Saturday 30 November 2019

The Value of a Card

I started this exercise in an attempt to demonstrate the difference in value between token and non-token creatures but it failed to really help with that problem as I had hoped. All the exercise really did is further prove to me that the value of a card is entirely based on context. While I cannot easily put a value on a card I can perhaps at least convince you that part of the value of drawing a card has absolutely nothing to do with what that card is or does. I was going to use near blank cards like Darksteel Relic or Spellbook as my example of a blank card but the issue there is that you can have all sorts of uses and synergies for those things and that all rather muddies the waters. Instead I designed this card which is simply a reworking of Ancestral Recall such that it only draws effectively dead cards. It is not quite perfect in that it doesn't trigger actual drawing effects and wouldn't trigger an opposing Consecrated Sphinx. I am sure I could add wording to allow for such things but the card is already on the wordy side. The point is that this card is clearly pretty good and would likely see play in a lot of formats. If all this does is draw you dead cards in hand and yet still seems good then it is clear that cards in hand is a valuable resource, regardless of what they do or do not do themselves. Almost like how life points all do nothing for you barring the last one. Ancestral Illusions doesn't even help with things like Ivory Tower triggers or provide a great pool of unknowns for your opponent as three actually dead cards in hand would do. Mostly what this does is turn your loot effects into draw effects for a bit. It lets you power up your Collective Brutality. It is not even useless when you don't have effects that work with discarding cards from hand as it protects against things like Blightning.

Now, you wouldn't play this card without synergies to go with it. Unless your list is full of Faithless Looting, Vryn's Prodigy and Brainstorm this doesn't seem worth it. Much like how Treasure Cruise stops being worth playing when you slowly and unreliably fill up your graveyard. So what does this tell us? It can be used as a measure for potential scaling in your deck. If Ancestral Illusions is a card you would play in your deck then you can say that your deck scales well with cards. A better way of thinking about this is perhaps to say that it scales well with dead cards as that communicates better how to use it to your advantage. If your deck is good with dead cards this means you can play more situational cards if you want because the cost of having them is less detrimental. The same is true for expensive cards, you can get away with being a little more top heavy as you have ways to make use of those card when you can't simply cast them. Coming at it from the other direction your list will also benefit more from raw draw effects and perhaps less from other value generators than average.

Returning to the original aim of this article, the main thing worse about a token creature when compared to a non-token one of the same shape and size is simply that it ceases to be a card when dealt with. As such it cannot be discarded from hand or delved out of the bin, it is simply no longer a resource you can exploit. I always state that it is bounce and flicker effects that make tokens bad compared to real creatures but this is only really a small part of it. If they are wasting a bounce or flicker on a 1/1 token you are probably OK with that. The value of bounce is in the tempo, not being able to replay the token that got bounced is not the relevant part of the bounce, it is the tempo that was gained and lost by that body not being in play at that time. Bigger and better tokens certainly scale up worse than cards of the same shape and size for this reason but on the small end of the spectrum the not being an actual card is the larger share of why the token is less valuable.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Adventure White .dec

Giant KillerThis is an article with two main points. That white weenie is really good at the moment and that the white adventure creatures are really good. These two facts are linked but not exclusively by any means. This is an article posing as a deck tech but really it is an opportunity to discuss what is going on in white weenie that is making it strong at present. Identifying an archetype as on the rise in power in a meta is handy but understanding why is a much more useful thing. It helps you in the specific context of building, drafting and playing the archetype but it is also a transferable skill that lets you better appreciate other archetypes in other metas. Magic is just such an interwoven web of little nuggets of understanding and appreciation any that you add in to your own will improve your overall game.

White weenie has been around longer than cubing has. It has always been viable in cube and fairly often one of the good decks. Things in metas are somewhat self balancing, especially when doing so against linear strategies like white weenie. The archetype had a spike a while back simply because it hit a really nice spot of good 2/1 dorks for 1 mana and was really consistent. It took very little time however for players to adapt and change the meta such that 2/1s were pretty limp. More 1 power chumps, 1/3 and bigger dorks, ping effects, stuff that hits one drops, even just Pyroclasm type things. Very quickly white was back in check and the real casualties were the bystanders like Lotus Cobra.

Dauntless BodyguardThis spike in power is a bit different. White has certainly gained a lot of redundancy in recent years and rather than just being in one area it is across the board. Good and diverse one drops, removal, finishers, value, and some trickery. I have showcased quite how much decent stuff white has gained recently by making a decent list out of almost entirely cards from Ixalan onward. While it is great getting loads of new strong cube worthy cards that support an archetype unless those cards are better than existing ones it only really serves to increase consistency and not power. Obviously both contribute to win percentages but to really jump up you want an increase in both at once. The advantage in redundancy in all areas is that it isn't so easily countered as it was in the case of the sudden abundance of 2/1 beaters. It also gives white more scope to  build and draft more easily to counter weaknesses and problems.

Force of VirtueThe next big thing really helping white perform is resilience. It is just increasingly hard to deal with all the threats a white player has to offer. Loads of really potent planeswalkers. Creatures that gain or give indestructible, those that do so for protection. Creatures that die into more board presence. Vehicles. Token producing lands and sagas and so on and so on. Wraths and mass removal effects do not do enough to be relied on. It takes a lot of board presence and disruption to really contain a white aggressive player. Card advantage is pseudo-resilience too when your deck is as cheap and direct as white weenie and that is another aspect white is doing well on lately. Increased access to good EtB effects that generate value and more flicker effects are all seeming to make it pretty hard to hold back the tide that is white weenie. There are less one toughness dorks found in these builds, or at least ones that stay that way as well as better ways of protecting them.

