From the Vault: Cabal Classroom

Editor’s Note – This article was very popular when it was originally published in August 2012. Let’s take a look back and see what changes have happened over the year and how Cabal Therapy could evolve further in the future.

Cabal Therapy is an absurdly powerful card, considered by many professional players to be one of the most difficult spells/abilities to play correctly (alongside Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top, among others). Not only does it give you two chances at targeted discard, it has the benefit of being both a proactive and a reactive card. What I mean by that is, you can cast Cabal Therapy as a response (not in the technical sense; it is a sorcery, after all) to something your opponent has done–for example, if your opponent uses her second turn to cast Stoneforge Mystic and tutor up a Batterskull, you can cast Cabal Therapy to strip the Batterskull from her hand. You can also cast Cabal Therapy in a proactive sense–for example, if you would like to cast a spell this turn but desperately need it to avoid counterspells, for one extra black mana you can name Force of Will and strip the opponent’s hand of Forces while checking to make sure the coast is clear for your must-lander. Similarly, simply casting Therapy for a forced discard and to reveal your opponent’s hand is a proactive plan on its own; discard and gained information each being a cornerstone of the game.

One of the difficulties of playing with Cabal Therapy is knowing when to use the card for which purpose. Should you cast it early in the game to gain information and better develop your line of attack? Should you wait until you have the most information possible to increase its effect, as AJ Sacher has taught us to do with Brainstorm? Should you save it to use as a defensive spell before playing your game-ender? The answers to these questions will change drastically given your deck and the state of the board. Learning how to evaluate that game state and set up a proper Therapy is important to maximizing each use of the card.

Early Appointments: The First Two Turns

Casting and hitting with Cabal Therapy as early as possible is a good way to shut out your foe in the first two turns. Most decks that plan to use Cabal Therapy in this way such as Nic Fit, Sam Black’s recent Zombies list, and The Gate either gain some benefit from flashing back Cabal Therapy (Veteran Explorer triggers for Nic Fit; Blood Artist triggers for Zombies) or have a plethora of cheap creatures to sacrifice (Bitterblossom tokens and superfluous Dark Confidants for The Gate; Gravecrawler / Bloodghast for Zombies). These decks usually run other hand disruption spells as well, including Hymn to Tourach, Thoughtseize, and Inquisition of Kozilek.

Unless the rest of your game plan hinges on flashing back a Cabal Therapy early in the game (like Nic Fit*), it would behoove you to wait at least one turn before firing off a Cabal Therapy. If you can land a turn one Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek, you are nearly guaranteed to land your turn two Cabal Therapy. If you can cast and flashback a Cabal Therapy for value on turn two, that’s at least three cards you have stripped from your opponent’s hand. A forced mulligan to 4 removing all of the best cards is usually devastating to any opponent other than Reanimator or Dredge, and even against those match-ups it can be brutal.

If you cannot cast a different first-turn discard spell, waiting to see your opponent’s land drop can mean everything for an early Therapy. Your calls based on a land drop alone depend heavily on the meta-game, though some things never change: if your opponent leads with a blue mana producer, Brainstorm and Force of Will are great calls. I will almost always name Brainstorm in this situation.

A Savannah, in the current metagame, usually means Maverick unless it was followed by a Wild Growth (Enchantress) or an elf (Elves). A Savannah into a Noble Hierarch is even more telling. I would name Green Sun’s Zenith, Swords to Plowshares, or Knight of the Reliquary depending on how your hand is shaping up; GSZ is probably most crippling since the card enables so much of GW Aggro’s ludicrous gameplan, but if there’s a Noble Hierarch on the table and you have no other way of dealing with a swiftly growing creature, you may want to pluck out the Knight. More recent Maverick builds have dropped Stoneforge Mystic in favor of drawing the equipment naturally, so you cannot count on getting a free shot at Batterskull or Umezawa’s Jitte.

Underground Sea could mean Reanimator or Esper Stoneblade. Brainstorm is still a good call here, though if you suspect Reanimator you may want to call for Reanimate or Exhume (if your opponent responds to Therapy by casting Entomb, your suspicions have been confirmed).

Tropical Island or Volcanic Island in this metagame says RUG Delver or Canadian Threshold. Again, Brainstorm or Force of Will might be a good call, though if your opponent didn’t play a turn-one threat to go along with that land you are probably going to get Spell Pierce thrown at your Therapy, which may be exactly what you want. The most recent big tournament lists haven’t been playing Stifle, so you don’t have to worry too much about protecting your fetchland activations. As with all the advice given here, though, you must keep yourself informed of the large or local meta.

