I often make fun of terrible cards on this site, pretending they’re really awesome and not at all bad. But to take a moment to be serious, I’ve come to realize over the past few months that there are some cards that appear bad on their face, but during games turn out to be really, really good.
Lately I’ve been playing a ton of Standard, running a blue-white-red (“American”) flash/control deck similar to what has become popular among competitive Magic players (it helps that the current lists are not too far from the “Izzorius” list I was playing a few months ago). I’ve had some good wins and some terrible losses, but overall I’ve enjoyed playing this archetype, and I am somewhat sad to see it rotate out of the format next month. But with the bad news of rotation comes the good news – I can play most of these cards in Modern! Nearly half of my American Geist Modern deck is made up of cards currently legal in Standard (Snapcaster Mage, Restoration Angel, shock lands, Geist of Saint Traft, etc.)
Recently, I’ve discovered four cards that I thought were pretty bad when I first tested them out, but while playing more with them, I’ve come to realize that they’re actually pretty good. Now, to be fair, pro players have been using these cards for months and have praised how they were good, so I’m just late to the party on this one. But at the same time, these cards have been the topic of long debates over their play value since their printings, and many players disagree with the pros whether these four cards are worth sleeving up. It just so happens that all the cards are blue…Go figure, blue cards making people argue over them.
1. Think Twice
First let me start with a disclaimer: I know that most of the cards I’m discussing are reprints, some from WAY back in Magic time. I’m not talking about Standard (err…Type 2) when the card was printed. I’m only concerned with the role these cards have played in the Standard formats (and current Modern format in the case of #4) after its most recent printing. That being said, let’s think a couple times about Think Twice!
Two mana, cycle a card. Yeah, that’s great – just like the ability on cards from Urza’s Saga and Onslaught. Why would you want to spend a whole card in your deck just to cycle? For a while I thought, why not just play better stuff you can draw; draw the action instead of another attempt to draw the action. Even though you get two cards from the one, but Divination costs 2 mana less for the same effect (ignore the Sorcery part).
But Think Twice plays more than just a can trip role in the control decks of current Standard. There are very few deck manipulation and card draw cards in the format right now. Index is the only card resembling a one mana manipulator, and it’s certainly no Preordain or Ponder, since you get zero real card advantage from it (changing the order doesn’t help you get through those top 5 faster if they’re bad draws). Control decks want to burn through their library and maximize the number of cards seen per game. The more cards you see, the more options you get, and the more impact you can have on the game. Plus, control decks tend to be extra greedy on the need for the right starting hand to put their best feet forward – clunky hands can be the death without ways to draw out of an awkward start.
Think twice does three things: 1) it helps add consistency to an otherwise awkward pile of cards; 2) it helps you see more cards; and 3) it plays the auxiliary roles of stopping werewolf flips and giving you more end of the opponent’s turn action.
The consistency issue stems from the fact that when you play 4 Think Twice you’re really playing 56 cards. Yes, you have to pay mana to toss away Think Twice for another, but you’re getting value in the ability to not have extraneous cards in your deck you don’t really need. Most importantly, Think Twice lets you keep shaky hands. For the American Flash/Control deck, the optimum land count in an opening hand is three (and hopefully not all “buddy” lands from M13 and Innistrad). Opening a hand with two land and a Think Twice or four land and a Think Twice doesn’t look at bad as the relative hands without Twink Twice. With two lands you know there’s a good shot that if you don’t draw a land on your first two draws, you’re going to get a “free” draw on your opponent’s 2nd turn end step. Worst case scenario, you spend your 3rd turn main phase with Think Twice for a fourth draw if you had to play removal or counterspell the turn before. The point is here, that Think Twice gives your starting hands flexibility, and can even prevent a “mulligan to five meltdown” by letting you get through more cards.
Further, don’t underestimate Think Twice’s flashback ability. The card’s early role is to help solidify your starting hand, and often you have a full grip and don’t need to draw another card right away. So Think Twice sits in your graveyard until you need it later in the game. You might use it to dig for a vital counterspell or removal spell, or just to add another card to your hand before your next turn. Once in a while, flashing-back Think Twice can be used to stop Huntmaster of the Fells from flipping (or helps it flip when you don’t want it to be a Ravager of the Fells anymore), while helping you draw an answer for it at the same time.
Think Twice serves multiple roles as just one card, and today’s control players should be happy to include it in their 60. It solidifies shaky opening hands, saves mulligans, helps you dig through your deck, and sometimes buys you another turn to respond to a big threat. It’s a verbally underrated card, even with its common play.
2. Augur of Bolas
Ignoring the obvious positive fact that Augur is a 2-drop wall that can attack for 1 and the second-chance value from blinking it with Restoration Angel, I cannot count how frequently I’ve completely whiffed with its ability. Sometimes I’ve had to put three win conditions on the bottom of my library, which is devastating since American Flash/Control only has about 8 win conditions from the start. Without the ability to shuffle the deck, what goes on the bottom never comes back – so you can imagine how terrible it feels when the only two Assemble the Legion in the deck get bottomed by your own guy. Other times I would be low on mana but really need a blocker, so I’d be forced to throw down Augur only to pass three land, and then not hit another one before it was too late. Augur was more of an annoyance than a card advantage generator, but that was because I was viewing and playing it completely wrong.
