Choose Their Poison: The Collective Brutality Story

Modal spells - everyone's favorite way to pack a bigger bang for your buck while dealing with the inherent available slot restrictions in 60-card decks. The best of such cards were frequently chase rares in the past and Collective Brutality is no exception; let’s choose to see why.

The concept of modal spells, meaning a spell that lets you choose between multiple modes when you cast it is nothing new. In fact, it's as old as the game, dating back to Limited Edition Alpha itself. Of course, back then the “choose one” template didn't exist yet, but it was retrofitted over the course of the following two and a half decades, so that the current Oracle text for Healing Salve reads the way it’s shown on its Duel Decks Anthology version (this specific bulleted list format would come to be only in 2014 with Khans of Tarkir):

Healing Salve

Of course, Alpha’s most well-known (and noteworthy) modal spells were going to be this seminal mirrored pair, freshly reprinted with the reworked text in Masters 25:

Blue Elemental Blast Red Elemental Blast

In this early form, the concept applied to spells that could result in two radically different outcomes, rather than just giving you a choice between different targets for the same kind of effect. For instance, Naturalize never needed to be re-worded as:

Choose one —

  • Destroy target artifact.
  • Destroy target enchantment.

Whereas gaining life and preventing damage, as well as countering a spell and destroying a permanent, are two entirely different effects rule-wise, as much as they were seen as thematically similar in the dawn of Magic.

An Embarrassment of Modes

As of Rivals of Ixalan, there are 165 “choose one” modal cards in the game. Some of them give two options to choose from, like Abrade, others three, like Insidious Will, or even four like Merciless Eviction.

Abrade Insidious Will Merciless Eviction

Also, the modal approach is not limited to instants and sorceries; in fact, it can be found on any kind of permanent, conditioned by different kinds of clauses or by other mechanics.

Deceiver Exarch Umezawa's Jitte Retreat to Corelhelm

I Want It All

So far, we’ve seen modal cards that only allow us to “choose one”. Of course they’re the most common type; all the “charms” are like that, and we’ve had a whopping number of different cycles of them across the years (they’ve been part of Mirage, Visions, Planeshift, Onslaught, Planar Chaos, Shards of Alara, Return to Ravnica/Gatecrash, and Khans of Tarkir). However, we’ve also got 16 two-option modal spells saying, “choose one or both”; the two cycles of “commands” from Lorwyn and Dragons of Tarkir that say, “choose two” (out of four); and the Commander 2015 cycle that tops all of the above by giving you a “choose three” option that doesn’t even prevent you from choosing the same mode more than once.

Grim Discovery Atarka's Command Mystic Confluence

And in all of this, we’ve still not covered the type of modal spell that Collective Brutality is. In fact, it belongs to yet another subset: the “choose one or more” variant. It’s a mechanic that quietly debuted in Avacyn Restored with Rain of Thorns, then was reprised the following year in Gatecrash’s Clan Defiance. The we lost any trace of it until more than three years later. Enter Eldritch Moon, home of the Mardu keyword escalate. Given the color restriction, escalate didn’t give birth to full cycles, and at common, it shows on cards from the “choose one or both” subtype, the “borrowed” trio; starting from uncommon, though, the “one or more” clause begins to appear with the “alliance” pair, of which the most successful member is definitely Blessed Alliance.

Blessed Alliance

We already see how escalate does something that the modal spells usually don’t: letting you choose all of the proposed effects (a notable exception in this regard is the abovementioned “choose three” cycle from Commander 2015, since the total number of modes on those cards matches the permitted choices). The way this is accomplished is through another break from the modal spell norm, where you typically only have to select the form you want the spell to take when it goes on the stack; instead, escalate offers an additional cost, following the blueprint of entwine, which was only found on a group of two-mode spells from the old Mirrodin block, like Tooth and Nail or Promise of Power.

