Roots: Notion Theft
By George Colby aka Mr. Safety
My favorite card from Dragon’s Maze sits in that awkward zone for Magic: it’s either incredibly terrible or incredibly good. My money is on incredibly good, causing me to pre-order copies of a card for the first time since Green Sun’s Zenith. I’m brewing up some stuff, a little casual, a little competitive, and that alone is fun enough. Whether the brews actually amount to anything good is only a question time and the community at large can answer. I kept track of many spoiled cards from Dragon’s Maze, but this card got my attention in a big-time way:
At first glance it’s a card that I didn’t really understand. It doesn’t steal every card drawn, just the extras that get drawn each turn. I think this is fair considering he costs only four mana. If he didn’t have flash he would be absolutely terrible, nigh unusable. Plagiarize didn’t see much, if any, competitive play and that’s what this guy does. Giving him flash helps, but isn’t quite the tipping point. The tipping point is that he also has a 3/1 body. Getting a 3/1 for four mana isn’t anything special, but getting it at instant speed makes it at least marginal, apart from his ability. Stealing draws from your opponent at instant speed while playing a threat seems just plain bonkers to me. Many decks in all of the formats love drawing extra cards, whether it is Brainstorm and Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Legacy or Sphinx’s Revelation and Think Twice in Standard. I don’t think he has enough going for him to warrant play in Standard, but in the deeper formats there are powerful spells that bury you in card advantage because of the extra cards drawn. Modern still escapes me as far as predicting whether Notion Thief will be good in its context. There really aren’t many played draw spells in that format.
It’s worth noting that several cards become really, really good with Notion Thief. I have at least three off the top of my head that can be included in my Notion Thief deck that have symmetrical draw effects that become absurdly asymmetrical in your favor once you flash in this dude. While four mana seems steep, I think it had to be four mana or it would be broken. Yes, I am making a claim on this card that could cause me to have egg on my face. I’m willing to take the risk because I’ve been wrong so many times in my life that I’m practiced up. No big deal if I’m wrong about this guy, but if I’m right and he finds a home and takes off in price I’m sitting on a measly nine dollar investment for my play set (having traded for one copy already.) I’ll start with the hosing he does, move on to good cards made better, and wrap it up with the synergy opportunities he provides. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of my findings; I know I was.
Fire Hose Ready
Brainstorm – your opponent goes from digging into more cards to simply putting two cards from their hand on top of their library. I’ve had many a copy of Chittering Rats played on me in Pauper and it’s never fun. Getting two of those effects while getting an Ancestral Recall seems pretty good to me. Ever since Ancestral Recall Wizards has been careful with their dig spells, the best one recently having been Preordain, or arguably Faithless Looting. Notion Thief opens up the door for drawing a bunch of cards.
Griselbrand – the draw function of Griselbrand is what makes him good, not the 7/7 flying lifelink demon. I think if he were just the body with abilities he probably wouldn’t see Legacy play, even as a reanimation target. It just isn’t enough. Add a Yawgmoth’s Bargain onto the card and you see the big guy everywhere. Notion Thief drops him back to a Lord of the Pit with lifelink and no sacrifice requirement. Once again, flash is highly relevant here. In response to drawing seven you drop in the Thief. They have already paid the life to draw the cards so that won’t be prevented at all. If they can’t answer Notion Thief they just gave you a card that says ‘pay four mana, draw seven cards and get a 3/1 tag along body.’ I’m not sure, is that any good?
Ponder/Preordain – a pair of heavily played cantrips in Legacy, I’m 'lumping' them together because the effect is essentially the same: they can restack but they don’t draw, you get the draw. When someone is trying to dig out of a hole or trying to assemble a combo it can be backbreaking for the control opponent to draw extra cards, each one being another possible answer to the combo. When you aren’t getting the extra draws to match them it’s a downhill slide from there.
Serum Visions /Faithless Looting – the two best cantrips in Modern are both laugh-worthy when you play Notion Thief in response. Serum Visions becomes a simple scry two while Faithless Looting becomes a Mind Rot for your opponent. Decks that play Looting are usually trying to feed the graveyard, but they usually want to pick which cards go. Getting the right cards in hand while also getting the right cards in the graveyard is what counts. When they all go it gets a lot worse. Careful Study is the blue version of Looting in Legacy, and I’m leaving Sleight of Hand out of this because it doesn’t technically draw any cards. Ditto with Dark Confidant.
Phyrexian Arena – lose one life a turn, draw no extra cards, and provide a win-condition for your opponent playing Notion Thief. Casual players could even start playing Donate in their decks again, but not just for Illusions of Grandeur anymore. Donating a Phyrexian Arena may seem slow, but hey, at least it’s original.
Sylvan Library – this one does literally nothing when Notion Thief is in the mix. It provides a possible two extra draws during the draw step which you can pay four life to keep. It makes no sense to trigger it because you won’t be drawing any extra cards, just your opponent.
