Absolutely Nothing Clever

Posted in Top Decks on May 7, 2009

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Because "Top Cascade Decks" just wasn't clever enough. Guest starring Grand Prix Champion Tim Aten and Pro Tour Champion Osyp Lebedowicz!

One of the things that readers probably never think about after just glancing at the titles of these things—columns that we work at week in and week out—is how punny we try to make them (well, BDM and I try to make them punny anyway). But alas, the best thing I could come up with using the words "cascade," "cascades," and "cascading" had to do with style sheets ... leaving us with absolutely nothing clever (nothing clever enough anyway) ... which is oddly in line with cascade itself.

Nothing Clever? Really?

That's right. I said it. Nothing clever. The problem with cascade as a mechanic is that there just isn't enough of it (yet) to get really clever and unique with the strategy, at least without compromising card power. For example I was talking with the Godfather, Jon Becker, over the weekend about "my" Cascade–Mana Ramp deck (which I will introduce you to later in this column), and Jon pointed out that "There are what—twelve cascade cards in the new set? How unique exactly can you make your deck?"

So while cascade will indubitably be exciting once it gets going in an actual game, the cleverness that goes into at least a tournament-viable cascade deck will probably be pretty minimal. Why? There just aren't that many options.

Reviewing the Twelve Cascade Cards

The Three-Mana Cascade Spells

Ardent Plea
Demonic Dread
Violent Outburst

Of these, I would rate Ardent Plea as the best, Violent Outburst as number two, and Demonic Dread as the weakest. Why? There are cards that kind of look like Ardent Plea that we play in Constructed already; I am thinking now of something like a Glorious Anthem, but in reverse (rewarding solo attacks instead of swarms) ... I realize that there is a bit of internal disconnect here. The bonus is that you can flip a Sigiled Paladin or some such and really get a nice attack on the third turn.

Ardent Plea

Violent Outburst, on balance, works much more like the traditional Glorious Anthem; in fact it kind of reminds me of a sixteen land White Weenie deck Worth Wollpert used to play about fifteen years ago using the card Army of Allah (it was the first deck I had ever heard of that didn't play exactly twently lands). As in that swarming White Weenie deck, Violent Outburst is not going to be very effective at all unless you have a couple of attackers already on board. Can I interest you in an Tattermunge Maniac, untap two Tattermunge Maniacs? Then Violent Outburst flipping Lash Out? You might just get that one. Again, I don't find the three mana Cascade spells to be particularly compelling.

Violent Outburst

Demonic Dread is the weakest because it offers an effect which is fundamentally below the power level of a competitive Constructed card. When Ashenmoor Gouger came out many players chuckled that it had no drawback "because no one blocks anyway" ... See the disconnect with Demonic Dread?

Demonic Dread

As we mentioned in last week's column, one potential benefit to playing the three mana Cascade spells is as a redundancy on a narrow band of two mana spells. So if you only have one kind of two mana spell—say Terminates—then your three mana Cascade spells will all double as Terminates; for a while I toyed with the idea of playing some really ineffectual three mana Cascade spells in order to guarantee that my Scepter of Fugue would resolve against control... But the down side was that then I couldn't play any cheap spells but Scepter of Fugue (not a great idea when I am getting attacked starting turn three if not two in many matchups), plus... The opponent can just let the weaker three mana Cascade spell resolve and wait for the Scepter, countering it anyway. All in all, not one of my best sideboarding plans.

The Four-Mana Cascade Spells

Bloodbraid Elf
Captured Sunlight
Kathari Remnant
Stormcaller's Boon

I don't think I have to explain why Kathari Remnant and Stormcaller's Boon are probably too weak for Constructed deck design, but I actually have both of the other two spells in my initial cascade sketch ... which has generated a good deal of discussion in social media circles. Basically they are both good if not great cards fundamentally, and you can get something very attractive on the bonus.

I spent a fair amount of space on Worth Wollpert time tunnel Talruum Minotaurlast week, so for actual Cascade Week I am going to write about the other, more Loxodon-like four mana spell.

