Saturday, 8 September 2018

Top 9 Blue Card Quality Cards

IndexIve done a brief section on card quality before, but it is generic, old and simply too far from accurate for it to really stand the test of time! Previously I lumped all card quality together, making it an even less useful list, as well. I plan to at least follow this list with one for the green effects - we shall see where that leaves us, but for now we are going to start at the king of card quality;Blue. Within all the colours, Blue has the most card quality, as well as the best. What typically makes it superior to the offerings of other colours is pure ease of useas it rarely limits you to specific card types. It is typically low risk, with mostly card neutral effects, low costs, no chance of wiffing, and no additional costs or requirements.

The need to redress the previous assessments of card quality I have made is down to a couple of changes in the meta. One change is from me and the other is Wizards. I took out combo elements from my drafting cube recently, and as such some of the more combo orientated card quality effects fell in value. Cards like Frantic Search and Careful Study are amazing in the right decks, but in a more standard type of aggro/midrange/control deck the loss of card advantage is harmful to the value of such things. The other change in the meta is Wizard's doing and it is the more pronounced effect. They have printed so many good threats that tempo has begun to dominate my drafting cube, which in turn has made the potency of card quality highly reliant on low cost.

See BeyondThis list is one of the closest-looking to what the same list but for constructed would be. Usually the nature of cube metas leads to some quite significant differences in card performance. Card quality, however, being so direct and pure is less affected by meta nuances, and this in turn makes it diverge less, when compared to other formats. The growing pressure of tempo in cube has made this list resemble a constructed one more, as well. As recently as five years ago, you would have the time to mess about with a Divining Top but now, without specific and potent synergies for it, you are going to just get dead sinking mana into a Top. A lot of decent card quality has fallen by the wayside with the rise of tempo, due to being a little on the slow side. Blue is the worst tempo colour already, and so it is best to not make matters any worse by running card quality that gets in the way. Although a little bit spoiler-y, I do not currently rate any two or more mana card quality effect higher than any one mana card neutral option. I literally run every viable one that exists and they all see loads of play.

Strategic Planning, Anticipate, See Beyond, and Chart a Course are all fine cards that barely see any play now. You used to find these things (barring Chart as it doesn't predate the tempo era) all over the place. You only really find these cards in places in specific need of the way the card works, in today’s scene. Planning only goes in delve and other decks running from the yard, See Beyond only goes in decks where it is important to have things in your hand actually back in your library, for making Oath or Tinker usable, say. Chart is only played as a card quality spell in decks needing discard, such as Reanimate. This is mostly the effect of the increasing tempo of cube squeezing out the pricier options.

Search for AzcantaThere are a bunch of cards like Looter il-Kor, Jace (Vryn's Prodigy), Champion of Wits, Enclave Crytologist and, I guess if we want to stretch it, also the Mind Sculptor and Vendilion Clique. These are all exceptional cube cards (well, Cryptologist is just OK) and they all offer card quality. The thing that makes them good, however, is not how good they are as card quality but how versatile and all-round powerful they are - card quality is just one aspect of what these offer. None of them make a one-land hand look like a keeper and that is something that makes for great card quality. 

We then have a couple of similar sorts of card in Search for Azcanta and Dig Through Time, that are even heavier on the card quality side of things than the last group but still do more than just provide card quality, and as such do not have the same early-game impact. The thing these two have most in common with the premium card quality cards is providing no tempo! Absolutely,both these cards are exceptional, but they are cards that yield their value slower and later in the game. Both are also ultimately card advantage, which means that despite being a lot more powerful than most of this list, neither will be featuring on it. Neither are cards that make that one-land hand significantly more appealing nor afford the same impact of setup on the midgame. Search offers some, but it is more about what it does for your late-game. If you are playing Search for what it does in the midgame, you should simply play Careful Study over it!

Thought ScourThere are cards like Condescend, Mystic Speculation and Reason // Believe which can offer a lot of card quality on turn one, however the card cost, as with Careful Study, is simply too onerous for general purpose use and they cannot be so easily abused for synergy as the discard effects. Condescend is a great card, but only when you are able to counter things and thus have it be card neutral and ideally tempo-positive. Then, its great, but then it doesn’t make that one-land hand better. The corner case of being on the play and "countering" something for X = 0 just for the scry 2 to find lands is a boost to the card, but it isn't enough to get it on this list!

I was more inclined to add spurious examples of one mana "card quality" cards to this list than any of the cards previously discussed. Two pairs of one mana cantrip cards in blue afford things you could consider card quality. Simply by being one mana cards that draw a card, they help more than a lot of things with a one land opener! That isn't card quality though, that is just card draw. That has been the fate of most two mana card quality spells, however. People elect to play a one mana card that replaces itself instead, most of the time, as it is just so much less damaging to good tempo curves. Chromatic Star, Urza's Bauble, Censor, Renegade Map and cards of this nature all seem to see way more play than two mana things with actual card quality on them. Certainly, you can argue effective deck size reduction is card quality, but it is a very passive form without inherent choices.

