The Cutting Room Floor: Group Therapy

The Cutting Room Floor: Group Therapy

“Did you see my hand?” they ask.

“No, why?” I respond.

It’s at this point an opponent shows me their hand and they wind up discarding at least two copies of a named card in their hand off of arguably the most difficult and rewarding discard spell in Legacy: Cabal Therapy. This has happened on dozens of occasions over the years, and for good reason. Cabal Therapy is a card that requires a mastery of situational Magic, the format you’re playing it in and what high-value targets exist within the confines of a specific match.

My experience with Cabal Therapy is something that even I up until recently didn’t stop to think about as it pertains to my history of deck choices over the years. I would estimate that since its printing I’ve played Cabal Therapy in close to 85 to 90 percent of the decks I’ve built. A big reason for this is my love for the color black in Eternal Magic. I don’t know why, but it’s really been a ‘fatal attraction’ of sorts for me since I started playing a long time ago. By this I mean my sentimental attraction to the color made it predictable for opponents to put me on something with black before a game even began.

That evolution wound up benefiting and strengthening my play over the course of many years, which it certainly can do for you too, if you so choose to harness it. Cabal Therapy in that respect deserves a great deal of attention and dedication as a card that can be extraordinarily powerful if the pilot utilizing it maximizes its potential. I first noticed its power in a deck I used to pilot entitled, “The Game.” In that particular deck the card Cabal Therapy in conjunction with Gamekeeper was able to milk removal out of opponents’ hands and subsequently acted as a de facto sacrifice outlet that would allow the pilot to chain Therapies and Gamekeepers until they hit a behemoth, such as the now-antiquated Darksteel Colossus.

With that being said, let’s take a look at one of the most misunderstood, misplayed and commonly used discard spells in the history of the game.

Cabal Therapy

So for a single black mana, a player can cast Cabal Therapy and target any player they so choose, including themselves. This strategy can be important when the pilot needs to put something relevant into the graveyard, such as in Dredge or some form of unusual Reanimator. The flexibility it provides is massive in that respect and makes for a nice combo application outside of the typical “make you discard cards” routine.

However, what makes Cabal Therapy truly powerful is its ability to strip multiple copies of important cards out of an opponent’s hand. It’s important to note that you do not name a card when you play Cabal Therapy, but rather upon its resolution. What that means is once you play Cabal Therapy, you need to pass priority to your opponent to see if it resolves. If (and potentially when) it does, you then name a card. At that point, an opponent will reveal their hand and you will see the results of your intuitive assessment.

Hopefully, it was worth the effort.

Cabal Therapy is simply a card that screams card advantage. As if it weren’t enough to strip multiple copies of a single card out of an opponent’s hand, you can then subsequently flash it back at the “cost” of sacrificing a creature. In some instances the pilot will use that as an advantage, such as the aforementioned example with Gamekeeper or in more recent times with cards like Veteran Explorer, Bloodghast and Gravecrawler. It’s important to recognize that anyone deciding to build a deck with Cabal Therapy can take advantage of this and generate even more of an advantage.

Sometimes a single Cabal Therapy is enough to wipe out all of the relevant cards in a player’s hand. That feature alone should sell folks on how powerful its utility can be.

Now that we know exactly what Cabal Therapy does, it’s important to recognize how to play the card correctly. I want people to understand again that it takes a tremendous amount of intuitive skill to play this card. Therapy is a high risk, high reward spell. I’d equate its play much like a professional poker player would read a ‘tell’ or what cards another player might have in their hand depending on their betting style. A player can bluff the Therapy pilot out by leaving an Island up and representing Brainstorm. In Magic, this would be referred to as “next leveling,” which means that another player anticipates the outcome of a specific line of play and traps an opponent down the line by ‘one-upping’ them with either a trump or something else completely unexpected that crushes the predictability of said line.

Understanding the fundamentals associated with the card is what makes it so difficult to play correctly. That being said, I’d like to go over some examples I’ve experienced over time that vary in difficulty depending on the scenario and match-up. We’ll stick to the same formula as last week when I dipped a little into how I was able to play some solid situational Magic with Cabal Therapy against RUG Delver (except we’ll use separate examples).

Also take into account that this exercise refers to blind Therapies only, as it’s quite obvious that flashing the card back will almost assuredly grab a card or set of cards that you want to strip from a player’s hand.

Manaless Dredge versus High Tide – October 20th, 2012 [NELC]

In game one against a High Tide player, I managed to put myself in a position where I could flash back Cabal Therapy. With an Ichorid in play, I sent the undead Horror in for three damage and subsequently flashed back Cabal Therapy targeting him, making a few Zombies in the process from Bridge from Below(s) in my graveyard. He has one Island in play and not much else going on. In response to my Therapy, he casts a Brainstorm, looking to hide cards on top of his deck.

