Monday, 20 March 2023

Flash, Ward, Haste


Flash, ward, haste sounds a lot like "hands, face, space" - an old UK government anti covid spread mantra. It is however seemingly the advice I would give regarding threats in cube. Your Baneslayers rather than your Mulldrifter cards at least. If you are getting enough value out of the EtB effect from your play then this doesn't apply anywhere near as significantly. Sure, these things still improve a card that is mostly about the EtB, especially flash, but a top end Baneslayer like threat without one of haste, ward, or flash, is a bit of a non-starter in cube these days. Not at least without some other form of security that isn't ward, such as the recursion on The Scarab God and that sort of thing. Flash, ward, and haste all in fact help a creature with a "when this attacks" trigger to have it act much more like an EtB trigger.

Why creatures with these three keywords are so much inherently better than those without all comes down to the risk inherent in a big mana play. If you invest five mana in a Baneslayer Angel and they answer it with a standard two, or even three mana removal spell then you are significantly down in mana. Your big power play is gone and trying to deploy it put you behind. All in all, pretty devastating. Obviously big EtB effects mitigate this by providing some instant return on investment and thus reducing the blowout potential of answers. Proper 4 to 6 mana game ending threats in midrange cube however tend not to have much in the way of EtB effects. It is simply hard to design cards where both the body and the EtB effect are wanted simultaneously and still have the effects worth the mana. I want my 5 drops to be able to win me the game so if I am getting 3 or so mana worth out of the EtB trigger then my remaining couple of manas worth of dork is hardly likely to be much of a threat!

Back in the day a lot of the better threats had on death triggers that would help to protect against removal but such things are unreliable these days with vast swathes of exile quality removal in most colours. Either it needs to be a leaves play effect or it needs to be a small part of an otherwise playable card. Too much investment in an on death effect is asking for trouble. 

Protection effects have always been powerful, as have flash, and haste. There just wasn't that much of it and you had to pay a lot for it. This meant that it was not common to find these things on many sufficiently powerful top end threats. Now that we have plenty of options to chose from between lots of sufficiently playable and powerful cards we can afford to be picky. When being picky it becomes clear that cards with certain mechanics rise to the top, and so here we are discussing those most buoyant of mechanics. 

Haste is pretty clear cut. It lets the dork do what the dork is supposed to do. It does that quicker and while also being harder to stop, on at least that first hit. Haste is just than mini personal Time Walk for that dork that really helps up the tempo, value, and surprise factor. Glorybringer without haste would be powerful still but it would be a lot worse, being slow removal and giving a big opportunity to respond. I doubt it would be in the cube without that haste but with it the card is one of the very best creatures. 

Flash functions a lot like haste in that they will need instant speed interaction to stop it for that first attack and it has a good surprise factor. In tempo terms flash is worse than haste but in interactive terms it is a lot better. Flash allows you to deploy these cards very safely and it also allows you to impose the fear of open mana on the opponent. This will often make them take softer lines so that they are not devastated by your potential Settle the Wreckage or Mystic Confluence etc. The more reactive your deck is with answers and instants the better flash is relative to haste. Conversely the more aggressive and proactive your deck the more haste is the place to be. Both are great. Both add a lot to the party in terms of answering walkers or upsetting your opponent's plan for the game. They do not scale with each other very well but that is of no matter, you only need one to elevate good dorks to great ones!

Flash and haste have always been good. No shock there. Ward however is newer and the power and application of the ability was not as well understood by me. Obviously it is a perk, a kind of soft hexproof. Ward is good on any card but it does have very interesting scaling, in part because ward can come as a life cost, a mana tax, or a card cost. Each of these finds itself better suited to certain strategy and card types, and might as well be a different mechanic in terms of what it is doing for the card. On the big threats I wish to keep in play I am most into the mana tax costs, especially in decks with spell disruption. Iymrith is arguably blues best threat at present because it is so hard to shift. Sticky reliable dorks that allow you to build game plans around are great and ward is a relatively cheap way of helping your cards to be as such. Hexproof and indestructible are so powerful and tedious to play against that including them on most 4-7 mana cards comes at too much of a cost and the rest of the card is typically unimpressive or overly restrictive. Ward however costs less to deploy and leaves enough space to have a really meaty dork for the mana cost as well. Ward mimics the protective effects of hexproof or protection without costing the earth, sucking in terms of game play, and being a bit random. Ward as a mana cost ensures you are not going to get blown out in terms of tempo for making your big play and that is the main risk of those big plays. As such it makes such things a lot more accessible which is exactly what we are looking for in this kind of design space. Ward plays well in an interactive way and opens up the design space of the game. 

Ward as a life cost or card cost play into the tempo and value elements of the game. They make cards better suited to their task or more rounded. Ward as a card cost taxes value and means that if they want to get a tempo swing on you by killing your threat it is going to cost them in value. You used to want a lot of your midrange cards to have an EtB value generation effect so that you could keep up the value pressure. Card discard ward is a bit like the opposite of an EtB card draw. It gives you the same kind of security but very much from the opposite side of things. Mostly what it lets you do is have a card much more about the body than the EtB effect but with the same sort of insurance policy. Again, more design space opened and more ability to make creatures that are creatures 1st and not really just spells with a tagged on body. 

Lastly we just have the ward as a life cost. This Makes cards more threatening and punishing. It makes threats better threats. They are always doing something towards their goal unless mass removal is used on them. It is akin to haste in the way that "ward - discard a card" is akin to EtB draw a card. A life cost ward dork with haste and "ward - pay life roughly equal to its power" is a kind of super haste we have only seen before in the likes of unglued! 

Life payment ward is the least interesting of the wards as it is a bit more linear but it is none the less a fine ability to be able to tune a card with. It will add a nice dynamic to the game, naturally people will shy away from lines that pay life if they can avoid it. This kind of card is interesting because of the choices and lines imposed. This is one instance when the old adage of "giving your opponents a choice is always bad" is incorrect. The reason for that is because in this case the way we don't give our opponents a choice is with hexproof and as discussed, that is worse for the game overall. Hexproof is more powerful but power is not what we want, it is good games. Ward gives you the things you want from hexproof without making the game worse, a happy medium between protection and interactive gameplay.  