Ancestral Blade
Lastly we have a wealth of extra agency in the archetype. I think it is the biggest boost the archetype has had and it is certainly the most fun. It is so nice to have relevant options going on in your game. While no game is ever simple in cube white weenie has historically been one of the simpler choices and has relatively little option density. The most complex thing was typically how you set about your combat steps. Now we just have substantially more option rich cards you can play in this kind of archetype on offer and they have really given it legs. The adventures are certainly a big part of this. They give you options on so many fronts from curving to extension to value etc. These I shall return to but it is not just the adventure dorks making white weenie a much more option dense archetype. We have convoke spells giving you flexibility on mana costs. We have things like Hanged Executioner that has built in utility. Force of Virtue is a wildly option rich card given you can play it most of the time and with several different costs to do so in most cases to. Are you trying to bait out value by countering removal or it being a combat trick? Are you trying to hold it back to avoid card disadvantage? Force of Virtue just by itself is a decent chunk of why white weenie is so good these days. Even seemingly small low key cards like Ancestral Blade are a big boost to the option density of the archetype. The card is a fine early play but it gives a lot of extra legs to your game from there on in. It gives reach, scaling, combat prowess and all for very low cost.

26 Spells
Giver of Runes

Fearie Guidemother
Giant Killer
Legion's Landing
Thraben Inspector

Dauntless Bodyguard
Giver of Runes
Venerable Knight
Skymarcher Aspirant

On Thin Ice

Precinct Captain
Shepherd of the Flock
Winds of Abandon
Ancestral Blade
Hanged Executioner
Tithe Taker
Adanto Vanguard
Charming Prince

Monastery Mentor
Hanged Executioner
Gideon Blackblade
Benalish Marshall

History of Benalia
Ranger-Captain of Eos

Force of Virtue
Serra, the Benevolent
Conclave Tribunal

Venerated Loxodon

14 Lands

Castle Ardenvale
13 Snow-Covered Plains

On Thin IceThis list has only 3 cards predating Ixalan and none of those are exactly bombs. Indeed two of those cards are typically better in other archetypes and are more filler in white weenie (Mentor and Inspector). Modern Horizons is really where the power in this deck is found. We can comfortably replace Path or Plow with On Thin Ice which is a premium tempo removal spell with less downside than the alternatives in an aggressive setting. On average it out performs those other premium creature removal cards in white weenie which is rather eye opening. Then we have the joy of Winds of Abandon. An OK spot removal spell comparable to Declaration in Stone most of the time. While poor as a two drop the card is unreal as a six drop. It has jumped to one of the best mass removal spells in the whole cube. This makes it a highly contested card but when you do get it in white weenie it is amazing because of the extra reach and utility it gives you. It is fit for purpose as a cheap spot removal spell but any game that stalls out it is game ending quality. This is very common against white weenie due to it developing such a strong board while having relatively little reach. That means that even in a 14 land deck you are pretty likely to see six mana in a lot of the games you don't obliterate your opponent in 4-6 turns. Anyone relying on a board stall against white now has to fear the potential of a one sided wrath just clearing the path and ending things in swift order. To beat white weenie now you have to treat it more like a red deck and push for a win at some risk to your own survival but that is much harder against white as their board is that much stronger.

Winds of AbandonModern Horizons brings us Serra who is a fine planeswalker, she has some good tempo returns, some reasonable reach and a cute bit of scaling with your fliers. She is the 3rd best four mana white walker but she is plenty good enough for cube play and this archetype tends to want more walkers than it has access to! Giver of Runes is obviously also excellent. Another Mother and while not quite as potent, plenty strong enough to be a great addition and a much better card to play with and against. Give me good design and play experience over polar high powered cards like Mother every time. Lastly we have Ranger Captain which is a bit of value, a bit of utility, a bit of tempo, and a bit of synergy support. He was good before but the one mana adventure creatures certainly upped his range rather significantly. For cube the Captain is certainly a lot better than the original Ranger of Eos. Modern Horizons contributes six cards to this list alone, there are more you could well use in such a deck from the very powerful set. While everything gained a lot from Modern Horizons I think none more than white weenie. It got more of the good stuff it wants. It got high numbers of relevant cards. It got two of the best creature removal spells and the best Anthem. All very nice.

Tithe TakerOther recent sets have been fairly kind too with convoke and afterlife both meshing well with what the archetype is good with. Venerated Loxodon is a pseudo Anthem effect and it turns out they are really good when on the back of dorks. Benalish Marshall has been a massive addition to the archetype, so much so that I got an Angel of Jubilation for the cube as well and it has also been performing exceptionally well. These cards let you play more dorks and more anthems. They give payoff for having lots of small dorks but they do not punish you by being dead cards in the more challenging situations. Just one of those win win cards that power up your synergies and benefit from them as well.

Both Legion's Landing and Castle Ardenvale add some extra legs to the archetype as well. It is hard to disrupt lands. Pumping out 1/1 dorks at a very expensive rate is not winning many games these days on its own however in conjunction with equipment or Anthems or anything much of that nature such things become far more valuable. Just on the back of a big impressively developed board and a well beaten down life total an extra 1/1 every turn can spell the end fairly quickly too. White weenie now has fairly reliable mana sinks that let it play a slower and safer game if they want to and that is great. It lets you play some more flashy cards in place of low powered support like Savannah Lions and Raise the Alarm. More importantly you can avoid over extending or running out of gas. You can put those 12 lands you drew with Land Tax to some good use!

Castle Ardenvale
So, to the other main point of this article, to express how good adventure cards really are. When we compare the adventures in this list to the standouts from Throne it is clear they are a step down in power level and yet they seem to be performing up there with premium cards like Bonecrusher Giant and Murderous Rider. I think the reason the white ones are doing so well is not that they are all that powerful but much more to do with the way they play out in white weenie. They give the archetype options and situational tools at very little cost. With the archetype having so little of those things prior to adventures it has gained far more from the increased options and new effects than other archetypes. Red decks play plenty of Shock effects, black decks plenty plenty of Hero's Downfall, and blue decks are certainly familiar with a bounce spell. White weenie on the other hand is pretty new to a lot of what it got. Option density has some diminishing returns as well. As such going from low options to a bit more is a lot more valuable than going from plenty to a bit more than that. This is why these white and seemingly low powered adventures in white are standing out some of the best.

