Library manipulation cantrips are heart of Legacy blue decks, especially most dedicated combo decks. And why wouldn’t they be? Playing with the cantrip cartel provides unsurpassed card quality and consistency to those ready to wield them. The biggest asset, though, is simply that having a lot of library manipulation reduces variance quite significantly.
Given their importance to the format and the fact that the decks that rely on cantrips the most are combo decks like Storm and Show and Tell, it is kind of sad to say that there is no article that covers correct cantrip usage in these decks specifically. That’s a situation I’ll be trying to rectify today.
To Cantrip Or Not To Cantrip
There are two main areas as far as the correct usage of cantrips is concerned: when to cast them and how exactly to use the library manipulation effect. Let’s start with the former, shall we?
How do we know when we should be casting our cantrips? The common wisdom is that cantrips get better the longer you hold them back—which makes a lot of sense. After all, every turn you wait gives you additional information about where the game is going, allowing you to better judge what exactly you’re trying to hit with that Brainstorm or Ponder. With Brainstorm, you even get to store up situationally bad cards to fully profit from the ability to exchange cards in hand for random ones.
All that being said, that’s not how cantrips usually work in fast combo decks. Take a look at these decks, typical examples of the kind of deck we’re looking at today:
- 1 Tendrils of Agony
- 4 Brainstorm
- 4 Cabal Ritual
- 2 Duress
- 4 Dark Ritual
- 4 Cabal Therapy
- 4 Lotus Petal
- 4 Lion's Eye Diamond
- 4 Infernal Tutor
- 4 Ponder
- 1 Ad Nauseam
- 4 Preordain
- 4 Gitaxian Probe
- 1 Past in Flames
These decks don’t use cantrips the way we’ve been conditioned to from playing blue-based (aggro-) control and midrange decks. Setting up a great late game isn’t what they’re interested in—if things go according to plan, there will be no late game. Each of these decks plans to end the game somewhere between turns 2 and 4, and since there is no prize for "still had all deez," slow rolling cantrips is usually just wrong. Instead, the hard and fast rule becomes cast every cantrip you can whenever you can.
The most obvious point for this kind of difference to manifest is the turn 1 Brainstorm. We’ve been told over and over again—and rightfully so, mind you—that Brainstorming on turn 1 during the opponent’s end step is a terrible play. Yet I’ve cast the EOT Brainstorm roughly a million times when Storming and rarely had the impression it was a terrible play—quite the contrary actually. So what gives?
In one word: context.
When you Brainstorm that way, what you’re doing is giving up future value for mana efficiency. By casting that Brainstorm, your turn 1 mana doesn’t go to waste, and all you pay for it is card selection down the road. If your hand is ready to just go for it after making your second land drop—or is at least very close—suddenly the value of better cards down the road becomes essentially zero. Instead, making sure you have the best tools possible available right now matters infinitely more than that extra card you would get to shuffle away later.
In addition, these decks have very few situationally bad cards that will gain value over time—your cards are either good (they help kill the opponent ASAP) or bad (they don’t). There is no "oh, this Show and Tell is pretty bad right now, but maybe I’ll need it later." You can either kill them with it or can’t. If you can’t, you need to dig as deep as possible as fast as possible to change that. If you can, why the heck are you still playing that game?
This is also the key to why you want to use up your cantrips as rapidly as possible; one of your biggest strengths is speed, so wasting mana is a cardinal sin in these decks. Yes, there are situations where you might want to slowroll for a turn (usually when you only have one cantrip) and there definitely is something to be said for playing around Daze, but by and large what you care about is churning through your deck as fast as you can to find the right combination of cards to just end things right there and then.
Everything Has Its Time
Alright, now that we know that we should cantrip at every opportunity, the question becomes which order to use our different cantrips in. On turn 1 with a blue mana available, should you Ponder or Preordain? When is the best point to cast Brainstorm? When you have mana for both, should you Ponder or Preordain first? All of these questions are obviously context-dependent, but there are some general guidelines and common situations that should be helpful.
First, if you’re completely in the dark and without anything else to influence your decisions, the typical order to use your cantrips in is Preordain before Ponder before Brainstorm. This order classes them strictly by power level. Preordain allows you to see up to three cards (assuming you bottom both cards you see) and is least likely to leave your library cluttered for your next draw step. Ponder digs deeper thanks to the shuffle, as that gives you the chance to see up to four cards. This additional ability makes it your best cantrip when you’re missing exactly one particular card for the win.
