I got to cast Ancestral Recall for the first time recently in the MTGO Vintage Cube. It was sweet, and flashing it back with Snapcaster Mage was even sweeter.

It’s very rare to find a card that efficient, and for good reason; one mana for three cards is absurd. These days, the humble Divination is the norm: three mana for two cards isn’t nearly as impressive as Ancestral Recall, but it remains a respectable rate. Add in a scry or the occasional extra card and it’s definitely worth the cost. When you can find more efficient card draw, however, things get really interesting….


While spells like Opt and Serum Visions only draw one card, these “cantrips” are worth mentioning, especially given how ubiquitous they are. Many decks enjoy the card selection they provide as a way to improve the quality of cards in their hand, even if it doesn’t change the quantity. Scrying a useless card to the bottom of your deck is almost as good as an extra draw in a lot of instances, and shuffling away useless cards after a Brainstorm can make the difference between a hand full of lands and one full of combo pieces.

Cantrips go great with things like prowess or magecraft, because you get to trigger your permanents without losing a card in your hand. They’re also a good way to fill your graveyard for delve spells or to get to threshold. The cheaper these spells are the better, since decks usually want to cast a flurry of them or at least have mana left over to cast their other spells. If it’s only one mana it might not even matter what else the spell does; the card it draws will be good enough. Cards with cycling are a great example of this; no one really cares that Street Wraith has swampwalk or that Startling Development can turn something into a Serpent. They care that these cards can be cycled for little to no mana.

While cantrips are usually instants or a sorceries, many decks will run cheap cantrip creatures or artifacts instead. These serve a similar function, but obviously support different synergies. Blinking, bouncing or recasting a creature or an artifact is often easier than other spells, and these cards frequently form the basis of powerful, repeatable draw engines when put in the right list.

Loot and Rummage

Like cantrips, looting and rummaging doesn’t get you ahead on cards, but these spells can dig you closer to what you need. The nice thing about drawing and discarding at the same time is that it’s usually a very cheap action mana-wise, and it’s not uncommon to find repeatable ways to do it. The trick is, if you build around looting with mechanics like madness, flashback, escape and disturb, you can start to generate actual card advantage.

What’s more, looting and rummaging pair very nicely with graveyard strategies: pitching a big creature while drawing you into your reanimation spell is a solid game plan, and dredging back a Stinkweed Imp then tossing it back into your graveyard to do it again will quickly fill your bin with all sorts of goodies.

When Faithless Looting got banned in Modern, I went over looting and discard in greater detail. If you’d like to read more about the subject, you can check those articles out here:
A World Without the Faithless – Part 1
A World Without the Faithless – Part 2

Sacrificial Draw

Once upon a time, there was a sorcery called Skulltap. It drew two cards for two mana, but at the cost of a creature. Years later, an instant version of that same card would appear, named Altar’s Reap.* Since then, we’ve seen progressively better versions of those spells. From the more versatile Costly Plunder, which can sacrifice artifacts instead of creatures, to the one mana Village Rites, each new iteration pushes its predecessors into obsolescence. Most recently, we got Deadly Dispute, which is exactly the same as Costly Plunder, but gives you a free Lotus Petal for your trouble. We’ve certainly come a long way from Skulltap!

As far as card draw is concerned, these “sacrificial” spells sit in a category all their own. In many ways they function like looting: you’re trading one card for two, just in this case you’re giving up one you’ve already played. On paper this means you aren’t even getting ahead on cards. What’s worse, you’ve already paid for the creature you’re sacrificing, so you’re not even getting a discount for your Divination! In practice, however, you’re typically going to be sacrificing a creature that replaces itself or a spare token you made. This effectively reduces your “discard” to half a card. What’s more, if you can generate any additional value from sacrificing the creature, that additional cost becomes negligible – or even beneficial.

The best card advantage you can get from these spells comes when an opponent spends a card to remove your permanent and you sacrifice it in response. You effectively get the benefit of a free Duress or Counterspell, since your opponent ends up down a card for nothing. This is why the instant nature of Altar’s Reap made it so much better than Skulltap, and why it can be so hard to justify running cards like Bankrupt in Blood, Morbid Curiosity or Life’s Legacy, despite them drawing more cards.

This interaction is also why the cheap mana cost of Village Rites makes it a defensible alternative to Deadly Dispute; keeping up one mana during a game is a lot easier than keeping up two.

More to Draw

These alternatives to Divination are pretty good when you can build around them, but they aren’t going to be suitable for every deck. If you’re still looking for the right spell, don’t worry; there are plenty more ways to get ahead on card advantage!

In Part 2 we’ll be going over X spells, impulsive draw, trading life for cards, paying for your spells in installments, and meeting weird conditions to get a discount. We’ll have our hands full; see you then!

* In between the printing of Skulltap and Altar’s Reap, there was a blue sacrificial draw spell called Perilous Research. It’s more flexible than most of spells in that category, but still isn’t as powerful as Village Rites or Deadly Dispute. That said, if you’re building a blue deck or want a way to sacrifice noncreature nonartifact permanents, it can be pretty useful.

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