There are only nine guilds.
Say there are only nine guilds.
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What is cipher?
The short answer is that cipher is code for encode.
Cipher is a new keyword from Gatecrash that has a little bit of a resemblance to haunt, though the creature can now cast the spell every time it hits an opponent (as opposed to just when it dies). A couple days ago, the first cipher card was previewed, and it's a doozy.
Whispering Madness 2UB
Each player discards his or her hand, then draws cards equal to the greatest number of cards a player discarded this way.
Cipher (Then you may exile this spell card encoded on a creature you control. Whenever that creature deals combat damage to a player, its controller may cast a copy of this card without paying its mana cost.)
Windfall for one more mana? Interesting... But then you always get to replay it every time one of your guys hits someone? It might just be that Windfalling is enough, but the prospect of having a Snapcaster Mage able to cast Windfall whenever he hits is certainly intriguing.
Interestingly, cipher cards are somewhat less likely to be Snapcaster Maged than other spells, as they exile themselves when you use the cipher. Additionally, if you are exiling them as part of the cost (such as with flashback), you don't get to use the cipher ability.
[Editor's note: It's possible that this is incorrect, and you actually can use cipher after flashbacking the spell, as it is not part of the cost. However it is best to wait for the official rules FAQ for Gatecrash to know for sure.]
Rather than try to evaluate the cipher mechanic as a whole, it is probably more useful to evaluate Whispering Madness in its own right. Later, when we have more context, we can properly judge the mechanic as a whole. Let's start by comparing Whispering Madness to Windfall, the closest game text to it.
Windfall was a really powerful card that went on to be restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy, Standard, and Block. Part of what makes Whispering Madness so sexy is that it is only one mana more than a restricted card with strictly better text. This is not enough to ensure its success, however. After all, Recollect wasn't "broken" as a Regrowth for one more. That said, Recollect was decent, and Windfall may be a stronger card than Regrowth.
Something else to consider is how good Windfall actually is. In powered formats with lots of acceleration, Windfall is particularly dangerous for the turn 1 and turn 2 potential as a three-mana Wheel of Fortune. When Windfall was actually printed, there was a lot of acceleration legal. How good would it be now with far less and far less good of acceleration? It is worth noting that five-mana Time Twister isn't even good and four mana Time Twister with a drawback (Diminishing Returns) has been fringe.
What are the closest Windfall variants in recent years? Well, Jace's Archivist lets you tap and spend a blue to Windfall, but a Grey Ogre with a tap ability isn't exactly reliable (though that was a solid card). The closest one-shot spell was probably Slithermuse. For four mana, it let you end up with as many cards as your opponent (which is partially Windfall); however it didn't let you discard your existing cards to draw new ones. It also didn't do the same for your opponent. This means bounce worked much less effectively, as they could always replay their cards, and you didn't get to quickly cycle through your deck looking for more Slithermuses.
One of my favorite things to do with Windfall back in the day was to combine it with bounce. Combo ended up being so good that this was never really a major element of the format before it was banned. However, I did spend a bit of time testing some Windfall / Howling Mine decks that used a fair bit of bounce to great effect, as every Unsummon now "drew" you a card. Additionally, you wouldn't always have to face the same threat next turn. Bouncing land with Boomerang was the ideal plan, an angle of attack we don't really have anymore; however, there are a number of very solid bounce spells legal today.
Unsummon has become industry Standard since Vapor Snag's departure and is certainly a fine option. Unsummon always makes me smile because it is such a ubiquitous staple now and used to never be. It is not like it actually got better. It is just that like Preordain teaching the world to play Ponder in all their random decks, so too did Vapor Snag teach the world to play Unsummon.
Silent Departure is another interesting option since it is worse at saving your own guys than Unsummon, but if you just want to bounce opponent's guys over and over, the flashback is very appealing. I would not be surprised if Silent Departure got the nod over Unsummon in a number of Whispering Madness decks.
