Sunday 12 December 2021

How gold is my gold card?

I talk often about the narrowness of gold cards when it comes to cube and how this makes them undesirable inclusions in a theoretical sense. Drafting is good when there is tension on the cards and options in the picks. Cards not in your colours reduce the viable picks in a pack. Gold cards are more likely to not be in your colours and so they reduce your average agency in a draft. Gold cards are also more likely to have only one player in the draft who is in those colour pairings and as such there is effectively no tension on a card. If signals have informed me I am the only player in a colour I can afford to risk wheeling my gold cards and take a contested card thus reducing other players options further.  

I discuss this specifically a bit more in this article from 2018;

These issues lead me to be as lean as possible on my gold inclusions to cube. A prospective gold card really needs to either be a massive bomb that is a couple of notches above on power level and a huge draw to the colour pairing, or the kind of card that is so all round good and playable that you invariably include it whenever you can sensibly cast it. The Scarab God could be considered the former and Kolagahn's Command to be the latter type of gold cards. Both of these are however the same kind of rigid two colour gold card. Without two different kinds of mana these cards are unplayable duds and this is what makes them narrower than a mono coloured card. There is however a whole range of gold cards which do not neatly fit into this binary gold or not gold model. For the most part these cards are ones which are playable with just one colour and gain power or utility as you gain access to more colours. This type of design has the benefit of reducing the risk of playing such cards which in turn greatly reduces how narrow they are within a cube. These kinds of cards are often splashed for. Some of these cards are even more playable than mono coloured cards allowing them to be slightly under par in terms of power and still contend for cube space. 

The aim of this article is to look at the different ways in which cards are costed and how this impacts their playability in regards to a limited environment and thus in turn how that should effect their evaluations for a cube. It will compare not just different types of gold card costs but also differing colour intensities and colourless cards as well, all be it just as a base line for being unfettered by playability issues. Non-gold cards can also be narrow in the same way gold cards tend to be thanks to how they are costed and so necessitate being a part of this conversation. Sometimes the answer the the question "how gold is my gold card?" is that it is rather less "gold" in the practical sense than a number of mono coloured cards.

Let us take a look at some of the kinds of cards we can see that exhibit this partial gold property that make them so much more appealing to use in cubes. One of the first examples of such things is to be found in the hybrid mana cards. These are oddly complex and cover a crazy range from being more playable than mono coloured cards all the way to narrower than conventional gold cards. 

Deathrite Shaman is the go to example of a card more playable than mono coloured cards. You can argue a good case for Kitchen Finks on that front as well. Deathrite is still a good card without access to one of the colours (assuming you are able to ensure lands are getting in the bin with some consistency). You can play it in any deck with black or green mana which is a lot more people at the table that have either just black or just green mana. You often see Deathrite in decks that are essentially not green or not black with a token couple of dual lands or other means of fixing tossed in on the off chance they slightly improve the Shaman. A large part of Deathrite's success in cube is down to the broad playability. In terms of fixing and ramping power he is generally less good than Gilded Goose (as getting lands in the bin is not quite so easy in cube as it is in other formats). It is his utility and playability than are better and result in Deathrite being a better overall card than Goose. 

Next up we have a card like Figure of Destiny. On the face of it a card that is less narrow than Kytheon or Firedrinker Satyr but is actually more comparable. Figure is great in white weenie and red deck wins and in Boros decks but it is rather less good in Izzet, Rakdos, Selesnya etc. Technically a Kytheon is good in five of the total fifteen permutations of one and two colour decks (mono white and then all iterations of WX) while Figure is only good in the three as levelling up beyond the first step becomes very tricky. Figure is still playable in off colour two colour decks like Izzet but does lose a lot of punch. It does rather luck out in that the most common places you would tend to include a one mana beater are mono red, mono white and Boros. This facet of the cube meta makes Figure a card that is more playable than most comparable red or white one drop beaters but it is still a lot closer to the mono coloured card than a Deathrite in terms of playability.

Cards like Boggart Ram-Gang or Nightveil Spectre however are straight up narrower than a 1RG or a 1UB card would be in the cube. These go from less narrow or comparably narrow to a mono card as with Deathrite and Figure of Destiny respectively to narrower than conventional gold cards. Boggart Ram-Gang is a long way from powerful enough any more but once upon a time it was the nuts hit with a Bloodbraid Elf! The intense colour requirements place Ram-Gang and Specter at the narrower end of the spectrum. They are too hard to cast in three colour decks or two colour decks not of the exact two colours. You get just about more playabiltiy for a normal two colour gold card going in some three or more colour decks than you do from a card like Nightveil going in two mono coloured builds. Nightveil is only a card you play in mono black, mono blue, or Dimir, and when you do it makes playing colourless lands much more uncomfortable. A card like like Thief of Sanity (1UB) is playable in Dimir as well as Sultai, Grixis, and Esper, all without the same discomfort on the colourless lands. These two casting costs are fairly close in narrowness however it is not intuitive that the Specter is the narrower of the two what with hybrid mana typically offering more convenience. 