Silvergill Adept – steal a draw, block a merfolk, and kill it. Nifty and cute, but I don’t expect it to happen much.
Good Cards Made Better
Standstill – when this enchantment and Notion Thief are on the battlefield together the Thief controller always draws the extra cards, period. Every time a spell is cast Standstill retriggers and then it is replaced with Notion Thief’s replacement ability. For those of you unfamiliar with Standstill, this is why you never play Stifle on a Standstill trigger. It just retriggers and your opponent still gets the cards. Timing is a little tricky here though because you need Notion Thief on the battlefield before Standstill, otherwise Thief will just trigger Standstill and your opponent will draw three cards before Thief can steal. Opponent’s playing Standstill will always be tricky, but playing your own makes a good bit of sense.
Jace Beleren – I’ve been waiting for a card that makes this three-mana planeswalker better and Notion Thief is that card. He curves out perfectly by landing at three mana, you draw an extra card for the turn, and then on turn four you bring in Notion Thief and start adding counters while drawing two extra cards a turn. I am really excited about this interaction, and this might be just the card that puts Notion Thief into playable contention for Modern. I’m already planning on using Deathrite Shaman to speed this up a turn and get some really great value.
Howling Mine – one sided please, no extra cards for my opponent. I’ll double up though, okay?
Incendiary Command/Reforge the Soul/Wheel of Fate – Holy moly, is this effect good with Notion Thief! How about a Mind Shatter and Concentrate in one shot. Command even gives you a tag along Pyroclasm, Stone Rain, or Flames of the Blood Hand.
Prosperity/Skyscribing – if you think I just dropped a pair of ‘x’-draw spell into this article and said you would draw ‘x’ times two cards, you’re right, I did.
Mikokoro, Center of the Sea – I wish I hadn’t traded this away because now I need to hunt down a couple of them. It was marginally playable in Extended when it was legal and it’s a card that many Commander players like to toy around with. I want to break it wide open with Notion Thief, natch.
Temple Bell/Otherworldly Atlas – not quite as good as Mikokoro, but Temple Bell is close. Neither has an activation cost, but at that point, does it really matter? You get more cards and they don’t.
Time Reversal/Time Spiral –draw seven cards for five or six mana and use it to fuel a combo. Plenty of use against graveyard-based decks, too.
Vision Skeins – drawing four cards for two mana at instant speed seems ok. I mean really, why even think about Ancestral Recall when you can do tricks like this?
Words of Wisdom – seems ok, but Vision Skeins seems a bit better. I mean, four is better than three right?
Rites of Flourishing – I get to double up like Howling Mine but my opponent still gets to play extra lands. Maybe this is best left to Turbo-Fog decks, but it could be fun, maybe?
Molten Psyche/Winds of Change – two options that do the same thing. Winds of Change is a little harder to get a hold of being from Portal and all, but probably still not that hard. Draw bunches of extra cards while your opponent is hamstrung.
Seizan, Perverter of Truth – I don’t think this interaction needs any explanation. Play Notion Thief, play Seizan, win. Any questions? I didn’t think so.
Teferi’s Puzzle Box – a little chaotic but also a complete shutdown of an opponent’s ability to hold more than one card. Fun factor is big with this one.
Call to Heel – cantrip Unsummon seems pretty good, an often used modality used with Cryptic Command
Dream Fracture – I saved my favorite interaction for last, because let’s be honest with each other, it’s a doozy. An even more often used modality of Cryptic Command was to counter a spell and draw a card. Let’s trim off a blue mana to the cost and draw two cards instead of one. I get goose bumps just thinking about this spell with Notion Thief, and I don’t think I’m the only one.
I don’t pre-order cards from a new set very often, but I pulled the trigger on this one. Notion Thief may end up being a dud for competitive play but it is a casual format all-star, no doubt whatsoever. My roots are so deep in casual Magic that I should consider naming one of the apple trees in my yard ‘Casual’. My wife would look at me weirdly, call me a dork, and I think I could live with that. You make some concessions to oddness when you play such a creative game as this. Maybe you are getting bored out there with the game, but that would be your own fault. There are new possibilities out there if you’re willing to veer off the beaten path and go back to your casual roots a little bit. I’m still holding my breath for Notion Thief being competitive, but I’m not going to turn blue over it. Sometimes a card just grabs your attention and you play it whether it wins games or not. I have many cards that fall into this category and I’m sure you do, too.*
Stick to your roots and have fun out there!
* - Rage Forger, Measure of Wickedness, World Queller, Blood Clock, Torchling, Meloku, the Clouded Mirror, Angel’s Grace, Spitemare, Shared Animosity, Vexing Devil, Lethal Vapors, Reya Dawnbringer, Quicksilver Amulet, Second Sunrise, and Profane Command to name a few. I’m sure there’s more, but how long can footnotes really be before you stop reading?