Mostly this essay is just an ode to ward and what a great new mechanic it is. I have disguised it as good advice on what you want your meatier threats to be doing but somehow instead I seem to have just harped on about how ward is getting me going. I am always just delighted when such a great new thing can be added into the game despite it being so old. Scry impressed me about 10 years in, menace impressed me whenever that showed up. All those food, clues, treasures, and the like showed up about five years ago and were a big old boost to the game and design space. Ward is just the latest of what I hope continues to be impressive innovation.   

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

A Retrospective Look at Good 40k Cards in Cube


Primaris Eliminator 8.5

Power wise this dork is just fine, at best being either an over cost Chupacabra or (one sided) Infest. Neither mode sounds over powered but nn practice the card is just a bit too good in a midrange cube setting. It is always useful and almost always a 2 for 1 with tempo gains. Even if it is just killing a two drop you are probably about even on tempo and up on cards. What makes this card egregious is how swingy and powerful the modal sweeper is. If you clear their board, even partially, that swing is often unrecoverable. That is fine when it is on clunkier situational cards like Wrath of God but when it is on an otherwise strong and playable card it is a problem. A Wrath you expect to some extent and can play around it. Equally a Wrath can only be played in some deck types. Eliminator is the kind of card you just play anywhere. It is never bad and it comes with a healthy does of free wins. It is just one of those cards that is really really well suited to performing well in cube. I do not love the design as you cannot really afford to play around it, black has so many potentially blow out pseudo mass removal cards from Massacre Girl to Finale to Extinction Event that trying to play around them without some specific information on the matter is overly detrimental. This all results in somewhat swingy gameplay. Oh, you had the card, guess I lose then. Not the way I love to play magic. This is just a bit too all round, you need some downside on cards or deck building gets dull and things start to look samey with a pile of auto include cards and bombs facing off against each other. 

Necron Deathmark 7.5

This is very similar to the Prismari Eliminator. It trades the utility of having spot or mass removal for just being a very powerful 187 dork. Impressive statline assures significant tempo swings regardless of what it hits. Unrestricted targetting assures the card is always useful. Flash is what pushes it over the edge, it gives you a low risk reactive tool that still affords tempo and card advantage. There is no real downside here. The closest I can come to naming one is that it is five mana and as such you can sit with it dead in hand for a while, perhaps even lose the game before it is online. You can only have so many top end cards and you need reach (the capacity to end the game, not the ability to block fliers) on them. This is not a bomb as such but I am pretty much always playing this. It is so rounded and convenient. Even the mill is pretty powerful and offers good utility. It can threaten to deck your opponent in a long game or more usually just fuel up and dig for your various escape and other recursive cards.  

Ultramarines Honour Guard 7.5

These have impressed me a lot more than I was expecting them too. Celestial Crusader has not impressed in cube and so I imagined this to follow a similar path given its lower floor. Honour Guard is a little more playable buffing non-white dorks as well but losing flash, split second, and flying is massive cost that I did not expect squad to make up for. Turns out I was incredibly wrong and squad, especially squad on this badboy is a total game changer. Sure, you can play this on four and just have an immediately relevant play that your opponent probably needs to answer. It is not the most efficient anthem but it is suitable. At six and eight mana however Honour Guard gets very out of hand. A pair of 3/3s and a Dictate of Heliod sounds like a very good deal. Game swinging power. And of course the triple 4/4! These are not as uncommon as you might think as you can plan with and hold back Honour Guard. If you need a little boost to get you over the line then flop it down on four. If you need it to utterly dominate the game so as to have enough raw power to overcome your opponent then you slow roll it and do other stuff while you build up your mana. Honour Guard won me a lot of games. It is really a top end threat card with a lot of reach but it is also a versatile card that can be relevant in the game a lot sooner than other cards with comparable threat, power and reach. I am not in love with the card as it is a little swingy. The squad cards have a habit of dominating games and ruining the long ones somewhat. They scale just a little too well with time. 

Royal Warden  6

While not an under-achiever this is certainly one of the few cards in this set I overrated initially. While still a solid card things have moved away from just bodies in play being the be all and end all. This is just stats. It is a lot of them and they are nicely and usefully spread across many bodies. It is just vanilla beyond that. You need some other cards that are scaling up with that to really make that exciting. Given that Grave Titan recently got culled you can see why this dork is living on the edge. It feels like a support card, like a Lazotep Reaver or Seasoned Pyromancer but also a five drop. It doesn't offer reach and in a world where mass removal, plenty of it one sided, can be found in abundance and in most archetypes, not all that much value either. It is a bit expensive for an aggressive deck and the tokens coming in tapped stops it being as good for board stabilizing in the slower lists. Warden has a place but it is a long way of an exciting or powerful card. I am sure I will cut it for space reasons soon. It is absolutely one of the best tools in black for doing what this does, but that sort of thing is going out of fashion fast, or at least beyond two in the mana curve...

Old One Eye 8.5

This is a pretty foolish magic card. It would be contained in other colours by being a six drop but in green you see this on all sorts of unreasonable turns before 6, too often turn 4. It is effectively a Grave Titan and a Scarab God all in one with some ever so handy evasion thrown in for all and sundry. This has the grind of the God, the big board presence from the Titan, and then the trample just ensures that the game is going to end rather than stall. This ticks all the main boxes you want from a threat; power, reach, value, security. Obviously on turn six this is still a great card but it just has a higher ceiling thanks to the colour. You need to answer this fast and you really need to exile it else it is going to kill you, just later. And if you want to try and race this you better have a big old head start and some evasive dorks of your own as Old One Eye is pacey and hard to get past. Giving out trample to all your other dorks will often be a game ending swing in its own right, often green will have the biggest board overall but will be unable to sensibly attack due to chumps and swing backs and gang-blocks. Trample puts an end to most of that, and the pair of massive blockers helps too. Unless they have haste, in which case it is game over sooner and in a different sort of way! This is that scary marriage of high power and spot on suitability that ensures it will be a staple to all those wishing to travel with their cubes to universes beyond! Old One Eye has significantly improved the value of cards than generate value in the form of lands and cards that self mill, say Life from the Loam on both accounts. These dig you into finding Old One Eye and then help fuel the recursion costs. Much as this is a cool card I am a little resentful as it is arguably just too good. Cards without downside take a lot of the interesting choices away from drafting and building while also just reducing variation. 

