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Feature Article – Cryptic Command : Three or Four?

Hello everyone, and thank you to those of you who read and commented on my first article.

This will be the second one I have written for ChannelFireball. At first, this article was going to be a Grand Prix Atlanta report. I played blue/white control, and I thought I would write about my results (11 wins and 4 losses) and discuss the obvious mistake in my main deck, my plan to improve that mistake, and my sideboarding strategy. However, I had some personal difficulties and considering the time loss from translation it would not be wise to cover this subject. Taking this into account, I received a good idea for an article from a Japanese friend.

“It cannot possibly be correct to play Faeries with less than four copies of Cryptic Command.”

This is from a paragraph in the PV’s Playhouse article Playing Fae from A to Z, an article which sparked a lot of interest in Japan. It’s not that we cannot read English, rather it is that we are not efficient readers and the great majority of Japanese people are plagued with a fear of English akin to the Phyrexian contagion. Because of this, some Japanese players translate articles from English to Japanese free of charge. In the midst of this, one argument has become the focus of discussion: the aforementioned issue of the number of copies of Cryptic Command. In Japan it is the Extended PTQ season, and as many Japanese players are also playing Faeries this is becoming a central topic.

By the way, I agree with PV on the matter of having four copies.

Cryptic Command is a strong card under normal circumstances, but when used in Faeries it truly becomes absurdly powerful. The important point is that Faeries is an aggro deck with the outward appearance of a control deck, something that PV has already mentioned and with which professional players unanimously agree.

You play creatures and protect them with counterspells, or possibly cast counterspells while playing creatures. Moreover, when you have discard spells and removal you can make full use of your planeswalkers. In practice, you can explain how Faeries works while watching it in action, but anyone can understand that you cannot completely explain the true nature of the Faeries deck doing this alone.

When trying to explain the Faeries deck categorically, it looks like it is similar to a clock permission deck type where the idea is to develop a board position with strong creatures early on in the game and then consistently counter your opponent’s spells later on. However, Faeries is somewhat different. It definitely uses counterspells to hinder its opponent’s efforts, but it never uses powerful creatures to develop its board. Bitterblossom? The real threat. But consider this for a moment: Bitterblossom on its own just has the ability to bring out a 1/1 token every turn. When compared to the abilities of two mana beatdown creatures like Tarmogoyf it is a far inferior card, and just because you stick Bitterblossom on turn two does not mean you have instantly won.

Granted, Faeries players who get the optimal start, opening with Thoughtseize and then Bitterblossom will continue to win easily, but those are the ideal games.

Similarly, even Mistbind Clique pales in comparison to other four mana 4/4s like Chameleon Colossus and newer cards like Thrun, the Last Troll when evaluated based upon its extra abilities.

However, in practice the results are largely the opposite. If you can stop your opponent’s creatures and prevent damage with your own tokens, the remaining tokens can cut away at your opponent’s life total little by little, or certainly by more if your tokens are larger than 1/1s.

I am considering the idea that this sudden reversal is possible because of Faeries’ strongest trait: most cards can be played at instant speed, which allows the deck to avoid turns with wasted mana, a problem characteristic of past counterspell-based decks.

What happens when these ideas are in action? Almost every card in the Faeries deck interferes in the damage race with your opponent. Do I want my opponent to have the threat of three points of damage every turn? Hmm, if I play Vendilion Clique the race will be even…but I have Mutavault, so at times I will have five points of damage, not three. If my opponent threatens five points, OK, then I will play Vendilion Clique on the next turn, and counter Woolly Thoctar this turn.

Should I use all my mana and attack? Well, I can kill that creature with Mistbind Clique, and next turn the damage they will deal will be less than what I am going to deal.

It could be said that this is a familiar scene for the Faeries deck, but when they can constantly interfere in the damage race the game progresses in their favor. This is due to what I mentioned earlier about an aggro deck that appears to be a control deck. For Faeries, when things are going smoothly Cryptic Command is the number one card you want to have, and when things are going poorly the same is true. Cryptic Command shifts the damage race in your favor over a crucial turn, and in the worst times it can still just prevent damage. It goes without saying that the best time to have it is when it can prevent your opponent from damaging you for a turn and remove their blockers, taking away their resources in the process. That was the long way of saying it, but put briefly this is how you win the game.

An emergency damage evasion cantrip attached to Fog when faced with an attack is very weak, I agree. In that situation Cryptic Command is thought to be weak and that playing it in declare attackers is the worst among many possible uses, but it still does this in addition to everything else it does, filling the role better than any other card.

I have found perhaps three different opinions on the question of Cryptic Command; I agree with what has been discussed above but take issue with some of the following.

Certainly, these are strong players who entertain the idea of using other cards and given the fact that they are bringing the decks to constructed tournaments, they should be leaving behind results. Wouldn’t hearing their opinions be interesting?

Unexpectedly, I am moving to Tokyo in February and I visited Yoshihiko Ikawa to practice for Pro Tour Paris, the original designer of the Extended deck Jonathan Randle used in the Top 8 of the World Championships against PV, as mentioned in his article. I now turn the topic to what I heard from Ikawa during our practice period: The question of three or four. In short, this is how Ikawa decided to play three copies of Cryptic Command in his Faeries build.

To avoid misunderstanding, although I have said previously that Ikawa is correct, that is a mistake. That was not my conclusion.