Now, it’s at this point one has to wonder what card really matters here if it resolves. If my opponent is on one land, I know that for two more turns they cannot cast Cunning Wish (which gets something like Ravenous Trap or Surgical Extraction). By that time, I should have an established board presence where a spell like that doesn’t really affect me as much as it would on turn one or two. After all, Ichorids and Nether Shadows are going to be coming after him next turn in addition to multiple Zombies. I want to strip him of his ability to win outright in a desperate attempt.

So I rule out Wish.

Cunning Wish.

From here, I look at several other options. Counter-magic doesn’t really concern me unless I want to play out Dread Return, which I have neither that nor a realistically lethal target in my graveyard at this time. Because I know that this line of play is dependent on my next turn’s dredging, I have to play with exactly what I have on the board.

So Force of Will is relatively useless in a scenario with no interaction.

Force of Will.

Finally I think to myself, “Did this guy think I would go after High Tide? And if so, is he trying to next-level me?” After careful consideration, I realize that my opponent has approximately two turns to live if the game progresses at its current pace. We’re both playing combo decks in their own right, and I know he wants to finish me off before my onslaught of attackers can push in for lethal. Did he hide High Tide on top of his deck, or did he just assume I would go after Wish because he gave me the benefit of the doubt based on my familiarity with targets in his sideboard that could wipe me out?

I had to try for it. It’s the only card at this point that can enable him to win the game, and nothing else really matters to me. Draw spells, counter-magic and all of the cool tap/untap effects he could muster mean nothing to me while he’s on one land. Flusterstorm maybe, but he let this resolve and that tells me something: he’s got something good in his hand.

I have about ten to twelve more cards that will hit my graveyard in two turns, and they are potentially all crushing to him: more Therapies, Dread Returns and targets.

I go in for the home run, naming “High Tide.”

I hit one.

I see his hand and after him being on the play he has five cards left in his hand at this point. His five cards were (based on memory): Force of Will, Turnabout, Island, Meditate and something like a Preordain. He told me he played under the assumption I would have named “Cunning Wish” because of the potential threat of sideboard hate making an appearance game one. I let him know at this point he needs two more lands in play, and even if he does he’ll be staring down a horde of attackers that remain on the battlefield and that I could care less about Cunning Wish.

He shrugs and admits that he has nothing left on top of his deck. Even after he casts Preordain, it doesn’t matter. I find a Dread Return, Therapy and a Griselbrand the following dredge (wow) and put an end to any doubt by stripping his Force from hand and bringing back and activating the flying demon for the win.

This example was meant to illustrate the importance of associating the value of a specific target against a specific deck at a specific point in the game. On turn one, a High Tide player is working with Brainstorms and counter-magic, really. If I was losing that game, I was losing it on turn three if this guy attempted going off, and quite honestly I wasn’t taking that risk. Assuming I didn’t hit more Therapies I would have let him strip my graveyard, wasting a turn doing so, while attacking him and gaining an arbitrary amount of tokens that stay on the battlefield.

My thinking was that my opponent was trying to bait me into flushing another target out of his hand, but I knew that on turn one with damage coming in and more Zombies hitting play that the only card I care about was High Tide. I want to win the game faster and I’m not taking any chances. Every land a High Tide player taps for something other than an initial High Tide, to me, is a wasted mana source without an untap effect at the ready.

On turn one I was going for the big hurt and my intuition countered his line of play without having to play a single spell for pre-verification. I took his key spell and he lost the game. Whether it was on the heels of poor hiding or whatever, he made a choice and I made him pay for it.

The Gate versus Sneak and Show – July 24th, 2010 [NELC]

This was an event where I piloted a mono-black deck improbably to a top four finish at an older NELC. In doing so, I squared off in the quarterfinals against my prior round four opponent Pat, who was on the Sneak and Show plan. Pat was also one of the originators of older Sneak and Show variants. We’re at a point in game two where Pat mulligans to five cards and takes the play. He starts the game off with a relatively powerful play: two exiled Spirit Guides, a Volcanic Island and a Show and Tell into Progenitus and me into a Swamp.

On an all-in play like this, Pat knew his eggs were in one basket as he was also down a game. I proceed to crush his dreams by casting Innocent Blood and taking out his Progenitus. After playing the draw-go game for a few turns, I finally am able to nail down a Bitterblossom. In that time, Pat was accumulating cards in his hand even after I tried keeping him low with Hymns and Duress. He was able to get some lands down on the board, and at one point he had three sitting in play: Mountain, Mountain and Island. I had Wasted his previous sources turns earlier. I have a fairly dominating board state with a Dark Confidant, Bitterblossom and a few lands in play.

No more than six permanents, however.

So, I proceed to cast Cabal Therapy blind, not knowing at this point what is in Pat’s hand. He has the three aforementioned lands in play and a few other cards in hand to boot. He didn’t miss a land drop last turn and I know he’s working towards something. With three mana, he could have ideally cast Show and Tell by now if he had a creature in his hand worth doing so, but I don’t think that’s the case. I want to make sure I don’t lose to the card that will really kill me: Sneak Attack. I know that with the amount of permanents I have in play I could be squashed if he drops a land, has that in hand and a creature.

