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SCG Classic – Pondering Brainstorm

Published more than a year ago, this ode to Brainstorm is still incredibly relevant today, on whatever level of the game you are on. Reread this amazing article on proper Brainstorming.

Originally published 7/29/2010.

One of the ways in which Magic players bond is by asking each other quiz-like questions and discussing the results. This is one of my favorite pastimes. These discussions are a chance to flex your brain in a new way while still relating to the game we all love. The debates rage and the conversation pieces are always entertaining. One such question that I have heard a number of times is about the most skill intensive cards in the game.

Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction are always in the conversation. Cabal Therapy is one that is oft touted as the top of the heap for non-Blue spells, but in my opinion it gets beaten out by Sensei’s Divining Top. There are even cases to be made for simple things like tutors and basic removal. The number one card, however, is fairly indisputable as far as I’m concerned. That honor is held by my favorite Magic card of all time. I’m speaking of course, about Brainstorm.

A cornerstone of the game itself, it defined Vintage until it ultimately felt the mighty wrath of the ban-hammer. Or rather, the restriction-hammer. Ponder also got the axe, pretty much just for being too similar to the powerful instant*. Now that Legacy is becoming such a popular format, Brainstorm’s relevance has skyrocketed once again, as it has always been a driving force there. With more and more people playing Legacy competitively, the number of players who do Brainstorm justice is rapidly increasing, but I still feel there is a lot to be learned.

I have stated multiple times, and at different points in history, that Legacy was and is the most skill intensive format available. A very large reason for this is due to Brainstorm’s existence. Well before the first Grand Prix: Columbus, I used to feel like I was in a sort-of secret club for people who knew what they were doing with it. Seeing so many people play with it so poorly, it became increasingly obvious why the same players kept placing so well in every single Legacy event in the area. Before its restriction in Vintage, the same could be said for those tournaments. In today’s article, we’re going to explore the ins and outs of the card.

Why spend an article on one card? Well, let’s see: it is the most skill intensive card of all time, the best card in Legacy, and almost always the most played card. It is the defining card of the format of the GP that is in a couple of days and I feel it warrants some discussion.

Brainstorm is not a cantrip.

Brainstorm is so seemingly innocuous that people often cast it without a second thought. The problem here is that they view it as a cantrip when it is far deeper a card than that. Opt is a cantrip. Serum Visions is a cantrip. Mental Note is a cantrip. This cantrip mentality comes from the old school Nimble Mongoose and Werebear Threshold decks, but the decks of today are a little more evolved than those earlier ancestors. Instead of just trying to burn through our deck and fill our graveyards, we have slightly more complex game plans on which to follow through.

Almost all of the mistakes I see players make with Brainstorm are due to lack of patience. Josh Rayden is a friend of mine who taught me a lot early in my career, and he had a great quote about the power of Brainstorm. He hyperbolically said, “You’re just never supposed to cast it.”

And it’s true. Frankly, the card is too good to be cast.

Brainstorm is a card that is fueled by information; the more you have, the better it is going to be. Imagine that you have a strong hand with a good mix of lands and spells. What does Brainstorm do for you there? Not much, but people cast it anyway. The longer you wait, the more cards you see and the more the game state progresses to a point where you can more accurately tell what you need and what you don’t, and Brainstorm accordingly.

The biggest sin I see Brainstormers make is the naked turn 1 casting. It’s like you neutered your own spell! It used to be that you could Mystical in your second upkeep (or Entomb, which is still possible) and get full value, but now that is no longer the case and players have very little excuse to be wasting their card like that. It almost feels like you are only drawing two cards and putting one back when you do that, which, for context, would be like a one-mana See Beyond that doesn’t shuffle.

You’re only putting one back because you’re going to draw one of your known cards immediately the next turn, and it feels like you’re seeing one less card because if you were to wait a turn, you would draw your card for the turn and THEN dig three deep, seeing one more card than the guy who ran it out there on turn 1.

The reason that people make this mistake is because using all of your mana each turn is a rule that is hammered into our heads time and time again. You know you are going to cast Tarmogoyf on turn 2, so you would have to wait another turn to be able to Brainstorm, right? Well, the way I see it, you say “have to wait” and I hear “get to wait.” Knowing two extra cards and going two cards deeper with the Brainstorm is almost always worth the one wasted mana on turn 1.

