Friday, 24 April 2015

Top Card Quality Cards

My recent article comparing Demonic to Impulse got me thinking all about card quality spells and so it is time to do the top X list for those effects in cube. This list contains a significant proportion of the hardest cards in MtG to play well. Card quality gives you many more options that your average card and typically costs little. A lot of dorks give you no options when you make them and from then on they may give a couple a turn, to attack or not to attack. A Counterspell will sit in your hand and give you two options every time they cast a spell and you have mana up which might sound like a lot of options over the course of a game but I'll bet the average, particularly for the non free counterspells like Force of Will, is less than that of a simple card like Serum Visions. You can do seven different things with a Ponder right away. It is 24 ways to do things from an Impulse should the ordering at the bottom be relevant and still 4 if not. Brainstorm is literally in the 100s of options if you have a full hand. Not only do these cheap cards give you stupid numbers of option they also require you to be able to identify correctly what you need now and what you need in the future. You need to be able to foresee the direction of the game. I threw a game recently when I took an Island instead of a Cascade Bluffs with an Impulse. I just needed a land and didn't think it through and then several turns later I was unable to cast a Dig Through Time and lost. Card quality is powerful because it lets you sculpt the direction of the game whilst reducing the randomness you are subject to suffer. It is typically cheap so that you are able to easily cast it without overly hurting your tempo and it is also usually card neutral so that you are not paying any other costs. One of the easiest and purest ways to consider card quality is in the options per mana they provide. Index would be one of the best at 120 options per mana but it costs you a card and therefore compares poorly overall. While options is relevant it is still more of a tie-breaker when compared to card returns, nominal costs and speed. Even then it is not always that simple, the cube being a meta all of its own is better suited to certain effects than others. Another concept that is useful for comparing and analysing card advantage is that of specific or general card quality. Specific card quality is where you are getting one card that you want or the best odds on finding that card. General card quality is the improvement of multiple upcoming draws. General card quality will help you hit land  and curve drops, stop you flooding improve the consistency of your game, it is much more about filter mechanics like scrying to the bottom or discarding things. Specific card quality is routed more in the depth you dig into your library and includes various tutor effects. Both specific and general card quality are useful but you want them in different situations and decks. Being able to work out which it is you are after and therefore which kind of card quality spells are for you is much easier than it sounds. One final note before we move onto the best card quality cards in cube. There are plenty of things that have incidental card quality effects on them, many of those cards are more played than those on this list. This list is exclusively for cards you play solely because of their card quality abilities. I will mention those other duel purpose cards once we are done here.

Brainstorm1.   Brainstorm

No real surprises here. Everyone loves a Brainstorm and knows its power. As stated before, it is one of the most options per mana you can get from a card. With a full hand it is off the charts and even with an empty one you have six ways of doing things. It is instant, it is card neutral, it is cheap as chips and it is one of the most abusable card quality effects. It is one of very few cards in magic which let you transfer cards from hand to the library which has a vast array of good applications too. Combine it with a shuffle effect and you have even more card quality. Brainstorm gives you far more momentum in your options than the alternatives as well. You get three brand new cards, potentially all in your hand and all able to be used right away. Most other card quality effects give you one new card right away and/or afford quality of draws in subsequent turns but Brainstorm offers its action right away. A word of warning however. The best card quality spell this might be but it is also the card I see misused most. This is unsurprising as it is so complicated and full of options but it is still very noticeable. So many people blow it as soon as they can which is usually wrong. Because of the immediacy of Brainstorm as well as the benefits of combining it with cards like sac lands it is usually correct to hold onto a Brainstorm until you need to use it. The turn you need to dig for that answer or land. I also see people playing Brainstorm in decks where alternatives would be better. Unless you have lots of shuffle or a particular synergy with the Brainstorm such as miracles you are usually better off with a more self contained effect. You can't often keep one land hands with Brainstorm because without shuffle you will be doomed to drawing the non lands cards you put back. I frequently find I play Opt over Brainstorm in simple control decks. Brainstorm is a little bit of immediate general and specific card quality but without something to combine it with that quality is lost over the course of the next two draws. Most of the alternatives on this list offer better general or better specific card quality and so you really need to know what it is you are trying to do with this kind of spell so as to play the most effective in your deck. Brainstorm is for abuses, synergy and very specific roles, without these just play Opts, Tutors and Preordains.

Sensei's Divining Top2.   Sensei's Divining Top

Another unsurprising card at the top end of the list the Divining Top is a known powerhouse. It suffers many of the same faults as Brainstorm in that is is often over complicated and can sometimes do basically nothing. Should you not have other ways to manipulate the library it is far harder to milk any advantage out of Divining Top. That is about the only criticism I have of the card, that and it is boring to play against because it takes so damn long to do it properly. The card is cheap, a great mana sink, near unkillable, offers ongoing card quality and is able to do so for any colour. It offers a wide array of synergies simply by being a cheap artifact. It is weaker at smoothing out your curve as it doesn't really filter cards without shuffle and despite being cheap it is still twice as much to lay and use a Top than it is to Preordain. Top more than makes up for this by being an ongoing source of card quality. It is the best card to combine with miracles as you can both set up the miracle and then draw it in your opponents turn for no extra mana. The same warning applies that unless you have synergy or abuses you should be playing something simpler and ultimately more effective.

Temple of Enlightenment3.   Scry Lands (The Temples)

Subtle but amazing. Going Island Opt is much the same as making a scry land. Unless you want to leave up mana and are mono coloured the scry land is unequivocally better. It gives two colours of mana next turn and gives you the scry with one extra card in hands worth of information so that you can make a better call. Scry lands do kind of force you into using them as they are also your land drop but mostly that is best because you want your card quality early. The really amazing thing about scry lands is that they offer every colour a little bit of card quality. Not long ago you pretty much had to be blue for those cheap convenient card quality effects but now you just throw in some temples and your deck is that much smoother for it. They have made non-blue midrange and control decks that much easier to build. The blue ones didn't get any worse for them either! I consider these to still qualify for the list despite the fact they are clearly getting used most as lands that tap for mana. The point is that you play these instead of other lands that are usually better duals or even basics simply for the scry. To my mind that is the same as playing something only for its card quality offerings. Going turn one scry land is one of the best openers in cube these days, short of a Goblin Guide level one drop, it is what you want to be doing. The ongoing effect of that early bit of filtering is immense and has made magic a significantly better game as a result.

