Updating Brainstorm Heuristics for the Modern Age

There have been some major changes to Legacy over the past few years. By printing a wide range of format-warping cards, the overall power level of the format has skyrocketed. While it’s clear that this has changed the way players have to build their decks, what isn’t quite as obvious is the side effect this has on traditional play patterns and heuristics that players have come to use.

Heuristics, or mental shortcuts that help us reach sufficient outcomes in our thought processes, are an important tool in Magic. They greatly ease the decision-making process and help ensure people don’t have to exert the maximum amount of effort on every choice. While they can be beneficial in a wide range of circumstances, they can just as easily be detrimental to growth. Challenging previously developed heuristics (and, furthermore, challenging specific, individual moments where the heuristic might not apply) can be roughly as important as forming beneficial ones in the first place.

It’s notoriously difficult to break old habits. This can make it difficult to challenge your thoughts and beliefs that have been reliable and trustworthy over the years. I have had this experience many times myself, but have had some of my largest breakthroughs as a player at times when I questioned my previously held heuristics and made an effort to update and adjust them with modern-day philosophies.

Today, I want to place my focus on one specific card in Legacy: Brainstorm. There are many other cards that have changed over the years (such as Daze, which I wrote about here) but Brainstorm is among the most complex and defining cards in the format. It’s also the card that tends to change the most with the shifting texture of the format. Hopefully in writing this article, I can help illustrate the aspects of the card that have changed with regards to the power creep of Legacy.


Header - Common Heuristics


Brainstorm is often hailed as the most difficult card to play in Legacy and that’s for good reason. A one mana instant that provides access to a large range of choices and permutations can easily lead to choice overload. A result of this is that it becomes beneficial to form heuristics surrounding the card, which helps make decisions easier to process. Over the years, many articles have been written about the card to help players do exactly that, many of which are still relevant to this day. 

While these can be extremely useful, when the context of the format changes, it can be difficult to re-adjust those beliefs. This potentially opens the door to leaky gameplay. Cards do not exist without context and even though Brainstorm itself has not changed, Legacy has and the patterns previously held as dogma should be revisited. 

There are two primary heuristics that I would like to focus on today:


Heuristic 1: The Best Brainstorm is the One Not Cast


This is shorthand to describe that, in a perfect world, you would win a game without the need to cast Brainstorm. This plays into the idea that patience is the best tool in your arsenal when it comes to Brainstorm and it’s much better to wait as long as you can in order to accrue excess cards you don’t want, know what you need to find and get as deep into your deck as you can.


Heuristic 2: The Best Time to Cast Brainstorm is on Your Main Phase

Heuristic 2a: It’s Incorrect to Cast Brainstorm at the End of Your Opponent’s Turn


These are two sides of the same coin. Both are addressing that you give yourself more options by waiting to cast the card until you can cast sorcery-speed cards and follow up the Brainstorm with a fetchland. This idea plays into the first heuristic and helps the player extract as much value out of their cards as they can. Again, patience is the key, and by waiting to cast Brainstorm until your turn, you can maximize your chances to find what you need.


The Issue

These are great concepts and I’m not trying to completely rebuke them. Patience is an important skill to develop when it comes to casting Brainstorm and these heuristics do an excellent job at capturing that. However, since the texture of Legacy has changed so much recently, rigidly following these ideas might be more costly than it might appear.



For many years, the threats in Legacy were a lot weaker than the answers. For instance, while Tarmogoyf is a decent threat these days, it used to be the premier creature of Legacy. It can apply a lot of pressure, but if players use their life total as a resource, they can usually put together an answer for it before the game ends. Simply being a large creature means that players have some time to work with. Generally, players can wait a bit longer to cast Brainstorm and have the best chance to sculpt a perfect hand of answers (think of Tarmogoyf against Miracles).


Oko, Thief of CrownsDreadhorde ArcanistUro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

In modern day Legacy, the threats are far more devastating. Many of them have the ability to end the game on the spot if unchecked for even a single turn (such as Dreadhorde Arcanist and Oko, Thief of Crowns). Furthermore, the answers have not scaled with the power of the threats. Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares are still the best removal spells in the format. Cards like Abrupt Decay, Fatal Push and Assassin’s Trophy have added a bit more versatility to the format, but many of the most powerful cards in Legacy these days demand an answer on the spot (thus putting pressure on the reactive player quickly). Otherwise, they generate immediate advantage (looking at you, Uro) that will still leave you behind in the end.

