[draft]brainstorm[/draft]

[card]Brainstorm[/card] is miscast in a variety of ways. Legacy newcomers might jam it turn one instead of waiting for a shuffle effect, not realizing that by redrawing one of the cards, they’re diluting the [card]Brainstorm[/card]’s effectiveness. They might see the word “instant” and systematically cast it on their opponent’s end step, oblivious to finesse or timing. Perhaps they’ll jam it when their hand is already full of cards they want, lacking prospects to shuffle away. Sometimes, they might even do this when they need the mana for other things. If you are such a player, don’t get intimidated! Experience is necessary to develop any skill worth having.

Legacy veterans face a different set of problems. Well versed in [card]Brainstorm[/card] theory, they might follow the guidelines too closely. It’s important to remember that, while a good player knows the rules, the talented one can see when said rules don’t apply.

When I see a player I respect cast a bad [card]Brainstorm[/card], it's usually because they're in an unusual situation, perhaps due to playing a new archetype. Someone who's used to playing the card for value in a control deck is going to need to make an adjustment when switching to a combo deck like Storm or Tinfins.

Know What You're Playing

[card]Brainstorm[/card] is such a versatile card that how and when you cast it largely depends on what type of deck you're playing. There are a few considerations, here.

1: The number of shuffle effects in your deck. I remember playing Bant with [card]Green Sun's Zenith[/card], [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] as extra shuffle effects. In that deck, I had the extra mana for early [card]Brainstorm[/card]s, and I’d almost always hit a shuffle. Casting early [card]Brainstorm[/card]s smoothed out my draws, helping apply pressure and finding the relevant disruption or threats.

[draft]green sun's zenith[/draft]

High Tide is another deck that can get away with fast and loose [card]Brainstorm[/card]ing. It has the usual fetchland suite, on top of a set of [card]Merchant Scroll[/card]s and [card]Ponder[/card]s, and even [card]Time Spiral[/card]—the most badass shuffle effect of all time. The deck also needs to hit its land drops—not hitting a shuffle effect versus not assembling your combo on time is heavily scaled towards casting your [card]Brainstorm[/card] any time you need to cantrip.

Most [card]Brainstorm[/card] decks aren’t like that. Take Esper Blade. I once watched an Esper Blade player miss his second land drop for two turns before finally cashing in his [card]Brainstorm[/card]. Neatly enough, he hit his second land on the last card, and I “oohed” and golf clapped in my head.

It’s hard to calculate how long you can wait based on the opponent’s pressure. In the average game of Legacy, your opponent is doing stuff that you need to react to, and the need to find answers overwhelms the option to wait a turn or two to prevent bricking. On the other hand, there are plenty of games where your opponent’s main source of pressure is a [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] and a 1/2 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], or maybe both players kept hands full of reactive spells and you both can just sit there drawing cards without any immediate danger.

2: Your deck's critical turn. I’ve talked about the critical turn of a format before, when the average deck has either won or taken over the game. A deck’s critical turn is more specific. If you could graph a format’s critical turn, your deck would be a single dot. The reason this matters is because it relates to timing. If your game plan is to win turn two, saving your best card for turn three doesn’t make sense.

Some decks have a much more gradual critical turn than average, trying to stretch the play out over some indeterminate number of turns. RUG needs to interact on turn one forward, but it never really takes control of the game at a specific point. The cheap disruption combined with mana denial allows the deck to interact at any stage of the game. Rather than pick a spot and strike like a cobra, RUG smothers the opponent, denying resources, slowly strangling like a python.

Compare this to Nic Fit, which spends the first few turns setting up and casting a bit of disruption before playing a [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] or some other sweet card on turn 3-4 and taking over the game with huge spells. I like cards like [card]Brainstorm[/card] and Top in these sorts of decks, because it helps you set up the next several turns, which is important because you often have to spend every mana perfectly.