There is also some bearing on the type of card and the colours in question. Some of the colours are more inclined towards mono colour builds than others making a colour intense card more likely to get play. As for the type of card things like cheap beaters really want to be playable on curve and so they are more limited than a card like Archmage's Charm which you can afford to wait on casting a lot more comfortably. On paper Charm is more colour intense than a Precinct Captain however due to the nature of the cards I play Charm more often and usually in decks that are not just blue. Captain rarely sees play outside of mono white. These are all fairly close comparison and the already blurry lines get even more so when it comes to splashes rather than even splits. It is just useful to understand the trends and starting positions. 

I mentioned Kitchen Finks at the start of this section. It is roughly on par with a 2G or 2W card but rather more playable than a 1WW or 1GG card. Colour intensity of a card has a similar effect of narrowing a card to increasing number of colours. Colour intensity is a product of the number of coloured mana pips in a cost and the ratio of those to the total cost and not just the number of pips. A 3GGG card is less narrow than a GG card despite needing more green mana nominally. The key distinction is that you need 100% of your sources to be green to deploy a GG card on curve while you only need 50% for the 3GGG card. I apply a similar level of stringency with high colour intensity cards as I do with gold ones and only permit the very cream of the crop entry to the cube.  

Next on the list of card types we have MDFC cards with two differently coloured cards on each face. The relative power of each face is relevant. Often only one half is good and so it mostly winds up looking like a card of the good side's colour with minor situational utility. This is very similar to how gold split cards like Fire / Ice work. Their "goldness" or narrowness incurred as a consequence of having multi coloured identity is context dependent. There are no hard and fast rules and how the card is played and where it is being used must be considered. Fire / Ice is fairly significantly less narrow than a mono coloured card as both halves are good so being locked out of one colour does not result in a dead card. A card like Selfless Glyphweaver however is imperceptibly less narrow than a 2W costing card. The spell on the back is so expensive and late that it is not doing much to help the card  avoid being dead when you don't have white. The odds on you still not having white by the time you can actually cast a 5BBB card is also minimal. Most relevantly however the Deadly Vanity backside is not a card you would ever play by itself. While it is a powerful effect it is dismal for the mana cost. As it adds so little in the way of value to the card overall it results in the card essentially just being a white card as far as cube design is concerned. 

Plargg, Dean of Chaos sits somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum. Plargg is a chunk better than Augusta but she is still playable and useful. I play Plargg just for Plargg while Augusta has only been played as a white card once or twice and only to make up playables or plug serious deck holes. Augusta is still playable and having access to both sides does reasonably improve the overall. I often find I'll play any RW duals I have in my red deck whenever I am running Plargg so as to increase his utility much like I mentioned for Deathrite earlier. I am sure I would the other way round too if I played Augusta in white decks!  

The way to approach these cards involves the range. How good is the card with just access to the base part, so just Plargg in this case, and then how good is the card when you have the option of Plargg or Augusta? This kind of reasoning also applies to cards like Kessig Wolf Run, Tasigur, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Lingering Souls. The range and the mid point relative to the bar for cube power level determine how gold your card is. If the floor of the card, or the power of a mono coloured iteration is good enough for cube then the card is a go and likely to be great in cube. If you only just pass the bar when you have access to all colours then it is a fully gold card and will need to make that extra high bar for gold cards. If it is somewhere in between you have a partially gold card and these are where it gets interesting. 

Lingering Souls is a pretty classic example of this. The card is poor in just the white mode but it is still fine. You don't play Midnight Haunting in cubes but the card is still doing the right things at a close to good rate. It isn't dead, a long way from it. You need the black mode to make the card great but the mid point between the floor and the ceiling is a very nice power level. Further to that you find that you cast both halves far more often than just one in a game and so that wildly shifts the actual mid point closer to the ceiling of the card. As such Lingering Souls is one of the most splashed cards in cube. A card like Valki//Tibalt however is cast in Valki mode most of the time and Tibalt mode significantly less often meaning you need to draw a much higher proportion of your power appraisal from the Valki side than the Tibalt one. You cannot just assume an even split on the halves or modes of a card, it has to be relative to the degree they are used.

I will play Lingering Souls with fairly poor prospects of flashing back as the floor is so close to the bar that a very small bump in power, say from occasional flashbacks, is enough to push it into the realms of decent. There is also of course the ability to play the card purely as a black card where the power level is more impressive but the prerequisites for use are far higher than mere extra colours of mana. You need to consistently be able to put it in the bin else it is actually a dead card and is high risk. Even so, while this is rarely done in cubes it does help to reduce how narrow the card is a fraction more. 

Kessig-Wolf Run is a fairly curious example of a gold card. The floor of being a Wastes is weak but not dead. A long way from it. A land is still a useful thing to have. The cost of playing a Wolf Run tends to be just not playing a different colourless utility land at worst, it is a minimal cost and low risk. It is another one of the other most splashed for cards in my cube as a result. You do however need both red and green to improve it beyond the floor but you don't need either to have it do something ultimately making it less narrow than Lingering Souls. 