Sporocyst 6

Three mana for a ramp card is a hard sell, especially in green. I was thinking that the times you dumped this for 5 or 7 mana would make it enticing enough to get over essentially being a three drop ramp spell but it kind of doesn't. It means you draw too much ramp or your ramp too late. It doesn't often line up in such a way that this as a five or seven drop does anything all that exciting for you. Defender is also not ideal in your dorks reducing the value of this as a body. So yeah, cool card with some flexibility that just isn't powerful enough where you need it to be or useful enough elsewhere. 

Termagant Swarm 5

This hasn't as yet found it's place in cube. People seem to like it but they do not seem to play it. It doesn't have that high tempo punch I want from my costlier cards at one end of things. At the other end of things green just isn't commonly seen in the aristocrat style decks that are just after bodies. At six mana and above this is a cute contained little Hydriod Krasis. Nice and rounded being card neutral, nice and fat, and a little bit sticky. Either they need to kill it twice or use premium removal on it. A good value sort of thing but not very threatening. A sort of Thragtusk kind of fail. Versatility is helpful but this is just kind of unexciting for a variety of different reasons at all points up the curve and so that versatility is a bit lost. In a world where green has a strong sac theme this is an amazing tool. In my cube this is found wanting. 

Chaos Defiler 8.5

This is one of those cards that the rules brake a bit for when in a 1v1 situation. It is just a super Ashen Rider. It is spot removal 1v1 and spot removal that doesn't have to target at that. This comes down, kills their best thing, and is then a big scary threat that is hard and uncomfortable to answer. This is disruption, tempo, and a three for one. It is these things quite reliably and as such it is a bit of an egregious magic card! Given that Ashen Rider gets some action while costing three mana more and offers very little to really demonstrate much more than a mana's worth over Defiler.... Sure, flying beats trample. Sure, exile is probably better than untargetted destroy, but it is certainly not directly better and it is a lot less unique. And yes, we have a whole extra toughness on Archon. But Archon could just cost 1BBWW and not 4BBWW and the colour intensity alone would make it seem awfully comparable to Defiler. So yeah, stupid card that costs stupidly too little for 1v1 play. Really swingy and unfun in much the same way that Fractured Identity isn't all that fun in cube. I will say that I have had a lot of games where Defiler only kills one relevant thing, like that is the norm between funky answers and only having a target when it comes in and none when it dies. It is also often a bit clunky and slow against really quick or wide aggro decks, and fairly easy to play around as control. It is the midrange decks that just fold to this and that is good at present with them dominating my meta but also kind of weak in that this card is super polar. 

Biophagus 7

Much as I thought this was going to be oppressive it is turning out to be just fine. Yes, if you drop this and curve a few aggressive dorks after it the tempo is pretty nutty, especially if there is any scaling going on with those counters. In reality however Biophagus eats a lot of removal and when not the mana is often used on none creature things. There is also a fair amount of the counter not mattering much. A 3/3 Oracle of Mul Daya is still not getting into combat very often. A 5/5 Questing Beast is still either killing you or dying to a Doom Blade. The common 2/2 mana dork still every bit as useless on turn five. This card looks good and does have a high ceiling but in practice it is probably just worse than the survivability of Paradise Druid. There is a reasonable argument for other two drop mana dorks being better than this too although Druid is the best of the creatures at two. Even when Biophagus is going super smoothly it isn't as good as a Joraga Treespeaker or even a Devoted Druid most of the time. That second mana is a lot lot more valuable than the counters. Extra toughness is nice but not nice enough. This is certainly a cube worthy card, and a desirable one if you have a counters theme but it is certainly not the bomb it looks. 

Thunderhawk Gunship 8

Another one of these spot on finisher cards. This is 10/10 in stats over three bodies. It has board control, value, tempo, and a whole lot of reach. This is fairly hard to answer all in one go and will do a good job of killing you if you don't answer it at all, or indeed, simply stop you from killing them. Just nothing bad to say about this card. It is rounded, reliable, effective and powerful. It isn't utterly egregious, you can answer it, it is a six drop, you do expect those to win games. This can be raced. Occasionally Power level wise this is fine, good even. It is the general suitability I am against, this is just a card I am going to play over most alternatives most of the time and that is going to become less than enjoyable with some speed I suspect. As a six drop I don't often play it in my more aggressive decks and it is not a great control card as you are giving flying to little and relying a little too hard on a pair of 2/2 tokens to crew. Also, tapping down six mana at sorcery speed in control for this is a horseshit thing to do. So being a midrange card will help to keep this from being absolutely everywhere but then again, being colourless undoes a bunch of that work. 

Helbrute 4

This is fairly medium by cube standards now which is mental as this would have been a complete bomb in the format until at least Amonkhet. This hits reasonably hard and fast and can just keep coming. Lack of any evasion and being quite a big chunky investment keep this out of contention as a premium threat but the card is still perfectly playable. 

Triarch Praetorian 7

A cute little Mulldrifter of a card where you kind of get both parts. A cheap little flyer on the front end that is just useful to have around and has a low cost to include in your deck. Then later on you can cash it in from the bin for a couple of cards and a couple of damage all round! Not super powerful but really well on theme. Proactive board development early and a gas providing mana sink late game, all wrapped up with some nice self mill and discard synergy. This is fine filler in a lot of decks just at that but the Praetorian has a few cute synergies that help it move from OK in many decks to good in some. Lurrus lets you play this for 2 mana and still get the cards, and it lets you do this repeatedly. Lots of cards let you recur small dorks from the bin in a cost effective way and this is very much one of the best you can pair with those effects. This is a synergy and support card at heart but it is very playable just by itself and has a fairly wide range of things it pairs nicely with. It is certainly one of the fairer and more interesting cards from the set. 

Sicarian Infiltrator 8

While a long way from a bomb this card is a super Muldrifter. At three mana it is better as it is far less of a tempo hit, yes, a card is better than a 1/2 but one of each is generally better than two of one. At five mana it is better as you are getting 2/4 in stats and two bodies. At seven or more mana it is easy to see why Muldrifer isn't keeping up. Yes, Muldrifter flies but this has flash which is likely better in blue, even if not directly better. I find I simply never want to leave this out of my list. It is just such a low cost and risk inclusion with amazing scaling. The perfect filler card. Early this helps you hit your land drops and curve out while taking the sting out of opponents pressure. Late game is it just huge value. It is a card you are happy sitting on in hand as it ages very nicely however you are equally happy tossing it out as soon as you have nothing else to do. I have found a lot of games that were close stop being so when a squad load of these show up! The flash is what pushes this over the edge. It would be playable filler without it, there would be a real cost to playing it, and cards like Sea Gate Oracle would look like significantly preferable at three. With the flash the card not only avoids getting in the way of other cards like countermagic but also does a good job as a surprise blocker and typically gets more value than Oracle ever does in combat. This is really the perfect filler card.   

