Monday 23 October 2017

Cards that are much better in constructed and why

Now I talk about cards that are overrated a lot in cube, two of the main ones are Tarmogoyf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. While both are still good cards neither has anywhere near the strength they do in constructed. Being someone who almost entirely looks at Magic from the perspective of a cube player I generally think people overrate a lot of things like Jace. In reality constructed is a bigger part of the Magic scene than cube and as such I am the minority. If we are talking about all formats combined then I am very much the one who underrates Jace and Goyf! It is pretty understandable when people play cube they translate from what they know. If they know a world where Jace is the best planeswalker by a long way they are more include to assume that would be the case for cube. It is quite an odd one as planeswalkers in general are far better in cube yet Jace isn't anywhere near as far ahead of the pack, they all get better but for some reason Jace does not, or at least not by the same proportion.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
I have recently been watching a lot of Channel Fireball videos for a wide array of constructed decks. Mostly legacy and some modern but with a smattering of standard and vintage too. I usually stay interested long enough to watch a game or two. I always love to see innovative deck ideas and the reasoning behind subtle choices in refined tier one meta defining lists too. While watching such games it became vividly clear why Jace and Goyf and some other big names earn their reputation. It was clear and obvious in the context of each individual game why Jace was so powerful but it was less clear to me why this was a general case. There must be some fundamental difference between cube and constructed that make these cards change in potency. Obviously there are many differences between the two formats and they are generally pretty obvious. The issue is trying to find a mechanism which logically explains why it is happening. I want to understand what aspects of the formats lead to this change in power of cards.

To probe at a mechanism I needed to get a broader picture of which cards perform better or worse in cube than constructed. That would in turn allow me to get a better idea of the kinds of card, the sort of attributes they have, that makes them either better or worse. I looked through my cube and "the average 720 cube" and marked out all the cards that are far better in cube and those that are stronger in constructed. Obviously knowing cube better and doing it from the cards in my cube I mostly found cards that are better in cube. To even up the scales I started looking through constructed decks across many formats and did the same. With lots of cards to look at you start to get a feel for what the various attributes are that have bias either way. It is well known that synergy cards perform a lot better in constructed. I was trying to look beyond that as much as possible.

Gurmag AnglerSome of the biggest offenders presently are Death's Shadow, Gurmag Angler and Tarmogoyf. All of which benefit from synergies quite heavily and all of which are far better in constructed than cube. Shadow in particular is weak in cube as it is the only card that really works with low life (already my mind is plotting some cube sillyness with Argual's Blood Fast...) and so it isn't worth building around. The other two are certainly both very playable in cube and easy enough to support. You see a lot more 7/8 and 8/9 Goyfs in cube than you do in constructed even if the average size is lower. These three cards are very alike in that they are all just vanilla dorks with an extreme cost to stats ratio. Looking past the synergies for these cards you can see that constructed magic values linear efficiency significantly more than cube. A fat vanilla dork is rarely impressive in cube. Zoo is the only deck that really wants dorks that just offer good cost to stats ratios in cube. All the others want a bit more card value, utility or action on their cards.

Jace is also nothing like these cards and by far and away the biggest anomaly. Jace isn't linear nor is he cheap. It kind of blew my mind how much he was getting played in legacy given that he is so clunky to play. There is a very different reason as to why Jace is so potent in constructed. There are in fact loads of reasons but one main one. It ultimately does come down to the same reasoning behind the Anglers and Goyfs as well. Unsurprisingly it also derives from the nature of constructed formats in that they allow upto 4 copies of a card and have to make up a total of sixty. I am not even really going to look at access to cards, which is generally restricted in cube due to mostly being drafted in some way or another. I am pretty much comparing constructed 40 card singleton cube decks to 60 card constructed decks and how that affects the scaling of certain cards.