Djeru's RenunciationSo much so in fact that I am going to try Ardenvale Tactician in my cube! I dismissed the card as a limited spell at first read. I would have argued hard against it being a better card than Djeru's Renunciation - a similar sspell that did some reasonable work when being tested in the drafting cube. Ultimately Renunciation just isn't card advantage, a threat or an answer and so you wouldn't pick it highly and would only play it when padding out a list. Now, cycling for W is clearly much better than a 2/3 flier for 1WW. Like a lot better. Cast Out is one of whites best general purpose removal spells and a significant part of that is the cycling for W it has. The problem is that cycling is off theme for white weenie, or at least one of the problems. Cycling is tempo negative while a 2/3 flier is tempo positive. Add the cost of W to any card in your white deck and your cards become sub par to unplayable. Also, you don't know what you are getting with your cycling so it isn't really a plan, it is just a thing you do when you don't have anything good to do. Now, the same is true of running out a 2/3 flier in that ideally you want to be doing something better but it is proactive and it is known. Randomly cycling on turn three is rarely going to find you that perfect two drop to play and be mana efficient while tossing out Tactician on three is a far far better use of your turn. So yes, while for the average deck a cycle for one is better than a 2/3 flier for three it is not the case in a tempo deck with creature synergies. There is also of course the fact that you get both the tap down and the 2/3 body with Tactician should you be able to order it correctly in your game while Renunciation only offers the tap or the card. If Tactician makes the cut then maybe I will need to trial out Silverflame Squire too!

Monastery MentorAdventures in general keep the creature count high and they increase your ability to curve well. They offer good returns when used fully and have an acceptable floor when part used. White is so often about having overlap, bodies to utilize, or attackers at the ready. Being able to make the call and deploy a cheap dork is amazing. Having a better card to play instead is amazing too. Being able to hold off and use all of your adventure is great too. It just never feels bad having adventure cards in hand. They give a sufficient enough boost to your spell count that you can start running prowess trigger effects to some reasonably good effect. Monastery Mentor never really performed in white weenie until now. The decks that would support him well with spells were too often threat light and folded to bad draws and disruption.

Faerie GuidemotherGiant Killer looks the best on paper and is a fine card. The Reprisal isn't used wildly often but it is massive when it is. The body does a lot of work, being a 1/2 make it far more useful in combat than the 1/1 tappers and while the activation is steep it is not a significant detriment to the card. You are trying to hold this and play it late due to how good Chop Down is. Later in the game when tapping is of most significance and when mana is most spare. Laying it early is commonly for attacking and blocking roles. As such the utility and toughness seem to more than offset the extra tapping costs overall when compared to other tappers.

Faerie Guidemother is lovely. She handles planeswalkers so well and is typically a far more useful mid and late game one drop than your generic 2/1 ground pounder. She is great with cards like Precinct Captain forcing through combat damage triggers. She can even be used to turn on Chop Down on a threat with 2 or 3 power! Guidemother is significant late game reach and great early game planeswalker control. A 1/1 flier is also far better past about turn 4 than a 2/1 on the ground.

Shepherd of the Flock
Shepherd of the Flock has probably been my favourite of the three due to how much scope Usher to Safety offers. You can get so much value out of it with reusing EtB effects. You can turn on a Land Tax. You can save something from removal or in combat. I have used it with enchantment exile effects like On Thin Ice to clear out multiple tokens. It is just a great spell you would never play without the fact it is also a reasonably aggressive dork as well. A three powered two drop when you have no two drop is so huge for the archetype and a second go on a History of Benalia or Blade Splicer is potent value late game. Easily the adventure that most outperformed expectation.

So there we have it. A lot of interesting and potent new cards all contributing to the array of reasons white is a strong archetype at the moment. White weenie is a little better at doing what it has always done well but it is a lot better at doing the things it did not much do in the past.

Friday 15 November 2019

Theros: Beyond Death Preliminary Review Part II

Dreamstalker Manticore 1

Pretty low powered and tame but a few novel aspects make it plausible that I might play this in a cube setting, all be it very infrequently.

Furious Rise 1

As far as this kind of effect goes in red it is mostly winning over the alternatives. It exiles in the end step rather than upkeep, it lets you play it whenever and sometimes even after a turn cycle is over. It also just costs 3 rather than the more typical 4 mana. All this is comfortably offset however by the need of having a 4 or more powered dork in play. This does nothing in the worst case and is a little bit win more in all the others. I think this is too risky for the effect it brings and too narrow to find many homes either.

Minion's Return 1

An interesting and versatile tool. This is protection for a dork of yours. It is a black take on a flicker style mechanic for double dipping EtB effects. It is a way of stealing an opponent's creature that is about to die. While somewhat versatile it is both overly situational and rather pricey for my liking. I would only really play a card like this as an enabler and support card meaning I am using it proactively at which point it looks shocking next to Kaya's Ghostform. Minion's Return is interesting and playable but it will be lucky to see much action in my cubing.

Medomai's Prophecy 7.5

I love this card in almost all ways. I love the look, the feel, the design, the power weighting, just everything. Functionally this is somewhere nestled between an Ancestral Vision, a Predict and a Witching Well. All good cards that see a variety of play, in cube and in other strong formats. So, you pay two mana and for that you get a scry 2 right away, you draw two in two turns time assuming you jump through a self set hoop and then you get a little bit of bonus information. The final age of the saga may seem minor but it is relevant information and well worth having. In my cube, I think it is easily valued only a little behind scry 1. It is certainly more information. The hidden buff of the fourth age is that it gives you a nice window in which you can reset your saga with a flicker or sacrifice it for extra value. Obviously a two mana scry 2 draw 2 is amazing. The two turn delay on the draw makes it fairer but the real drawback to this is the second age. You open yourself up to getting played around or massively disrupted. You have to have access to the card and you have to play it meaning you are open to all sorts of hand and library manipulation as well as just broadcasting what you are doing. It does have some really cool applications for bluff on that front. Sometimes the two cards will be worth less than making your opponent think you have a certain card, very rarely but it will be so very cool when it works. Mostly it is just a fairly large drawback in addition to the wait. You probably want to have an idea of what you are playing on age III when you play your Prophecy two turns prior, not always and not as a certainly but having a decent option in hand will be a nice comfort. That will make it a bit awkward but then locking in your following turns play is going to be pretty gross. Holding a card to name and then to play is pretty gross too. For safety reasons it ideally wants to be something cheap and low impact like a Preordain or a Fblthp but these are things you also just want to flop out early or with any spare mana. Holding them back will hurt a bit. The real hurt will come when you have the option to play the named card and draw two or play the optimal line for whatever nastiness your opponent has levied upon you. That or playing this on an empty hand and seeing nothing but lands before you need to chose in age II, basically just a wild guess on your next draw. It is such an ethereal cost relative to most costs and such a unique card that I really just need to play with this a bunch to know better how problematic and how swingy locking yourself into plays will end up being. Even if it is bad the card will still be good, the age II drawback needs to be pretty devastating for this card to actually be bad. If it were just the delay then this card would be pretty top tier and easily see play in formats like modern and vintage.