Damn is another somewhat unique form of two colour non-gold card most akin to a split card with fuse. As a black card Damn is just about playable. As a white card Damn is good being just another Wrath of God. As an Orzhov card however Damn is one of the best removal cards in the game offering great flexibility, range, and efficiency. It has two different floors based on colour and a lovely ceiling when you have all the mana for it. Damn is consequently less narrow than a mono coloured card of either 2WW or BB cost, all be it not by loads and despite being optimal when in the right two colours. It is likely still also narrower than cards like Toxic Deluge and Extinction Event simply because they are less colour intense and thus much more easily splashed. You see a bunch of those single mana pip mass removal effects in four and five colour decks due to ease of casting. Damn requires you to be a bit more heavily black or white. 

Spellskite, Bomat Courier, and Scrapheap Scrounger are examples of non-quite colourless cards that are more playable than mono coloured cards which you can happily play to varying degrees with little to no access to coloured mana. Spellskite doesn't even improve that much with access to blue mana. I likely wouldn't throw in a land worse than a shock in order to support the activation. 

Lastly we can look at cards like Kenrith, the Returned King. Crap if you are just white and vey potent with access to all the colours. The abilities are not all created equally nor do they all perform equally in different archetypes. You want access to all or most of the colours but you don't need them to be heavy commitments at all. Kenrith is narrower than a mono coloured card but significantly less narrow than a typical gold card. You have the ability to use him with just one colour and your subsequent colours are not locked in. 

With all these kinds of cards and their costs considered I am going to plot a scale from 1 to 10 from the easiest and most playable cards (just based on cost) to to hardest and most awkward. This scale is something I use when looking at a prospective cube addition as a means to adjust the power level bar required for that card. Those at the high end have the bar raised while those at the lower end have it lowered. Obviously this is a rough guide and a spectrum rather than a fixed rating. You also then have to account for context such green gold cards being a bit easier to play and so forth. None the less, it is a very useful tool to use whenever you are creating and curating a limited environment. It is not something I have seen discussed much as it is much less relevant to actually building and drafting decks. It is much more of a concept for cube owners rather than just cube players as it relates to the design of cube and not so much the playing of. I wouldn't be at all surprised if design and development at Wizards used a similar system to appraise cards in a set so as to avoid overly parasitic limited environments. And if they don't, then they should! 

1 - no playability issues at all

Black Lotus

Tormod's Crypt

2 - negligible cost issues such as payment options or just high cost with no colour requirements

Wurmcoil Engine 


3 - minimal cost issues such as activations you don't need to activate early

Scrapheap Scrounger

Bomat Courier

4 - High floor, easy to play cards with multiple low intensity cast options

Kessig Wolf Run

Fire // Ice

Depose // Deploy    

Cram Session

5  - low colour intensity or options on casting colour

Restoration Angel

Lurrus of the Dread Den

Kitchen Finks

Garruk Relentless

6 - slightly higher colour intensity or cards that ultimately want access to a second colour to reach their ceiling. Some high colour intensity mono coloured cards that you don't need to play on curve too. 


Lingering Souls

Tasigur, the Goldenfang


Kenrith, the Returned King

7 - standard two colour gold cards with low colour intensity or mono coloured cards with high colour intensity

Precinct Captain

Eidolon of the Great Revel


Ajani Vengeant 

8 - high colour intensity cards, usually in multiple colours and often wanting on curve play. Mostly found in specifically coloured lists. 

Siege Rhino

Old-Growth Troll

Growth Spiral

9 - very high colour intensity with specific casting needs. Exclusively found in specifically coloured decks.

Frilled Mystic

Phyrexian Obliterator


10 - Absolute beasts to cast that need specific decks with well balanced mana and a lot of hard work on top of that! 

Coalition Victory

Nicol Bolas, Dragon God

any Ultimatum! 

There are a few cards I didn't include on these lists as they sat a little off the point. Boggart Ram-Gang for example is probably a 7.85 card, only fractionally easier than the GGG troll sat at an 8 rating. Equally Blade Historian sits just below a 9 rating, say an 8.8 for the sake of argument. Plargg I would give a 4.6 to etc. It is a spectrum and you don't need to be precise. It is the understanding of the concepts that is the important bit. There are also the context cases, cards like Omnath, Locus of Creation and Breya, Etherium Shaper. In principle these are as hard as the other 9 rated cards while in reality they are wildly easier to play thanks to the spread of colours and the kinds of fixing you can employ in green or artifact decks. Signets and general green stuff on top of random dual lands make splashing cards with single colour pips, even colour intense ones with lots of different ones, very easy. Essentially you don't play Omnath and Breya when they are 9 rated cards, you play them in decks that naturally bring them to 7 rated cards and then they are bonkers. Due to the lack of double mana colours in any one colour these cards work out to be a great deal easier to include and abuse. There is also the component of total cost of a card that I hinted at with the Wurmcoil Engine example. It exists on a scale like this that you could easily put along side however that aspect of magic is well documented and understood as part of mana curves. Avoiding the topic also helps keep this article a sensible length! 

So there you have it. Direction on how to maximise choice and interaction in draft while rooting out parasitic cards, all complete with a rough scale by which to assess such things. To the few people who this will be relevant to I hope you find it useful!