I always wanted to be a mad scientist. Sadly, I was born in 20th century Earth and not some sweet fictional universe. I got over those impossible dreams by the age of 12, but now Shadows Over Innistrad is bringing them all back. Madness is a really exciting mechanic. It just offers so many possibilities – alternative casting costs, card advantage AND discard enabling? Check, check, and check. But all this excitement and all these possibilities pose a bit of a problem: which element of madness are we supposed to focus on?
Thanks to a multitude of chemistry courses, elements are more or less my specialty. Even a mad scientist knows to start tackling any problem by delving into the basics. Which is good, because until the full spoiler comes out, the basics are all we can hope to understand. By thinking about the different ways the madness keyword can be utilized, we will get a head start when we have complete information when all the cards are revealed.
If Eldrazi winter taught us anything, it's that mana is the soul of Magic (thanks, Philidor). As such, the alternative casting cost aspect of madness is where I want to start. Look at Incorrigible Youths or Fiery Temper. Both of these cards offer us a two mana discount if we cast them via madness. That's sizable. Lightning Bolt is a good card. Incorrigible Youths isn't in the same league as Lightning Bolt, but a 4/3 haste for three is an incredibly efficient card.
If we could just always play these cards at their madness cost, they would be excellent. Madness is good, but it isn't that crazy. Fiery Temper is not going to transform Standard into a Modern-esque world where spending more than one mana on a creature that dies to Lightning Bolt is a losing proposition. The fact that madness costs have to be enabled means that an early creature we play will, worst-case scenario, have a few turns to generate board advantage for us before trading down in mana.
Cards with low converted mana costs have two primary advantages: early in the game they can be cast at all, and late in the game they enable multiple-spell turns. Madness cost reductions are much better at duplicating the second of these advantages than the first. This is due to it being very difficult to have our madness-enabling infrastructure in place early in the game. Turns out, most of the upside of hyper efficient, low-CMC cards lies in their ability to impact the game from turn one or two. Madness doesn't allow for this, and thus we want to look elsewhere for the payoff of our crazy plans.
How about cards? Madness also allows us to turn looting and rummaging effects into actual card advantage. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy plus Fiery Temper is draw a card and cast a Lightning Bolt for the cost of... one Red mana? That hardly seems fair. Fiery Temper is always going to be on the far end of the absurdity spectrum when looking at madness cards, but even discarding Asylum Visitor and using its madness ability to cast it illustrates this point – you just turned your Jace activation into "draw a card."
Well, that's fantastic. With a deal this good, there has to be a downside, and madness is no exception. Gaining card advantage off of madness contorts our mana usage. Instead of being able to decide in each untap cycle what the best use of our limited mana is, we have to prioritize gaining our advantage off of madness costs. There are situations where our madness spells are irrelevant. In these spots, we will need to abandon our madness plan to deal with the present situation. In turn, our deck becomes underpowered, filled with spells that we can no longer use to full effect.
This downside is on full display in controlling strategies. Being able to play the right answer on any board state is an important aspect of control decks, and a madness subplan interferes with this ability. This is awkward, as control decks are also the decks most poised to enjoy some card advantage. Aggressive strategies are much more interested in the other aspects of madness, as warping their deck construction to play looting effects in order to draw cards with madness is pretty far from the aggro way. Which leaves us with midrange strategies as the decks most able and willing to take advantage of the card-drawing abilities of madness.
In the end, using madness primarily as a card advantage engine is weak. Doing so involves playing a critical mass of madness spells and looting effects, and forces you to combo them together early and often, leaving you less able to execute other important parts of a Magic strategy. Using madness to effectively draw a card should be looked at as more of a fringe benefit of the keyword. It's also, of course, a great way to insure yourself against opposing discard spells. Good night, Kolaghan's Command.
That leaves us examining the interaction of madness and its natural partner: discarding cards for advantage effects. To me, decks employing this interaction have always felt monstrous, probably because effects that require you to discard are traditionally awful and therefore somewhat of an abomination in my mind. But by cobbling them together with madness spells, something much stronger than the sum of the parts rises from the pile.
Madness means that these discard for advantage effects are all upside. Not only do you get some sweet effect, you get to discard too! Only good with madness, but really good then. Decks based on this interaction are, at their core, two-card combo decks. They are very redundant two-card combos, as both halves of the combo have many different suitable pieces, but two-card combos nonetheless. Which means sometimes you will draw all discard outlets and no madness spells, or all madness spells and no way to discard them. This is an inherent problem with the combination.
Further, trying to get a sense of how well this combination will perform is a very difficult task without the full spoiler. In the end, any deck utilizing this idea is only as good as its worst discard outlet or madness spell. You need to play a certain number of each to make things go smoothly, and the worst one you play of each is a great lens through which to judge the deck. When we're looking at madness this way, it's really the strength of the discard outlets that matters. The effects we get to consistently use without falling behind due to madness that we otherwise wouldn't be able to are what turns this archetype from a pile of individually weak cards into a synergy goldmine, but that means that without discard outlets of appropriate strength, this strategy is a nonstarter.
Wait, none of the benefits of madness are good enough to build a deck around? Guess the mechanic's bad then. Or not. In reality, madness isn't any one of these advantages. It's all three, all at the same time. No single way of deriving advantage from the madness keyword has to be good enough on its own, because the others are there to help push the mechanic along no matter what. When you cast your madness spells on the cheap, you also are enabling a discard effect and effectively drawing a card. Your late game card advantage engine also propels you to multiple spell turns sooner. Finding the right balance of priorities in a deck using madness will be a challenge, but certainly a rewarding one.
A great litmus test for which benefit is the primary motivator in a deck is how often it employs a spells madness cost vs. how often it casts the spell straight up. If you are casting Fiery Temper for one mana 80% of the time, you are all about that cost reduction. If it's more like 30 or 40%, you are probably more interested in another aspect of madness. This idea dictates both how many madness spells a deck gets to play and how good a madness spell has to be to make it into the deck. When a deck is so overloaded on discard outlets that spells can be cast via madness 75%+ of the time, you can start playing some of the not so good madness spells. If you generally only get to madness two or three spells a game, only the best madness spells will make it in.
Thanks for reading,