Sunday 21 May 2023

The decline of Thoughtseize and the curious effect of tempo on card value


A while ago, like 2016ish, I valued Thoughtseize only slightly less than I valued Force of Will as a pick in cube draft. For reference I value Force of Will over most other cards in most formats. I am a FoW fanboy, always have been and I still am. These days I barely play Thoughtseize in cube. The falloff that Thoughtseize, and other targetted hand disruption effects, have experienced is pretty extreme. Delving into why extreme changes occur is always revealing and so here we go!

As you would expect with any gradual changes in a complex meta or ecosystem there are multiple factors at play. The main ones I can isolate that correspond to a decline in the value of hand disruption are as follows. An increase in the opportunity cost of playing a one drop. An increase in the cost of tempo negative plays. An increase on the cost of consuming natural card resources. The last is the most complex an ethereal and so I may struggle a bit getting my point across. It is the main thing my title points to however I suspect it is the least significant of the three factors discussed here in terms of affecting change on the meta. It is also linked, like the first two points, to seemingly ever increasing tempo. As the first two points are pretty simple we shall begin with those.

Discard effects are tempo negative. They spend mana and do not affect the board at all. Yes, most of the good ones only cost one mana but that is still mana that could have been invested in fighting tempo. People are playing less card quality effects now too. A few years back every single Opt and Sleight of Hand was getting play and decks would happily play like six of these kinds of cards if given the opportunity. Now only the premium ones are getting the love and most builds are only packing a couple unless it is a key part of the deck synergy. It is much the same sort of tempo pressure affecting both sets of cards. In many ways blue card quality is the Ying to black discard's Yang. Both are card neutral, both typically cost one mana, the good ones at least! And Both provide information. The blue improve your card quality while the black reduce your opponents. Net mana and cards for both players are the same. 

The increased opportunity cost of playing a card like Thoughtseize simply relates to the increasing number of other good things there are to do with one mana. More playable removal spells, more dorks to deploy, that sort of thing. Indeed, the Triomes are so potent a thing to get setup they are often some of the best things to be doing with your first turn of mana. A huge draw to cards like Thoughtsieze back in the day was that they would be incredibly powerful while not getting in the way of other powerful cards in the deck. It was just like having free power, but that power is not quite so free any more. There is also the pressure from the opponent, they deploy a Ragavan or a mana dork and you probably want to use removal on it but if you do that then you are not using your discard on turn one and as such it is either going to really get in the way of a midgame curve play or sit in hand until properly dead. While most one mana spells drop in value as the game progresses discard effects suffer most. 

It is of course worth noting that hand disruption in cube is, and has always been worse than it is in constructed. In standard there are usually very few good playable one drops, fewer still able to represent as much power as Thoughtsieze. In formats like modern you are getting to unpick synergies , disrupt combos and all that jazz. Games are that much quicker and you are able to play a much higher % of your deck as discard and so it can be rather more of a plan and can scale with itself better rather than being a risk or huge liability late game. Inquisition of Kozilek and other cards with that style are naturally worse in formats with higher curves and cube is certainly still higher than modern and legacy. 

In part I wonder if part of the reason for the decline in black discard is that I am offering the wrong sorts. Duress and Inquisition hit less and less as things tend towards a midrange dork based slugfest! I think I need to revisit Harsh Scrutiny, Despise, and Dreams of Steel and Oil. The ability for these cards to take away the game winning later threats most commonly seen seems to have more present value than a card that has more overall coverage or more early game. This might help increase the overall play of these types of cards but it won't help Thoughtseize who remains kind of the pile. 

So, onto this last point. What am I talking about when I talk about natural cards? Simply, these are the cards you start with and the cards you draw each turn. The cards that cost you nothing to obtain. In an ideal setting you want to know roughly the number of turns a game is, we shall call this X. You then get 6 or 7 + X natural cards based on starting or not. The best tempo you can achieve is having X lands and spending all your mana and all your cards. If X is 4 then we will have 10.5 cards, of which we want 4 lands. That will give us 10 mana to spend on the remaining 6.5 cards. As such we would want the average cost of our non-land cards to be about 1.5 mana and we would want about 40% of our cards to be lands. This would give us the most possible tempo. Just dumping cards and mana into tempo as fast as we can with no time wasted on anything else. If X is 6 then we are looking more like 12.5 natural cards, ideally about six land. Just under half! We then have 21 mana to spend on 6.5 cards greatly upping the average mana cost we are looking for to over 3 per non-land card. It is all a lot tidier and less stretched for decks that operate quicker that is for sure. The longer you go the more you are going to need means of smoothing things out or drawing more so as to have the right balance of things. Those being things to do early, stuff to spend mana on late, and the lands at the right time so as to have maximum possible mana output.

It is incredibly easy to get cards or value in magic these days. All the colours have it and you can lean on cards like Mazemind Tome and Bankbuster for it as well. The thing is, all of it comes with tempo cost and opportunity cost. Even the mighty Treasure Cruise with Ancestral Recall levels of efficiency has to sit dead in hand while you fill up the bin. It still has that small tempo cost of one mana for no board based return. And it is very much the outlier. Some of the next best card advantage spells in terms of mana efficiency come in a lot worse in the tempo department, say Night's Whisper. There are a few cards that are typically both value and tempo, most of these can be more tempo if you are willing to sack off the value part as well. Bloodbraid Elf is usually a two for one with high tempo. It is just still usually less tempo than a Questing Best or an Eskia's Chariot. 

The point of all this is that it costs you to invest in effects that are not tempo and it costs you again to consume cards in doing so. You are not speeding up the game by using discard but you are cheaply consuming your own resources. Likely you are going to be needing to recuperate these card resources which in turn will incur further tempo cost. 

It is the poor scaling and high late game risk of discard that really pushes us over the edge on this issue. Drawing that late game discard spell that does nothing is devastating. Not just because it is essentially you being a card down but being a natural card down. You need to compensate for these risks in building and in turn that seems to be making decks a bit worse. The low cost low tempo side of hand disruption simply scales in the wrong direction with its effect of lengthening games. It makes the deck's mana and curve maths more awkward. It forces you into playing more low tempo cards, or risks you suffering bad draws, both of which can be fatal in this high tempo fast paced meta. 

Essentially my curious effect of tempo on the value of cards is in some ways the opposite of what you might expect. When tempo is king cards are worth less and when tempo is less important value is king. Or so you would expect. Upon closer inspection however you have to differentiate between cards you invest in getting and cards you get anyway. In a world where tempo is king investing in cards costs more. That makes those cards less valuable, the upshot of which is that the cards you are getting regardless are that much more valuable and need to be made the most of. This simply means you need your main deck to be full of high power cards that are unlikely to be dead, either through being too situational, too conditional, or too expensive. You need to make everything count, luxury cards, filler, and fluff are no longer really things you can afford much of. Increasingly I find my deck to be lands, threats, and answers to threats. Cube and booster draft continue to converge in feel which is no bad thing really. Decks might lack some of the exotic creativity of older cube formats but the quality of games is far better. 

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