Lat-Nam's Legacy4.   Lat-Nam's Legacy

The poor mans Brainstorm but at least it has a built in shuffle and is therefore a self contained piece of general card quality. Compared to Brainstorm it gives you the cards slower, costs twice as much and it one less new card in hand and one less old card shuffled away. This is a lot to pay for a built in shuffle but due to the power of putting cards in hand back in the library the Legacy sees a vast amount of play and remains one of the best card quality cube cards. If you play it how it reads you can also make it a draw two when you have no cards in hand. It has some added utility at evading discard effects. Instant is fantastic and on the pricier card quality spells (yes, two is pricey for card quality!) is that much more important. Lat-Nam's is more the kind of card you play when you have specific uses than it is one you play to smooth out your early draw. It is better at getting you out of a screw than Top or a Brainstorm but it is painfully slow to do so compared with something more humble like a Preordain. If you have a card that is key to your plan but something you want to use late and need to protect early such as an Elixir of Immortality then Lat-Nam's is a great call. It is almost an auto include in any deck with miracles as it makes you much less susceptible to mulligans. The more shuffle away effects you have the more you are able to keep hands containing miracles.

Impulse5.   Impulse

Another undervalued card and one I go in to far more depth about in the previous article. It is cheap enough given that it is instant and does an awful lot. It digs deeper than most card quality while affording a lot more ongoing information than the others as well. It also does this without the risk of clogging up your upcoming draws with things you don't want which a lot of the effects can lead to (Brainstorm, Ponder, Scroll Rack or any misplayed scry!). If you are after a specific thing this is better than most due to how deep it digs and if you are just after a land then it gives very good odds there too. It is one of the highest all rounders in terms of giving good specific and general card quality. Having three known cards on the bottom of your library is less immediately powerful than some scry or reordering at the top but it offers far more ongoing information. Impulse scales brilliantly with smaller libraries in all ways too hence being so extra good in cube. In any sort of control deck I would much prefer a two mana instant card quality spell than a one mana sorcery speed one. Leaving mana open is that much more important and you will have some tap lands you need room to get down. It is not like you can keep one land hands in control decks anyway.

Opt6.   Opt

About as low impact as you can get from a card quality card, let alone a spell in general! Opt is very minor but it is also entirely self contained and very painless to play indeed. Essentially it is Preordain with half the scry power in exchange for being instant. Earlier I compared it with the scry lands and that is likely the closest both in effect and power but the role you play the cards in is somewhat different. Opt you cast at your leisure and at the low cost of one mana it should barely ever be detrimental or even noticeable on your curve which is much more so the case with the slightly more potent sorcery alternatives that get in the way of things more. You play a scry land when you can afford a minor tempo hit in exchange for greater consistency. It is almost always occupying the slot of a land. Opt however cycles so has much more the effect of reducing the overall size of your deck. This subtly changes the balances of things in your deck and lets you more accurately hone the land count to exactly what you want. Most control decks want somewhere between 17 and 18 however you cant play half a land. What you can do is play cards like opt so that 17 lands in 39 cards looks a lot more like 17 and bit lands in 40 cards. This can be achieved with any low cost instant cycle card at the small cost of having less initial information. You occasioanlly have to mulligan hands containing Opt or Gitaxian Probe which you might not have had to if you knew what the card you were going to draw was. The pay off with Opt unlike most other cheap instant cycle cards is that you get to scry and therefore usually wind up with more information on average. You will still get the awkward starting hand mulligan choices but overall the Opt will sort you out. Opt lets you balance your deck, like other cheap cycle cards, while also increasing consistency like scry lands do, yet affords you more flexibility and options as to how and when you use it than basically any of the alternatives. I mentioned I play it over Brainstorm often and this is because it is self contained, I don't need to hold it to milk the potential from it, as soon as I have a spare mana at the end of your turn I can fire it off and it will be about as good as it gets. Opt also being such a cheap and painless card to play has a lot of good interactions with prowess style effects and can be employed like a combat trick. As you might have guessed, I really love Opt, I love how it is so minor in effect yet still such a versatile and exciting card.

Faithless Looting7. Faithless Looting

Like Vampiric Tutor this red card quality spell costs you a card. Red, being one of the most starved colours for card quality, often sucks this up. Sadly also being one of the weaker card advantage colours as well it cannot use it as much as it would like to. Faithless Looting is a card with many strings to its bow and is used in a wide array of places and roles as a result. First and foremost it scales brilliantly with any graveyard effect cards. The more you have of these or the more your deck is based on such a theme the more powerful Faithless Looting is. Even just a couple of flashback, unearth or recursion cards contained within a red deck wins can push Faithless Looting from a consideration to an auto include. Draw two discard two is a good chunk of immediate action as well as card quality. It is not that far off a Brainstorm and keeps you hitting new things in subsequent draws should you not have that shuffle effect handy. As a one hit one mana card quality spell it is impressively self contained while giving a lot of effect and options. It is the card you most want when you are flooding and usually a card you are wanting should you be suffering a screw. It gives you a much greater scope when building with it. Searing Blaze is one of the best burn spells in magic yet in some formats I am reluctant to run it because it is that little bit more situational than typical burn and can be a dead card. Having a Faithless Looting in my deck makes me that much happier to run the more powerful situational cards like Blaze. Flashback is immense on the card, it means you can dig as deep as an Impulse while drawing four cards. It makes Looting scale well with other discard effects as well as any prowess style triggers you might have. I have had games where I used looting on turn one or two to dig for lands and then flashed it back late game to turn excess lands back into spells. Looting is good enough that you can pretty legitimately play it in any deck but it becomes really quite something when it is in those decks most full of synergies. Easily capable of outperforming Brainstorm. It is the most rounded and the highest offering of general card quality while up there with Impulse on the specific front as well. The price for all this lovely power is costing you a card and this must be forefront in your mind when considering building with it.

