This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series This Olde Guildhouse

By DAN aka chaosorbFTW
DanThere was a time when Braingeyser was king. A time when extra cards were drawn in a ponderously slow avalanche. A time when the main phase was sacrificed for XUU new draws. That was the time when Braingeyser reigned. The king is dead, long live the king.

For quite some time card advantage was built along the back of sorcery speed draw, and players built their decks to take advantage of large but slow influxes of new cards. Then along came Ice Age, and amidst the forest of cantrips and other draw nestled Brainstorm. Originally, Brainstorm rightly sat in the shadow of Necropotence in terms of sheer power. It was an effective, efficient source of draw the likes of which had never been printed before. While it took some time for the true power of Brainstorm to show itself, it became a staple for blue mages. What turned Brainstorm from a solid addition to the powerhouse we are familiar with today is the ability to constantly and consistently shuffle your deck. Dead cards were sent away for later use, and three fresh draws could be set up.

It took me a very long time to admit that Brainstorm was abusive. I argued over and over with my playgroup why there were better options and more powerful performers. I begged for the inclusion of Dream Cache and Inspiration. I was convinced that Urza’s Blueprints was the next big thing. In the end, I was proven to be very, very wrong. For one blue mana, there were very few options that could even be considered in the same ballpark.

When I started playing EDH, I built decks as if I was playing competitive constructed decks. I looked at cards that were powerful in eternal formats, and then added them in without much thought. A lot of these staples have been exceptional for me. While they can create a sense of homogeneity in decks, you are generally getting exactly the result you planned on with cards like Demonic Tutor and Stoneforge Mystic. The more I played, however, the more I was severely underwhelmed by Brainstorm. It was never a card I wanted to draw, it didn’t affect the game as I expected it would, and overall was generally a brick in most situations. The more I looked at the reasons why it was exemplary and an auto-include in most other formats, the more I realized those conditions either did not exist or were exceptionally difficult to replicate in Commander: redundancy and consistently easy shuffling.

Looking at redundancy first is the easiest and most objective place to start evaluating Brainstorm for EDH. 60 card decks with multiple copies of cards and few 1 ofs are the best place for Brainstorm. You maximize the ability to hit one or more effects that you need, and you have an increasingly smaller percentage of hitting unwanted cards as the game goes on. In Commander, the probabilities that made Brainstorm great are destroyed. It took a long time for me to realize why I needed to seek an alternative to the one blue wonder, and it wasn’t until I looked at the math that my mind was made up.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Let’s look a scenario scenario played out in 2 different formats, and see what the numbers tell us.

Given a 60 card constructed deck with 4 copies of any desired card in it, we draw an opening hand on the play. 7 cards, and in that 7 card hand we have 0 copies of our desired card.  If the next play we make on turn 1 is playing a blue source then casting brainstorm, there is an approximately 20% probability of hitting a copy of our desired card.   

Recreating that using a Commander setting, (drawing 8 cards on the play), we have only a 3.2% chance of hitting a single copy of a desired card. That 17 percent probability drop is more than statistically relevant, it is a serious reason to consider excluding Brainstorm from a card drawing suite. The lower probability of card redundancy in EDH puts a serious damper on the ability of Brainstorm to be a workhorse as it was when Standard legal and continues to be in Legacy and Vintage.

The additional benefit of Brainstorm in most formats is the ability to hide unwanted cards and remove chaff from your hand, shuffling away unneeded draws until later when they would be useful. Most formats provided an ability to do this using cards like fetchlands and tutoring. While there is an almost unlimited ability to play any desired card in Commander, it is still governed by the rule of 1 copy of each card. A constructed deck running 8 fetch lands has approximately 13% of their card pool able to reshuffle a library, and that excludes cards like Ponder or other tutor effects that can grow that percentage into the mid 20s. While the range of tutors, fetchlands, ramp spells, and other search is absolutely available in EDH, it means that to make Brainstorm as powerful as in a constructed environment a deck needs to be constructed with an eye on deck shuffling to make the most out of each casting. 13-20 cards need to be included in the deck that can shuffle a library to made the odds statistically even for a Constructed and EDH deck to be able to cast Brainstorm and then shuffle away unwanted cards.

