Last updated on September 20, 2023
Glacial Chasm | Illustration by Mike Bierek
There have been plenty of keywords and effects that tax a player in exchange for a powerful up-front effect throughout Magic’s history. Think of echo or the Pacts as examples of these delayed cost effects.
Today I'm looking at cumulative upkeep and some of the cards in Magic’s history with this keyword. Let's get started!
How Does Cumulative Upkeep Work?
Braid of Fire | Illustration by Cyril Van Der Haegen
So, how does cumulative upkeep work? At the beginning of your upkeep you add an age counter to a permanent with cumulative upkeep. Then you pay the cost associated with the cumulative upkeep multiplied by the number of age counters on the card. You have to sacrifice the permanent if you can’t pay the cost.
Let’s say you have a Mystic Remora with two age counters on it. When you go to your next upkeep and add the third age counter you have to pay or sacrifice Remora.
The History of Cumulative Upkeep
Cumulative upkeep as a mechanic unofficially debuted in Arabian Nights on Cyclone. While the card doesn’t have the keyword, the card’s rules text serves the same function.
We often see cards that could have a specific keyword but don’t. They either served as the origin, or the keyword didn’t fit the set’s development budget. Tireless Tracker doesn’t have landfall but has the same effect.
Some cumulative upkeep cards were also later reprinted in supplemental sets and products:
Outside of Un-sets, Commander precons, and online-only reprint sets, cumulative upkeep was only printed in six black-border sets with its last appearance back in 2006's Coldsnap. Given the lack of any new black-bordered cards with this mechanic in the last 16 years, I’d say the mechanic isn’t evergreen and probably won't see consistent printing again. We'll just have to make do with the 88 cumulative upkeep cards we currently have.
Do I Really Have to Play Cumulative Upkeep? What if I Don’t?
During your upkeep you just sacrifice the card if you choose to not pay its cumulative upkeep cost.
Does Cumulative Upkeep Double?
No, cumulative upkeep doesn’t double. The increase per turn on cards with this keyword is incremental. You add a single age counter to any cards you control with cumulative upkeep every turn. Unless you have an effect that doubles counters on permanents you control, like Doubling Season.
Does Cumulative Upkeep Use Counters?
Cumulative upkeep uses age counters to track the cumulative nature of the keyword’s costs.
Can You Proliferate Cumulative Upkeep?
You can proliferate the age counters on a permanent with cumulative upkeep. That said, the first turn-cycle when a cumulative upkeep card enters, it won’t have any counters on it to proliferate so you’d have to wait until its controller’s next upkeep.
Can You Respond to Cumulative Upkeep?
Cumulative upkeep is a triggered ability so you can respond to the trigger going onto the stack. Adding the age counter and requiring the upkeep cost happens on the same trigger. Interacting with the trigger with a card like Stifle prevents both of these effects.
If the permanent isn’t on the battlefield when the trigger resolves, it fizzles thanks to the intervening “if” clause found in the keyword’s rules text.
How Can You Avoid or Get Around Cumulative Upkeep?
If you have a card that prevents adding counters to a permanent, the upkeep permanent won’t get age counters when the trigger resolves. Cards like Eon Hub that skip a player’s upkeep also prevent cumulative upkeep from triggering.
What Does Cumulative Upkeep Add Mana Do?
There was a different rule in place regarding what happens when a player has unspent mana back when cumulative upkeep was still being printed. Mana burn created a situation where Braid of Fire could cost you life points if you couldn’t spend the mana on your upkeep.
A card like this doesn’t have the same downside with the mechanic’s retirement, but normal mana timing restrictions still happen. Any mana you gain in your upkeep disappears before your main phase. This allows you to cast instants, activate abilities, or pay for other cumulative upkeep costs.
How Does Cumulative Upkeep Work with Solemnity?
If you can’t add counters to permanents, you can’t add age counters. If you can’t add age counters, you don’t have to pay the cost for your cumulative upkeep. You still need to pay for any age counters put on the permanent before Solemnity resolved, though.
