Cantrips are a big part of Magic. Lots of them have been printed – the number will vary, depending on your definition. Is a cantrip any card that draws a card? Is it only an instant or sorcery? Does its mana value come into it? You’ll find differing definitions of what a cantrip is, but broadly speaking, they have to be cheap and they have to replace themselves.
To avoid labelling Bookwurm as a cantrip – there are those who would – today’s list will feature what I consider to be cantrips in their purest forms. Spells, no matter the type, that replace themselves (usually with the simple text “draw a card,” but not always), and cost one mana. That last part is probably the most contentious, but I’m just not prepared to accept your argument that Dosan’s Oldest Chant is a cantrip.
There have been a lot of famous – and infamous – cantrips printed throughout Magic’s history, and today we’re going to go through five of the very best. Here we go!
This card looks innocuous enough. After all, it doesn’t really do anything – you get a bit of information, sure, and it replaces itself, so it’s never that bad. But it doesn’t advance the game, it doesn’t affect the board, it doesn’t change anything except, usually, your life total. How good could it be?
Good enough that it’s banned in every format except Commander and Vintage, and even in Vintage, it’s restricted. Why? It turns out that having a zero-mana sorcery that draws a card and reveals to you what you do and don’t have to play around is actually pretty good, and only gets better when combined with cards like Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer.
Free spells have a long history of being busted in half, and this is no exception. It’s difficult to explain to a newer player why this is one of the most broken cards in Magic’s history, but it is.
Also, before we move on, I have to tell you a story that was legendary in the Melbourne Magic scene a few years ago. I’ve never been able to verify it independently, but as Denis Stranjak would say, never let the truth get in the way. The story goes that there was a player – who shall remain unnamed – who was That Guy to a point that you wouldn’t believe. Everyone knows a That Guy, most LGSs have a That Guy, but this That Guy was the That-est Guy you can conceive of. Case in point: when his opponent once cast a Gitaxian Probe on turn one, he didn’t respond, and when asked if it resolved, he simply asked, “targeting?”
Don’t be That Guy.
Here’s another card that was, just like Probe before it, ultimately on the wrong end of the banhammer across virtually every format. Arcum’s Astrolabe did so much for so little, and was deemed too good even for Legacy after being banned in Modern.
Why? Again, it doesn’t really do much. It draws a card, filters your mana, and… that’s it, right? It’s not like snow, as a mechanic, was ever broken. Turns out even Legacy’s ridiculous mana bases became too good with Astrolabe available, as people could easily play four and even five colors without breaking a sweat thanks to this little bauble.
On top of that, it supported artifact synergies, turned on snow cards like Ice-Fang Coatl and was generally such a nuisance that it had to go. It took a long time for R&D to act on Astrolabe, particularly in Legacy, but it finally got the chop and has been relegated to Commander and Vintage (although it remains unrestricted). Turns out you have to be very careful when printing one-mana cards that replace themselves.
Ponder is one of the classic cantrips, beloved by blue mages everywhere as a card for the thinking player. It offers a huge amount of decision-making potential, and in combination with other cards that care about the top of your library – most notably, of course, Delver of Secrets – Ponder does a huge amount of work.
Ponder and Delver were both legal in Standard together for a time, and it won’t surprise you to learn that Delver decks were utterly dominant throughout this time (and then faded into irrelevance once Ponder rotated). The funny thing was, Ponder wasn’t legal in Modern – it was legal in Standard and in Legacy, but not in the format between.
Ponder still sees a lot of play in Legacy, obviously, a format that is known for short, resource-light, decision-heavy games. It is one of those cards that silently decides games as players leverage their skills against one another, using cards like Ponder to navigate branching decision trees and navigate a path to victory. A truly iconic cantrip.
You might argue that Veil of Summer isn’t a cantrip. It’s more like a counterspell that replaces itself, most of the time – but as it costs one mana and (usually) draws a card, it meets the requirements for this list and therefore warrants inclusion.
At its height, Veil of Summer was ludicrously obnoxious. Green decks across Standard and Pioneer were already very good, and Veil made them even better by nullifying the best answers to their strategies. Not just nullifying – absolutely annihilating. Being able to counter a removal spell or discard spell while also drawing a card was just bonkers, and this card eventually found its way onto the ban list, where it remains in Pioneer and Historic.
In Modern, it’s still a popular sideboard option – it’s the fifth-most played card overall, right up there with Path to Exile and Thoughtseize. A common thread with these cantrips is that they don’t seem that impressive – but just you wait until someone responds to your Thoughtseize with a Veil, then see how you feel.
Brainstorm has to be the most iconic, and perhaps the most powerful, cantrip ever printed. A pillar of the Legacy format, it was recently introduced to Historic with the Strixhaven Mystical Archives, immediately bending the format to its will. It was utterly dominant at the recent Strixhaven Championships, and still has a stranglehold on Historic even after the Time Warp ban.
Why is it so good? Similar to Ponder, Brainstorm allows you to navigate branching decision trees, set up future turns and pull together a plan for the future. It also protects cards from discard spells by “hiding” them on top of your library, and – perhaps most importantly – creates virtual card advantage in conjunction with shuffle effects. You draw three cards, put two bad cards back on top, then shuffle them away so you don’t draw them next turn.
Endless digital ink has been spent explaining just how good Brainstorm is, and I’m not going to add too much of my own to the equation. Suffice to say, Brainstorm really is the best cantrip ever printed, and is right up there amongst the best cards ever printed.
Cantrips have a nasty habit of being too good, as this list shows – most of the cards we’ve discussed today have warped formats around them and ultimately required bans. Still, cantrips remain a huge part of Magic, and the “fair” ones like Serum Visions and Opt add a lot to gameplay. There are plenty of cantrips that aren’t broken, but as we’ve seen here, when they are broken, they’re really broken.