Too-Specific Top 10 - Cheap as Free
(Snuff Out | Art by Steve Argyle)
You Won't Believe #3!
Welcome to Too-Specific Top 10, where we're going to rank some awesome cards! However, we can't use categories as broad as "Top 10 Blue Spells" or other such nonsense! The narrower the scope, the better! And if there isn't a category to rank our pet cards, well, we'll make one up! (Did you know that Scuttling Doom Engine is the best Crab-based Automaton under seven mana?)
This week, in honor of the new "Force" cycle from Modern Horizons (also known as the Pitch mechanic), we're looking at the best free spells. Only, don't we already know what those are?
Whether it is countering a spell, drawing counterspells, or countering another spell, blue has the market cornered when it comes to cards with the text, "rather than pay this spell's mana cost." So rather than giving you a Top 10 list with the inevitable Force of Will at the top, we're going to ignore the blue cards completely and look at the free spells you don't see as often. So let's take a look and see if we can't find some hidden gems you could surprise opponents with even when you're tapped out!
Top 10 Free Spells... That Aren't Blue
A couple of caveats to start off here: These rankings are not my own, but rather pulled straight from the EDHREC "ranking" of each card as of the writing of this article. That's more scientific anyway, and helps prevent my chronic hipster-ism from appearing in bold print. Secondly, there are a lot of super-powerful zero-cost cards in all types across the game of Magic, but this list is only for instants and sorceries, and importantly, only those that feature an alternate casting cost. Indeed, this list is specifically narrowed down so you won't see many ultra-powerful cards, despite the broken nature of free spells as a whole.
Finally, we'll be holding off on rating the new free spells from Modern Horizons, as the data on them is very new and a bit all over the place, and it doesn't seem right to compare them against cards that have been around for evaluation for several years. Stay tuned for a poll at the end of the article to see where those may land. FOr now, let's get cracking!
Instant-speed removal that doesn't cost you a dime is hard to scoff at. While these days Snuff Out is often taking a backseat to the likes of more flexible removal like Hero's Downfall and Go for the Throat, old-timers that were around for Standard during Mercadian Masques remember the power of being able to cast this card for free, even if several of them might privately tell you that they actually preferred Vendetta.
According to the statistics, you're most likely to see Snuff Out as a technically expensive piece of removal in Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow decks. Revealing a spell that burns your opponents for four and then casting it by only paying 4 life yourself feels pretty good. In a similar vein, I think my favorite deck using Squee's best Surprised Pikachu face is Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder, which can Cascade right past this four-drop card to find important combo pieces in your deck that cost three or less mana, all while still allowing you to have cheap-to-cast-but-still-technically-high-mana-cost removal available in the deck.
While having a free spell at sorcery speed feels bad in comparison to the feeling you get while holding a Pact of Negation in your hand, Fury of the Horde still has quite the surprise factor baked in when you tap out during your first main phase, swing in with everything, and then pitch two cards to untap and do it again for the win. Honestly, with how potent that kind of surprise can be, I'm surprised I don't see this card played in more decks. The reason Fury is sitting at only 1,449 decks at the moment is probably because Coldsnap was not a popular set, and the card advantage needed to have two extra red cards to throw away is hard to come by in red decks.
Unsurprisingly, then, the statistics show that the most popular decks that use Fury of the Horde are mostly mono-red, with the exception of the Jeskai powerhouses Narset, Enlightened Master and Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest. Fury's other most popular commanders often feature abilities that make mana or that cast spells for free (Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion, for example, and Etali, Primal Storm) giving them an extra avenue for casting Fury if they can't manage to find the two cards to pitch.
A Poison enthusiast's best friend, Invigorate has long been used in competitive formats as a means to stomp the gas pedal on an underhanded aggro victory. In Commander, the uses are a little different, although it is notable that, with several opponents to choose from, the ability to give a friend a few extra life while finishing off the problem player at the table is a fine political move all around. At instant speed, Invigorate is also a great means to save one of your creatures from conditional removal or to throw a wrench into combat. Really, the only thing that might have you frowning about this card in a game of Commander is the lack of trample... but you're not that greedy, are you?
While there is a smattering of straight aggro and commanders that care about their own power, by far the biggest existing use of Invigorate right now is in Selvala, Heart of the Wilds decks. Having an opponent gain three life so you can add four extra green mana to your mana pool seems like a heck of a deal, even if you haven't put together some convoluted engine to indefinitely untap Selvala quite yet.