TarmogoyfConstructed decks on the whole are far more direct and narrow than cube decks. They do their thing and they aim to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are also significantly more aware of what they will need to combat in the meta and how damaging those cards are to their strategy. Constructed decks typically run about 12 distinct spells, obviously this is an average. Some 28 land constructed decks can go as low as 8 different spells while some exotic vintage decks are packing well over 40 unique spells. The norm tends towards lower numbers for much the same reasons that you don't exceed your minimum card limit for decks. Twelve is also a nice number to estimate at because it is exactly half of what you play in your typical cube deck which is an average of 24 unique spells per deck and with a far far smaller range. By this logic you can roughly assert that a cube deck will be half as consistent as a constructed one in terms of being able to follow a plan. You can also say that you will have to deal with more unusual and unexpected stuff in cube than in constructed.

Constructed decks being able to do their things more consistently gives them incentive to be even more linear. If their thing wins and they can do it quickly then they only need to worry about exactly the the things that stop their thing or that can win faster. This combined with knowing a bit better of what to expect from archetypes and the meta in general means constructed decks tend to be more polar. They will often wind up with some cards that are super hard for them to beat main deck and a bunch of main deck cards that will wind up dead in some matchups. Cards all have a specific purpose in constructed be that disrupting the scary things or working towards your own end game plan.

Constructed decks can often feel like they have been built as a 50ish card deck and a 25ish card sideboard with the most generally applicable sideboard cards run main. Only the most proactive decks in the meta can be all cards towards their own goal. Despite the meta and matchup based pre sideboarding aspect of constructed decks the remaining cards are typically much more on theme than is achievable in cube. I talk about being on and off theme quite a lot in cube where it is more important to have every card in the deck as being on theme however the remit of said theme will be significantly broader in cube. Constructed decks having more synergy based plans and better access to those cards means their theme cards are typically of a narrow range of cards that have a very specific game plan in mind. The theme for a cube deck will be substantially more vague and thus allow for many more kinds of cards to work in that archetype.

Fact or FictionSo, what does all this mean? The one fundamental thing I was noticing about constructed when compared to cube is how many games were won or lost based on running out of gas. People ran out of gas that much quicker  in constructed with a higher number of dead cards in their main decks and a generally lower curve. The preside boarding aspect of constructed also means lots of cheap one for one removal being used which also hastens the rate at which players run out of gas. If one player ran out of action and the other did not then they lost. In cube it is super rare to run out of action. Most games are won or lost while both players still have stuff going on. Even when you don't have any gas in hand there is a wealth of things to be getting on with in cube. You will be able to level up a dork, activate a utility land, flashback something in the bin, cash in a bunch of clues, etc. It is for this reason I value tempo so highly in cube and have found cards like Fact or Fiction and other high end pure value cards to be hard to use and far weaker than in other formats. If mostly you are dying with things still to do then you don't really need more cards, you need to be doing more sooner! Constructed decks typically can't do more sooner, they are already finely tuned to be as quick as possible at doing their thing.

When individual cards matter more as they do in constructed the value of seeing more of them increases. A big part of what makes Jace so good is that you get to see three more cards a turn if you wish. If you have shuffle effects he also negates any dead cards you might have drawn. The extra physical card is better in constructed and so is the ability to go three deep into your deck. More on Jace later as we are going to return to the efficient fatties.

In a format where you are often trading one for one and it can often wind up as last man standing you really want that last man to be able to end the game quickly. By winning quickly you reduce the draw steps your opponent gets. Obviously this applies in all formats but it is far more significant in constructed. Both because of the polar nature of potential draws and because resources are consumed that much faster. In cube you are looking for the reliability of the threat more than the raw speed of it. Cube threats tend to be more tenacious. They often go wide or go over or go through, they are often hard to remove or generate ongoing value. This is because cube is far more cluttered than constructed. A Tarmogoyf is fairly unreliable threat in cube because there will be things to block it most of the time. It doesn't quickly close out a game which is why you play the card in constructed.

