Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Lord of the Rings Preliminary Review Part III


0 - unplayable in 40 card singleton

1 - effectively unplayable

2 - has low tier constructed decks it might go in

3 - has mid tier constructed decks it does go in

4 - pretty powerful stuff with several potential homes, able to perform well in lower powered cubes

5 - powerful stuff that is either just too narrow or has too many superior alternatives

6 - fringe cube worthy

7 - cube worthy

8 - cube staple

9 - unpowered cube bomb

10 - powered cube bomb

Samwise Gamgee 7.5

This is not only a good source of food generation but also a reasonable value tool. Gaining 3 life per creature you play isn't trivial and recurring historic cards is going to own late games. This is too cheap and too rounded, with more than enough power to back it up to not perform well in cube. Absolutely good on its own, it will be devastating with other food cards and is probably good enough to pull some food generators back into the fold. This does useful stuff fairly quickly and backbreaking stuff if left too long unchecked. Two drops that demand answers are good, those that give residual value are good, this looks like it should consistently be both of those things. 

Aragorn, the Uniter 7

A kind of Omnath of a card. You lose the EtB card draw but gain stats and potency in the ongoing abilities. Aragorn is a lot easier to trigger than Omnath and should be good for multiple triggers each turn. He gets real silly with gold cards. Play a couple of gold cards in the same turn and things get a little wild! The red and green abilities seem the best with their high impact, power, and reach. They are just going to end games in nice short order. While Aragorn seems good he is vulnerable to removal. Even with multiple triggers on the turn you make him he probably isn't that exciting if then answered. You are going to have wished you played a Muldrifter or something instead! Aragorn has to stay in play a little bit to recuperate the high cost of playing him. Unless you instantly kill your opponent with a chain of red and green cheap spells. Some kind of six mana Aragorn into Manamorphose and Atarka's Command or just a burn spell. That is a lot of pump and face damage to close out a game with. Aragorn is certainly very powerful but he isn't great on curve, you want to hold off and play him with other things, ideally things than can keep him in play a little longer. Less ease of use than Omnath but more interesting to build and play with. A higher ceiling but lower floor and most importantly, a lower average power level than Omnath. He has enough power for cube but he is unwieldy being so gold. I can see a world where the power of Omnath and the pull it has on people to go four or more colours making Aragorn quite a played card. In a world without Omnath I am not sure Aragorn has the pull needed to get play. 

Gimli, Mournful Avenger 2

These abilities seem awful. I am never usefully getting indestructible with this. If two guys died combat has happened or I got Wrathed, all too late to be useful. Equally, when are 3 dudes dying to get this rather winning fight? You need to be a sac deck for this and even then fuelling it wouldn't be sustainable. The only good thing here is the steady growing. Sadly on the 3/2 for three starting statline and no keyword combat abilities to scale with growth Gimli seems all round weak. 

Gandalf the White 7

Just a 4/5 flash dork for five is surprisingly good in cube. It is terrifying attacking into white decks these days with four or more mana open. More cards like that are generally quite welcome and quite effective. While just average costed stats and flash are not going to make a cube by themselves the various other aspects of Gandalf, while narrow, are quite the extra push. Flash to other stuff is great and a Panharmonicon on those will occasionally be massive. This should always be fine and should sometimes be great. Flavour wise I am looking forward to going on a doubled up Meathook Massacre courtesy of Gandalf. 

Sauron, the Dark Lord 5

Yikes, that is quite the ward! Interesting and unique by itself and enough to make me want to test it. While a big boy the total lack of combat abilities does rather make this a slow card. You want it to sit in play generating you tempt and amass value. Not ideal for a six drop. This is powerful but the wrong sort, that combined with being heavily gold should ruin this guys chances. That being said, he is a lot of fun and very different and so I am sure he will get enough novelty play to begin with to keep him covered. 

Witch-king of Angmar 7

This is rather savage. It is going to shut down a lot of attacks. You either need exile removal, bounce, or a massive swarm of dorks able to bumrush down in few attacks incurring only relatively minor losses. This card is both quite threatening and well able to defend. Remarkably it doesn't cost you life in anyway adding to the nice defensive aspect. Powerful though this be it is a lame kind of power, like Wurmcoil Engine. It will shut down some archetypes pretty hard while being a really risky play against others. I do not love the polarity of the card but it seems powerful enough and suitable for the cube. Indestructible as a protective mechanism inherently punishes the colours differently. Blue cares not, white cares little, black cares a bit, red cares a lot, and green cries itself to sleep. While not as polarizing as protection from colour dorks those that have or gain indestructible are somewhat along the same lines. Absolutely would prefer this to have some kind of ward instead but regardless of the polarity, the card seems very playable. 

Nasty End 2

Nice card but two narrow to justify that extra mana cost on Village Rites. Stuff you aim at your own dorks always wants to be as cheap as possible. 

Fangorn, Tree Shepherd 1

Lovely top down design. This feels like Treebeard. Sadly I have no use for this in cube and I don't even see a tribal deck being viable any time soon, and even if it were it is unlikely you would run this in it! Great for EDH though, I can fully see the temptation to make the tribal treefolk deck there, it would be a thing of absolute beauty. Imagine dropping down a Beta Ironroot Treefolk and have it be more than a 3/5. It would feel so good. So right. 