In a long history of red cards that like to pay their mana costs by sacrificing their personal flavor of basic land, Downhill Charge rates the highest in EDH, and it's not hard to see why. In a mono-red deck, being able to give a creature +1/+0 for each Mountain you control out of nowhere can be abused in any number of ways. I would imagine that the only reason this ended up behind the similar Invigorate is because of that mono-color restriction. Really, the upside on Downhill Charge is much higher in the decks that can play it.
As for the decks that are playing it, it may not come as a surprise that the only one worth mentioning at this time is Zada, Hedron Grinder, where it shows up in 459 of 555 decks. Still, the number two commander for Downhill Charge may eventually catch up, given just how many Goblins this could give you in Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin decks.
Summoning Trap seems very limited to me, although if your meta is counterspell-heavy you may feel differently. Being able to keep your board churning forward in response to one of your big creatures getting countered has got to feel pretty good, no matter the circumstances.
Still, it's not exactly a surprise that Summoning Trap is only played in 373 decks, and unlike some of the honorable mentions we'll get to below, I don't think that I could support that number getting much higher. If any Grothama, All-Devouring players could let me know why it's in 12.5% of their decks, though, I would appreciate it!
While sacrificing a couple Mountains to get a couple creatures seems like a losing interaction, if the timing is just right, Goblin decks tend to salivate a bit at the proposition. If you already have some means to translate tokens into another resource, or are just hunting for more bodies at any cost, then being able to grab two Goblins that would otherwise be beyond your means can be just the added push you need to turn a good turn into a game-winning one.
With all that said, there are only 310 decks that have found room for Mogg Alarm, with the usual Goblin suspects at the top of the list. Zada, Hedron Grinder wants a few bodies to pump and to make more copies of her spells, and Krenko, Mob Boss gets exponential just a tad faster with those free bodies. More interestingly, Purphoros, God of the Forge really seems to be utilizing Mogg Alarm for all its worth, triggering four damage immediately and following it up by pumping the Goblins repeatedly.
It's probably good that red isn't a typical color for Infect, or this card would be really nasty. Being able to pitch a high-CMC card at instant speed to alpha strike for that last bit of damage - or to make a creature huge before pointing a Chandra's Ignition at it - is a nice option to have. Even better, if you don't have the expensive red card in hand, Blazing Shoal still has a fairly reasonable casting cost. Add to all that that it happens to be Arcane, and there's more than a couple different strategies that might be interested in this effect.
That probably explains why, according to the statistics, the number one commander for Shoal is Skyfire Kirin. While I'm all for encouraging obscure commanders, it is worth noting that the number one rank is due to synergy, not sheer numbers; there just aren't that many people making Skyfire Kirin decks (29 total). Zada, Hedron Grinder, on the other hand, has no such deficiency, and Blazing Shoal sees play in 146 of the 685 Zada decks. As with most Zada inclusions, then, another one to keep an eye on is Feather, the Redeemed. Probably the reason that it's not already more popular is because most Feather decks are trying to keep their mana curve as low to the ground as possible because they're trying to cast spells over and over again every turn. Lastly, the interaction between Blazing Shoal and Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin is not to be underestimated.
I think the only reason this one isn't further up the list is the fact that it is white. Being able to Disenchant at instant speed while tapped out seems incredibly powerful, even at the top power levels of EDH. Perhaps the low numbers of play for Abolish, then, are based simply on the fact that folks barely know of this old Prophecy card's existence, combined with its belonging what is widely regarded as the worst color in EDH. Regardless of what the reason is, however, I personally would rank Abolish much, much closer to the top of this list if I had my way, and would encourage you to try it out in your decks that have a decent amount of white in them.
As for how it's currently being utilized, Abolish is only in a measly 271 decks, the most popular being Stax legend Hokori, Dust Drinker. With Hokori rolling around and Winter Orbing everyone's lands, having access to a free spell to answer problems around the table makes a lot of sense, so it's really not a surprise that 17% of Hokori decks are sporting this one. As for the rest of Abolish's most popular commanders, Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero makes me think that I'm right about the numbers being a little low due to the age of the card, as it doesn't make a lot of sense in Rebels specifically. No, I think the popularity in Lin-Sivvi specifically is due to the fact that it's from the same block as the Rebel leader, and those of us that have fond memories of Rebels running rampant all over standard remember this free option alongside that nostalgia.
Fireblast has long been known as a means for super-aggro decks to burn for the win, and it is no different in EDH. While this tactic is much less effective with three opponents, it's still not rare to run into some pure aggro decks every once in a while, and they need their removal more than ever. That said, I'm surprised that I don't see at least a few copies of this floating around in Lands builds, as they would be very capable of shrugging off the sacrificed Mountains and immediately replaying them.