Gallery and List of Cumulative Upkeep Cards
- Adarkar Unicorn
- Arnjlot's Ascent
- Balduvian Shaman
- Brand of Ill Omen
- Breath of Dreams
- Cold Snap
- Dreams of the Dead
- Energy Storm
- Flow of Maggots
- Fyndhorn Pollen
- Glacial Chasm
- Halls of Mist
- Illusionary Forces
- Illusionary Presence
- Illusionary Terrain
- Illusionary Wall
- Illusions of Grandeur
- Infernal Darkness
- Maddening Wind
- Mesmeric Trance
- Mystic Might
- Mystic Remora
- Naked Singularity
- Polar Kraken
- Reality Twist
- Ritual of Subdual
- Soldevi Simulacrum
- Royal Decree
- Splintering Wind
- Sustaining Spirit
- Thought Lash
- Tidal Control
- Varchild's War-Riders
- Yavimaya Ants
- Ancestral Knowledge
- Arctic Wolves
- Heart of Bogardan
- Inner Sanctum
- Mana Chains
- Mwonvuli Ooze
- Psychic Vortex
- Revered Unicorn
- Uktabi Efreet
- Volunteer Reserves
- Wave of Terror
- Arctic Nishoba
- Balduvian Fallen
- Braid of Fire
- Cover of Winter
- Earthen Goo
- Freyalise's Radiance
- Glacial Plating
- Herald of Leshrac
- Hibernation's End
- Jötun Grunt
- Jötun Owl Keeper
- Karplusan Minotaur
- Kjeldoran Javelineer
- Krovikan Whispers
- Magmatic Core
- Phobian Phantasm
- Phyrexian Etchings
- Phyrexian Soulgorger
- Ronom Hulk
- Sheltering Ancient
- Survivor of the Unseen
- Vexing Sphinx
- Wall of Shards
Best Cumulative Upkeep Cards
Taxing effects can quickly snowball in EDH. Mystic Remora draws one or more cards for each player during the first few turns of the game with little cost. Remora is one of the more controversial cards in some Commander circles and definitely one of the most powerful cumulative upkeep cards.
A classic lands card in Legacy of old, Glacial Chasm is now mostly played in EDH. But Chasm keeps you alive for a small cost, especially in EDH with 40 life to play with. It’s one of the best lands to stall and make sure you can set your gameplan up regardless of what your opponent’s trying to do.
Braid of Fire
As I already mentioned, there really isn’t a cost to playing Braid of Fire anymore with the change to mana burn. Producing more mana on your upkeep each turn for instants, activated abilities, or other effects can quickly overwhelm any fairer decks and accelerate you into wins.
Sacrificing creatures can be a net benefit in formats like Commander. Especially if you have a 3-mana 8/8 around to quickly threaten opponents. While Phyrexian Soulgorger pales in comparison to the three cards above, having a free scaling sacrifice outlet is an effect that some decks can quickly abuse regardless of the beneficial stats on this creature.
Wall of Shards
In decks where you’re trying to survive long enough to kill your opponents (or the table) by 100+ damage or using non-combat win conditions, Wall of Shards can easily prevent opponents from overwhelming you early and help create political alliances through incidental lifegain. Like Braid of Fire, cards that have unmitigated upside as their cumulative upkeep cost can quickly snowball. In this case it prevents you from becoming an early target while you set up.
Decklist: Extended Combo from Pro Tour New Orleans 2003
Illusions of Grandeur | Illustration by Quinton Hoover
This Extended Combo deck used Illusions of Grandeur and Donate to hand your cumulative upkeep enchantment off to your opponent. You gain 20 life as a buffer to stall when you cast Illusions until you can donate it over. Your opponent eventually fails to pay for Illusions, sacrifices it, and loses 20 life.
Taking the role of a combo-control deck, or “Trix” as it became known, this list tries to control the game, stall out, and then kill quickly with its combo. It’s similar in that regard to a deck like Splinter Twin but tailored more to the speed of 2003 Magic compared to the 2010s era of Twin.
While many cards with cumulative upkeep have seen some play, this is one instance where an entire deck’s win condition is built around the mechanic and its ever-growing pressure to maintain payment.
Mystic Remora | Illustration by Ken Meyer, Jr.
I don’t think cumulative upkeep is a fun mechanic and I’m happy it seems to have faded out of Magic. There isn’t a ton of development space left to explore with this mechanic, and the cards we have now are reasonable. I wouldn’t be opposed to a few new cards through Un-sets or Commander products, but I don’t think there’s any need to make new Standard-style cards with this keyword.
Cumulative upkeep is a mechanic from a long-since ended era of Magic’s history. I’m glad to have the cards we do and happier yet that the game has progressed from this style of incremental disadvantage to play your cards.
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