Thursday, 21 July 2022

Partial and One-Sided Wraths

 

My cube is highly creature based now. Without the power included or combo supported there has been a noticeable drift away from planeswalkers and spells that don't affect the board. This is due to the power creep we have seen in creatures relative to other types of card in the game over recent years. A couple of years ago it was all about planeswalkers (in my cube), they were the dominant force in the game. Get one down early enough that it isn't threatened by opposing dorks or just deploying one on a stalemate board situation and you were miles ahead as a result. Now it seems as if many dorks can handle a planeswalker fairly comfortably. Either walkers are too slow or they are too vulnerable a far higher proportion of the time. I would happily run six planeswalkers in most of my cube decks a couple of years ago, now I rarely see three or more in a deck. The average is likely below two per deck. Walkers typically are poor with 1 activation, OK with 2, and then quickly become amazing there after. Simply put, the power and tempo of creatures has reduced the life span of walkers and thus average activations which in turn reducers their expected value. Spot removal rarely bothered planeswalkers as it always meant a 1 for 1 trade but the walker player got an activation as well typically leaving them either cards or tempo up. When creatures kill the walkers they are often doing so just at the cost of an attack, and only when going face isn't better. Creatures give the attacker options and value against walkers and they now come with added power. The risk of just getting your planewalker instantly gibbed with a Questing Beast or a Fury is great and well worth avoiding. More high quality manlands has also helped to end the reign of planeswalkers as they are so hard to deal with purely at sorcery speed. 




With walkers being so strong it used to be the case that Wraths and planeswalkers was a top tier strategy. These days that isn't getting it done. Either you or your walkers die before you can get off a good Wrath. A deck without (many) dorks is typically just hurting itself by not playing some of the most powerful cards on offer. Wraths are still fantastic but they are harder to use. Invariably you are killing a thing or two of your own. You either needed to deploy some things to disguise your mass removal plan and force a relevant over extension, or to simply avoid being overrun. All this leads to the title - partial and one-sided Wraths. These are quickly becoming some of the highest pick cards in my cube and are packing some of the most impressive results too. Partial and one sided Wrath effects let you play your high power dorks while still keeping your opponent in check in regards how they may go about deploying their dorks. At present mass removal that you can use effectively along side your own creatures make up a significant part of the list of best cards in cube. 

A one sided Wrath is fairly straight forward, it is something that only hits their creatures such as the classic Plague Wind. A partial Wrath can be two things, the first is one that only hits certain kinds of creature, be it based on mana cost, size, or some other aspect. These in turn come in two groups; those that you can some control over the effect (such as Extinction Event) and those that are fixed (such as the basic Infest). There are also modal mass removal spells which I will put in this variable partial wrath group as they function fairly similarly in terms of picking and deck construction. Modal mass removal cards would include the likes of Sweltering Suns which offers no control over the function of the mass removal but the addition of cycling allows it to avoid being a dead card. The second type of partial Wrath is much more like a spot removal spell that hits multiple targets such as an Arc Trail or a Finale of Eternity. We shall call these removal spells limited mass removal as they are unable to kill an endless number of dorks while the others all potentially can. All these various types of one sided and partial mass removal cards allow you to play your creatures with a lot more comfort and safety than conventional Wraths while still forcing your opponent to avoid over extending else they walk into a devastating blow out on both cards and tempo.

I am going to cover and rate the various options on offer for cube for these partial and one sided mass removal cards. All of them are cube worthy to some degree or other. There are also many more that I am not going to cover as they are rather less powerful or typically too narrow. Hopefully this discussion of the best will help to allow for good appraisal of new or uncovered cards.


One Sided


Ruinous Ultimatum 4/10

Incredibly powerful but sadly too narrow and too late. You can happily play and cast 7 drops in cube if they are as game winning as this. Sadly the colours and intensity of them make this far too narrow for cube when it is competing with the likes of Ugin for space in decks. This is easily there on power level but it falls short on playability. You would get more mileage from All is Dust in a cube despite it being substantially less potent than the Ultimatum. 





Mizzium Mortars 7/10

This is a fine and rounded red removal tool. It is a rare example of a card that has improved with time. It kills all but the top end things in a very dull sorcery speed one for one way. It gives good early game play and then scales up into a relatively hard hitting one sided removal spell. Great in midrange and control decks and still fine in the more aggressive ones. The kinds of decks you want mass removal against are the ones that clog up the board with smaller dorks and tokens. This means the limited nature of the 4 damage is rarely an issue. Mortars winds up in several categories being a fixed mass removal tool as well as a modal one of sorts. Both the one sided and modal natures of it are big perks, the modal arguably is the better as you wouldn't play Mortars as a 6 drop in your cube. It is cast substantially more as a 2 mana spell. Even so, the one sided aspect of the mass removal is more notable as there are relatively few playable cards in this group. This just has a pretty reasonable floor able to be an early play that is often tempo positive while having an absolutely nutty ceiling capable of just winning games. With a floor so reasonable you do not need to win many games with the other mode at all before you have a great card and this overloads to win games more than just occasionally.  





Winds of Abandon 8.5/10

This is very much a riff on Mizzium Mortars and given the white treatment. This makes it far better at killing top tier threats and less ideal at killing off smaller things. Consequently this is used a whole lot more in the overload mode than Mortars, and in all kinds of deck from aggro all the way to control. White aggro decks have a tendency to either win or stall out the board. In those cases Winds is often a win on the spot. Giving away land is not a massive problem by the time you are overloading this while doing so in the early stages of the game is a bit uncomfortable and has to really need doing. On the flip side, you tend to want to save your unconditional exile quality removal for the nastiest things rather than having to "waste" it on something in the early game. Despite my knocking of this early game usage for Winds it makes the card great. Six mana one sided unconditional Wrath or two mana unconditional spot removal? Sign me all the way up. The added security and reliability this brings over Mortars more than makes up for the drawback of giving away lands. A six mana one sided Wrath is pretty strong by itself, adding a pretty playable two mana mode turns this from decent to really great and it manages to do so without feeling too oppressive or over powered. A slow mode and a fair mode keep this well in check. 