Threnody Singer 2

Basically just a rejig of Faerie Duelist. They share the same floor but this affords far more impressive scaling. Singer may be the more potent card of the two but it has a rather less exciting subtype meaning it likely gets less action. Probably not super relevant as this is a little on the fair side anyway.

Alirios, Enraptured 6.5

Well isn't this just one of the most elegant cards. Lovely merging of design and flavour. I think it is also potentially quite good. Blue loves this kind of thing. Whirler Rogue and Mesmerizing Benthid are two of blues best performing creatures in my cube. Aliros is a little bit Blade Splicer and a little bit Kitchen Finks. It is worse tempo than both as it neither offers up two relevant bodies right away nor lifegain. Alirios does however pack an impressive 10 total stats for your three mana, more than either, while also being a stickier sort of card. Alirios has nice synergy with flicker and bounce that you might have. Even untap effects! It will take a lot of resources to fully deal with while costing you very little. That is the essence of why all these kinds of cards do so well in cube. You get to pull ahead on tempo but leave yourself relatively secure to most kinds of removal effect. Aggro decks will get two for one'd by Alirios, well most decks will. That is why it is good! Lots of stats, low cost, and high chance of gaining tempo and/or card advantage. Blue often plays things like Sea Gate Oracle just as a means of stalling getting beaten up. Alirios seems to do that job a bit better. Alirios does struggle to perform in a list with many changelings in it! He is a little slow overall too, like he is good against removal but it still gives a window in which you can get past him.

Phalanx Tactics 1

This has a tiny chance of seeing play in some kind of heroic / Feather the Redeemed list as it targets. Mostly that will be a drawback as it makes it easy to disrupt but still. Charge is a much more mana efficient version of this effect and will be preferred over this in almost all other cases.

Treacherous Blessing 3

Very powerful indeed. A long way better than Painful Truths I would say. I prefer Blessing to Read the Bones too but Blessing probably isn't more generally playable and thus shouldn't be taking away Reads the Bones's cube spot. Still, this is 3 cards for three mana with no upfront life cost. That is a very impressive rate. This then also has some additional perks being an enchantment. Broadly these will all by synergy perks and will not apply much in a general cube setting. You might get some extra value when you eat an overloaded Cycling Rift... What holds this back is that you either need to play it in a deck that doesn't plan on going long or in a deck with ways to easily remove it from play and this makes it too narrow.

Ashiok's Erasure 2

This seems terrifying for constructed where it is a Meddling Mage on a Counterspell! This will crush some decks brutally. Luckily it is a four mana card and so will not be all that easily abused. In cube it is still somewhat viable just because it is an enchantment. Mystic Snake still gets some action when people want to abuse those kinds of thing. Erasure is not a lock card in quite the same way as Snake as you give the cards back if you bounce it. It is however just an enchantment so you can easily be reducing its cost, having it beat as a 4/4, drawing extra cards with it, etc etc. So yes, in cube this will be a very niche, and very small player indeed. In standard however it just seems like it will be meta warping. Certain decks just won't be able to beat this effect and it will force a degree of speed and redundancy into decks. Obviously only if a viable deck than can play this is in the format.

Labyrinth of Skophos 2

The effect is good but at 5 total mana to use it seems rather too slow. Mystifying Maze is certainly worse but it has seen a total of zero play. There are some nuances to how this works compared to alternatives. It is better as an offensive card but again, a tiny improvement on unplayed cards is no real win. It just costs too much to gain the effect. It will hurt you more often and more severely early in the game than it helps you late. Play a basic land. Or, if you must, play a land with a cheap activation cost like Rishadan Port or Mishra's Factory.

Dalakos, Crafter of Wonders 1

Renown Weaponsmith but bigger! For your extra red mana you get +1/+1 stats on your mana dork which isn't a very big win. In an unpowered cube, in an artifact deck, you can do a lot lot better than a 3 mana, gold, summoning sick source of two colourless. Where Dalakos might get some love is in an equipment deck where his passive is really rather impressive. Shuko does a lot for you at negligible cost while Dalakos is in play. Sadly I can't really think of a deck that this sort of thing would fit in. Equipment is much more whites thing. I can see it working out in things like EDH and I can see it getting tried in 40 card singleton lists but I fear it will never do all that well in the latter. Too janky.

The Akroan War 2

Well there is a lot going on here. Is it a Control Magic, is it Disrupt Decorum, or a Solar Blaze? The answer is all three and none of the above! It pretty much does do all three things but the way it does them makes it rather unlike any of them. The Control Magic is right away and similar in that regard, it is also undone if War leaves play making it comparably disruptable to Control Magic. It only lasts for a couple of turns however meaning you are getting one attack in most cases. In that regard it is more like a Threaten. You are also encouraged to not attack with the stolen dork based on how the rest of the card works. The final phase will be hard to use to kill off the stolen creature, it needs to have a tap ability and power greater than or equal to toughness otherwise it will just untap before the third age on the saga and return to the opponent undamaged. Ideally you want to sit back on your attack with it and block the "goaded" creatures of your opponent. Ideally those that have vigilance or that have higher toughness than power, or just those that kill off the creature you stole! So ultimately this card is like a very slow one sided Wrath, except it misses a lot of their creatures too. In the right setting this could be devastating but often it will be fairly minor. It takes so long to act that it is easily played around. It is also pretty situational to begin with. I do like this card. I suspect it is beyond fiddly and not something any cube decks really want but I also plan to test it being unique and interesting.

