Playing with Cantrips

Posted in Serious Fun on February 19, 2013

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

I'm a fan of evolution. While it's usually discussed in terms of scientific theory and Darwin's legacy, I'm fonder of its colloquial definitions:

  • any process of formation or growth; development
  • a product of such development

While Simic Week is sure to evolve with mad science and puns, what appeals more to me is the idea of change that creates something new. The magical merging of creatures—the krasis—isn't biological evolution, but a product of direct development.

Rapid hybridization of things in Magic describes how we ended up with Commander, Two-Headed Giant, Winchester Draft, and other ways to play. Take some good, but separate, things and mash them together. Presto! Instant awesome.

Last week's return to The Compendium of Casual Magic brought a slew of these mashes to our tables, but the writers of Serious Fun history aren't the only founts of fun. A few weeks ago, a reader named Mike emailed me a playful twist borrowing from Commander. While the name uses a term already defined in Magic slang it's drawn from an entirely separate game, Dungeons & Dragons.


In Brief: Each player begins the game with a sorcery in the command zone. Players may cast theirs, paying an additional cost, during each of their turns.

Rules Rundown: Cantrips works similarly to the commander rules in Commander.

  • Each player chooses a sorcery with converted mana cost of 1. It may not have in its mana cost.
  • The sorcery must also be from a Modern set.
  • The sorcery stays in the command zone as that player's cantrip. During that player's main phase, that player may cast the cantrip.
  • Cantrips cost an additional to cast. When they resolve or are countered, they return to the command zone. (They do not cost an additional, cumulative each time they are cast.)

Pros: Planeswalker cards come packed with spells built in. Taking a cheap sorcery to have ready feels natural and helps flesh out themes or decks with an effect you know is available. If you built Commander decks specifically around a commander, you know how powerful this can be. Becoming a Planeswalker feels stronger when you have a spell to use yourself.

Cons: There is some disparity in spell options, with each color getting very different effects. While legendary creatures vary wildly, most are the multicolor variety. There is a dearth of multicolor, one-mana sorceries, and cards that draw another aren't available for everyone.

Mike explained further how his play group handles cantrips.

This is all about building up the flavor of the cantrip as it was inspired by D&D; a spell that you've completely mastered to the point where you can cast it over and over again without having to rememorize it from your library. And, also, to make us all feel a little less inadequate when compared to the unerring spellcasting consistency of every other Planeswalker in the Multiverse.

We've done a lot of playtesting with it in the Modern format (none yet for Legacy; some of the older sorceries are scary powerful and we're not really sure if this house rule can support their weight) and, while we're not completely satisfied with the variety of spells white has available to it in Modern, we wanted to let you know about it and see what your thoughts might be on its playability and any reforms that we might want to try.

As I shared when I revisited the Mercenaries variant, putting things in the command zone for players to use is awesome. Cantrips is exactly the type of extra rule set that works well with Commander and opens up new ways to personalize and customize play experiences.

Bioshift | Art by Scott Chou

While I didn't create Cantrips, there are a few things I can see that make it work well.

  • No instants. This prevents choices like Dispel or Crush from wrecking the ability of other players to do things. The main-phase restriction prevents Leyline of Anticipation shenanigans from subverting the rules.
  • Just the cheapest spells. While it's tempting to expand this to a spell of any size, it quickly spirals out of control. Sorceries like Rampant Growth and Rite of Replication would get out of hand quickly and fundamentally alter how games play out.
  • Room to grow further. Looking at Modern gives a variety of choices, but it isn't overwhelming to go through. There's something for players of all tastes and leaves even older sorceries open for exploration to the adventurous.

In short, I like it and I wouldn't change much!

Break Out Your Spellbooks

If you're thinking about trying Cantrips yourself, I've done a little legwork for you already. The benefit of having a cantrip isn't simply having something to do, but something you want to do repeatedly.

For me, that's generally finding a card I want, getting something back from the graveyard, or removing something I find annoying. All of these effects can be created by spells that cost one mana.


Oust had a brief moment in Standard, but was outshined thoroughly by Path to Exile and other powerful removal spells. As a cantrip in Commander, 3 life is paltry, but the threat of tucking someone else's commander into his or her library is potent. You may not choose to include Oust as a spell in your ninety-nine, but for a freebie it's frightening. Commanders like Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer appreciate the delay most of all.

Path to Exile

Ritual of Restoration is an underrated card as it stands. Getting back a destroyed Sword of Feast and Famine or Solemn Simulacrum is nifty, but as a cantrip it shines with Wayfarer's Bauble, Expedition Map, and Armillary Sphere. Commanders like Reya Dawnbringer and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite rely on time to get enough mana to come play.