Night Scythe 7.5

While a long way from the most powerful card released in this set this little vehicle remains my favourite. It is a real hit on balance, simplicity, utility, playability, and power. Many of the best vehicles now come with crew which makes sense. The issue with things like Esika's Chariot is that it is oppressively good. Night Scythe gives you all that nice low risk vehicle quality without ruining the game! Scythe is great on defence and offense requiring two removal spells to fully clear, and potentially swinging for five the turn after deployment. Toss some flying onto half of that and the whole package really starts to impress. This is not the highest tempo play you can make but in pure board presence terms it is one of the safest tempo plays. There are plenty of three drop value dorks you can play to gain tempo safely but that is a general safety where by if the dork is removed you still got your card or whatever. Llanowar Visionary springs to mind. Night Scythe however somewhat assures you will still have some tempo out of the play and that is the way it is low risk. This all makes it a really good midrange tool that can keep aggression at bay while still being a useful and meaty use of your three mana. 

Shadow in the Warp and Pink Horror are cards I have not picked up and played with yet and so do not want to do a preliminary style review of them here. Shadow looks a little narrow but also tediously good. Horror seems much cooler but a little bit costly and gold for where my cube is at. 

So there we have it, the cards that seem viable for most drafting cubes. As ever there are a selection of cards that are interesting from a build around and constructed perspective only that I didn't bother too look at here. Given the size of the set there is an impressively high quantity of cards I think are playable in limited cube. While the power level is high and there are a couple of really interesting cards I dislike the design philosophy in general. The cards are simply too convenient. When there is no downside to a card it takes away your choices and makes the game less good. This is why Negate is a "better" card than Actual Counterspell! Certainly it isn't more powerful but it is a whole lot more interesting. Much as I like the look of this set and have found plenty of cube worthy powerful spells I can still see myself cutting them from cube eventually just because I am sick of seeing the same things over and over again. That is the problem when powerful and generic meet. 

Saturday, 25 February 2023

Card Scaling up the Mana Curve


Fundamentally there are two relevant resources in magic, that of mana and cards. Life is certainly a resource of sorts and many cards allow you to spend it like the others but without those cards life is more the objective than a resource, you are spending your cards and mana so as to take away all of the opponents life. With that in mind we can structure our thinking and evalutation of cards in terms of cost in mana and in terms of cost in cards. Obviously most cards cost "one cards worth of card" to play! As such it makes rather more sense to consider power in terms relating to cost rather than to the card but you cannot ignore the card cost of cards altogether as we shall see. 

The cost of a magic card determines how powerful you expect it to be. The more expensive it is the more powerful it is, fairly simple stuff. There are however several factors that scale differently which affect the power per mana one can expect from a card. The first is the simpler idea of power per card. It would be nice if we could just convert the power one might expect from what a card actually does per mana and see if it adds up and compares to other cards with other similar effects. This would only work in a very boring and linear game. Magic is much more dynamic and so our power per mana scales with a couple of things as the mana cost changes. This means we cannot expect a simple clean relationship up and down the curve of what returns we will get for our mana. A 4 mana card is not twice as good as a two mana one etc. This can make card evaluation not so intuitive.

Power per card scales up the more expensive card gets. To reflect this the power per mana we get goes down. If we take a simple Shock to be the going rate, the balanced benchmark, for both power per mana and card, i.e. 2 damage per 1 mana and 1 card, then why is Lightening Blast a four mana spell and not a two mana spell? Several things go into this. A notable one is simply that Lightning Blast is rather less good of a card than Shock! The main factor however is that power per card. Purely on power per mana the Lightning Blast should cost 2 however both only cost the player one card. To attain four damage the player using Shocks will need to spend another card. Thus, to properly cost up a Lightning Blast you have to pay for the fact that you kind of drew a card over the going rate. Two mana is a not unreasonable rate to cost a card draw at and so the four mana price tag of Lightning Blast seems more reasonable and why the likes of Char have been deemed as good in their time. 

There is the coloured mana cost to consider. If Lightning Blast was 2RR to play, or even just RR then you would have a totally dead card until you found a second source of red mana. This is not the case with the pair of Shocks. Yes, certainly you still couldn't kill a 4/4 with a pair of Shocks and a single red source but direct damage is just a small part of it. Perhaps we are talking dorks or card draw or something else where splitting it up does stop it working. Essentially a double of mana cost in colour intensity alone reduces the ability to play the card. We are really just considering total mana costs in this essay although I am sure the reader can appreciate how and why the colour intensity is used as another way to balance cards along this scale. It is worth noting here that the most colour intense cards are typically the cheaper ones with the likes of Counterspell functionally being more colour intense than Cryptic Command. 

Just working with total mana let us examine the relationship between power and card cost a bitm ore closely. Lets call power P and mana cost C and the cost of drawing a card to be D then down to just the factor of power per card we can arbitrarily say that when C = P a card is appropriately balanced. Then as we look at more powerful iterations of that card we can assume it retains card to power balance if it lines up with the following progression sequence. Obviously I find it most useful defining C and P with a one drop which is ideal for this aspect of scaling but a little more awkward when we start to consider coverage - which is our other scaling factor.

C = P  

2C = 2P + D

3C = 3P + 2D


As a designer as you increase the power (P) of the card you have to increase the mana cost at a higher rate to account for the increasing value of D, which in this case is representing the pseudo gain in card value as you play more expensive powerful spells over cheaper less powerful ones. Failure to do so would result in things like three mana spells dealing six damage!

So just in terms of power per mana and power per card we should expect to see our power per mana at a maximum on cheapest cards and slowly decrease as you increase in mana cost up the curve. Luckily the other scaling factor works in reverse and leads to an interesting (and changeable) curve of expected power per mana as you move along the mana curve. I have chosen to call this other scaling factor coverage although mostly that is because playability means something else in the magic world. 

There are several factors contained within coverage and none are mathematically clean making it all a bit of an approximation. It is also a factor that is determined a lot by the meta and so a card with a low coverage in modern might have a much higher one in standard and be a lot more powerful as a result. 