I understand that Brainstorm is an exceptionally potent card, especially given its small mana cost, and there are many decks that can more than adequately abuse it. I know that many players add Brainstorm to their list of staples and include it in a deck list the moment the deck’s color identity includes blue. My goal is not to move deckbuilding away from including Brainstorm, but rather to look at the alternate options that many times are considered “also-rans” in other formats, and why they may be better statistical alternatives to brainstorm given the constraints of EDH. In building a list of possible replacements I took a look at cards that simulate what Brainstorm can do, but also give an additional effect that can give you a slight play advantage that in many cases Brainstorm cannot.

The Other Guys

I ran the numbers using the same test criteria as in the example above (opening hand, 8 cards and no versions of the card we are looking for). Here is the breakdown of how the cards performed, and what additional added ability may put them slightly ahead of Brainstorm. I have purposely excluded Sensei’s Divining Top and Sylvan Library from this list, as they seem to be widely accepted and used throughout Commander. Many of these may be familiar to you, but hopefully there are one or two hidden gems that can help make your draws that one percent better.

Functionally Similar Replacements:

Scroll Rack: Scroll Rack lets you swap out any number of cards in hand each turn for the same number off the top. If you switch out all 7 cards in hand, you have an approximately 7.69% chance of finding any card you need. While this probability does go down with decreasing hand size (and taking into account it’s nearly 30 dollar price tag), it may not be an option for every deck. What it absolutely does better than brainstorm is provide repeatability, and being able to dig up to 7 cards deep at any given time is an almost irreplaceable ability.

Ponder – Ponder loses in the speed department as a sorcery, and provides an identical 3.2% chance of hitting a desired card. The gain that comes from using ponder is after you check your top 3 and see that what you needed is missing. The possibility of a shuffle and one additional draw gives you an additional 1.09% chance of hitting a desired card. Not much of a chance, but if all 3 cards you saw were dead, at least now you know that your next few draws could be the ones that save you instead of the 3 bricks you had make sure you survived drawing.

Preordain – Similar to Ponder and Brainstorm in probability to hit at 3.2%, Preordain also lets you hide dead cards (one or two) on the bottom of your library and keep your upcoming draws fresh and live.

Mystic Speculation – Scry 3 allows you a 3.2% chance to move the desired card to the top of the library, but it doesn’t get it into your hand itself. At sorcery speed it requires a second draw component or a full term to get the required card, however the inexpensive buyback makes up for the speed by providing long term reliability.

Slightly Different Effect:

Lim-Dul’s Vault – This card is a POWERHOUSE! While it requires you be in U/B, it gives you an ability to find any card in your library given enough life, and then subsequently sculpt your next 4 draws. At a 5.49% (cumulatively increasing) ability to find a given card, Lim Dul’s Vault really may hold the dark secrets needed to win.

Natural Selection – This card lets you determine the next 3 draws of any player at the table, or shuffle away a Vampiric Tutored bomb if necessary. While it does not give you a draw immediately, it gets bonus points for hitting anyone you play with and also looking incredible.

Impulse – Instant speed card selection, giving you the best card out of your top 4 at a tidy 4.39% to find whatever specific card you need. You do relegate the remaining 3 to the bottom, however this can often be a benefit if you see unwanted lands or spells.

Forbidden Alchemy – Another card requiring you to be in U/B to play, Alchemy digs a little harder than Brainstorm, giving you a 4.39% chance of finding your needed card. It can also be flashed back, making it pull double duty in the search department. While you do need to throw 3 in the bin with Alchemy, many decks would find this a benefit instead of a drawback.

The list of possible worthy brainstorm replacements is long, and there are multiple varying effects that can be used in it’s place (Telling Time, Ancestral Knowledge, and Parallel Thoughts to name a few more). Unlike many other formats, most of our fellow players aren’t looking for that extra 1%. I don’t want to turn your group into a statistically based arms race where probability is paramount in card choice, but I hope this review of a card as widely accepted as a staple as brainstorm helps open a new way of looking at card selection. I always like a shake up in the way I view cards and my deck construction choices, and it’s nice to know that back when I was arguing against Brainstorm being the new king, maybe there was one Magic format I was mostly right about.

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