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“Once upon a time in the cantrip cartel” by Robbert Valkeneers

I want to start this article with a bold statement:

“The card ‘Once upon a time’ is just as broken as ‘Brainstorm’: not at all”

I will come back to this statement later in the article. 

First of all, let’s analyze the card.

If this spell is the first spell you’ve cast this game, you may cast it without paying it’s mana cost.

People always get excited if WotC prints free cards. Usually there is a downside like card disadvantage, postponed payments, prerequisites to activate it or certain timings. This spell falls under the last category. Which is definitely not bad since the spell has a CMC of 2, so you can still cast it early, mid or late game by paying the mana cost.

Look at the top five cards of your library. You may reveal a creature or land card among them and put it into your hand. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.

Well this is exactly what green does/did in the past. Searching for creatures (Green Sun’s Zenith/ Summoners’ Pact/Ancient Stirrings/…) or searching for lands (Sylvan Scrying/Crop Rotation/Life From the Loam/Ancient Stirrings/…). But combined in one card.

And the card is an instant. 

So at the start of the game on the draw, you can wait for your opponent action(s) before you start searching depending on what your opponent does. 

On the other hand, 99% of all creatures and lands can only be played at sorcery speed. So the instant effect is not so important, or is it?  

If they would print it for the other colors as a free spell with similar search functions (not saying they will, but if they do) Red would search for a land or artifact (or artifacts and creatures), Blue for lands/instants (or instants/planeswalkers,) White for lands/enchantments (or enchantments/creatures/artifacts) and black for lands/sorceries (or sorceries/planeswalkers). All CMC 2 except blue will be CMC 3 (otherwise it’s too good) and white could be CMC1. (otherwise you would play enlighted tutor, although that is card disadvantage).
But again, I don’t think they will. Heck, how would the other cards be called in that fairy tale theme? I let you guys speculate on that one.

What decks would play this card?

First of all, I’m a Legacy aficionado, so I will mainly talk about use of the card in the Legacy format. I’ll touch a bit of Modern and nothing about Standard. (A non-eternal format? What’s that?)

For those who know me, I tend to play a lot of fringe/janky decks, so I might want to brew with it in the future, but for now I will only talk about the ‘tier 1 or 2’ decks. 

First archetypes that come to mind are combo decks, because you want to do unfair things with a new card, and let’s be honest, combo decks can get a little unfair from time to time. But it can/should be played in different archetypes as well. 

 

Modern:

  • Titan
  • Devoted Vizier
  • Bogles
  • Infect
  • Tron?
  • Neoform??

Legacy:

  • Depth decks (Turbo, Hogaak, Lands, Maverick?, …)
  • Infect
  • Delver decks with a green splash (4C Delver, Canadian Threshold, …)

Modern

Ok, since I don’t know all the Modern decks properly I won’t go over them all. But needless to say is that above decks really rely on specific creatures and/or land to should be searched for. And I want to reserve the comparisement with brainstorm to the format that I know better and still is allowed to play it. 

I do want to elaborate on Tron and Neoform.
Tron is one of those decks where you think it will ‘outshine’ his older brother Ancient Stirrings. But let’s compare the 2 cards:

  • 1 CMC vs ‘free’ or 2 CMC. Stirrings having a constant cost versus an advantage on the first turn, a ‘disadvantage’ on a later moment. For 2 CMC if you are looking solely for a land, Sylvan Scrying is better
  • Sorcery vs Instant: Instant is not relevant for a creature or land, if Stirrings was an instant, that would be a different case, because:
  • Fetching land/creature vs Fetching land/creature/artifact/devoid spells in Tron: This is really the biggest advantage that Stirrings has over Once upon a Time.The first point is debatable, the second point is a draw and the last point is a clear win for Ancient Stirrings. (in Tron)

Ancient Stirrings vs Once upon a time (in Tron) 🡪 Winner: Ancient Stirrings

And then we have Neoform.
I recently played Neoform (or Dinoform/NeoBrand/…) on a Magicfest Team Modern. I individually went 6-2 (lost the last round for the team and myself and also our win-and-in for day 2, still a bit sour…) But I learned more and more about the deck as I continued rocking turn 1 or 2 victories.

The deck is a typical A+B combo deck. Where you need both parts of the combo in hand to go off. In Legacy you can compare it to a Show and Tell deck.

Before certain people start shooting me, of course Show and Tell is filled with cantrips and permission, while Neoform is filled with ways to go off instantly. But the base of the deck is the same. In SnT you have 4 Show and Tell + 4 Sneak Attack (A), and 4 Griselbrand + 4 Emrakul (B). I know there are tutors and cantrips, and some builds will divert a bit from these number to play a tutor more or go into a different backup plan (cunning wish). 

Looking at these numbers we have 8 A pieces (enablers) and 8 B pieces (creatures). You need both of them in your hand to ‘combo’. In this part, Neoform is the same. Sure, SnT doesn’t win on the spot, but Neoform can also fizzle midcombo or be disrupted (if played poorly).

So Neoform has 8 A pieces (4 Neoform + 4 Eldritch Evolution) and 8 B pieces (4 Allosaurus Rider + 4 Summoners’ Pact). Both in hand are needed to combo off. (and 2 extra green cards)

What do we add to Neoform with Once upon a time?

  • It’s a green card, sure…
  • It can mana fix (land/Simian Guide/Wild Cantor)
  • It can search (MAYBE) only 4 of the B side of the pieces

That last point… by casting it, for free or for 2 CMC, it has a CHANCE to find the half of the half of your combo. No I wasn’t stuttering. It can find 4 of the 16 cards of the combo and only if they are in the top 5 of your library…  Not only that, if you also needed the A part of the combo, it might put those cards on the bottom of your library!
But let’s be honest, if you did that with this deck, you should have mulliganned anyway…

SnT has cantrips or tutors to find ‘any piece’. Here it only searches on the B side (and you still need to be lucky). Currently it has Summoners’ Pact, which finds that missing piece on the spot (with the necessity to go off that turn). 

