With Apologies to Gitaxian Probe: On Snapcaster, Cantrips and Brainstorm

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Many Magic players have a tendency to be competitively minded. This impacts their attitude as they approach a game as well as their attitudes about winning and losing. Perhaps more importantly, this impacts the way that they think and talk about the game.

There are a lot of players that care more about believing that they’re already right than they do about learning new things. This is most commonly demonstrated in the use of results-oriented thinking; that is, a player asserting that they did something correctly because they won a game by doing so.

I won't tell anybody.

It would be nice to believe that we know everything. Nobody can deny that it feels good to know and understand things. Additionally, awareness of things that we don’t know can prove maddening. The problem being that the things that we don’t know far outnumber the things that we do.

Players are frequently reminded that in every game that they lose, there is something they could have done differently. They are less often reminded of the things they could be doing better when they’re winning.

Some of the best Magic cards end up being the most commonly misplayed. The reason being that it’s easy to win when you draw three Bloodbraid Elfs, even if you play them all sub-optimally. Of course, the nuances of playing Bloodbraid Elf and winning Jund mirrors are a bit dated. Currently, the best cards that I see frequently misplayed are Snapcaster Mage and Brainstorm.

The two share a common problem, and that is that they almost always generate some sort of value. So long as a card replaces itself, it’s difficult for many to comprehend that it was wasted.

Let’s start by looking at Snapcaster Mage, specifically in UW Delver.

The Snapcantrip

I frequently see it posited that what pushes Snapcaster Mage over the top is the ability to flashback Ponder, Gitaxian Probe and Thought Scour. This is somewhat true, but not for the reasons that I see backing this claim. These are all fine Snapcaster targets, but they're generally worse than just flashing back relevant cards.

Snapcaster Mage flashing back Gitaxian Probe on turn two is just a glorified Elvish Visionary that costs two life. This play is hardly intrinsically good. It can be strong when the first Probe shows that your opponent is going to be getting a slow start and your hand is incapable of otherwise applying pressure. Alternatively, I like the play when the first Probe tells you that you need to draw something quickly. For the most part, though, I dislike throwing away a Snapcaster like this when either player’s hand is good.

If my hand is good, why do I need the cantrip? If their hand is good, won’t I need to rebuy a spell stronger than one that gives me information I already have? Perhaps one like Vapor Snag or Mana Leak that actually interact with them. If I don’t have any such cards, then the cantrip is clearly the best option, but it’s far from ideal.

On top of that, how relevant is the 2/1 body, really? Sure, he does the same work as any other creature when equipped, but until that can happen he mostly just dies to half of a Strangleroot Geist or one-quarter of a Lingering Souls.

The reason that cantripping with Snapcaster is good is that it adds to the card’s modality. Unless you’re in the market for something random, a cantrip is the least powerful thing that can be flashed back.

Let’s take a look at an example of lack-luster Snapcastering.

Early last month Todd Anderson posted video from a daily event with Gerry Thompson’s Angel Delver.

In game one of round two of the daily, Todd keeps a very strong hand on the draw, if slightly mana-light. He Probes his opponent on turn one and sees that his opponent has kept a speculative (see: weak) hand with a Ponder. Todd plays a Delver and passes.

On his opponent’s turn two he casts his Ponder, doesn’t shuffle and then pays life to Probe Todd. On Todd’s turn he plays Snapcaster Mage and flashes back his Gitaxian Probe. This is the exact play that ends up costing Todd the game.

Among the two cards that Todd’s opponent had drawn since Todd’s first Probe was a Geist of Saint Traft, which Todd could have easily Mana Leaked had he not cantripped so aggressively.

Not only did he not respect the possibility that his opponent could draw Geist, he also cantripped in a position where it simply made no sense. He was ahead on board, he had already drawn his third land and saving the Snapcaster Mage until after he spent his Mana Leak would very likely lock his opponent out of the game.

Throughout the rest of the game Todd continues to use Snapcasters and Restoration Angels to cantrip where it’s arguably wrong, but I think that these plays are largely irrelevant in comparison to his hyper-aggressive turn-two Snapcaster-Probe.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that flashing back a cantrip with Snapcaster Mage is akin to putting two +1/+1 counters on a creature with Jund Charm: while it is a powerful ability, it is generally going to be less powerful than the card’s other modes.

Now, let’s move on to some trickier business…


If you haven’t read AJ Sacher’s Pondering Brainstorm, then do yourself a favor and give it a read. Then read it again. Then go play a few rounds of Legacy. Then read it a third time.

For as much attention as Brainstorm get,s it is still played incorrectly far more often than correctly. Again, this is largely because it’s an immensely powerful card that always replaces itself.

Generally, it’s best to be patient with your Brainstorms. If your life total is relatively high, there’s no reason to aggressively dig for the Swords to Plowshares to kill your opponents Delver. That said, a player will be rewarded for their impatience relatively often considering just how powerful drawing three cards is.

There are a lot of ways to Brainstorm improperly, but the one that irks me the most is probably burning one to flip a Delver. For starters, this play shows an utter disrespect for the fact that the Delver deck is roughly 50% Instants and Sorceries. RUG Delver is built so that your Delvers are going to flip a lot. Have a little faith.

What makes this play especially bad is that it’s really not that different from casting an Unholy Strength. I understand that Unholy Strength doesn’t replace itself, but if the Brainstorm that you used to flip your Delver doesn’t find you another Brainstorm, then it hasn’t exactly replaced itself either. It is the most powerful card in RUG Delver and it’s really not close.

As AJ clearly states in his article, “Brainstorm is not a cantrip.”

When a player considers it to be one, their play and card evaluation slips drastically.

For the life of me I do not understand why Thought Scour is still played in RUG Delver, and this is coming from a guy who played Mental Note in early incarnations of the deck.

Basically, the card is seen as the 9th-10th cantrip, but it’s actually the only true cantrip in the deck. Brainstorm and Ponder both net you more than one card of value.

Thought Scour is essentially a do-nothing. It interacts well with Brainstorm, Ponder, Nimble Mongoose and, to an extent, Delver, but what does it actually do as a singular card? Unlike Brainstorm and Ponder, it does little more than Cycle.

Let’s take a look at a few hands:

The first and second hands are dramatically better than the third.

The Brainstorm in the first hand allows you to shuffle away either the Lightning Bolt or the Spell Pierce if they turn out to be irrelevant, or just lets you wait until your opponent does something that you need to react to at which point it does a pretty good Ancestral Recall impression.

The Ponder hand will potentially leave a dead card or two stuck in your hand, but the Polluted Delta means that the Ponder itself will likely be good.

The Thought Scour hand is extremely borderline. It basically leaves you at the mercy of the top of your deck if your opponent can deal with your Delver of Secrets. Of course, the Thought Scour could be anything. Even another Thought Scour!

For the most part, I feel that there are too many strong, prevalent decks in Legacy right now to play a crappy cantrip like Thought Scour. Reanimator demands that you play plenty of counters. And the presence of Maverick and Merfolk to counter the presence of Reanimator demands that you play plenty of removal. There just isn’t room for the card anymore.


I love drawing cards as much as… well, probably a lot more than the next guy, actually. However, you don’t win the game by cantripping. Of course, a player can win plenty of games in which they cast bad Snapcasters and Brainstorms simply by virtue of how powerful these cards are.

They’ll win a lot more by casting them well, though.

-Ryan Overturf

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