Cantripping Through Competitive Commander
Pondering Mage | Illustrated by Tommy Arnold
Ponder is one of my favourite cards in Magic. But here's why I don't run it in cEDH.
Cantrips can be a bit of a tricky thing to properly evaluate, especially when initially joining the throes of cEDH. At least, that was certainly the case with me, a player who joined cEDH fresh out of the 60-card gauntlet. But first, some context.
Before cEDH became my favourite format - in fact, even before Commander was my format of choice - Legacy was the arena I played in. Countertop Miracles, Sneak and Show, Delver, these were the decks of my Magic heyday, and it was through that competitive one-v.-one environment that I learned how to play the game. Now, many of these decks have had notorious pieces banned from them - Miracles its Sensei's Divining Top, Delver its Deathrite Shaman, etc. - but for anything playing blue, the core engine of the deck has largely been able to live on and adapt. This has all been thanks, in no small part, to cantrips.
Brainstorm, Ponder, Gitaxian Probe - in any 60-card constructed format which these cards are legal in, they are (to varying degrees) staples of play. If you're playing blue in Legacy, you are playing Brainstorm. In Vintage, you're jamming that one copy of Gitaxian Probe. Outside of 60-card constructed, however, the role of cantrips as the de-facto blue glue is largely nonexistent, with both their purpose and prevalence shifting substantially.
The Consistency Problem
Broadly speaking, cantrips are cheap instants and sorceries which serve to provide their caster with some form of information or card selection, alongside a neutral return on card investment. From Ponder to Preordain and everything in between, when it comes to cantrips you spend a card to get a card.
While this incremental investment, incremental return style of effect may sound insignificant at first, the sheer increase in deck consistency which cantrips purport to offer is incredibly significant. Well, significant en mass.
Perhaps more than any other class of card effect, the function of cantrips within a decklist is defined as much by their quantity as their rules text. Compare a conservative average 60-card constructed deck with six cantrips and six fetchlands, which is representative of a card pool thinned by 20%, against a 99-card Commander deck running the three strongest cantrips plus a full swath of 10 fetchlands, and the result is a deck thinned by only 13%. If we want to get particularly granular about it (Magic is most definitely all about numbers, after all), then the average instance of casting and resolving a cantrip - which traditionally obtain card selection information from amongst three possible cards (see Brainstorm, Ponder, etc.) - is representative of viewing roughly 5% of a traditional 60-card deck, versus 3% of the traditional Commander deck. The results are overwhelming: not only does running the full amount of widely played, "powerful" cantrips in a Commander deck provide you with 35% less deck thinning, but so too does each instance of resolving a cantrip represent access to 40% less comparative information relative to the overall deck itself (I'll yield that I've excluded some of the lesser-played cantrips, like Preordain, from this. Even inclusive of those, however, it would take another seven cantrips to even come close to the standard suite of 60-card constructed cantrip information access).
This is where the fundamental deck construction differences between Commander and 60-card constructed give rise to the fundamental problem of cantrips: consistency. The very purpose of cantrips is to increase deck consistency, something which 100-card singleton lists are inherently structured to minimize. 60-card constructed decks run only the very best of each effect, safeguarded by the luxury of playsets. Commander decks, meanwhile, operate strictly within the confines of diminishing returns: unless a card is functionally identical to another already within the list, then each successive iteration of an effect within a deck is going to be worse than the one which came before. Vampiric Tutor and Imperial Seal are the poster children of this dilemma; I'd be hard-pressed to find a black cEDH deck which doesn't run both, but we can all agree that one of these cards is substantially worse than the other. In 60-card, if the banlist allowed for it, then Imperial Seal would be tossed by the wayside as players bought up playsets of Vampiric Tutor (well, we'd probably see decks running both, but Vampiric Tutor would be the first choice every time). In Commander, we can't do this, so we're stuck running both.
When it comes to cantrips - cards designed to be played in multiple and in smaller overall decklists - both the instantaneous and long-run value suffers tremendously. Running a playset of Brainstorms in Legacy gives you access to 20% of your deck in card selection (if you can cast all four) while thinning your overall decklist by nearly 7%. Those numbers are gigantic, and completely unparalleled in Commander. In any given blue Commander deck, I can run one Brainstorm, but after that I would have to move to Ponder, then Gitaxian Probe, then Preordain...etc (I don't mean to compare individual cards here, the ordering is irrelevant, the point is simply that card quality diminishes with quantity). Not only does the consistency offered by any one cantrip fall substantially, but so too does the consistency of effects across cantrips completely crater.
The (Mana) Cost
So far, we've looked at the structural issues faced by cantrips in Commander overall. Things become a bit more complicated, however, when we start question their efficiency in the competitive environment.
In competitive one-versus-one formats, the role of card advantage is center stage, primarily because each player naturally engages with cards at the same rate. Discounting mulligans, each player starts with seven cards, directly balanced by their opponent. In cEDH, this isn't the case: each player is counterbalanced by three opponents, causing each player to start off with absolute card disadvantage. While I wrote about this in far more detail over in my defense of Arcane Denial, the end result is that mana efficiency takes an increased role over that of traditional card efficiency in cEDH. In short, each spell needs to be more impactful and more efficient than in traditional competitive Magic so as to counter the inherent card disadvantage of the format.
