Jeremy casts spells in between his careers as a chemical analyst and campus manager.
How Does Cumulative Upkeep Work in Magic?
In Magic, several spells carry a cumulative upkeep cost. This means that during your upkeep (the start of your turn), you place an age counter on your card, then pay its cumulative cost for each age counter or sacrifice it. These costs vary between cards, but usually involve paying one or two mana per age counter.
Thus, it's difficult to keep these spells intact for more than a few turns, but they reward your efforts with powerful effects you'll rarely encounter elsewhere. But with almost a hundred resource-draining units available, which members reign supreme? These are the ten best cumulative upkeep cards in Magic: The Gathering!
10. Phyrexian Soulgorger
CMC (Converted Mana Cost): 3
Soulgorger is a colorless creature, so he'll accept any mana types, and for his low price, he enters the field with an amazing 8/8 stats. Rather than forcing you to pay mana, his cumulative upkeep has you sacrifice a creature for each age counter he's amassed.
Thus, your resources aren't hindered, but you'll need to employ token-swarming tactics to avoid annihilating your own units. Still, if you can build around his price, Soulgorger offers unparalleled early-game power, and note that his snow and artifact types offer additional combo potential.
9. Infernal Darkness
Infernal Darkness exacts a hefty toll, as in addition to its base cost of four mana, you have to pay one more at your upkeep and spend a life for each age counter on it. However, Darkness's ability turns any mana lands tap for into black mana.
Since you're presumably using a black deck, you'll be unaffected, but builds with other colors will soon find themselves unable to cast anything beyond colorless spells. Thus, in its element, Darkness can completely shut down opposing decks for a few turns, more than enough time for you to seize the advantage.
8. Old Fogey
Old Fogey's gray border indicates he's a semi-official card belonging to one of the "Un" sets, and is thus banned in most tournaments. However, he's a powerhouse, as his numerous confusing abilities often make your opponent forfeit out of sheer bewilderment.
After all, Fogey is a 7/7 with phasing, cumulative upkeep, echo, fading, banding with other dinosaurs, protection from homarids, snow-covered plainswalk, flanking, and rampage 2. Simple, right?
I could write a full article just explaining this single card, but basically, Fogey offers several positive traits (and a few negative ones) that make him a prime force in the few matches he's allowed in.
7. Varchild's War-Riders
For his low price of two mana, War-Riders offers a stellar 3/4 stats as well as trample, letting him bleed excess damage through blockers. He's also one of few units to carry the rampage 2 effect, meaning that whenever blocked by more than one unit, he gains +2/+2 for the rest of the turn for each additional blocker.
War-Riders also carries an interesting cumulative upkeep; rather than draining mana, he gives an opponent a 1/1 creature for each age counter. While handing your opponent free monsters isn't ideal, they're weak units and they can help you trigger the anti-swarm punishments of cards like "Blood Seeker."
6. Vexing Sphinx
In addition to his impressive 4/4 stats, Veing Sphinx enjoys flying, letting him soar over ground blockers. His unique cumulative upkeep has you discard a card rather than pay mana, and you'll have to sacrifice Sphinx if you don't have enough in hand.
However, Sphinx lets you draw cards equal to the number of age counters it has when placed into a graveyard from play, adeptly refilling your hand. Plus, since this trait activates from any death, you'll still gain the benefit if your opponent kills Sphinx with a removal. Finally, remember that Sphinx gains an age counter even if you don't pay his upkeep. In other words, if you only paid his cost once, then let him die at your next upkeep, he'd actually perish with two age counters, letting you draw twice and ultimately increasing your overall hand size.
5. Tombstone Stairwell
One of the best world cards in the game, Stairwell has a more-traditional cumulative upkeep of spending two mana, a hefty fee that you'll probably only afford for 2-3 rounds. However, during each player's upkeep, all players create a number of 2/2 zombie tokens with haste equal to the number of creatures in their graveyard. Those zombies are destroyed (and can't be regenerated) at the end of each turn.
If you're using self-milling zombie themes, you'll amass armies of undead while your opponents will only gain a few, and remember that you can punish their bonus units with spells like "Blood Seeker" or "Noxious Ghoul."
4. Illusions of Grandeur
Grandeur's cumulative upkeep needs a hefty two mana per age counter. However, when it enters the battlefield, you gain a whopping 20 life, a huge boost to your health reservoirs. However, when Grandeur leaves through any means, its controller loses 20 life.
So, what's the point? Well, crafty players will combo with cards like "Puca's Mischief" to switch control of Grandeur. Play it your side, gain 20 life, then generously give it to an opponent, who suddenly has to worry about keeping it fielded or losing 20 life. Thus, not only can Grandeur increase your own stamina, it can brutally siphon an opponent's.
Dystopia offers a great check against green and white decks. Its cumulative upkeep has you pay a life, a comparatively-lenient fee that creatures with lifelink will help you afford.
At the beginning of each player's upkeep, Dystopia simply has them sacrifice either a green or white permanent; if you have none, you avoid the price. Any opponents wielding green, white, or multicolor cards won't be so lucky, and since Dystopia neither targets nor destroys, even cards with hexproof or indestructible are vulnerable.
2. Mystic Remora
Mystic Remora works well in any stage of the game and is amazingly cheap, costing just one island's mana. It also wields a tame cumulative upkeep that only requires one resource per age counter, and while this enchantment is active, you get to draw a card whenever an opponent casts a noncreature spell unless they pay four extra mana.
Very few players will have four leftover resources after casting a spell, letting Remora draw several cards over its lifespan. As a bonus, note that you'll trigger its effect just by opponents casting cards; you'll still draw even if you use a counterspell to negate the spell.
Affordable and competitive, Remora is an easy choice for my own blue EDH decks, especially since it costs well under three dollars!
1. Braid of Fire
Braid of Fire is one of red's best ramp tools, as it actually carries a beneficial cumulative upkeep that adds a red mana to your pool for each age counter. Thus, as turns pass, Braid will give you more and more free mana, but remember that it's wasted if not spent immediately, as it'll fade by the time your main phase rolls around.
Still, you can utilize it on instants, cards with flash, or activated abilities, giving plenty of outlets for your surplus resources.
How to Support Cumulative Upkeep Cards in Magic
Remember, for spells that actually have positive cumulative upkeeps, you can use the proliferate ability to increase their age counters and benefits. But for the majority with negative effects, use cards like "Power Conduit" to consistently remove their counters and lessen their drawbacks. And for a single blue mana, the aura spell "Mana Chains" gives an opposing card cumulative upkeep one, ensuring your opponent will have to pay to keep it around.
You can see just how versatile cumulative upkeep spells can be, and I definitely recommend testing them yourself. But for now, as we eagerly await Wizards of the Coast's next expansion of mana-draining spells, vote for your favorite card and I'll see you at our next MTG countdown!
© 2018 Jeremy Gill