I can’t take the risk of losing outright to that, so I name “Sneak Attack” and strip one out of his hand.

Pat murmurs “Good call” from across the table. While he was completely distraught we had a friendly encounter and it was a pleasure playing against him. I explained my reasoning to him, just as I will to you all: I wasn’t going to lose the game with the board state I had. I was sitting on Vampire Nighthawk, so if I could get to that seventh or eighth permanent I would have been fine. Emrakul was the only card that concerned me, as opposed to Progenitus which would take a few turns to win the game. That also is not taking into consideration multiple ways of gaining life off cards like Jitte and Nighthawk, which can buy me more turns and enable more damage.

These examples are only a microcosm of how incredibly important it is to know how to be able to harness Cabal Therapy’s maximum effectiveness. I could cite plenty of other examples of how I missed terribly with Therapy, which to be honest I have. Unfortunately, you can’t be Superman and know every single card there is to know in an opponent’s hand at a given time. Thankfully, we have cards that can do that for us.

Gitaxian Probe

I’m finding myself falling in love with this card more and more as time goes on. You get all the information you need and are able to draw a card in the process. That makes Cabal Therapy spot on, and if an opponent has multiple copies of a card they are unable to cast, they’ll find themselves on the minus side of card advantage. This is what makes Probe so great: you’re able to not only see what is in an opponent’s hand, but you can then assess decisions and lines of play you can take based on this information.

Probe is seeing all kinds of play, and even recently has made an appearance in Storm-based combo decks like The Epic Storm alongside Cabal Therapy. This combination is incredibly powerful and what makes it so enticing is that you’re able to draw a card off of Probe in addition to the always-nice-bonus of it being a blue card. That’s a very attractive quality for any card to have and paired with Cabal Therapy it becomes a “shred-engine” that rips apart players’ hands.


Just kidding. It would be kind of fun, though. Just make sure you bring Ibuprofen to a tournament if you plan on playing this card; you’ll never hear the end of it.

Seriously though, I think Cabal Therapy requires a great deal of knowledge about Legacy in order to be effective. If you know what cards in specific match-ups cause you problems, write them down on a piece of paper. For instance, let’s say you’re playing Nic Fit and you know you really don’t want to walk your Green Sun’s Zenith into a Force of Will or Spell Pierce against a control deck. If your opponent taps out to play something, that should telegraph they are probably on a Force or two in their hand because they are comfortable tapping their mana in the face of something dangerous.

You need to protect your investments and make your spells count is where I’m going with this. Which brings me to my next point: the turn one blind Therapy.

A turn one blind Cabal Therapy is one of the most dangerous lines of play in all of Legacy. If you have absolutely no idea what your opponent is playing, it’s probably a good idea to wait a turn to see what they’re playing so you can play accordingly and take an educated guess as to what that player has in his or her hand. Casting this card on turn one also sends up red flags to an opponent to physically protect his or her hand.

Ancestral Recall

For instance, at a tournament in Maryland one time I played against a very whiny opponent (you all know what I’m talking about; those players who always complain when you play tight and win convincingly) running a variant of Stone-Blade. I was on the usual LED Dredge plan at the time and this was a pivotal game two where I could close the deal out. I tapped a City of Brass on turn two and cast a Therapy, earning a Brainstorm in response. He put his cards back and said, “Sure.”

I knew if this guy had Surgical Extraction, this was when it was being played everywhere with Snapcaster Mage he would have hid the card on top of his deck. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and proceeded to call “Snapcaster Mage.”

I knocked three… that’s right, three out of his hand. I never heard the end of it. It was like a mother dragging her four-year old out of the toy store without buying anything, it was awful. But I made sure I named the card that would give him the most value with his Extractions. Needless to say I never found out what he hid as he picked up his cards and scooped. This after me being cordial and friendly to him and apologizing for an unfortunate turn of events. He was the one who took a gamble, it didn’t pay off.

That Therapy felt more like an Ancestral Recall than anything else due to the massive advantage I gained off a single card. If you can find a way to master the secrets of Cabal Therapy, then you too can turn the card into one of the most powerful spells in existence. It’s a card that demands high reward based off these three key factors we’ve already spoken about earlier in the piece:

  1. Owning a working knowledge of the format you’re playing it in.
  2. Becoming a good situational Magic player.
  3. Excelling in taking advantage of the card’s alternative cost.

Cabal Therapy is and will always be probably my favorite playable card in all of Magic, and I guess even I never really knew it until now. I’m currently working the card into a new deck that I just recently piloted at the December NELC to some success, even in defeat. As I mentioned, there are virtually dozens, maybe even hundreds, of scenarios I could point out where Cabal Therapy was a game winner and a game loser. When you pick the card up and start playing it continually, you too will understand that there’s a reason why the cost is so high to see a good Therapist.

One thought on “The Cutting Room Floor: Group Therapy”

  1. Fantastic! I love the breakdown, the multiple examples, and the detail going into why you chose to pick which card. Thanks (:

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