Part of what makes playing Legacy so intricate is the subtle difficulty of maximizing the value of your cantrips. Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain, and Portent all see play in the format and all do similar things, but those that recognize their differences and how those differences impact gameplay gain a small but significant advantage that compounds over the course of a game, match, and tournament.
Decks with a high density of cantrips and other velocity-granting effects are able to play preposterously low land counts for their curve, a principle first put into practice by Alan Comer and his Turbo Xerox deck over twenty years ago. Additionally, the increased consistency that's granted by seeing more cards than the opponent in an average game gives these decks a lower fail rate. And finally, they're able to diversify their cards, both threats and answers, and play more narrowly powerful effects (especially in the sideboard) and still find these cards consistently even when played in low numbers.
But these advantages can only be realized if the pilot leverages their card selection spells and other cantrips effectively. Every mistimed Ponder or Serum Visions might mean you miss seeing the extra card or two that could make the difference in a game.
Having played Storm in Legacy for a long time, I recognize the value in sequencing card selection appropriately, but never have I played a deck where it was so nuanced and important as it is in the list I took to a first-place finish last weekend at the StarCityGames.com® Open in Baltimore:
This list has twenty spells in the maindeck that can dig for more cards, and four of them come back from the graveyard for a second go. Among commonly played Modern decks, only Storm rivals it in terms of velocity and card selection. But in a format as fast as Modern, you can only spin your wheels with cantrips for so long before you fall too far behind to catch up. This deck is also trying to find and recur Arclight Phoenix or transform Thing in the Ice as quickly as possible - ideally on the first three turns of the game, so utilizing these cantrips to their utmost is essential to realizing the deck's full potential.
For a more basic rundown of the deck, look to my article from two weeks ago . Today I'm going to focus on how to play each of the deck's cantrips so you can be prepared for the Season Two Invitational this weekend. First some general notes:
The Blue Cantrips
Thought Scour is the most straightforward of the deck's cantrips, and that's because there isn't much of a decision to be made. You're going to target yourself over 90 percent of the time and that means you're going to be drawing the third card down. Sometimes you'll target them to clear a card they scryed to the top with Serum Visions or another similar effect, and sometimes your library is so low you can't afford to mill the two cards, but these are corner case scenarios, and it's important to note that one of the common corner cases -Thought Scouring the opponent when there's a Rest in Peace on the battlefield isn't so obvious when you have Crackling Drake in your deck--so let's just assume you're targeting yourself.
Under that assumption, because the result of Thought Scour is deterministic, it's best utilized as the first cantrip in a chain. Knowing you have an extra Arclight Phoenix or Faithless Looting in the graveyard and seeing a new card is extra information you can gain before making important scry decisions off of Opt or Serum Visions or what to discard to a Faithless Looting.
What this comes down to is the principle of optionality. Thought Scour is the card selection spell with the fewest options, and it's better to save your options for as long as possible, ergo Thought Scour is the spell you cast first.
However, this heuristic is only to be used when you're chaining cantrips together. On the opening turns of the game, the cantrips are to be used to set up for explosive turns 3 and 4, and Thought Scour's lack of optionality makes it worse in that regard than Opt and Serum Visions.
When deciding between which cantrips to cast on a setup turn, the critical question to ask is how certain you are of the following turns. Phrased differently, how likely is new information to change your current line of play?
For example: Your general goal is to cast and transform Thing in the Ice or recur as many Arclight Phoenixes as possible by turn 3. If your hand already has the capability to do so, then feel free to cast Thought Scour and go from there. If your hand needs more help than that, then casting Serum Visions or Opt in order to see more cards is likely the better option.
Of course, evaluating your hand is going to change based on the context of the matchup. Finding key pieces of interaction against linear decks should be prioritized, as should finding protection for your threats against control. The rules here aren't rigid, and getting used to the nuances of specific situations will take practice, but as with all things in Magic, it's critical to formulate and execute a specific plan.