Strategic PlanningThe two pairs of cards that are one mana cantrips that offer a little bit more "effective" card quality than mere deck-thinning are Mental Note and Thoughtscour, along with Peek and Gitaxian Probe. The latter pair is trickier to argue, as they provide information rather than choices. The information gained will affect your choices and consequently, like real card quality, lets you play more efficiently. The self-mill cards do even more for you in so many avenues, but they don't provide choices. They provide information, they can provide selection (for recursive effects), they can produce fuel, they can be combined with other effects to produce card quality, but despite coming super close to being card quality they just aren't. Great cards, great support for loads of things and highly played, but much as I would love to, I can't really put them on this list.

With all those contenders covered we can now get to the actual top 9! Why is this a top 9 and not a more obvious 8 or 10, you might ask? Well, I had a list of 10, started writing it and got far too far through doing it before I realised my list of the best ten cards contained nine cards. For the tenth card for those that care I would have Strategic Planning for my midrange yet graveyard-heavy cube. I would have See Beyond for any cube with combo options and I would just have a boring Anticipate for the slower cubes where control does well, like most iterations of the modo cube. For actual power levels, I would have cards like Search for Azcanta fairly high up this list, but I wanted to try and keep it fairly pure as to the ways the spells worked so as to provide more meaningful comparisons. This list might be better interpreted as a top 9 card quality spells for early game setup.

Lat-Nam's Legacy9. Lat-Nams' Legacy

I used to rave about this, as back when combo dominated and control was the other big name, Lat-Nam's Legacy saw so much play. Either it was protecting against targetted discard, setting up a library or just being one of relatively few instant speed options that control players were more comfortable running. In terms of card quality functionality, Lat-Nam's is simply a slower but safer version of Tormenting Voice. Pay two mana, take a card out of your hand and then get two new ones to replace it. Simply put, that isn't a very efficient return. It is fairly hard to quantify how much quality is gained from an effect as context is still always relevant. Option density is a part measure, but it doesn't account for the different values of the options presented. As such, I cannot be very precise about how little the returns are for Legacy, but I am confident it represents a big fall off in potency compared to the rest of this list. It affords less card quality than some of the one mana cards, however you might chose to measure it. Legacy is great when it is serving those specific purposes, but when it is just being used for a bit of card quality it is not enough bang for your buck. Instant speed also fails to save it. Another issue with the card is that, unless you go with as written over oracle text, you cannot use it without a card in your hand to reshuffle. Legacy has a variable option density that reaches zero when you just have the single card in hand to reshuffle. Your maximum options (assuming you are not exceeding seven cards in hand) is six, which is decent, but a good ceiling is not recovering a card from a poor floor and a mediocre average. There are just so many cycling cards, thanks to Amonkhet, that add more utility to your deck than Lat-Nam's Legacy does that I have finally cut it from my cube after an exceptionally strong run. I am not going to check, but it expect it to have more total time in the cube and more play than the last hundred cards I cut from the cube combined, possibly more. The card has put in good work and I almost feel guilty for exposing its flaws.

8. Impulse
Good and clean card quality. While instant speed was not enough to save Lat-Nam's Legacy, it is for Impulse. As a sorcery, I doubt this would see much play but as it stands, it has a wide appeal to permission and even prowess decks, in addition to any more general purpose card quality duties. Four cards is deeper digging than most other options offer, certainly more than all the other playable options. That alone finds it getting run in many tutor light combo decks. There is no need to pair Impulse with anything for it to perform optimally, it just works well all on its own. It might not help out with a one-land hand very much, but it almost always turns a two land hand into a keeper. That is a key part of why Impulse is so strong - when you need lands, you are at least 90% on to find one. Most of what card quality does is ensure a smooth ratio of lands and spells. Certainly it helps with having the right spell, but unless you have a massive range on your CMCs, your build should do most of the work on that front! Impulse is surprisingly close to Demonic Tutor in amount of play in my non-combo cube, despite that on turn two Demonic has about eight times the digging potential of Impulse. As decks thin, Impulse's dig potential tends towards that of Demonic and does reach it, although obviously never exceeds it! Sorcery is the main reason Impulse does well compared to Demonic, but finding lands is also a very big factor. If you use your early card quality to find lands and we approximate Demonic to being as good as Impulse at doing that, then we bring the cards rather closer than the eight fold disparity I suggested at the start. If you then start to account for built-in redundancy to a list, you further close the gap between Demonic and Impulse. Comically, Impulse has a monumental option density, as you get to choose how you order cards on the bottom of your library. This is relevant, but infrequently and mildly. For strong options, you get four, which is healthy enough given how clean and reliable the card is otherwise and how much information it presents you for making that choice. Four is less than the good one mana options, but it is enough to keep the card playable. You are paying more for the depth of digging and the instant speed, rather than the high option density with Impulse.

