Saturday 31 October 2020

Commander Legends Preliminary Review Part I

Technical difficulties leading to no pictures. I typically go on chronological release as per Mythic Spoilers for these reviews so that is the best place to get such things if you wanted to follow along.

Enemy Battle Lands 0

For heads up play these are pretty much bottom of the pile as far as dual lands go and so they are of little use to me however they are nearly as good as you can get for the multiplayer settings. If you play multiplayer get a set of these, they will go up and stay up. Reprints will not happen often enough to quell demand and not do too much to reduce price.

Keeper of the Accord 0

Cute multiplayer recovery tool but rather too low impact to be all that busted. In 1v1 play this is terrible when you are ahead and not enough when you are behind.

Alena, Kessig Trapper 2

This is an interesting card and doesn't even need to be used in multiplayer or as a commander to be viable. It is a little like Neheb the Eternal with a bit less power and a different mechanism to gain loads of mana. Great with haste and for some blowout swings but generally going to be a bit too much phaff to set up and a bit overkill. Fun looking and certainly a card I play to experiment with but expecting it to not have many suitable homes.

Halana, Kessig Ranger 0

Removal in green is nice but this is too much mana for what it brings to the table. 

The Prismatic Piper 0

Interesting design and useful but so low in power I doubt it will make it into play at all often. Like under 1% of games sort of infrequent and that is only in commander and brawl. Not a card that has any application in more conventional magic. A nice way to enable drafting with commanders though. 

Behemoth of the Abyss 1

Not close to good enough as a threat but as a mechanism to bounce lands this does have a glimmer of hope for getting some play. 

Self Mutilating Hydra? 0

Such a poor rate of return on this dork. Wouldn't play in hydra or in counters themed decks.

Aesi, Tyrant of the Epicycle Strait? 2

Translation so the name is likely wrong. A lovely Simic staple. Lay extra lands, draw extra cards, on a big fat serpent. If someone where to ask you to describe Simic you could show them this card and have answered the question very efficiently. It is a bit high up the curve for a value card in cube but it is still sufficiently powerful and on theme that I can see running it in lands themed Simic decks. Just more redundancy is what you want. If you are playing Tatyova and Dryad of the Illyian Grove then  there is room for Aesi. 

Glowing Soulsteel 0

Would have been nice to have an equipment to help support this kind of Star of Extinction combo but sadly this is wildly too much to equip to help with that. Obviously far too weak for trying to use conventionally either. Really you need to cheat it onto something and that is just going to then be too many steps to be worth bothering. 

Providential Guard Rune 0

Not good enough without commanders being potential targets. Really handy for when you have a commander you want to build around though. 

Wyleth, Soul of Steel 2

A commander such as Wyleth! (re previous card) This guy loves getting all the buffs and being all sorts of protected. Likely one of the best vaultron commanders. Viable for cube constructed decks as well. You don't need to go as all in with Wyleth as you do with Kor Spiritdancer. Lightning Greaves into Wyleth is efficient and low risk. Most cheap equipment is for that matter, as are protective auras, those with flash in particular. Wyleth is certainly a synergy card but I suspect you can fit him into both aura and equipment decks effectively. Aura ones don't tend to need card draw and are usually green and white base, often with a blue or black splashes before red. Equip decks however are all about the red white base and make good use of protective dorks from white like the Runes one drops, Selfless Spirits and Bodyguards! Green auras does not lack for value, Boros equips do thus making Wyleth appeal a little more still. Just don't get him Shocked in response to paying much of an equip cost. 

Interpret the Signs 1

You can set this up to draw a whole lot of cards if you wish. That gives it some application in something like a Cadaverous Bloom deck. Too clunky and setup intense to be worth running outside of the abusive drawing of 10+ cards to immediately go off with. 

Brinelin, the Moonkraken 0

A very big Man-o-War indeed. This is just far too expensive for the effect it has on the game. It is not much protection, threat, or value. 

Mnumonic Deluge 2

Very powerful but prohibitively expensive for most cube uses. I want to have Omniscience with this. I really want to hit Time Stretch too which sounds like a bit too much top end for any sort of viable deck. Basically you need to abuse this to play it and there are very few places which can do that.