Friday 8 November 2019

The Power of Planeswalkers

Garruk WildspeakerPlaneswalkers have been around for a long time now and we are well aware that they are good and why they are good. Versatility, value, and threats are generally the common answers to the why question. The more I play with walkers however the more I think we overlook a significant element of their play. It was actually the introduction of Saga cards that made me properly realize the power this element of planeswalkers offers. Magic is so well balanced these days that mana advantage counts for so much outside of the properly powered up formats like vintage. So much so that it is not just the total amount you spend over a game but also the amount on any given turn. If I do four mana's worth of stuff on turn three then I get a pretty big tempo edge out of that which I can ride far deeper into the game even if I have no real edge on mana beyond this one turn spike. Mana above what you should usually have relative to your opponent is typically worth more than normal. Basically planeswalkers and saga cards both do things once deployed for no mana cost which means you are gaining the effect of having ramped your mana. You get to do your normal stuff with your actual mana but also get that extra boost so as to swing the tempo in your favour. Now obviously both walkers and saga have an initial tempo hit where the return you get on the first turn is lower than what you might expect for the cost but if you can make that work then the following few turns are going to be really good to you.

The Eldest RebornThe card where this was most noticeable was The Eldest Reborn. The third age was such a powerful effect that being able to do it and your whole normal turn was often just unrecoverable. It was like having a Time Walk or having a personal Mana Flare. Deploying a big threat as a midrange or control player is often risky but if you can do that and something else it is game ending. The number of times you just get the best card from either deck and sit back on double counterspell, or get back a planeswalker that kills their walker and Wrath as well. The Eldest Reborn is not powerful because of the sum of it's parts so much as it is presented. If you swapped the effects around such that the last one always came first it would be a far weaker spell in most cases in the cube despite seeming like it was better due to being more front loaded. Even something more direct like History of Benalia has perks that come with the delay. It would be more damage if both knights came at once but it would also make it far easier to handle sensibly with mass removal. A white aggro deck curving out with this is far less likely to eat a Wrath effect when age II is yet to hit. This can really upset how your opponent curves and can easily cause them to take a load of free damage or fail to safely deploy a planeswalker of their own.

Castle ArdenvalePlaneswalkers have this same saga like effect on the game although it is not quite so predetermined or reliable an outcome. This obviously is better in some cases and worse in others. You can generally assume your saga card will play out and thus know what your gains will be and when while a walker might live all game or die the next turn. Assessing expected returns on any front for walkers is just conjecture.

For this article I just want to look at mana returns which is a bit odd. It is proving quite tricky removing the card advantage element from the equation. We all know that over time almost all planeswalker provide real or effective card advantage and will ultimately dominate the game. My aim is to show that it is significantly also the aspect of the mana returns of the cards that lead to them taking over.

Now it is pretty easy to equate the value of an effect of a planewalker to a mana cost as we typically have spells that mirror the abilities. The reality is however much more complicated and where I got into so much difficulty thinking of walkers just in mana terms. Basically there is a huge difference between the value of an effect when played as a spell that costs you a card to do and one on a card already in play. One mana for a 1/1 token seems like a pretty poor deal when it is a Lab Rat (without buyback). Paying 2WW(W) to activate Castle Ardenvale however seems far more reasonable.

Chandra, Torch of DefiancePlaneswalkers have a very different way of scaling and balancing to spells. Things that reliably generate card advantage are much more expensive in loyalty terms, as are effects that protect the planeswalker in question. Things that fail to generate card advantage, reliably or at all, will be much more generously costed. It used to seem as if the significant abilities were just cost at -X lotyalty where X is equal to the fair cost of that effect while +loyalty abilities were much more commonly the kinds of thing you wouldn't play on a dedicated card as it was too low power or situational. As planewalker understanding has deepened and design has diversified we find this measure holds true less than it did even if it remains a reasonable starting point for balance consideration.

A good showcase for this pattern is on Chandra, Torch of Defiance. She has a -3 which is Flame Slash which costs 1 mana normally and a +1 which affords a gain of RR which is closest to Seething Song which is a three mana card. The huge discrepancy there between costs of loyalty can mostly be explained with the logic that Flame Slash reliably affords card advantage and protects Chandra while Seething Song does neither. There is also the mild kicker that Seething Song loses instant speed when on Chandra, it cannot burst mana from 3 being on a four drop, nor on the turn it is played as it is still leaving you at -2 mana for the turn and really needs three activations before you are at +2 mana on initial investment. That is a bit of an unimportant tangent, in practice all turns after the first the +1 is effectively a Seething Song and for the most part we will be considering turns after planeswalkers are played. That is when they really start to dominate games. The ones that come down, do one good thing and then die to removal or attacks are the fair norm. Sometimes that is good, sometimes it is a little below par but it is never a thing that dominates nor ever a thing that allows you to do more manas worth of stuff on a turn than you have mana for.