The bounce spell that really stands out to me so far is Cyclonic Rift. Cyclonic Rift costing two does make it a weaker tempo play. It also can't even target your own stuff, so no tricks with retriggering comes into play abilities. However, Cyclonic Rift does have two very important features. First, hitting noncreature cards can give us counter play against a variety of difficult threats such as planeswalkers. More importantly, though, Cyclonic Rift's Overload is the perfect combo with Whispering Madness.
One of the risks to a card like Windfall is that your opponent might play out their entire hand. If they do, Unsummon is good, as it draws you a card, but it doesn't actually put you that far ahead. Cyclonic Rift actually lets you get rid of all of your opponent's permanents on their end step then draw that many extra cards.
This combination is so strong that I actually think that it is likely to be the most important Standard combo with Whispering Madness (unless there is an even better combo using a new as of yet unspoiled Gatecrash card). It is just such a perfect way to capitalize on both halves of the combo.
If it's not Cyclonic Rift, it's probably Devastation Tide that puts Whispering Madness to use. Devastation Tide is the other big mass bounce spell, being cheaper but harder to use. It is super sick to be able to miracle it and Whisper in the same turn; however, that does make it hard to play your own permanents (should you have any). Farseek and Ranger's Path get around this, though you could also use cards like Abundant Growth to capitalize on it. The utility of drawing an extra card here and there is somewhat diminished by the surge of cards from Whispering Madness, but it is still a positive.
One of the interesting questions surrounding Whispering Madness is what creatures you would actually use with it. Very few Windfall decks have ever had any creatures in them. Is it possible we'd ever play Whispering Madness without creatures?
Whispering Madness without creatures is functionally Windfall with an extra black in the cost. How good is that? Well, it certainly needs to be tested, but that's no surprise. Historically, WotC is unlikely to ship a busted restricted card reprint without testing the hell out of it (at least lately). However, as we saw with Temporal Mastery, it is possible for these cards to be good.
My gut reaction is that, like Temporal Mastery, this one will find some homes. It won't take over the format like Jace or Primeval Titan, but it will appear in some fringe decks. Honestly, I loved Windfall for value so much back in the day that I can't help but imagine potentially breaking this one, but the objective part of my brain reminds me that it is very unlikely that WotC would ship this one unless they were confident it isn't broken.
When they've shipped broken cards, it is usually because they didn't understand something new, like Jace (a planeswalker costed on a different curve than any before it). This makes me think that if Whispering Madness is somehow busted, it seems like it would have to be because of the cipher ability. It is the only truly unknown element of the card.
The first concept I thought of when considering Whispering Madness was a straight two-color deck that just uses it as a nice little card drawer.
Invisible Stalker is the creature that it seems most people are thinking of combining with cipher. After all, what better creature to encode stuff on than one that is both hexproof and unblockable (ensuring you get to use the ability over and over). I can't help but wonder how many times you actually need to use the ability (the fourth Windfall, etc...), but if you are looking to loop an effect, Invisible Stalker is your guy.
Geist of Saint Traft has also garnered attention, but he seems less good for this purpose. It isn't just that he isn't unblockable, it's that if you are hitting your opponent with a Geist, you are winning anyway. How many times can you even do that without them dying? A Stalker, on the other hand, needs some help.
Mutilate is a curious card in the new world. What is it going to be like when Watery Grave and Godless Shrine are legal? Watery Grave, in particular, seems like an appealing reason to use Mutilate in non-Mono-Black decks. Normally I wouldn't jump to put sweepers in an Invisible Stalker deck; however all the bounce means our opponents will often play several creatures in one turn. Additionally, they can't play around the sweepers or else Whispering Madness will draw more cards.
If a straight U/B Whispering Madness deck does emerge in Standard, I am sure it will look little like this, as it will almost certainly prominently feature a number of Gatecrash cards that have not yet been revealed. Why are we straight U/B anyway? And why are we only using bounce to break the symmetry of Whispering Madness? What about acceleration?
