Sunday 8 March 2020
Mana > Cards
A lot of people rate Ancestral Recall as one of the top two cards in Magic, most people I would say. Power wise it is hard to argue with the strength of Recall in a vacuum. It is certainly in the top three cards of all time by a strong margin. Regardless of where you place it in these top few slots it is fairly meaningless when you are this far away from the center of the bell curve in power and are trying to compare against different types of card. The point of this article is not to try and downplay Ancestral Recall nor is it to try and state exactly how good it is. The point is to show how things do not always translate directly in magic. Even if we all agree that Ancestral Recall is one of the top two cards in the game I do not think that makes it always correct to pick it in the first two picks of a Rotisserie draft.
Magic has three main resources being mana, cards and life. Sure, other secondary resources like energy and cards in the graveyard can be resources but they are card dependent while the others are almost always relevant. Now, we all know life is the least relevant of the three. You start with the most of it and most of it doesn't do very much for you most of the time. Cards and mana are the main two and they are hard to equate as they scale differently and as with everything they depend on context. Starting with 0 mana and 7 cards certainly puts the early emphasis on mana. As the game goes on the value of mana goes down and that of cards goes up. This in turn means that the faster the format you are playing the more value mana has relative to cards.
A card is worth somewhere between one and two mana for the most part. A mana on the other hand is probably worth close enough to one card. Each are of course worth one of themselves! It is especially hard to state these with any more accuracy as all things are on cards and often have mana costs on them too. Cards like Lotus Petal, Desperate Ritual and Elvish Spirit Guide make it fairly easy to say a mana is worth about a card in the early game. When looking at Ancestral Recall or any other card draw card there is a card cost and a mana cost. You effectively need to subtract one from the cards drawn to account for the card cost. Recall is +2 cards net and so equates to costing half a mana for a card. Divination on the other hand winds up costing three mana for a net gain of one card. Concentrate takes that down to two mana per card. Necropotence needs to draw seven extra cards plus one per draw step to reach the efficiency of Recall without even considering the life aspect! There are certainly ways to get cards as efficiently as Recall but not anywhere close to the convenience of it in terms of other investments. Your next best deal on cards on the cheap are your triggering Predicts, Chart a Course, Medomi's Prophecy and Night's Whisper, all of which still only compete with Concentrate in terms of card to mana efficiency being two mana per card gain.
With all this in mind trying to compare Ancestral Recall to other cheap draw spells and it looks like it is at least four times better or more efficient. Black Lotus on the other hand is a mere three times as efficient as the best alternatives. With this in mind you could very reasonably argue that Recall was better than Lotus. This would require that efficiency was the only relevant metric. Obviously formats with Lotus and Recall are fast ones and so the scaling comes into play to help out Lotus. There is also the playability of the Lotus which is greater needing no coloured manain order to be used.
A way of thinking about this scaling is considering things in a more pure and abstract way. You use your cards and mana to do stuff that wins the game. In the most efficient sense you want to generate as much mana as you need to win as quickly as possible. This is some cards to make mana and some cards to win the game, be they threats or some combo. Every time you spend mana to draw cards you essentially take away from the pool of mana you are using to spend on cards that win the game. Card draw is tempo negative. It is only useful when you have run out of resources or have an excess of mana. This is really just the long winded version of starting with 7 cards and 0 mana. There would be no doubt about the supremacy of card draw if every game started with no cards in hand but seven Lotus Petal type cards in play! The thing to really consider here is that while you ultimately might well want and need some card draw, you are least likely to need it early in the game. The turn one Ancestral Recall is one of the weakest you will find the card (in cube at least). The turn one Black Lotus is absolutely the best it gets!
Now, there are lots of mana producing cards and card draw ones but relatively few of these at low costs and high power. Given that you want high power in both but only need low cost in the former it makes most sense to prioritize cheap powerful mana producers over cheap powerful draw. As such I have a strong leaning towards prioritizing those effects in draft settings. I can't remember the last time I got Ancestral Recall in a rotisserie event simply because I value things like Sol Ring more highly. I cannot say how far down I would go before picking up the Recall because it always goes pretty quickly and so I have had no real test. I feel like I could do more with an on colour Mox, Fastbond, Mana Vault and Crypt, perhaps even Mishra's Workshop than I could with a Recall. Yes, these cards are generally not as powerful and playable as Recall but they feel more important, easier to abuse, and in greater demand. I can worry about refilling my hand in the mid to late game when I have established a tempo lead with my broken early mana ramp. By that stage my win conditions can double up as card draw as planeswalkers tend to do so well. Or you can just play expensive cards like Mystic Forge or Memory Jar because you have access to things like Workshop, City of Traitors and Sol Ring.
Pound for pound across all formats, settings, and contexts a card is worth more than a mana in any sort of resource measure. This is however misleading. The combination of starting with cards not mana with how mana leads to tempo means that mana is more important than cards. If you use early mana advantage to pull ahead in tempo then your cards tend to become worth relatively more than your opponents and you are able to milk them for more card advantage or pull further ahead in tempo. Early mana advantage lets you accelerate away from your opponent. The classic case here is with planeswalkers, if you can secure a safe on and deny that option to your opponent you are going to win. Sneak one out ahead of time with ramp or burst mana or have a tempo lead upon making one and presto, a winning position has been established! You have few bad case outcomes and many great ones.
Mana producers want to be cheap so that they can afford the benefits of tempo gains as soon as possible. Card advantage has far less of that urgency about it. You can generally afford to wait a bit, spend a bit more mana, and get a more suitable or efficient deal in the process. This also means your pool of suitable card advantage sources is vast as it covers the range of possible CMCs while your effective pool of ramp is far smaller as you are only ideally looking at the low end of CMC for the most part. This makes it more contested, or at least should! In smaller deck size formats there is also a very real consideration about decking yourself. Raw card draw has some diminishing returns while things that can provide card advantage like planeswalkers do not. You can just win a game with a planeswalker instead of decking yourself! It is space efficient to have win condtions and/or removal spells wound up in things that are also sources of card advantage. In many ways I could have argued why Jace, the Mind Sculptor is better than Ancestral Recall (which of course it isn't) to make much the same sort of points. The issue with that is most of the Jace's will work as some sort of Recall over a few turns and so there is far less competition on them and the bottleneck goes right back to mana.
Essentially the message of this article is that while card draw is nominally worth more than mana as well as being about the most fun you can have in magic that is not the whole argument. The key detail missed out most of the time is that the early game is crucial in getting ahead and winning the game and the early game is all about that mana. Missing out this detail seems to lead to a general over valuing of Ancestral Recall relative to powerful mana producers. It is not a big deal in this specific case. It can barely ever be bad having a Recall regardless of the opportunity cost! I just suspect that this trend continues all the way down the power levels and formats while being less visible of a bias. I am sure people have picked Fact or Fiction over the Birds of Paradise many a time and I am sure plenty of those times have been correct. In general I would argue against such a move, certainly in a first pick situation such a move seems categorically wrong these days! The other key detail often left out of the equation is speed and power of format which has been mentioned. In booster draft card draw is absolutely worth a lot more than ramp. Even early ramp like an Elf can be just a wasted card in a booster draft and hurt more than it really helped. When we get to power levels like cube or modern however the scales on mana vs. cards have tipped the other way rather. In settings where you can play Recall you can be pretty sure mana is the thing that will win most games. Everyone is doing broken stuff so it is just about being the first!