As for Brainstorm, well, Brainstorm is the difference between a hand of two lands and one that contains Dark Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Infernal Tutor. Finding multiple cards at the same time is powerful enough to trump seeing one fewer card in most situations not involving one specific missing piece.
There are more reasons to cast Preordain first though. You get to see more filtered cards that way—until you shuffle your library somehow, you can be sure that any cards you’ve pushed away as undesirable will not be anywhere near your hand. As such, any draw step—and any additional cantrip for that matter—that happens while the scry is still in effect is (marginally) better than a regular draw step. As such, you want to set this up ASAP.
Preordain is also the best cantrip to use when you’re missing multiple pieces and don’t have any shuffle effects. Both Ponder and Brainstorm tend to leave you with at least one unwanted card on top of your library, so you’d really like to shuffle or win before having to draw that card, meaning you want to cast them as late as you possibly can while still maximizing your digging potential.
As for why you cast Ponder before Brainstorm, well, first and foremost Ponder at least gives you the chance to get rid of the top cards if they’re bad, while Brainstorm will mercilessly force you to draw them again. It’s much more potent to look at your top three, shuffle them away, and draw a card followed by three more new cards than to draw three cards and put two of them back, only to look at those two likely to be useless cards with Ponder and be forced to shuffle. This is easy to see just by the numbers; the first line sees seven cards (three from Ponder, one from the post-shuffle draw, and another three thanks to Brainstorm) and the second only five (three from Brainstorm, another one from Ponder, one after the shuffle).
In addition, Brainstorm’s ability to manipulate the cards already in your hand helps to further reduce the variance of the other cantrips. If you push both cards with Preordain or shuffle with Ponder, you’re pretty much drawing a random card from your deck—and it might be a bad one.
As such, if you’re forced to push and shuffle a lot because the right cards just refuse to turn up, Brainstorm will allow you to retroactively get rid of these random cards for ones that might just be a little more useful.
Now, obviously there are exceptions to these hard and fast rules, but almost all of them depend on additional interactions and specific in-game positions—in particular having a fetchland (or other shuffle effect like Entomb or Stoneforge Mystic) available. One of the most common moments for this to come up is turn 2, so let’s assume you have a blue source in play and a fetchland in hand.
Ponder and Preordain in hand: In this case, you will want to lead with Ponder and cast Preordain second. What that allows you to do is pick the sweetest card out of your top three, get rid of the other two with the fetchland, and set up your future draws by scrying. What if Ponder shows you two cards you want? Well, I guess you get to wait on that Preordain for a turn after all!
Brainstorm and Ponder / Preordain in hand with two blanks: Assuming you don’t have another fetchland, you clearly want to take full advantage of the Brainstorm / fetch interaction to get rid of those two blank cards, so in this case you’ll want to Brainstorm first, fetch and take full advantage of your mana by setting up with Ponder / Preordain afterward.
Note how this changes completely if you don’t have any bad cards in hand; since Preordain and Ponder might both end up handing you cards you don’t need, you’re better off using them first even though you lose the fetchland interaction. I mean, what’s the point of shuffling away good cards, anyway? If worse comes to worst, you can always decide being able to shuffle is important enough to let the one mana go to waste this turn and Brainstorm plus fetch on the next one.
This again comes with a caveat though; if you’re very close to winning or dying, you might want to Brainstorm first anyway. It has the highest chance of hitting the straight nuts (because you can draw multiple good cards), and if you do, the additional cantrips become bad cards to put back in and of themselves anyway!
Another Storm-specific exception involves cracking the fetchland first followed by casting Brainstorm. By putting back a business spell (say Ad Nauseam) and following that up with another draw effect, you can arrange things in such a way as to cast your expensive spell using Lion’s Eye Diamond mana—just sacrifice the LED in response to your follow-up cantrip and you’re ready to rock. Always be on the lookout for unusual situations like these; tricky little plays of this type are what allow you to maximize your win percentage with cantrip cartel decks!
Filthy Manipulation Done Right
Alright, now that we’re aware when to use our library manipulation, what should we be doing with it? The secret to understanding cantrips in fast combo decks is the realization hinted at above that our cards have binary value most of the time—they’re either great or terrible.
Now, obviously you don’t put terrible cards into your deck, so which of these two values our cards have is utterly dependent on which other cards we have access to. A simple example: drawing Emrakul, the Aeons Torn off the top of your library is generally extremely bad. It’s a fifteen-cost brick that’s never going to be cast. However, if you have a Show and Tell in hand, Emrakul suddenly turns into the sickest draw ever because it completes your "combo." Similarly, Dark Ritual is usually a very good card to find with a Storm deck. The forth one, on the other hand, will just be overkill and should be treated as a blank accordingly.
