Friday, 28 April 2017

Card Theme and Streamlining

Ancestral RecallI find myself talking a lot about how "on theme" a card is these days. There are so many great magic cards that refining which are most cube worthy isn't as much about raw power as it used to be. When there was less to choose from being just a powerful card was enough. Now a card has to qualify on more levels than just power to gain permanent entry to the cube. There are two things I want to discuss here and each of those things can make a card more or less suitable for the cube. Before getting to those however let us consider what is meant when we talk about the power of a card (not the bit before the toughness). A powerful card is a good one. Ancestral Recall is a powerful card. That we can all agree on however that is because Ancestral Recall is both nominally powerful and powerful in context. There are plenty of cards that are only one or the other of these things and such cards are more controversial and debate as to which are more powerful becomes interesting.

The idea of nominal power or power in a vacuum is impossible to measure and ultimately fairly meaningless. Despite this I am sure it is how we first consider and evaluate most new cards and it serves as a useful measure for expectation of the card. One could make a chart for all the things cards broadly do and value them on an abstract power level. You could go the extra distance and try and scale things with each other. Generally the higher the mana cost the lower the value of more stuff. By that I mean if you have an equally powerful two drop and four drop card and then you add to both the same bonus effect that is worth about a mana and increase the cost accordingly the resulting three drop would be more powerful than the resulting five drop. Power scaling in magic is not just the sum of the parts. Another example of awkward scaling is key words. Trample improves as stats increase. It is pretty worthless on the small creatures and pretty valuable on the big ones. Deathtouch has the opposite scaling as trample. Firststrike is far better with deathtouch yet trample is less good when you have any other sort of evasive mechanic. Accounting for all these nuances in a model would be a terrifying task. These are the simpler aspects of magic and they are already looking near impossible to create a model that would accurately measure the relative nominal power levels of cards. I think humans are generally much better than models at accounting for these kinds of small and subtle factors and I think generally the experienced magic player is pretty good at understanding the nominal power level of a new card. It is very helpful to be able to relate new cards to existing ones and use that as a guide for expected power levels. So although no such model exists we can all imagine it and likely already do so. My point here is that just getting a high nominal power level score is not ultimately that relevant. The cube is not a collection of the most powerful cards in a vacuum but a collection of the most powerful cards in magic in the context of the other most powerful cards.

Charging Badger
There is a great correlation between nominal power and contextual power but it is only that. Let us say you have a cube of 720 cards aiming to have the most powerful cards in all of magic. By that logic your 720th card should have nominal power X, every other card in the cube should have a nominal power greater than X and everything you didn't include would have less than X nominal power. This isn't at all the case. In all cubes I have encountered there are always plenty of cards with "greater than X" power left out and plenty more "less than X power" included. This is because the context of the cube acts as another modifier on the nominal power to give a contextual power that can either be greater or lower than the starting nominal power. This is much the same in any format. The super powerful cards somewhat define the context and so the rest of the meta is made up from the suitable high power cards and the highly suitable fairer cards.

The context of the cube is a fairly long winded way of eluding to the meta. The reason I haven't just called it the meta is because the meta implies specific archetypes and decks. While this is useful information I mean a broader appreciation for the kinds of things that are going on. An idea of the general speed of things is very important. What are people winning with? What mechanics are common and what enable them? To try and give so specific examples I would say that exile effects are of greater value in the cube than in most other formats as there are typically a lot of recursion effects and persistent threats in cube. I would say that the format is quicker than most which increases the value of cheaper cards. The contextual power of a 2/1 for 1 is greater in cube than it is in most other places in part for this reason.

Lightning Bolt
On theme and streamlined are simply two ways to say that a card compares well to the things that scale positively in the context of the cube. On theme means all the things the card does are things that you want a card like that to do. Streamlined means more how a card works with itself to achieve its role. The latter is only applicable in the cards with lots of text, something like a Lightning Bolt is inherently as streamlined as you can get as it only does one thing! Generally cards that are on theme will also be fairly well streamlined. Only the really obviously over powered cards can get away with not being streamlined and still see play.

A really good way to appreciate streamlining is to go back to our idea of a nominal power calculator. You can increase the nominal power of a card by tacking more things onto it. Every line of text increases the power of the card assuming it isn't a drawback. The problem is when you simply are never going to realistically take any advantage of that aspect of a card. If a card is of nominal power X due to the attributes Z, Y and W resulting in that final value of X but in the cube the card is only viable in a way that ensures attribute Y is of little to no value then the power of the card is no longer X but X - Y (roughly). A streamlined card is one where all the attributes of that card work appropriately in the roles you might play that card. A streamlined card does not waste an ounce of its power. The high powered cards frequently found left out of cubes are either narrow or they lack streamlining.