Plus, what happens if they play a Tropical Island or a Polluted Delta on turn 1? You have no idea what they are playing against yet, and you want to Brainstorm? By waiting, not only do you get to acquire more information about your own hand and plan, but also about what you are up against. This is important not only because you can more accurately determine what cards to put back with the Brainstorm, but also because most of the lands that they will play that would leave their archetype in ambiguity will also end up changing your line of play.

Think about it; the decks that are obvious right off of the bat will often present themselves as such:

Mountain, Goblin Lackey.

Fetch Taiga, Wild Nacatl.

Plains, Aether Vial.

Land, Mox Diamond, Exploration.

And so on. What I mean is that there are many starts that tell you exactly what you are against. The starts that leave you guessing are often Blue duals or fetches. A Tropical Island could mean a Threshold-esque deck like Canadian Thresh or New Horizons. It could even be a Merfolk deck splashing Tarmogoyf or a slow Lands start. Maybe it’s Aluren or Hypergenesis or a Show and Tell variant. Who knows?

A Blue fetch could mean any of the above, or Storm combo, or Merfolk, or multiple other things.

Waiting helps you determine what archetype you are up against. Also, most of the starts that would leave me wanting more information also set my alarm bells off. All of the sudden I’m not too eager to tap out for a Tarmogoyf on turn 2. If they are playing a distinctive deck that I know doesn’t play Dazes, I can just play Tarmogoyf and get another turn’s worth of information for my Brainstorm. However, against the ambiguous starts (or a distinctive Merfolk start like Island, Vial), there is a high enough chance of Daze being a factor that I become much more comfortable taking the turn back, casually playing a fetch land, and passing again.

So now, even the argument that a turn 1 Brainstorm fits your curve better goes directly out the window in a large percentage of your games because you shouldn’t be playing your two-drop in that spot anyway. My Tarmogoyf didn’t get Dazed, and I have another turn’s worth of information for my match-up as well as the same-turn fetch so that I get the full filtering value off of my Brainstorm versus if I had cast it on one.

Not to mention that if you have to fetch to cast your Brainstorm on one, you could be either bottlenecking your colors to get basics when you don’t have to or exposing yourself to Wasteland when you shouldn’t have.

The timing of Brainstorm is one of the most important skills in Eternal formats.

Besides running it out there on turn 1, players often cast it when they have nothing else to do. This is where it gets even trickier. I have seen skilled players that I respect play their Brainstorms at just about every point on the aggression spectrum. I tend to be very conservative with mine. What I mean by this is that I prefer to wait until the last moment possible to pull the trigger, giving me maximum information and digging the deepest possible. Other players fire much earlier, because if they hit some gas, then they can chain it and parlay that into a significant advantage. However, this is a much riskier line of play, as you are punished dearly if your Brainstorm misses.

By waiting, you open yourself up to additional-use plays with your Brainstorm as well. You see, besides just filtering cards, Brainstorm is a card that has many nuances to it. Subtle plays that can be the difference between victory and defeat. Besides missing out on filter value and potential information, burning one early also shuts off all of these options for later in the game.

The most common of these special hidden abilities of Brainstorm is its Blueness. Pitching a card to Force of Will may not seem like a glamorous special ability on the surface, but play enough games of Legacy and you will see its relevance pop up time and time again. If you burn a Brainstorm and draw into a Sensei’s Divining Top, you have to throw another, potentially more important Blue spell to your Force (or not have one and not be able to counter something). However, if you were more patient and drew the Top naturally, then you could use it for your card selection and still be holding the Brainstorm for any future alternate casting cost counterspells.

Another fairly known use of Brainstorm is to hide your best card or two from discard. Here’s an example that occurred to me in my limited testing for this weekend:

I was playing my Counterbalance Thopter deck against Storm combo. My opening hand had Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, Counterbalance, two Islands, and two fetches. I played a land and passed without playing Top because Counterbalance was my only defense and I couldn’t risk getting it Duressed. Sure enough, he lead with Duress and I Brainstormed into another Brainstorm, an Enlightened Tutor, and a land. I put Top and then Counterbalance back. He took the Enlightened Tutor, and I drew then cast a Counterbalance, knowing my top card was the Top. If I had just played my Top on one, the Duress would have gotten my Counterbalance and I would have had to leave myself open. Also, if I had put a land below the Counterbalance to shuffle away, Duress would have taken my Top and there would be a random card on top from a fetch land instead of a one-mana spell because I put it there, potentially leaving me open on turn 2. Plus, I would have to tutor for another Top.