Krark the Thumbless 1

Much as this is a meme card it does start to make a coin flip constructed cube deck viable. Fun too! I'll absolutely be building that up for a laugh now one day. 

Thursday 29 October 2020

Quick Blog Update


Blogger has changed the interface and I am still getting to grips with it which is all rather slow going being such a luddite. The main loss at present is my ability to put pictures in without deleted loads of work... as such no piccies and just ominous walls of text. This and a bit of aimlessness about the direction of the blog and frankly the world at present has all lead to a significant reduction in content. I am still cubing avidly but I am feeling I have less to add than I once did. The cube community has come on leaps and bounds since I started this blog near a decade ago. There is good content, tools, and most importantly understanding for cube. It feels as if my work is done in many ways! Obviously I am not claiming credit for that by any means, simply that when I started out a lot of my motivation was to share my love of cube with the world and show how good it can be. People seem plenty aware of this now and don't need me banging on the same old drum. Perhaps it is a bit of burn out due to the vast swathes of new product coming from Wizards that keeping pace with it is a little daunting. Especially on top of Wizards blowing a bunch of their good will in a variety of ways over the last couple of years.

I have considered just moving over to Reddit. I would probably get more eyes from doing so but I know I would just sink all my spare time into discussion in the comments which has thus far kept me from doing so. I have also considered a hiatus from writing but I might as well just do what I want rather than formalising things. That seems to be less but not nothing so far. 

I have considered trying out videos or podcasts again too. The time and luddite issues arise with this again. If I could do them properly I suspect they would be better than my writing The thing is, I enjoy writing and find it both cathartic and illuminating. Making video and audio content sounds like it would be a less enjoyable process for me. 

If any one has any ideas, suggestions, or even requests I am more than happy to take them on board. Doing stuff is a lot more rewarding when it is helpful to someone else. The one thing I have had most requests regarding is the winners and losers from this and that series. I have always struggled with it a bit as it started out as an exercise in reviewing my reviews rather than actually talking about which cards are good cube cards in general. I would keep calling cards I overrated losers despite often still running them in cube. Equally I winners often wind up getting cut simply because I underrated them. I never really knew what people wanted, just lists of the good cards from sets once they have had a chance to be properly tested and evaluated or re-evaluations of my my initial reviews. The later was of use to me and has improved my initial assessments greatly but seemed like they would only be of interest to the most avid of readers. The former seems a little redundant what with all the various content and hype around good cards. Certainly there are some cards that perform in cube and not in other formats and vice versa and these are a third direction these articles could take. I could well do three distinct series; Card Reviews (backed up with testing), Preliminary Review Reviews, and an Underrated and Overrated series. 

So there we are, expect a bit less content with a lot less pretty pictures in the immediate future. If the lack of pictures is hurting readership then I will readdress the situation. All input and comments appreciated. Now time to do a bit of reviewing this Commander Legends thing.   

Monday 5 October 2020

Spell Lands (Modal Dual Faced Cards)


The spell lands are proving to be rather better than expected. I put all of them into the cube for testing and none have come out yet, none even really look shaky as yet. They are not bombs but they add more to your deck than I imagined and are well worth a pick even when all they replace is a no-pick-required basic land. Cards like Teetering Peeks are great but they never last in cube because they simply don't merit the slot in terms of impact in games. Sure, you play it in your aggressive red deck and make it marginally better but such things do not lead to a better cube environment overall. The red player would always rather 24 good cards and 16 Mountains than 23 good cards plus a dodgy one, and a mana base including a land with minor upside. So what is making spell lands or these "modal dual faces cards" so much better than other utility lands and cycling cards? 

While evaluating these cards I used cycling as my base line. Flip lands looked a fraction better than cycling for the most part and so I took Pelakka Cavern / Predation to be equivalent to Memory Leak in terms of power level. Leak is a slightly better spell but having a flipside tap land is better than cycling for one so it is roughly balancing out. The reality however seems to be that having a land on the back is rather more powerful relative to cycling than I had appreciated and I have been trying to work out what is behind this. Especially when cards that are good early but weaker late like Force Spikes and hand disruption are exactly the sort of thing that shine with cycling relative to the norm. You would expect the cycling to trump the spell lands in those cases but seemingly not thus far. It is certainly closer with those sorts of cards in that the difference between Censor and Jwari disruption is small while the difference between Ondu Inversion and Akroma's Vengeance is massive (I couldn't think of a closer comparison but it is close enough to make the point!)

