Last updated on February 8, 2024
Indomitable Creativity | Illustration by Deruchenko Alexander
I remember my middle school introduction to Algebra. The use of variables instead of squares and underscores blew my little mind. As a math teacher later on, I taught introductory Algebra to my own students and blew their little minds too. Then I became a Magic player and learned about X spells. Guess what happened to my mind?
There’s an intrigue to X spells in Magic; they’re naturally modal, and they [mostly] scale as the game continues and you have access to more and more mana. You can’t help but ask just how far you can push your mana to make X the largest number possible.
There’s also a lot of X spells available, from fireballs to mass draw spells, so let’s do some basic subtraction and look at the X best X spells in Magic. See what I did there?
Walking Ballista | Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren
My reasoning is that some X spell payoffs like Zaxara, the Exemplary don’t work with abilities. Let’s keep it simple and stick to mana costs on this one. I’m also focusing on Commander, so don’t hold your breath on Chalice of the Void. Commander is what I know best, and my lawyers say I’m legally bound not to rank cards based on Constructed merit. Take it up with them.
#38. Epic Experiment
#37. Villainous Wealth
More deviously fun than actually good, casting Villainous Wealth should have you rubbing your hands together maniacally. It’s easy to get greedy by putting it off for just 1 more mana, but you should feel comfortable firing this off for X=6 or 7 and hoping you strike gold.
#36. Dance of the Manse
Playing Dance of the Manse entails a heavy artifact/enchantment deck, preferably one that puts permanents in the graveyard easily. It’s a viable wincon for said decks, though I’ve never been much of a dancer myself.
#35. Death Cloud
Smallpox, but a bunch more times. Death Cloud’s a nasty card that’s only used by two types of players: those who wish to watch the world burn, and Tergrid, God of Fright players, who also incidentally love to watch the world burn.
#34. Mind Twist
Targeted discard takes a huge hit in Commander compared to Constructed formats, since it typically only interacts with one opponent and doesn’t affect the board. That makes Mind Twist more of a cruel-spirited play against one opponent than an actual wincon, and it’s usually frowned upon in casual games. By one player, at least.
#33. Bonfire of the Damned
Bonfire of the Damned creates fun story moments. Rip it off the top, cast it for its miracle cost, and absolutely decimate someone’s board and life total. Quite the dud otherwise, and its post-errata textbox is horrendous to read. Seriously, look at this oracle text.
#32. Indomitable Creativity
This is more of a Constructed plant, notably winning a Pro Tour in the hands of Reid Duke, but Commander players can get in on the chaos, too. Indomitable Creativity decks create a bunch of tokens and run nothing but haymaker creatures to flip into. Creativity can also target opposing permanents if you’re in a gambling mood.
#31. Entreat the Angels
Entreat the Angels goes from normally overpriced to “oh my god I’m dead” when cast for its miracle cost. That means you’ve got to set it up or naturally draw into it, but that’s easy enough. Starnheim Unleashed doesn’t technically fit our definition of an X spell, but I’ll lump it in here.
#30. March of the Multitudes
#29. Black Sun’s Zenith
Damnation and Toxic Deluge reign supreme the best black sweepers in Commander, but Black Sun's Zenith falls squarely in that tier-2 category, and it’s sub $3. Bump this one up if you’re running -1/-1 counter synergies or if you’ve got a Skullbriar, the Walking Grave in your usual playgroup.
#28. Entreat the Dead
Like Entreat the Angels but for the dead! A little on the nose, but Entreat the Dead deserves some praise. There’s plenty of competition in the mass-reanimator department, but this gives you a pretty significant mana advantage if you manage to miracle-cast it.
#27. Curse of the Swine
Curse of the Swine’s more of a necessary evil due to the state of blue board wipes, but it’s also not that effective when your life total’s on the cusp. You better believe those Boars are coming your way. Still, every deck can’t have (nor needs) a Cyclonic Rift, so I won’t fault anyone for playing Curse.
#26. Clown Car
I mean, sure. Clown Car turns infinite mana into an infinite-powered vehicle and an infinite army of… Clown Robots. It’s competitive enough that I have to talk about it as much as I dislike the Unfinity cards being legal in Commander.
