Legacy's Two-Cost Cantrips
Drawing cards in Legacy is not a job relegated only to Brainstorm. There are many other potent spells that can step in and provide the much-needed card quality or card advantage. Many of these fall at a converted mana cost of two. Join me as I venture into the world of cmc two spells.
"In response: Brainstorm." That is maybe the most common phrase in a game of Legacy, but what about "in response: Telling Time" or "first, let me look for an answer with Peer Through Depths"? Paying two mana is not a lot in a Deathrite Shaman format that supports lists with multiple True-Name Nemesis, so why don't these cards see play.
The Power of Cantripping
Brainstorm, the most played cantrip in Legacy is the so-called pillar of the format. Being the nerfed Ice Age-version of the heavily overpowered Ancestral Recall, its history in the format dates back to Legacy's separation from Vintage and its official inception in 2004. Since then, players have been using its ability to instantly improve their hands and search for answers or combo pieces in a plethora of decks. Its synergy with fetch lands, its ability to set up plays with Terminus, and a multitude of other uses has made Brainstorm undoubtedly the most efficient non-creature spell in Legacy.
Playing Brainstorm alongside a combination of Ponder, Preordain, and Gitaxian Probe is the established norm, regarded by many players as the most efficient and, therefore, a necessary foundation of any Legacy deck. This efficiency stifles deck construction and any brews choosing not to run these cards. Cantrips are not all bad, however, as they provide a foundation for many different strategies and diversify meta games to a certain extent by enabling decks that desperately need a limited amount of pieces to successfully combo off.
But, outside of overall deck creativity, players can see that the one mana cantrips are heavily played in all formats. Opt being the newest addition to Modern and Standard has already been incorporated into numerous decks.
Filling the Gaps
Even though the aforementioned cantrips are the most common ones used in Legacy, the need for a higher density of cheap blue spells is still quite high. The latest example is Portent, a cantrip as old as Brainstorm. It had not seen much competitive play until last year. The banning of Sensei's Divining Top created a natural gap in Legacy's Miracles deck that had to be filled with a card that is capable of setting up a terminus and improving draws at the same time, while also not screwing up the curve of miracle decks. For setting up Terminus, Portent plays a better role than Preordain, which is the premier cantrip in the Pauper format because of its draw selecting capabilities. The fact that the Miracles deck in Legacy has been able to incorporate Portent and make it a format staple displays two aspects of the format itself.
Firstly, it demonstrates the power of the Miracle engine and secondly, and most importantly, it displays the raw strengths of cantrips; not only of those well-established ones but also forcing new draw spells to come into the spotlight.
The Discarded and the Banned
Certainly, a major chunk of the format's health depends on the amount of legal cantrips. Obviously, overpowered cards, such as Gush and Ancestral Recall would completely destroy Legacy's game play and become obligatory staples in almost every deck; Ancestral Recall being a natural 4-off and Gush most likely filling gaps with 1-3 copies. Khans of Tarkir introduced two ridiculously strong cantrips, Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. After a brief period of time, Treasure Cruise, a seemingly harmless alteration of Ancestral Recall, went on to dominate Legacy in major fashion. The same happened with Dig Through Time after it managed to dodge the B&R announcements. OmniTell, Miracles, and the various tempo and midrange strategies were able to not only utilize but also abuse the delve mechanic and, consequently, made decks that did not have access to blue lag miles behind.
However, there are also some forgotten cantrips that saw play a while ago but cannot stand the test in today's meta game. Opt, Peek, and Impulse have been used in various blue decks and Modern's cantrips of choice Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand haven't been played in competitive Legacy decks for a very long time. That is mainly due to their converted mana costs of one. A deck can only run a certain amount of cantrips and following a strict hierarchy depending on its archetype the usual suspects are Brainstorm and a combination of Ponder, Preordain, and Gitaxian Probe. But what about more expensive cantrips?
