Mechanical Memories — The Guide to Cascade

Kellan, the Kid | Art by Magali Villeneuve

The Guide to Cascade

What do you get when combine randomization, cheating on mana costs, exiling cards, protection from interaction, and Modern Horizons sets? If you answered “Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer,” I’d say you’re technically correct but be disappointed you didn’t read the title. No, today we’re talking about a far-reaching mechanic in the world of Magic design. Appealing to casual and competitive crowds is a difficult thing to pull off. Sometimes, pursuing that balance can have surprisingly unbalanced results. So, how can we as players contend with the tempestuous nature of a mechanic? Let’s find out with a history of the Cascade mechanic (and its offspring).

Welcome to Mechanical Memories, the series where I take you on a journey through Magic design and discuss its relationship with the Commander format and broader casual play. Cascade cards have been a hot-button topic ever since their inception. There’s several elements of these cards that, when pushed in just the right way, can cause the balance of Magic to crumble before its player base. Make no mistake, these cards are beloved for a reason! The point of today’s discussion is to show how the pursuit of balance can sometimes chafe against the pursuit of fun gameplay, and vice versa. Finding a proper middle ground is the ultimate goal of Magic design. Let’s see how R&D’s usage of Cascade and Cascade-alikes has changed over the years.

Taming the Nexus

To start our discussion, let’s look in a surprising place: the lore of Shards of Alara block! Longtime readers of my Magic writing know that this is my specialty, so I’m excited to return to my Commander’s Herald roots.

The Shards of Alara block took us to the plane of Alara. Or rather, it took us to the sliced-up shards of Alara. Long ago, Alara was a singular plane that overflowed with mana. A mysterious planeswalker (It was Dyfed and I’ll die on this hill) stripped the plane of its mana, causing to to fracture into five micro-planes. Each of these planes only had access to three of the five colors of mana. They were chaotic realms for a time, but soon adapted to their new magical structures. The lack of a section of the color pie radically warped what life could flourish on these planes, giving rise to strange new beings.

Then, the Conflux! This event referred to the collision of the five shards within the Blind Eternities. Attracted to each other by their lingering bonds, they converged onto a singular point and allowed their mana to wildly clash with the estranged planes. This point of contact between the planes was named the Maelstrom Nexus, a powerful cosmic event that Nicol Bolas tried to use to regain his godhood. His plans for multiversal domination were thwarted by the efforts of Ajani Goldmane, who had returned to Naya and defended all of Alara.

Alara Reborn captured the power of the Maelstrom with the Cascade mechanic. Upon casting a card with the ability, you exile cards until you hit a nonland with lesser mana value, upon which you can cast it for free! The idea was that Cascade allowed you to channel the Maelstrom through your spells. For example, Ardent Plea was a knight of Bant casting a boon, but it might trigger a chain reaction that calls in a Grixis Grimblade.

Cascade was meant to be an unpredictable mechanic, forcing you to think fast as random spells disrupted you and your opponent’s game plans. While fairly effective in a limited environment, players soon realized there were ways to skirt the assumed randomness of the mechanic. Combined with the fact that these cards were just plain good made them a dominant force in the Standard and Modern environments of their heyday.

Bloodbraid Elf is the most famous example from this era (Reid Duke, this one goes out to you). A beefy creature that casts another spell for free as a fair rate! Let’s take a look at one of the Jund decklists of the era. Upon casting Bloodbraid Elf, you’re going to hit a solid beater like Tarmogoyf, removal like Terminate or Liliana of the Veil, or card advantage like Dark Confidant. Being able to start swinging with a hasty 3/2 gives you the time to make these other cards more valuable. Just one Bloodbraid Elf would put your opponent on the backpedal, leading to the card’s eventual banning in 2013 before being unbanned in 2018.

Modern Cascade and Modern Modern Cascade

If you follow 60-card format updates, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about Cascade recently. If you don’t, you’ve probably also heard about Cascade from your friend who tried to sell all of their Violent Outbursts one random Tuesday morning. Cascade, also called Rhinos, Living End, Footfalls, or another equally silly name, is a Modern deck that exploits the rules of the Cascade mechanic in one way or another. The first iteration of this used the Time Spiral zero-mana Suspend card: Living End. Decks would play no cards other than Living End with mana value two or less. The early turns of the game are spent cycling large creatures like Striped Riverwinder and reanimating them on turn three with a Cascade spell.

Most Cascade cards were quite high in mana value, but a handful of aggressively costed ones helped the deck work. The aforementioned Ardent Plea was one example of this. These cards were split across the color pie and were all two or more colors. Cascade decks, therefore, usually require a pip-heavy manabase to make sure they can hit their necessary colors. These were fairly consistent pseudo-combo decks that put up solid results.

We’d see a new version of Cascade arise with the 2019 printing of Modern Horizons. A callback to Time Spiral’s Suspend spells came in the form of Crashing Footfalls. This creates two 4/4 Rhinos with trample, immediately making a board presence that can crash through tiny creatures. Not only was this an efficient effect that didn’t require you to play costly cycling creatures, it could be suspended on turn one and come down at a fairly reasonable rate. This became a popular piece for Cascade decks, with several builds pivoting to the Rhinos.

