As we all know, blue is the best color in Magic, and the most fun to play. Ok, maybe not everybody will agree with the latter, but surely blue has had some of the most broken cards ever printed. It is also the most played color in Legacy. Part of it is due to the consistency that the blue cantrips bring.
Today I want to discuss the different blue cantrips that are commonly played in Modern and Legacy. I will limit the discussion to deck manipulation cantrips, as they are the most interesting ones. I will focus on the following cards:
- Serum vision
- Sleight of hand
All of these serve essentially the same role, a cheap card that replaces itself while manipulating the library. So let’s look at the subtilities of each of them.
Brainstorm is commonly considered the best card in Legacy, and the best blue cantrip ever printed. It is definitely a very powerful spell. But without the proper support — a shuffle effect — Brainstorm is actually rather weak.
Consider a regular limited deck, full of creatures and a couple removals. What would happen if you threw a random Brainstorm in there. Suppose you get to play Brainstorm on turn 1, you draw three cards and put back two. By turn 3, you redrew the two cards you put back, and you have access to the same cards you would have access to had you casted a Peek on turn 1. In fact, with Peek you would actually have some relevant information on what your opponent is up to.
Have you actually accomplished anything by casting Brainstorm? In fact, yes, you smoothed your turn 2 play. You were able to dig two cards deeper than if you had not cast anything on turn one, and so you get a small chance of having a better on-curve turn 2 play. However, this comes at the cost of tempo and spell density. Tempo is the most concerning thing, sometimes you just don’t have time to spend one mana to cast a spell that draws you into your next spell. For such a limited upside of smoothing your next turn play, you probably don’t want to put a card like that in your deck.
Among all the cantrips we consider here, Brainstorm is the only one which is not able to truly manipulate the library. All it does, is to re-order the cards you have access to, but after two turns, you get back to the starting point. Sleight of Hand on the other hand gives you the possibility to choose the best among two cards, and get rid of the other one, wich is a superior effect in the above situation.
But, when you get access to shuffle effects, Brainstorm really shines. It can fix land-heavy hands and it can shuffle away dead cards. In some situation, it is straight up Ancestral Recall. While all of the other blue cantrips can only give you access to one new card, Brainstorm can totally transformed the texture of your hand with three new cards. This unique ability makes it clearly the best cantrip, but it is funny that the card on its own is actually the weakest of the 5.
Ponder is the cantrip that lets you look at the highest number of cards. You can see up to 4 different cards, so if you desperately need a specific card, this is your spell of choice. It also offers you the unique ability to shuffle your deck, which is not irrelevant in combination with a card like Sensei’s Divining Top.
On its own, Ponder is a slightly better Brainstorm. You get to look at the next three cards and organize them to smooth out your draw, which on turn 1 is basically the same as Brainstorm. As with Brainstorm, by turn 3 you have drawn all of the three cards and won’t profit anymore of the Ponder effect. The extra ability to shuffle away the top three cards if they don’t fit well in your draw makes Ponder the better card in this situation.
So, just casting Ponder does not give you much card selection. You can decide you don’t like the top cards, and get a fresh draw, but if you like one of the three cards and want to keep it, you will have to keep all three of them. That is, unless you have a shuffle effect. If you are able to shuffle your library after casting ponder and reorganizing the top, you essentially get to select the best card out of the top three, all of that for one single blue mana. Remember Anticipate? Some people play that card in Modern. That is why casting Ponder with a fetch land up is good. Of course, you don’t have to only take one of the card, you can also sequence the shuffle in order to take two of the cards.
Just like Brainstorm, Ponder truly shines in a deck full of fetch lands. This is what makes it the second most played cantrip in Legacy, and rightfully so.
Preordain and Serum Vision
Now we get to the two strongest cantrips in isolation. That’s probably why they were played heavily in standard, because they do not need shuffle effect to shine.
They are also doing very similar effect, in that they get to cantrip (draw a card) and scry 2. The only difference is the order in which these actions are done. Preordain scries first, then draw, and Serum Vision draws first then scries. This subtle difference leads to one being banned in Modern and the other one being played, rather reluctantly, in Modern.
