When people talk about eternal formats (legacy and vintage) it is often said that Force of Will is “the glue that holds the format together”. Today, I’d like to spend some time talking about the glue that holds Force of Will decks together, namely cantrips. Cantrips were originally introduced in Ice Age, where spells had the text “draw a card at the beginning of the next turn’s upkeep” (slowtrips). From Weatherlight forward, they have been printing them as just “draw a card” (cantrips). Cantrips cost between 0 mana and a lot of mana (like 7 or more) and many of these cards have seen play, especially in limited, because a card that replaces itself is potentially very powerful. On one end, a card like Mishra’s Bauble is almost like playing a 56-card deck, on the other, Ember Shot is a cantrip Lightning Bolt but it is terribly unplayable because it costs SIX extra mana! Six mana is not the right amount of mana to pay for the effect ‘draw a card’ and neither is five mana (if you want to use Lightning Strike or Searing Spear as your yardstick instead of Lightning Bolt), but in this day and age, every color, especially blue, can cost the effect ‘draw a card’ at less than one mana.
In eternal formats, the only cantrips we really care about are the ones that cost 1 mana. Now, there are plenty of one mana cantrips that don’t see play in eternal formats (the wisps from Shadowmoor are a good example), so to be good enough for eternal formats, they can’t just draw a card, they have to do something useful. Let’s take a look at the cantrips that are seeing play, talk about the cantrips that they might print in the next few years, and how they would affect the formats.
The first and arguably the most important cantrip wasn’t even technically a cantrip, Brainstorm. Brainstorm was originally printed in Ice Age and wasn’t considered a cantrip/slowtrip because it just didn’t really seem like it did the same thing as a cantrip. Drawing three cards was great, but when you had to put two back and you knew the next two draws, it created a lot of awkward gameplay. Then in October 2002 that all changed with the printing of Polluted Delta and the other fetch lands. Suddenly you could draw three cards, put two bad ones back, and then either choose to draw one of them before shuffling the other away, or simply just shuffle them both away and see a new card immediately. Brainstorm combined with fetch lands is actually better than card selection, because it allows you to trade cards you’ve drawn in previous turns that you don’t need for new ones, rather than just getting to pick one out of N cards to keep. Brainstorm combined with the next card I’m going to talk about (Ponder) is so good at finding cards you need (perhaps restricted ones, ex: Ancestral Recall or Yawgmoth’s Will) that they were restricted in Vintage in 2008. Their reason was that gameplay was too repetitive. It was too easy to find the overpowered restricted cards, and games could often be won or lost by the first person to start resolving busted cards (because often one busted card leads to another). Brainstorm didn’t get banned in Legacy because the power level in that format is flatter; all the cards like Ancestral Recall and Yawgmoth’s Will are banned, not restricted. At this point, I think it would be criminal to not play Brainstorm if you can cast it, and the same is true of Ponder.
Ponder is in some ways better than Brainstorm and in some ways worse. Ponder can see a 4th card when you are looking for something specific, but there’s no putting back extra lands you don’t need. Ponder and Brainstorm both interact well with fetch lands by allowing you to shuffle away the cards you don’t need. The interaction between Ponder/Brainstorm and fetch lands is skill intensive though because if you crack your fetch lands at the wrong time you can end up either being forced to draw a card you didn’t want (if you broke it too early) or being forced to shuffle away a card you did want (if you broke it too late). Even though Ponder and Brainstorm are very skill testing cards to play correctly, they are heavily played if not auto includes in decks that can cast them.
Next up is Predordain, printed in Magic 2011; it made a big splash in eternal formats (especially vintage) two years after the restriction of Brainstorm and Ponder. Overnight we had another strong unrestricted cantrip a year after Thirst For Knowledge was restricted and blue decks, especially combo decks, got a big boost. Scry 2, draw a card isn’t as exciting as either Brainstorm or Ponder, but it has the advantage of not needing fetch lands to be outstanding. While I’m not interested in talking a lot about the third eternal format (Modern) it is worth mentioning that both Preordain and Ponder are banned in that format for being too good at finding combo pieces and smoothing out draws, but Serum Visions is legal. It might be hard to imagine, but two spells that have the same 2 pieces of rules text (Scry 2; Draw a card) can have such radically different power levels. Serum Visions was never considered strong enough to see Vintage or Legacy play, but it sees a ton of Modern play. Based on its performance in Modern and the process of writing this article, I’m wondering if during the dark few years between the restriction of Brainstorm and Ponder and the printing of Preordain if we shouldn’t have maybe been trying more Serum Visions, especially in the decks that were playing Strategic Planning for lack of better options.
Rounding out the blue playable cantrips is Gitaxian Probe. Looking at the power level of its effect (look at your opponent’s hand) it isn’t strong enough to be in a Legacy or Vintage deck. Peek, which has the added benefit of being an instant, wasn’t good enough except perhaps in Gro-Atog, but having the option to pay 2 life instead of one blue mana makes all the difference in the world. A zero mana spell that draws a card and does something useful is just fine in two types of decks. First, decks that really wish they could just play less than 60 cards (like the Mono Blue Belcher deck), and second decks that can make use of either the effect (Mono Blue Belcher also likes to see if the coast is clear), or the fact that a spell was played (Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor).