That said, you can't have a specific plan if your hand is all cantrips, which is a frequent occurrence with this deck. In this case, and any other where you don't have the tools to devise a specific plan, you'll have to dig hard in order to quickly find the necessary tools. Serum Visions, which sees three cards to Opt's two and Thought Scour's one, is the clear star in this role, and is thus the most frequent cantrip to cast on turn 1 - par for the course in Modern.
In fact, at any point in the game, if you're not planning on casting the cards you draw into that turn (aka you're setting up for a later turn), sequencing Serum Visions last is likely correct. Don't be afraid to main phase an Opt or Thought Scour followed by Serum Visions unless you need to leave open the mana for something else - the extra cards you see will inform your scry decision and maximize your chances of setting up an explosive turn. One of the worst things you can do with this deck (and any other, for that matter) is waste time drawing into cards you've already seen with Serum Visions.
Also, in Izzet Phoenix, one of the best things you can do is cantrip into cards you've already seen with Serum Visions.
" Ross...it can't be the best and worst at the same time. That's now how those words work."
Patience, young padawan. All will become clear in due time.
Consider the case when we're on our cantrip chain turn. It's now or never to return Arclight Phoenix or transform Thing in the Ice, and we don't have the necessary spells to do it in hand. This is a perfect time to cast Serum Visions first, find an extra spell or two, and then Opt or Thought Scour (targeting your opponent!) to draw the next card. Serum Visions is still serving as a set up spell, but it's setting you up for later that turn instead of for a following turn.
This sequencing is particularly important when on an Arclight Phoenix turn, since finding a second copy for your Faithless Looting is immeasurably better than discarding one. One of my most common lines is to cantrip on turn 1, then cast Manamorphose into Serum Visions in to Faithless Looting. Sometimes you miss, but such is life. All you can ask for is that you give yourself the best chance possible.
This deck goes for the latter earlier and more often than any I've ever seen.
The last of this group, Opt, is unique in that it's the only one of the trifecta that lets you choose its replacement among multiple cards. Thought Scour digs deeper in a sense, but that's only for cards that are relevant in the graveyard (or Crackling Drake) so when you're looking for that lethal Lightning Bolt or key counterspell and you only have one shot at it, Opt is the best of the three. As a result, I try to save my Opts as much as possible so I know exactly what I'm looking to draw and what I'm looking to send to the bottom of my library.
That doesn't mean I'm holding back a turn 1 Opt and instead making no play, but I'm always going to cast Thought Scour or Serum Visions over it when I know I'm not casting anymore card selection spells that turn.
As for Opt versus Sleight of Hand, while the latter gives you all the information up front, I've found that being an instant is surprisingly relevant, both for leaving up mana for an interactive spell and for being able to transform Thing in the Ice on your opponent's turn or in response to removal. The addition of Monastery Swiftspear makes instants even stronger by making combat more difficult for your opponent.
Now we move on to the non-blue card selection spells, the two best cards in the deck. Faithless Looting is on the short list of cards facing a potential ban, and it's incredibly important here as the best enabler for Arclight Phoenix.
Faithless Looting doesn't function like the cantrips. It's very important to have cards you want to discard before casting it, much like it's important to have cards you want to put on top of your library with Brainstorm. Because of that, you'll want to exercise the utmost patience before casting a Looting. Every turn brings another draw towards Arclight Phoenix and another chance to cantrip into them, and there's little reason to blow it early since early in the game it leaves you with fewer resources anyway.
Faithless Looting is the only card selection spell in the deck I will waste mana to keep in my hand. Once you have a Phoenix or extra lands/dead cards to throw away than feel free to turn them into something better, but otherwise you should only cast Faithless Looting if you're desperate for a land drop or key piece of interaction.
It's always the last card in my chain on an Arclight Phoenix turn if possible, so as to maximize the number of looks at an extra Phoenix, though if you have two already (lucky lucky) you can cast the Looting earlier and maybe set up a triple Phoenix turn. This is known in the business as...the nuts.