Vampiric Tutor8.   Vampiric Tutor

Any card for one mana and at instant speed. Vamp is the best one shot card quality spell in magic, the price you pay is losing a card and two life. It is a surprisingly fair card overall. Some decks can afford the price more easily and some decks want the effect more, judging when you have the right amount of both aspects surrounding the card will determine how good it is for you. When you are all about speed you can more easily afford to sac life and cards for the right things. When you are more midrange and have a lot of redundancy then perhaps the vamp is not for you. You can go full circle so to speak and end up with a midrange deck that is so clunky yet so powerful you need a Vamp to even it out and the power of your cards makes up for the card loss. Something like a Necropotence typically refills you in aggressive decks and is a common target for a Vampiric. With a decline in combo and more options for aggro decks Vampiric Tutor has seen a drop in use but remains easier to include than Demonic Tutor. It is as good for specific card quality but is substantially better for general card quality. You don't really want to use it in this capacity but that doesn't mean you aren't going to have to. I have gone on to win more games where I Vamped for a land than those in which I Demonic for one.

Demonic Tutor9.   Demonic Tutor

No life loss or card loss however twice the mana cost and at sorcery speed make Demonic a different sort of uncomfortable to Vampiric. You want card quality to get in the way of your ideal curve as little as possible. Demonic is almost too good! While it is still a bargain for what it does you do not need it to do as much as it does. Preordain will find you that land or bit of action almost as reliably and that is the majority of what you want card quality for. As such it is only when you need specific things for your deck to function, either you are light on answers or are revolving around some sort of engine or synergy that you become happier paying two mana in your turn to get a card you want. A very powerful card that is seeing less and less play with greater tempo and redundancy in the cube. Demonic is also just a single cards worth of quality, something like a Serum Visions or the Top can set you up with more ongoing quality. Cards are so good that adding two mana to the cost of any in an unpowered cube make them pretty awful. Preordain is cheaper and spreads its cost over more cards and therefore is much less painful on the power to mana ratio of the cards in your deck than a Demonic. There are however lots of ways to slightly improve your card quality, there are very few ways to directly get a specific card. For general card quality Demonic is not all that yet it retains a high rating because it can allow for more unusual decks and very specific card quality.

Sylvan Library10.   Sylvan Library

The original Divining Top, not as versatile as the little artifact but also has some advantages over it. Both are cheap permanents that allow you to effectively reorder the top three cards of your library in an ongoing capacity. Both scale very well with shuffle and scry effects and offer greatly more card quality as a result. Both also afford great synergy with all things top of library based such as miracles, Courser of kruphix, Devler of Secrets, Domri Rade etc. Library is easier to kill, only available in green and slower to come down than Divining Top. It also only triggers once on every one of your turns unlike Top which you can use as much as you have mana for. One use per turn is the most efficient way to obtain a high level of card quality and so the fact that you have to pay no mana to use Library is an advantage overall. Not many cards on this list can be used to generate card advantage, you have to combine Top with a card like Voltaic Key for it to do so or ignore oracle text for Lat-Nam's to situationally do so. A bunch of the cards here are not even card neutral and will cost you a card to play. Sylvan Library however has a built in mechanism whereby you can use it for card advantage as well as card quality or you can let it cost you a card and just use it for quality. It does not have to be around for many turns before it has given you more options than Brainstorm! Four life is a lot to pay for a card but the choice is entirely yours, often life is pretty irrelevant and so it is just free goodies. There are also a bunch of very playable cards that afford big life returns which you can then pour into a Library. Every time you pay 4 life the next time Library activates it will be giving you more information and better card quality than it otherwise would much like having a shuffle effect. Library therefore interacts fairly well with itself. For general card quality, utility and synergy Library is quite significantly better than Demonic Tutor but it is even slower and clunkier to get online. At least green is burstier and able to take those tempo hits far more easily than black.

Serum Visions11. Serum Visions

I class Ponder, Preordain and Serum Visions very much in the same bracket. They all are incredibly similar and while they have their individual strengths and places I will fairly happily play any of these in place of another if I just want a bit of cheap card quality. There are no real abuses that you can do with these cards, they will always cost you a mana in your turn, always replace themselves with a new card and should improve the quality of that card and/or the next few. Typically Serum Visions is regarded as the worst of the three being the only one not banned in modern. Slight of Hand is also in this bracket but is a more noticeable step down in potency. Slight of Hand sees only two cards and gives only two options. Ponder has the most potential for power but can only really achieve this in combination with other cards, much like Brainstorm. Preordain and Serum Visions are a nice balance of being able to afford lots options and information while also remaining self contained and easy to max the power potential. Preordain offers you better quality for the cards you actually get into your hand as well as more immediate action. This makes it better in the late game as well as better at getting you out of screws. Preordain is the most powerful all rounder you can throw into any old deck and have it be good. The reason I have Serum Visions ever so slightly higher is that it is still very very close to Preordain in general all round power, it typically gives more overall information as well (if you keep at least one card from a Preordain scry you see one less card overall than you do with Serum Visions or Ponder), but most of all it is becuase Serum Visions affords you the best synergy with top of library effects. While typically still worse than Top and Brainstorm for miracles, Delver of Secrets and the likes Serum Visions is quite a lot more use than Preordain at setting such things up. This list is heavily influenced by the amount I play cards and how much I see them played, I certainly find I play Serum Visions more than Ponder and Preordain. It is the nicest balance between self contained card quality and top of deck manipulation of the three.

Preordain12. Preordain

Lovely little card, see two or three cards, draw one you want now and more likely one you want next turn. It is self contained and is kinder on preventing you clogging up your hand with cards you don't want than a lot of card quality effects. If you just want card quality no fuss then this is likely the card for you. It is the best general card card quality of Serum Visions and Ponder while still offering good specific card quality. Formats like modern seem to be much more interested in specific card quality while I find in cube that general card quality is the most desired. Either way, Preordain is all round made of goodness.