There are a couple of factors contributing to coverage which are more related to convenience and risk. Looking back at out Lightning Blast compared to Shock example there are a few in-game things that are not direct relationships about our assumptions. Two Shocks is a lot better than the Blast and a card draw if you are facing a pair of 2/2 dorks. Equally, my opponent only needs one Blue Elemental Blast to counter my Lightning Blast while they would need two in order to answer my Shocks. This is not always relevant as if the Shocks are being used to kill a 4 toughness dork then the single Counterspell will get the job done but the principle does generally hold true that the more power you imbue in a card the more easily answered the power of that card becomes. You up your risk by upping your power per card while often lowering your convenience. 

The main factor in coverage is that convenience I just mentioned. It is simply reducing your ability to play a card early or even at all when you increase your mana cost. A one drop can be played effectively on any turn of the game. A four drop however has to wait until turn four in most cases before it can join the fray. That is three turns of utility lost where the one drop can help and the four drop is a dead card. The higher the mana cost of a card the higher the % of a game it will spend as a dead card in hand offering no utility or options. As this is so meta and context dependant it does not affect cards smoothly as you move up the curve. There is a mana cost in basically all formats that is too much, the meta is too fast and the cards at that price simply do not get enough of a look in to be sufficiently relevant in power level. A card could literally say "you win the game" and it would be unplayable at certain high costs in various metas outside of being something you can cheat the cost on. 

The scaling on coverage is fairly severe as well. Each mana cost is more cost than the last. The difference in cost between a 2 drop and a 3 drop on the one hand and a three drop and a four drop on the other would appear to be the same - one, or one turns worth if you will. In practice however the difference between the three and the four drop is the greater difference. This is the case despite being a relatively smaller increase, going from 2 to 3 is a 50% increase while 3 to 4 is only a 33% jump and yet the 33% always feels like more in game, and for good reason. For basically all decks (for the pedants decks with absurd land counts can bypass this but they are not relevant to this discussion) each subsequent land drop becomes less likely to come on curve than the last. A better way to look at this is the average number of turns taken to reach each point on the curve. It takes a little over three turns to hit three to account for those occasional games you miss on your third land drop. For a lot of cube decks a fourth land is most likely to arrive on turn five. You really want to consider the cost of your card in these terms rather than the printed mana value. You might feel like a 6 drop costs twice that of a 3 drop but in reality a five drop is going to be closer to double the three drop in terms of turns taken to becomes playable. 

You also need to consider expected game length as this turns to get to X mana is also all based on the premise that the game goes on infinite turns which is entirely untrue! If you are dead on turn 5 you are never getting to six mana. The game ends, often quickly. This means that the higher up the curve a card gets the higher the risk of it never becoming playable in a game is. This is obviously a total disaster, a hinderance of a card. The more powerful the format the faster they tend to be and so the cost of cards you can afford to play at all comes down. Unless I am running heavy ramp or control elements in my cube decks these days I do not include cards over five mana, often capping out at four. This is almost entirely for the reason discussed here - I do not want to be lumbered with a card that offers me nothing all game and thus essentially costs me a card. 

There is also all that opportunity cost that is significant with playing more expensive cards. As mentioned, a one drop can be played from turn one. It can also be played most easily alongside other cards. Cheaper cards help you be more mana efficient and curve more smoothly. Rarely is a curve one drop, two drop, three drop, four drop. Often you will not have a good on curve play and in those cases having more cheaper cards really helps, certainly in the early game when mana is the limiting factor and not cards. Cheap cards fill in unused mana around off curve cards or allow you to play double cheap spell instead of curve spell. This is great for mana efficiency and thus tempo. It is also massive for option density. This means that not only do expensive cards have a coverage disadvantage but that cheaper ones have an increased one. Coverage falls of sharply as you go up the curve, far quicker than power is gained through pseudo card gain. 

The coverage of these expensive cards is extremely low, with many games not reaching that point at all. These cards are often the most powerful in the game in terms of power per mana as well, even compared to one drops. The D in our equation has become somewhat negligible compared to the lack of coverage and so really top end cards can be balanced such that they have quite immense power, both nominally as you would expect but also per mana. So power per mana is highest at the extremes of the curve, with one drops and their low nominal power compensated with high power per mana, and very high mana cost cards compensated for their low coverage with high power. The cards in the middle have to pay the highest tax on their pseudo card value elements and this causes their power per mana to suffer. 

The best decks are those than manage to strike a good balance between maximising overall power within a deck and power per mana, without compromising their coverage (i.e. not just running top end). This is a kind of technical and long winded way of saying the player who spends the most mana wins. If your deck is all top end you deploy nothing, waste your early mana and lose. If you deck is all low end you cast everything too quickly and don't have enough actual power. You build a curve not just so that you spend your mana efficiently and thus deploy as much power as you are able to but also because having a curve of cards helps you maximize your power per mana and nominal power. So, there we have it. The factors that allow for an interesting progression of power per mana as you go up the curve. Hopefully also an explanation as to why there is such a wavy and varied line of scaling with magic card costs that is hard to pin down and hard to evaluate. 

Saturday, 18 February 2023

Phyrexia All Will Be One Commander Preliminary Review


I normally do these command reviews before I get the conclusion and additions article done for each corresponding set but got a bit behind this time. As such, based on the grading you can assume this is what I will be doing with the cards in regards my cube. 

>7 adding

5-7 testing

<5 constructed uses only

Synthesis Pod 0

Lots of fun to be had here. Potentially some abuses with affinity cards and other cost reducing effects that let you cheat on CMC. Even so, this can't really be a good cube card. You are essentially paying to turn your spell into a random spell. Paying more to get less is a losing strategy. Unless you know the makeup of your opponents deck this is near impossible to abuse reliably. I can't see this in a competitive 1v1 deck. Commander however, weeeeeeeeeee!

Monumental Corruption 2

Powerful card draw or finisher as required. Very easy to get out a massive number of artifacts in a constructed deck built to do so. Less easy to have five mana spare while doing such things however. Mostly this is just a clunky card. The power in the artifact synergies is just so high that you rarely ever see a non-artifact card this expensive in those kinds of builds. Why pay five to hit them for one for each artifact when you can likely have just the same effect with a one mana Disciple of the Vault. 

