[card]Cabal Therapy[/card] is one of the most skill intensive cards in the game. When wielded correctly, the card has a much higher power level than even [card]Thoughtseize[/card], as it can strip multiple copies of a single card. Sometimes it's better than a one-mana [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card], and I've hit as many as five cards with a single copy (three blind and two on the flashback.)
Getting skilled with Therapy has subtle side benefits, as it trains you to constantly analyze the game state and question your opponent's possible holdings. Sequencing matters, and properly timing a flashback can keep you focused on every stage of even the longest, grindiest games. Essentially, if you're casting [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] well, you're playing good Magic. It's that simple.
Unfortunately, “that simple” is actually complicated. Fortunately, the satisfaction that comes with playing the card correctly is high, and well worth the time it takes to build up the necessary experience.
First, let's go over the basics.
You name on resolution. If your opponent asks what you're naming, the spell is resolving. The opportunity to cast spells in response has passed, and that [card]Counterbalance[/card] trigger has already resolved.
If flashing it back triggers a leaves-the-battlefield ability, the trigger will resolve first. This means that, if you name with Therapy before handling the ability, your opponent can decide you missed the trigger at a competitive REL. In the case of [card]Veteran Explorer[/card], naming while you pick up your deck to search is a fine shortcut. If the opponent doesn't realize the order, he might bin cards that he could've cast with the two basics (such as [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], for example). If your opponent stops you from shortcutting in order to cast a spell in response, then the [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] still hasn't resolved, and you'll get a chance to name again. At a lower REL level, I don't recommend shortcutting, as going to time is no longer a concern and a small rules edge at FNM is not worth it. By keeping the game state clear, everyone has more fun.
You still control a [card]Misdirect[/card]ed [card]Cabal Therapy[/card], and thus choose what to name. I suggest Sarpadian Empires, Vol. VII.
By basic math, you're more likely to hit if your opponent has more cards in hand. On the flip side, you won't have any information to reason with if you cast the card turn one on the play. While that's the only turn you get against some decks (like Belcher), you'll want to wait a turn or two against most of the field.
From my last event, here are a short list of opening lines my opponents made and what I named:
• Mountain, Forest: [card]Green Sun's Zenith[/card]
• Island, [card]Aether Vial[/card]: [card]Silvergill Adept[/card]
• Mountain, [card]Vexing Devil[/card]: [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]
• Volcanic Island, [card]Ponder[/card]: [card]Force of Will[/card]
• Island, [card]Preordain[/card]: [card]Brainstorm[/card]
The cards I'm naming aren't just likely cards in the decks in question, but also reasons to keep an opening hand. A card like [card]Brainstorm[/card] is more likely to induce a keep, and will always be included as a four of. With that logic, here's a list of awful calls for those same openings:
• Mountain, Forest: [card]Primeval Titan[/card]
• Island, [card]Aether Vial[/card]: [card]Merrow Reejerey[/card]
• Mountain, [card]Vexing Devil[/card]: [card]Fireblast[/card]
• Volcanic Island, [card]Ponder[/card]: [card]Forked Bolt[/card]
• Island, [card]Preordain[/card]: [card]Intuition[/card]
While these are all reasonable cards for the decks to contain, they aren't in and of themselves reasons to keep a hand. If you're playing burn, are you more likely to keep a hand with two [card]Lighting Bolt[/card]s or two [card]Fireblast[/card]s? It sounds simple, but by naming cards that are more acceptable in multiples, you'll hit multiples more often.
Thinking about reasonable holdings is a good way to go about deducing an opposing hand, and helps you turn irregularities and information into tells. Since it's difficult to show how logic, tells, and knowledge mesh together without using examples, I've prepared a few sample problems. These don't necessarily have black and white solutions, and we lack all the complete data of a real game with a real opponent, but they do highlight the sorts of things I consider when casting Therapy. For an appropriately spike-y approach, assume these are all at competitive REL with a million billion dollars on the line.
You're on the draw in game three against Mono-Red Goblins. You're playing Elves splashing black. This is your opener:
Glimpse of Nature
Green Sun's Zenith
Your opponent plays a Mountain and passes. You draw a fetchland for the turn. Do you Therapy here? If so, what do you name?