So what does this teach us about actually using our cantrips? Well, if every card we see is either useless or the nutter butters, our goal has to be to collect as many of the nutty cards as possible while getting rid of as many useless ones as we can. How do we do that? By following the cardinal rule of combo cantripping:
Always make sure you see as many cards as you can.
Yes, the basic principle really is that simple. Whenever you wonder which cantrip to use and what to do with it, figure out how many individual cards each line will allow you to look at. As pointed out above, Preordain into Ponder allows you to see more cards than the inverse (first because you remove cards from the pool Ponder might hit by scrying and second because a Ponder that hits will probably leave bad cards on top of your library you’d now have to scry through), so that’s the line you should be going for.
The reasoning here is simple; you’re looking for specific cards that have essentially infinite value (they win the game on the spot) so the more cards you see, the more chances you get to see exactly these insta-win cards. That being the case, why would you settle for less?
As such, make sure to bottom any cards you don’t really need with Preordain whenever you can. Anything that doesn’t really do much should be treated as totally useless because getting rid of it means you get closer to the really important cards.
You can go to quite some extremes with this actually. For example, Jean-Mary Accart—Lejay on mtgthesource.com—suggested the following as the correct way to cantrip in the Omni-Tell deck (he’s one of the original developers). "You’re playing a three-card combo deck. Anything that isn’t a missing combo piece or another cantrip should just be scryed away or shuffled—including lands even when you’re land-light!" (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it)
While I think that approach is a little extreme—and I’m sure he intended it to be to make a point—it captures the spirit of how you should cantrip in a combo deck quite cleverly. Everything you don’t really need is bad, so get rid of it whenever you can. Even with all the cantrips, you will have to face random draw steps at some point, so make sure to get as much advantage as possible whenever you can influence the cards that enter your hand.
Saved By The Cantrip
Finally, there’s an important way cantrips are used in combo decks that doesn’t have anything to do with getting the best out of your own deck: to protect your hand from discard. This usage, as well as a couple of other neat tricks each deck has available to it, is the reason why even decks with as much as eight targeted discard spells and Liliana usually end up dying to Storm or High Tide easily if they don’t also attack from some other axis.
The classic play everybody knows is the Brainstorm in response to Duress. You’ve held back your Brainstorm, and once they cast their discard spell, you simply hide your two best cards on top of your deck. Easy peasy.
The thing to realize here, though, is that there is actually no need to hold back that Brainstorm. You can do this with any cantrip, including a main phase Brainstorm. Remember, you will be getting a draw step next turn anyway, so the top card of your library is already in your hand for all intents and purposes concerning going off next turn.
As such, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of always protecting yourself from discard with your cantrips whenever the option is available. Just figure out the least replaceable combo piece in your hand or in the cantrip you are resolving (be it Show and Tell or Griselbrand, Dark Ritual or Infernal Tutor) and make sure that’s the card you leave on top of your library. I’ve even drawn really bad cards of off Preordain instead of scrying them away just to make sure the top card of my library would allow me to go off next turn even in the face of an untimely Thoughtseize.
While that is quite extreme, allowing your most important card to float on the top of your library instead of drawing it instantly is a good habit to get into since you could always get hit by an unexpected discard spell or Vendilion Clique. Just take care not to overdo it, especially against decks that usually don’t have discard spells. Nothing sucks more than getting blown out by a random Jace fateseal or Surgical Extraction because you were playing around cards your opponent didn’t even have access to.
Aright, end of the line, everybody get off the blue bus. While the basic principles behind what I outlined today may seem simple, making these kinds of decisions turn after turn during tournament play can become mind-blowingly difficult. You need to take into account not only which cards you need and how to find them but also all the possible counterplay that might come from your opponents (to know which cards actually are good cards). While using your cantrips, you have to not only think about your current needs but also contingency plans and possible plays from your opponent that might change the value of your cards from really bad to really good or the other way around. The cardinal rule remains though; the more cards you see, the better you will do!
That’s it from me for this week. Feel free to share any thoughts, observations, and reactions in the comments and correct me if you think I got anything wrong or forgot something. I read every single comment I receive, even if I might be too busy to actually get back to you sometimes.
Other than that, all I’ve left to say is until next time, ‘trip wisely!