Saruman of Many Colours 1

The ward I like. The rest is all a bunch of wordy tedium. It is a get some potential value when you cast your second spell card. You are getting cards and mana when you trigger Saurman and you are also getting things from your opponent which is always a perk. However, a six mana, three colour, 5/4 with no combat perks, all leaves me super cold. Compare this to Bolas's Citadel and it looks shocking. To be honest Future Sight seems significantly better too. This is just an EDH multiplayer card. 

Mirkwood Bats 1

Interesting effect but on a 4 mana 2/3 it is not close to the mark on power level. 

Voracious Fell-Beast 1

This is decent but sadly Edict effects scale the wrong way with cost. Too often this will hit a dud and be a shocker of a card. Just play Noxious Gearhulk or the many cards like that and not this. 

Galadreil, Gift-Giver 2

This just doesn't seem powerful enough. Good utility and good synergy but all a bit slow and vulnerable for a five drop.  

Storm of Saruman 4

Love this and love the ward. Just a bit of a way to make it more playable and less punishing. It is still a card you have to survive to and beyond casting which is the hard part, no need then being something you just randomly lose with when they have some Loran or whatever to get it. The ward doesn't even really stop them killing it, it just stops them from doing so with so much tempo gain that it is unrecoverable. So, hardon about ward on big mana things that don't affect the board. just about covered. On to the actual card and what it does... Is forking the 2nd thing each turn good? Very. Can I make it work well in cube? Perhaps. Double stuff is very powerful but you do need to fuel it. Surviving to make a six drop blank, doing so, and then still having stuff is a fairly tall order. It isn't even assured game winning. This is fun but it is not for cube. Six drops there need immediate impact, especially in blue. 

Long List of the Ents 7

This is just the loveliest card. I love the flavour, the effect, the gentle break from saga norms. It is just spot on. It is also interesting and powerful. You really do not need to hit every stage for this to be worth it. Three stages is good. Great if they are earlier ones or if they have some scaling potential with where they land. I can see a world where this is just a source or lore counters on a permanent, perhaps reminiscent of Surge Node. This is too unique of a card to not wind up getting some cool action somewhere. I think it is good enough for cube in terms of power but I fear it falls into the camp of neither threat nor answer. Decks can only really pack a few of those and the competition for said slots is pretty heavy. I think this played on turn one or two in a green based muscle deck would be pretty easy to hit four times in cube, would like average over that and manage to get most of them on the earlier turns. That tempo boost might be what keeps the average down with fewer chances of getting to 5 or 6 hits as the game already ended! Sadly, drawn late this looks slow and a bit dodge on getting reliable hits. I think it will just lose out to the likes of protective spells like Blossoming Defence, free spells like Mutagenic Growth, or high impact spells like Ozolith, the Shattered Spire.

Sunday, 4 June 2023

Lord of the Rings Preliminary Review Part II


0 - unplayable in 40 card singleton

1 - effectively unplayable

2 - has low tier constructed decks it might go in

3 - has mid tier constructed decks it does go in

4 - pretty powerful stuff with several potential homes, able to perform well in lower powered cubes

5 - powerful stuff that is either just too narrow or has too many superior alternatives

6 - fringe cube worthy

7 - cube worthy

8 - cube staple

9 - unpowered cube bomb

10 - powered cube bomb

Delighted Halfling 8

A lovely little mana dork and a welcome upgrade to Boreal Druid. Certainly packing a lot more game than Rustvine Cultivator! Overall this is probably also just about better than a Llanowar Elf. The fixing for green they give is not often relevant An extra toughness, fixing for my legends, and the ability to force them through counter magic? That is a lot to get in exchange. Solid little support card. This probably brings us to a nice tally of one mana green ramp effects such that they are no longer the bottleneck in the colour. 

Call of the Ring 7

Well, I rather assumed the Ring tempting you would be a bad thing. It is not, it is all upside. Scary! Gollum and Samwise and even Frodo (Sauron's Bane) are rather better than I gave them credit for, This card looks OK but really needs you to have both dorks and spare life to shine on curve. Off curve it is perhaps a little slow to get going. If you are just buffing a dork it is all a bit slow and disruptable. If you are getting a buff engine going while getting the option of a card a turn at two life then I am more excited. A fully tempted ring bearer has skulk, looting on attack, a super deathtouch effect, and an extra punch of 3 if it connects. Not sure how I would value all that in general but it isn't trivial. An equip that was 2 and 2 would probably see some play with those effects. Call of the Ring is OK by itself and seems like it might well just become good if you have other cards that key off it such as Frodo. 

Bilbo, Retired Burglar 6

Great card but cube is a bit fast and streamlined for gold three drops that make treasure. Empowering other tempt cards might get this some love but by itself this is just a little shy of the mark. 

Frodo Baggins 3

Perhaps playable in a tempt deck or a legendary deck. Once you get to edict mode on the tempt emblem this is looking good but prior to that it is wildly underwhelming. 

Lobelia Sackville-Baggins 1

These cards you have to hold in hand for the right time to get their ceiling are just no good in cube. If stuff isn't proactive then it is not getting it done. This is the horror show of situational and conditional.  Yes, this has a lot of ceiling but no, it isn't close to cube worthy. 