If you are planning to run a new card in a certain deck, it mainly needs to do one of the following 2 things:

  • Fix a problem the deck is having
  • Be an upgrade to an existing card in the deck

For me, Once upon a time does: none of the above.

Cantrip Cartel

Before I go to the Legacy decks, you already felt the cantrip cartel (Brainstorm/Ponder/Preordain) coming. And comparing SnT with Neoform (only as the absolute basis A+B combo) already points the main stuff out. 

Cantrips in a combo deck makes the combo more reliable to find. I said reliable, not certain. I’ve seen my part of cantrip, into cantrip, into the wrong part of the combo too many times to know it’s not a certainty. 

Ponder searches 3 deep and replaces itself. With the option of putting the top 3 cards ‘away’ and draw blind.

Preordain lets you search 2 deep, putting 0,1 or 2 bad cards away and replaces itself.

Brainstorm searches 3 deep and with a shuffle effect can put 2 bad cards ‘away’ from the top or your hand. That’s amazingly good with fetchlands of course and to put 3 cards in your hand and shuffling 2 bad cards in your hand away. Perfect for a combo deck.
But if you take Brainstorm without a shuffle effect, it digs 3 deep, but if ‘these are not the cards you are looking for’ *pun intended* you just got information about the top 2 cards on your deck and it replaces itself.

In this case, Once upon a time is exactly the same. It digs deeper, it puts the not needed cards on the bottom of the library but it can only replace itself by a land or a creature. So to abuse the card, your ‘combo’ needs to exists about creatures and/or lands, and preferably by more than 4 or 8 cards. Insert, the Legacy decks.

Legacy

Depths decks, you have different versions, but they all share a same kill condition (for some main, for some as a backup). Dark Depths + Thespian Stage. These are both lands that can be searched for with Once upon a time and not only that, Turbo Depths/Hogaak Depth plays a variety of utility lands to search with once upon a time.
Plus, it can search a Vampire Hexmage (same as Thespian Stage, an enabler, part A of the combo, Depths being part B), or other utility creatures (Sylvan Safekeeper/Dark Confidant).

But lets compare it to the other tutor the deck plays: Crop Rotation. Sure Crop Rotation comes at the price of sacrificing a land and doesn’t find creatures, but it finds your needed combo or utility land on the spot AND puts it into play. It doesn’t stop after the 5 top cards of your library. Sylvan Scrying doesn’t put it into play, but also searches for the necessary land.

In Hogaak Depth, the other utility creatures (Stitcher’s Supplier/Satyr Wayfinder), mill your library instead of putting it on the bottom. And still find a similar thing.

So yes, in Turbo Depths it’s not bad, but also not better than the existing cards (it does provide a free replacement for a faster combo), in Hogaak Depths I’m not even sure I want to play it. Lands almost always need their land immediately or at least put it in the grave (Life from the Loam). In Maverick it will serve as a utility card, but nothing that Green Sun’s Zenith or Knight of the Reliquary can’t do better.

Moving on to the deck in Legacy (and Modern) that could use it very well: Infect.
Here you can see the advantage of being an instant already. You can wait on their turn with your permission ready, permission not needed? End of turn cast Once upon a time.

You have 12 threats (Glistener Elf, Blighted Agent, Inkmoth Nexus) to find + you can find a Noble hierarch or a utility land. You can ‘keep’ a threat light (or no threat) hand with a Once upon a time in hand. You can dig 5 deep for free and if you still don’t find anything, at least something should be coming since you put those 5 at the bottom. 

I already like Infect as a better contestant to play Once upon a time compared to Turbo Depths. (and  I love both decks, but love Turbo Depths a bit more)

Moving to what I think is the best archetype to play the card: Xerox.dec (aka Delver decks)
Mostly the onces that splash green, like 4C, Canadian Threshold or even UR that currently splashes green for Wrenn and Six.

I mentioned the cantrip cartel before and it already does an awesome job in Delver decks. But because of that consistency, it’s ‘low’ on 2 things: threats (creatures) around 12, and lands around 18. What did Once upon a time search for again? Exactly!

How many times does a Delver player do the following keep: 1 land and a cantrip. It’s greedy, but mostly pays of because all there spells have a very low average CMC. But that cantrip can also find nothing, in case of a brainstorm and finding no fetch, you know you locked yourself for 2 turns. And hopefully you don’t run into a wasteland… Needless to say, it can be a tricky keep. (especially if you face a troll like me who sometimes likes to Force that first cantrip if I feel it’s a dangerous keep for them)

With a Once upon a time in your opening hand, it can replace itself for free for that certain second land or that turn 1 Delver. With the side effect that it can be countered.
Later in the game, same as with Legacy Infect, you can keep your permission up, not needed? Just dig for that threat or wasteland.

In that archetype it’s an awesome mana fixer and it can search for a mid/late game threat or even that turn 1 Delver.

I will not go into (a lot of) details about how many copies you should play to have one in your opening hand, or what to cut, or certain statistics. You can find that all in this CFB article: 

www.channelfireball.com/articles/once-upon-a-time-manabases-lived-happily-ever-after/

 

Conclusion

  • Once upon a time is definitely an interesting card to brew with. 
  • Definitely isn’t broken.
  • It can help to find certain combo cards, but isn’t doing a much better job than the existing cards.
  • It’s a great manafixer and threat finder.
  • My top 3 Legacy decks to play it in: 
    1. Delver decks with a splash of green
    2. Infect
    3. Turbo Depths

Until next time! 

/Robbert

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