#25. Klauth’s Will
Klauth's Will is a hidden gem from Forgotten Realms Commander. It’s part Savage Twister, part mass Naturalize, or both if you control a commander. Not hard to pull off while significantly reshaping the boardstate.
#24. Red Sun’s Twilight
Mileage on Red Sun's Twilight will vary, but it’s Vandalblast levels of artifact removal. It’ll be your silver bullet against artifact-themed decks, and it’s always good enough at sweeping up stray mana rocks.
#23. Agadeem’s Awakening + Shatterskull Smashing
Most of the power of MDFCs like Agadeem's Awakening and Shatterskull Smashing comes from slotting them into your mana base at virtually no cost while sneaking a situationally powerful spell into your deck.
#22. Spiteful Banditry
The Meathook Massacre this is not, but Spiteful Banditry copies the formula. It’s below rate for a sweeper, but the steady Treasure acquisition makes up for that. It’s like a Revel in Riches that doesn’t [always] draw the immediate anger of your foes.
#21. Blot Out the Sky
#20. Blue Sun’s Zenith
Blue Sun's Zenith stands in for all the X-cost draw spells, which includes everything like Sphinx's Revelation, Commander's Insight, Diviner's Portent, and more. I still prefer Zenith since it can target opponents, which converts an arbitrary pile of mana into an actual win-con.
#19. Genesis Wave + Kamahl’s Druidic Vow
Genesis Wave is still an effective place to dump, I dunno, 15-20 mana. Kamahl's Druidic Vow is in the same camp; it’s cheaper but has the legendary sorcery restriction, though that’s really not a hard hurdle to pass. Either one should effectively end the game on the spot with a large enough amount of mana.
#18. Comet Storm
Like Genesis Wave, Comet Storm was top of its class some time back, but it now falls short of more recent, better versions of the effect it provides. Comet Storm’s still a reasonably strong Fireball, its main appeal being that it can hit all opponents at once.
#17. Cut / Ribbons
Cut / Ribbons combines two not-so-great cards into one decent little package of an aftermath card. Players could stand to play more single-target removal, so if Ribbons is the spell you’re interested in, Cut’s just a bonus that’ll come in handy often enough.
#16. Rocco, Cabaretti Caterer
A step below Heroic Intervention as far as green protection goes, Silkguard’s still pretty darn good. It won’t stop a wrath, but it’ll blank single-target removal while growing a number of creatures in the process. Note X can equal 0 and still give all your modified creatures/modifiers hexproof for the turn.
Mawloc turns up all the right knobs on a fight creature. It’s huge, it can cantrip with ravenous, and it exiles the target it fights. The kicker is drawing the extra card at X=5 or greater, making Mawloc a clean 3-for-1 that leaves a large threat on board.
Exocrine is a large, ravenous Earthquake. Quite literally. It costs more mana upfront than a traditional Earthquake, but ravenous gives you the opportunity to get your card back. Just be careful: Exocrine hits all players, including yourself.
#12. Grand Crescendo
#11. Awaken the Woods
More like Awaken the Dryad Arbors. Awaken the Woods creates an army in a can, though an army of mana dorks is unique for this type of card. It also puts a ton of lands into play, making it one of the easiest ways to multi-trigger landfall abilities with one card.
#10. Debt to the Deathless + Exsanguinate + Torment of Hailfire
Let’s be real: They’re all the same thing. There are some notable differences between Debt to the Deathless, Exsanguinate, and Torment of Hailfire, with Torment being the best wincon among them, but they’re all effective at ending games.
#9. The Green Tutors
Between Green Sun's Zenith, Chord of Calling, Invasion of Ikoria, and Finale of Devastation, there are tons of X spells in green that tutor creatures directly into play, some pulling from the graveyard, too. Chord’s an instant, Invasion flips into Zilortha, Apex of Ikoria, Zenith’s the cheapest, and Finale has a flashy wincon mode. Take your pick.