You're on the draw against Sneak and Show. You're playing BW aggro with few ways of interacting, and you keep the following:
Your opponent plays an Island and passes the turn. You, knowing you only have a few turns to interact, turn one the Therapy, and he [card]Brainstorm[/card]s in response. What do you name?
You're playing Nic Fit, a [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] deck, against RUG. You have three lands in play, and a [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card] in hand. Both graveyards are stocked. The opponent has no threats on the table, but three cards in hand. You know one of them is a [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], which flipped to a [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] a few turns earlier. His other two cards are unknown, but you put him on a [card]Force of Will[/card] because the turn previous he stared at his hand, frustrated, when you cast a [card]Doom Blade[/card] to take out a [card]Delver of Secrets[/card], as though he had the Force but not a blue card to pitch. Since then, he has drawn a card and passed the turn. You untap and draw [card]Cabal Therapy[/card]. Do you cast it? If so, what do you name?
Again you're playing Nic Fit, but this time against Esper Blade. Currently, your 8/8 [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card] is holding off your opponent's board of two [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]s and a [card]Batterskull[/card]. You both have a ton of life and lands, but only one card in hand (yours is the Therapy you just drew for the turn). Do you cast it, and if so, what do you name?
Answer to problem 1
It's very rare for Goblins to keep an opener without a turn one play, especially against a combo-type deck. While [card]Goblin Piledriver[/card] might be a reasonable holding, since it applies the most pressure out of the two-drops, it's even more likely that the opponent has some disruption to keep from dying on turn three. We should turn one Therapy on [card]Pyrokenesis[/card], here, before flooding the board with dorks next turn.
Answer to problem 2
Since we don't have a creature to flashback [card]Cabal Therapy[/card], or a way to deal with a cheated in fatty, this Therapy has to do more work than usual. I had this situation come up in tournament, and I named [card]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/card]. I hit, and my opponent had to shuffle away the cards he “hid” from my Therapy. This isn't a hard and fast solution, and I could see naming different cards against different opponents, but I liked my reasoning.
Answer to problem 3
Hopefully, this is a case where we can get two cards for the price of one. If our opponent is savvy enough, he'll know that [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] names on resolution. Thus, if we name [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] as we cast the card, he'll be provoked into Bolting us in response, before it gets discarded away. Since this backs us up to before Therapy is cast, we can rename for [card]Force of Will[/card]. Assuming his last card isn't a removal spell, we'll be able to cast Ooze with a one turn window to untap and take control of the game. (Rules Link via L3 judge Eric Levine. I didn't believe it either! -ed.)
If we cast the Therapy and wait, he starts thinking if he has any responses, which isn't good for us. He knows we know about the [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], so his first thought will be whether or not to cast it. If he does Bolt in response, he can assume that we'll name [card]Force of Will[/card] off of the [card]Cabal Therapy[/card], as that's the most powerful of his few likely holdings (a threat or cantrip would've been cast). As such, he's more likely to make us use the first Therapy for Bolt, leaving him with Force as a possible answer to the [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card], rather than lose both cards.
With my solution, there's no doubt in his mind that the Bolt is his idea. In fact, we were trying to rush him through his chance to respond! While some players have the discipline to slow down the game and consider the correct play in this situation, many others will instinctively move to put an end to such obvious bush-league antics. After all, it fits the game's story. Clearly the opponent wants to cast the Bolt, as it's known information, and clearly we're trying to stop him.
Answer to problem 4
[card]Batterskull[/card] is a tricky card to destroy, especially if your opponent has a pile of lands and a [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] in play. When I'm playing a [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] deck, I try to engineer a game state where I can blow Deed for five, nuking the Stoneforges. This forces the [card]Batterskull[/card] back to hand, where it's weak to discard. In the situation in problem 4, I'm going to hold onto Therapy until I draw Deed or a cheap creature that I don't mind holding onto and sacrificing post-Deed. Note that, if the creature has a comes into play ability, the opponent will have an opportunity to exile it with [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] before you'll have priority to flashback a sorcery.