Cyclonic Rift 6/10

The last in this cycle of overload tools, and these days the weakest despite having been quite a lot better than Mortars for most of their lives. Rift has the lowest impact normal mode and the highest cost overload mode. It is also a tempo play rather than a true removal spell. It used to dominate so hard thanks to planewalkers being so powerful and games being slower and more stalled out affairs. You used to beat control decks by extending with walkers and Cyclonic Rift would undo that nicely. As that strategy has waned in effectiveness and getting to 7 mana with blue has become harder Rift has moved towards the fringes of my cube. I find I want to play an Ugin or a Brazen Borrower and never the Rift anymore. 





Settle the Wreckage 7.5/10

This is a card that varies a fair amount in power based on how much information your opponent has. If they are oblivious to it then you have yourself a 4 mana instant speed, exile quality, one sided Wrath. Walking into a Settle is usually game over. What keeps the card fair is knowing about it, either in the format, in their deck, or in their hand. Depending on how far ahead you are you can turn Settle into a fairly poor removal spell that is unlikely to gain value or significant tempo. This dance of working out your odds on facing a Settle and how much you can afford to play around the potential of one makes it an interesting card as well as a good one. I don't tend to play it in aggressive decks but I know players that do. I will however play it all day long in control and midrange decks. Mass removal that can hit manlands are such a delight. Settle is most akin to Wing Shard but performs its role rather better needing no support at all to take out multiple dorks. 




Partial (fixed) 

This group has some of the highest numbers of cards printed for it such as Infest and Pyroclasm however these tend to be too narrow to get enough play in cube. Either you want things that reliably kill everything or you want some degree of option on your card. Languish, Anger the Gods, and Pyroclasm have been the three most commonly found cards in this group in my cube over the years but they invariably get cut fairly quickly for insufficient action. I would certainly play more fixed partial mass removal spell in cube but it would have to be incredibly mana efficient to be competitive and this likely means it could only see print in something like MH or a commander product. 


Pyroclasm 6/10

Pyroclasm is certainly the card that has done most work in cube and is the closest from this class of mass removal spells to getting back into the cube. It is effectively just a more polar, more swingy, and more situational Arc Trail, which itself is a powerful card in cube that already suffers from all those issues. As such I suspect that while many more well pushed fixed partial mass removal spells could be powerful and playable enough for cube I am not sure we want that as it wouldn't so likely lead to good play experiences on the whole and will also just shift the meta to the point where such cards no longer suited. As things tend towards massing smaller tokens Pyroclasm comes along and gets a few months of play and turns that trend around quickly! It is one of those limit setting cards that keeps a meta undulating back and forth. It is powerful and can be too powerful. It is so cheap and efficient relative to basically all other mass removal spells that is scales rapidly by contrast meaning that as soon as it is playable in a meta it is oppressive in that meta in turn forcing a quick shift in said meta.  




Storm's Wrath 7/10

I am not entirely sure why this has done so well in cube. The card is very fair and resides at the lower end of my cubes power range. I think there are several factors at play as to why this has succeeded where other fixed output mass removal spells have failed. Firstly Storm's Wrath came at a point where red control decks were starting to become a proper high tier archetype. A good solid mass removal spell in the right range either worked nicely in the meta or just sat in a good spot for people to appreciate how the card would perform and function in contrast to Wrath of God and saw play as a result of understanding and familiarity?! Very few creatures in my cube have more than 4 toughness (18 currently which is less than 8% of dorks) and basically all of those cost five or more mana meaning that on curve, even when on the draw Storm's Wrath will be a full clear. The higher damage output makes Storm's Wrath far less situational than many other more traditional damage-each-creature red mass removal spell. Lastly, it hits walkers which was a very big deal and while it is becoming less so it is certainly still relevant. It is simply really hard to play around a Wrath that hits the two main threat types, you just have to walk into it or concede tempo by doing nothing a lot of the time. Traditionally players would "over extend" using planeswalkers as it was by far and away the safest way to push an advantage. If you ever get more than one walker killed with a Storm's Wrath you will know quite how swingy and devastating that feels. Even just having a walker, a good dork and perhaps some tokens killed with it feels like game over. 




Plague Engineer 8.5/10

This card is just a dirty little spell that seems to win a lot of games. It is mostly killing tokens, thopters, goblins, that sort of thing. Sometimes it ends the career of a white or green deck with a human, elf, or even druid named. When you take out a couple of real cards early in the game, even if they are just Elite Vanguard and Llanowar Elves, with a three drop that sits in play it is devastating. You are up tempo and cards and further to that you have a relevant thing in play that is either trading up or simply sitting there stopping further deployment of certain cards and effects. Even just shrinking some guys can be a real pain. As far as mass removal effects go in cube this is pretty tame however as a card overall it is brutal. It takes the sting out of a lot of high tempo openers, offers some large blowout potential, answers annoying cards like Mother of Runes and Retrofitter Foundry, and does all of this while being a low cost to include and low risk to use. This is both more powerful than, and a lot more playable than Goblin Chainwhirler which is itself pretty powerful and not infrequently ruinous. 





Goblin Chainwhirler 6/10

Small mass removal damage output but something you can afford to play thanks to being on a meaty body. If you can get any calue at all out of the EtB here then the card is great, if you deal with something like a Lingering Souls or take out a couple of real cards then it is game over, and at worst you just have a fairly solid dork for getting stuck in with. This is mass removal that you play in any archetype from aggro all the way to control, the only limiting factor being the triple red in the cost making it a fringe cube card from narrowness alone. 