#8. March of Swirling Mist
Say it with me: Under. Rated. March of Swirling Mist is just so flexible, saving your own creatures or phasing out your opponents’ completely at your discretion. Phasing’s the best form of protection in Commander, and it’s nifty tech for equipment and aura decks looking to save permanents attached to their creatures.
#7. Wake the Dead
It’s insulting that Wake the Dead has been around since Commander 2014 and still sees so little play. Perhaps the timing restriction scares people off, but you’ve got to damper instant speed mass reanimation somehow. This is an absurdly powerful reanimation spell with mid-combat ambush potential, and the creatures you return just end up right back in your graveyard.
#6. Heliod’s Intervention
Which is better: Return to Dust or Crush Contraband? The answer hardly matters if Heliod's Intervention is in the conversation, too. Sometimes you’ll wish you had an exile effect instead, but otherwise you’re thrilled to scale this up and take out four or five different permanents all at once. I suppose you could gain life in a pinch, too.
#5. Crackle with Power
Crackle with Power puts other Fireball variants to shame. The baseline is 5 mana for 5 damage to a single target, but for every 3 additional mana you spend, it’ll deal another 5 damage and add another target. 11 mana is the sweet spot, letting you blast three different opponents for 15 damage each.
#4. Pest Infestation
I used to be a Release the Gremlins believer, but now I’m a Pest Infestation boy through and through. You get a 1/1 Pest token for each mana spent beyond the initial , and you can scale this up to destroy more problematic permanents. Think about it like a 1/1 Reclamation Sage that copies itself for every additional 2 mana you spend.
#3. Forth Eorlingas!
Remember Eiganjo Uprising? Yeah, me neither. Forth Eorlingas! is unnecessarily pushed, to the point where it’s currently making waves as a top card in Vintage Cubes. Vintage! There’s no X value where this isn’t worth the mana spent, and introducing the monarch makes it a card advantage engine, too! Remember when “Boros was bad”? Well, it ain’t anymore.
#2. The Meathook Massacre
Blood Artist and Damnation is a hell of a combination. Like combining chocolate and peanut butter, but with more severed hands. The Meathook Massacre has never been affordable, which keeps it off most tables, but trust it’ll turn a game around in a heartbeat if you ever see one.
#1. Walking Ballista
Two X’s? That’s rough Walking Ballista. Don’t worry, there are other fish in the sea. This mobile machine gun shows up in Constructed in everything from fair decks to those comboing with Heliod, Sun-Crowned, but you better believe seeing this in Commander means combo central. It goes infinite with a wet noodle while being perfectly serviceable on its own.
In the abstract, X spells make for great ways to spend lots of mana; they’re natural mana sinks that scale with the game and turn large pools of mana into in-game advantages, whether that’s removing a bunch of permanents, drawing a ton of cards, or fireballing opponents out of the game. In a sense, they are the payoffs for big mana or infinite mana decks.
“X Spells Matter” is a supported archetype all its own, with several commanders explicitly dedicated to the theme. There’s Zaxara, the Exemplary and Magus Lucea Kane as the two most popular, with Rosheen Meanderer as something a bit more niche.
There are also legends that don’t directly call out X spells but offer the kind of cost reduction that facilitates playing X spells way more easily than normal. Here you’ve got commanders like Hinata, Dawn-Crowned, Rowan, Scion of War, and Magnus the Red.
Then you’ve got commanders with in their costs, which naturally benefit from all the other X spell support you’re already playing. Examples include Rocco, Cabaretti Caterer, The Goose Mother, and Vrestin, Menoptra Leader, to name a few.
The symbol can be paid with any amount and color of mana. To be clear, there’s a difference between “X” and . is a cost that you pay mana for. That determines what X in the rules text ends up being. Once you’ve chosen how much mana to pay for , you can substitute each X in the card’s effect with that same number, the same way you would in algebraic math.
For example, when casting Klauth's Will, you must always pay , but you can make whatever you want it to be, so long as you actually have that much mana to spend. If you choose =3, each X in the rules text is treated as 3.
What's the Mana Value of an X Spell?
While on the stack, is treated as whatever amount of mana you spent on it. For example, if X=3 on Blue Sun's Zenith, the spell has a mana value of 6 on the stack.