ThoughtseizeA friend argued that Goyf was basically a combo card these days when used with black one mana discard. Inquisition and Thoughtsieze are incredibly potent turn one plays that heavily disrupt the opponent but that fall off in value as the game goes on (in any format). If you follow either of those with a Goyf you can try and end the game while the effects of your discard still resonate hard.

Back now to another major part of what makes Jace the best planeswalker outside of cube. When you are facing down a single vanilla fatty, regardless of size, the -1 to bounce it is immensely effective. In cube you are lucky to be able to make that sort of play without instantly losing the Jace to their board, perhaps a man land, or just some haste dork. Jace can buy you that extra turn in constructed which will then let you see four extra cards on that turn and with all your mana active. In those four you can either find the answer to their threat and win from the value and control of the Jace or just find the things your deck does and win with those things!

Other more subtle elements also factor in to the strength of Jace in constructed. Things like Abrupt Decay and Lightning Bolt (if you +2 to avoid it) and other premium removal simply don't deal with it. The +2 is also a lot more powerful on a deck with polar draws and potentially out of gas as well. Yet another factor in the performance of Jace in constructed is that you only see him when he is the right card for the deck. In cube it it such a potent card you see it rammed into loads of places where it isn't so optimal. While this doesn't make the card any less good it does hurt its performance.

Ob Nixilis ReignitedIn cube the raw power of the effects on a planeswalker are not quite so important, you are just playing a planeswalker to be a good all round card. Either it will get value over time or it will trade with something and stall out your opponent. Most also have the perk of being able to win the game either through their ultimate or through generating dorks or even doing direct damage. While Jace is still a great card in the cube he does fall down a little when compared with some of the alternatives. Take Ob Nixilus Reignited for example, a decidedly average walker but a pretty classic template of gain a card or deal with a dork, much like Jace. Both go to 2 loyalty when they deal with a dork but Ob actually kills it and so when you invariably lose your two loyalty walker to a shock or something the Ob has gone one for one and bought you time while Jace has gone zero for one. When you use the card draw mode Ob goes to a healthy 6 loyalty while Jace sticks on 3. Yes, a Brainstorm is wildly better than draw a card and lose a life but you are using them in much the same way and in much the same situations. You are probably winning or desperate. Being able to grow in loyalty and become both safer and more threatening is a much bigger win when you are able to hit the value button. It is essentially doing multiple things and not just one thing. Greater safety, immediate value or the ability to do two things at once such as the plus one on Ob are the hallmarks of a good cube walker. Jace is just a little less well suited to cube than he is constructed. His raw power carries him and keeps him in the tier one bracket but he doesn't stand out from the crowd.

So that is basically it! My key finding was that people run out of things to do in constructed far quicker than in cube. The greater redundancy and consistency from fewer distinct spells empowers synergies which speed up the format and in turn make archetypes more linear. That in turn demands more focused disruption which of course also has to be cheap. This means draws are more polar and resources are depleted much quicker. Cube has such a motley assortment of cards that you never know what you are going to have to deal with. Decks need to be more rounded and capable. As cube is a slower format and decks cannot rely on synergies as much to empower them the range of cards they can ignore is much smaller. I find it pretty fascinating how a few differences in the nature of construction provide a cascade of effects which result in significant differences to power levels of cards. Although some things are obvious a number of them are much more subtle and only become significant when combined with the many other subtle changes. It does seem that all of the differences favour Jace, the Mind Sculptor when going from cube to constructed which explains why he is such a bomb in constructed and just good in cube, at least to my satisfaction!


  1. Great article as always.

    One expression that gets thrown around a bit on the forums is "decision density". Something that I think reflects one of the key differences you pointed out - namely that in cube games tend to end while there's still a lot going on. In cube (especially one with a low curve), you have a ton of plays you could make and you need to choose which to do and when to make them. My experience is you always have more things you can do that you have time for before the match is decided. That creates a lot of important decision points, encourages interactive games, and fosters opportunities to make good and bad plays (promoting skillful play). I believe it’s the primary factor for why cube is so great as a format.