Partial (variable)

Extinction Event 8.5/10

This is a lot like the black Settle the Wreckage in that opponents are wise to play around it somewhat as it can be game over if walked into blindly. It is better than Settle because it neither gives away a lot of lands nor is it something you can fully play around. Extinction Event can always deal with your best dork. All you can do is try and stop it taking out too many of your dorks, or at least relative to the opponents. Fairly reliable spot removal that dabbles in outright winning the game. Mostly what this does is keep people honest. Just by existing cards like this will stop people just going all in if they don't have to which in turn leads to more longer and interactive games. 





Toxic Deluge 9/10

Hard not to call this the best Wrath. It is three mana, easily splashed, and can kill everything, including the indestructible things out there. Yes, it costs some life to use but more often than not the low three mana cost of this card winds up saving more life for you than you spend on playing it. While this is generally the best mass removal spell in cube it is not the best one sided mass removal spell in that it is only one sided when you have the toughest dork in play, which is rarely. Equally, it is selective, but baring the case where you have the biggest dorks, you are only not killing everything because the life cost is too steep. Regardless, when a Wrath is this efficient you really do not need it to be all that one sided to be nuts!




Massacre Girl 8/10 




Massacre Wurm 6.5/10

These are one sided in that at the very least you will have either the Girl or the Wurm still in play. Every now and again you will have something else fat but this is rare and not all that important for the strength of these cards. Girl is better as she is cheaper, less colour intense, and able to kill bigger threats. She can need a little bit of setting up but in a format like cube where chaffy tokens build up quickly she is typically a full clear without any work. Wurm on the other hand is much more of an anti weenie card being fairly little use against meaty dorks but being utterly devastating against little ones. Indeed, it often beats big dorks simply by dealing critical damage handling all the small ones that built up to it or came with it. Sure, the Avenger of Zendikar is still in play but there are a pile of dead plants and elves that means the game has swung wildly if not ended outright. 






Fiery Confluence 7.5/10

A low power mass removal spell but one with versatility and flexibility. You can six people to the face meaning this is never dead and often feared on multiple fronts. This winds up in a whole lot of decks and commonly wipes the board fully or partially and leaves the caster in far better stead than they were before. This is done in aggro, midrange, and control decks alike. Just because you are playing this to hit people for six does not mean that a mass removal spell isn't what the doctor ordered now and again. One of those cards that is just versatile enough to happily be played anywhere.  




Ugin, the Spirit Dragon 8/10

One of the most potent I win buttons in cube and much of the time what a control deck will aim at surviving to resolve. Ugin deals with most things and stabilizes a board pretty consistently while then also going on to be a game winning threat. Ugin deals with planeswalker and creatures and this makes him especially hard to play around, the counter play to Ugin is getting the job done before he arrives. I would have put this as a 9/10 as recently as last year but two things are nibbling away at the power of this titan. Firstly things are speeding up resulting in games ending or getting critical before Ugin is more than a dead card. Secondly, we got a pile of great new manlands which are the bane of Ugin. Either he dies on the swing back to them or worse still, you do. The highly increased frequency of seeing manlands rather reduces the security he used to bring. 






Pernicious Deed 4/10

Of old this was premium board control but it has fallen by the wayside over the years for several reasons. Not answering planeswalkers was the first big blow for Deed. The second blow was more gradual but certainly much more problematic. It is simply how mana inefficient Deed is as removal. You are always X+3 mana to kill something meaning you need to kill something else of mana value three or more in addition just to stay even on tempo. It was increasingly hard to come out ahead with Deed on enough relevant metrics. It is also cripplingly slow and often just wouldn't do enough in time. One of the best things about Deed is and remains that it can just sit there in play and act as a Seal of token and animated land removal. Not many things deal with manlands effectively and with the power and popularity of the Adventures in Forgotten Realms man lands there is an improving argument for Deed in cubes, especially those packing a lot of Mox and other mana artifacts. 






Engineered Explosives 5/10

A more selective Pernicious Deed that only hits CMC = to X rather than everything upto and including X. This still hits tokens but no longer takes out lands. Generally this is more playable but less powerful than Deed. It is used more of an out to awkward things and situations more than it is used as a good card. It either isn't that mana efficient or it is a bit situational making it something you typically want to have a reason to play. Triomes have made Explosives better as decks often now have access to more colours than they are. That being said, you rarely need explosives in decks that are three or more colours and those that are just the one colour do not give you enough options on your explosives. As such I find that while the card feels like a great include for cubes it rarely winds up getting enough play or doing quite enough in games. It is just kind of insurance and if things are going well that is something you don't need or want to need. 




Powder Keg 4/10

Ratchet Bomb 3/10

These are yet more examples of Deed and Explosives style cards that continue in the trend of being increasingly playable but decreasingly powerful. While these can both be mana efficient removal tools it is pretty hard to have either do so in a useful way due to how long it takes to charge them up sufficiently. Kill your thing in four turns really isn't going to cut it. This means you really only want to use these cards on 0 and 1 CMC cards, ideally the former. This makes them pretty good against tokens and some explosive artifact strategies as well as some of those really polar decks like elves or 8-whack that overload on 1 CMC permanents. Overall Powder Keg is the better card as it deals with artifact and creature lands. Killing planeswalkers and Enchantments is all well and good but they are on average much higher CMC cards and a much less common type and thus far less useful and efficient to remove with cards like this. Pernicious Deed is more powerful than Keg but it rated the same as Deed is that much less playable being gold and not colourless. And proper colourless at that, none of than sunburst crap. 






Partial (modal)


Damn 8.5

A fascinating card that is rather hard to rate as it is somewhat five different cards in one. Are you even split white and black, perhaps in a kind of midrange archetype? In which case Damn is about as good as it gets. Are you mono black or mono white, mostly a black deck but with the ability to produce some white mana, or indeed a heavier white deck with some capacity to produce black mana? Damn is playable in all these settings but has differing power levels, different optimal archetypes, and most curiously of all, can wind up competing with entirely different cards on different points on the curve as well. In the sweet spot Damn is the perfect removal spell allowing you to kill one problem card without harming your own board or deal with everything to recover a bad situation. It is even more rounded of a removal tool than Winds of Abandon! It is good while you are ahead or behind, it is hard to play around, and it has an impressive range. The only thing keeping this off being a 9+ rated card is that it is quite an intensely gold card. Much of the play it does get are outside this sweet spot where it either tends towards the very acceptable Wrath of God on the white end of the spectrum or the slightly less impressive but none the less decent Walk the Plank as you tend towards black. 