In the same situation, if my opponent was stalled on three lands, I would run out the Therapy on [card jace, the mindsculptor]Jace[/card].
These are just to get you started. Remember that, as with any skill, the key is practice.
It's important to note that Therapy gives you a high level of control over both player's hand sizes and graveyards. At a basic level, this gives you an easy way to put a creature in the yard for [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]. More recently, I used it to target myself against Burn, putting creatures from my hand and in play into the graveyard for [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card] to turn into life. Since every 3 life equaled a burn spell—denying my opponent a card—it was a good, if non-intuitive, use of resources.
In MN the other weekend, I watched my buddy play Storm against a ramp opponent. He got to a lethal storm count by casting [card]Burning Wish[/card] for [card]Past in Flames[/card], but couldn't achieve hellbent for his [card]Infernal Tutor[/card] due to an [card]Empty the Warrens[/card] trapped in his hand. Eventually, he won with the riskier [card]Ad Nauseam[/card]. After the game, I pointed out a Therapy with flashback: B, thanks to [card]Past in Flames[/card]. While [card]Thoughtseize[/card] would've worked just as well here, it's less friendly on the life total, which is a necessary resource for [card]Ad Nauseam[/card]. Similarly, self-targeting discard can activate threshold for [card]Cabal Ritual[/card].
In the old days of Extended, when Tempest was the oldest block legal, I ran the card alongside [card]Reanimate[/card] in a Machinehead-like brew. Between [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] and [card]Terminate[/card], I almost always had a good target for Reanimate in my opponent's yard. Similarly, Reanimator decks of the era also ran the card, though suffered from only having [card]Putrid Imp[/card] and [card]Hapless Researcher[/card] to flash it back.
Regarding Deck Design
Like most unique, powerful Legacy staples, [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] imposes a number of design restrictions. You need to see a certain number of creatures a game for the card to be reliably flashbacked, and the card isn't good against every archetype. Since aggro decks are prone to dumping their hand, Therapy is best used in decks that are already strong against aggro. Cards like [card]Umezawa's Jitte[/card] and [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] are fine ways of making up the potential disadvantage that Therapy presents as a dead draw in the mid- to late game.
On the plus side, aggro decks are more prone to showing their hand in the early game with cards like [card]Delver of Secrets[/card], [card]Silvergill Adept[/card], [card]Goblin Matron[/card]/[card goblin ringleader]Ringleader[/card], and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]. When they have a card in hand in the late game, it's usually clear what it is (removal/burn/extra land).
Combo decks that only care about [card]Force of Will[/card] might prefer Therapy to [card]Thoughtseize[/card] because it can strip multiple Forces out of the opponent's hand.
Over the years, many designers have been tempted by the allure of tutoring up [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] “for value.” I've seen it make many a [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] package and [card]Intuition[/card] pile. Unfortunately, in Legacy you don't have time to durdle, and rarely will you want to get a piece of one-mana disruption with a clunkier draw spell. Flipping this method on its head, ChannelFireball's own Travis Woo designed a [card]Past in Flames[/card] deck with the full four [card]Cabal Therapy[/card]s, but with [card]Bloodghast[/card] as the likely tutor target! Since Travis uses [card]Entomb[/card] as his tutor of choice, he's not paying more for his flashback than the spell itself, and much less if he ever uses [card]Bloodghast[/card] to flashback another one. This strikes me as elegant enough to be Legacy viable.
As an Engine
[card]Cabal Therapy[/card] has a home in Legacy as not only a stellar piece of disruption, but also as a sacrifice outlet, and a number of different archetypes have sprung up around the card.
I've spent a lot of time talking about Nic Fit, but for those unfamiliar, the deck uses [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] as a sacrifice outlet for [card]Veteran Explorer[/card]. The addition of the intrepid little green creature gives [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] control decks a stable way of accelerating that emphasizes a critical mass of basic lands. Because these decks feature higher curves than average, it ensures a higher average power level per card and a stronger late game than the typical fair deck.
Why it works:
Legacy has a drought of ramp decks, or decks that can take advantage of extra basic land drops. Many, like RUG and Maverick, have as few as one or zero basics to search up. In my experience, the biggest threat comes from [card]High Tide[/card] decks, which can kill a turn or two earlier with an extra set of basics.