    I have never played professionally but even in casual constructed, things are a lot more polar as you pointed out. I feel like many (most?) meaningful decisions are made not in the game itself but during deck construction and in between matches with side boarding. The games themselves are generally just a series of planned executions - either doing your thing or trading resources so you can get to do your thing. Not that you don't have choices to make - of course there are decision points. But in cube, it feels deeper.

    You are effectively “playing the meta” a lot less in cube. I think it boils down to that. Instead you are reacting or planning during the game based on board states, cards in hand, etc - even more so than what your deck was built to do. Archetypes clearly exist in cube, but it's all a lot looser. I've built plenty of decks that were supposed to be aggressive or focus on game plan X and they wind up playing a lot different than that during matches either because I didn’t draw into a fast start. the right combination of cards or I ended up facing something I couldn’t race and had to shift gears. Consistency is one factor but also just having to change game plans as you determine what you are up against.

    There’s an article somewhere out there - probably pretty old. But it basically talks about games of Magic boiling down to answering a simple question “are you the beatdown”? And how you answer that changes how you must approach a match. Even if your deck is supposed to beat down, if you face something that beats harder you have to play like a control deck or you’ll just lose. Maybe this is an antiquated way of thinking about Magic these days, but it still seems to serve me well in cube. The faster in a match I can figure out how I should be playing (am I the beatdown?), the more likely I am to find an advantage, exploit it and win.

  2. I yet again agree! It is the combination of cube games often going on much longer than constructed games while still not running out of things to do despite typically having low curves. This as you say leads to more interesting and decision dense games which is why I think cube is the best and most skill intense of all formats. This is not to take away from the others at all, they are still plenty hard enough! I did love the preparation, the problem solving and the counterplay, not to mention the more frequently evolving formats in constructed.

    The "are you the beatdown?" article is certainly a spot on piece that has lost no validity with time. It is also fair to say it applies more to cube than constructed as well as the decks are more vague and varied.

  3. Great article! I agree that all of these cards are weaker in cube, but to varying degrees. Jace I have found to be almost as powerful in cube as in constructed. you are right that his minus loses a little due ti all the ETB effects in cube but brainstorm still often just says draw 3 w a shuffle effect and any game where he survives 2+ turns is basically GG.

    Goyf was so weak that i cut him from my original cube. Too small early, and too vanilla late. i find that there is a ton of creature kill in cube and vanilla beaters have to be huuuuuuge. The lack of multiple fetches, one drop cantrips and discard in every deck just kills this guy in cube. i recently upped my GY enablers w vessel, grapple, etc so trying him again.

    Basically the same comment for angler as goyf. i run tombstalker and Tasigur because evasion and card advantage but skipped angler.

    I find most constructed (modern and legacy) creatures tend to underperform in cube since they are either combo pieces or undercosted beaters that come w deck building restrictions to fully take advantage of. standard creatures tend to fair better, since they often have higher raw power levels but not quite the power when optimized in older formats

    1. Thanks! I totally agree with all of this. Jace is usually GG if he sticks for a couple of turns but I find this to be the case for most of the 4+ CMC walkers in the cube.

      I was never brave enough to actually cut Goyf, it has always seen a good amount of play, just rarely from me! The delirium synergies and good green card quality cards have certainly improved Goyf recently in cube but he is still just a vanilla dork. I presently only have Tasigur left as delve options on dorks too. Tombstalker was a big deal back in the day but fell off massively after Baneslayer Angel warped the format.

      You make a really good point about the standard dorks tending to be better cube fits than the modern and legacy ones. It is totally accurate and not a distinction I had noticed until you pointed it out. I think the total bomb dorks that are staples anywhere they can be played mask this fact a little. Deathrite, Stoneforge, Snapcaster, Swiftspear, Baleful Strix, the cascade dorks and perhaps a couple more cards are all just so good and at the top of the pile so as to obscure trends further down. Once this cream is skimmed off you do start to notice a much bigger trend of the modern/legacy dorks in cube under performing and the standard cards doing much better.