Wizard's Rockets 8

Amazing, another Chromatic Star effect. Much more of a Terrarion as it comes in tapped and can fix multiple colours. Directly better than a Terrarion I think. Certainly feels like it is the kind of thing that could wind up with some abuses as you reduce activation costs or channel mana through it you otherwise couldn't use elsewhere. Just another one drop you draw from when it dies is pretty exciting. I love an enabling support card like this more than most and this is an upgrade to a tried and tested good one.

Gandalf, Friend of the Shire 3

Fun but a doing disparate things that don't line up well. Lacking in power and narrow to boot. 

Sauron the Necromancer 2

Seems rubbish. A 5 mana 4/4 with a conditional on-attack trigger. Ceiling is OK but hardly impressive given how low and likely the floor is. 

Frodo, Adventurous Hobbit 3

Just a bit slow to get going and a bit in need of lifegain support. You need immediate bang for your buck, particularly in gold and this doesn't offer such things. This obviously has quite an impressive ceiling but it will mostly just be a Lumengrid Warden...

Eowyn, Shield Maiden 1

If she triggered herself then she would be amazing but as it stands this has no hope. 

Bilbo, Birthday Celebrant 1

Too gold and low power for the lifegain decks and never seriously being played for the activated ability. EDH commander card just to provide colours and theming. 

Merry, Warden of Isenguard 1

A very limpwristed Sai! Not playing this outside commander. There are just much better ways to make tokens or better ways to key off artifact synergies. 

Pippin, Warden of Isengaurd 3

Great little food generator. Cheap to use, cheap to activate, and even a bit of self-contained payoff should you not have another use for food. Only playable in a synergy deck but a useful tool to have if you want such things.

Sauron, Lord of the Rings 5

Suitably big and powerful for the dark lord. On cast triggers ensure this is not going to be a recursion target and when you can cheat on casting stuff the Eldrazi tends to remain top dog. Even so, 8 is not very expensive and can easily be ramped out with no need of cheating. All a little bit over the top for 1v1 cube but pretty spicy for EDH. 

Pippin, Guard of the Citadel 7

A Giver of Runes style card. Gold and two mana is a turn off for a dork with a tap ability but ward 1 turns me right back on. Vigilance is also nice allowing you to use it for pressure and push and advantage when you can. That is one of the slight drawbacks of the various "of Runes" cards - you typically want to apply pressure in those decks but end up slowing yourself down. Power wise this card is comfortably good enough. It is something every cube deck can get behind in the current meta. That being said, Azorius is one of the less suitable homes, more because the pairing is struggling a little in my cube than anything else. I feel like the colour is transitioning from a control deck being the primary supported archetype to some kind of token/convoke/flicker thing. If that change does happen then Pippin is looking better and better. 

Merry, Esquire of Rohan 3

Decent floor and great ceiling but gold and really desiring of legends. Sure, first strike is nice but it isn't a draw and will not contribute to much scaling. Drawing a card however, making a 1 drop legend and curving into this will be utterly insane. And imagine if that 1 drop is Ragavan.... filthy. Too narrow for cube thankfully being a cheap gold card that needs support. This is thankful because it is such a win more card. I do look forward to playing it in some Mox Amber Boros legends deck though. 

Saturday, 27 May 2023

Top 9 Planeswalkers 2023


This is more of a stealth article to talk about the rapid decline in the power of planeswalkers that has come hand in hand with power creep over the past 3 or so years. Around Tarkir block, perhaps as far as Kaladesh, was the peak of planeswalker play in cube. Arguably they were at their most powerful when they first landed on the scene but with scarcity of printing it took a very long time to get enough planeswalkers into cube to meet the demand for them. For the first few years you would be picking and playing every walker you got your hands on and this would be a couple at best. This trend of pick and play all the walkers declined long before walkers did but only due to demand being met. The better measure of planeswalker prowess is the average number of walkers in decks and that continued to rise all the way to 2016. At that time I was happy playing around 5 or 6 walkers in my 40 card decks pretty much regardless of the archetype. Aggro decks struggled to find enough suitable as their curves were that much lower but the midrange and control decks had room for days. Most of the top end of my 2016 cube draft decks were planeswalkers. Jump to 2023 and we are down to around one walker per deck on average. 

Walkers are not getting worse, they, like every thing else, are getting better. What is it then that is contributing to hard to this fall off in the card type? Disparity in power creep is a big part of the why. Yes, walkers are getting better but if other things are getting better faster then planeswalkers are effectively getting worse. Dorks are one of the main areas that power has crept and they are not only the main solution to walkers but they are also the main competition for their slots. In a world where Questing Beast and Glorybringer win the game faster than your average walker and/or answer it as well then it is no shocker that they are replacing them. 

Removal is the other part of the game that has power crept ahead of walkers. A big part of the early dominance of walkers was the lack of non-creature answers to them. You could counter them, you could attack them, or you could Vindicate them. It took a long time before things like Hero's Downfall become a bit more standard. It was even longer before we had the likes of Angrarth's Rampage, Dreadbore, Assassin's Trophy, Ossification, Sheoldred's Edict, and a slew of other two mana spot removal spells for walkers. Back in the day if they made a walker and activated it just once and then you untapped and killed it with a three mana removal spell you were behind and that was about as good as it got for you if you were not ahead on board and able to answer it in combat. These days if I kill your walkers with a two mana spell that single activation rarely feels like it came close to those two or three mana I gained with my efficient removal. Even when planeswalkers are a good value exchange they can still be a poor tempo one and this is too often the case these days. 

