A Beginner’s Guide to Unlocking the Secrets of Cryptic Command
I started playing Magic: the Gathering right when Return to Ravnica came out. While I began as a casual EDH player, I quickly moved into 60-card competitive formats. I tried Standard, but didn’t like the idea of a rotating format. I eventually settled on the Modern format. It had a nice balance of not rotating (like Standard) but also not being too expensive (like Legacy).
I now had to decide what deck to play, and one particular card caught my eye: Cryptic Command. Before even slotting the card into a deck, I was intrigued by the modes and its potential versatility. In the subsequent years it has become one of my favourite cards in Modern.
I understand that for some people, the three blue mana and converted mana cost of 4 can be a little off-putting. However, in this blog post, I will give an overview of the card, after which I will break down each of the modes and their main uses. Finally, I will look at some alternate lines of play which might not be apparent upon first consideration. Hopefully by the end, some of you will have fallen in love with this card as much as I have.
Cryptic Command Overview:
For as long as the Modern format has been around, Cryptic Command has been the hallmark card of control strategies. Usually finding a home in Blue-White strategies, Blue decks have adopted this card due to its incredible versatility. Whether it’s used to counter an opposing payoff spell, to buy a turn by tapping an opponent’s attackers, or simply to draw a card to replace itself, the seemingly high mana cost is absolutely worth it.
Experienced players know what to look for when playing against Control strategies. They will make note of when their opponent has four lands available including three that produce blue. This represents the resources needed to cast Cryptic Command. No matter which deck it’s in, Cryptic Command can represent a significant turning point for any number of reasons.
To explore this card, let’s first look at the individual effects, known as “modes”:
- Counter target spell
- Return Target permanent to its owner’s hand
- Tap all creatures your opponents control
- Draw a card
At first glance, these effects might not seem all that impressive, since it is possible to achieve similar effects with other cards, often for less mana (The card Repeal comes to mind). However, the beauty of having all of these abilities on the same card is that it acts like a toolbox, giving you access to whichever effect is most relevant at the time. Let’s take a look at them:
First Mode: Counter Target Spell
This is probably the second most commonly chosen mode, and is pretty straightforward. If the opponent is playing a combo deck, there’s generally one important spell they need to resolve. By countering cards like Ad Nauseam or Gifts Ungiven, you prevent your opponent from winning, or at least from generating a large advantage. This is the reason so many players are wary when an opponent playing this card has four mana available on their turn, because it signifies the possibility of countering whatever threat they might try to deploy.
Second Mode: Tap All Creatures Your Opponents Control
While utilized less often than the first mode, tapping your opponents’ creatures can be just as effective as countering a spell. Often this mode is used to survive when facing lethal damage. Preventing the attacks, when coupled with drawing a card, allows you to buy a turn by not taking damage. In addition, it draws a card to try and find an answer to the most troublesome threat.
Third Mode: Return Target Permanent to its Owner’s Hand
Probably the least used mode of Cryptic Command, the utility of this effect might not be as apparent at first glance. However, in the right situation(s), this can be the hardest hitting effect of all. Whether preventing them from completing a combo by returning a piece to their hand, or keeping them off mana by returning a land, this mode is the hidden gem of Cryptic Command, and has singlehandedly won me more games than any of the other modes.
Fourth Mode: Draw a Card
Every control player loves drawing extra cards. This can be accomplished with cards like Serum Visions or with utility spells like Electrolyze. Cryptic is such a utility spell. This is why drawing a card is the most commonly chosen mode. Generally, Cryptic Command is used for one of the first three modes, with the player choosing the draw mode as the second.
Occasionally, players will choose two of the first three modes together, but more often they will simply choose to draw a card. This means that Cryptic Command only costs mana, and does not reduce your hand size—a big draw (pun intended) toward playing this card. There are few better feelings in magic than countering a big spell with Cryptic Command, and drawing another copy of it after choosing the first and fourth modes.
Now that we’ve looked at the individual modes and their general uses, let’s look at some combinations of these effects that show why this card really shines.
Bouncing Your Own Snapcaster:
This is one of my favourite plays to make with Cryptic Command, if I don’t need to if I don’t need to deal with an immediate opposing threat. If you’re playing Cryptic Command in Modern, chances are you’re also playing Snapcaster Mage, a much more commonly-played card in Modern. It does not have the strict requirements attached to Cryptic Command (many Modern decks cannot afford to run a card with three blue mana symbols in the cost). However, most decks playing Cryptic Command are also playing Snapcaster Mage.
Most people think of Snapcaster Mage as a one-and-done card to recycle a Lightning Bolt or counter spell such as Logic Knot out of the graveyard. Once Snapcaster Mage uses a spell in the graveyard, most players view it only as only a 2/1 creature.
You should never underestimate the potential to win simply by attacking with one or more Snapcaster Mages. However, what most players don’t realize is that Cryptic Command allows a player to reuse a single Snapcaster Mage. As an added bonus, the Cryptic Command is now in the graveyard. This is now a potential target for the Snapcaster as well.
I reccently played against the 5-color Humans deck that has been doing well in Modern. Knowing I only had a Cryptic Command and Lightning Bolt in my hand, my opponent cast a Kitesail Freebooter. His intention was to exile the Cryptic Command. I cast it in response, to protect it. However, since the Freebooter itself wasn’t worth countering, I cast the Cryptic Command to return the Snapcaster Mage I had on the battlefield to my hand, along with drawing a card.