Sweltering Suns 7

A nice clean and simple red mass removal spell. There are many like this with their various pros and cons where you get to pay three to deal three to everything. Indeed there are plenty of other X damage for X mana cost in red and indeed actual X spells which reduce this efficiency in exchange for some flexibility. While many of these are good I have always found them to be just that little bit too situational for my liking. As such the one with cycling on it has always wound up getting the most play as you can afford to play it that bit more speculatively. It is an option rich card you can play in an aggressive deck to give you that edge against some matchups without being too severe of a cost. I play this in most midrange and control red decks and it creeps in to the odd aggro one here and there as well. It remains significantly more mana efficient than the likes of Starstorm too, which is important as mass removal is there to recover tempo. If you have to wait or leave the bigger things still in play you are not doing the job required of you. Instant is lovely on mass removal but it cannot come at the cost of the main functionality which cards like Starstorm entirely do in this modern era of high tempo and pushed dorks. Sweltering Suns also hits all kinds of dorks which helps keep it playable. Plenty of red mass removal miss artifacts or flyers and this winds up being a big deal when these kinds of cards are already on the fringes. 

 



Slagstorm 4

Before Sweltering Sun this was my go to modal red mass removal spell. You could play it in aggro as it dealt three to face and thus was never dead. Thing is, it still kind of sucks. One half very situational and the other just very inefficient. You were only solving the narrow issue for aggro decks which were not really in the market for mediocre mass removal anyway, and you were not even solving it well. Midrange decks want a more playable mass removal spell and they are certainly not at all impressed by 3 to each players face mode even if the control players are even less impressed with it!




Burn Down the House 8.5/10

A bigger better Storm's Wrath. While the scale up from four to five does halve the number of cards it doesn't outright kill while retaining the ability to kill on curve dorks, even on the draw, it is still a nerf compared to Storm's Wrath. Mass removal wants to be able to quell an early onslaught and for that low cost is the best thing. What makes Burn Down the House so good is the modality which Storm's Wrath lacks and Sweltering Suns attempt is laughable in power level by comparison. Making three devils for 5 mana is actually just good in my cube. It has so much fantastic synergy with so very many great cube cards (Goblin Bombardment, Torbran, Purphorus etc) and is pretty decent all by itself. It is a lot of damage, it has immediate impact, it is hard to play around. Mass removal is one of the most powerful things in the game, it is kept somewhat fair by the tension it has on over extending and because that makes it quite situational. When you slap a pretty good all round threat mode on your mass removal you remove these tensions than can make it fair. Oh, you held back so my five to everything didn't kill you? Well, turns out these three devils now kill you instead. Whoops. 





Elspeth, Sun's Champion 7/10

Probably closer to an 8/10 card in general but in the context of mass removal we need to be less generous. Six mana is a lot for a mass removal spell and this effect only kills about 15% of creatures in my cube. Further to that it is very rare for it to kill more than one dork of the opponents. Suffice it to say that you usually win when you lay Elspeth and -3 her and just kill the one dork, you really struggle to lose if you hit multiple of theirs! Just by virtue of having a powerful walker down and handling their powerful threats you are in a winning position. Elspeth is more of a super 187 dork that will randomly win you some games that looked very done. One of the coolest things I have seen done with Elspeth is using buffs on opposing dorks so that the -4 will kill them. She is mostly here on a technicality, she can act as a one sided Wrath of sorts but that isn't why you are playing her, she is just good in general and randomly is sometimes really really good in a way that qualifies her for this list. 





Chandra, Awakened Inferno 6.5/10

This is probably a better mass removal effect than Elspeth but it is generally not quite so useful of a card. Much of this is down to the cards in the respective colours and the types of archetype you find them in. Chandra is more likely to find bigger dorks a problem because red as a whole does, and so being able to do a dodgy Sweltering Sun for twice the price isn't winning any awards. Elspeth handles little things by making loads of 1/1s which is a fine thing to do if they don't have threatening stuff you need to answer. Yes, it is nice to have option rich planeswalkers and it is a fine enough option that comes up useful but the mass removal here certainly isn't why you are playing the card. Mostly I think this is played as inevitability that happens to have some failsafe modes.




Austere Command 3/10

Back when this was a somewhat new card it was all the rage. It was a versatile Wrath that answered most things you were likely to need it to and it would often leave you ahead once played. As time went on a six mana sorcery speed answer came too late. Missing walkers and usually needing to hit both dork modes when under pressure did for this once top tier mass removal tool. Now it simply isn't a practical solution to anything and is rarely better than a Wrath of God for 150% of the price. 





Farewell 6/10?

As of writing this I have done no meaningful testing of this card but it does look like a good attempt at updating Austere Command. One or more modes gives this more modality and more raw clearing power than Command although the inability to split the creatures into big and little ones does remove a lot of the ability Austere Command gave to leave yourself ahead after Wrathing. Exile quality removal adds a big kick to this as well making it quite a strong answer to a wide array of tedious and tenacious problem cards. Gods, upon death triggers, all that awkward stuff gets swept away nicely with this big happy exile card. Graveyard disruption is also always welcome when you feel like you are getting it for free as is the case here. If this were an instant the card would be outstanding, at sorcery it has a chance but it likely still a bit on the slow side for most cubes. Perhaps if it could also take out walkers then I could get past the sorcery side of things but probably not even then. As a technicality it probably shouldn't be on this list as when Wrathing it is neither partial or one-sided! It is complete and symmetrical. The card just gives the illusion of qualifying for this list due to the similarity to Austere Command and by virtue of being modal mass removal. Ultimately that is semantics. Farewell is a mass removal spell, it is a Wrath plus, and it may, like so many of the cards on this list, be used to less than its maximum capacity to engineer a favourable outcome. As such, and rather self evidently, I deem it worthy of discussion here! Certainly if you were in the market for a big cover all answer card I would look to this and Hour of Revelation first and foremost. 