It’s far more common to hide one good card, say a Force of Will, and burying a junk card below it to be shuffled away, but knowing the spots where it is correct to protect two cards is important.

Brainstorm can also be used to hit a Counterbalance trigger without a Top. All you have to do is hold your Brainstorm instead of using it to dig for a Top. Then, when they cast a spell that you wish to counter and have the appropriate mana cost for in hand, you put the Counterbalance trigger on the stack and Brainstorm in response to it, putting the right casting cost on top before revealing to the enchantment and countering a spell for free.

Brainstorm can also be used to minimize the damage from a resolved Standstill. If you are against a Standstill deck either without a clock or with a very slow one, you can wait until your opponent has 7 or, better yet, 8 cards in hand before cracking the Standstill on their end step with Brainstorm. There are very few proactive instants that you can do this with, just as there are very few proactive instants that they can get value out of on their own end step. What that means is you have turned his Standstill from Ancestral Recall into “Draw 3, discard 2/3”. The problem with using a card like Intuition for this is that if they have countermagic, they can use it on your Intuition and then have to discard fewer cards in their clean-up step, minimizing your capping of their advantage. If they want to burn counters on your Brainstorm, so be it.

An ability of Brainstorm that is known by all is that it can put cards that you need in your deck into your deck. I am not talking about filtering away bad cards, or even dead cards. I am talking about cards that absolutely must be inside of your library for your deck to function optimally. It could be as minor as putting back fetchable lands to turn on later fetches, or as major as putting back a Progenitus so that you can Natural Order for it. While this use of Brainstorm is well documented, players playing decks that have certain cards which need to be in their deck rather than their hand still burn their Brainstorms early. If you register a deck with these types of cards in it, you are officially forfeiting your right to aggressively Brainstorm. You must be conservative with your Brainstorms for fear of burning one and then drawing the key card and having it be stuck in your hand.

As I said earlier, I was taught to hold Brainstorms, and I believe it to be the most optimal approach. It is lower variance and gives you better information than going about it aggressively. That aside, I do believe that flexibility is the key. You need to know when you should be digging, and when you should be patient. As these situations are dynamic and complex, there is no outright rulebook. I do, however, have some of the more obvious signs I look for when considering whether or not to pull the trigger on a Brainstorm.

1 – Do I already have a shuffle effect? If not, I’m almost certainly waiting. Getting stuck with two dead draws is completely unforgivable and often avoidable.

2 – Do I already have two cards I want to get rid of? If not, I am probably waiting. Not having enough cards that warrant shuffling away can be disastrous if you need to use the mana that the fetch land would get you. You either stunt your development by not cracking it, or you basically discard a useful card for no reason by shuffling it away. This principle is often overlooked, as players assume they’ll draw cards that they can put back, but you don’t know that you aren’t going to draw the perfect land-to-spell ratio off of it, so you can’t assume that there will always be garbage to dump. Plus, these are the situations where you will probably just draw three dead lands and have one of those in your hand instead of a Brainstorm.

3 – Do I need to counter something with Counterbalance? If you don’t have a Top yet (a.k.a. you are Topless, colon b) and have Counterbalance in your deck, there is a decently strong pull towards holding the Brainstorm.

4 – Do I need to protect against Duress effects? This is an interesting one because you can actually be in a situation where Force of Will is not worth protecting against Combo, because even if you put it on top, they are just going to kill you in the same turn that you get Duressed. This is negated, however, by having a Top in play or two more draw effects in hand. If you have a Top in play, you can hide a Force of Will and still have instant access to it. If you are going to use a card in hand to draw into it, remember that you need at least two or the Duressing player could just take your draw spell and you would no longer have access to the top of your deck. In these situations, it is defensible to try and Brainstorm aggressively to close the game out before the opponent can put together the pieces. However, I still err on the side of caution more often than not because it is still possible to draw a Top or two draw spells and turn on the Brainstorm hiding trick, or to get the Force of Will Duressed and Brainstorm hoping to spike another. Plus you have to make sure that you still have a card to pitch to the Force after the Duress resolves. These choices are based on complex in-game decisions with a multitude of factors and a decent amount of math. What can I say? The card is skill intensive!

