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A Swiss Army Knife... Squared

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The letter C!onfession Time: This one, at least initially, had me a little stressed out. The guys (and gals!) at Brand and R&D put a lot of thought into which preview cards I get. They go for cards that are both representative of the new set and flashy, awesome. Sometimes I get a Heartbeat of Spring and don't know what to do with it (who knew it was going to end up a major combo enabler in Standard and Extended?)... That one turned out as awesome as Ink-Eyes, Spell Snare, and Lightning Helix.

What, oh what, was I supposed to do with Cryptic Command? The only cryptic thing, I figured, would be the justifications of any mages willing to play with it. Sure, it was versatile. You get points for versatile. In a Spite // Malice you grudgingly suck up the versatile. No one pays 3 ManaBlack Mana just to kill a guy and no one plays 3 ManaBlue Mana just to counter a spell... but when one card can do both—and you know how much to leave untapped—you can usually pass without any fear (provided the other guy is not going to spring for a black creature).

Okay... Spite // Malice. Spite // Malice is the lens. Bend back the last six years, YT. Get into a Spite // Malice mindset. You hate countering target spell for 1 ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana. Will you spend 1 ManaBlue ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana? Boomerang, though... You won't spend 1 ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana for that at Split Second. Not much to say about that, play that one down. You've actually tapped all of the opponent's... Does that only say creatures? This is sizing up to be the bluntest Swiss Army... Drawing a card... Well? You love drawing a card... But for 1 ManaBlue ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana? This is...

Confession Time Squared: I re-read the card.

Did you see what I missed in my plaintext email version? You pick two of the abilities! Wow. This card is... about twice as good as I thought it was. Awesome!

Swimming With Sharks Bonus Preview (sort of):

  • The Lorwyn set features a cycle of five cards with "Command" in their name. These are modal cards in which you choose two modes rather than one.

Boring, rules-centered notes that are less fun but that you might someday need to know:

  • A Command works just like a normal modal card, except that you choose two of the modes. The choice is made when you play the spell.
  • You must choose two different modes. You can't choose only one mode, and you can't choose the same mode twice.
  • The chosen modes will have their effects in the order they appear on the card.
  • If a mode has targets, you can't choose that mode unless you can choose legal targets for it. If this prevents you from choosing exactly two modes, you can't play the spell.
  • You can choose the same creature or player as a target for both modes, if appropriate.

So what are the tournament Constructed applications for Cryptic Command?

Counter target spell + draw a card: Cryptic Command as Dismiss

First of all, just to get it out of the way, yes, this card will be almost universally played in blue control decks in Standard. It might even see some Extended play... but don't forget it costs four. A few years ago there was a vote pitting Dismiss versus Rewind. All the tournament Spikes in the world (none of whom voted, we might assume) shed a single, collective, tear when Rewind was placed in the core set. Now with Tenth Edition, Blue mages are scrambling to replace a card that few of them wanted to play with in the first place (who knew about Gigadrowse back then?). Dismal Failure has been presented for consideration. Arguably the best deck designer in the world played four Dismal Failures as one half of his counterspell suite in Yokohama. Is Dismal Failure good enough for Standard? Will Cryptic Command replace Dismal Failure?

Dismal Failure in Standard: I can see Dismal Failure in Standard. It's a bit expensive, and it kind of doesn't follow the rule that cards that cost four or more should win the game immediately, but as a role player, Dismal Failure can be completely backbreaking. For instance, you can't test spell Dismal Failure. When you have two cards, and you want to resolve the second one, the opponent can just Dismal Failure your test spell and you lose both, how miserable. The presence of planeswalker cards at 3 ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana or thereabouts will make four-mana permission spells very playable, but I would still side it out against aggressive decks.

Cryptic Command versus Dismiss: I am pretty sure that "Dismiss" is going to be the most common configuration for Cryptic Command. Dismiss would be a staple card in Standard, and Cryptic Command is almost strictly better due to the card's additional flexibility. The wrinkle—and while it's not a big deal, it's also not insignificant—is that additional blue mana requirement in Cryptic Command over Dismiss at the same converted mana cost. What that says to me is that Cryptic Command will be played in a narrow array of decks. There were all kinds of Mystical Teachings decks in Time Spiral Block... There were those with four Cancels, and there were those with Korlashes instead; there were decks with a Pickles lock, and there were those with Bogardan Hellkites. Rather than being played in every deck (maybe as a one-of?) I think it's likely that this card will be played in Teachings decks that already like cards like Teferi, but not every Teachings deck; Mono-Blue for sure.