Flame Slash
Another thing that makes planeswalker ability costs hard to quantify is that gain and loss of loyalty is a thing in itself. Loyalty can equate to gaining of life when it is diverting attacks away from face. It can be a way of protecting the walker. It can be a way of storing up value so you can blow it later on high value effects with high loyalty costs. The value of changing loyalty on a planeswalker depends on so much. The board state, the current loyalty, your current life total, the abilities on the planeswalker both in terms of cost and effect. Trying to slap a generic mana cost to loss or gain of loyalty is near impossible. Even a range was pretty hard to estimate. The average is pretty unreliable of a thing to try and estimate too due to outliers pushing it away from a reasonable value. Suffice it to say that loyalty is worth a little more on more powerful planeswalkers and a little less when you are on low life. There are little spikes in value when you pass a point on a walker where by you can subsequently activate a new negative loyalty ability where loyalty is worth more than it was before. With Chandra, Torch of Defiance having a -3 ability we can say that all other things being discounted that the 3rd and 4th loyalty are worth marginally more than the 2nd or 5th. The 3rd allows for use of the -3 while the 4th allows for use and still having a Chandra hence why there are these two steps. Mostly use and survive is the more valuable loyalty but not always. There are also the board and matchup specific conditions. When facing down a 2/2 dork your 3rd loyalty is more valuable than the 2nd. If you know they have a lot of 3 damage spells then the fourth loyalty holds extra value and so forth. Loyalty often feel like they are worth a life or a mana a pop but given how infrequently a life is worth a mana it is more clear how this is a problematic thing to try and get mathsy with. When spending loyalty it feels like you are spending life to gain mana and cards while when gaining loyalty it more typically just feels like gaining mana and life. As you can see, with this perspective simply activating a planeswalker, regardless of the gain or loss in loyalty or card advantage it has the effect of gaining mana to some degree.

Seething Song
With this in mind we can start to consider how quickly planeswalkers return their worth in mana costs alone as each turn they are in play they generate some "mana back" value. This does need looking at on a case by case example due to all the different costs, effects and starting loyalty differences but it is a lot easier with a solid framework in play. While working through the logic on these models for evaluating planeswalkers I kept finding places where I was accounting for a cost or bonus twice. An example of that would be any mana producing ability on a planeswalker. If we look at Torch of Defiance again and imagine that her +1 is a Seething Song we can say it is worth 3 mana but then we might be tempted to also add a further two mana to that total as we have still got that two mana but this is counting it as double. It either makes two mana or is worth three based on the cost of the most comparable spell. Being that much less abusive than the spell iteration I would certainly be inclined to consider this +1 ability to equate to two mana of value! You know, what with that being exactly the case and all! Just nice to know it does check out with the other means of assessing. You do also gain that psuedo life with the loyalty gain as well! The same applies to many tempo spells. The spell cost is the starting point. In the case of the Flame Slash mode it is the floor, in reality you can kill anything upto about a five drop with it. If you did so then the real mana advantage is paying for Chandra immediately! This is also a situational upper case, we are mostly looking at averages. The average price of something you kill with a Flame Slash is probably closing on 3 mana meaning you are probably looking at about that for your mana gain for the average case. If I had to go with whole number I would likely round down to two mana but would prefer to think of it as around 2.5 in gain. The large loyalty loss is still a cost. Broadly speaking the tempo spells that protect your walker are worth a little more in estimated mana terms than the cost of the real spells when on walkers and the "spell cost evaluation" is the floor. Those without a direct tempo component tend to be the other way around as per the Seething Song going from a 3 to a 2 when looked at more practically. Despite Seething Song indirectly affording tempo you need things to pair with it in order that it does anything useful while the Flame Slash works to protect all by itself. This is just the scaling of effects on walkers I discusses earlier but transferred into the more meaningful metric of mana values.

Jace, the Mind SculptorAs you can probably now see clearly, Chandra pays for herself very quickly and affords big swing potentials and this helps to explain why she is such a powerful card. You can be mana neutral with her on the following turn to playing her, with an extra two loyalty and all the benefits of having a turn of burst mana as well. Flameslash into Seeting Song is also paying for herself in mana terms in two turns on average pretty comfortably as well. Very few walkers come close to paying for themselves so quickly and with so much power and flexibility as Chandra does. Consider Jace the Mind Sculptor, one of the best on offer as a comparison. Brainstorm is a one mana spell but it is potent and undercost so we can more reasonably consider it to be worth closer to two mana even without any tempo component. Unsummon also compares reasonable well in tempo terms to Flame Slash and probably equates to a two or three mana gain in practice. Unsummon hits more things and is also usable back to back unlike Candra's Flame Slash. The downside is in being bad against good EtB effect dorks and not providing card advantage which are both things we care less about in this discussion. Another perk of the Unsummon mode is that you get two loyalties worth with a single +2 while it takes three turns of charging up a -3 on Chandra. All somewhat minor when looking at the mana gain but still well worth considering when trying to evaluate and compare. So both Jace and Chandra have a variety of ways in which they can pay for themselves in two activations. Chandra can leave herself in a better state or provide bigger swings in doing so but they line up fairly well. A reasonable measure of a good planeswalker is one that pays for itself purely in mana terms in two turns with some degree of flexibility. Unsummon and Flame Slash are both undercost effects on their respective cards as both are situational. Dedicating a card and a deck slot to them is a big cost in itself. Transitioned over to an option on a planeswalker and the effective mana value clearly shoots up along with the increased relevance of the effects given what they are protecting as well as what they are not costing you in deck construction terms.

Garruk Wildspeaker is a nice clean example of this too with both his +1 and -1 equating to about two mana worth of effect. He has even greater degree of flexibility as he ultimate is more readily accessible. He can +1 and -4 over two turns which is more like 7 mana worth of value! This means Garruk has 4 different combinations of abilities that result in four or more manas worth of value being returned in two activations. Garruk is very good but he is not a premium walker any more these days. Mana return and options on getting those returns are a great metric for assessing walkers but it is not something you can use exclusively. Garruk loses value in ways not accounted for just by looking at mana. His +1 and -4 are both contingent on you having things to do with them and his -1 is very bland. A 3/3 token for 2 mana is decent because it is a potential early play, a 3/3 token loses some value as the game goes on. It is also not direct card advantage, tokens are easily and often swept away with little to no extra cost. There is no disruptive element to Garruk either all of which means that despite Garruk having one of the better results of walkers looked at in mana terms he doesn't quite make it into that top tier bracket any more.

