Last updated on September 29, 2023
Writ of Return | Illustration by Kai Carpenter
Magic has a string of cards and mechanics that allow you to durably alter a creature after it’s already been cast. Auras, equipment, and adding counters are the easiest to understand, but there have been other, stranger experiments. Think mutate from Ikoria.
Cipher is one of those experiments that seems to have exhausted its narrow design space between under- and overpowered. Although you may not use this mechanic in 60-card formats, there is an opportunity for Commander players to pick up interesting effects from what might be a bit of a forgotten mechanic.
Let’s de-cipher all of this!
How Does Cipher Work?
Whispering Madness | Illustration by Clint Cearley
Cipher is an optional effect some instants and sorceries have that triggers when the spell resolves. The caster can exile the spell card “encoded on a creature” they control. When that creature does combat damage to a player, the creature’s controller can cast a copy of the ciphered spell for free.
Rinse and repeat.
Cipher is printed on 14 cards, 10 of which were in Gatecrash, with two more coming in Dragon’s Maze and the final two in the New Capenna Commander precons. This was a bit unexpected because Mark Rosewater had previously given cipher a 9 on his Storm Scale, meaning that he didn’t believe it would return without a “minor miracle.”
It seems that long-abandoned mechanics are getting some spotlight treatment in the latest series of Commander precons.
When a spell is encoded on a creature as the cipher mechanic resolves, the ability becomes a durable alteration of the creature.
You only pay for cipher once when you first cast the spell. After that you can cast the spell again for free when the creature encoded with the ciphered spell does combat damage to a player.
Yes, cipher counts as casting. Although the cipher-cast spell is cast for free, it’s still casting a spell. This allows it to trigger prowess and other abilities, but also makes it weak to countering.
No, cipher doesn’t target. The rules text on cipher cards says, “encoded on a creature you control,” and though it might seems that means you are targeting your creature, you’re not without the “target” language.
Yes, you can encode multiple ciphers onto one creature. When that creature does damage to an opponent, you cast a copy of all the spells encoded onto it.
Yes, the encoding stays on the creature as long as it remains on the battlefield.
What If a Cipher Card is Removed from Exile?
After a cipher card is successfully cast and encodes a creature, the card itself goes into exile. There aren’t many cards that interact with cards in exile.
Can You Cipher a Copy?
You can encode a ciphered spell onto any creature, including tokens or copies of other creatures. But any copies of a ciphered creature won’t have the encoded ability. Only the single card in exile grants the ability, and it isn’t copied when you copy a creature.
Gallery and List of Cipher Cards
- Call of the Nightwing
- Hands of Binding
- Hidden Strings
- Last Thoughts
- Mental Vapors
- Midnight Recovery
- Paranoid Delusions
- Shadow Slice
- Stolen Identity
- Trait Doctoring
- Undercity Plague
- Whispering Madness
- Writ of Return
Cipher cards are useful if the spell’s cost matches or beats out other ways to give the ability to a creature. Otherwise the ability has to be powerful and unique enough to justify it.
Cipher cards, like auras, can be risky. Since you get the effect of the ciphered spell once before the encoding, it’s better than the 2-for-1 if your aura’ed creature is hit with a Doom Blade. Still, it doesn’t feel good.
Let’s look at Last Thoughts with those issues in mind. There are a lot of ways to give a creature the ability to draw a card when dealing combat damage to a player. Even with the extra one card from the initial sorcery casting it hardly seems worth three more mana.
What the ciphered card offers is the spell cast trigger. This can be useful in Izzet () decks alongside Arclight Phoenix or prowess abilities, or in spellslinger decks playing off cards like Ral, Storm Conduit.
#5. Hidden Strings
Hidden Strings is useful in all sorts of blue strategies for EDH. It makes a drake and then untaps two more for defense every time it hits in a drake deck helmed by Talrand, Sky Summoner. Any deck that has unblockable creatures or gives that ability works great, from Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive all the way across the color spectrum.
The great new use for this card, though, is Shorikai, Genesis Engine. But you may want to try having it on the battlefield tapping and untapping to churn through your deck and make a lot of Pilots. These decks succeed with as much Twiddle effects as they can find, and repeatable effects are at a premium. Since Hidden Strings can twiddle twice and untap your Voltaic Key, well, you can feel the shenanigans.
Assuming you can get the damage on the turn you cast it, Voidwalk can get two blink triggers for one more mana than Ghostly Flicker. It costs as much as Teleportation Circle or Thassa, Deep-Dwelling but isn’t as reliable, making it an underappreciated budget choice for repeatable blink.
#3. Stolen Identity
As with all cipher cards, Stolen Identity is nice with unblockable themes. This seems a bit risky at six mana, but there’s all kinds of uses for that if you can make two copies the turn it comes down.
#2. Writ of Return
Writ of Return seems really underplayed, especially given how many EDH decks play the previous spell. Obviously we like cheaper reanimator spells better, but five mana is pretty typical for the less efficient graveyard recursion spells.
You’re really in good shape if you can get the attack trigger when you cast it. Even if they pop your creature before it connects, this card deserves to appear in way more decks.
#1. Whispering Madness
Whispering Madness can be reasonably bonkers as a wincon engine in decks that punish opponents for drawing cards, like Queza, Augur of Agonies or Nekusar, the Mindrazer. It also works well with commanders that can cast from graveyards like Oskar, Rubbish Reclaimer and Wrexial, the Risen Deep.
There are lots of uses here. You may want to think about including this card if you’re running a Dimir commander.
Dimir control decks in EDH that want to chip in with creature damage can make good use of cipher cards. But these are expensive and fragile spells so having enough of a controlling and tempo game going is key. Think about the Drown in the Loch-era Dimir rogues decks and the gameplay involved there.
Unblockable-matters EDH decks are also good. Kamiz, Obscura Oculus can really make use of these cards given the persistent ability to find unblockability in that deck. And it’s in the right colors so you can pick and choose your effects.
Voidwalk | Illustration by James Ryman
Cipher is a strange mechanic that most players are unfamiliar with. If you pack a few of these cards in your 99, be prepared for questions and explanations. These cards are overall probably a bit clunky and overcosted, but certain decks have odd niches they fit into nicely. There may be a cipher card just for you!
Like all creature combat-based mechanics, you have to find ways for creatures to survive and to attack. This isn’t always guaranteed in EDH. But if you’re the kind of player to pack cards like Swiftfoot Boots or Teferi's Protection, you’re likely building decks that can experiment with cipher cards for some added spice.
What are your thoughts on cipher cards? Have you played with them before? Have a particularly interesting brew featuring them that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments down below or over on Draftsim’s Twitter.
Happy brewing, folks!
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