Ponder13. Ponder

To my mind this is the least desirable of the good card quality spell for cube play despite thinking it is one of the best ones for a format like modern. To obtain full potential you want shuffle and if you are going to that sort of bother you really want stuff more the power of Top and Brainstorm. Where Ponder excels is in seeing a lot of cards for not a lot of mana, it has better specific card quality than your Preordains and Serum Visions, even your Brainstorms. The thing is, it has far worse specific card quality than the black Tutors, most of the time in cube you just want general card quality, the need for finding specific things is dwindling. If you do want to find specific stuff you go the tutor route, if not then your Ponder has less value than Serum Visions. You get information or quality with Ponder, you do not really get both with any consistency. The fact that you cannot filter any of the cards away should you keep them means you have to have gained some advantage through the reordering to have actually done anything beyond cycling. So often you are looking for land and see one in the next three and are forced to shuffle and take the random. In such a situation you are going to be better off with Preordain or Serum Visions. Ponder is better at setting up miracles than Serum Visions and therefore also Preordain and it ticks the gives a shuffle box which means it will improve other cards you may have like Top and Brainstorm. It is still a great card but one of the ones I find myself playing least.

Scroll Rack14. Scroll Rack

Arguably the hardest card in magic to play well. It is a lot more awkward than all the other card quality effects but it does several things that are highly abusable and unique or at least rare. It is expensive as card quality goes but can be used by any colour. It is also the only non-blue way of putting cards from your hand back on top of your library. You can easily see seven new cards with it for just one mana, with enough shuffle you can do that most turns! I have abused it silly with Land Tax for an effective Ancestral Recall on a stick. It is another effect you want to combine with library shuffle else the ongoing value of the quality rapidly declines. On top of this you typically also need strong ways to draw cards, should you start to flag in hand size you can wind up almost locking yourself out of the game with only weaker cards available to you. Scroll Rack is incredibly powerful but it costs you a card and a chunk more tempo than anything else on this list. There are fewer and fewer decks that can accommodate such card but they are lots of fun when you do get them!

See Beyond15. See Beyond

The poor mans Lat-Nam's Legacy, not because the effect is worse but simply because it is sorcery. On many occasions the effect is better as it gives you more action right away. It is quite a popular card in combo decks as a result. The reason it carries on hanging in the main cube despite being a bit of a cut below the rest is because of the value and rarity of putting cards from hand to library. You only ever play See Beyond if you have a specific need to do this in your deck, perhaps something like a Tinker deck. You still happily play Lat-Nam's and Brainstorm without that need. You never really see See Beyond in control decks, even in miracles it can be left out if you get enough of the afore mentioned better cards. As such it leads a charmed life in the cube but does remain a chunk better and more useful than the weakest card quality out there that has not made this list.

There are a bunch of other worthy cards and groups of things that offer card quality that deserve some mention of why they are not on the list.

Gitaxian Probe
Gitaxian Probe
The Sac Lands

These two cards don't provide quite the same card quality as the spells on the list but they still kind of do and are obviously fantastic cards for there own reasons as well. Both cards relatively freely thin your deck by one card, which assuming the rest of the cards are what you want, will increase the power density of your deck. This is a kind of pseudo card quality and a little different to what I was going for, it is hard to rate a sac land in this list because they do so many other things as well.

Creatures offer a lot of card quality in the cube as well. There are good solid threats like Reaper of the Wilds that do so as an incidental perk. There are useful roadblocks like Sea Gate Oracle that represent more of a two for one than card quality. The latter effect is a nice sweetener but it is not the primary reason you play such cards. There are not that many creatures that are sufficiently cheap that you can afford to play them in a similar capacity to something like a Preordain.

Looter il-KorLooter il-Kor
Enclave Crpytologist

Are the two best examples of cheap card quality dorks. Both are very good cards but neither really stand up to the level of card quality and reliability you get from the non-creature cards. Looter il-Kor is truely amazing but it has to survive long enough to get in two attacks before it has done half of what Faithless Looting can do. They are slow and vulnerable but they make up for this by also performing other roles, things to hold equipment, use in some sacrificial capacity and so forth. This means I cannot rate them very highly in a list discussing purely card quality.

Sleight of Hand

Slight of Hand

These are the only two one mana or less cards that are card neutral and have any manipulative effect on your cards that are not cube mainstays. Both are sorcery and both have limitations, the Slight is simply the least digging and the least options of all the cards and really needs to be instant. It does occasionally see play but this is usually when several players are tapping into blue hard. Portent is painfully slow, it has all the limitations of Lat-Nam's and Ponder combined. When you don't need any immediate action Portent is better than Ponder as it can be disruptive but this makes it a bit too unreliable for this sort of card. You want reliability more than anything else.

Wild GuessWild Guess
Tormenting Voice

The other offerings red has in the card quality department are somewhat lacking, they make See Beyond look positively fantastic. Even with all their shortcomings these similar cards have seen some cube play and would see a whole lot more if it were not for how dangerous they are to use around counter magic.

Lim-Dûl's VaultLim-Dul's Vault
Diabolic Vision

Are the best gold has to offer on this front. The odd charm has a bit bolted on but it is typically for emergencies only as they are so inefficient. These are both pure card quality spells, somewhat ramped up versions of Vampiric Tutor and Ponder meets Impulse. The Vault is surprisingly good in cube, it is usually comparable life to Vampiric to find a specific thing yet it also has the capacity to tutor for a couple of more vague things, say two lands and any sort of three drop. Instant more than offsets the two mana cost but it is the card disadvantage that means this doesn't see much play. It offers about the most combined specific and general card quality but when you want one kind you play Vampiric or Demonic and when you want the other you just play Ponders and the like. The Visions is pretty awful, being sorcery and costing two is bad. Then on top of this it doesn't allow you to get rid of any dud cards you don't want. Digging five deep is good and is enough cards that reordering starts to be more significant, just not enough!