Limited



Fire Covenant 9/10

This is limited in the sense that under most circumstances you do not have an unlimited life total. Beyond that this is effectively unlimited. Toxic Deluge has a lot of similarities to this card and yet I placed that in the partial variable Wrath section despite having near identical costs to this. The main difference is the top end scaling of both cards. The average life you have to pay to clear your opponents board as the game progresses over time looks fairly different with these two cards. They both go up as the likelihood of facing a big tough dork increases as the game goes up but it is a far sharper increase for Covenant as you have to pay a life for each toughness in play and not just the highest toughness in play. The wider an opponent goes the costlier it is for Covenant in terms of life and that in turn makes it rather more limited in how much you can afford to use it. It is a much more self limiting card than Deluge. Even so, Fire Covenant is absolutely outstanding with plenty of perks over Toxic Deluge so as to keep things interesting. Covenant is instant speed which is nutty good for a three mana mass removal tool and the number of blow out plays it can do as a result is a bit too much frankly. It is also fully targetted making it the most one sided card here. So often it is just three mana and an irrelevant amount of life (as a consequence of how brutal the effect is) to utterly reset the tempo of the opponent, typically trading about three for one on both cards and mana spent. One drop, two drop, Covenant is the safest win against anyone fool enough to curve with creatures in the first three turns short of those with the right protections! Covenant is good in control decks but it is unreasonable in the aggressive and midrange decks that can best exploit the one sided nature of the card while at the same time stomaching the high life cost it comes with. 





Wretched Confluence 8/10

The hitting power of this removal spell is pretty poor. It rarely seems to gain mana advantage when used even when all three modes are -2/-2. Yes, it can three for one but typically when it does it is killing relative chaff. Confluence is good as a mass removal spell not because of the power it has but the broad convenience. It is never dead and will do what you need it to in a pinch. It can be a much more devastating one sided Wrath if used in conjunction with a combat step. It can be used to kill one small pesky critter without feeling like you have wasted a big card as you can use the remaining modes on vaule. It has a lot of power, a lot of safety in the use of, and is so rarely dead that it seems to end most close games in which it is cast. It either abruptly ends the fight for board control or it provides too much value to compete with on that front. Rounded card with a consistently high performance. 





Finale of Eternity 8/10

This lacks a lot of the convenience of Confluence but it makes up for it in raw killing power. Where Confluence struggles to gain a mana advantage this rarely fails to do so. It has such a high ceiling and power level that even when you are taking out two dorks rather than just one it feels like great value. This thing has to have one of the highest cast to win ratios in my cube at present. Note that this is very much not the same as having a high win percentage when in opening hand or when in a deck. It also kind of needs a devastating ceiling as it is both a polar and a situational card. It is typically underwhelming against control decks and it can sit in hands offering little to no utility more so than most other cards I am happy running in cube. Very much a card to be feared and respected. One of those cards that seems unimpressive in a powered cube world of fast mana, massive fatties, and hard to interactive with combos, but as you move towards a more tempo and creature driven unpowered format cards like Finale of Eternity bubble to the top of the pile. 





Arc Trail 8/10




Forked Bolt 7/10

In the way that Finale of Eternity or Winds of Abandon can just come out late and utterly end the game on the spot these little red beasts can come out early and nip games in the bud. If I can kill two things in the first few turns of the game with either of these cards then the odds of me losing that game are stunningly low. Arc Trail in particular leads to those plays that make spectators wince, like they have just watched some leg breaking tackle in the sport ball. It doesn't matter whose the Llanowar Elf and Tireless Tracker are, when an Arc Trail sends them to the bin it hurts for all. These cards more so than any others have caused a meta shift away from too many one toughness dorks. Although make no mistake Plague Mare, Lava Dart, Chainwhirler, Plague Mare (and the new spectacle one), and Wrenn and Six all contribute to toughness bias in cube. 



Fury 9/10




Pyrokenesis 4/10

Here is a potent example of modality making cards powerful. Pyrokenesis is playable but not great, Fury is broken. The pitch mode is arguably better on Pyrokenesis simply due to being instant. It would be closer to the ability to hit planeswalkers but on a pitch spell the instant speed is at its most valuable. You are aiming these spells at dorks most of the time as it is due to there being more of them and the fact that when the dorks are dead it gets a whole lot easier to attack the walkers to death! Fury is simply that much better because for five mana you can get a high tempo disruptive two or better for one pro active threat. It is like a Massacre Girl that needs no setup and is entirely one sided! Pyrokinesis simply doesn't deliver on the six mana side of things meaning it isn't modal in a good way and unless you are able to get good value from the pitch mode the card is just kind of bad. Forcing yourself into a position to potentially eat a two for one or have a dead card. 





As you can see, a lot of highly rated cards on this list. One sided mass removal is where it is at! Or at least when you can get it on the cheap or at least on cards that can be otherwise used relatively cheaply. 