Chiss-Goria, Forge Tyrant 2

Immense power here but again a little problematic. This is a big artifact payoff card that is high up the curve and non-artifact. Also very heavy on the coloured mana making it a bit harder to include. Even so, if you are paying RRR for a 5/4 haste and then getting a free artifact cast from your deck with decent selection then you are getting a lot of card! It does exile five at a time so this is not a great midrange grindy tool but then what card with affinity for artifacts is? Narrow but with great power.

Vulshock Factory 0

Neat idea but you need to want a mana rock bad enough to play a three drop one to want this, and not only do you not want that in cube, this isn't even high up the que for three drop mana rocks meaning you would need a lot of them. I am doubtful this is even getting that much love in commander.

Roar of Resistance 6

Bit of a do nothing sort of card sometimes but very cheap and scary. Bone Splitters all round is scaling powerfully and still useful with just a single dork. Tokens getting haste is a little conditional but probably not that far off giving non-token dorks haste! Many of the good red dorks already have haste and there are quite a lot of tokens kicking about. I fear this card is a little bit win more. Like, when you have several dorks and can just batter your opponent a couple of times with big chump attacks. Power wise this is absolutely worth a test but I am not sure if it will get enough play being neither a direct threat or removal. I am not sure that it will play all that well either. Sure, sometimes it will give some really interesting options and a long ongoing grindy game but mostly I suspect it will end people in short order or do nothing. 

Hexplate Wallbreaker 6

So this is a 5 mana 4/4 that gets to double combat if it swings. If the dork part is answered then for a mere four mana it can buff any other dork into a double combat dude as well as a +2/+2 boost. Is this better than Dragon Wing Glider? Power wise I would say yes but in practical terns I am going with no. Wallbreaker seems like overkill and that extra power comes with a speed reduction. By themselves they both attack for 8 over the turn you make them and the following but Glider does so with evasion and does four of it right away. I don't see the cube wanting both of these cards and Glider just seems like it is getting it done more reliably. Wallbreaker is a bit more different so if they are close enough I may play it instead for a bit. 

Goldwarden's Gambit 1

Quite the combo kill potential card. You can fire this off very quickly if you want to pack a list full of cheap equips. You can one shot people with this and the previous Hexplate Wallbreaker. This is a lot of card and a unique one at that but it is beyond narrow. Build around constructed only and likely not even viable to do so in singleton in any sort of competitive guise, not as the main plan at any rate. 

Staff of the Storey Teller 8

This is great. It is somewhere between a Thraben Inspector and an Inspiring Overseer (one of the most played one drops in cube and one of the best booster draft cards of all time so off to a good start). You get a useful 1/1 flying body for a nice bargain two mana. Then, or at a later you date you get to draw a card for just a single mana. Amazing. That alone is enough for cube. It might not work with flicker effects for dorks but I am not so bothered by that. Absolutely I will take that minor hit for all the other perks this toy comes with. What tips this over the edge is being able to draw a card there after each time you make creature tokens. Making token dorks in white is run of the mill. Everything does it. Drawing cards is not. And doing so for one mana, and not even having to spend that mana at the time of token generation, is a total bargain. If you make this on turn two of a game that you don't just utterly overrun I can easily see it drawing an average of three cards. This will win a lot of games. It will do so in a very slow and subtle way but make no mistake at the raw power of this little stick. 

Glimmer Lens 7

Here we have another white means to draw cards. This is fairly poor by itself but offers a proactive play that doesn't harm your tempo, which at least keeps the floor of the card higher than some. Then, all you need to pair with it is another attacker to become good, which is fairly easy to achieve in white and lines up with the strategy of any deck looking to play this card. One drop dork, Glimmer Lens, turn three attack and draw is a reasonable and powerful line that sets you up nicely. You also get to happily chump attack thanks to keeping the equipment. This is fairly cheap ongoing value when you are ahead, and can usually let you cash in low value dorks for card draw even when you are behind. This is a card with a lot of options. It has a high ceiling and a high floor without acting quickly enough to be broken or abused. All round fairly nice clean card. Really helping Stoneforge Mystic to have a wealth of targets too. 

Clever Concealment 2

A riff on Teferi's Protection. Likely better against most mass removal but the inability to protect the player (or your lands) as well makes this worse overall. Not that it matters all that much to me is this is an EDH card not a cube one. This isn't unplayable by any means, just not the sort of card I look to include, more of a solution sideboard sort of card. It is cute protection in an aggressive deck rife with vigilance! 

Otharri, Suns' Glory 8

Well this is absolutely one of those insane power cards. This kind of ticks all the boxes you want from a top end threat, most of them in more than one way which is remarkably impressive. That box ticking exercise is more important for cube than actual power and so I expect that Otharri and it's bucket loads of both power and suitability to be a bit of a bomb. So what are these boxes that Otharri ticks? Otharri acts immediately thanks to the haste and does some work to stabilize thanks to the production of tokens and lifelink. Otharri productes value in the form of the tokens but also in the threat of then recurring from the bin. The card offers a whole lot of reach as well being an evasive dork and a recursive dork. The card offers some "having access to a threat" security in the recursion as well. I can see a nice safe Mutavault getting this back often and feeling utterly unreasonable in doing so! As far as closing the game out Otharri is brutally fast as well, smacking for five on hit one, nine on the second, and seventeen on the third assuming all the rebels survive and connect. Super Rabblemaster! Even when the rebels are getting slaughtered in blocking there is no real racing this card over more than a couple of turns, it needs a proper answer. While I have no bad words to say about this it still a reasonably fair cube card thanks to being not just gold but Boros gold - one of the less played combinations. It is also a card you can answer with most things. All you have to do is take out the first rebel which can be done in combat pretty easily, and then find a way to handle a three toughness dork before it can attack again. You need a good blocker and a removal spell, two removal spells, or a mass removal spell. Equally a good exile spot removal spell will answer it as well. Even so I generally think the Otharri player is going to be feeling ahead most of the times it is properly answered. It will generally be a Lightning Helix to the face or a planewalker as well as a 2/2, for no card cost and probably only a couple of mana at worst. Even if the 2/2 is a chump attacker it ties down a blocker. This is probably about as good and rounded as you can make a card before it gets oppressive. With a Mutavault this does however start to feel pretty oppressive! 

Neyali, Sun's Vanguard 3

Lovely top end threat attacking on the board and with card value if you have tokens to attack with. Too narrow for drafting cube being all of a Hill Giant without support but something I would absolutely look at for an Intangible Virtue deck. Even as far as a splash. 