Not only is removal better at killing planeswalkers but people are playing more of it than ever before. When you are playing a load more removal even the stuff that can only hit creatures can help let you take down walkers. I might not want to "waste" my high quality removal spell on your medium dork but if it will also let me attack that turn and take out a walker it suddenly seems like a good plan. Planeswalkers feel the most vulnerable than ever before in the face of all the better, cheaper, broader, and more commonly seen removal. For a card type that scales in power with turns in play being vulnerable is a concern to say the least!

Another factor is game length. It seems as if a lot of the power creep is hitting the 5+ mana cards. Most now have a good shot of winning the game and quickly. Games being tempo focused and having really powerful top end cards do just seem to end. Games can run away form you to the point of no recovery if you do not get involved early. They also end pretty quickly later on too if you can't handle one of the expensive threat cards properly. This means that planeswalkers suffer twice over. Planeswalkers provide ongoing advantage, the longer they are in play the better they become. Longer games give more opportunity to stay in play longer and that works well in planeswalkers favour. I have always maintained a rough rule of thumb that good walkers are still mostly bad with just one activation, fairly even with two, and game winning with three. Back in the day those activations would be determined by the survivability of the walker, these days the game ending is curtailing the actions rather more noticeably. This leads to the second issue which is that walkers lose part of their value and much of their interesting play dynamic if the sensible play is more often to ignore them and end the game by just going face. Planeswalkers used to feel like a bit of a buffer that padded out effective life totals and helped elongate the game and this added to their value, a bit like some incidental life gain makes Lightening Helix a potent spell. Basically you could usually consider the worst case scenario for walkers to involve the effective gaining of five or so life and this really helped with their floor. These days that effective life buffer is that much less common and reliable and is no longer something that helps raise the floor of the card. Shorter games has resulted in the best walkers on offer being ones that cane come down early and do a lot to control the game or those that have a really big effect immediately. Shorter games have lowered the floor of walkers and made their average performance that little bit closer to the floor. 

The last big contributing factor to the decline of walkers in cube is the increased frequency and potency of manlands and vehicles on offer. These types of card are especially effective against planeswalkers who struggle to protect against them with their sorcery speed creature control effects. Vehicles and manlands are also commonly played because threat diversity is generally useful, it is not simply because they counter walkers, if that was the case the meta would undulate back and forth. As it is we just have a lot of vehicles and manlands getting action and a consistently repressed planeswalker count to go with that. A bunch of the better vehicles and manlands are evasive further causing trouble for walkers. They also counter planeswalkers in one of the most oppressive ways - that is proactively. You just play your lands and so manlands are typically just ready to go by the time walkers are coming down. Vehicles, if not just cheap, do tend to be very well statted. And even if unable to be crewed at the time there is no guarantee that they will not be come the next attack. As such you are reticent to deploy a walker into a vehicle regardless. This all makes walkers really dodgy. Not quite dead card dodgy but that distinct vibe, just a card you can't afford to use as it will be too easily and efficiently answered by my opponent and leave me further behind. 

So, what walkers do still see play and what is it about them that sets them apart from the 80%+ of walkers that have become a liability over the space of about six or seven years? Power is absolutely the main factor but certainly not the only factor. Cards like Jace, TMS and Narset have plummeted in value in the cube while still being pretty strong legacy cards. While both are still fine in cube neither stand out at all from the crowd any more. They simply lack the board presence or control. Too lacking in tempo or robustness. Two loyalty and a bounce is dodgy to say the least! That kind of line is asking to get steamrolled. Beyond just raw power the planeswalkers that remain in cube are either those with high enough impact on few activations or those that are cheap and able to maintain strong board control. Here is the list of the 9 planeswalkers that stand out from the crowd in the current state of cube. 

1. Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes

This is a very silly magic card that was designed for a completely different format. It is still strong in commander where it has a wildly reduced activation frequency, way more opportunity to be attacked down, more life buffer and more opponents to contain it, and generally a lot beefier things to content with. Walkers are mostly not that good in EDH and this dude is. No shocker then that this is oppressive in 1v1 formats. We banned this very quickly. It was really hard to beat. Untap with it and win, often in more than one way should you chose. Even if they could answer it they still had the 4/4 kicking their head in which was often too much to handle. A lot of games were stalled by wasting removal on Boo so as to avoid it becoming a 7/7 or getting thrown at something. A really sad stall that rarely ever worked. This card was way waaay too much to the point of not being fun. Often played on turn three and either ending the game on the spot if unanswered or just leaving them well ahead at worst. This walker just entirely ignores the basic rule of walkers by being good on one activation and game winning on two. It feels a bit like it comes with a free personal Time Walk so as to skip that first turn where an opponent can answer a walker and not be behind having done so... It is cards like this that make me wish I had avoided product lines that skip standard. 