Telling TimeTruth or Tale
Worldly Council
Telling Time
Words of Wisdom

Make up the list of cards that fall too far short of Impulse. Truth or Tale is deceptive and impressively shit when it comes to playing with it. Worldly Council is fine and can be great but is a little bit narrow for my liking in cube. Anticipate is likely better than Telling Time, the ability to cull away unwanted cards is typically the most valuable aspect of card quality and Anticipate has more of that on offer. Neither compare at all well to Impulse but both are still very playable. Telling Time at least has some good set up potential for miracles etc. and would be the next card I added to the cube if I felt lacking in that area. Anticipate may be slightly better than it but it is sad and offensive to me and doesn't do anything different. I like cards that give choices and variance. You never ever play Anticipate if you could play Impulse instead. There are at least occasions you may elect to Tell Time over an Impulse. Words of Wisdom is a funny one, it is more card advantage than card quality but as it doesn't actually give you card advantage over your opponent (the only measure than has any relevance) I can't quite so easily consider it as that either. What it feels like is a card that gives you quality by giving you more options and action. In some situations it is easily abused and the drawback negated, in others where you face off against brutally redundant decks of burn it is a complete liability.
Merchant Scroll

Muddle the Mixture
Merchant Scroll
Mystic Tutor
Enlightened Tutor
Worldly Tutor
Wild Research
Summoner's Pact
Eladrami's Call

There are of course a whole selection of tutor cards across all the colours, none come close to Vampiric or Demonic. They are all far more niche in what they can get and often clunkier as well. They still offer card quality and are by far and away the most played cards I have mentioned in the article that did not make the list excepting the creatures. They are usually found in the exotic decks and have little to no place in you standard, agro midrange or control.

Living WishThe Wishes

Like tutors but offering way more utility without any harm to your deck and therefore often well worth that extra mana cost you pay. While wishes can be plenty powerful enough for cube they are tedious to balance properly and make sensible rules for them for the various formats and so I cut them.

Mystic Speculation

A really cute card but far too mana intense and card disadvantagy. It has never seen cube play but I do rather like it!

Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning
Careful Study
Frantic Search

Planning is somewhat of a See Beyond for decks with some graveyard synergies rather than library ones. Without any synergy to power it up it is too expensive and sorcery, a lot of times in more normal decks the milling of two cards will be painful and you would have much rather been casting Anticipate. With all the delve juice in the Tarkir block Strategic Planning is looking like it currently has its best shot at a run in the A cube. It is at least card neutral unlike its little brother Careful Study which has only ever seen play in decks with a strong graveyard theme. Study is a very good card quality spell but it is far less exciting in blue where you are spoilt for choice than it is in red, flashback aside. Frantic Search is amazing and likely one of the most versatile combo cards in the cube but it is all about the untapping of lands and not the draw discard. Despite costing no mana the need to have three upfront makes it a bit slow as well as losing a card for use as pure card quality.

Nature's Lore

Sakura Tribe Elder
Nature's Lore
Search for Tomorrow
Sylvan Scrying

While all these cards are considered ramp before card quality except the Scrying they do also offer card quality. Typically they fix mana which has given you some quality but they also thin your deck.

Sultai Ascendany
Tibalt, the Fiend-BloodedThassa, God of the Sea
Three mana is really pushing it for card quality prices. Scry 1 per turn is very potent and self contained but notworth three mana. Fortunately Thassa has a lot of other stuff going on and crops up here and there. The Ascendancy is basically scry 2 but to the graveyaard rather than the bottom of library. It offers a lot more card quality than Sylvan Library and also some graveyard synergies but as it does nothing else, is always card disadvantage and is three colours so it has not seen any play yet. 


Finally this useless sack of planeswalker is actually a card quality provider. He is just really ineffective at it, you have to do a huge sample size before the averages work out in his favour that he is just far too low impact and risky for any sort of use as card quality. He is unique in that he is a planeswalker cheap enough to be used in this capacity, it is just a shame he is so all round awful.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Demonic Tutor vs. Impulse

Demonic TutorA friend of mine commented on my first pick first pack article enquiring as to why I had no love for Demonic Tutor. Five years ago if you asked me to compare Demonic Tutor to Impulse I would have looked at you as if you were stupid. It would have been like asking me to compare Tarmogoyf and Grizley Bear. My friend is right to question why a card that was a powerhouse and a great first pick has fallen so far from grace so as to not even get a mention in my last essay. Most cards that fall out of favour have been outclassed by newer and better things. This is not at all the case for Demonic, it remains the most rounded and powerful tutor effect in all of Magic. I also harp on about the added value of tutor and recursion in singleton formats, another thing that is unchanged. Demonic Tutor has been very subtle in its decline, as I say, it is no less powerful, it just sees far far less play than before. It was not until I had it pointed out that I consciously realised that a shift had taken place. The reason I have chosen to compare the card to Impulse is because they are both card quality spells and they both cost the same. Critically however Impulse is seeing more play than Demonic Tutor. A surprise, but one I feel I can justify.

Demonic Tutor is not being replaced by Impulse, for a start they are different colours. The decline in Demonic is a result of the changing meta. Firstly there is far far less combo than before, the class of decks that most desire tutors. More tempo based decks typically prefer Vampiric Tutor if they need such an effect and this has always been the case. Control decks also used to love a tutor but now it seems they can far less often afford the deck slot and the time needed for it. Adding two mana to the cost of any spell makes it a pretty awful spell by cube standards and this is the crux of the problem with Demonic. Cards are more powerful, there is more redundancy and there is more flexibility on cards. Before you might have run Vampire Hexmage, Doom Blade and Demonic Tutor to give you rounded options in your removal however these days you would likely just replace the Demonic with a Hero's Downfall. It is not only cheaper and more effective at killing either a planeswalker or a creature than Demonic Tutoring for either Hexmage or Doom Blade but it also gives your deck the ability to kill more stuff overall. The fact that threats are more powerful does not exclusively effect aggro and midrange decks in regards the demise of Demonic Tutor. Even a control threat which comes down late still gives you very little time to respond from the time it hits play and you know about it. Black is a slow colour, most of its things are sorcery as is the Demonic. This means you will have to wait till your turn to go and get the thing you need and costing you two mana to do so as well which can easily mean another turn before you can do the thing you needed to. Against aggro decks a turn four Damnation used to be a sufficient blow that you could happily waste your whole turn two or three to go and Tutor one up. These days it is much more likely that you will have taken critical damage by skipping a turn or that the Damnation doesn't get it done as well as you would like. Put simply, you do not need Demonic as much as you used to because there are more tools and versatile cards that can help you do more of the things you want combined with the fact that it is becoming increasingly dangerous to spend two mana at sorcery speed that has no tempo gain at all.