Dismal Failure versus Dismiss or Cryptic Command: It's unlikely that any one control deck will want two different four-mana permission spells (you don't want too many clogging your opening hand, even if the format no longer makes you worry about Apes, Hounds, and Lions). Which one will get the deck space?

My guess is that it will be Cryptic Command. Dismal Failure is powerful in a niche way, but even without the other potential configurations, Cryptic Command is just better in a blue deck. blue mages have blue spells, and blue spells are the best; next best is land that allows one to play blue spells. It only stands to reason that drawing more beloved blue spells (or lands to play them) is better then forcing the opponent to discard a card (which may or may not be blue[-affiliated]).

The other issue is one of topdecking. Both Dismal Failure and Cryptic Command are fine topdecks provided you haven't already lost, but Cryptic Command is much better for two reasons. The first one is that the new kid on the block can actually dig you out of a hole when you are behind (imagine all the opponent had was a grafted Call of the Herd flashback). In terms of the direct counter-on-counter comparison, sometimes the opponent just doesn't have another card. If your permission spell is Dismal Failure and he has no other card in hand, you don't get any additional value. In the same spot, you can hammer one of his creatures with the bounce ability or, more likely, pick up another card to get you to your next two-for-one answer.

Return target permanent to its owner's hand + draw a card: Cryptic Command as Repulse / Repeal

The next most common application for Cryptic Command will be as a four mana bounce spell cantrip. In this role, it is a tad overpriced. If you think of cards with similar effects, the most commonly played were Repulse and Repeal. Repulse, at 2 ManaBlue Mana, was not universally played; Cryptic Command is a full mana (and an additional Blue Mana over 1 Mana) more expensive. Similarly, Repeal was long regarded too expensive a tempo concession... It eventually became popular starting as an answer to one- and two-mana Boros threats that could occasionally murder, say, a Bottled Cloister. However, even when at the apex of its popularity, Repeal got cut from Teachings main decks. Cryptic Command is more expensive than not just Repulse, but most Repeals, as well.

It is unlikely that very many players would use Cryptic Command strictly for its Repulse functionality... It's just something nice to have on top of your Dismiss.

One subtle application that you might not have noticed is that Cryptic Command can go after lands! This is a very nice test spell end of turn in blue-on-blue, or gives blue a nice opportunity to "pick a fight" with combo. In either case, you can sometimes get the opponent to discard and draw into more lands! It's actually pretty awesome because, subtly, you don't care if it resolves or not. Four-mana counters are quite poor in blue-on-blue, and this card gives you the option of doing something productive with a solid upside if it actually sticks (beware, beware, Dreadship Reef).

Lastly, Cryptic Command can fill an important role in fighting random powerful permanents of the Debtors' Knell class... something blue is very good at with Rune Snags and very bad at if something that expensive can slide down. Sorry, Wild Pair.

Tap all creatures your opponents control + Draw a card: A Great and Terrible Fog

The tapping feature of Cryptic Command is a fairly new functionality. The easiest analogue is Turnabout. I remember using Turnabout on creatures, but I didn't like it (that card was played largely as a Mana Short and Early Harvest). In the case of Cryptic Command, you get the tap option, but the fact that you are drawing a card can help get you to your next answer... Might I suggest Wrath of God Damnation effect or... um... another Cryptic Command?

Counter target spell + Return target permanent to its owner's hand: Unknown Territory!

I see this one most often mid-combats. You can counter a pump spell and prevent creature damage in one move... Should be hell on Griffin Guides, Llanowar Reborn counters, &c.

I don't see either the Counterspell or the Boomerang effects being paired with the creature Turnabout in Constructed, but that doesn't mean those things won't happen. Seems like Turnabout-style makes for a good racing play or as a prequel to Brine Elemental lock.

In conclusion, Cryptic Command is one of the most versatile answer cards printed in recent memory. My favorite format is Standard, and I have had a solid batting average for Standard decks with blue in the past couple of States seasons. I leave you with a first draft Standard deck with few bells and whistles (not too much Lorwyn to talk about... yet), but showcasing a possible home for Cryptic Command:

I'm going to try the Tombstalker as either an Extirpate or a second Haunting Hymn, too.

Next Week: More Lorwyn previews!

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