2. Oko, Thief of Crowns

Another walker that got itself banned in cube although it lasted a lot lot longer than Minsc and Boo did. While Oko was too good at the time of printing, and waaay too good for standard, it is probably no longer too good for cube. Absolutely it would still be one of the best cards in cube but that doesn't matter too much as it isn't coming back any time soon. The card is wildly unpopular, in part because it dominated formats for too long and left a bad taste that way, but mostly just because it plays in a really lame way. It just turns your stuff into vanilla 3/3s. You don't get to play with fun or powerful cards, they all get Elked. Oko just brings a selection of feels bad moments. Oko is the new Ashiok (who we banned long long ago back when it was oppressive and everyone hated it. Ashiok would be pretty rubbish now I think but we never even tried it out again as it was so hated). Oppressive cards are unpopular but feel bad ones are are unforgivable. 

3. Teferi, Time Raveller

This is a good example of an immediate high impact walker. Just Repulse off the bat is a sufficient effect to justify the three mana and anything from that point onwards is all just bonus upside. This does some annoying disruption and offers some convenience and trickery with the +1. If you can get more than one -3 activation with the card then it is obscene value and that is a thing that happens. A nice high floor and low cost with random savage hosing all keep little Tef incredibly playable. 

4. Grist, the Hunger Tide

Not a broken card but a nice playable one that does the things you want. Flop this on turn two or three and it has a good chance of keeping itself alive for the next few turns by which point it is starting to dominate the game. When Grist has free reign to sac off some insects it made to kill your bigger and better plays the game has probably slipped you by. It is one of those walkers that is cheap and offeres reasonable board control and as such gets to play somewhat like the planeswalkers of yesteryear. 

5. Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast

While better than Grist Daretti is a little narrower needing artifact support rather than dork support. It is a lot harder for Daretti to come down and be able to answer something right away and that is the only reason it is lower. Both are just good examples of cheap walkers with removal modes and the ability to clog up the board with tokens to block with. 

6. Nissa, Ascended Animist 

To the other end of the scale we have a card here that has immense immediate impact. The flexbility on casting is also a nice touch. However you chose to cast her the +1 represents a sizeable board presence. This means Nissa is a bit like Minsc and Boo in that it leaves two parts, both of which really need a solution. Overrun style ultimate that you can do right away and Disenchant effect all add to the impressive modality and threat level this surprising bomb has. While very similar to Minsc and Boo in play pattern the lack of haste on the tokens and the extra mana cost ensure Nissa is at least two turns slower and thus substantially fairer. And yet she still seems pretty obscene thus far in her relatively short span in the cube. 

7. Wandering Emperor

Flash is just the ticket on walkers. It all but ensures this is getting two activations and greatly increases the trickery potential and safety in deployment. While this planeswalker has some good modes the power level isn't through the roof, it is all just about how good the flash side of things are. Tokens are fine, they are proactive, they can protect or be buffed, and they do eventually represent a threat that can end a game. Exile removal is great but only on tapped creatures means you are really only getting one good use out of it. The +1 is reasonably unexciting and slow to gain loyalty and the starting count of three is low, especially for a modern four mana walker. This means that despite two strong minus loyalty abilities and a guarantee of two activations The Wandering Emporer is a little less threatening one in play and takes a bit longer to become game winning by herself. While she is fine with just two or three she certainly isn't winning the game consistently when she hits than three activation bar most walkers are held to. I expect it is more like five activations needed before Wandering Emperor is of game winning power. Even so, that safety and trickery is more than enough to make up for her slower pace there after. 

8. Chandra, Torch of Defiance

One of the last of the classic walkers still impressing in cube. Chandra has always been one of the most rounded of walkers offering direct damage threat, card advantage, mana, or removal. Basically all main avenues covered. The removal is expensive but relatively effective and meaty, and for that matter, something you can add to other effects should you need to. Chandra can be effectively a two mana play costing you little tempo or she can answer something quite big off the bat and have that high impact first turn, while also protecting herself. Being red is a big deal as well. Having that early board control lets you deploy Chandra with relative safety compared to the other colours. 

9. Vivian, Monsters Advocate

I fear the 3/3 reach more than I fear the elk of Oko. Vivian protects herself so well. Four loyalty and a 3/3 reach is a lot to chew through. One of the only walkers that is good against fliers, and basically the only one that is good against those pesky fliers than have haste or masquerade as land. Vivian also has a bit of a scaling effect in that if you lay her off curve with mana up you can play stuff off the top or indeed make instant use of the -2, all of which has the capacity to make for a very big impact turn. Lots of value, lots of safety, combining to assuredly overwhelm any game in which she isn't answered or somehow bypassed. I am always surprised by how well this holds up and performs in cube. It seems like it should be more average but so often runs away with games either through her resilience or through her surprising burst. She packs way more utility than most other walkers too with her tutoring element. 