You have a little more leeway with the flashback half on Faithless Looting because three mana is such a steep cost. I'm often willing to cast it regardless of my hand's complexion after a Thing in the Ice on five mana, for example, since it's the best way to set up a transformation on the following turn. But that's only if I'm under sufficient pressure to transform or have the opportunity to close the game out with the seven damage.
One final note on Faithless Looting. When you have a Thing in the Ice and Arclight Phoenix (or two) on the battlefield, casting the Faithless Looting to remove the last counter from Thing (or after it transforms) is best, since you can immediately discard the Phoenix(es) that were returned to your hand and recur them. This can lead to turns where you win the game out of nowhere, dealing ten or thirteen damage against an empty battlefield.
Ah, Manamorphose. Prices don't get better than free, and even for the price, Manamorphose is a great deal. Casting a string of one-mana spells is very color intensive, and while you can take a ton of damage from your lands to find multiple copies of Steam Vents, that's a significant liability against aggro strategies. On the other hand, if you fetch basics, you may be left with more spells of a certain color than you have mana for, and thus unable to maximize your mana. Or worse yet, unable to recur Arclight Phoenix/transform Thing in the Ice.
Manamorphose solves that issue, letting you be more conservative with your lands and still cast your spells. So the trick is obviously figuring out what colors to add. This comes up when you're short on spells and don't know if you'll be drawing blue or red spells off the top. If you have the option to hold off on the Manamorphose in one of these cases then do so, especially if you're casting a Serum Visions, which should set up your next draw.
If you're too tight on mana for that, it's a bit of a guessing game. You can weigh the remaining spells in your deck and go off of that, though I tend to lead towards making blue mana since the blue spells chain together more readily than the red. If you're going for a Phoenix discard, you'll need to leave one red available for Faithless Looting, and against an aggressive deck it may be valuable to leave open more red and try to hit some removal. This is a situation where you're going to get burned for making the right play some portion of the time and all you can do is try to be objective about it and move on.
"Ross, this isn't a cantrip. It's a land. Are you sure you're feeling okay?"
Yes, Spirebluff Canal is a land.
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But! It's a land that influences how you sequence your spells in this deck. When you spend a lot of mana on cantrips, you will fall behind if you don't back them up with powerful effects. The powerful effects in this deck also require you to cast a chain of spells in one turn. It follows that having lands that enter the battlefield tapped are particularly harmful to this deck's functionality.
Playing Spirebluff Canal on turn 4 prevents you from casting Crackling Drake or Thing in the Ice with a realistic threat to transform it immediately or even a hardcast Arclight Phoenix. Every mana counts here, so on turn three, if your plan is to cantrip further, you should try to hold back your land drop if possible. Sequences like Thing in the Ice + Serum Visions don't allow for this because you'd rather get the trigger, but a turn of three cantrips to return Arclight Phoenix may yield a Spirebluff Canal that you'd rather play on turn 3 than whatever and was in your hand to start. Better yet, finding that dual could allow you to freely fetch a basic rather than a Steam Vents to solidify your colors.
There's not much to say about these two. They're the weakest cards in the deck, but a necessary evil since you need discard outlets for Arclight Phoenix. I went with a split with the reasoning that diversification is good when you have a lot of velocity.
Since they're both discard outlets like Faithless Looting, I try to hold on to them when possible, though being two mana makes them less valuable when chaining. I'm more liberal with Chart a Course because it's not card disadvantage to cast, while Izzet Charm being modal makes it more valuable to hold since you never know if/when the Spell Pierce or Shivan Fire modes will come up.
With all the cantrip power in Izzet Phoenix, it often feels more like playing Legacy than Modern. It's remarkable how consistent the deck is, rarely taking mulligans and nearly always finding something powerful to do by the third turn of the game. As much as I think the criticism of Modern being a non-interactive format where both players flip over their top ten cards to determine the winner of a given game is overblown, having a deck with the power to compete against the top draws from other archetypes while rarely giving away free games is a comforting place to be. And it's the power of cantrips that make it that way.