play,
you’re generally pretty interested in Brainstorming away your extra lands. Converting lands into spells is an excellent way to spend a mana. To compare
In Delver decks: Brainstorm + Scalding Tarn + Tundra turns into Daze, Spell Pierce, and Lightning Bolt.
In Merfolk: Brainstorm + Mutavault + Cursecatcher turns into Merrow Reejerey, Lord of Atlantis, and Silvergill Adept.
The Delver deck can trade all three cards for three opposing cards that same turn with two available mana, making the Brainstorm a veritable Ancestral
Recall. The Merfolk deck will need two or three turns to get their marginally-better cards in play, at which point they have situational value. The
comparison between Brainstorm and Ancestral Recall is at its most apt, therefore, when the cards that Brainstorm draws are immediately available and worth
a card or more in the current game state.
Creating those “Ancestral Recall” situations therefore requires a deck filled with efficient and highly-fungible cards. Lands are of polarized value in
Delver of Secrets decks, whereas they are of fairly consistent value in many other decks – a Merfolk deck can use its fourth and fifth lands to cast a
spell and activate an ability in the same turn, whereas a Delver deck wants to use its fourth and fifth lands as Brainstorm fodder.
When you understand this concept, it becomes clearer why something like Nic Fit doesn’t want Brainstorm. If your deck wants to tap six mana and cast a card
that costs six mana – Broodmate Dragon or Yosei, the Morning Star or whatever else – then what are you Brainstorming away? What are you giving up by
playing Brainstorm? If you cast Brainstorm with six lands in play and draw your big six drop, what have you really accomplished by casting Brainstorm? A
Delver of Secrets deck may want different things every time it casts Brainstorm, but it can both draw and cast them in a timely manner once a skilled pilot
figures out their needs.
4. What are you trying to draw with Brainstorm?
A classic example of when not to include Brainstorm in a deck is when playing something like Zoo. Imagine your decklist:
And so on. You cast Brainstorm on Turn 3 with your godawful manabase and draw two creatures and a land. You put back a creature and a land and cast two
one-drops. In what way is your turn superior to just casting three one-drops? If you’re worried about flooding out, play Sylvan Library or Fireblast. If
you’re worried about drawing situational cards, stop putting those in your Zoo deck. If you’re worried about having dead cards going long, consider playing
a deck with a higher baseline power level than “cast Loam Lion, go.”
I want to hone in on that last part of that sentence. If your deck doesn’t have a high-power card to dig to, you should seriously question your decision to
play Brainstorm. Here’s what you can do with Brainstorm in some of Legacy’s most powerful decks:
– Draw Entomb
– Draw Show and Tell
– Draw Stoneforge Mystic
– Draw three cards that all trade for your opponent’s cards, except they’re paying six total mana and you’re paying two or three.
– Set up Delver of Secrets for a guaranteed transformation
If you don’t have interactions like that, reconsider playing Brainstorm. If your goal is to end the game quickly and you don’t have something gamebreaking
hiding in your deck, just play more cards that end the game quickly. Brainstorm helps you sculpt a game plan based on an informed read of the situation. If
your deck doesn’t allow for modal decisions based on changes to the game state – you’re playing Merrow Reejerey or Loam Lion, for instance – then you
should be building your deck toward maximum redundancy, not maximum modality. However, that’s not the only situation in which the contents of your deck
should steer you away from Brainstorm.
Many Legacy decks are filled with conditional cards – Daze is good early, bad late. True-Name Nemesis is bad early, good mid and late. Brainstorm and
Ponder exist to balance those decks’ draws so that they don’t choke on a hand of True-Name Nemesis, two equipment, and some lands. While that hand would be
fine on Turn 4 of a stable game, it’s pretty rancid on Turn 1.
By contrast, you can build decks so that cards are valuable at all stages. Constructing a deck in this fashion tends to involve cutting down on the number
of “nut draws” available, but it seeks to create greater consistency throughout a longer game.
For example, in the Recurring Nightmare deck from last week, Brainstorm would be a pretty bad card. It’s rarely clear whether or not the deck wants more
lands or fewer lands, whether the six-drops are better in hand or in the deck or in the graveyard, and whether Entomb is great or just another Bloodghast.
Because the deck is built to be able to eke out value at all stages of a card’s lifetime, Brainstorm doesn’t create as much value as it does in a deck
where the values of cards are more polarized.
If we look at traditional Reanimator, however, it’s clear that that deck knows when it wants certain spells. When it draws those spells at the wrong times,
they should very clearly be shuffled away. There’s no support structure for spare Entombs – the second copy doesn’t get a Cabal Therapy or a Bloodghast, it
can’t be used to sacrifice Veteran Explorer and make the in-hand monster castable. Reanimator doesn’t want to play a game with sixes and eights – they want
to play a game with aces and deuces.
I hope this article helps you understand what kind of deck you’re building before you bring it to a tournament. Good luck!