So there we have it, a lot of very big names missed off this list. The old cube champion Elspeth Knight Errant and the traditional best walker Jace TMS both now mediocre at best. The black three mana Liliana cards all a little situational to be considered top tier any more. Wrenn and Six, Karn Scion or Urza, and Nissa Who Breaks the World are all bombs but all are also situational and require some degree of building around to reach their potential hence just missing this list. Yes, Turn two Wrenn and Six into their one toughness play with a Boseiju and a sac land is game winning. As is ramping out a Vernal Bloom Nissa and getting to play with double mana while they scramble to find the many answers they now need. Performance in cube is determined much more by the floor of a card than the ceiling. In constructed you can set things up such that ceilings of many more cards are a reality. No shocker then that the best constructed cards tend to be more about ceiling than floor. Karn, Wrenn and Six, and any other ceiling driven walker will underperform in cube. Not always to the point of being unplayable, just in relation to the card in constructed. Often people peg their expectations to their experiences of a card and when that comes from constructed, as it very often does with the higher rarity cards you find in cube, they come away unimpressed. Human bias being what it is will then tend to over compensate. Either shock that these clear bombs are not on the list or shock that they are even in the cube at all. The fairly dull reality is often just somewhere in the middle. Still good, still fine, but neither bomb-like or shocking. The main takeaway here is that some of the best nuggets of insight are to be found under the rocks of subverted expectation. 

Back to once mighty walkers that missed this list we have a recent star in Escaping Elspeth. She is still good but now white can draw cards it doesn't need the value side of things so much. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is likely the most surprising omission from the list. He is still solid but he is narrow in colours and hurting a bit from his primary archetype being pretty weak at present. Tef five fails to fully answer a thing at high cost and usually dies right away. Or he draws a card or two at some cost and then he or you die. Kaito three has felt more playable than a lot of powerful walkers and he is just a fancy little value tool and no bomb. 

The actual best walkers in terms of the play that they get in the cube are those that have dork modes such as Jace VP, Nicol Bolas (the Ravager), Tibalt of Valkie fame, and Nissa the Civic Wayfinder! Time to get testing battle Teferi! These are typically just cheaper and safer players. These are the remaining walkers I have in cube, many of these are filler or hanging on. I could easily trim this list of 5 to 10 Ob style cards and you would barely notice. 

Sunday, 21 May 2023

The decline of Thoughtseize and the curious effect of tempo on card value


A while ago, like 2016ish, I valued Thoughtseize only slightly less than I valued Force of Will as a pick in cube draft. For reference I value Force of Will over most other cards in most formats. I am a FoW fanboy, always have been and I still am. These days I barely play Thoughtseize in cube. The falloff that Thoughtseize, and other targetted hand disruption effects, have experienced is pretty extreme. Delving into why extreme changes occur is always revealing and so here we go!

As you would expect with any gradual changes in a complex meta or ecosystem there are multiple factors at play. The main ones I can isolate that correspond to a decline in the value of hand disruption are as follows. An increase in the opportunity cost of playing a one drop. An increase in the cost of tempo negative plays. An increase on the cost of consuming natural card resources. The last is the most complex an ethereal and so I may struggle a bit getting my point across. It is the main thing my title points to however I suspect it is the least significant of the three factors discussed here in terms of affecting change on the meta. It is also linked, like the first two points, to seemingly ever increasing tempo. As the first two points are pretty simple we shall begin with those.

Discard effects are tempo negative. They spend mana and do not affect the board at all. Yes, most of the good ones only cost one mana but that is still mana that could have been invested in fighting tempo. People are playing less card quality effects now too. A few years back every single Opt and Sleight of Hand was getting play and decks would happily play like six of these kinds of cards if given the opportunity. Now only the premium ones are getting the love and most builds are only packing a couple unless it is a key part of the deck synergy. It is much the same sort of tempo pressure affecting both sets of cards. In many ways blue card quality is the Ying to black discard's Yang. Both are card neutral, both typically cost one mana, the good ones at least! And Both provide information. The blue improve your card quality while the black reduce your opponents. Net mana and cards for both players are the same. 

The increased opportunity cost of playing a card like Thoughtseize simply relates to the increasing number of other good things there are to do with one mana. More playable removal spells, more dorks to deploy, that sort of thing. Indeed, the Triomes are so potent a thing to get setup they are often some of the best things to be doing with your first turn of mana. A huge draw to cards like Thoughtsieze back in the day was that they would be incredibly powerful while not getting in the way of other powerful cards in the deck. It was just like having free power, but that power is not quite so free any more. There is also the pressure from the opponent, they deploy a Ragavan or a mana dork and you probably want to use removal on it but if you do that then you are not using your discard on turn one and as such it is either going to really get in the way of a midgame curve play or sit in hand until properly dead. While most one mana spells drop in value as the game progresses discard effects suffer most. 

It is of course worth noting that hand disruption in cube is, and has always been worse than it is in constructed. In standard there are usually very few good playable one drops, fewer still able to represent as much power as Thoughtsieze. In formats like modern you are getting to unpick synergies , disrupt combos and all that jazz. Games are that much quicker and you are able to play a much higher % of your deck as discard and so it can be rather more of a plan and can scale with itself better rather than being a risk or huge liability late game. Inquisition of Kozilek and other cards with that style are naturally worse in formats with higher curves and cube is certainly still higher than modern and legacy. 

