Inside the Artificer’s Workshop: Astrolabe Knock-offs and When to Play Them

Inside the Artificer’s Workshop: Astrolabe Knock-offs and When to Play Them

With the banning of Arcum’s Astrolabe in July of 2020, artifact aficionados everywhere were left with a snowflake-shaped hole in their hearts. No other card can quite fill the void left by that little trinket. Cards like Serum Visions or Opt can cantrip, but they don’t fix mana, nor do they leave an artifact on the battlefield. Mana Cylix is one mana artifact and can fix mana, but it doesn’t cantrip, nor does it enable snow synergies.

Live look-in at Urza players in 2020.

Why Astrolabe Matters

Artifact synergy decks are often centered around a high value payoff or combo. High value payoffs can be cards like Urza, Lord High Artificer; Sai, Master Thopterist; or Emry, Lurker of the Loch. Each of these cards asks you to cast an abundance of artifacts to maximize their effectiveness.

This deckbuilding constraint presents challenges, as most cheap artifacts tend to be mediocre or low impact cards on their own. As a result, these decks rely on additional synergies such as enters the battlefield effects or activated abilities to gain advantage from the artifacts used to support the deck.

Each of these cards asks you to cast an abundance of artifacts to maximize their effectiveness.This deckbuilding constraint presents challenges, as most cheap artifacts tend to be mediocre or low impact cards on their own.

Brian Madden

In spite of there being no clear winner in terms of a direct replacement, there are still a number of good options out there for artifact diehards, each with its own strength and weakness based on the cards around it and the expected metagame. In this article we’ll cover three one CMC utility artifacts that provide card draw, color fixing, or both.

Chromatic Sphere and Chromatic Star

Kicking off the list are a pair of artifacts that are often used because of their generic mana cost, ability to filter mana, and draw a card. Chromatic Sphere and Chromatic Star each cost one generic mana and have an activated ability that costs a generic mana in addition to tapping and sacrificing the artifact. In turn, both will produce one mana of any color and draw you a card.

Both of these are most played in Green Tron variants as a way to filter colorless mana to produce green, as well as their ability to cantrip and dig you towards Tron pieces or payoffs. You’ll also find them in artifact synergy decks such as Whirza where they cantrip and act as a relevant permanent type for payoff cards such as Construct Tokens.

At first glance these cards look like they do the exact same thing, and for some decks, such as Green Tron, they do. There is a subtle difference that can be easily overlooked to the untrained eye though. Chromatic Sphere draws a card as a part of the resolution of the activated ability. Chromatic Star, on the other hand, has two separate abilities. The first filters your mana, the second says, “When Chromatic Star is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, draw a card.”

This separate line of text becomes very relevant in a number of situations. Notably, if your graveyard has been cut off by an effect such as Rest in Peace, Chromatic Star will not draw you a card. The replacement effect on Rest in Peace means that the Star will never go to the graveyard, and thus the condition to draw will never be met. In contrast, Chromatic Sphere will draw regardless of a Rest in Peace. 

While the separate clause on Chromatic Star can be a liability in some matchups, it also enables some fantastic synergies. Cards such as Goblin Engineer or Thopter Foundry actively want artifacts to be sacrificed as a part of the cost of their activated ability, and because the Star will cantrip when sacrificed it provides added value. This is where the Star really shines. Being able to use Chromatic Star as a cantrip without having to activate it means that there are ways to make use of it even in the face of hate such as Stony Silence effects. I have won games on the back of Goblin Engineer activations cycling Chromatic Stars in and out of my graveyard to draw cards. Similarly, casting a Nature’s Claim on my own Chromatic Star has saved me from losing to Burn on a number of occasions. Lines like this may seem desperate, and sometimes they are, but when you’re sitting across the table from a Karn, the Great Creator or Collector Ouphe you need to find ways to recoup value from your now dead cards.

Witching Well

For decks that are less interested in the mana fixing and are more interested in card filtering and card draw, there is another great option available. Witching Well is a single blue mana for an artifact that scrys two when it enters the battlefield. It has an additional activated ability that costs three and a blue and sacrifices the Well to draw two cards. The benefits of Witching Well are a bit more obvious as it provides early game card filtering, and can stick around for some late game card draw.

Witching Well has seen play as a way to dig for combo pieces in decks like Grixis Whirza or the Emry Jeskai Ascendency Combo. When paired with a card like Emry, Witching Well becomes a powerful late game draw engine provided you’ve got the mana to crack it and recast it every turn. As a result of the higher activation cost, and the lack of color fixing, the Witching Well also tends to stick around on the battlefield a bit longer than Chromatic Star or Chromatic Sphere. This makes it a solid include in a deck that is looking to utilize Improvise cards such as Whir of Invention or Metallic Rebuke.

We Have Astrolabes at Home

Ultimately, all three of these cards suffer from one big flaw that Astrolabe never did: they must be sacrificed or otherwise destroyed to make use of their benefits. This one-shot nature of the artifacts is a double edged sword. In decks that utilize the graveyard and want to get recurring cast triggers, the ability to self sacrifice can be a boon. In decks that want artifacts to stick on the board this leads to some awkward situations. Playing with Improvise or Affinity cards, and trying to have a glut of artifacts around to beef up an Urza construct can be a real challenge when you are also using your cheap artifacts to filter mana or draw cards.

These tensions are likely “as intended” and part of what made Arcum’s Astrolabe too good for Modern. They are also why these bootleg Astrolabes see little play outside of their synergy driven homes, because they’re simply not that powerful outside of the shells that best exploit them. 

Brian Madden knows this feeling all too well.

To sum up: when building with artifacts and combing through the one mana options, be sure to remember that Chromatic Sphere is best suited as a cantripping color fixer that can skirt Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void. Chromatic Star is best suited when color fixing might be necessary and there are supporting cards that can sacrifice it for added value. Witching Well is best suited for decks that want the card filtering, prefer a longer lived artifact, or can activate and recast it every turn.

Ultimately, it may be a long time before we see another artifact like Astrolabe, but in the meantime there are some replacements that can do a passable job if you squint hard enough, and aren’t afraid to tinker!

Brian Madden is an optimistic brewer with an affinity for draft chaff and unlikely combos. When he isn’t playing Magic you can find him co-hosting the Serum Visions Podcast or enjoying the outdoors with his wife and son. Follow Brian on Twitter @untwisted_mtg.

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