The question then becomes "why is Impulse seeing more play than Demonic Tutor?" Both costing two and both being one for one card quality spells yet Demonic offering vastly more choice and therefore performing its role that much more effectively. A large part of it comes down to the difference between instant and sorcery but that is not the whole storey. For one, it is the fact that blue tends to be more instant based in its responses that allows you to painlessly play cards like Impulse. If Impulse were exactly the same but black it would see a lot less play again because so many of the things black wants to do are sorcery. You would not frequently want to leave mana open and so the black Impulse would often sit in hand until you were forced to play it in your turn any way. Impulse works very well with Countermagic, it lets you represent and it lets you still spend your mana should you not need to use it for counters. This is not a general synergy that black has to work with and so the discrepancy of play between the cards is more on the colours themselves and less about the actual cards.

There are more reasons Impulse has a more secure place in the cube than Demonic at present. One of them is prowess style effects. Impulse becomes a cheap and painless enabler for such effects and lets you be far trickier with them because it is instant. As such you are playing it because it is good with your other things and not because you need card quality. Another consideration in favour of Impulse is that it grants more information that Demonic. Never underestimate the value of information. Putting three known cards on the bottom of your deck is a surprising chunk of information. It rather drastically changes the probabilities of your drawing certain things. Not only do you now know of three things you can't draw, your unknown library is that much small thus increasing the odds of the things you can draw. Three cards in 40 cards decks is going to be 10% of your library minimum and gets significantly more so as the game goes on. This in turn makes it yield that much more information. Demonic Tutor gets worse as the game goes on, when you only have four cards left in your deck it is the same as Impulse in terms of the card quality you instantly get. It does not however leave you with any extra information nor is it instant. If you ignore the speeds and colours of the cards I am not exactly sure what size of library is the size at which Impulse becomes more valuable than Demonic, certainly it is greater than five but by how much it is really hard to say. It will also be different in different decks and even against different decks I imagine. The exact cross-over point is not all that relevant, the fact that it happens is the more pertinent insight. I would also argue that the value in their card quality is not that significantly in favour of Demonic in the early game either. A turn two Demonic is usually for a land and if not it is for a three or four drop to keep you curving as best you possibly can. If you are only looking for a land Impulse is very close to as good as Demonic. Impulse also has decent odds of being comparable if you are just looking to curve out more optimally. Demonic only drastically out performs Impulse when you are searching for a very specific thing which, with the decline of combo and the increase of utility, is a service no longer required.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

First Pick First Pack Rating for Cube

So I saw BDM pose the question "what would be the top five picks in a modern rotissary draft?" and found the responses to be interesting and accurate. Loving my lists and having been doing a lot of booster draft with my cube and with newer players recently I decided to do a similar sort of thing for the cube. I have previously tried to do this for cube rotissary however beyond the first picks it becomes rather impossible as it all depends on what you and other people have taken. Rather than do a list for such a pick order I thought it would be far easier to consider which cards I would most like to first pick first pack and then rate them based on that alone. All of the cards on this last are very happy first picks and you will not that often get to chose between two or more of them. The use of such lists is much more as a guide as to how you should try and value things in general. Despite being a fairly abstract exercise it is still quite useful for both new and more experienced players alike. The first three cards on this list are all basically the same in terms of pick level. The power difference between them is subtle and minimal. If given a choice between two of them in a pack I would almost certainly choose based on what else was in the pack, what I could signal and table etc. If those things didn't decide it clearly I would likely just pick based on what I was most up for playing on the day.

Birds of Paradise
1. Birds of Paradise

There is basically no better (un-powered) cube play than a turn one Birds of Paradise. It is great for aggro decks and equally so for control decks. It is the cheapest and best ramp by a country mile outside of the power. It does tie you to green and is not a card you splash for but we are fine with this as it keeps you as open you can be while tied to a colour. Green is powerful, probably only second in power to blue, and it is also diverse. You can easily be a ramp deck, a midrange deck, an aggro deck or a control deck with your Birds opener. Green works well with most colours and Birds facilitates any number of those that you end up going with. Birds is also a useful body, the flying usually winds up being more relevant than the one power you get with most mana creatures. Being able to block fliers and protect planeswalkers or carry equipment over would be blockers turn up less often than the odd damage or trade you get with a Llanowar Elf however they are so much more game determining that the Birds would likely still be better if it only tapped for green (although this would certainly remove it quite a long way from the top of this list!).

Swords to Plowshares2. Swords to Plowshares

The most effective and reliable removal spell in the game. If you have this and you are playing white then it should be in your deck. Like a Birds first pick you have to end up in that colour to be able to play it so it is a bit of a commitment however it is vastly more splashable than a Birds and is much more likely to still make the final deck when you are being cut from that colour. Plow is great because it is useful at all stages of the game and both in and against all kinds of deck. Committing a little to a colour is far less painful when you are making no direction commitments in that colour. White is also nice and open as colours go, it has great aggro and control options and works well with all colours. Plow is head and shoulders better than anything else as pure creature removal. It scores top marks in all the important and useful area and has a drawback that is typically irrelevant. One mana, instant speed, unconditional and exile, Plow gets it done. Cards like this often go a little under the radar because they do not always appear to be amazing but this is a misconception. It is rare to get any card advantage out of Swords. Often you will be forced into using it on low value targets when you really wanted to hold it for the Wurmcoil Engine. The point is not that the card is weak when used on their turn one Birds because it could have dealt with the brutal Wurmcoil. It has given you options, it might not win many games but it will have stopped you losing loads. Cards like Swords do all the heavy lifting in a deck and allow you to take the win with your more exciting threats. Much like in football, strikers (threats) get all the glory while the defenders and midfield do all the important hard work! Cards like this are the foundations of a deck, do not pass up the opportunity to get them.

Lightning Bolt3. Lightning Bolt

Another water carrier card that goes in any red deck. Premium spot removal with no drawback at all and most of the important boxes ticked. On top of being not that many pure creature removal spells below Plow it also helps kill planeswalkers and players. This makes it one of the most versatile and rounded cards in magic. While all three of the top cards are coloured they are all very open in what you can do with them within that colour. In addition to this they are all one mana which means you will likely cast them more than most other spells. Well worth that first pick. Should I see any of these cards 2nd pick onwards I will strongly consider moving into that colour. A stronger signal than one of these three epic one drops is hard to achieve. Bolt was the number one card in the modern rotissary hypothetical proposed by BDM and I wholeheartedly agree with that. It is basically joint top in an unpowered cube. Red is narrower than both green and white in the cube. You can go aggro easily and control with the right colour pairings so although it can go in both directions it has less room to manoeuvre within those directions. With part of the strength of Bolt being that you can direct it at players heads it does also lend itself a little more to the aggressive deck and should give you a little bias in that direction once picked.