In part I wonder if part of the reason for the decline in black discard is that I am offering the wrong sorts. Duress and Inquisition hit less and less as things tend towards a midrange dork based slugfest! I think I need to revisit Harsh Scrutiny, Despise, and Dreams of Steel and Oil. The ability for these cards to take away the game winning later threats most commonly seen seems to have more present value than a card that has more overall coverage or more early game. This might help increase the overall play of these types of cards but it won't help Thoughtseize who remains kind of the pile. 

So, onto this last point. What am I talking about when I talk about natural cards? Simply, these are the cards you start with and the cards you draw each turn. The cards that cost you nothing to obtain. In an ideal setting you want to know roughly the number of turns a game is, we shall call this X. You then get 6 or 7 + X natural cards based on starting or not. The best tempo you can achieve is having X lands and spending all your mana and all your cards. If X is 4 then we will have 10.5 cards, of which we want 4 lands. That will give us 10 mana to spend on the remaining 6.5 cards. As such we would want the average cost of our non-land cards to be about 1.5 mana and we would want about 40% of our cards to be lands. This would give us the most possible tempo. Just dumping cards and mana into tempo as fast as we can with no time wasted on anything else. If X is 6 then we are looking more like 12.5 natural cards, ideally about six land. Just under half! We then have 21 mana to spend on 6.5 cards greatly upping the average mana cost we are looking for to over 3 per non-land card. It is all a lot tidier and less stretched for decks that operate quicker that is for sure. The longer you go the more you are going to need means of smoothing things out or drawing more so as to have the right balance of things. Those being things to do early, stuff to spend mana on late, and the lands at the right time so as to have maximum possible mana output.

It is incredibly easy to get cards or value in magic these days. All the colours have it and you can lean on cards like Mazemind Tome and Bankbuster for it as well. The thing is, all of it comes with tempo cost and opportunity cost. Even the mighty Treasure Cruise with Ancestral Recall levels of efficiency has to sit dead in hand while you fill up the bin. It still has that small tempo cost of one mana for no board based return. And it is very much the outlier. Some of the next best card advantage spells in terms of mana efficiency come in a lot worse in the tempo department, say Night's Whisper. There are a few cards that are typically both value and tempo, most of these can be more tempo if you are willing to sack off the value part as well. Bloodbraid Elf is usually a two for one with high tempo. It is just still usually less tempo than a Questing Best or an Eskia's Chariot. 

The point of all this is that it costs you to invest in effects that are not tempo and it costs you again to consume cards in doing so. You are not speeding up the game by using discard but you are cheaply consuming your own resources. Likely you are going to be needing to recuperate these card resources which in turn will incur further tempo cost. 

It is the poor scaling and high late game risk of discard that really pushes us over the edge on this issue. Drawing that late game discard spell that does nothing is devastating. Not just because it is essentially you being a card down but being a natural card down. You need to compensate for these risks in building and in turn that seems to be making decks a bit worse. The low cost low tempo side of hand disruption simply scales in the wrong direction with its effect of lengthening games. It makes the deck's mana and curve maths more awkward. It forces you into playing more low tempo cards, or risks you suffering bad draws, both of which can be fatal in this high tempo fast paced meta. 

Essentially my curious effect of tempo on the value of cards is in some ways the opposite of what you might expect. When tempo is king cards are worth less and when tempo is less important value is king. Or so you would expect. Upon closer inspection however you have to differentiate between cards you invest in getting and cards you get anyway. In a world where tempo is king investing in cards costs more. That makes those cards less valuable, the upshot of which is that the cards you are getting regardless are that much more valuable and need to be made the most of. This simply means you need your main deck to be full of high power cards that are unlikely to be dead, either through being too situational, too conditional, or too expensive. You need to make everything count, luxury cards, filler, and fluff are no longer really things you can afford much of. Increasingly I find my deck to be lands, threats, and answers to threats. Cube and booster draft continue to converge in feel which is no bad thing really. Decks might lack some of the exotic creativity of older cube formats but the quality of games is far better. 

Sunday, 14 May 2023

Aftermath Preliminary Review Part II


0 - unplayable in 40 card singleton

1 - effectively unplayable

2 - has low tier constructed decks it might go in

3 - has mid tier constructed decks it does go in

4 - pretty powerful stuff with several potential homes, able to perform well in lower powered cubes

5 - powerful stuff that is either just too narrow or has too many superior alternatives

6 - fringe cube worthy

7 - cube worthy

8 - cube staple

9 - unpowered cube bomb

10 - powered cube bomb 

Arni Metalbrow 2

Not useless but plenty of better options. Good EDH build around card but in cube this is hard to get value with. Arni by himself is just giving haste to things really, I guess bypassing countermagic somewhat too. Even with high cost dorks Arni is only ever offering mana savings and not card advantage. I guess the gimmick is to flop out some Myr Enforcer type card and cheat out a six drop. All very clever and not worth doing outside of commander.

Plargg and Nassari 3

Not as good in heads up play as it is in multiplayer. Slow and vulnerable is my main issue here. This will draw and play the worse of two cards each turn. That is a card and a couple of mana. Decent. New compleated Omnath decent. But still not good enough. 

Tazri, Stalwart Survivor 3

Another cool looking EDH build around card that is just a bit narrow for cube. 

Jirina, Dauntless General 3

Sure, this is great in a tribal humans deck and not elsewhere. 