5 – Am I ahead? If I’m ahead or even with my opponent, I am more likely to wait. If you are behind, it becomes more important to catch up before you get steamrolled. However, if you aren’t under a ton of pressure, it still pays to wait.

6 – Will I need this mana? Sometimes I see people Brainstorm and Fetch, then tap the rest of their mana to cast a creature right into a Daze. I know this is more about playing around Daze than about playing with Brainstorm, but I desperately wanted to fit it into the article because it is a really bad play that happens all too often. If you just cast your creature with your fetch untapped, you can Brainstorm and shuffle next turn since they aren’t going to Daze you. And if they do, they just threw away a card**.

7 – Is there an engine in my deck that makes Brainstorm better? With Life from the Loam or Crucible of Worlds active, your Brainstorms become literal Ancestral Recalls, so if you are going to be revving up one of these card advantage engines, then your Brainstorms can be put to better use once they are running.

When you’re putting cards back, even on a Sorcery-speed Brainstorm, think hard about what you are doing. If you’re shuffling right away, the answer becomes much easier; pitch the two worst cards. But if you are going to be drawing one or both of the cards again, then doing it correctly is incredibly important. Either because you don’t have a shuffle effect, or because you are going to refrain from shuffling because the cards in your hand are too good to ditch two of them.

If you are not going to cast your Tarmogoyf this turn but need it next turn, put it on top so it doesn’t get Thoughtseized. It’s so easy to just put the worst of the good cards back on instinct, but then you leave your best card vulnerable to Duress, Thoughtseize, Hymn to Tourach, Vendilion Clique, and Cabal Therapy.

Knowing when the second card down is going to be relevant is important because people miss it since it happens fairly infrequently, but when it does, it is vitally important. Take my previous example with Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top. Even if I didn’t get Duressed, I still would have Brainstormed on his end step and put a one-mana spell below the card I redraw for the turn in order to make sure Counterbalance has an immediate impact.

This article is getting pretty long, and there’s a lot of information to be taking in, so I’ll share my last few notes quickly.

Against Zoo, remember that you can use their Path to Exiles as shuffle effects if you don’t have one of your own.

Using Daze’s alternate casting cost gives you a card back that you can put back with Brainstorm, and a fetchable one at that.

Last, always have a plan. Know what you are looking for with Brainstorm, and what you are going to put back before you cast it. You should know your deck well enough that you can figure out where to go depending on any three-card configuration that comes off the top of your deck, and if you don’t like what you see in your mind’s eye, then there is nothing keeping you from waiting until you have more information. You should also know your exact decklist so you can do some approximate odds on what you are looking for to see if it is worth trying***.

In closing, just remember to be patient with your Brainstorms. Look for spots down the road where you will be able to get more value out of it. Just because it is in your hand and you’re not doing anything else doesn’t mean you should cast it. It’s not like Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s ability, where you have to do it at a certain time. It is an instant, and you only get one chance to use it, so use it right.

I’m out of here like Steve Martin!

AJ Sacher

P.S. I do have a part two to this article planned, but I couldn’t get it done in time for the GP. It will be written at some point, though, and will discuss Ponder similarly, relating back to some of these rules and pointing out key differences when playing with either card. It will also have many example situations where you get to make the play, then read my take on it. Should be a fun exercise and will hopefully illustrate many of the principles discussed across the two pieces.

* Preordain getting a shot may seem contradictory to restricting Ponder and Brainstorm, but the real reason that Brainstorm and Ponder were killed is because Wizards considered them too good at finding broken restricted cards, but without being able to see the third card down before making a decision like you can with the other two, the newly printed card selector was deemed fair.

** Another point to make on this is that sometimes you have to play around double Daze. The situation has to be pretty unique. A lot of people when playing around something just look at the game state as it is and then think to themselves that their opponents might have double Daze. However, putting the read on someone’s hand is about how the game has developed to that point. If you have 6 lands in play and your opponent just Brainstormed and shuffled twice, it is unlikely that he has two Dazes as he would probably have put them back.

*** The percentages alone don’t tell you whether or not a play is worth it. You need to weigh those based on likelihood of success. That is, if I’m 60% to hit a shuffle effect, but drawing dead if I miss, even though I’m favored to get what I want it wil