Just like Think Twice, Augur lets you see more of your deck. Sure, sometimes you see three relevant cards that you cannot touch (lands and non-spells), but those times you hit something important makes you want to play a full set. Against certain matchups like Hexproof Auras where you’re totally screwed unless you draw a Supreme Verdict or a Celestial Flare (post-board), or those times where you must have a Pillar of Flame to kill a Voice of Resurgence immediately or you’ll be in big trouble, Augur has your back. Even if you don’t hit what you want, you’re three cards closer to an answer to your problems. You’re digging, and Augur (which by definition is a tool for digging, like an ice augur to make an ice fishing hole) helps you achieve that. The control deck is full of spells, and its pilot wants to find appropriate weapons to deal with the opponent’s threats. Worry about your win conditions later, you’ll get one eventually. The first play in control Magic is holding back your opponent at all costs, and Augur is there to help you do that.
Sometimes you just have to take the bad with the good, and look past those bad luck whiffs and missed land drops as part of Magic variance.
To most control players, counterspells are awesome. But Magic has a ton of generally not-so-great counters – either over-costed and underwhelming in effect, like Fervent Denial, or too situationally-restricted, like Negate or Essence Scatter (you’ll always want the other one). The best counterspells have been those that are cheap and present a bonus (usually a cantrip, or options like on Cryptic Command).
It’s key for a control player to play multiple spells during a turn cycle, like casting Searing Spear to kill an attacker and then countering the opponent’s follow-up play (or countering their play, then flashing in Restoration Angel). As a result, counters that require significant mana investment tend to be on the bottom of the “must-play” list. Syncopate sometimes costs 2 mana early in the game, but late in game can require 7-8 mana to counter something cheap but deadly, like Scavenging Ooze.
Because of the chance that Syncopate could be totally useless near the end of the game, it seems like a terrible include over more consistent and cheaper hard counters like Counterflux or Dissipate. But this is only on the face of the card, and in playing with Syncopate more, I’ve seen how awesome it can be in any situation.
First, Syncopate is one of the best cards to have in your opening hand. You’ll catch opponents off guard by countering their turn 3 play, which is often a devastating Domri Rade or a Huntmaster of the Fells (with help from a mana dork or a turn 2 Farseek). Syncopate can keep you in the game when on the draw and your opponent starts with the nuts, where the 3-mana counterspells sit in your hand with 2 land in play, and you show just go sadface.
Second, Without Mana Leak in Standard, most players aren’t worrying about tapping out to play a creature with a blue-based opponent holding up two mana. That’s when you punish them with Syncopate. Better players will play around it, which gives you another advantage of being able to bluff the card even when you aren’t packing it.
Third, it is not always a bad thing that you don’t have enough mana to actually counter the spell. There have been a few situations where it’s great to have your opponent tap out on their turn so you can finish them off on your next turn (example – getting your control opponent to tap out when they cast Aetherling or Assemble the Legion so you can throw a bunch of burn at their face on your turn for the win).
Finally, with reanimator decks still kind of around, and Scavenging Ooze demanding food to make it bigger, Syncopate’s exile component is super relevant to pushing you ahead, essentially playing the “bonus” role that I mentioned above. Against control decks you’ll be taking away the Snapcaster Mage flashback option, as well.
Yes, once in a while Syncopate is a dead card in your hand, but the benefits greatly outweigh the rare negative occasion. It’s still WAY better than holding a Negate you die to a Thundermaw Hellkite.
See the analysis for Syncopate above for what makes a good counterspell. Remand comes with a bonus – drawing a card to replace itself – but you’re putting the opponent’s spell back into their hand. Why on earth would you ever want to give the opponent back his/her spell to just play again, instead of hard countering it?
Again, I didn’t play Standard during Ravnica block, so I have no idea how good or bad it was at that time. But I am trying to get into Modern with a red-white-blue Geist of Saint Traft deck, and Remand is a counterspell in the format, so I have to consider it. On Remand’s face, the card looks absolutely useless – cycle it to just delay the opponent in casting the same spell again. Why wouldn’t I just play Mana Leak, which costs the same and has a decent chance (in Modern) of permanently rendering the spell harmless?
Like many cards that seem bad on first glance, Remand is a card that shows its value during play. The first time you essentially Time Walk your opponent early in the game, that’s the time you fall in love with Remand. Remand might not be as great in the long game for an all-out control deck, but for a midrange control deck that puts on some pressure with Geist of Saint Traft, Remand becomes a blow-out superstar. You draw another threat or burn spell off the cantrip while putting that potential blocker back into the opponent’s hand, in one circumstance. Later in the game you’re forcing him/her to waste mana to play the same Kitchen Finks twice in the same turn, and giving you a chance to draw a hard counter (or even another Remand) or some gas to win you the game.
Remand exists to you buy you key time. It serves a role that most control players would rather have a Mana Leak or Rune Snag play, since buying time without eliminating a threat still leaves a threat. But for the more pressure-pushing control player, Remand frustrates your opponent’s strategy while providing time for your threats to claim victory.
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t judge a Magic card by its text (but nobody said anything about its art!). Sometimes you actually have to play with a card to understand how good it is, and the above four cards are perfect examples of that fact.
Remand has made it into my Modern 75, and I’ll be playing a few Syncopate and Think Twice this weekend at the Baltimore SCG Open as I try to take home some cash with American Flash (I’ve dropped the Augurs for Boros Reckoners to better my Gruul Dragonmaster matchup). I’ll be rocking the purple BMP.com t-shirt and I’m a giant, so it shouldn’t be too hard to spot me and come say hello!