Several Modern players have been complaining how Serum Vision is terrible, but that it’s the only available cantrip in the format. Given that the next best option is Sleight of Hand, it is clear that Serum Vision is the best option available. It’s also cleary by design, as Wizards made it clear that they do not want a Modern format that look like Legacy. In all fairness, I think Serum Vision is not as bad as that, and there are cases where it’s actually better than Preordain.
Let’s first consider the cards on their own. With Serum Vision, you draw a random card, and then you set up your draw for the next one or two turns. With Preordain, you get to set up your draw first, so you actually get the card that you want right away. That’s pretty powerful, and that makes Preordain extremely good in a combo deck looking for a key combo piece. That’s also the main reason Preordain is seen as so much better than Serum Vision.
But consider playing both cards on turn one. Let’s say you get to see one good and one bad card, with Preordain, you remove the bad card, draw the good one, then next turn you draw a random card. With Serum Vision, you draw the bad card, keep the good one on top for next turn, and get to choose if you want to keep the random card. It’s not hard to see that this is pretty much equivalent, swap the bad card with the random card, and you get the same effect. If you don’t get to use the card right away, both cards are mostly equivalent. In fact, Serum Vision has some advantages here, because you get to draw first, you then have more information to choose what to do with your scry. As an example, say you are looking for exactly one copy of X, not two, but one. Now suppose there are three X on top of your deck. With Preordain, you will keep one and bottom one, but next turn you will end up drawing the extra one, ending up with with a redundant copy. With Serum Vision, you get to draw the first one right away, then see the two additional ones, and can take the decision to bottom them knowing that you already fount the one you needed. The extra information of drawing first was quite handy there.
Sleight of Hand
There’s not much to say on Sleight of Hand. It’s a fine cantrip, which is most of the time inferior to all the other discussed here. It has the same advantage as Preordain over Serum Vision that it gets to use the card right away. But the major drawback is that you are forced to choose exactly one card, which does not smooth your draw too much.
It’s fine for combo in Modern, but it will hardly find a place in anything else, and it cannot compete with the other cantrips in Legacy.
To finish this article, I will go over a few tips&tricks of how to properly sequence your cantrips. It’s all based on the observation above, and once you get familiar with the strength of each cantrip, it should become second nature.
The most important, and usually easiest to mess up, element is to take into account your shuffle effects. Most commonly, these are your fetches. You should use them to the best of your ability to shuffle away cards that you do not want anymore, and more importantly you should avoid shuffling cards that you know you want. The latter seems obvious, but it’s all too common to use a Serum Vision, set the top two cards, only draw one and then realize you need to fetch a land because you need the mana. This is something that should be planned one or two turns in advance.
Regarding shuffling away cards that you do not want, there’s the obvious Brainstorm and Ponder play, where you shuffle away cards that you do not need anymore, or you combine Ponder and shuffle to select one or two of the top three. Then there’s the less obvious case of keeping speculative cards on top with Serum Vision or Preordain, and decide later if you still want them. You might for example leave a removal on top of the deck, but then your opponent takes their first turn and go Underground Sea into Cabal Therapy. At this point, it’s pretty clear they are playing Storm and you will want to shuffle away this removal, if you can.
The last piece of advice with shuffling is to try to fetch first and use scries later. Any card that you put under your deck won’t be drawn again in this game, until it’s shuffled back in. So if you know you don’t want these cards, you may want to try to sequence your shuffles first and only then your scries. This is also a common source of mistake, where people are going to fetch in order to thin their deck, but they already had three bad cards on the bottom. At this point, they are basically doing the opposite, by making bad draws more dense in the deck.
Apart from shuffling, the general advice follows the same insight as to why Serum Vision is sometimes better than Preordain. You should aim at getting more cards first, before you play cards with a lot of selection. It’s always good ot start with Serum Vision on turn one, because you will need extra time to get to the next cards, which you usually have on turn one. As long as you have time, you should favor the cards that take more time to setup, such as Ponder, where you might need two extra turn to draw all the cards. You should keep the Brainstorm and Preordain for the more explosive turns, where you need to get one answer and you need to play it right away.