The Second Division
The diversity of possible two mana cantrips by far exceeds the converted costs one category. Currently, the two most played cc2 cantrip are Baleful Strix, a 1/1 flying, deathtouch creature that draws a card upon entering play, and Predict, sharing a fate with Portent and becoming a Miracles staple. There are, however, plenty of other spells that deserve to get a chance in the current competitive environment. What makes most of the converted mana cost (cmc) 2 options interesting is their added value in various forms of conditions of play and effects to the game; contrasting their rather generic cmc 1 counterparts; cards, such as Elvish Visionary, Explore, Ground Seal or Ideas Unbound differ from generic card drawing and card selecting spells because they demand decks to have certain strategies and interactions in order to optimally make use of them.
Another good example is Hatching Plans. Sharing similarities to Standstill, its effect is quite powerful for only two mana but its conditional clause makes it difficult to play without certain interactions. Nevertheless, it is a card that could potentially see play in a deck that is able to sacrifice its permanents and gain some value by doing so. Just imagine sacrificing it to Perilous Research and drawing five cards at the cost of two. Another game breaker is Teferi's Response, which is played by some Infect lists. At its core, it is a counter spell similar to Stifle, but its rather narrow field of application brings along a cantripping ability that can easily turn the tides of a game on its own.
Legacy's 4c Control decks plays Night's Whisper sometimes to have a raw draw spell that can put them ahead in many situations against grindy match ups; especially with multiple Snapcaster Mage, card drawing spells at cmc 2 looks as good as it ever has in today's meta. In this context, Telling Time and Peer Through Depths are decent options as instant speed cantrips, even if they do not put their caster ahead on cards but only serve card selecting purposes.
Maybe the most underrated card in this section is Shadow of Doubt, a hard counter to Infernal Tutor, Entomb, Natural Order, and fetch lands. It can also be cycled at the end of turn without waiting for its effect to catch the opponent off guard. Decks that also play Wasteland and taxing counterspells like Daze, Spell Pierce, and Flusterstorm could also run Shadow of Doubt in their sideboards to fight combo decks. Since there are many good-stuff piles in the format right now, most of them could play at least one additional draw spell without worrying about their strategies all too much. BUG Control, BUG Foodchain, 4c Control, and Blade decks have the potential to outvalue their opponents by drawing more cards and by having superior card selection.
Another two cards that seems potent are See Beyond and Lat-Nam's Legacy. See Beyond is an especially great card for Legacy's Dragonstorm deck - admittedly not the most popular brew - and helps by shuffling unwanted copies of Bogardan Hellkite back into the deck. In the end, the list of decent cmc 2 cantripping spells is long, ranging from the poor man's Swiss army knife Izeet Charm to Skulltap, Words of Wisdom, and Vision Skeins - you need a Leovold, Emissary of Trest for that.
"Looting effects," named after Faithless Looting, but which really should be rather named after the much older Careful Study are also represented at cmc 2. However, their application is much more limited since their discarding aspect justifiably puts off many decks. Therefore, they are not really seen as cantrips in a classical way but as graveyard supporting tools. Tolarian Winds and the multiple versions of Tormenting Voices are simply too weak for Legacy's high standards; not to speak of the quite bad and random Goblin Lore and Control of the Court. Said cards do not have added value to their mana costs, which is what would make them significantly better draws in the late game than cheaper alternatives.
Legacy is oftentimes regarded as a solved format. While it gets quite difficult to challenge this assumption, you can't deny that the formats various decks are constantly changing; even if it happens at Legacy's own, slower pace. The once dominating 4c Delver has turned into 4c Control and runs clunky value spells similar to control decks in Modern. Painful Truths, a cmc 3 draw spell, impacted the meta game even before Sensei's Divining Top got the axe. Thus, the need for raw draw power is pretty much omnipresent in Legacy.
Obviously, none of the aforementioned cantrips is a 4 off by default, but potential haymakers are plentiful at cmc 2 and many current attrition battles in Legacy revolve around card draw linked to Snapcaster Mage, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and other high-impact spells. Only time will tell which cantrip will make the cut next time - and of course the deck brewers.
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