Portent7. Portent

Portent is one of the most powerful and versatile card quality cards on offer, but it is heavily hampered by delaying the card draw aspect. Far more so than with Legacy, where the instant speed allows you to reduce the time before you can make use of what you draw. A few decks, such as miracles, can use the slow draw of Portent to their advantage, but mostly it is a big old drawback. It basically means if you draw Portent instead of land, it can't help you find one to make that turn. It means Portent only helps you from the following turns and that makes it increasingly weak the longer a game goes on. That being said, Portent gets to be fairly brutal in the late game as disruption. Setting back a relevant draw by a turn or two can be all you need to win those late game top-deck wars. The disruptive element of Portent can also be nasty early-on, when you can punish missed land drops. Having all this disruptive capacity whilst also being functionally a Ponder in most early game settings makes Portent a solid and underrated card. Being so close in function to Ponder, it will come as no surprise that Portent scales very nicely with other library manipulation effects. Portent has a massive 14 options, all of which have at least reasonable value. This makes it the second most relevantly option-dense card on this list (if you include the potential ordering on the bottom from Impulse it knocks Portent down to third!).

Sleight of Hand6. Sleight of Hand

From one of the most option dense we jump to the (joint) least. You have a mere two options with Sleight, any less and you would have no choice at all! Sleight is pretty baseline, but it is also reliable. In many ways it is the one mana Impulse. Sleight actually compares favourably to scry 1 then draw a card, although they are very similar. All of why Opt is better is due to being instant - if Sleight were instant it would be one of the best card quality spells on offer. There are four possible situations when Opting or Sleighting, either you want both cards, neither card, or one and not the other (which accounts for two of the four options). This is an over simplification, as you also have every shade of wanting a card between those extremes, but it serves to illustrate the advantage of Sleight. In the case of wanting both cards Opt is better, in the case of wanting neither equally then the cards are equal. In the case of wanting one card and not the other, Sleight wins out. It is fine if you don't want the top card with Opt, but if it is the second you don't want then you have no ability to put it to the bottom. Now, this makes it seem like half the time, these two cards are equally good, and each gets to be better for a quarter of the time, which is true in the example. Sleight then wins out due to providing more information to you before you have to make your choice. This is amplified for Sleight when you consider the shades of how good or bad cards are and not the ‘all or nothing’ modes I used in the example.

Ponder5. Ponder

Option density of seven, but I rate the average value of these options a bit lower than some of the more self-contained cards. I mentioned that this list was close to that of the same one but for constructed formats like legacy, and indeed most other lists pertaining specifically to cube. Ponder is the most removed from where it is in constructed, being rather weaker in cube. Portent shares the issues Ponder has, but is less vexed by them as it has its own worse issues. It also makes up for it a bit with disruptive elements. So why is Ponder weaker in cube? Simply you have access to less other library manipulation. There are less sac lands in the cube to share between 8 than most single decks have in modern or legacy. Without any library manipulation, Ponder is generally the weakest card quality spell on this list. The option to Index three cards or to shuffle is decent but limited in control. The Index element is no filtering of cards, and only really gives you access to things a little earlier. This is great for combo or when digging for an answer, but it is of less use when trying to maximize the potency of your draws. The shuffle isn't filter either, it is just a get out of jail free when your lack of card filtering would otherwise punish you. It just resets a below-average top of deck to an average one, but it is random and could well be worse! With an external shuffle on tap, Ponder is great, it lets you dig deep and keep as many of the cards you see as you like. It is not far off scry 3 then draw with said shuffle, and that is top shelf stuff. While a high ceiling, it is the average performance of Ponder in cube that has it low on this list but still played most of the time. That, in itself, is not really an impressive measure as all the one mana cards on this list see play in most events they show up in. They are some of the most played cards in cube.

Serum Visions4. Serum Visions

An option density of five, four solid ones and a mild one, but clearly I rate the average of those five above the average of Ponder's seven. Unlike Ponder, the Visions does a little better in cube than elsewhere for performance, but it is only mild. Visions offers no immediate value, as you need subsequent draws before you reap the benefits of the scry. This means in slower games your Serum Visions tends towards the power of Preordain. Cube being a bit slower than formats these cards are big names in is why Visions is a little better. Another perk of Visions in cube, relative to other formats, is that it is more in demand as library manipulation. Visions is superior to Preordain when it comes to setting up a Delver flip, and while it may not be in the same league as the best cards at such things, there really is not that much out there that does that kind of thing. When using this as a turn one play, be that digging for lands or just general setup, there is almost nothing between it and Preordain which is a great place to be.