Other decks, such as Merfolk, have plenty of basic lands to fetch out, but lose major strengths when facing a pile of lands on the other side of the table. [card]Daze[/card], [card]Wasteland[/card], and [card]Aether Vial[/card] all become dead earlier than usual, and cheap threats are outclassed by pricier creatures.
Recently, Sam Black Top 8'd a Legacy Grand Prix with his innovative Zombies deck designed to abuse synergies between [card]Faithless Looting[/card], [card]Bloodghast[/card], [card]Carrion Feeder[/card], [card]Blood Artist[/card], [card]Goblin Bombardment[/card], and [card]Lingering Souls[/card].
Why it works:
Every aspect of the deck screams synergy, and [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] is both engine enabler and key disruption piece. As a sacrifice outlet, it triggers [card]Blood Artist[/card] and has synergy with [card]Bloodghast[/card]. As a flashback card, it works well with [card]Faithless Looting[/card].
Without Therapy, the deck still has resilience to certain staples like [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card], but it would lack game against the unfair decks in the format, and the overall power level of its draws would decrease.
While Rector has shown up in some Nic Fit builds, it hasn't received much buzz the recent printing of [card]Omniscience[/card]. Now, a flurry of different decks have sprung up to take advantage of the powerful new enchantment. Since both Rector and Emrakul (which works well with [card]Omniscience[/card]) can be tutored for with [card]Living Wish[/card], the brews are reasonably consistent.
Why it works:
While other sacrifice outlets exist in the format, [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] remains the most elegant. As such, it should always find itself alongside its buddies [card]Academy Rector[/card] and [card]Pattern of Rebirth[/card], at least until something better gets printed.
Graveyard-based decks use Therapy differently because, while they too can benefit from disrupting the opponent, it's more like a free piece of combo protection, stripping out [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card]s and [card]Surgical Extraction[/card]s before the damage is done. A self-milling deck like Dredge or Cephalid Breakfast will see Therapy every game, much like how [card]High Tide[/card] decks should be able to find a [card]Force of Will[/card] if they need one. Unlike [card]Force of Will[/card], Therapy serves as a graveyard enabler. In Dredge, the sacrifice outlet can turn [card]Narcomoeba[/card]s into [card]Bridge from Below[/card] tokens. Even when drawn naturally, the card does work by binning dredgers, [card]Dread Return[/card]s, and reanimation targets that would otherwise be stuck in hand.
Since the card is mostly there for protection, the emphasis on casting it changes. About a year ago, Richard Feldman wrote an article on Dredge, and one of the quotes stuck with me:
“Using Therapy to beat hate cards is straightforward: think of the card you fear, picture it in your mind, then say its name out loud. Do this as Cabal Therapy is resolving.” -Richard Feldman
This strategy is useful for all decks. If you're piloting Nic Fit, and you can't beat a [card]Stifle[/card] on your [card]Veteran Explorer[/card] trigger, name Stifle! When I talked to Dredge (and Legacy) expert David Thomas on the subject, he started with a similar bit of wisdom:
What's the single most important thing to consider when casting Cabal Therapy?
“Don't just name cards because they are good cards. You have to consider what specific cards you don't want them to have.”
What's your average hit % with the card in the dark? That is, after only seeing the first one or two land drops?
“In the blind around 50-60% of the time.”
In Dredge specifically, are you more likely to name a card you know they have in hand or something different? For example, what if Merfolk reveals a [card]Lord of Atlantis[/card] to a [card]Silvergill Adept[/card], or if Esper Blade tutors for a [card]Batterskull[/card] with [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]?
“I name the known unless the only way of stopping me is through the card that is going to beat me. Like, if I'm about to Dread Return and kill them, or explode onto the table with zombies, I'll name [card]Force of Will[/card]. If I'm setting up [card]Ichorid[/card] beats, I'll name the [card]Batterskull[/card]. It all comes down to the situation.”
And that's all for now. I feel like there's a lot more to cover with this card, but as always time limits my mortal efforts. Did I miss anything important? Do any of my ideas need clarifying? What are your favorite [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] moments?
Until next week,