Mid-game Therapy: Visits Three to Five

There are some fantastic tricks to play in the mid-game with Cabal Therapy. My all-time favorite use of Therapy is when I tried to destroy a Batterskull with Wickerbough Elder, watched my foe bounce the ‘skull to his hand, then cast Cabal Therapy to get rid of the pesky equipment for good. Yes, it was essentially a 2-for-1. Yes, I was still happy to be rid of the artifact.

There are plenty of other cards that allow you to get precise hits with your Therapy. Stoneforge Mystic is another excellent way to paint a large target on your opponent’s hand, as are Delver of Secrets and Dark Confidant flips. Your choice in the mid-game is going to be: removing these cards from your opponent’s hand in a reactive fashion, thus taking tempo out of your opponent’s sails; or saving Therapy to protect your key spells and creatures from counterspells, thus allowing you to develop a board of your own. More than anything else, these choices depend on your deck and the board state–there are no hard rules. Remember that one of the benefits of Cabal Therapy is that you get to look at your opponent’s hand. Having perfect knowledge of the game state is nothing to be scoffed at when considering an alpha strike and, as with the early game, knowing what your opponent’s game plan is going to be will help to determine how you make your own plays. Know your legacy decks!

Having a Cabal Therapy in your graveyard ought to cause your opponent to play differently (as with many things in Legacy, if your opponent is not an attentive player you may misread their reactions). Your opponent will have to weigh the importance of playing their topdecks at a possibly inopportune time against giving you the chance to force a discard of that card. Watch his eyes when he draws. If one of his eyechecks is on your graveyard and he doesn’t play graveyard hate that turn, think about what Therapy might do to him.

One more thing to consider: Snapcaster Mage is a tremendous pain for a Cabal Therapy player since he can enable action on cards you’ve already dealt with. He’s probably worth a call of his own, or at least worth giving significant credence if he’s spotted in a player’s hand. If you’re running Extirpate and/or Surgical Extraction alongside Therapy, use them in response to relevant Snapcaster Mage triggers to clear out problem cards. Causing a wasted Snapcaster trigger is better than Extirpating early and allowing the Snappy to target something else.

Late-game Therapy: Cleaning Up

Cabal Therapy isn’t exactly a dead draw late in the game, though it can certainly feel like it. At that point it will almost exclusively be used to check the opponent’s one or two cards to make sure they aren’t trumps or counterspells. Even though at this point the card may feel worthless, don’t throw it away. If you know your opponent is holding an irrelevant card, save the Therapy (this is where having written down your opponent’s hand can really help).

In conclusion, Cabal Therapy is a powerful card that can have multiple applications throughout a game of Magic. It is more than merely a discard spell. With careful thought and practice, you can make this card function for you throughout an entire game, utilizing its unique blend of double discard and revealed knowledge to turn board states to your advantage. The more information you have about your metagame, the more utility you will get out of this overpowered spell.

Another thing to remember when casting Cabal Therapy, perhaps something Standard players know now from playing Gitaxian Probe: Take note of the cards in your opponent’s hand. Don’t just write them down (though you certainly ought to do that); think about them and try to picture your opponent’s best line of play, and then imagine the second-best line. Is there a way to take them off of both of those lines of play with a single discard? Can you at least disrupt the first line? At least the second? Is there anything surprising in her hand that can tell you something about the composition or particular flavor of the deck? This kind of thinking becomes easier the more practice you have playing Legacy and the more experience you have playing with or against different decks.

*There are some situations where Nic Fit will want to cast a turn one blind Therapy to avoid Swords to Plowshares on a Veteran Explorer. These situations exclusively involve truly degenerate plays like turn two Veteran Explorer, sacrifice it to flashback Cabal Therapy (since your opponent never has priority once Veteran Explorer is in play, she never gets the chance to cast Swords to Plowshares), play a turn two land, play a 3-drop like Liliana of the Veil, +1 to force another discard.

**A note on the actual casting of Cabal Therapy: the target of the spell is your opponent, so that is the only part of the spell you must name when casting Cabal Therapy. You name the card upon resolution. If you name a card (such as Brainstorm) while casting Cabal Therapy and your opponent responds in any way (such as casting Brainstorm), you may change the card you name when Cabal Therapy resolves. While I think that this encourages sloppy play, it can also enable you to force untimely plays of instants to gain an advantage. For example, if you’re going to play a Scavenging Ooze later in the turn but you know your opponent has both Lightning Bolt and Spell Snare in hand, you can cast Cabal Therapy and name Lightning Bolt before resolution. This could provoke your opponent into casting the Lightning Bolt in response, which means you can change your call to Spell Snare, clearing both problem cards out of your opponent’s hand and making it that much likelier that the Ooze will survive. This feels to me like an exploitation of the rules, but until it’s fixed, I say use it.