The first and most obvious case is that cycling on a spell is only OK in a mana screw while a flippy spell land is great. When you need a land your Memory Leak only represents a 40% or so chance of being a land. Predation is 100% lock in. Both cost you a mana in that Caverns comes in tapped, the Leak might even cost two if it finds a CitP tapped land. It might even effectively cost you more if you didn't play something else relevant in the hope you would hit a land with the cycle and be able to do both but instead miss and do nothing. 

This is also pretty much the second reason the spell lands are superior to cyclers - the certainty. When you cycle a card you are just tapping into the probability of what you might draw. You feel land light so you cycle so as to prepare for turns later down the line. That cycle might set you up well and it might not. It is also harder to know when it is right to be pulling the trigger on a cycler. The assured outcome of the spell land seems to make the choices a lot more clear cut and with a higher percentage of being correct. You can plan around the card in hand a lot more easily and formulate a long term plan. Cycling cards tend to sit in hand and muddy the waters in terms of planning. Indeed, they can effectively reduce your ability to plan precisely in the sense that you are one card down in hand that has a known outcome. Option density is usually a great thing but when it comes at the cost of certainty it is not all upside and that is a subtle hidden issue present in cycling cards. 

The next difference is action density. This is certainly much more a thing in cube than other formats but it is absolutely relevant and is a big part of why I dislike cards like Tooth and Nail in cube. There is lots of draw effects in cube and games often go fairly deep into decks. You only have so many deck slots to spread across threats, lands, removal, etc. Every card you cycle away gives you one less of total piece of action. In a long control affair or good old midrange grind it can often come down to who actually has more total threats and answers in their deck. Cycling cards reduce this total while spell lands increase it when occupying a land slot. When occupying a spell slot the spell lands instead increase consistency. Either way it is a win both in general and when compared to cyclers.

The more I build and play with these cards however the more I appreciate that none of them really sit exactly in the spell slot or in the land slot and instead will be somewhere between the two based on the spell land in question and the deck it resides in. In much the same way that you can use the idea of cheap cantrip cards you can do so more directly with the spell lands (xerox theory). The generally accepted rate for cantrips is two to three cantrips at one or two mana equates to the ability to cut one land from your deck. This is a good guide although glosses over some subtleties, most of which are context dependent and command an article all to itself. There is slight diminishing returns on this effect for one, you cannot just gut a deck of land and ram it full of cantrips. You lower consistency after a point but before then you are really slowing yourself down, clogging up the works all the while reducing your action density significantly. Spell lands however let you you go pretty nuts on cutting lands if you wish. You can nearly get away with a one for one trade on lands to spell lands even with the ones that are better and more powerful spells. I have commonly found I am adding two or three to a deck and removing one less normal land overall for them. A normal deck might be 16 lands and 24 spells but with spell lands I will have effectively have a 17 land deck with 25 or 26 spells all without changing library size. This is obviously just great in and of itself. Even when we accept the spells on the spell lands are underpowered in general. Power is a function of mana cost which is less relevant than normal when your card can simply be a free mana source. As such you have two general groups of spell lands; the cheaper situational cards and the costlier higher impact ones. A 4/5 trample for 6 is laughably bad in terms of power level for cube but the point in the game where you are playing it means the mana cost is far less of a factor. You are still looking at a 4/5 which is still reasonably big and threatening. A lot of seemingly underpowered cards perform very well as spell lands just so long as they can have a big impact. The cheaper situational cards get their power from being very effective and thus cost efficient when the time is right or being something else if not in the more conventional way that modal and cycling cards can be powerful. It is a big win for this latter group of cards in cube that the present meta seems to have endless uses for mana. Clues, Castles, adventures, flashback, escape, kicker,.. the list goes on a long time. There is certainly diminishing returns on the power per mana spent on these various mana sinks but they are there in plentiful supply ensuring that your Jawri Isle is useful into the late game long beyond when a Force Spike is getting anything done.    