Monday, 4 July 2022

Playability Versus Impact

Power versus playability is a unique problem for cube curators. There are more than enough cards of all types now for cube and so the simple metric of playability is no longer the only sensible thing to consider when building a cube. It very simply used to be the case that you could rank cards by how much play they saw and simply cut from the bottom of that list as new stuff arrived and have a well curated cube as a result. There are now however plenty of cards than you would play a lot of the time that are not worth including in your cubes due to the lack of impact they have. The classic examples here is of the utility lands (to include half land MDFCs) and cheap cantrips (to include cheap cyclers). I did an article on the best do nothing cards should you feel you want a better idea of what they are and why you should look to play more of them than your probably do and it can be found at;

https://mtgcube.blogspot.com/2020/03/top-10-do-nothings-aka-cantrips.html 

Yes, you might chose to play Sokenzan, Cruicible of Defiance in 95% of your cube red decks making it one of the most played "red" cards in the cube however if it has a negligible impact on game impact then it isn't worth a slot in your cube. The mathematical solution is therefor a product of how playable a card is an how much it changes win percentage. Both are things you either need insanely large data sets for or something you have to estimate at. That is fairly easy I find for the amount a card is played but really tricky for the impact it has on win percentage. Even the most broken cards are unlikely to move it by more than a couple of percent, with most cards having a fraction of a percent effect on things. Card type makes it difficult too as some cards are threats that are supposed to win games while other cards disrupt, and other things increase the consistency of your stuff. I can fairly directly compare how much Baneslayer affects games compared to an Avacyn and be happy in my choice to play the latter in preference. Equally I can play both in my cube and quickly spot an increase in white top end threats going late in packs and being left in sideboards. When you have too much of a thing they are not spotted in decks so much as they are in sideboards and late in draft packs. If they start showing up in those places with any regularity it is time to get trimming. 



How then do I compare the win percentage change of Tithe to one of these five drop angels? The only way here is to measure it across thousands of games where I have not only the results but also the deck lists. Obviously this is not something I can do as I simply do not have the data. Only really something like MODO or Arena can hope to harvest the data to give precise win percentages for cards in decks. As such I have to be more intuitive. Luckily the highly playable but low impact stuff does wind up seeing a lot of play and so you can observe how impactful they are going to be. So while you do have to intuit your choices for the more subtle cards you do get given the best opportunity to do so. If I am playing a filler or "do-nothing" card and it literally does nothing positive after a couple of months or say in around twenty in game sightings then it is just not high impact enough and I cut it. Equally if it gets used a couple of times in that sort of window but doesn't have an appreciable effect on the game then again it is too low impact and gets cut. I don't need to know exactly how impactful those cards are to any greater precision but it doesn't matter it just isn't going to be relevant in cube when you are below a certain, and relatively high bar. This means I don't need the insane amount of data you might think as I am not trying to be exact, all you need is not impactful enough and you can move on with your day. The slot is going to be better off used by a narrow and infrequently played card that does offer a big impact, or just entirely empty resulting in a smaller, more consistent, and refined cube.    




Another convenience when trying to work out which low impact cards to include is that there isn't all that much in the way of direct competition between them and the action cards. You cannot fill a deck up with cantrips and do nothings, it needs some substance. There is very much an optimal number for such things and it becomes fairly obvious when you are reaching that limit. If your strictly better than a basic land fails to get play then you have too much of that sort of thing. As such I tend to find roughly what balance of things I want in my cube and then work towards that balance . This means my threats compete with each other, generally with the same sort of CMC threats in the same colours. My cantrips and do nothings compete with each other too but not with the threats, just so long as I have my ratios of the two roughly right. There are other groups too such as fixing, removal/disruption, ramp, and that sort of thing. Getting a good balance between these sorts of cards for your cube meta is one of the most important tasks of a cube curator and is one of the main contributors to a good drafting and playing experience of a a cube.

Time for a little tangent (skip to the last paragraph if you are not in the mood for such things) - I like to have somewhere between the perfect number of cards and one card over that perfect number for the various categories in my cube. This way I find you can tell more quickly when a group of cards is getting used less than before but also when it is getting used more. In general you want to keep your card categories near to this "perfect" number, which is just another way of saying you want to keep your ratios consistent. Too few of a card type and they will simply always get played all of the time and reduce choice in your draft and construction while removing variety from everything. Too much over this perfect number and you add inconsistency and bloat to your cube. It is harder to see when you need to adapt to a shift in the meta and the variance of your cube will be increasing on all metrics. This way you can adjust accordingly as the meta shifts by adding or subtracting similar cards. If I add cards to a group rather than replacing them then I will start to need to adjust the other categories as well by adding cards to them so as to keep my ratios accurate. Technically if I had an endlessly large supply of action (disruption and threats) of cube power level then I could add in an unlimited number of the various do nothing cards as well without messing up the ratios. What happens in reality is that you hit a stopping block when trying to expand the size of your cube beyond that of practicality or consistency, and that is simply too many weak or non-existent cards in key groups. 




And now a tangent on that first tangent! - A while back I noticed a sharp decline in people playing Terror effects, basically any black creature removal spell at two mana. The more restrictive one mana stuff saw play as did the many three or more mana cards that had no restrictions and hit planeswalkers. It was not wildly long lived but it might have been had I cut all the various options on the Terror like cards. They were not seeing enough play to merit keeping any of them (I likely had 3 or 4 cards like Go for the Throat in cube at the high point of this type of removals popularity) in cube yet I made sure to keep in one so that I could monitor when it started to pick up again. It has picked up but not to the levels it once held and probably lies somewhere between 1 and 2 copies of Terror like cards in my cube currently being the ideal balance. I couldn't tell you exactly what the cause of this lull was nor indeed why it reverted. I could hazard some educated guesses but there would be no evidence to support them!

With that in mind - Mana costs are so abrupt with very little ability to smooth them out. This means that as a meta shifts there will be a point at which certain card costs either cease to be viable or become viable depending on what they do. Slow a format down and you can start to pay three mana for a counterspell, add in all the broken power and even two mana actual Counterspell is too pricy. A small shift in the meta at just the right tipping point can make all, or most, of a group of similar cards as far as effect and CMC go, viable or unviable. 




This is what I think happened to black removal. The two mana stuff just sat at the wrong place where there was not enough consistency advantage over the one mana options to make up for the tempo concessions while the exact reverse was true when comparing it to the three mana alternatives. Decks simply played a mix of one and three mana removal giving them the ability to fight tempo well without risking too much in the way of dead cards unable to do the job they are supposed to. Bone Shards and Bloodchief's Thirst arrived on the scene and took the slots of the remaining best Terror effects. A little while later Infernal Grasp was released and we got one of the most reliable Terror style removal spells and more two mana removal started to get played again. Essentially we have two factors at play, a slow and steady move by the meta as a whole applying a pressure on the kinds of card that are viable thus making the conditions ripe for the more sudden and drastic changes when new and powerful cards doing the right things come along to accommodate the needs of that meta. 