In a control deck, [card]Brainstorm[/card] might not directly interact with the deck’s critical turn so much as act as a form of inevitability, eventually trading dead disruption for live cards.

Know What Your Opponent is Playing

The opponent's deck matters for two key reasons:

1: It'll impact what cards you put back. You want to shuffle away your spot removal vs. combo, your [card]Force of Will[/card]s against [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card] decks, and your vulnerable threats against decks with lots of answers. If your opponent leads with a nondescript fetch or dual land and passes, what are you going to put back?

Often, I’ll hold back for information. Firing off a turn one blind [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] is only correct if you intend to kill your opponent that turn, yet people still do it. The first few turns of the game tell a story that informs you what to name with Therapy, what to put back with [card]Brainstorm[/card], and even what threats you should be investing resources into deploying and protecting.

Of course, even this rule has a slew of exceptions. Maybe you have a pile of extra lands to shuffle away. Maybe you need a threat to deploy. Whatever you do, it’s important to have a plan. If the plan never comes together, you know you’re misevaluating somewhere.

2: The opposing critical turn might impact when you cast [card]Brainstorm[/card]. In a grindy midrange mirror, you want to hold it until you can milk the last bit of value out of the card. If you're playing against a turn two deck, however, you might not live to cast it. Dying with good cards in your hand is the surest sign that you did something wrong, somewhere.

I remember watching my buddy play a game three on the draw against Reanimator. He mulled to triple [card]Brainstorm[/card], [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], and two lands (not the worst combination of cards I’ve ever seen). The problem was, his opponent spent the first turn or two cantripping while my buddy held his [card]Brainstorm[/card]s, patient-like, until he could fetch immediately afterwards. His opponent went for it on his turn three, my buddy cantripped a few times to find a [card]Force of Will[/card], then lost to a [card]Daze[/card]. Fun times, right?

If he’d been less stingy with his value, and more conscious of the imminent danger, he might’ve won that game. With those two extra cards on turn one, he might’ve found another piece of disruption, one that he could resolve on turn two on the draw against his [card]Daze[/card]-wielding opponent. It’s not like the extra [card]Brainstorm[/card] was some precious thing in this hand, as he even had Snapcaster!

I’ve heard a number of players cite “you should never [card]Brainstorm[/card] turn one,” as a hard-and-fast rule, to which I always raise a quizzical brow. Then the exceptions pour out. Like in response to a [card]Thoughtseize[/card], or if your turn two play needs something to win the game, or if your one land is getting [card]Wasteland[/card]ed, or if your opponent is trying to kill you that turn and you need to find an answer.

Know When to Tank

Part of not taking up too much time when [card]Brainstorm[/card]ing is knowing what's important. For example, let's say you're playing RUG on the draw against an unknown deck and you keep the following hand:

[card]Brainstorm[/card], [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Ponder[/card], [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card], Fetch, Fetch, [card]Daze[/card]

Your opponent fetches a basic Swamp and runs out a [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]. On your turn you draw a third fetch. Your first decision is what to fetch. Think about it for a second.

Ok, ready? Step one is knowing what's important, which is answering the opponent's [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card], which will otherwise run away with the game because we don't have a fast Delver hand. As such, we're going to be cantripping to find a burn spell. If our first turn [card]Ponder[/card] doesn't get us there, we're going to need to cast a second cantrip on turn two.

[draft]tropical island[/draft]

[card]Tropical Island[/card] is the option that best sets up the following turns. Not just to cast the [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card], but because on turn two we might need to lead with a second cantrip, and our second fetch will need to get a Volcanic Island. Blundering and having two Volcanic Islands might not be the end of the world, as we have a third fetch, but we might want to put back the land with that [card]Brainstorm[/card].

Now that we’ve fetched Tropical Island, we can cast our [card]Ponder[/card], which sees [card]Daze[/card], [card]Force of Will[/card], [card]Wasteland[/card] for a quick shuffle (drawing [card]Wasteland[/card]).