Glistening Sphere 1

Proliferate on a mana rock with some scaling. Obviously a constructed card only for several reasons but I am not sure this is even quite there for that. It is just too slow for either proliferate or poison decks. The cool Dice Factory decks are those that seem best suited to this what with wanting both proliferate and mana rocks but it is a long way less impressive than another Astral Cornucopia or Everflowing Challice would be! Mostly this just seems like a great EDH card for a selection of different strategies that this supports. 

The rest of the poison cards are just not getting a look in for cube, poison decks are low to the ground so even though there is plenty of power in the cards there is not the suitability to go with it. It is all the Boros colours that are gaining from this set of commander decks, the white half of the Boros most. Some very strong cards in their own right but also some very interesting new toys to play with in both tokens and equipment decks. 

Friday, 17 February 2023

Everything is Midrange Now

When I first started to describe my cube as a midrange cube I did so to distinguish it from a combo cube, or at least a cube that contained the ability to draft combo decks. I cut all the combo archetypes out of my cube a while back as I felt it drafted and played better with my rock / paper / scissors dynamic being aggro / control / midrange rather than aggro / control / combo. I hold to this being the case however my cube does now just seem to produce differing types of midrange deck. 

Basically the threats are too powerful, slippery, and diverse for the more pure control decks to handle. This means you don't really see control decks that are just answers, control, and card advantage with a few ways to win any more. Control decks have lots of answers but they pack way more threats than ever before. They have to be more proactive or they are just going to die to some random threat they cannot answer and as such they are. Draw go is not a thing really any more. Control doesn't just pass with mana up for long anyway, sooner than not a big scary thing is going to hit the deck and start to pose questions all of its own. Batterskulls, Scarab Gods, Iymriths. Even smaller things too like Monastery Mentor or Sveyalun can really put wind up a deck not poised to handle such things well.  

At the other end of the spectrum there just isn't any reason to go all in. There is so much in the way of value to be found on high tempo cards that you no longer have to chose between tempo or value, you can have both. An all in aggro deck will easily fold to the wrong card. An Ophiomancer when there is no removal, an Arc Trail, whatever it is. The small gains you get from going as all in as possible do not make up for the games you simply can't win when you randomly then walk into the wrong thing. You can still be plenty aggressive while running cards that scale into the late game, be that a Dragon's Rage Channeler, a Recruitment Officer, a Ranger Class, an Evolved Sleeper etc. Aggressive decks are now just low curve midrange decks that can apply a lot of tempo pressure and can reliably continue to do that for all of most games and most of the rest, typically they have more reachy cards at lower costs as well but this is more technical a description than we need! This is also why control decks need more of their own threats, the aggro decks keep coming so you need to put them down before you run out of gas! 

So that is that, how I would define aggro and control decks doesn't really apply to how those things now look in my cube any more. Essentially it is all just semantics and it is easier to call the "midrange" decks I am building now aggro, midrange, and control. It shows how definitions need to change with the times to stay relevant. It is a good thing too that my cube is basically all just midrange decks as they give the best and fairest games with the most option rich drafts. Yes, there is a degree of it being a bit more homogenous and samey than older cubes and combo cubes but that is a trade off I am willing to make for the higher calibre of game. 

Sunday, 12 February 2023

Fixed and Restricted Cubes


There are many reasons to want to fix and/or restricted your cube. Hasbro themselves have advised that players skip any sets and releases that they do not feel are for them, and with the rate of release we are at that is very good advice. Beyond there being too many cards you may want to fix or restrict your cube to try and evoke the feel of a certain period of time. You may want to do it so as to reduce the cost of building a cube. It may be for time reasons and not wanting to spend as much or even any time on maintaining your cube. It may simply be to try something different out. 

There are three main ways I have seen cubes fixed or limited. The first is card based (rather than time based) and has the most potential variation. There is no real hard and fast line between this and what you might just call cube design. I have seen and/or built ones that omit colours, ones that are a select range of CMC, those that are entirely gold focused, those that are entirely artifact focused, those that are based on cards monetary value or card rarity, tribal ones etc. I have even started to see cubes restricted to planes, or at least a Ravnica sets only cube. I am sure a Mirrodin one will come soon and there after whenever we visit a place for the third time. These various and infinite options allow for the most creativity and variation in cubes. You can really put your own stamp on a format by restricting the cards it in some way. This is by far the biggest group and this is the last I will mention it in this article as typically each different way of doing things merits an article to itself, indeed I have a couple of these in the pipelines myself! 

The second two are both just time based restrictions. A from-then-till-now idea and a from-then-till-then idea. From-then-till-now is typically done with allowed cards from formats like modern or pioneer or even just standard. It is a good way to lower costs in building a cube and a great way to get started. It is also a good way to become familiar with a card pool. Modern legal cubes are great, they just have a good range and power level while remaining pretty balanced. Pioneer cubes do have quite a different feel with minimal redundancy and undersubscribed low end support. They are none the less a fun experience that have a lot of perks and conveniences. One of the best way to start a cube is just to take one of each of your best cards from your own collection and use that as your starting point. This, particularly for newer players, often winds up inadvertently looking a lot like a from-then-till-now type of cube. If you wanted to maintain cohesion as you expand and add to your cube you could simply go back a release at a time chronologically. That way when asked you can say it is a from whichever set till now cube and people will know well what to expect. 

If from-then-till-now cubes are good starting places for cubes the from-then-till-then ones are more like retirement cubes. A from-then-till-then cube is typically just cards from the pre-modern time period. They used to be fairly uncommon but I have heard increasing murmurs of people doing them or wanting to, and with far more varied time ranges. This I fear is a sign of the times. People can't keep up, or have had enough, or simply yearn for a time when they remember loving the game more. As such they want an end date. The critically different thing about a from-then-till-then restriction is that it locks the card pool in place. It means you need not worry about new releases, replacing or getting new cards. Your cube remains relevant and upto date regardless of what any lunatic companies might do! Obviously most from-then-till-then cubes start where magic stats with Alpha in 1993 but I can certainly good argument for other periods as well.   

