Fighting the Good Fight - Snapcaster Mage

Welcome to another edition of "Fighting the Good Fight," and this past weekend's GP results couldn't have come at a better time for today's discussion of the best blue card in Modern: Snapcaster Mage. Snapcaster has been a mainstay in Modern since the format's very start, but with how well UW Control fared, we're expecting this wizard to be even more prevalent than usual. In that case, it's doubly important that we know how we can fight against one of Modern's most powerful cards!

The Power of Snapcaster Mage

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Originally intended to be a red card, Snapcaster Mage is one of the reasons why players play blue decks in Modern, and for good reason: it's a flexible spell that can help piece together a solution for the matchup and board-state at hand. To better understand why that's the case, I want to examine how Snapcaster Mage as a card functions.

A two-mana 2/1 with flash and an ability to give a target instant or sorcery flashback until the end of turn, Snapcaster Mage is good at all points of the game. Starting on turn two, a player can flash in the wizard as an attacker to start beating down on a Tron opponent or as a surprise blocker for a pugnacious Goblin Guide. In the mid-game, Snapcaster Mage can be used as a way to gain incremental value by giving flashback to Serum Visions and Opts or rebuying Lightning Bolts and Mana Leaks to answer the opponent's threats. In the end game, Snapcaster Mage effectively doubles as the best spell that has already been cast in the game and closes out games in tandem with Cryptic Commands and Kolaghan's Commands. This versatility, all for a low cost of two mana, makes Snapcaster a perennial all-star in Modern.

Another reason for Snapcaster's prominence is its unique ability to provide consistency in blue decks that play it. This consistency is different from the consistency that cantrips such as Serum Visions or Opt provides because those cards help the player look through the deck for relevant cards. The kind of consistency that Snapcaster brings is different: it's consistency in the form of casting a spell you've already cast. Looking at a game of Magic at the most basic level, players want to be casting spells that are good in the moment and good in the matchup. For most decks, the instants and sorceries that end up in the graveyard are there because it was right to cast them and gave the player a better chance to win. If we accept this claim, we can see why Snapcaster's consistency become so important in any match of Magic. By allowing the player to re-cast the cards that he or she cast because they were good, Snapcaster tilts the game in its caster's favor by "repeating" the same, good play. Of course, it's not quite exactly the same play because you're having to pay two extra mana to do so, but in most cases, the price of business is a bargain compared to the advantage that is being generated. There's a reason "Bolt-Snap-Bolt" is a part of Magic lingo, after all.

Lightning Bolt

This flexibility and consistency shoehorns Snapcaster into any blue deck that aims to play fair. The list includes, but is not limited to: UW Control, Jeskai Control, Jeskai Tempo, Grixis Shadow, and Blue Moon, as well as more fringe lists such as UR Wizards, Sultai Midrange, Grixis Control, and UB Faeries. In other words, if the deck is a fair, non-tribal blue deck, the chances are high that Snapcaster Mage is included in the list.

This is all to say: the card is ubiquitous, powerful, and recently did well at a Modern GP. How do we want to go about fighting it? Let's look at the two ways to approach playing against any card – the macro and micro approaches.

The Big Picture: Macro Approach

Taking the macro approach against Snapcaster Mage means that we want to attack Snapcaster Mage from an angle of deck-versus-deck. Snapcaster Mage, as mentioned earlier, is found in a variety of archetypes, but most of these decks revolve around a high density of non-creature spells that slowly build card advantage over time or are tempo decks that rely on one or two creatures as the sole source of board presence.

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

The best way to punish slow decks in Modern is to go over the top by casting threats above the curve. This can either be done with big mana decks or decks that can accelerate into mana via Eldrazi Temple. Titanshift is generally a great foil to Snapcaster decks because of the threat of the Scapeshift combo, an early Primeval Titan, and the difficult-to-answer inevitability of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Eldrazi Temple decks such as Eldrazi Tron and Bant Eldrazi are also powerful against Snapcaster Mage decks because of their ability to plop down 4/4s and 5/5s at a faster rate than the Snapcaster decks can find answers to. Finally, Green-based Tron decks are a nightmare for Snapcaster decks, as seven mana on turn three (and even more later on) put these slow, blue decks at a severe mana disadvantage. Even worse is the cast-trigger from Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, which ensures a two-for-one most of the time and demands an immediate answer to the threat.