My next thought was to add some acceleration, perhaps Arbor Elf and Farseek, maybe even Ranger's Path. To what end, though? What about Epic Experiment? Maybe you kill with Worldfire (and Pillar of Flame or whatever).
Outside of way too many shocklands, that is just too ragtag a collection of cards. It is worth noting how well Reforge the Soul fits in, though. Once you are playing with tons of bounce, actual Wheel of Fortune become more valuable. Additionally, Reforge the Soul resets your opponent's hand to seven. This is super important against fast decks that can empty their hand. Not only do you get to make your Whispers hit for seven, but you can use bounce after the Reforge to make them hit for eight, nine, ten, or more.
In fact, once you have a bunch of Reforge the Souls and Whispering Madnesses, you start to get to a point where every new hand gives you another draw 7. What I find really fascinating about this whole thing is how fast it causes both you and your opponent to cycle through your decks. It'd be nice to not run out of cards and nicer still to make your opponent run out.
With four Whispering Madness and four Reforge the Soul, it is relatively easy to Wheel of Fortune early and often. If both players go through half their deck, Psychic Spiral is lethal. Even if you don't quite have enough to kill your opponent outright, it restocks your library and takes a huge chunk out of your opponent (making the next draw 7 potentially lethal).
Playing eight Wheel of Fortunes makes Devastation Tide a very powerful tool. Saving the mana is huge, and it actually works with Epic Experiment. Epic Experiment can just kill people when combined with draw 7s and a Spiral, but it can also just be a nice little value card. After all, if you Epic Experiment for five, you are 47.5% to hit a draw 7 and will generally hit at least a couple spells.
It is possible that Arbor Elf is just too out of place here. After all, he does just die a lot, and our mana would be far less painful if we just used more M10 lands. Besides, he doesn't actually combo that great with Epic Experiment. On the other hand, he does provide a creature to cipher (albeit one that is fragile and easy to block).
I wonder if we are supposed to play Reverberate, Increasing Vengeance, or Mystic Retrieval to play up the Epic Experiment angle. Alternatively, what if we aren't supposed to Epic Experiment at all? We could just play eight Wheel of Fortunes and kill people with Spiral without having to Experiment.
Of course, once you are playing 34 sorceries and instants, you can't help wonder about making room for some Ranger's Paths and Epic Experiments. Alternatively, you could make room for Augur of Bolas so that you might get to actually trigger the cipher ability. Augur of Bolas is particularly fun with Devastation Tide, helping keep the cards flowing.
We already talked about the merits of Mutilate in a Whispering Madness deck, and Terminus is even better for this purpose. The prospect of combining a bunch of board resets with a bunch of hand resets is a powerful attack that is unlike anything going on in the format at the moment. It is also interesting to note that it is a strategy that is inherently strong against Sphinx's Revelation, as both Whispering Madness and Reforge the Soul really punish opponents that spend their turn drawing extra cards.
I am not sure how to feel about the Thought Scours above. With so many miracle cards, they should be great, but where do you draw the line? Are we supposed to have Think Twice in here? It is a fine card when you are trying to miracle, but if you start playing draw 7s every other turn, Think Twice is pretty weak.
What about Feeling of Dread? Feeling of Dread is a fantastic way to buy time in miracle decks, but is it just worse than Silent Departure once you add Whispering Madness to the equation? What about Cyclonic Rift? This is definitely the sort of deck where the first few hours of playtesting will produce loud and important results, and I could see moving closer towards it or further away.
Whatever happens to Whispering Madness, I do think Psychic Spiral is one of the most important cards to understand with it. Having to make both players go through half their deck is so natural of a thing to be doing that it makes the Spiral a cheap and compact road to victory. It also increases the value of Slaughter Games again. Obviously there are a lot of victory conditions we can (and will) sideboard, but it does make it harder to win and will eat up space.