My opponent now had to take the Lightning Bolt, since Kitesail Freebooter cannot exile a creature. At this point, I could either use the Snapcaster Mage to flashback a Lightning Bolt and remove the Kitesail Freebooter or save the Snapcaster Mage to use the Cryptic Command or another counter spell at a later point.
Returning an Opponent’s Protection:
If you haven’t yet realized the strength of Cryptic Command’s third mode, pay attention. Another line of play that many players do not notice is that of returning to an opponent’s hand a problematic permanent which is preventing the opponent from losing, either because of state-based effects, or because it’s preventing you from enacting your gameplan. Cards in the first category include Platinum Angel or Phyrexian Unlife. Cards in the second category are things like Leyline of Sanctity and Chalice of the Void.
As I mentioned earlier, many players use Cryptic Command in midrange and control decks alongside burn spells like Lightning Bolt. This often causes players to board in cards like Leyline of Sanctity. A lot of decks play this, even though many can’t cast it. Thus, if you are able to return Leyline of Sanctity to the player’s hand, it will be stranded there, and they will now be vulnerable to the burn spells.
If you are playing Esper (White-Blue-Black colors) instead of Jeskai, returning the Leyline to the opponent’s hand will allow a player to target the opponent with hand disruption like Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize, as well as with Planeswalker abilities such as Liliana of the Veil’s [-2] ability, which says “Target player sacrifices a creature”. And if they have the four mana to cast Leyline of Sanctity again, you can simply force them to discard it with a card like Thoughtseize.
While returning something like a Leyline of Sanctity can provide an advantage, let’s take a look at an instance where returning an opponent’s permanent was literally a game-winning play. I was playing against Ad Nauseam deck. For those who are unfamiliar, Ad Nauseam in Modern is a deck that uses effects like Angel’s Grace and Phyrexian Unlife to prevent them from losing while drawing their entire deck with the card Ad Nauseam. They then cast Lightning Storm. Since they’ve drawn the entire deck, they have more than enough land to discard to Lightning Storm to kill their opponent.
In the match, my opponent had a Phyrexian Unlife on the battlefield, and I had reduced his life total to -2 from burn spells and attacks with Geist of Saint Traft. He had a lot of mana available and I was worried about him winning on his next turn. Since he had used an Angel’s Grace on my turn to prevent himself from dying, I waited until his turn, and returned the Phyrexian Unlife to his hand. Since he didn’t have another Angel’s Grace in hand, he lost from having less than 0 life to state-based effects.
Using the Second Mode Offensively:
As mentioned earlier, the second mode—tapping all creatures your opponents control—is generally used as a defensive move. It prevents you from taking a lot of combat damage. However, in certain situations, using the tap ability is as effective on offence as it is on defence. This is especially effective when paired with one of my other favourite Modern cards: Geist of Saint Traft.
I love this card. I will write another article in the future about power of Geist of Saint Traft. But for now, let’s focus on Cryptic Command. Cryptic Command can pair well with a lot of different creatures, but it is most often used in Modern either with a lot of smaller creatures with flash (Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique) or with a few creatures that hit really hard. Geist of Saint Traft is certainly the latter. Although he only attacks for two damage by himself, he also brings a 4/4 Angel token with flying with him, resulting in an attack for a total of six damage.
The problem with Geist of Saint Traft is that he himself does not have flying. A lot of decks in the current Modern format play a lot of creatures. Therefore, unless the opponent doesn’t have any creatures, attacking with Geist is not viable. This is fine if you only need to force through two or three damage with the flying Angel token, but most times you’re going to need more than that.
This is where Cryptic Command comes in. Against a lot of decks, Geist of Saint Traft can win games by himself. You’ll be able to reduce an opponent’s life total extremely quickly. Inevitably though, some of those deck will eventually deploy a threat that deters Geist from attacking. However, if the opponent is at 6 or less life, all you have to do is use Cryptic Command to tap the opponent’s blockers to force through the remaining damage.
Forcing Your Opponent into a Tough Decision
The last play with Cryptic Command I’d like to discuss is one that doesn’t necessarily win games on its own, but which puts pressure on the opponent to make a decision which can swing the game significantly in your favor.
In terms of general strategy, one play which I believe is extremely underrated is that of forcing an opponent to take an action at the wrong time. This can disrupt the flow of the opponent’s strategy or force an opponent to make a particular move before they are ready. These are extremely effective ways of achieving an advantageous position.
This is once again achieved using the third mode. You return an opponent’s permanent to his or her hand. As an example, let’s suppose you are playing against Affinity. If the opponent controls an Arcbound Ravager with some number of counters on it, you can disrupt their game plan by returning the Arcbound Ravager to their hand. This gives them two options. They can sacrifice the Arcbound Ravager and put the counters on something else, or they can let the Arcbound Ravager go back to their hand and lose the counters it had already accrued. Neither of these results are ideal for the opponent. As a result, they will often make the incorrect decision, putting you in a more favourable position moving forward.
I hope this has helped you understand what a versatile card Cryptic Command is. I thoroughly enjoy playing with the card for two reasons. First, I like the decks that use it. More than that, though, I’m thoroughly impressed by the sheer power of the card. You’ll be hard pressed to find a single card for four mana better than Cryptic Command. Join me next time as I offer up a primer on my favourite deck in Modern: Jeskai Tempo/mid-range.
Do you have any stories about something fun or clever you did with Cryptic Command? Post below!
Thanks for reading,