Umezawa's Jitte4. Umezawa's Jitte

Jitte once held the number one spot on this list. A large part of that is the ability to keep yourself open to any colour. Odds on you will end up playing the Jitte and so you risk wasting picks that much less by not making a commitment until you see what you are passed. Just so long as you wind up with enough creatures you want to play Jitte will make the cut. It wins most races and breaks most stalemates. It is relatively cheap and offers a broad range of utility. Lifegain for black, removal for blue and green etc. When a Jitte enters play it becomes the focus of the game, removal is now saved to prevent Jitte getting counters rather than for specific threats. Removal is more abundant and on average better than it was at the time of Jitte's release. Creatures are substantially better now than they were then, both of these factors make it that much more reasonable to defeat a Jitte in a "fair fight" where you do not directly kill the offending Jitte. This is why I would pick the much more reliable coloured one drops over the Jitte these days. You might still well take Jitte over something like a Bolt because you want to send a strong signal. In the impossible hypothetical choice of either but without the other however the Jitte winds up at number four.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant5. Elspeth, Knight-Errant

While there are potentially a few more powerful planeswalkers than this one, including a certain Sun's Champion that goes by the same name this particular planeswalker is my highest preference for a first pick. The reason being the classic openness of the card. Provided you are playing a decent number of white sources in your deck you will play Elspeth and she will be very good. In an aggro deck she will be one of your best cards. In football she would be one of the highest earning big stars all the kiddies want to be. In midrange decks again she will be one of your best cards. For control you may prefer the Sun's Champion but you still play this happily. Knight-Errant is an incredibly robust planeswalker with five 4 starting loyalty, 4 mana casting cost and a +1 that makes chump blockers so she can be incredibly defensive and absorb a huge amount of damage while surviving longer than most. Despite this great defensive capability she is also a potent fininsher, her ultimate is not insane but still pretty hard to beat for a lot of decks and with only plus loyalty abilties it is always a danger that makes Elspeth pretty urgent to kill. Her ability to send things to the air also makes it very hard to play planeswalkers into and is an actual finisher if it ever comes to that. Rounded, reliable, versatile and very very powerful despite a medium cost.

Wasteland6. Wasteland

The painless free win card. In some cubes this would be my number one pick, mine is chock full of fixing and cheaper things making the Wasteland less ruinous, slightly. Wastelands is arguably the card that leaves you most open out of all the top spells. There is a slight aggro bias on the card but it is so punishing and useful across the board that you generally want it as at least an option for your control decks. Rishidan Port may be more what you want in those but if you need to take out a man land or keep them off a mana that turn or turn your flood and their screw into a free win Wastelands still very much gets the job done. Typically what it does is make high colour intense casting cost spells that much less appealing to you which is a kind of narrowing. All in all Wastelands will wind up in most decks and get you a win here and there pretty much by itself. It won't do a lot in the rest of your games but it hardly needs to to justify picking and plying it!

Thundermaw Hellkite7. Thundermaw Hellkite

Nominally I think this is the most powerful of the top end finishers. Thundermaw ends games and fast. He kills planeswalkers, removes all the enemy chaff from the skies and is a total bargain at five mana. The extra power and toughness over other comparable five drops makes such a difference. Stormbreath Dragon is so much wildly less exciting than this and it is mostly just down to the size. Sarkhan Dragonspeaker is also less desirable than this despite being that much more versatile. Thundermaw, as with most creatures is a bit like a spell, mostly a Lava Axe but with a free flying 5/5 on the back end of said spell! The thing that pushes Thundermaw over the top is again, that you can pretty much play it in any deck. It is far higher up the curve than you want in red deck wins but it is sufficiently good that you still almost always end up playing it. Rather a really good card that you cast a turn slower than usual than a below average card is much more the case in draft. For control this gives great planeswalker control and is so cheap and quick compared to other threats that you can get a lot more done with it safely. Thundermaw just gives you very little time to respond to it before it has done critical damage.

Ætherling8. Aetherling

An overly obnoxious creature that is near impossible to deal with. Counter it, luck out with some split second sillyness or win before it can kill you. Those are the only three options you have facing an Aetherling that is played safely. This makes it very slow but unreasonably certain. This is the finisher all the control decks want, when you have it you need very little else. It is so game ending and so reliable you pretty much ram it in most blue midrange and "aggro" decks then you can make. It is not pretty but it is somewhat effective. If you are applying some pressure you can usually make the Aetherling with that much more safely with just one blue left up. Aetherling is the narrowest card on the list so far as it is primarily a control card and a reasonably heavy blue one at that. As I say, you can effectively ram it in other styles of deck, it will likely only be 70% as good as it would be in the control decks but it is sufficiently powerful that the 70% is enough to have it remain one of your best cards! The reason this is the top blue pick to my mind is that it is the most exclusive. Jace is a better card all round, mostly because it is so much cheaper but there are loads of decent planeswalkers you can suitably replace top Jace with and still be pretty much as well off. There really is no comparable substitute for the Aetherling, all the other threats are so much less effective at killing and so much easier to kill that you simply have to run that many more which in turn leaves less space for other things you want. Just having Aetherling in your deck will give you a vast edge in a control versus control match. They simply cannot let you resolve an Aetherling and will have to play accordingly which usually means far less efficiently.

Sword of Fire and Ice9. Sword of Fire and Ice

High power, leaves you open for colours and is generally pretty easy to throw into most decks. Control mostly doesn't have sufficient dorks to run equipment but you can do it. Things like Stoneforge Mystic and Geist of Saint Traft go a long way in that area. Sword of Fire and Ice is not quite as brutal as Jitte in a creature based game however it is more rounded in that it is better against control decks and gives your dorks a base stat boost. You can afford to have less dorks in a deck with a Sword than you can if you first picked a Jitte however you do ideally want more evasive or trample dorks for your sword to be optimal. One of the very nice things about equipment is that they turn any body into a relevant threat and as such are a lot more forgiving should your draft go horribly.