Another way to about fighting Snapcaster decks is to play midrange decks that simply out-value them. Decks such as GW Value Town have a great matchup against the blue Snapcaster decks because while the blue decks are relying on incremental advantage, Value Town can generate threats and accrue value¸ forcing the blue decks to constantly have answers and not giving them a breathing space to reload. Jund, especially the variations with Bloodbraid Elf are also fantastic because of the hand disruption that can cleanly answer the card advantage spells (such as Snapcaster Mage itself) and then develop a board presence in the form of planeswalkers, creature-lands, and creatures such as Bloodbraid Elf.

The Devil in the Details: Micro Approach

Ethersworn Canonist

Once we've moved away from the macro approach, things become much more interesting, as Snapcaster is a card that has tons of counter play to it. Snapcaster's two biggest weaknesses are that it requires the player to cast two cards in a turn and its reliance on the graveyard. Cards such as Eidolon of Rhetoric, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Ethersworn Canonist make it difficult or impossible to cast multiple cards in a turn, and as such, they can be powerful answers to Snapcaster Mage. I prefer these cards over much more narrow answers such as Trinisphere, Rule of Law, and Torpor Orb, as those cards provide zero board presence. Even a card like Tocatli Honor Guard is too narrow, as most Snapcaster decks don't rely on ETB triggers to enact their game plan.

Graveyard hate is another way to attack Snapcaster, and cards that can flexible why doing so are at a premium. Relic of Progenitus can not only exile the graveyard, but it can also be expended to draw a card, making it much less of a dead weight than more powerful cards such as Rest in Peace. Scavenging Ooze is another great card that additionally plays to the board and doubles as grave hate. I'd shy away from the more dedicated hate such as Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void, as those cards have a much bigger impact in the graveyard-centric decks of the format.

Additional points of note when playing against Snapcaster are...

  1. Remember how Snapcaster Mage's trigger works. Once Snapcaster Mage enters the battlefield, its trigger will go on the stack indicating what it's targeting. This is relevant because if you control a card that allows you to exile specific cards from the graveyard (such as Scavenging Ooze), you can wait until the trigger goes on the stack to remove the targeted card. Furthermore, if you have a non-targeting exile effect (for example, a Relic of Progenitus), you can again wait to see what the Snapcaster Mage targets in order to decide whether or not to clear the graveyeard. If the wizard targets something innocuous, maybe you're okay with your opponent casting that card with flashback.
  2. Remember how Snapcaster Mage's ability works. The instant or sorcery that gains flashback lasts until the end of the turn – this means that you have to calculate what the opponent could do with that spell in the graveyard during the entirety of the turn. Attacking with a 3/3, three-mana creature into an open board might seem harmless, but if your opponent has a Fatal Push in her graveyard, she could use Snapcaster Mage to block your creature, let it die, and then destroy your creature with the Fatal Push after combat. Be wary, and don't end up setting yourself up for a blowout!
  3. Don't go overboard on graveyard hate. While graveyard hate is one way of dealing with Snapcaster Mage, going overboard and bringing cards such as Surgical Extraction are a huge liability. Ideally, the graveyard hate in your list should be brought in against decks that are doing something inherently unfair with the graveyard, and if you bring in a card like Surgical Extraction against a Snapcaster deck, you're going to fall behind the cards that don't care about the graveyard, such as Cryptic Command, planeswalkers, and to a certain extent, Snapcaster Mage. Remember: Snapcaster can still be cast as a 2/1 with flash, and that's oftentimes enough to beat the opponent down if he or she didn't sideboard properly.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

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