Regardless, as it stands now, Fireblast is almost exclusively played in Zurgo Bellstriker decks, coming in at 60% of all of them. If you haven't heard of that particular deck, you shouldn't be surprised; specifically, the popularity of Zurgo can be laid at the feet of Magic Online's 1v1 Competitive Commander scene, where it is one of the main Red Deck Wins leaders of the format. Outside of that narrow use, however, Fireblast just doesn't quite do enough to warrant an inclusion in anything multiplayer.
Noticing a theme with the bottom of our list? Yet another six-mana burn spell that can be cast for free, Pyrokinesis is a bit steeper in price, asking for a red card to be exiled from your hand, but for a bit more effect. While this is only getting rid of one card instead of the two Mountains required by Fireblast, it can be a higher bar, given that the alternate casting cost is more difficult to set up. If it's late game and you need that last four damage, Mountains are easy to come by. If it's late game and you're in red, the likelihood that you have an abundance of red cards just sitting around is actually fairly low.
Outside of a strange 42% play rate in 12 total Tuktuk the Explorer decks, it might come as no surprise to find that the main use for Pyrokinesis is in those same 1v1 Zurgo Bellstriker decks. Even there it sees much less play, however, given the higher bar to be able to cast it for free.
Force of Choice
Our last couple free spells in the top 10 are a bit of a letdown, I must say. Luckily, they're being replaced as we speak with the release of Modern Horizons! That's right, our very own new Commander set (I mean, basically) has brought us a whole new cycle of free spells!
So, where do you think the new cards belong? Are they at the top of the list, bringing up the rear to fill out the top 10, or somewhere in the middle? Let's fill in the rest of this list together, and avoid talking about how Unmask just doesn't quite get there for multiplayer.
Let's start with the card that got eliminated due to it's unfortunate hue:
While this would probably end up very high on our list, so would pretty much every other free blue spell you can recall. Still, it's a good template to look at the rest of the new options, as all of them have the "if it's not your turn" restriction, along with the standard Force of Will exiling of a card that shares a color with the spell.
So, with that ineligible example out of the way, let's look at the rest!
It's tempting at first to call this a board wipe, but that's not really correct. At instant speed, this feels much more like a Trap card you can cast on that crucial turn where another player is going off. The fact that you can also do so at a measly three mana if you don't have the black card to pitch just makes this a more reasonable proposition overall. The real question is whether that casting flexibility makes this rather inflexible card worth inclusion.
Where Force of Despair gets the wheels turning with all the devious possibilities, Force of Rage feels much more mundane. While in some situations it could be a better Mogg Alarm, overall it just feels very limited in our particular format. Still, EDH is all about finding niches for cards that fit a particular deck, and I would be surprised if there wasn't at least one for this card.
Return to Dust and Crush Contraband are staples for their ability to get rid of two problems for just one card and four mana. While Force of Vigor doesn't exile them like its white counterparts do, surely having the option to destroy two artifacts and/or enchantments while tapped out makes this an instant staple as well, doesn't it?
I don't know about you, but I'm all about options. While my options don't usually include playing Glorious Anthem at three mana... They might include playing Force of Virtue as an instant combat trick that sticks around, at zero mana? It's conceivable, anyway.
So, where do you think the new additions sit? Which would you say is the best?
And finally, where would you put the new contenders on the list above?
Speaking of which, what other free spells that aren't being played right now are you crazy about? Lets go over a few!
Overall, there are a few free nonblue spells that aren't seeing much play, a lot of which weren't in the top 10 even without the inclusion of the new pitch spells from Modern Horizons. Given that all of these rankings are based on the amount of decks the individual cards are played in, there will often be omissions on these lists that I want to at least bring people's attention to. After all, there's got to be a niche out there, right?
Seriously, no white cards in the top five? Here's a few that I feel should be in contention:
Okay, these weren't allowed, but still there's some interesting choices outside of the obvious:
I mentioned Unmask earlier, which isn't particularly great in the format due to the "target player" restriction that dooms so many discard options... but what about these gems from way back when?
While there are a lot of "deal 4 damage to something, sacrifice two cards" types of effects in red that are great in constructed formats and terrible in EDH, there are still some intriguing options that may have a home somewhere.
This is probably the best of the bunch, when it comes to untapped potential.
What About You?
So, how would you change this list? What free spells do you love that weren't mentioned? What's that free tech that you're bringing to the table and have never seen anyone else using?
Let us know in the comments and spread that (specific) tech!