Due to this increased demand for card pool locked formats I am going to list off the various good or obvious options for "from alpha till" periods and appraise them each in turn. You can usually lop off Legends/Revised and earlier if you want to cull the really foolish power cards without having bans instead of just starting at Alpha. If you are planning on going to some of the later sets you can lop off the pre-modern stuff and not lose all that much. I can very much see the appeal of a modern till Kaladesh or a Modern until Theros or something and why one might do a locked cube in that sort of midrange period. A way to capture a period of magic they had most nostalgia for etc. I can also see a good argument for lopping off Urza's block and earlier in much the same way as Legends/Revised. This will reduce costs a lot, remove a lot of the most egregious and over powered cards, and yet still have quite and old school feeling. Mostly the from then till then cubes are going to just go from alpha and ban/cut things they don't want to bother with. Here is my take on distinct periods and their perks. 

Old School (93/94)

Ill advised sadly. If you want to play with cards this old exclusively cube is not the way to do so. Certainly not singleton at least. There simply isn't a deep enough card pool nor enough real cohesion between cards and plans to make this much of a format. It is going to be a case of culling the absolutely unplayable stuff from what you have rather than building a cube. Not only is your cube going to play pretty horribly, it is going to cost the earth! 

Pre Urzas (-98)

For those that want that real old card nostaligia of 93/94 and want to avoid some of the more cartoony later sets of the pre-modern era I would advise going to the end of Tempest block. You get enough cards to be playing with, all be it a very small cube, that does feel aesthetically different from the pre-modern stuff and much closer to the old school style. It is the most natural of break points as far as within the pre-modern period goes. This will still be a clunky and restrictive cube but it will look lovely, play OK, and importantly look and feel like playing Magic from way back in the day. 

Pre-Modern (Alpha through Onslaught block in 2003)

A nice clear break point where the cards change border. I have a lot of experience with this type of cube as it is when I first got into cubing, first built mine, and consequently did an absolute boat load of cubing! It was technically Mirrodin and not Onslaught where my cube adventure kicked off but it is fairly easy to appreciate how that environment would look without the Mirrodin cards. Your cube will likely be rather more combo and control with both midrange and aggressive strategies not really having the tools to fight off the other strategies very well. They do exist in this format and can be quite fun but they are a bit more needy on the likes of Tanglewire to compete and are often a bit tier two! Comically goblins tribal was the best beatdown strategy you could draft! Generally a good fun format and the best way to maximize that old border look if that is what you are going for. Cube at this time certainly had that whacky, anything can happen, sort of vibe. Lots of power but not quite so much cohesion. You just played cards because they were good, not because they were all that well suited to your plan! 

Pre-Walkers (upto Lorwyn in 2007 )

A lot of people really don't like planeswalkers or how they play. You can obviously just do cubes without them although you are increasingly reminded of their absence in the wording of newer cards. To avoid this you want to be stopping your cube by Lorwyn which is actually still very much a pre-modern feeling cube and dominated by those cards and strategies. It is nice to have some more capable creatures in the pool from the last four years worth of card and those first four modern legal sets did bring some very cool cards to play with. For the most part this is a better format than a purely pre-modern one from a play perspective if not an aesthetic one. It is also rather better than any for quite some years to come as planeswalkers had far too few answers for too long and dominated the cube environment in an undesirable way. That is the case for powered cubes at least. Any game where fast mana got out a half decent planeswalker before the other player had anything relevant on the board was invariably game over. That meant all the fast mana kind of had to go and so it was around this time that cube morphed from a rock paper scissors dynamic from being between aggro, combo, and control, to more of an aggro, control, and midrange situation. If you like combo stop here or sooner. If you like midrange go for later than this point. Obviously you can use design to force whatever you want in cube but if you let your cube evolve more naturally you will find this is around the tipping point.   


I really struggle to see any obvious or sensible break point from Lorwyn all the way to 2015 beyond some personal sentiment you may have. Magic was very consistent through this period and while some sets were better than others I think that both Tarkir block and Origins were great sets and brought some lovely tools to cube. It would be a shame to leave them out and they do a lovely job of seeing off the period of consistency. I can see an argument for not including Origins in this cube but I absolutely would as I like the set so much. This 2015 era is a point I feel as if Magic started to steer away from the consistent course it had followed closely for so many years previous. With those people that I have discussed this fixed cube idea with this 2015 period seemed to resonate. It seems like it gave a huge depth of cards, cube was healthy and fun, and diverse and the balance was decent. It was very easy to get to this point and ignore all the sillyness. You can skip commander cards if you like here and that lets things be a lot cleaner too. I can absolutely see this as being a pretty optimal to fix a cube while retaining a great overview of the game and a wealth of cards and history. For those that dislike the current  situation in magic but still want as much untarnished magic as possible this is probably starting to be your sort of ballpark.

Upto Kaladesh

This was another strong suggestion from those interested in a 2015 era end point, for those wanting to cut and run before the magic journey started to get bumpy! Kaladesh marks two points, firstly it is where power creep starts to gather more pace. Not the sprint of post War of the Spark but not quite the gentle meander previously seen. Each set from here on in starts to have more impact that those before until things get a bit silly. Kaladesh is a more obvious start point as it is when vehicles are introduced but they are quite a nice new card type that plays pretty well. I have no real problem going a good way beyond Kaladesh until the power creep gets messy. This is cube after all. There is always going to be some oppressive cards and Scarab God, Glorybringer, Smuggler's Copter are set to be that for you if this is your end point. Seems like a pretty reasonable upper power level to me but each to their own. I quite like the way vehicles play. Indeed, there is a much greater adoption of things like clues and treasure from this point onwards and that opens up some really interesting and important design space in the game.  

War of the Spark

This is really the last port of call to remain sane. This is the point at which power creep really took off. You can include War or not as you chose, there are some nice cards from there and not too many utterly bonkers ones. It is the following sets Modern Horizons and Throne of Eldraine where the ball for sensible design is dropped and each set is riddled with bombs so powerful they are oppressive in cube. If you want a fixed cube I don't see why you would want to go beyond this point for now. Absolutely next time magic makes a change of direction another good cut off point will be created. Due to how much power the last few years brought there is likely a bit of catch up needed at this new, higher power level so as to get a few more competitive options. You will be getting a bit bored of the same old modern horizons cards otherwise... There is some degree of finality about the Phyrexian story arc ongoing at present. I understood it is five sets, of which the freshly out Phyrexia, All will become One is the third? Assuming so, there could be an argument for wrapping it up there if near now is an end point that appeals. Symbolically if nothing else!