So, to get a good amount and selection of do-nothing cards (or quality of life cards if you would prefer a more positive term for this fantastic group of cards) in your cube you first need to work out what sort of number your cube supports by adding in a bunch till they stop seeing play. Keep an eye on the draft side of things and make sure people are still getting good choices in their packs and making good decks. When you are happy with this have a bit of a count and see what your ratios look like and try to stick to that when adding or removing cards. Then simply remove the cards that least frequently do stuff (unless it is obviously game winning) until you are nearing your ideal ratios. Good ratios are far more important than having precise number balance for colours or points on the curve or even types of card. I see plenty of people with exactly X cards of each colour or strict allowances on things like point on the curve or numbers of a card type. While being aware of these things is great limiting yourself with fixed arbitrary rules only hinders your ability to curate with finesse. 

Ratios of cards that function the same way in game are the most relevant thing to balance by a long way. Further to that you really don't need to be precise, you have a good amount of wiggle room. Just be aware that although you can add or remove stuff without having to add or remove stuff in the other areas of your cube all the time as well that you will be adding a bit more tension on things when you do. I always notice when I get my first big pile of new cards to test from the new sets. Typically they are only in some of the categories and do not offer a well balanced set of things that keep the ratios in order. They are also typically averaging very much the low end of the power level in cube (made the case by my insistence on testing loads of cards!). All this jank added to a cube makes drafts a lot thinner and acts as a good incentive to get to the chopping block fast! Typically we end up adding an extra card to packs or something of that ilk so as to compensate for the lowered quality. I have even taken to testing the cards in groups so as to not add them all in at once but sadly I have not the play time to make this workable at present. 




A cube needs a mix of high impact cards and high playability cards and most cards cannot be both, although unsurprisingly the best cards are powerful and playable in much the same way that many of the best cards afford both tempo and value. To find the best low impact cards for you and your playgroup you need to find out how many of that kind of card your cube supports. Then you can have them compete for space internally by seeing how often they are used and how often it is relevant. This leaves you with the right balance of things overall and the best cards within your various well balanced groups. Castle Ardenvale was a perfect example of a card that had to go despite seeming amazing and arguably just being a great magic card. It almost always saw play in white decks and it fairly frequently got activated as far as utility land go. Castle just failed at the very last hurdle of simply never seeming to change the outcome of a game. It turns out that these days in cube spending five mana to make a 1/1 is effectively doing nothing! In practice what it means is that you are actually out of relevant stuff to do and that is as good as a loss against someone who still has anything relevant to do. 


Monday, 27 June 2022

Is White Good Now?

 

The short answer is that I don't know but it certainly seems that way. Read on for the long answer. White is very much turning up in most of the winning decks of late winning a lot of our recent events and placing highly most of the time when not winning. White has undulated in and out of the spotlight ranging from the best to the worst colour. It isn't really white that changed much, rather it was the meta adjusting itself around the fairly stable bar of white. Historically there was not much you could do with white in cubes. Either you played white removal with your blue cards and had a control deck or you played white weenie (sometimes Boros if you failed to get there with a mono coloured aggro deck). Every now and again a three colour midrange deck using white would rise to the top of the pile and give you a whole 3rd way to pack white cards successfully in cube.  




It was always the white weenie deck that set the bar, more so even than red aggro. The meta would shift in one direction until the white aggro deck was the best and then it would adapt and shift away from it again for a bit. It was never the case that white was the best deck, just the best suited, and it never lasted. Sure, white weenie has consistently averaged near a top tier deck. But when a deck is pretty dull and linear and it is all a colour has it is hard to get excited about it. 

So what is different now? If white is winning surely that is just another meta shift that will sort itself out in due course? The difference is the types of white that are winning and why. It is not just white weenie but white lead midrange decks as well. I have recently won with both a WG and a WR straight up midrange list, something that would have been a laughable archetype five or more years ago. Anything blue or black would have ripped such things to shreds. Further to that, the white decks are getting more interesting and, most shockingly, fun. There are choices to be made, card advantage to be had! Fun, versatile, and powerful sounds like it ticks all the boxes. 




So, the next obvious question is why is white doing so well at present? The answer as I deem it to be comes in several parts. The first is the thing I harp on about most presently which is how tempo based my cube seems to be now. This leans into white for several reasons. Firstly it has always had premium cheap dorks which help you gain tempo most effectively. White has also always been the weakest colour for card advantage which is least relevant in a world where tempo is superior to value. Lastly, white has the best removal in cube which gives it all the best tools to fight the tempo battles. If we consider the meta undulating to and from favouring white weenie to be like the tides then this added dimension of the meta favouring tempo or value is like a neap or spring tide on top of the usual movements and so all these natural undulations are lining up. That being said, I am not 100% convinced we will ever go back to a value dominated meta, value will become better or worse but it will still always be tempo that is the dominant metric to fight over. I think that is just the natural result of the increased card pool, card power, design balance and design direction. The game used to be a case of trying to make each of your cards count for more than each of their cards without dying in the mean time. Now the game is about judging how long a game will be and making your cards last that long. There is so much inherent card advantage, late game value, and mana sinks in the game now that it can never go back to being a game so dominated by value in the eternal formats. This is however a bit of a tangent to why specifically white is good and likely a whole article in its own right.

So, the stage is set for white to shine now and going forward. What else has changed? This is more down to the specifics of the cards. There are now a pile of reasonable-to-good cheap white dorks that pretty directly draw cards on an EtB trigger. This is great for multiple reasons and they have mostly all arrived over the last year or so. Firstly it increases deck consistency. When you can squeeze in cheap cantrip cards it means you see more of your key cards, your deck is effectively smaller and more consistent. If you are looking like you might fail to curve you flop out that Spirited Companion instead of the Adanto Vanguard and increase your chances of carrying on making your lands etc. 