Dack FaydenLet us now try and use this methodology to explain why Dack Fayden is such a polar planeswalker. To pay for himself with the +1 ability he needs three activations what with Careful Study being a one mana effect. With the -2 however you generally get a pretty solid 4+ mana worth back. Steal Artifact is a four mana spell as baseline. Taking a Signet is two mana worth of your opponents stuff they lose and you gain which is also a four mana swing. Steal a Wurmcoil and you have a 12 mana swing! Basically Dack is below the power level of good walkers when unable to use the -2 ability and quite significantly better pretty much whenever he can, certainly on average. Obviously also when you take card advantage into consideration this polarization is further more apparent what with three iterations of the +1 affording no card advantage while a single use of the -2 affording a two for nothing. Dack doesn't even have a good ultimate meaning without the use of the -2 the value of his loyalty gains are rather diminished too.

Another trick you can use to sniff out potentially busted planeswalkers simply in terms of mana advantage are those with +loyalty abilities which are on point mana wise but scale nicely with planeswalkers. Liliana the Last Hope is a great example of this. So she can Corpse Churn for -2 which is reasonably a two mana ability or she can -2/-1 something which is close to a one mana ability. Now, in order for us to to make back three mana in two turns we would need at least one -2 which given the starting loyalty of 3 means we can only do this in on way, a +1 and a -2. Just using that as a measure you would conclude Torch of Defiance and Mind Sculptor to be better but we have multiple mitigating factors. Firstly the bar is lower for cheaper walkers and higher for more expensive ones. A three mana walker can get to work sooner and thus have activated three times it would take a four mana one to activate twice. It also allows needs to defend against weaker aggression.You can even argue that four mana non-walker spells are a significantly more impactful than three mana ones when compared to walkers in the 3 and 4 mana brackets. A three mana walker followed by a four mana spell should swing the game more than a three mana spell followed by the four mana walker. The more relevant mitigating factor however is that you can gain both tempo and card advantage from the +1 on the Last Hope. Recall how both these effects scale much better with having a planeswalker in play. If you flop out Last Hope and kill the only thing in play that threatened it, or even just a mana elf that has pulled you so far a ahead. Yes, one turn cycle of Weakness is far weaker protection than Unsummon or Flameslash but it is on a + ability not a - one which makes it vastly more threatening. You don't need to kill things with it for it to be good. Just building up loyalty to spend while calming the board is good, assuming that is you have useful ways to spend that loyalty such as a game winning ultimate or a value generating - ability as per Last Hope. Basically the Last Hopes +1 ability is very much one that I would normally expect to find with a -loyalty cost. It is disruptive and can well kill or neuter things around the 3 CMC mark. This potential to scale is all rather dangerous on a +ability of a three mana walker!

Ob Nixilis ReignitedWe can use explain why a planeswalker is weaker than others by mana return analysis too. Ob Nixilus, Reignited is the weakest planeswalker I find in my cube with any regularity. The +1 is worth a mana and while it might generate value it does not generate any tempo. Only the -3 Murder affords tempo and while it is worth three mana there is no way of using it twice in two turns. As such it takes three turns for Ob to pay for himself in mana terms and even that comes with no flexibility beyond sequencing. Ob scrapes a pass by reliably being at worst card neutral and by having some pretty clean and desirable effects. You could drop him a mana in cost and a starting loyalty however and turn him into a very good planeswalker. He would look a lot more like Vraska Golgari Queen then!

Planeswalkers are good not just because they provide flexiblity, card advantage and threats but because they provide a pseudo ramp effect as well. The better walkers tend to be able to pay for themselves in two turns roughly and become mana positive three activations in and onwards. The best of those are ones with versatility on how you can quickly get into the positive with mana for them and those that can do the most potent and useful things while growing, basically it is context all the way once you have considered the mana elements. Recall my initial claim about most early walkers having a plus that feels like gaining mana and life and a minus that feels like gaining mana and card advantage? Those that have a +ability like Liliana the Last Hope can feel like they are gaining mana, life, and card advantage all at the same time which is of course made of winning. Scaling potential is the other big winner for abilities assuming a decent floor or sufficient alternative options. Garruk's +1 is almost always worth two mana but is often worth more when you have lands tapping for multiple mana in play. Torch of Defiance on average returns about four mana in two turns with the mana and the -3 but she can get way more if she manages to hit the right thing!

Teferi, Time RavelerThere are some walkers that can essentially pay for themselves immediately. Serra the Benevolent comes very close with a 4/4 Serra Angel token. There are of course all those that can do based on the situation and scaling potential such as Torch of Defiance, Dack Fayden and even Ajani Goldmane! Some that more reliably return a little more than investment over two turns. Mu Yangling, Sky Dancer and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria both feel like they fairly reliably return more mana's worth than invested by the second activation all be it not by much. The two cards that standout as being ones that pay for themselves fastest are unsurprisingly those with static effects. Teferi Time Raveler has a Repulse mode which is worth three mana as a baseline and has some potential to scale up in mana returns as well. The static ability on Tef is worth about two mana and so right away you have upto five mana worth of value from the get go. Narset Parter of Veils is similarly brutal, her -2 is basically Peer Through Depths, you could argue the case for it being a one mana ability but it would be a very very good one at that! Even if we compromise and call it 1.5 the static ability is worth at least 2, probably more like 2.5 mana. In two turns Narset has nearly paid for herself twice over and does so right away too! Luckily she has no means to defend herself or grow in loyalty and is locked to two activations by herself which somewhat limit her capacity to get out of hand. Still, front loaded is what you want on planeswalkers where possible and Narset does that amazingly well.

When faced with a new walker to evaluate try and estimate what each (non-ultimate in most cases) ability is worth in terms of mana and as such which possible two and three activation sequences are possible and roughly how much mana they return. Then look at how much protection, card advantage and tempo they afford and you will have a reasonably good picture of the value of the card compared to other walkers. Obviously you need to account for both scaling potential of the abilities and how situational they are as well. If we always have a lot of dorks in play Ajani Goldmane is pretty impressive as the -2 scales well but if not he is awful because the +1 is low value and the -1 is poor. So while there are no perfect methods for assessing the value of planeswalkers it does seem as if one of the most consistent and indicative of power is the rate of mana investment return. Value is nice and important and all but most of the relevant portion of the game of magic is fought when both players have cards to choose from and mana is the limiting factor. By that logic alone the most relevant factor for a good planeswalker should be the ways in which they increase your effective mana spending.