On our opponent’s second turn, he fetches a Forest and plays a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] before attacking for 1.

We draw a redundant [card]Daze[/card] and fire off [card]Brainstorm[/card], drawing [card]Delver of Secrets[/card], [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]. With the current board state, I like shuffling away the [card]Wasteland[/card], and [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] has the dubious honor of “most likely to eat a [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]” in the Jund matchup, so those are what I’d put back.

Now we can kill the [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] before untapping and deploying the threats we want for this specific matchup. After that, we can cantrip some more to find more of the same. If we didn’t have a plan, or know what was important, we might not have even gotten past our turn one fetch correctly. As it was, even the [card]Brainstorm[/card], one of the more complicated cards in the format, was relatively easy to execute.

The only time [card]Brainstorm[/card] requires a tank is for deep calculation, setting up complex lines over several turns. Simple card evaluation, what’s good here and what isn’t, should already be covered by knowing your deck. Without that knowledge, you won’t be able to play any card accurately, much less [card]Brainstorm[/card].

The Many Faces of Brainstorm

I’ve stressed this already, but one of the many reasons people mess up [card]Brainstorm[/card] is because the card serves different functions in different decks.

I remember getting upset when [card]Brainstorm[/card] was banned in Vintage. At the time, I was using it in Fish, and it helped smooth out my underpowered pile of garbage, making it almost competitive. In that deck, the card was fair. What I didn’t realize was that, in a combo deck, a [card]Brainstorm[/card] is a completely different card.

Here are a few of [card]Brainstorm[/card]’s modes:

The Classical

It’s late in the game, and both players have spent most of their resources. You, the shrewd player that you are, not only hold back an extra land to put back with [card]Brainstorm[/card], but also hold the [card]Brainstorm[/card] until the last possible moment. You know the card will win the game, but only if it doesn’t lock you out of the top of your library. In your hands, the card has transcended above a mere cantrip, imitating the best draw spell of old.

The Tinfin

It’s turn one, you have plenty of mana, and you can kill the opponent if you hit a reanimation effect. Even if you miss, you’ll be in good position to find a win next turn. Signs point to firing it off. No, you don’t have a shuffle effect at the ready, but do you know how much virtual card advantage you gain by winning the game on the spot?

Tinfins is special even among combo decks because it runs [card]Entomb[/card], which you can use as an upkeep shuffle effect, but there are a variety of other combo decks that might want to cast a turn one [card]Brainstorm[/card].

Even in the deck with the highest non-Belcher turn one win rate in the format, it’s not always correct to jam [card]Brainstorm[/card] and pray. Sometimes, especially post-board, you want to be patient, find a discard spell (like if you suspect a [card]Surgical Extraction[/card]), and wait for that second land drop.

The Storm Count

You have all the land drops in the world, and an early [card]Duress[/card] showed your opponent’s hand is filled with countermagic.

So you sit back, relax, and wait until your land drops are spent. With eight cards in your grip, the saved up cantrips chain together, letting you reach lethal storm count for the natural [card]Tendrils of Agony[/card].

The Fix

“The Fix” doesn’t refer to your hand, but rather to fixing the top of your deck. This could be something as simple as responding to a [card]Goblin Guide[/card] trigger or as complex as predicting the necessary cost for a [card]Counterbalance[/card] reveal two turns down the road.

One of the more common uses of The Fix is to ensure your Delver(s) flips on your upkeep, which can win games. I make this play rarely, maybe fifteen percent of the time I have both cards in my opener. Delver already has a high chance of flipping, it’s a vulnerable threat that might just die anyway, and casting a higher-value [card]Brainstorm[/card] has a huge impact on the game. Even if you have an on-board shuffle effect, using your Delver trigger as a free scry and holding your [card]Brainstorm[/card] might still be better if you need the mana for other plays.