Pia Nalaar, Consul of Revival 3

I like this one a lot. Easy to power up and lots of nice things it works with. Still however too narrow for most drafting cubes. 

Danitha, New Benalia's Light 3

I almost didn't bother reviewing this, only really a sense of OCD completion compelled me. Like so many new cards this is great in the places that want it and narrow enough to not be wanted much elsewhere. That, and the name was tediously long to copy. Turns out I am happier writing a paragraph complaining about something than I am copying out a couple of words... Oh, and the other thing I am saying a lot, specifically with this set, great looking EDH card. Basically this Aftermath set is just an EDH primer set. Hasbro experimenting with new and exotic ways to milk their fattest of cows - the commander community. 

Nashi, Moon's Legacy 5

I do rather like this one. Mostly for the ward. It is too many colours and a bit overly conditional to be a good cube card but there is something to this that I find appealing. 

Sigarda, Font of Blessings 6

Plenty of power here but I fear it is just not enough. Much as I want to be playing angels and humans I imagine that aspect of the card is netting you about a fifth of a card per cast. That in turn makes me prefer the likes of tame old Yasharn. I would rather guarantee two basics in hand than wait around for the wiff of playing an angel of a human. Yes, hexproof to my stuff is great but it doesn't protect the high value Sigarda while Yasharn actually can protect himself. This will just under perform in cube, the best thing about it will be the 4/4 flying body and that is not where I am at with my gold cards. I would still probably chose to play Shalai, Voice of Plenty over this in cube and I cut that long ago. 

Niv-Mizzet, Supreme 7

This is going to be pretty brutal in most cubes where colourless and gold answers to it will be in short supply. Just a flying hexproof 5/5 is winning a lot of games. The jump-start is cute but doesn't need to do much for this to be good. Sadly this is probably the wrong kind of good, I like cards to be interactive. If you support the mana and have a lot of five colour decks in your cube this is going to get play and results. Most cubes seem to be able to comfortably support five colour decks now with the full ten Triomes and with cards like Omnath kicking around they are pretty popular and powerful too. Whether you want to add this big True-Name Nemesis to that archetype it or not is another matter!

Nissa, Resurgent Animist 6

Big lotus cobra! Plucking elves and elementals out of the deck will be nice too, it should happen fairly often, lots of green dorks are elves and a couple of dorks in most colours are elementals. Good though this is it isn't really good enough. I would play Tireless Provisioner or just Lotus Cobra over this if I wanted mana. Llanowar Visionary if I wanted cards and mana. And like, a whole pile if cards if I am about the value. This Nissa just isn't quite powerful or reliable enough to be where it is at. Not good enough at any one role and not quite high enough raw power to ignore the previous shortcomings.  

Kiora, Sovereign of the Deep 2

Blah blah blah EDH. 

Sarkhan, Soul of Aflame 3

Blah blah blah mostly EDH. 

Samut, Vizier of Naktamun 6

If this draws you a card it is good. If it draws more than one it is great. If it draws removal from your opponent it is OK and the rest of the time it is likely bad. The keywords are a lot but they are paired with mediocre stats. I think the average cards drawn from this per cast will be close to 1 but assuredly below it. That means this isn't likely to be cube worthy despite being close. 

Ob Nixilus, Captive Kingpin 6

Big powerful body with fairly impressive effects. The effects are however ones that really need supporting and that could well result in this being too narrow. If you play this and get no triggers it is pretty rubbish. This is situational and top end payoff for an archetype that really doesn't lack for those things at all. I am pretty sure I would be paying Falkenrath Aristocrat over this in my aristocrat builds.

Tyvar the Bellicose 1

Expensive and a bit aimless. Yes, this can go all sorts of wild with the likes of Priest of Titania but there are far better ways one can win when you have an active Priest in elves... This might appeal in 100 card elf decks but it isn't getting a look in at 40 card lists. The card isn't bad or anything, nice big statline and some deathtouch. It is just always going to have a long list of superior options regardless of the task at hand. Cards want to either be narrow synergy bombs or generic all round power houses. Having a bit of narrow synergy scaling and a solid high power level just tends to mean the card will miss out on both potential homes rather than appealing in multiple places. 

Calix, Guided by Fate 3

All a bit wishy washy. This can line up to do powerful things but it can be a bit of a do nothing Grey Ogre. Enchantment decks, like aristocrat decks, do not want for payoff, what they want is support cards. Technically this is a bit of both and it is fun so it should get some play. Just manage ones expectations with this gimp.  

Narset, Enlightened Exile 4

Fine card. Some perks, some value. Mostly this is a 3 colour 4 drop value card that needs to attack to be said value. That rules it out two or three times over. And yet it is still pretty clearly a very powerful card. You could put it in cubes and it would not seem out of place, 

Nahiri, Forged in Fury 2

You can do some cool builds that drop the cost of this very quickly. Sadly the payoff then offered isn't really all that impressive. You might as well reduce down some Myr Enforcer and do so with better cards... I'll certainly play this in the right deck but it feels like that will be a 100 card one and not a 40 card one. 

Karn, Legacy Reforged 2

Um, so, prolly another EDH card. Tolarian Academy trigger is great even if only colourless. Having to pony up the 5 mana first and have your dork survive the turn cycle however is less enticing.