If streamlining is a good way to say that a card does not lose any of its potential power then being on theme is a way of saying that a card creates ethereal power out of nowhere. On theme cards are typically low powered cards that look too fair to be in the cube. In physics you can't create power out of nothing, that is nonsense! The way to understand this ethereal gain of power is that that these on theme cards enable or unlock the power potential in other cards. The power you gain from on theme cards is actually untapped power in your other highly powerful but often not so streamlined cards.

Ahn-Crop CrasherThe best example I can think of for this is to compare the new Ahn-Crop Crasher to any of the classic good red three drops. Goblin Rabblemaster is undoubtedly more powerful in a nominal sense and both are fairly well streamlined. The Crop Crasher however is much more on theme. It will have a better low end performance than Rabblemaster and it will do more to improve your other cards. The Crop Crasher will do far less over a period of time but it will do more immediately . This means for the kinds of decks you want those kinds of cards in the Crop Crasher may well end up doing more on average as the games tend to be succinct.

To know if a card is well themed you do generally need to understand the format well however you can often work out if a card is streamlined without too much consideration of the meta. The well themed card is more actual powerful than its nominal power would suggest as it unlocks power in other cards. The streamlined card is simply greater than the sum of its parts as it scales with itself. Rather than X + Y = Z you get X x Y which equals something geater than Z.

This is all just a way to appreciate and evaluate cards. I certainly find it very useful in cube design, deck construction, and even during play, where correct card evaluation is critical to decision making. Our initial impressions of cards can often bias us. Something that is just obviously powerful at first glance may turn out to be underwhelming. Unless you consider the reasons behind things you will tend to keep using your initial evaluation of the cards power as a base line.

Stormchaser MageI should probably finish with some examples as these concepts are pretty vague. Firstly there is Stormchaser Mage. On paper it is strong enough but not obviously super powered. Really it is just a Monastery Swiftspear with +0/+1 and flying for an extra blue mana. There are not many creatures that would still be good in the cube if you added a blue to the cost and only gave them +0/+1 and flying. Just looking at the bits that make up Stormchaser Mage it is a fairly low powered card by cube standards, especially by the standards of gold cube cards. Fortunately for Stormchaser Mage all its parts scale very nicely together and add up to an effective little card with no real drawbacks. It is one of those cards that very much works well with itself to give back a lot more than expected. It has good surprise value, it is a cheap threat that contributes to the late game as well as the early game. It is robust, hard to play around and so on.

Mantis Rider has the reverse going on to Stormchaser to some extent. Both are cheap gold threats with lots of key words. Mantis Rider looks a lot more powerful at a glance, even taking into account the different costs. I would absolutely say that Mantis Rider has significantly more nominal power than Stormchaser Mage. The Stormchader Mage however is one of the most streamlined cards going that has a good amount of different abilities. Mantis Rider isn't poorly streamlined but it isn't nearly as good as the Stormchaser in this regard and as such has performed less well in cube. Often one of the three abilities is a blank on the Mantis Rider which is a minor set back. What is more relevant is the size of the body relative to the cost. It is not just the abilities but also the chassis they come on. For your flying, vigilance and haste to get anything much done the 3/3 body has to survive and be relevant. The prowess on the Stormchaser Mage combined with the cheaper cost lets the 1/3 body and therefore the other abilities actually do their work significantly more reliably.

Viridian ShamanLastly I want to look at Viridian Shaman, a card that looks like it would be on theme and streamlined in lots of places but actually is the reverse in most cases. You have to think why you are playing a card. With Viridian Shaman your answer will be pretty condemning. Should it be because I need to deal with such and such a problem artifact then you are hurting yourself quite a lot. A three mana sorcery speed removal effect, not to mention a narrow removal effect, is a poor answer. If you are wanting to deal with specific things then you should play the best answer possible and that is never Viridian Shaman. Obviously your answer for why you are playing the card isn't because you think Grey Ogre is good and so the only answer left is that you want some value. Viridian Shaman may sound like value being a two for one but it really isn't. A vanilla 2/2 gets very little done, it is not a great tempo play. Deconstruct is a far better tempo play if you are set on playing a three mana sorcery answer! Oxidize plus and two drop would also be far better tempo. The "value" you get extra on your bad Shatter effect is a 2/2 that you paid nearly two mana for. Sure, it is a free card so to speak but it isn't a good one. You usually wouldn't be spending mana on something like that until you have nothing else to do. So Viridian Shaman is not on theme because the reasons you would play it don't match up to what it offers. It is a bad removal spell, it is generally a weak tempo play and it is not value that you really want. With all that said it is still a good card in the right situation. Should you be up against something like affinity then it starts to look like good tempo and value again because the nature of your opponents deck makes a 2/2 chump significantly more relevant in addition to the removal effect being reliable. Cards that become appropriately themed based on what I am facing rather than what I have in my deck are basically what I class as sideboard cards.  

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