White is also a colour that leans pretty hard on the creature buff from being the homeland of equipment to the natural habitat of the Anthem. A lot of their walkers and dorks also hand out buffs. With all that going on there is little better than being able to throw out cheap dorks that don't cost you cards. Add into the mix that the main thing white has that is fun or interesting or colour defining is the various flicker effects. White has always had a decent bunch of these and we have seen a couple of pretty good new ones arrive recently. These have really started to shine of late, a big part of which is thanks to this new depth of EtB card draw dorks. Flicker effects are only really as good as the EtB effects on the dorks you have at your disposal and so for a long long time flicker decks couldn't be mono white. Now they can and they can use their flicker to disrupt or gain value as required. Not only are a lot of these newer white EtB effect cards really good in their own right (Solitude, Skyclave Apparition etc) but they helped to activate the full potential of the flicker stuff really giving white that double push. Good removal for tempo and disruption on the one hand or a nice general purpose value generator with your Spirited Companions, Inspiring Overseer, and Ambitious Farmhand on the other. All cards you want to be playing anyway and all working well together.

The EtB draw cards help with value but they are not the only thing doing so. We have some other tools at long last in white that directly or indirectly generate some form of card advantage and it is lovely. The escape on Elspeth's Sun's Nemesis is such a big deal in this regard. It gives you a really persistent and high value threat that ultimately gives you a good amount of reach. Sword of the Realms on the back side of Halvar isn't the most commonly played card but it gives white all the late game it could ever want and has been significantly out performing Skullclamp in white dork based builds. There is Lurrus of the Dream Den as well who can slot nearly into a white deck and is especially brutal when paired with the likes of Selfless Saviour/Spirit and Dauntless Bodyguard, it is downright ugly when a Someone of Runes is kicking about as well! Esper Sentinel tends to be more disruptive than a source of value but there are elements of both. It is certainly a very strong, rounded, and playable new addition for white. 




Some more new cards with this disruptive angle include Mage's Attendant, Elite Spellbinder, Paladin Class, and Lion's Sash. These are quite new to white and offer a means of interaction that isn't just removing stuff in play. These tools really help it to fight against the less standard strategies and the more spell based decks. Typically these cards all offer really high option density which is one of the main things white was lacking. Magic is all about choices and so the more you have the better positioned you are to control the game in your favour and use skill to find a win.  

It is not just these disruptive cards that are loaded with option density. It is being woven into removal in interesting ways. Solitude is certainly oppressively powerful but the modal casting cost on top of the flash makes it a near continuously interesting choices as to how, where, and when it will be used. March of Otherwordly Light offers a similarly interesting set of choices as to sacrifices cards in hand for mana returns. 




The last big thing I want to discuss about white is flash and instant cards. These are huge in a number of ways and white has some of the best, especially when it comes to tempo. Flash lets you gain so much more value and safety with your cards, not to mention being one of the biggest things you can have as far as option density goes. They can be left to the last minute so as to gain the most information or dodge disruption from the opponent. They can come out at a surprise moment and mess up a combat step. Flash cards are to be feared and that gives white a real edge. Get ahead on the board and then put the fear of god into the opponent with mana up and cards in hand waiting for them to walk into something nasty. That used to be something you needed blue to help with but now white can pretty much do it by itself. Avacyn is a house who wins a whole load of games and is one of the few older threats that seems to be getting better with age and holding up well in the face of current power creep. Restoration Angel has always been one of the best flicker effects in white and like Avacyn has been getting better of late not worse. This is mostly down to the quality of the EtB dorks we discussed but just being a flash 3/4 flier get s a lot of work done. 




Then we have the big new name of Wandering Emperor, the only flash planeswalker and an absolute beating of a card. Combat trick, removal, board presence, threat, ability to overextend without fear of getting ruined by mass removal complete with the ability to navigate around countermagic better than most other such cards. Add to that Force of Virtue, Cathar Commando, Settle the Wreckage, Solitude again obviously.. all more examples of powerful, versatile, and new flash cards that have a big effect on the game. 

As white was so far behind the other colours in terms of card advantage and card quality effects they gained the most from the introduction of the more efficient artifact offerings for such things. Smuggler's Copter is obviously busted in all the colours but white felt like on of the biggest beneficiaries. Cards like Mazemind Tome, Reckoner Bankbuster, Retrofitter Foundry, and Treasure Map all offer more to white than they do in most other places and have been pretty big in pushing the midrange white builds. Even the utility land situation helps white more. Horizon lands are great but more great for white than other colours in exactly the same way the artifacts are. Castle Ardenvale and Cave of the Frost Dragon further help this but from a slightly different angle. One of the few things white can do is find plains and so cards that can loot, or turn excess mana in to something useful, or just cash in lands directly as per the Horizon cycle, all work especially well for white. Even the more aggressive side of things are getting interesting cards that give options and means of turning mana into value like Usher of the Fallen and Paladin Class.




So there we have it, a lot of new cards and types of card that are helping push white in a favourable meta. Powerful removal, option rich cards, high tempo cards, more good natural synergy cards, and most importantly of all - the cards that are helping plug the holes previously restricting white decks. So let us finish with a nice little example list of a midrange mono white deck packing as much new stuff as possible and looking highly competitive.




24 Spells


Thraben Inspector

Esper Sentinel

March of Otherworldly Light

Tithe 

Ephemerate 

On Thin Ice


Lion Sash

Cathar Commando

Spirited Companion

Charming Prince

Ambitious Farmhand 

Winds of Abandon

Citizen's Crowbar


Skyclave Apparition

Mage's Attendant 

Elite Spellbinder

Inspiring Overseer


Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis

The Wandering Emporer

Settle the Wreckage

Cast Out

Restoration Angel


Solitude

Avacyn



16 Lands

Field of Ruin

Cave of the Frost Dragon

Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire

13x Plains