The older version of The Fix involves holding your [card]Brainstorm[/card] until you need a specific reveal for your [card]Counterbalance[/card] trigger. The next level of this involves holding the converted mana cost that you’ll need in the future (say a three against [card]Show and Tell[/card]).

I once had a game against Elves where he tutored for an early [card]Elvish Archdruid[/card], which got in some serious damage before I stuck a [card]Thrun, the Last Troll[/card]. I was playing some crazy BUG Countertop concoction with maindeck [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card]s and a miser's [card]Lotus Petal[/card] that my friends didn’t talk me out of because they secretly hate me and want to see me do poorly.

Anyway, I had already used one of my two actual removal spells, and I wasn’t counting on topdecking the other one. This was post-board, however, and I knew I had three [card]Submerge[/card]s to draw into. Over the turns I was able to formulate a plan, and I held back [card]Eternal Witness[/card] when I drew it. When I finally found a [card]Submerge[/card], I was able to take out his Archdruid permanently by [card]Brainstorm[/card]ing the [card]Eternal Witness[/card] on top of my deck when he went to recast his Elf lord.

I used this trick just the other day in testing. Against [card]Omniscience[/card] I had a [card]Counterbalance[/card] in play and a Counterspell, [card]Brainstorm[/card], and Force in hand. When he went for it, I was able to Counterspell his [card]Show and Tell[/card] and then respond to his [card]Force of Will[/card] by [card]Brainstorm[/card]ing my own Force to the top of my library, answering his counter without card disadvantage. More importantly, it saved my Force for his next attempt to go off.

The Reverse Tutor

[card]Brainstorm[/card] puts cards back into your deck, which is useful if you have specific tutors like [card]Infernal Tutor[/card], [card]Green Sun's Zenith[/card] ([card]Dryad Arbor[/card]), or [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card].

A month or so ago, I tested the Helm version of Miracles against the Stoneforge version. While Stoneforge wasn’t my best card, I enjoyed drawing it. In one game, I [card]Brainstorm[/card]ed the same [card]Batterskull[/card] away twice only to fetch it back out both times. Gotta love that shuffle.

With RUG, I’ve had multiple games where my deck had no more fetchable lands, but I kept drawing fetchlands. Dazing a land back to my hand before [card]Brainstorm[/card]ing it into my library let me squeeze that last bit of value out of my fetch (which I needed as a shuffle effect anyway). One time, I used this trick to get an extra red mana on my opponent’s turn when all my other Volcanic Islands had been Wastelanded.

The Protection

[card]Brainstorm[/card] can protect your hand from discard effects or [card]Vendilion Clique[/card] by stashing cards on top of your library. Neat, eh?

Like all [card]Brainstorm[/card] tricks, this one gets overused. Sometimes the potential [card]Brainstorm[/card] on a later turn is more important than protecting your best current card.

This mode is at its weakest with known shuffle effects. A savvy player might [card]Wasteland[/card] your fetchland. With Show and Tell, a clever opponent might take your Emrakul, shuffling away the cards you were trying to protect. With Blue Nic Fit, your opponent might kill off your [card]Veteran Explorer[/card].

The Blue Card

My brain explodes every time I see someone cast [card]Brainstorm[/card] to find a blue card to pitch to [card]Force of Will[/card]. Every once in a while this might be correct, but only when the card you want to Force isn’t that important in the first place. If you need to Force a spell or die, suck it up and pitch the [card]Brainstorm[/card]!
Sometimes, being able to force a card is so important that it’s correct to earmark a blue card (say [card]Brainstorm[/card]) early on in the game. Realizing in advance that you’ll need a card to pitch to [card]Force of Will[/card] can be some of the hardest calculating you’ll ever have to do as a magic player. I know that it’s one of the few mistakes I still catch myself making with RUG on a regular basis, usually with an early [card]Delver of Secrets[/card].

That’s it for this article. What’s your favorite [card]Brainstorm[/card] story? When have you caught yourself (or a friend) messing it up?

Caleb Durward
@CalebDMTG