Friday 1 November 2019

Theros: Beyond Death Preliminary Review Part I

Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis 7

She is back and now she is all pissy with Heliod! Is she still good thought? Seemingly not as good as she has been in Sun's Champion or Knight-Errant modes but also still plenty good enough for cube I would say. Her inability to grow in loyalty is somewhat offset by the escape mechanic but also just by the relatively hard hitting nature of the card. Four 1/1 dorks and a pump or a pair of 1/1s and loads of pumps or even just pumping all the way will get quite a lot done and is worth the mana cost. The lifegain will win some aggro matches but otherwise will not be that interesting or exciting. It makes the card better despite being a pretty weak option. Overall this is an aggressive card that you can reasonably happily run in midrange or control builds. It defends itself well and affords a good amount of pressure, options, tempo and value. It lacks the reach of either of the better Elspeth cards which is her main drawback. Power wise I think she is comparable to Serra the Benevolent. The recursion is certainly nice. I would possibly rather a +1 on the pump but it is quite close either way. It just lets you pay mana for loyalty, assuming you have the cards to exile. It also makes you less precious about discarding, milling, or just getting her dealt with. What it is not is a good deal, paying six for this walker is substantially below par. It will still often be good but it is not high power. Interesting, flavourful and probably about right for where you want to peg a card like this for power. Not oppressive but nicely playable.

Ilysian Caryatid 1

Too vulnerable for the cost. The upside is nice but not worth much. I want my green two mana ramp to have immediate upsides and perks on the one mana options. Sadly I prefer Utopia Tree to this...

Omen of the Hunt 2

Flash keeps this on the table. Three mana ramp in green really needs a lot of upside for which flash does not get it done. Double ramp is the sort of thing we are after. Having some interesting support options from card type to scry to flash means that if it ticks enough boxes for a build it might creep in to some exotic builds as a low power but high suitability support card.

Omen of the Dead 4

This does a lot for low cost. The only downer I see on this is that it is not something you can just flop out early. Yes, mostly this is just a Raise Dead but it does have a lot more going on which for a one drop makes a big difference. Scry is always good even if this is mostly at mana sink/desperation rate. Flash is also lovely but mostly it is about the type and being a card that stays in play. Doom Fortold decks will love this. Devotion decks will love this. Potentially even something for Enchantress decks that stray into black. A little situational for the drafting cube but a solid support card for a lot of builds otherwise.

Omen of the Sea 8

Now this is very exciting. This is Preordain at instant speed on the face of it which is something I am happy paying two mana for. It is certainly comparable to Anticipate at that which is highly playable. On top of the great floor this has all the lovely perks of being a permanent, an enchantment, and offering some bonus late game scry. It is not all upside for blue however as there are lots of instant and sorcery triggers in blue and often you want to fill up the bin early. While the perks of being an enchantment in play are not offsetting it not being an instant in the bin exactly it does give the card a nice degree of scope. It will be more suited to some places that others which is really what you want in the game. Directly better cards are not interesting but this absolutely is. There are times this will be better than Preordain yet there are also those where it will be worse than Anticipate. A great little card to flicker, bounce or just sacrifice to something. If you make that aspect of the card count for much then this quickly outpaces the competition. Lovely to have more high value cheap cards to play in control decks where the instant speed is so much more important. The cost of the scry is actually lowest in a control deck where you can reliably represent a counterspell. Often enough it is correct to do nothing into open mana in a deck rife with counters. As a control player facing that line of play having anything useful to spend otherwise unspent "countermagic mana" on is a huge win. This will get naturally sacrificed in control decks surprisingly often. In that regard it is a better Witching Well. You get card parity right away, you don't have to tie up mana at sorcery speed and the sacrifice cost is lower. Certainly five mana for scry 2 draw two sounds better than it does for scry 2, draw 1 scry 2 but I am pretty sure Omen is the better card because of how it is balanced, the value of getting more upfront basically.

Thundering Chariot 1

Too small, expensive and fair.

Hero of the Nyxborn 2

Decent but narrow. Will see play in heroic decks, might see some fringe use in quirky aggro decks with enchantment themes or perhaps just a high number of self targetting spells. Given how much better Pia Nalar is than this card on every front as a baseline this is not a card you will be using otherwise.

Warden of the Chained 1

Too vanilla, likely wouldn't get much love in cube with the drawback removed! Tribal is really this cards only hope.

Chainweb Aracnir 4

Well this just has tonnes going on. It is cheap, it is big, it is recursive, it is removal. The one mana mode isn't a thing you would play on its own but it is still surprisingly good. It kills loads of thopters and spritis and other troublesome nibblers that are commonplace in cube and then it holds off the rest. It is just a cheap body you can use to empower other synergies too should you wish. Commonly I find my Golgari graveyard decks pack a lot of self sacrifice tools. They also tend to have discard outlets so that you can get your bin based stuff from the hand into the bin. As this holds relatively little power as a card to just play from your hand it works quite nicely as extra discard or sacrifice fuel. Ultimately it does come down to how good a 3GG 4/5 reach and four damage to a flier from the bin is. If you kill a Glorybringer then it is about as good as it gets, if no relevant fliers get killed the value dips a lot. I fear this is a bit too situational on the one hand and a bit too much of a theme card on the other to be a player in most cubes. If you are packing heavy discard and graveyard synergies in a more midrange build then perhaps this fits in. It is suitably versatile that I do plan on giving it a quick test all be it with very little expectation. I can absolutely see myself running this in constructed singleton builds fairly often.

Wolfwillow Haven 3

I will certainly play this in lists that focus on untapping lands or on enchantments or perhaps even on devotion. I will not be playing this just as a ramp card. The lategame wolf is garbage. The early game ramp is a little under par.

Hydra's Growth 0

Rather a lot of risk on a bit of a win more card. Sure, we all want to put this on a Walking Ballista and have our wicked way with everything but optimal builds will not include this fun card.