So to begin with, a simple self-introduction:

Ikawa: This is Yoshihiko Ikawa writing. I am a level four professional player from Tokyo, and my best tournament results were my first Top 8 appearance at Pro Tour San Diego in 2010 and a twenty-fourth place finish at Pro Tour San Juan. I suppose that among my achievements is losing to PV in a match that decided the Top 8 at that tournament (laugh). Usually I play in Standard tournaments of around 100 players on a weekly basis in events like the Planeswalker Cup and Five Dragon Cup in Tokyo.

Nakamura: Why did Jonathan Randle use your deck?

Ikawa: It was because of his friend, English National Champion Daniel Gardner, who called out to me “Won’t you sell me your deck?” at the tournament hall. At that time because my own friend was in line for Top 8 with rounds remaining he had also requested it from me, thus beginning a fascination with the deck. And there were others; four among my Japanese friends played the deck altogether and finished with 6-0, 4-2, 4-2, and 3-3 records. Incidentally, the person with the worst record was me: Three wins, followed immediately by three losses…

Nakamura: Regarding the core part of this discussion, we would like to hear why you chose to play three copies of Cryptic Command?

Ikawa: It’s a question of limiting the number of four mana spells. To begin with, when I was practicing for the World Championships, I was preparing two builds of the Faeries deck. The first one had four copies of Cryptic Command and in its latest form included Creeping Tar Pit and Tectonic Edge for a total of twenty-six lands. I reduced the number of removal spells this version had to four. The other version that I played had three copies of Cryptic Command. I went with this version because if I played twenty-five lands I thought the limit for four casting cost spells would be nine cards. The number one reason I chose this build was because of my tournament records.
Before the final round of an Extended tournament in which an undefeated or 5-1 record was necessary to get prizes, it seemed like control players were at the top of the line of those who aimed for Top 8. Unfortunately, I thought the first version mentioned above would be best, but it had few removal spells and was rather useless. After I finished near the bottom of the contenders, I thought the second version with more removal would be stronger and used that because it had more of a beatdown image.

Nakamura: Four mana spells should be limited to nine cards. I see, I can understand that. That’s because until Faeries has four lands you cannot play them making it a really intense deck mana-wise. But what was your conclusion regarding the choice to remove Cryptic Command?

Ikawa: As I mentioned before, because I thought I would face off with a great deal of beatdown decks I wanted as many low mana cost spells as possible. In particular, I added a large number of removal spells to increase the chance of getting hands I would want to keep. I also could play four copies of Cryptic, but because of the game plan and balance of discard spells I designed I preferred Mistbind Clique. As a Faeries player, if you think you are not so strong I think a build that is easy to win with and simple to understand is best. By adding a large amount of discard spells, you can frequently check your opponent’s hand allowing you to gain an advantage by playing Mistbind Clique in their combat phase. So, you play four copies of Mistbind Clique. Because you have a lot of removal and discard spells it is not difficult to defend Jace, the Mind Sculptor. You definitely want two copies because it is easy to win with this card. If you use this construction, there is room for only nine four mana cards meaning that the fourth Cryptic Command gets left out. Even if it was somewhat unskillfully done, in aiming to make a winning Faeries deck my results definitely pointed to having three copies of Cryptic Command. If you are an individual who can play Faeries perfectly however, you should absolutely play four copies of the card.

Nakamura: Thank you, that was very interesting. Lastly, if there is anything you would like to say to ChannelFireball readers, please do so.

Ikawa: Because Jonathan Randle had nothing to do with the of using three copies of Cryptic Command, if you would criticize him, blame me instead.

Thus, PV and Ikawa. In trying to compare the two opinions we’ve just read I think that the issue of how you plan your Faeries deck is what causes the controversy. Players like myself and PV do not question the classification of Faeries in its own specific category. It is somewhat like playing a control deck that is more on the aggressive side, and there are also times when you play it as a beatdown deck that is not very fast. On the other hand, this does not mean that there are any other decks that are really the same type even if you compare it with other medium speed ones. Faeries differs from other deck types that are called Faeries-like. There is a way you should use these decks, and Cryptic Command is the indispensable oil that allows the machine to run in this way. Indeed, I think this is comparable to how Red beatdown automatically includes four copies of Lightning Bolt.

Besides, Ikawa saw Faeries as something more stereotyped and perhaps he perceives his build to be a stretch to blue/black beatdown. Also as he himself said before, through discard and removal spells he could advance his lead in the damage race while controlling the battlefield, and then use Jace and Mistbind Clique to stifle his opponent’s resistance. This is certainly a clear aggressive game plan. And, an excerpt from PV’s article where he makes a very astute observation:

“One of Faerie’s greatest strengths is that it is incredibly hard to play against, sometimes impossible, since all the spells they have are instants and they all interact with you in a different way.”

Casting Mistbind Clique in the combat phase produces huge gain, but at the same time it is also easily linked to heavy risk. By perceiving Faeries as a beatdown deck, it is obvious that it loses one part of its natural potential. However, I think that in its place the deck’s gains stability and consistency and becomes easier to play.

In listening to Ikawa’s story, and following his thinking I still conclude that four copies of Cryptic Command is correct. However, everyone has a deck type they are weaker at playing, and that does not mean that everyone has PV’s level of skill at playing Faeries. There are weak decks, but if a deck is the strongest one in the environment, it is still never bad to recognize its faults. Surely, being able to understand a deck’s weak areas is the first step towards improving it. In order for the deck to become stronger, you must first recognize your own shortcomings. How can a weaker player use Faeries? I think Ikawa’s deck construction approach would be very effective if you are not playing it because it is difficult.

Until next time, thank you for reading.

Shuhei Nakamura

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