What I have found is that having spell lands in my pool allows me to both play and build differently to normal. When your deck has 17 or 18 land you can expect to curve more consistently and play your 4 to 6 drop cards more reliably on or around their point on the curve. In essence the spell lands allow you to doubly increase your action density by having more powerful and more direct cards in your build. The consistency that I may have been getting from Elvish Visionary or Sleight of Hand is not as important as it was and so I can cut a card in that range and replace it with a planeswalker or something. Spell lands give you the possibility of the spells on the card directly but they also seem to allow for the cramming of more power over filler than before without harming consistency. 

So why are these lands so much more exciting than the afore mentioned Teetering Peeks? Llanowar Reborn looks like it is double the card that Vastwood Fortification is being able to do both things rather than just the one. In the case of Fortification it is the power of the instant speed that makes most of the difference. When you can use it as a trick and blow out a combat or negate removal the value of the card jumps massively. When it is just making a dork a bit bigger it isn't worth the card. That is the same case for most of these kinds of utility lands. They simply don't offer enough of a return in terms of raw power and potential. The payoff is not only minor but generally also tied to when you make the land. It makes timing the land awkward and further reduces the value of the card. You have to play Teetering Peeks in a land slot and as a result it makes your mana base a touch worse. Your spell lands sit in a nice void between land and spell and generally allow for you to improve your mana base overall. I have no math to support it but I am sure 17 lands with a couple of EtB tapped lands curves out far better than 16 land all entering untapped does. 

What about lands like Castles I hear you ask? These come in untapped for the most part and are activated at your discretion rather than as some kind of EtB effect. Certainly Castles are among the very best of the utility lands on offer and many remain in my cube. They are convenient and have minimal opportunity cost. The issue with these is tempo or power per mana if you prefer. You need 3 activations of Castle Vantress to see as many cards as Silundi Vision. You need to spend 40 mana on Castle Adenvale to make the same total stats as you get with Emeria's Call. In a world with endless time and mana the Castle cycle and lands with activated abilities in general outclass spell lands. In the real world of significant tempo pressures lands with activated abilities are one of the last places you sink mana into and as such rarely have that significant of an impact on games. I have activated less Castles in a year than I have cast spell lands in a few weeks. I have also laid more spell lands as lands than I have cast them which paints a pretty damning picture of the difference in relevance for these two groups of cards. Castles also occupy land slots in deck rather than the middle ground of spell lands meaning they generally wind up as a mild cost to your mana and thus consistency too. 

Man lands are the closest in terms of power to spell lands but they are doing something different. Man lands main strength is resistance to removal as they evade all sorcery speed removal and mass removal when they want to while also typically dodging a lot of the rounded removal like Cast Out as it tends to state non-land. Manlands give you threat diversity and cause a headache for the control players. A lurking disincentive to planeswalkers is the other thing manlands do so well in cube. It is hard to compare them to the spell lands as a result given they perform these unique roles. Pound for pound the spell lands crush all the man lands in terms of stats on the board for mana cost. One combat step with a Treetop Village is 3 mana. You only have to pay that cost once for your Kazandu Mammoth and then you get to use it every combat there after until it is answered. It is also hitting rather harder for the most part too. So in terms of utility the man lands have the edge but in terms of tempo spell lands win out significantly. It doesn't matter much when both are clearly great groups of cards and feature heavily in cubes. 

So there we have it, a load of technical reasons that spell lands are great. I didn't even look at the card design or flavour and they are big wins too. I love how they managed to pretty well sum up the colour pie for each colour in six spells. The only thing missing is a bounce effect in blue, and I guess some kind of Disenchant somewhere in the Selesnya area! They seem to have the power level fairly reasonable and consistent too. The quality of these cards and the clear thought gone into their design makes me really want to see a gold cycle summing up what the guilds are about. Being such a milestone in  terms of card design and pushing the boundaries of the game they pretty much had to do a great job and my vote is that they achieved it. The only complaint I have is that they are a bit of a phaff to use in paper and feel a little like sac lands in terms of time messing around with cards added to a game! Luckily they are absolutely worth it. As will be all the extra wear these cards get in the years to come. The spell lands are a lot better than they look and do so in lots of subtle ways.