Ritual of Restoration
Wayfarer's Bauble

Steelshaper's Gift is the flip side to Ritual of Restoration. Instead of getting back your favorite tool, you can easily find any Equipment you want. Commanders like Aurelia, the Warleader and Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer appreciate this cantrip most.


Distortion Strike is a stellar option thanks to granting a stalemate-breaking ability: unblockability. Fans of Rafiq of the Many and Thada Adel, Acquisitor will enjoy attacking even more.

Distortion Strike
Rafiq of the Many

Ponder and Preordain aren't legal for competitive Modern events, but they feel fine as tools in Commander (where far more powerful cards like Survival of the Fittest still live). Getting to draw a card for four mana is already possible—see Treasure Trove and others—and the modest digging these provide isn't as efficient as searching cards out directly. These are catch-all cards that can help any deck with blue, although I'd recommend Preordain since you won't have to shuffle.



Ghoulcaller's Chant is a supercharged Disentomb or Raise Dead. While it works as a way to recur for any deck packing Swamps, commanders like Grimgrin, Corpse-Born and Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter appreciate the potential of getting two creatures back each pass.

Ghoulcaller's Chant
Grimgrin, Corpse-Born

Mire's Toll is one way to peek if the coast is clear or to get access to something awesome. Geth, Lord of the Vault and The Mimeoplasm both appreciate creature cards going to the graveyard, and when you have ten or more Swamps in play it will be rare that you don't see something you'd like to have discarded.

Mire's Toll
Geth, Lord of the Vault

Nighthaze probably doesn't excite you too much, but it's important to note that when you have a target you also have a way to draw a card for . This is utility rather than potency.


When I first saw Assault Strobe I was thrilled. When I tried to cast it as an instant I became less enthralled. While you don't get any surprise factor, being able to cast it turn after turn means commanders like Borborygmos Enraged and Rakdos, Lord of Riots become killing machines. Who need surprises?

Assault Strobe
Borborygmos Enraged

Crack the Earth is an interesting effect that becomes much better in the right deck. If you make copies of things with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker or dump oodles of Goblins into play with Krenko, Mob Boss, Crack the Earth is a fine way to keep forcing opponents into tough decisions.

Crack the Earth
Krenko, Mob Boss

Shattering Spree may seem like Crush, but it's very different as a sorcery. Breaking up walls of artifact mana and Equipment is much fairer when opponents have a chance to use them first, albeit for just one turn.


Glimpse of Nature is a Legacy staple for Elf decks, but with a de facto cost of it isn't as potent as a combo enabler. For a creature-laden deck featuring Maelstrom Wanderer or Kamahl, Fist of Krosa, getting an extra card or two when casting creatures helps resist Supreme Verdicts.

Glimpse of Nature
Maelstrom Wanderer

Prey Upon is at its best in a deck packed with fatties and beef. Commanders like Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger and Thrun, the Last Troll love to eat other creatures.

Irresistible Prey may have been a minor Limited trick in its day, but here it serves the same role as Nighthaze in black: a utility spell to draw a card for .

Irresistible Prey


Memory Sluice was one of the first cards I saw after my last lapse in Magic. Echoing the power of Glimpse the Unthinkable, the conspire makes an ordinary milling spell into a powerful way to fill up a graveyard. Lazav, Dimir Mastermind and Wrexial, the Risen Deep appreciate this in different ways.

Glimpse the Unthinkable
Memory Sluice

Fossil Find is a strange mix of green's recursion and red's randomness. In games of Commander, the odds are good that the cards in my graveyard (any of them) are awesome, so a random grab back is fine. When it's repeatable I can see good things happening. Refilling your hand when Radha, Heir to Keld or Wort, the Raidmother is your commander feels awesome.

Fossil Find
Radha, Heir to Keld

Going Deeper

If cards from Modern aren't enough to choose from, there are definitely cards from further back.

  • Energy Tap is a one-shot way to generate mana if you have an expensive creature out. As a cantrip, it isn't hard to open the floodgates of any amount of mana you want.
  • Prophecy isn't overwhelmingly strong, and its card-draw effect hits on the next turn. Forcing an opponent to shuffle his or her oversized library is just asking for trouble. The same deal goes for Visions.
  • The most amusing option I found was Winter Sky, a buried rare from Homelands. If causing a little chaos and keeping the game moving are things you enjoy, dealing 1 damage to everything or having each player draw a card is a fine way to spend .

What's important is that the sorceries chosen help your deck's theme or give you a way to keep up in games. I'm planning to try this myself as soon as I can get enough sorceries to share by bringing a stack of options for players to choose from. If you want to introduce the idea to your play group, having a list of spells to see up front can sell them on the idea, too.

Join us next week when we go behind the scenes to get in the action. See you then!

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