Path to Exile

10. Path to Exile

Basically this is Swords to Plowshares. Sometimes it is better but most of the time it is worse. Generally this is more suited to aggro while Plow is the control card of choice however both are plenty good enough that you play either in either or both in either when you are a luck sack. Path is worse because it has worse scaling, you cannot use it to kill a Bird of Paradise on turn one and have it be useful, really you don't want to be using it early or on things that small because of the drawback. Knight of the White Orchid and Land Tax are nice to mitigate the drawback but really, getting to totally kill anything for just one mana is what is mitigating the drawback!

Wurmcoil Engine11. Wurmcoil Engine

A game ender that will go in any midrange or control deck. It leaves you very open and it a whole lot of card for your pick. Short of white removal or blue counter and control magic there is no way to efficiently deal with a Wurmcoil Engine. It stops attacks, is near impossible to race and provides far too much value to trade well with. For most aggro decks it is that little bit too high on the curve to play but can be done if the draft goes badly, at least you are not having to face off against it with your aggro deck as well!

Force of Will

12. Force of Will

The narrowest card on the list as it is a solid blue commitment and cannot be played as a splash nor is it suitable for every archetype. Blue for that matter is harder than most colours to craft non control archetypes with. It remains high on this list because it is incredibly powerful and a unique effect like the Aetherling. Just having the Force of Will in your deck makes your opponent have to play accordingly. Once you have it in your hand your options go through the roof. Being able to play it for zero mana it is useful before any of the top three cards on this list can come into play. Sometimes you just have to counter their turn one on the play Goblin Guide.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor13. Jace, the Mind Sculptor

The mightiest of the planeswalkers doesn't even hit the top ten. He is great but he is awkward. Unlike Elspeth he does not hold his own and survive well when you are behind on the board. Unlike Elspeth he does not really win the game on his own. You need to house Jace in a deck than can look after him and take advantage of him to maximise his potential. Also he is blue, a colour that is typically quite awkward to get a coherent archetype with. Random good blue cards mixed with random good cards of another colour or so will usually get rolled pretty hard by similar styles of midrange non-blue decks. It is not until you get really cohesive blue decks that the power of the colour really comes out. A good blue based control deck with all the important elements covered can easily take down any draft but you are far more likely to end up missing key ingredients going down that route than you are just picking good removal, dorks and planewalkers from two or three other colours. Jace is powerful enough for these things not to matter too much, you still usually take him first pick, you just need to be a bit more aware of his shortcomings.

Batterskull14. Batterskull

A bit of a dull card and also a somewhat speculative pick. The value of this increases because of Stoneforge Mystic. Because of that, although this leaves you open, you are that little bit more inclined towards going white with a first pick Batterskull. Batterskull has elements of Wurmcoil Engine and Aetherling about it but is significantly less potent at either of those specific roles. Overall it is quite an expensive and clunky card. Early it will win you any racy creature based game and late it will win you most grindy stalemates but inbetween those times it is somewhat of a 4/4 for five. Sometimes good but usually underwhelming. It is not the power of Batterskull that makes it a high pick, it is good but not insane. It is the many things it brings to the table while remaining so open. It is a persitent threat if you go control. It is a powerful finisher to pump your weenies in an agro deck. It is lifegain for a black deck spending life as a resource and so on. Despite all this utility it is still a stand alone card that does a thing.

Noble Hierarch15. Noble Hierarch

Exhalted is much closer to flying as found of Birds of Paradise in power level than it is the plus one power you find on the Llanowar Elf brigade. Tapping for three colours is three times as good as the Elves and 60% as good as the birds. Typically exhalted is most useful in aggro and midrange decks while flying does more in the control decks. Hierarch is good, really good but it isn't a Birds. While it does 60% of the colours birds does, if you are only considering the possible colour combinations that it covers the % signifacantly drops. Because we are discussing first picks the value of having those extra options is a much bigger factor. Birds is only slightly better than Hierarch, it just offers way more potential. If you know you are going white green you may chose to play a Hierarch over a Birds but when you can end up anything it would be foolish to think it was a close call.

Liliana of the VeilThat about does it for the best of the best. There is a wealth of cards I commonly first pick and do so happily but the distinctions between them are far smaller and either more subjective or just more of the same sorts of justifications just on less powerful cards. Within this bunch of cards are all the strong black cards. While many of them are more powerful than the cards on this list they are all far narrower and harder to get the full potential from. Black is fairly awkward colour. It gets on pretty well with green in an even split but otherwise you want to be very heavy black or very lightly splashing it. Committing to black at all is far riskier than committing to any other colour including blue, the next trickiest. A number of the cards on the list are very high power but are either incredibly narrow in the archetypes they are found in or really require you to pair them with other effects to be able to make them perform well. Most of the gold cards on this list are ones that are flexible in how you can play them and can be used to some effect in just one of the colours. I do not love committing to one colour off the bat, two is really uncomfortable. I try not to pick up cards like Vindicate or Pernicious Deed, full on two colour gold spells, until I am a little more confident I am in at least one of those colours. This might be early as 4th pick and could well be sooner if I get a duff pack.

Deathrite ShamanGrave Titan
Inquisition of Kozilek
Dark Confidant
Lilianna of the Veil
Recurring Nightmare
Garruk Wildspeaker
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Arcane Denial
Fire / Ice
Lingering Souls
Snapcaster Mage
Goblin Guide
Deathrite Shaman
Treasure Cruise
Cryptic Command
Restoration Angel
Inferno Titan
Brimaz, King of Oreskos
Stoneforge Mystic

Arid MesaCube is so full of power you can reasonably first pick most planeswalkers, fat threats, one drops, draw spells, removal and the good burn. That is the key difference between cube and other formats in draft, basically all the cards are good. In block draft your picks are much more determined by the raw power of the card. In cube your focus is much more on cards that give you most options, both in the games and the rest of the draft. To that end I often end up picking speculative good dual and sac lands over the less nutty cards I have listed here. Again, because all the cards are really powerful cube draft is much more about creating a deck that works as a whole than it is about getting bombs. Almost all of the top picks are those cards so useful, powerful or unique that they transcend archetypes and go well wherever you stick them.