The Collective Experience

Escalate in Eldritch Moon also shows at rare, and this is where we’ll finally meet our brutal friend, as part of the “collective” trio. At the time of writing, two of those cards are worth about 1 cent on MTGO. The third one is worth more than $30.00. It’s of course the one we’re talking about:

Collective Brutality

Collective Brutality epitomizes the flexibility of the modal spells. It’s a Duress for non-permanents, or it’s a Disfigure, or it’s a Drain Life for 2 on the opponent. Or it’s all of that at once. To be more precise, its escalate cost turns surplus lands or other less useful cards in your hand into those effects. The main point being that you can choose what you need at any given moment, but all those options are contained within a single card, which represented a single draw, and occupied a single slot in your deck’s lineup. That’s true of any modal spell, of course, so to understand what’s great about this card, we should start by looking what those effects actually do. In short, they paint the picture of a miniature control deck, being disruption, removal and time-buying life swing. Downside: they might be all situational. You might face a deck that doesn’t use many instants or sorceries. You might face a deck with no creatures with relevant toughness, or no creatures at all. Gaining two life might not be much, if not meaningless at all when we’re facing death by library exhaustion, non-damaging win condition, or poison counters.

This means Collective Brutality needs the right matchup to shine, which is why it’s one of the most popular sideboard cards in Modern right now. And the matchup that makes best use of its full arsenal of effects is certainly the one against Burn/RDW. Imagine, for 2 meager mana, to be able to kill that pesky Goblin Guide or Monastery Swiftspear, while also removing from the equation fellow modal spell Boros Charm (or just a Lightning Bolt), and neutralizing half or more of another burn spell. This is the reason some copies of Collective Brutality are in every deck with access to black mana.

Pierson Laughlin's Jund at GP Phoenix 2018

Ben Jones's Death's Shadow at GP Phoenix 2018

Graveyard Shift

But what if Collective Brutality is not merely a three-in-one, but actually a four-in-one? You might not mind discarding cards if you have cards like Lingering Souls to pitch or delve cards to fuel. Plus, it’s worth pointing out that if you limit yourself to the first two modes, disruption and removal, then your Brutality is likely not to create card disadvantage (at least against a deck for which you don’t foreshadow the disruption to find zero targets), and actually prone to transform a dead card into unexpected value.

Jeremy Copeland's Mardu Tokens at SCG Clarksville

But what if your battleplan actually calls for filling up the graveyard, or throwing a key card in there? That’d be the perfect home for our little black spell: the one where it can act as a discard outlet while it’s doing its usual thing. In fact, Collective Brutality is unique in this regard, since all other escalate cards simply asks for additional mana as their escalation cost (with the exception of Collective Effort, which instructs you to tap untapped creatures you control, but that’s not very likely to generate value, barring some combo with inspired).

And, quite naturally, the main archetype that cherishes a good, multi-purpose discard outlet maindeck is reanimator.

Nathaniel Snyder's Dredge at SCG Cincinnati

Kwatos's Grishoalbrand in a 2018 Competitive MTGO League

Collective Brutality is such a great addition to this kind of deck that it shows up in Legacy, too, and as a full maindeck playset. Modern still has more homes for it, though. Every time the chance to send something to the graveyard is actually a good thing, Brutality is there. For instance, Thopter Foundry decks have Sword of the Meek to feed, and Lantern Control is always eager to make the most out of its Ensnaring Bridges. But the Modern deck that likes its maindeck Collective Brutality the most is probably Hollow One, whose namesake explicitly asks for discard (as well as its lieutenant Flameblade Adept), and whose 60 already include graveyard friendly stuff like Bloodghast, Flamewake Phoenix and, in the Jund version, Vengevine.

William Vasquez's Hollow One at SCG Danbury

Even while mostly identifying as a sideboard piece, Collective Brutality is a busy card, whose flexibility and range of uses are unparalleled among escalate spells (only Blessed Alliance comes anywhere close) and rival those of the most celebrated modal spells like Cryptic Command and Primal Command. Hence its steep post-Standard secondary market price, which is not going to go down anytime soon, at least until a reprint is announced.

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