If you cast an X spell “without paying its mana cost,” perhaps from the effect of Beseech the Mirror, you can’t pay anything for and it’s treated as 0 on the stack.
Note that in the cost of permanents is treated as 0 on the battlefield. For example, if you cast The Goose Mother for X=4, it’ll have a mana value of 6 on the stack, but a mana value of 2 on the battlefield.
What Does Two or More X’s Mean?
An cost means whatever value of X you choose needs to be paid twice. For example, if you want Hangarback Walker to enter the battlefield with two +1/+1 counters, each =2. That effectively makes the mana cost , or 4 mana total.
Same goes for spells like Astral Cornucopia and Crackle with Power. You must pay the same amount of mana for each in the cost in order to cast the spell. If you want an Astral Cornucopia with three charge counters, the mana cost would be , or 9 mana total.
Can You Pay 0 for an X Cost?
can be 0 unless specifically stated otherwise. For example, Thieving Skydiver’s kicker cost says “X can’t be 0” to prevent stealing 0-mana artifacts without paying an extra cost.
However, you might really need to save a creature with Tyvar's Stand, but you only have available. That’s okay, just pay and say X=0, and the spell works just fine.
Does Cost Reduction Work on X Spells?
Yes it does! A card like Goblin Electromancer basically gives a free +1 mana to all your instants and sorceries with X in the cost. Here’s how it technically works:
You cast an instant with in its cost, let’s say Banefire. You declare the value for when you put Banefire on the stack. Let’s say X=5. That makes Banefire cost . Goblin Electromancer’s effect reduces that cost by , so when you actually pay the mana to cast Banefire, you only end up paying , even though X equals 5.
Also note that cost increases always apply before cost reduction. That won’t matter often, but it does mean you always get the maximum amount of reduction from your effects, regardless of taxation effects on board.
What Happens If You Copy an X Spell?
A copy of an X spell on the stack is a separate spell with the same X value that you paid for the original. If you cast Heliod's Intervention for X=4 and copy it, you’ll get a second Intervention, also for X=4. You’ll almost always be able to choose new targets for the copy, but the copy is created on the stack above the original, meaning the copy resolves first.
Note that this is only true of X spells, but X is treated as 0 for permanents on the battlefield. If you cast a Mistcutter Hydra for X=6, it enters with six +1/+1 counters. However, if you copy that permanent with Heat Shimmer, the Mistcutter Hydra copy enters with 0 +1/+1 counters and presumably dies.
How Do X Spells Work With Cascade?
This can go one of two ways.
If an X spell you’re casting has cascade, X adds to the total mana value of the spell while it’s on the stack, which increases the range of spells you can cascade into. If you cast Let the Galaxy Burn for X=3, the total mana value is 9, which means you could cascade into a 7- or 8-drop.
However, if you cascade into an X spell, X is treated as 0. For example, if you cast Shardless Agent, which has a mana value of 3, and the first card you exile is Blue Sun's Zenith, you’ll keep exiling cards since that also has a mana value of 3 while in exile. Comet Storm, however, has a mana value of 2 in exile and can be flipped off cascade, but if you cast it, X always equals 0.
Bottom line: X spells with cascade are great, but X spells aren’t great with other cascade spells.
Blot Out the Sky | Illustration by Olena Richards
X spells have been around since the beginning; I mean, who doesn’t love a good Disintegrate or Braingeyser? Probably people who hate math. Though the algebra-haters probably aren’t big on Magic in the first place, eh?
I understand that X spells can be a bit confusing for a novice player. “What do you mean I get to pick how much I want to pay? How can I possibly wield such power responsibly?” To that I say: No responsibility needed! Make a bunch of mana and dump it into your favorite X spell! Just leave a mana up for Mana Tithe, because you never know.
I narrowed down my list quite a bit, to the point where I left off perfectly viable cards that I’m sure plenty of players have had success with. Perhaps I missed you favorite X spell in Magic? If you’ve got a compelling argument for something I omitted, let me know in the comments below or over in the Draftsim Discord.
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