As a result of the increased power level (and reduced mana cost) of threats, the points of interaction have been accelerated. No longer can you afford to let your opponent’s threat stick around for a few turns while you sculpt your hand to be full of perfect answers. If you fail the Dreadhorde or Uro check, you lose, full stop. The by product of this is that players might not have the luxury of playing patiently if your opponent might be threatening to resolve a game-ending spell as early as turn two.

This means that waiting an extra turn to cast a Brainstorm might leave you dead to rights. Instead of trying to generate maximum value, you might have to maximize your chances of having the right interaction at the right time. What if you don’t find an answer, but find a Ponder instead? You can’t afford to take a turn off casting two or three cantrips while your opponent gets to connect with their Dreadhorde Arcanist. Thus, it’s important to make sure that if you find the interactive spell you need you can cast it on time.

Again, I’m not suggesting that these older heuristics are rubbish and should be tossed aside, never to be thought of again. Instead, my point is that defaulting to them as the norm might be leaving you too far behind in the context of modern day Legacy.

While it’s useful to evaluate the potential issues that old patterns have, it wouldn’t be nearly as helpful without adding in some potential changes or adjustments that can supplement or augment them. Thus, I propose these two heuristics that I have added to my repertoire which have been useful in my evaluation of casting Brainstorm.



Header - The New Heuristics

New Heuristic 1: I’d Hate to Lose With Brainstorm in My Hand


This is an idea that I mention quite a bit and I think, in modern day Legacy, this is a really useful guideline. This plays into the idea of the critical turn, which I discussed at length in my article on Daze. The short of it is evaluating how likely it is that the game will end before you can cast Brainstorm. This heuristic has always been relevant to some extent in Legacy, a format that has combo decks that can kill you on turn one or two. When there’s a Show and Tell on the stack, you don’t really have to think about whether you should cast Brainstorm or not if it means Griselbrand will enter the battlefield if you don’t find something.

However, I have since broadened my application of this to many other decks in the format. In a world where fair decks have the ability to “win” on turns two or three, I think this is a necessary update and has fundamentally changed the way I approach these situations (and reflects the amount of pressure I think fair decks can place on you).


New Heuristic 2: Executing a Game Plan Proactively is the Most Effective Strategy in Many Cases


This reflects the relative power increase of Legacy over the past few years. In short, this means that you’ll seek moments where you can cast a Brainstorm a bit more aggressively in order to find a game-ending threat. Very few decks don’t have powerful, proactive game plans these days. If your opponent isn’t going to present the question to you, it’s often best to present it to them. 

Translating both of these heuristics to game play experience, we might be in a format where it’s an effective strategy to cast Brainstorm earlier in the game. While there are certainly times where it will be right to extract maximum value out of the card (again, Brainstorm is extremely complex), casting it earlier in the game can help ensure that you can present a threat that will force your opponent to react to. Conversely, it means you can have the necessary answers for your opponent’s threats on time.


Header - Is This Healthy?

Treasure CruiseDig Through Time

As a final note (and brief aside), I’m led to an important question: is this a healthy play experience to promote? I think there’s a correlation between formats where Brainstorm heuristics need to be fundamentally re-evaluated and imbalances of power. In the era of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time, many of these concepts I talked about were true. By not casting Brainstorm a bit more freely, you might open the door to either losing to Treasure Cruise (essentially a “threat”) or not being able to cast your own Cruise. In my experience, this was not an extremely enjoyable experience game after game.

This is quite relatable to some common experiences in today’s Legacy. Brainstorm is often better being cast a bit more freely because promoting your own game plan (and stopping your opponent’s) is more important than extracting maximum value out of the card.

Things do change naturally over time as new cards and mechanics get printed, which is a major (and generally great) part of the game. However, I only pose this question because the power of the format has been throttled so high that I wonder if it is sustainable for format longevity.


Header - Be Critical and Evaluate

This entire conversation is full of nuance because heuristics are not hard and fast rules. They’re guidelines that can help streamline your thought processes and ease decision making. As I mentioned earlier, knowing when to challenge your own heuristics can be just as important as forming them in the first place. My key point is to illustrate that some old play patterns might not translate directly to a modern day experience.

Think critically about the play patterns you default to. Spend some time asking yourself questions about what is going wrong (or right) in your games. It can be difficult to identify issues, but by stopping and critically evaluating your own play you might be able to notice some areas where your previously ingrained knowledge is costing you and updating it can do wonders for your ability to succeed.

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