Basically you can get a fairly Loxodon Hierarch–like effect out of Captured Sunlight if you construct your deck to do so (and you don't get too unlucky and hit a two-drop); for example, a Kitchen Finks is—to quote hudnall56 on my blog—"the most mid-rangey thing [he's] heard of for a long time," whereas Captured Sunlight into Wooly Thoctar is for most practical purposes just better than a Loxodon Hierarch.

Is Captured Sunlight a Constructed-worthy spell? Main deck or sideboard only?

I will try to answer these questions in the deck list section, but as we graduate to five-drops, I would just like to leave you with this:


For many decks—the most popular being Five-Color Control decks, such as Gabriel Nassif's, which won the most recent Pro TourAnathemancer is just that, anathema. This guy is big problems, a harbinger of tremendous damage. Even if the control deck counters the Zombie Wizard, that doesn't stop the inevitable 5, 6, even 10 damage that it promises to deal the next turn, uncounterable, from the graveyard.

The Five-Mana Cascade Spells

Bituminous Blast
Deny Reality

It is quite difficult to deny the versatility of Deny Reality ... but it seems a bit unwieldy for serious Constructed play. As a sorcery, Deny Reality lacks the speed of even the more expensive—yet still viable—bounce spells, though the five mana is less a barrier this time around just because an expensive spell actually makes cascade more impressive.

On balance Bituminous Blast is one of the strongest cards on the list. Think about it as an instant-speed Blaze for four that can only be played against creatures ... but can give you a nice bonus (particularly when flipping a Bloodbraid Elf). Likely Bituminous Blast will be a cornerstone of any cascade-themed deck.

The Six-Mana Cascade Spell

Enlisted Wurm

This is actually the card that inspired my upcoming deck list.

Last week I wrote, "Enlisted Wurm is a card that I desperately wish were good enough to play ... but I am just worried that instead of getting the next Keiga, the Tide Star, too often I am going to be investing in a six-mana Wood Elves or perhaps Ghitu Slinger (might get there)."

But my friend Osyp Lebedowicz countered with, "Enlisted Wurm is like a Mind's Desire, only you get a 5/5."

Enlisted Wurm
Mind's Desire

This is the power—or at least the potential power—of Enlisted Wurm, and speaks to its potential. A Mind's Desire! This can only be accomplished in a cascade deck; you can flip a Rampant Growth, sure ... but the best turns really can be impressive.

The Seven-Mana Cascade Spell

Enigma Sphinx

Enigma Sphinx is on the small side for seven-mana creatures (remember big boomer Simic Sky Swallower?), but its two special abilities are both tremendous. Oh, and it flies.

Enigma Sphinx

As a seven-mana Cascade spell, Enigma Sphinxcan flip other, significant, spells. Think Broodmate Dragon, or, you know, Enlisted Wurm.

Secondly, Enigma Sphinx is resilient. Sure, it can be banished more-or-less permanently with a Counterspell or Path to Exile, but anything on the ground is just going to pave the way for more and more two-for-ones ... and as per the previous ability, those could be some big two-for-ones.

Special Bonus Not-Quite-a-Cascade-Card

Maelstrom Nexus

There are a couple of things that come to mind when first examining this card. First of all, the person who plays a Maelstrom Nexus is probably in it for a long game. Why? Because the Nexus can't take effect until the next turn after it is played, no matter what. It's basically never going to be responsible for something awesome the turn it comes down (they even make sure to highlight the words "first spell" twice, in the text and reminder text).

Maelstrom Nexus

Secondly, it is a dangerous card to play by its very structure. Maelstrom Nexus has "domain" written all over it ... or at least at the top right, where it matters most. So even when you've untapped with it in play, you run a pronounced risk of flipping Borderposts, Rampant Growths, Chromatic Stars—whatever you used to get your into play—even more than other "ramp"-oriented decks. That is, you are getting mana and card advantage out of it, but you don't want your Maelstrom Nexus to be gathering nothing but mana sources.

Provided you have a spell of sufficient mana cost to play, Maelstrom Nexus is going to operate kind of like a Howling Mine + Dark Ritual; but unlike all of the "true" Cascade spells on this list, Maelstrom Nexus can get stuck. For instance (and you would want to play around doing this if you could), what exactly are you going to flip when Rampant Growth is your first spell? That's right. Exactly.