Gatecrash is sure to produce other cards that we could take advantage of (especially if we play all five colors), but what we want most is another good turn 2 play (or turn 1). The four Farseek are absolutely crucial to this sort of combo deck, but when we don't draw them, it's going to be rough. If Gatecrash produces another two-mana accelerant, I would immediately start building around it (even if it costs UG or RG). Playing a Farseek doesn't just give you one less card in hand (effectively +1 for Madness), but it lets you play it a turn earlier (generally +1 for Madness because of your opponent getting to play one less card).
Ranger's Path is tricky because it is what you want but is expensive enough that it might be tough to spend your turn doing that. Cards like Terminus help, so maybe we can get away with it. It is really nice that Ranger's Path curves out right to hit Cyclonic Rift next turn. If we have the life, we'd prefer to Rift during our opponent's end step to maximize the number of cards we get from Madness.
One card that is actually a bit dubious is Temporal Mastery. While the card was actually good in old miracle decks, I wonder if Whispering Madness and Reforge the Soul will make it so that too high a percentage of the Temporal Mastery we draw will cost seven. That isn't always terrible, but it might just be better in the current format to cut them to make room for two-mana plays. What about Augur of Bolas? The chump block is nice, and it helps dig to Madness and Reforge.
Another option to buy time is Supreme Verdict. With Devastation Tide, Cyclonic Rift, and Terminus, there is a risk of drawing too many expensive sweepers (and being too vulnerable to haste creatures). What could we play to take the sting out of Aristocrat and Thundermaw? This brings us back to Feeling of Dread, I suppose, but maybe there are better options.
Taking a step back a second, another possible way to exploit Windfall effects is to combine them with Howling Mine (as you'll recall from above). This is because the "drawback" that balances its great power is turned into an advantage. Windfall rewards you for putting cards in your opponent's hand, which is supposed to be the reason it is fair, to get an extra card every turn.
Howling Mine itself is not legal, but it is worth checking out what variants are. Otherworld Atlas is the closest thing. Can we make it work? If we use it as a straight Temple Bell, it is only one turn behind. The nice thing is that we can take just one more turn off to turn it into a Font of Mythos, making for a very powerful effect indeed. The ability to force your opponent to draw cards during your main phase is exactly what you want to be doing with a card like Whispering Madness anyway.
Another possible twist to Whispering Madness is to combine it with lots of creatures. What if we have Avacyn's Pilgrim, Arbor Elf, and whatever the best mana creature in Gatecrash is? We could probably Cyclonic Rift on turn 4 if they don't kill our guys then follow it up with some Madness. Even better, if we have an untapped creature in play, we can potentially Madness twice in the same turn. After all, the Rift ensures they have no blockers, so on our time we Madness, then play a land and a couple more cards out of our hand, then attack and draw again. Remember, Rift means we had seven mana already. If we draw a new hand for four mana, we can still play a land and cast multiple spells. Activating cipher doesn't cost any mana.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of Whispering Madness and cipher. There are so many possible ways to use this card alone, to say nothing of all of the other cipher cards to come. Statistically speaking, it probably won't break Standard, but this is one of the most dangerous types of cards and presents some puzzles that haven't been seen in the modern era. I am extremely excited to work with this one; even if the best Whispering Madness decks are only broken for one weekend, one weekend is all it takes.
What uses for Whispering Madness didn't get mentioned here? There are so many possibilities that it is going to take a while to even figure out what all the options are. What sorts of other effects do you expect to see cipher appear on?
This is one of the most exciting mechanics in a while, and they certainly picked the right card to reveal it with. As fun as Windfalling is, I am also super excited to put encode "draw a card" or "bounce a creature" or "target player discards a card." Free spells basically with buyback? A way to really take advantage of these dorky creatures in our blue decks? A possible source of card advantage for black? This mechanic is one of the most exciting in a while, and it is such a different dimension that it is hard to evaluate just how strong it really is. This makes our job tougher, but it also means there is potentially more reward for being ahead of the curve on deckbuilding.
Gatecrash is just one month away, and already I have that tingling sensation in my stomach, the anticipation of a new world to explore. New mechanics, new Constructed formats, new Draft format, and four new guilds!
Happy New Year!