Opt3. Opt

Another minimalist two options with Opt. As discussed, Opt is a bit of a weaker effect than Sleight of Hand. It is also half the scry of Visions, making it typically less than half the filtering potential. So what makes Opt such a premium card in cube? It is all in that instant speed tag. It makes it desirable in control decks wanting to keep mana up. It makes it better for prowess decks, where it is now also a combat trick. It makes it better for use with storm, so you can power up the likes of Wing Shards and Flusterstorm. It might well just let you wait till the end of the opponents turn, so as to maximize your information before making choices. On top of this huge instant value, there is also a little bit of the self contained value and the immediate value. Opt needs no support from sac lands like Ponder does to perform optimally, nor does it delay the value it offers like Serum Visions or like Portent. Opt is mild, but it is all good.

Preordain2.   Preordain

Also an option density of five. I love this little card, it does a lot of work. It is the card I most want to bail out those dodgy opening hands. The best way to think of Preordain is like a Sleight of Hand that is optimal regardless of your card balance. It is as good when you want one and not the other, but it is still good when you want both or neither. You get a good amount of information and a good amount of dig. Like Opt, the card is also self contained and affords immediate value on the filtering and information. Yes, Opt has all the nice perks instant speed affords it, but ultimately you are playing these cards as a way to pay mana to scry, and when looked at like that, Preordain looks a whole lot like twice the card Opt is. Apply that transition to Impulse, make it sorcery speed and look at eight cards! Sounds really good, and the gulf in value between instant and sorcery (especially in blue) expands as you go up the curve.

Brainstorm1. Brainstorm

Not a card that has avoided the spotlight. This card has been cast more than most throughout the history of Magic. It is iconic, old, potent and a delicious one mana. Brainstorm eclipses anything else on the two mana slot for potential. If we are talking option density, you get a baseline of six when you cast it on an empty hand. On a full hand, it is closing in on a hundred. By my workings, if you have a seven card hand when you cast it, and thus go upto nine before putting back, I calculate (with only mild confidence) an option density of ninety. Brainstorm does also suffer the issues Ponder does, in that without library manipulation the card performs less well. The sheer power of Brainstorm mitigates that almost entirely. You often find yourself holding back things for the potential to pair them with Brainstorm, because of how good that would be. Turning Ponder into scry 3 is good, but turning Brainstorm into Ancestral is nuts, throw a free Mystical Tutor in mix too, if you like, why not!? Brainstorm is instant, because again, why not? In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. Opt gets to rate above Serum Visions for that, and so Brainstorm gets to be even betterer! Brainstorm sets up miracles, Delver and all that toss better than anything else. It is one of only a few good ways to put cards in hand back into the deck, which is surprisingly valuable for many combo decks trying to work in singleton formats. Brainstorm even protects you against hand disruption to a fairly good degree. Those old Cabal Therapy plays, where you Brainstorm in response and everyone has lots of fun double guessing each other. Brainstorm also crushes all the other card quality in terms of immediacy of effect. I was lauding Ponder for having good immediacy, because it went three deep and gave you one of those right away. Brainstorm goes three deep and lets you use all of them right away (assuming mana and at least two other cards in hand). I have won several games when Brainstorm found the combination of two cards I needed to survive or steal the win, and in those cases no other card neutral cheap card quality spell would have been enough. They made Brainstorm four mana and sorcery speed, tacked on some fluff and the card was still too good, subsequently eating the ban hammer. Much as Brainstorm is well, well above the curve, like arguably more above the curve than Swords to Plowshares, I don't resent it at all, nor the Plow for that matter. Brainstorm makes the game better, and is not a threat, in and of itself. It does not affect the board or the life totals in any way and is a tempo loss to use. Over powered threats hurt the game, but more passive or reactive cards can be that bit more pushed and not cause problems.

These top seven cards really define blue in my cube, more so even than Jace, countermagic or card draw. You play green for one mana ramp effects and you play blue for one mana card quality. I feel like the top 7 on this list probably all sit in the top 10 most played blue cards in my cube. While Force of Will and Cryptic Command are no doubt more powerful and desirable, they are both substantially more demanding on your blue commitment and as such cannot be sensibly played as much as you might like. I think the other three most played blue cards would be Snapcaster, Vryn's Prodigy and Gitaxian Probe. Even I am a bit shocked that Mind Sculptor isn't in the top ten, but that is an evolving meta for you. I certainly added more creatures of late that are bad to bounce with a Jace than those that are good to bounce. 

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