More sets gave these decks more tools. Modern Horizons 2 printed Shardless Agent into Modern, adding another three-mana suspend spell that came with a body. Dominaria United’s Leyline Binding played into the deck’s need for multiple colors and could imitate a one-mana removal spell. And a cycle of landcyclers in The Lord of the Rings: Tales from Middle-earth let the deck consistently hit its land drops while fixing mana. Troll of Khazad-dûm in particular really helped Living End decks. It’s a big creature that cycles for cheap! What more could a Maelstrom Mage want?

The deck’s dominance in Modern, along with its ability to be protected by Force of Negation, led to Violent Outburst recently being banned. This has led to an upset in the deck as it can no longer Cascade into its spells at instant speed. Currently, the dominant four-color or five-color deck in Modern uses Scion of Draco alongside Leyline of the Guildpact to an absolutely devastating effect.

Cascade’s former dominance has left many players conflicted. Some folks really liked the deck’s style, utilizing overcosted cards to cheat in haymakers. However, its ability to be so neatly exploited went against the intent of the mechanic. Rather than feeling like taming the Maelstrom of Alara, the deck acted like pre-planned combo. The ability to be so efficient has made Cascade a powerhouse in sixty-card formats, leaving those searching for casual applications a bit lost. However, Commander offers a way to find the fun normally spikey mechanics. Let’s build a casual Cascade deck in Commander utilizing a brand new legend from Outlaws of Thunder Junction.

Just Kidding Around

The main Cascade commanders people think of are Imoti, Celebrant of Bounty, Maelstrom Wanderer, and Averna, the Chaos Bloom. These decks just want you to jam big spells and cascade into them with even bigger threats. While these are certainly fun build-arounds, I wanted to take a slightly different approach to break away from this style of build. That’s when I found Kellan, the Kid!

Kellan wants you to cast spells from anywhere other than your hand. The intent here is likely to utilize Adventures from Kellan’s past cards alongside the new Plot mechanic from Thunder Junction. However, this deck is going to have Kellan go on a trip through the Omenpaths to Alara! The name of the game is Cascade here, though we’ve altered the deck slightly to lean into Kellan’s ability.

All of the major Cascade cards within the Bant color identity are here. Shardless Agent, Ardent Plea, Annoyed Altisaur, and all their friends help us trigger Kellan’s ability when we play efficient spells. Don’t count out the Exalted triggers on Ardent Plea and Noble Hierarch, Kellan’s flying and lifelinking body is able to easily swing in off those triggers.

While Cascade cards are the deck’s centerpiece, they’re also very mana intensive. There’s a few cards in here that will help trigger Kellan’s ability without having to cast a five-mana 3/3. Adventures like Kellan, Daring Traveler and Picklock Prankster will provide incremental advantage in the early turns before turning into free casts with Kellan, the Kid. A series of Future Sight engines that includes One with the Multiverse and The Reality Chip also trigger Kellan’s ability. The top of our library isn’t our hand, so start chaining those spells and casting even more free ones!

Now, Kellan’s ability does present a minor problem with Cascade. If you cast a Shardless Agent and Cascade into an Esper Sentinel, you’re only going to be able to cheat out another one-drop. That’s perfectly fine, but this isn’t the kind of card advantage we really want to see, especially if we don’t have something to cast with him. This is where the other option on Kellan comes in, letting us put a land into play rather than casting another permanent. Our Cascade spells during into Growth Spiral effects! This hardcore ramp ability is going to let us cast things like Apex Devastator way ahead of schedule. Plus, if we’re going hard on the ramp, why not turn this into a landfall build as well?

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath is another Constructed powerhouse that can trigger Kellan off escape. It also ramps lands onto the battlefield and draws us more cards! We can get a payoff for all these land drops with things like Tireless Provisioner, Emeria Shepherd, or Tatyova, Benthic Druid. Once we’ve accrued a frankly unreasonable amount of card advantage, larger threats like a melded Titania, Voice of Gaea can swing in for huge damage. Scute Swarm is a consistent, if traditional, win condition for landfall decks that had to make the final cut. Finally, I cut this from the final version of the deck since it felt too powerful, but you can add a lockout combo using Glacial Chasm and our Crucible of Worlds effects.

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While certainly not a traditional Cascade deck, I hope you enjoyed my twist on the archetype with a fresh new Commander. I’ve seen tons of awesome Kellan, the Kid builds crop up, so let me know if you add your own spin on him or any other Cascade commander! I look forward to seeing your brews. Thanks for reading!

Mechanical Memories — The Guide to Cascade

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Commander (1)
Sorceries (8)
Creatures (37)
Enchantments (3)
Instants (4)
Artifacts (4)
Planeswalkers (1)
Lands (42)

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Mechanical Memories - Equipped for EDH

Outlaws of Thunder Junction - Kellan, the Kid Deck Tech

Jubilee Finnegan (they/them) is English literature student and writer based out of Southern California. They got hooked in Magic with Throne of Eldraine and haven't stopped since. When not deckbuilding, they're working on poetry, gardening, or trying some new artistic endeavor. They can be found on Twitter at @finneyflame or on Instagram @jwfinnegan.

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