So how does this impact cantrips? Well, the problem is that cantrips are, by and large, as efficient as they can be without being free spells, but they don't do enough due to their strained structural consistency problems to be worth the single mana investment. Being able to see a quarter of your deck thanks to Brainstorm in a format where card advantage takes center stage is a crucial part of being competitive in 60-card constructed, but in cEDH that same Brainstorm only shows you 3% of your entire deck and only appears in a painfully unreliable proportion of total games played with it. Singleton multiplayer competitive forces mana efficiency so intensely that cantrips simply can't quite cut it. This isn't to say cantrips are unplayable in cEDH - we'll talk about some success stories later - but they are far from ubiquitous.
Tutors - Commander's Cantrips
What are ubiquitous within cEDH, however, are tutors.
Nearly every cEDH deck has a lynchpin card somewhere in the ninety-nine, something the deck needs to pull off in order to steal a game. Thassa's Oracle, Food Chain, Walking Ballista - these are the key cards which don't often, if ever, have exact duplicates, and yet they form the core engine of cEDH lists wide and far. Moving back to Legacy for just a moment, these are your copies of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Dark Depths - the superstars which win you the game, but don't often do much else (stand aside, Dockside Extortionist, we'll talk about you some other day). In Legacy, these are also the cards you filter for with cantrips. That isn't reliably the case in cEDH, so instead we turn to the next best thing: tutors.
What often sets apart a cEDH decklist from a traditional Commander counterpart is the reliance on a semi-linear tutor package, designed to emulate key cards within the deck. As opposed to offering passive deck filtration, these cards are targeted and selective, something distinct from cantrips. However, if cantrips fill the role of 60-card decklist glue, then tutors are the duct tape that holds together our cEDH machine. Cantrips may be more passively selective while tutors are active in their card acquisition, but they each facilitate a similar role of duplicating more substantial cards within the lists in which they operate.
The success of tutors in cEDH is similarly aided by their mana cost: while the average tutor clocks in at around two mana, this decreased absolute mana efficiency more than makes up for the overall impact the card has on the game. Spending one mana to replace a card in hand with one from among a handfull on top of your deck can be helpful, but spending two mana to put your win condition into your hand can secure you the game.
cEDH - Surviving, Not Thriving
Over the course of this analysis, I've pretty thoroughly bashed cantrips as a whole. That being said, it is important to recognize that while their role within Commander must be evaluated as vastly different to that of their role in 60-card constructed, there are still opportunities for cantrips to survive in the cEDH environment. It may not be the glory of composing 20% of a decklist's cardslots, but with competition as stiff as it is within a cEDH decklist it is important to highlight incidents of success when they occur.
Essentially a free cycling effect attached to one-shot perfect information on an opponent's hand, Gitaxian Probe is as mana-efficient as a spell can be in cEDH. The card replacement is less than stellar in comparison to the selection offered by its peers, but it trades this in for perfect efficiency as well as crucial information on an opponent's arsenal. Perfect for politicking should you share the secrets which Gitaxian Probe offers you, Gitaxian Probe has earned its spot as a cEDH mainstay not because it is a cantrip, but because it is a free spell that reads "draw a card." You can't get much better than that.
In most cantrip tier lists, Brainstorm ranks in as the undisputed king. Mana efficiency knocks it down a peg in cEDH, however, and significantly limits its playability. That still being said, its cross synergies with fetchlands are absolutely undeniable. Plus, if you happen to be on Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow, this card can prove to be a win condition in and of itself. Brainstorm being an instant also puts it leagues ahead of the rest of the commonly seen single-mana cantrips, as it is far more flexible due to the ability to hold up response mana. While chances are you won't be disappointed to see it pop up in your hand, Brainstorm doesn't automatically make a cEDH deck better, so do your testing before you swear by this 60-card allstar.
Oh, Ponder. The card that got me started with Legacy way back when I found an M10 copy at my LGS's bulk bin. This card brings a lot of nostalgia my way, which is why it pains me to write that it just doesn't make the cut in most lists. Sorcery-speed hurts this one. A lot. While it does bring with it the flexibility of shuffling the top should nothing pique your fancy, so does Brainstorm (if you have a fetchland, which you probably will). Even so, there is a glimmer of hope for good ol' Ponder: dedicated control lists with few colors in them can still get by pretty comfortably jamming one of these in the 99, helping to fill out any gaps which having a smaller color identity brings with it. Urza, Lord High Artificer, Shorikai, Genesis Engine, Tameshi, Reality Architect; all of these can look at Ponder and wonder, quite capably, "what if?"
Cantrips in cEDH are tricky to think about at first glance because the rules for how to maximize their potential are foundationally changed. More than any other cards, cantrips are devastated by the effects of singleton and of diminishing returns. Four Brainstorms and four Ponders make a Legacy engine hum, but eight of the best individual cantrips in a cEDH list leave you with something that is inefficient and stretched dangerously thin. Individual cantrips have seen some successes here and there throughout the format, but this is a far cry from their successes in other formats. When you look at a cantrip, really think about its role in your deck: how often am I seeing this card? How much information is it giving me? Is the mana worth it, or can I do something better, faster, stronger in this slot? Do I really need to be running Ponder, or do I just miss playing Miracles?