The Ultimate Guide to Cryptic Command
- Filip Skórnicki
Cryptic Command has always been a part of Modern, albeit important to different extents. It's been a tool of control decks for a very long time, performing a key function as both interaction and card advantage. Let's explore the card fully and unlock all of its potential for beginners and advanced players alike!
Cryptic Command is my second favorite card of all time, just behind Beta Island, and I refuse to play any Modern deck without it. This is what it looks like. Let's first break down all the modes and talk about them in depth, in the order that the card text lists them.
Counter Target Spell
Arguably the most often used mode of Cryptic Command. It's a way to stop opponents from resolving a key spell and impede their game plan. Obviously, a four-mana counterspell sounds terrible on rate; it would be completely unplayable. In Modern specifically, where the format is rife with one- and two-mana threats, countering one of them for four mana sounds like, and indeed is, a huge tempo loss. Trading down on mana like that is akin to a partial Time Walk in our opponent's favor: for example we spent our entire turn four to counter effectively only half of their turn four.
Return Target Permanent to Its Owner's Hand
This mode is very wide in its application. The first thing one should keep in mind is that it returns any permanent to its owner's hand—there is no restriction whatsoever. Bounce effects sometimes only allow you to return a permanent you don't control, or one you do control, or they limit the selection to nonlands, but not in this case. This lack of boundaries translates into a few key aspects in practice.
It can bounce your stuff.
This point is quite broad. First of all, you can save your key permanents from a removal spell. Additionally, it can reset a value creature or planeswalker such as Narset, Parter of Veils, Snapcaster Mage, or Ice-Fang Coatl. This way, not only do you save it from a removal spell; you also gain value once you replay it. I've had a situation where I was up against a green-white player who I thought had been representing Veil of Summer. They played Skyclave Apparition targeting my Wilderness Reclamation, and I had Command available. I trust my intuition and my read, so I didn't want to counter the Apparition as that would walk me straight into that Veil. Instead I bounced my own Reclamation, which both saved it and played around Veil, since I only targeted my own permanent and not the opponent's. With utility such as this, there's almost always a winning line.
It can bounce your opponent's stuff.
The most basic function here is to bounce your opponent's creature or walker. They have one threat, you return it during their end step, and untap with a clear battlefield. It's especially useful against difficult-to-answer stuff like planeswalkers. As a control deck, you rarely have a creature to pressure one, but here comes Cryptic Command to save you. Of course, then another Command can stop the threat on its way back. The fact that we can bounce anytime also allows us to slowroll the Command and let a less scary creature resolve—in the worst case we will bounce it later. It gives us this non-stack flexibility, contrary to other counterspells.
It can bounce any permanent.
Here I want to draw your attention to the fact that targeting any permanent increases this card flexibility exponentially. You can aim Cryptic Command at creatures; planeswalkers, which are traditionally difficult to interact with; random enchantments and artifacts; or even lands. There are a plethora of situations where the bounce effect will be useful even though it might not look like it on the surface. Let me present you with some cases to illustrate the point.
One of the most classic cases involves Liliana of the Veil. While I've already mentioned that you can simply bounce any permanent your opponent controls, which includes a planeswalker and specifically Liliana in this case, there's one more trick to keep in mind. When your opponent is on the "plus my Liliana" plan, they want to deplete both players of resources and cards in hand but keep the Liliana. What they typically do is empty out their hand, so they don't discard anything but you do, breaking the symmetry. The trick used since forever is to wait until they've got no cards in hand and plus Liliana—then you bounce Liliana in response and let the ability resolve, which results in them basically picking up the card and discarding it to its own ability. They're left with zero cards in hand and no planeswalker in play.
Additionally, it sometimes happens in control mirrors that one of the players stumbles on lands—historically a big advantage for the player who is able to make consistent land drops. To press this advantage that player might use Command to return one of the lands of the land-light player to widen the mana gap further. Very often in such situations the player who misses land drops might even have to go to the clean-up step and discard one of their cards, in which case Command provides both tempo and card advantage.
Lastly, I have to admit that I have won a nonzero number of games in my life by bouncing a land my opponent controls, making them unable to pay for their Summoner's Pact and resulting in me immediately winning the game. Clearly, this mode does it all.
Tap All Creatures Your Opponents Control
This ability comes up often nowadays in Modern. There are a few things to unpack here. First of all, it doesn't target. This matters a great deal as your opponents cannot prevent it through cards like Leyline of Sanctity or more commonly Veil of Summer. You can think of it as a Fog effect of sorts. Of course you should not tap at the end of your opponent's first main phase but rather at the beginning of their combat just before attacks. This way your opponent doesn't get main-phase priority again once you've cast Cryptic Command, so they cannot add more to the battlefield in terms of for example haste creatures. However, be mindful that they still receive priority back to animate a land such as Treetop Village or activate Aether Vial and put a haste creature into play and attack with that.
One interesting upside of specifically tapping and not actually fogging is that your opponent doesn't get any attack triggers. Another is that you get a clear way to attack back. The Command has worked particularly well in aggressive tempo shells like Faeries back in the day because it allowed you to finish somebody off, especially if they weren't careful with their life total. Nowadays, people do not really pay attention to their life total when playing against a control deck either. So if you add just a few surprise creatures to your board, put a Snapcaster Mage into play, or activate your Celestial Colonnade, you can sometimes finish your opponent off when they least expect it.