That rounds out the big 4 cantrips that are seeing play, and unsurprisingly all of them are blue. The last ‘cantrip’ I want to talk about in eternal is Sensei’s Divining Top. It doesn’t see nearly as much play as the other 4, especially in Vintage, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about it. Top is an odd duck plain and simple. While Top will let you see an extra card (just like a cantrip) it takes a little work and a lot more mana to really abuse it. But unlike the blue cantrips, it can continue to smooth out draws and dig for important spells for many turns. Top has really high highs, being the best of the five, but because of all the mana and fetch lands required to really abuse Top it is the least played.
So what would happen if WoTCH decided Vintage decks have too much card selection available and restrict Preordain as well or if WoTC just decided Brainstorm, Ponder, and/or Preordain are unhealthy for Legacy? As we saw in Modern, the blue and combo decks got worse compared to the rest of the field, but not prohibitively so. Serum Visions, Sleight of Hand, and Gitaxian Probe do good work in that format, plus we still have Top unlike Modern (where it is banned for time/tournament reasons). In Legacy, it looks like nearly all of the top decks are blue based, so hitting them all with a nerf bat might increase the number of non-blue decks that are competitive. In Vintage, we will just start our decklists with another auto include restricted card and move about our business, because I doubt Preordain is really what is keeping the Workshop decks down.
But it makes me think, maybe the reason we see Preordain restricted won’t be on a whim, it’s when they print another blue cantrip that is good enough to see play and it is decided that 1 Brainstorm, 1 Ponder, 4 Preordain, 4 new cantrips, 4 Gitaxian probes, is too much. So I thought I would talk about what they might print in the future and what would be good enough to start seeing play in Vintage.
Because anything they print from now on will be legal in Modern, I believe Wizards R&D is going to err on the side of not printing new cards they know they are going to have to ban in Modern, even if the card isn’t too powerful for Standard. This makes sense to me because if Standard can use/needs a 1 mana blue cantrip on the power level of Preordain or Ponder, why not just reprint Preordain or Ponder? What are they going to print, “Scry 3, draw a card”? “Scry 2, Draw a card, Scry 1”? Either of those would be absurd. So would “Look at the top 3, put one in your hand and the rest somewhere else” (graveyard, top of library, bottom of library, exile) that is a two mana effect (see Strategic Planning, Telling Time, Anticipate). Maybe black could get that with a life payment, but I doubt they will recost any of these cards to single blue. I also doubt they will recost a spell like Desperate Ravings (draw two, discard one) to single mana, even without the flashback. So what design space is left?
Opt is already ‘Scry 1, Draw a card’ and it absolutely isn’t good enough for Legacy or Vintage, but it could see some play in Modern if it was reprinted. Thoughtscour is fine for Modern because it lacks better options, but is woefully inadequate in decks that don’t care about getting extra cards into graveyards.
One spell that crossed my mind is what I call ‘Mini-Brainstorm’ – ‘Draw 2, put one on the top of your library’. It’s simple, elegant, clearly less powerful than the original, but still replaces itself, gives you card selection and dollars to doughnuts it would be played in Vintage, maybe even instead of Preordain. It is stronger with fetch lands, so it would not be as good in Standard than it would in the eternal formats, but it might not be too good to be immediately banned in Modern.
I briefly considered ‘Super Serum Visions’ which was ‘Draw a card, Scry 3’ but dismissed that as probably too good for Modern and too close to Serum Visions, and if they want a better Serum Visions why not just use Preordain.
Next up was a better Sleight of Hand, ‘Look at the top two, put one in your hand and the other on the top or the bottom of your library.’ The option to choose where to put the second card dramatically improves Sleight of Hand. This effect isn’t as good as Preordain because you can’t choose to get rid of both cards and take a third unknown card, but it’s a lot closer. I don’t see this card any Legacy play unless something better gets banned, but the printing of a card like this could get Preordain and maybe even this restricted in Vintage because it is “good enough”. Just like with Mini-Brainstorm, it might be unhealthy for Modern, but I also don’t know if they would kill this card just because it might be unhealthy for Modern.
Unfortunately there just aren’t a lot of effects they can cost at less than one mana to add to the effect ‘draw a card’ to make a new cantrip, at least not in blue. Sure they have Leap and Fleeting Distraction, but neither of those are useful effects for eternal decks.
My last thought was a compromise between Serum Visions and Preordain: ‘Scry 1, Draw a card, Scry 1’. It’s not as good as Preordain, but is much better than Serum Visions. Maybe when scry comes back again we will see this card, but it also might be more complicated than they care to print, and they’d rather just choose either Serum Visions or Preordain and reprint it.
In conclusion, I think that any new blue one mana cantrips that they print will be strictly worse than Preordain because of Modern. If they print something close to Preordain (but not Preordain) WoTC may decide to restrict a few more one mana blue spells because the ability to play 10 or more Predordain quality card selection cantrips is too degenerate and unhealthy for Vintage, but only time will tell. Thanks for reading.
The mini-brainstorm would be busted in Modern. I hope they print it! But I am quite confident it would be banned. It's much better then Preordain in Modern, with fetchlands.
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