Okay, okay already ...

The Deck List

Cascade Ramp, v 1.0

Download Arena Decklist

I warned you up front: Absolutely nothing clever about it.

Fair warning to start: This is of course the first pass with a cascade-based deck, whose main goal is to explore the power and viability of the mechanic. Of course it is still rough around the edges.

This version in particular—even given the caveat that it isn't clever—was born of two fathers. The first was Osyp's "Mind's Desire" comment ... Is Enlisted Wurm that good? I had to find out. The second came from a reader named Mike C. who contacted me on Twitter about his favorite cascade spell, Captured Sunlight. Given Mike's urging I tried it out for myself; heck, the mana matched its in-color and in-mechanic buddy, you know, Mind's Desire.

Here are some early testing conclusions:

Unsurprisingly, this cascade is pretty good against red decks. The prospect of Captured Sunlight flipping Kitchen Finks is basically a nightmare for Hellspark Elementals.

Flipping a Rampant Growth isn't that bad. When your four-mana Cascade spell can put you directly into six-mana range the following turn, that means Broodmate Dragon or Enlisted Wurm.

Speaking of Enlisted Wurm, the answer is "three." That is the most spells I have ever flipped from a single cascade attempt. I think the nicest was Bituminous Blast removing a blocker, flipping Bloodbraid Elf, flipping Lash Out for a second blocker. With no three-mana cascade spells, getting five, then four, then one more is about as good as this deck can do it.

"Great against creatures, can't beat Blue Game 1" ... That is Osyp's conclusion anyway. Especially the way I have it set up with no way to remove huge creatures main deck, the Lash Out–based creature defense can make you vulnerable to Wall of Reverence or Oona, Queen of the Fae simply on size. As we mentioned above, the main plan against Five-Color Control is Anathemancer; for Faeries, it is an eight-pack of powerhouse sweepers.

So what about that Captured Sunlight? How good has it been?

Loxodon Hierarch

Tim Aten's response:

Captured Sunlight is a sideboard card at best. Loxodon Hierarch's allure was that it wrapped everything up in a neat little package, and you knew what you'd be getting every time. Most of the current top decks don't care about the life gain part of the equation—making Sunlight just "play a random three mana spell from your deck"—so why not maindeck something they DO care about? As red decks are the only opponents against whom life gain approaches "card advantage," you could try Sunlight as part of a package against them specifically.

Tim's comment is not far off from my experience. I actually think the presence of Captured Sunlight may be adversely affecting my play because instead of making tighter, board position–generating, plays, I often find myself playing Captured Sunlight or Enlisted Wurm (over Broodmate Dragon) just to see what kind of bonus I am going to get. This is more dangerous with Captured Sunlight just because—as Tim argues—the card doesn't really do anything in many matchups. The so-called card advantage of a Captured Sunlight is entirely contingent on if the opponent's being willing to spend cards on your life total. So against a red deck, Captured Sunlight is worth two Tarfires before anything else ... the next spell is just gravy. Not so against Five-Color Control.

That said, I would leave in my Captured Sunlights (if indeed they were still in the main deck come tournament time) just for Anathemancer access. Any and every. Any and every against Reflecting Pools!

Focus Only on What Matters

We are about to dive headlong into the first Standard PTQ season in three years and detour for Regionals—also Standard—with little or no data about the new set. What's a girl to do?

No matter what in Magic, the answer is to focus only on what matters.

Among the new cards from Alara Reborn, what matters most from the threat side seems to be Anathemancer, a card with no cascade that nevertheless meshes very synergistically with cascade spells of four mana or greater. Anathemancer gives Blightning Beatdown even more legs against Five-Color Control ... but probably not enough against its most difficult matchup, Kithkin. Black-White Tokens, though? Not bad. Will it be enough?

As players, we need to use our knowledge of shifting values to make the best choices in terms of deck selection. Remember: when what is good changes in a format, what is bad changes right along with it.

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