Draw a Card
The easiest mode to understand and to use. This is what makes the Command so great: it never has to leave you down a card and, on the contrary, often is card advantage. It also means that it's never truly dead, because at worst it always cycles. This mode's utility lies not in itself, of course, but in the fact that it is stapled onto a different powerful effect. When in doubt, draw a card.
Combining the Modes
The power of Cryptic Command comes from the fact that in practice we get two of the four aforementioned effects for the cost of four mana, which now makes it worth it, whereas it wouldn't be if there were only one effect. There are six combinations in total. Each is useful in a different situation. In simple situations you will mostly use bounce, counter, or tap, and then staple draw on top to make sure that you've got a powerful effect that does not leave you down a card. From my experience, tap/draw and counter/draw are the most popular.
Now it's tricky if you play against Command as you never know what they're going to do. If you mistakenly try to add a creature to the board before combat, it might get countered and your team might get tapped meaning you get neither the creature nor your combat step. I find myself using bounce/counter most often when my opponent has one threat on the battlefield already and is trying to add another one that costs them their entire turn—for example three-drop on the battlefield and they're trying to resolve a four drop. Then I counter/bounce and untap with a clean battlefield. In tight spots, when you're afraid of them killing you with an animating land, you can also tap their creatures and bounce the land to be sure that nothing attacks that turn.
As a Cryptic player you have to be aware that Cryptic Command can also "fizzle" sometimes. When a spell has no legal targets upon resolution, none of its effects happen and it simply moves to the graveyard without doing anything. For example, if you cast Lightning Helix on a creature and this creature gets sacrificed in response, you won't get the 3 life. Similar is true for the Command. Let's take a look at all the instances of target. Half of the modes target and they are "Counter target spell" and "Return target permanent to its owner's hand." If you choose counter/bounce and the bounce target leaves play, you'll still get to counter because Cryptic Command still has one legal target. However, if you choose counter/draw and the spell you're countering leaves the stack in response, then you won't get to draw a card. In practice, it means that if you're attempting to counter/draw my Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I Remand my own Jace, your target for the Command has left the stack and, therefore, you won't draw a card.
Most importantly you do not want to get your Command caught fizzling when you try to tap your opponent's team. If you want to return a creature and tap, but they Fatal Push the target or otherwise get rid of it, you won't get the tap effect and will potentially die on the spot. That's why, if you really want to make sure to tap, it's best to choose tap/draw as it's the only mode that cannot ever fizzle for lack of legal targets. Recall how I mentioned that trick of combining tap with bounce targeting an animating land earlier? Well, back in the day, that land often went by the name of Inkmoth Nexus, and opponents would sacrifice it to Arcbound Ravager in response to tap/bounce, fizzling Cryptic Command and allowing the lethal attack to happen after all.
What's worth noting is that Veil of Summer makes your opponent's spells uncounterable, but they stay on the stack and remain legal targets for Cryptic Command. So if you try to counter/draw and the targeted spell cannot be countered, you'll still get to draw card. The target is there and it is valid—it's just the counter effect that doesn't do anything.
Recent History: The Sanctuary Loop
When Mystic Sanctuary got printed, it added a new layer of defense to Modern's control decks. If you're curious why the land is now banned, a big reason is that there were two Sanctuary loops that allowed you to cast a Cryptic Command every turn.
For the first one you needed a Sanctuary (or a fetch land) along with two Commands, one of which could be in the graveyard. You played (or fetched) Sanctuary, put the graveyard Command on top, and now you had one in hand and one on top of your library. From this point onward, you chose as modes "return Mystic Sanctuary to your hand" plus whatever else you wanted to do with your Command. When you started your next turn, you drew that other Command off the top and were back in the same spot—Command in hand, Command in the graveyard, Sanctuary in hand. You could keep doing this indefinitely.
The second loop required just one Command, a Sanctuary, and some draw engine, whether Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Emry, Lurker of the Loch plus Mishra's Bauble, or the equally banned Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath—anything that netted at least one extra card every turn. You would again use your Command following the "X plus bounce Sanctuary" formula. On your turn, you'd use Sanctuary to put Command back on top and immediately redraw it with your draw engine. Again, you had endless Commands.
In practice, it was most common to use the tap/return modes so that your opponent never got a combat step again, for example against Bogles, or counter/return to make sure they never resolved a spell if they only cast one per turn. These loops forced you to commit a land drop every single turn, so if you started looping Commands as early as turn four, you never got past four lands. Opponents could also fizzle it—for instance by using Field of Ruin, Ghost Quarter, or Assassin's Trophy on your Sanctuary, or by somehow removing the draw engine. Nonetheless Wizards deemed the loop oppressive and threw it out in their sweeping multiple-format clean-up.
Cryptic Command is arguably the most interesting card that sees regular play in Modern. The sheer number of combinations and options within combinations make it a card I keep re-exploring. I myself have a rule that I want to include exactly three Commands in every control deck I play. I somehow never run the full four but would never dare to go down to two. I also never side it out because of its broad utility, although some people tend to cut it against other control decks, because it is a huge mana commitment and easy prey for Mystical Dispute or Veil of Summer.
I just like that, as long as you have a Command in hand, you just don't die that turn because, whatever the threat, you can bounce it, counter it, or tap the creatures. Outside of control decks, other shells have been incorporating Cryptic Command as well, for example Urza, Lord High Artificer back in the Arcum's Astrolabe days or Primeval Titan decks nowadays.
I will play Cryptic Command for as long as it's legal and as long as it's playable, and I do not foresee its playability to wane anytime soon. As always—hold my hand, let's pass the turn together, and see you next time. Cheers!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.