On Brainstorm (and variance)

Note: A portion of this post is copy-pasted from my RUG primer on the Source: LINK. I don’t consider it theft, since I wrote that part too. I’ve adapted the copied part to be more general.

Recently, an SCG-open regular by the name of Jeff Hoogland wrote an article on a site known as The Meadery. The article is entitled “Leaving Legacy for a Modern Mistress” and essentially makes the argument that Legacy as a format is degenerate, and because Hoogland’s pet deck, Aggro Loam, was no longer a viable strategy in the metagame, he was dropping Legacy for Modern.brainstorm.hq

Aside from the obvious downsides to this switch (since Modern is shit), I won’t comment much on the article in question. The user “sdematt” on The Source wrote an excellent rebuttal on the article and posted it here, and it very competently addresses most of the points in Hoogland’s article and largely echoes my own opinions. Instead I’m going to use this space to discuss how to make the most out of this indeed broken card. Brainstorm is the most ubiquous card in Legacy, and while it does take some delving and some Magic theory, in the end it’s easy to see why.

Magic as a game, by its definition, with it’s shuffled deck and random starting hand, a game full of variance and chance. A player may find him- or herself out of a game before the first turn starts, due to the random nature of the game. This is inherently not a flaw in Magic as a game, in fact, I’d argue that variance and a random element makes for a more exciting game. On the other hand, more randomness and higher variance could in theory put a dent in a tournament player’s win percentage, as any master of Magic could, in theory, well lose to any new player.

On the other side of the spectrum – a Grandmaster in chess (a player with an ELO rating of 2500 or higher, the title is the highest achievement for a chess player) would never, ever lose a game to a new chess player, barring outright throwing the game, since chess is a game of effectively no chance and no hidden information.

Yours truly have won matches of Magic against players of proven skill way beyond this writer’s – I won a tight round of Legacy against Hall of Famer Olle Råde a couple of years ago – my match-up was extremely positive (RUG vs. Belcher), I’ve won against Bertil Elfgren, who at one point had the highest constructed rating in the world – he died twice to his own Ad Nauseam, and I’ve won against Kenny Öberg, famous for T8:ing GP Berlin with his team’s own deck, The Tezzerator, and for being a resident Vintage and Legacy expert – he mulliganed to four in two out of the three duels.

My point with these anecdotes is not to boast – I do not claim to be a better Magician than either of these gentlemen. I claim the opposite, and have nothing but utmost respect for these players and though these victories are forever engraved in my DCI record, I do not hope to repeat them. These players did not lose to a superior opponent (for none was to be found in these games), they lost to variance. Olle Råde played a deck with a high level of variance to begin with, and he happened to end up facing one of his worst match-ups. Bertil Elfgren lost to his own spell, a spell which means assured victory for him if he resolves it, most of the times. Kenny Öberg lost to his opening hands, and he was also facing an uphill battle since he was on Bant CounterTop, while I played Mono-U Merfolk. My point with these anecdotes is to demonstrate that Magic is undeniably a game of high variance, even in Legacy.

What Brainstorm, and to a lesser extent, Ponder, does is it minimizes variance and makes the deck that plays them more consistent, which is highly-sought after by tournament players. It is therefor a shame that so many people make grave mistakes when playing with it. Newer players might get stuck at the card type line and play it exclusively at the end of the opponent’s turn, only to untap and immediately draw one of the cards he or she put back. This is far from the optimal way of playing Brainstorm because then it might as well read:
Bad Brainstorm
Draw three cards then put to cards from your hand on the top of your library in any order. Skip your next two turns.

End of turn, Brainstorm, take my turn.
This is hyperbole, but it is at least an indicator of what happens when one plays Legacy’s best card in the way described above. For context, a well-played Brainstorm is the equivalent of an Ancestral Recall.

What many newer players fail to realise is that by waiting until your own main phase, Brainstorm digs a card deeper, and therefore lets you see more cards in the end, trading a blue mana for this fact. This trade is well worth it in RUG and similar aggressive decks, which can easily operate with just one or two mana open.

AJ Sacher has written an article about this phenomenon. The article as a whole is well worth the read, but I’ve found I could condense most of it into these three questions when playing RUG, Team America, or Patriot:

1. Do I have a way to shuffle my library after casting the Brainstorm?

2. Do I have two dead cards to put back on top of my library?

3. Do I need to play a threat, or find the answer to a threat now?

If the answer to at least one of these questions above is “no”, then it’s usually better to wait a turn. Save the Brainstorm, see more cards and work with more information. It should be noted that these rules are far from set in stone, and even the most experienced pilot could get Brainstorm-locked (i.e. be forced to put back two bad cards and draw them again naturally over the course of two agonising turns), but it should serve well as a guideline.

Ponder operates a different space as a cantrip, since it is sorcery speed and comes with a built-in shuffle effect. Its synergy with fetch lands should be noted, however, because it allows the RUG pilot to grab one or two good cards from a Ponder, while shuffling away the bad ones.



My hope with this post is that the next time anyone who’s read this casts a Brainstorm, he or she takes another moment before doing so. Playing Legacy on auto-pilot is never a good idea, especially not when playing a card with such a varied power-level as Brainstorm.


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