March 31, 2016

Image Credit: Exclusion Ritual, by Daniel Ljundgren

Going Rogue: Breaking Brain in a Jar

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it often happens anyway.

Today I am very excited to plunge into the depths of every brewer's nirvana - breaking a card.

What is Breaking a Card?
Breaking a card is where you take a second look at some fairly innocuous rules text, and find something like a rules loophole and/or unique interaction which produces an effect is far beyond how the card was intended to operate. A quick glance at some of Modern's most crushing plays demonstrates this perfectly:

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker wasn't designed to end the game on the spot, but collaboration a small circle of friends including Restoration Angel and Deceiver Exarch make that possible. Similarly, you were supposed to have to wait three turns for Living End to resolve, until Travis Woo broke it by making it the only valid Cascade target in a deck full of cycling creatures like Deadshot Minotaur.

There are countless other examples of this - some so unfair that they've been relegated to banned list. As an aside, I deem this to be Magic's true badge of honour. A Hall of Fame induction is nice and all, but being the innovator behind a deck that gets a card banned out of the format is a far greater accolade, in my mind.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at one of the most interesting cards coming into the format with the release of Shadows Over Innistrad, and see if we can make it into a monster.


At a first glance, Brain in a Jar appears to be essentially an Aether Vial but for instants and sorceries. And certainly this is an important part of its charm. Part mana-accelerator, part-Quicken, Brain in a Jar could earn itself corner-case applications on these merits alone.

But let's be real - we can set the bar a whole lot higher than flashing in an end-step Wrath of God.

How to Break a Card in 10 Days

Just like Living End, the most likely path to broken status is going to be finding ways to quickly cast cards you have no business casting at a reasonable point in the game.

Let's get the first idea out of the way though - because of the ordering of Brain in a Jar's ability, it will always have at least one counter on it as the ability resolves. This means Living End and other zero-CMC Suspend favourites aren't going to work this time. Shoot - they're onto us.

(Note: Actually, this is technically possible. If you activate the ability for the first time, then bounce or destroy Brain in a Jar while the ability is on the stack, it will resolve with the last known information being zero counters. If someone can find a profitable and reliable way to exploit that interaction, we can reopen the conversation, but otherwise let's move on.)

So what about if we go large instead?

How early can Brain in a Jar cast Cruel Ultimatum? With Proliferate effects (like Tezzeret's Gambit) or other ways to accelerate its charging like Coretapper or Voltaic Key, we can add several counters a turn, and it's not too hard to imagine pulling off a turn four Cruel Ultimatum. Also known as something you can do better with Utopia Sprawl and Arbor Elf anyway. Getting warmer, but I don't think we're there yet.

How about exploiting a rules technicality?

Split cards like Boom|Bust actually have two converted mana costs, in this case, two and six. And because of the wording of Brain in a Jar's effect, you can put a second counter on it and choose Boom|Bust from your hand, and elect to cast the Bust side without paying its mana cost. Now we are talking. Not only are we getting crazy value, playing a six-drop for a virtual "two" (even though it will generally still be on turn four or later), we are destroying all lands and leaving behind a card that can cast spells without need for that common resource. Spicy spicy spicy. But we're still not quite there.

Rather than quitting there, let's take that same idea but crank it up another notch.

I'm not even going to go through the trouble of explaining this, I'm just going to go ahead and answer the question that should already be in your head. Yes. Yes you can. You really, really can.

Yes We Can

Other mechanics that can be theoretically exploited in this way include Replicate and Entwine, but neither of these let you draw four cards and put four Bird tokens into play for the low, low price of one colourless mana. It doesn't stop at Beck // Call, either.

Breaking Split Cards

Brain in a Jar and Beck // Call is hot tech, but I'm only going to build around a two-card combo if it ends the game on the spot, which this does not. That's going to demand some redundancy from our effects, so we might as well break some other Fuse cards while we're at it.

Breaking // Entering another splashy option. For the Brain-price of a Glimpse the Unthinkable, you get most of that card's effect plus the chance to generate a creature out of the deal. It's reasonable defense against a creature-heavy deck if you're short on blockers, but more realistically this may be a new tool to improve Griselbrand reanimator decks, as the Brain can cast most other spells in the deck, and Faithless Looting can get rid of the Breaking // Entering if you lack the smarts to cast it properly.

On top of either of those, we also have strong value options in Far // Away and Down // Dirty. I like these cards for two reasons.

    • Both modes of each can be relevant in a control deck that wants to grind out victory through removal and card advantage - even moreso when fused.
    • At CMC profiles of 2/3 and 3/4, these spells are very easy to Brain-into-play as it ticks up, as you can hit them at either sequential step.

Neat Interaction, but is this Really a Deck?

Point taken. As powerful as it is to cheap a fused Beck // Call into play, the card is extremely unplayable in anything outside of combo Elves (which isn't know for its instants and sorceries), and is therefore terrible to draw without a Brain ready to cast it, especially in multiples. We need a toolbox setup to make this card viable. Heck, the only one of these Fuse cards that even remotely rests on its own laurels is Far // Away, and even that's pushing it a bit far. These effects need to be fetchable as needed.

So where could a Brain engine like this fit? Well, beyond cheating in Fuse spells, it's particularly good at two things: Draw step disruption, and combat-step sweepers. If only there were an existing shell with these features that is also friendly to a one-of toolbox approach.

While not seen at tournament tables much these days, Esper Gifts Control has been in and out of competitive contention for a while. Brain in a Jar likely has a home in several decks, but this is a fantastic home for it for a few reasons:

      1. It plays a lot of sorceries, many of which are excellent when accelerated to instant speed. Inquisition of Kozilek at Vendilion Clique speed. Lingering Souls as an Ambush Viper with flashback. Wrath of God. Need I say more?
      2. As a form of mana replacement, Brain in a Jar can help push lands out of the list and streamline the action. This welcomes utility cards that benefit from this replacement such as Thirst for Knowledge and Narset Transcendent.
      3. Putting a fourth counter on the Brain to cast a Gifts Ungiven means your next spell has to cost five. This gives you the opportunity to curve into Unburial Rites cast from the hand. This means that if Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is in your hand already, you're no longer in trouble. You can make a Gifts package of Unburial Rites, Noxious Revival, Snapcaster Mage, and Thirst for Knowledge, and the best thing your opponent can do is make the combo cost six mana and two life. (Noxious Revival and Thirst in Graveyard, Snap and Rites in hand. You Snap-Revival to get the Thirst back to your hand (two mana + two life), then three for Thirst, then one with the Brain for Unburial Rites.) Previously this would have been a nine-mana proposition.

So, without further ado, I present to you Gifts in a Jar. (Or is it Brains Ungiven?)

The only disappointment is that at the end of the day, Brain in a Jar has turned out to be more of a utility card in this deck than a combo card, but in that role it serves as a fantastic way to catch up from behind with your removal, and keeps you in the driver seat once you gets Gifts packages or cards like Beck // Call online.

There are some very tough maindeck matchups, like Burn, Zoo, and Tron, but our toolbox-style sideboard lets the deck be incredible adaptable after game one. Control opponents stand very little chance, and as long as you take care of Dark Confidant, midrange decks are easily managed as well.

So far I've managed to pilot the deck to a 3-3 record against a mix of competitive opponents. While I'd like to boast a higher win %, batting .500 is pretty good for a deck still in development - not to mention how much fun it is to feel like I'm playing EDH in Modern.

What do you think? Does the deck do the Brain justice? Got a better idea? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew.