At the Gathering – Economic Stimulus

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Wednesday, April 22nd – Why do we rarely run four of a Legendary card or a Planeswalker card? Most of you probably gave the obvious answer of “Well, the second one is worthless until the first one is destroyed.” Economists have a term for this. It’s called Diminishing Marginal Utility.

Welcome back, Boys and Girls. Today, we’re going to talk about economics.

Hey, wake up! No sleeping. I know, I know, I get that same glazed-over look in my eyes whenever I hear the word economics too. Heck, I slept through most of 0-hour economics my Senior year (still got a B+ too) and I did the same for 2 semesters of economics in College (And got two more B+’s. I’m sensing a pattern…) But put your drooling on hold for the next couple thousand words, pop a Red Bull or two, and keep those eyes open, because, well, I said so.

Now, I didn’t want to write about economics this week. I really wanted to show you my new Faeries deck, but it hasn’t been tested at all yet. I have it built, and ready for the gauntlet, and I hopefully next week I’ll show you my new process for putting it together. But if I’m going to show you a deck with no testing behind it, it’ll be something wacky like 5-color Swans. If I’m going to put something out there that I believe to be actually competitive, you can be dang sure I’m going to test the heck out of it. Not just ideas, but a full 75 cards of, in my opinion, tier-1 goodness.

No, I didn’t just make that up Swans thing up, either. I actually have a tentative 5-color Swans list, which I’m probably taking to FNM. Is it tier 1? Probably not, but hopefully it will be both fun and effective. Maybe even surprise a few people with it. If we get through the economics, and no one throws any paper airplanes, then maybe I’ll bust out my kooky list next week, as an addition to the Faeries deck. But only if you’re good!

But now, on to the economics!

Let’s kick things off with a little quiz:

Why do we rarely run four of a Legendary card or a Planeswalker card?

Most of you probably gave the obvious answer of “Well, the second one is worthless until the first one is destroyed!”

Ding! That’s exactly correct. Subsequent copies in our hand are dead cards until we can play them, which means after the first copy has been removed from play somehow. Economists have a term for this. It’s called Diminishing Marginal Utility.

Let’s take a quick crash course in terminology, so we’re all operating on the same page.

Utility: The Utility of an item (in this case, a card in hand) is the amount of value you get from it.

Marginal Utility: The Marginal Utility is the difference between two utilities. It’s a measurement of the margin between them.

For example, your first drawn Garruk Wildspeaker has a Utility of, let’s say 6. (I’m making up numbers here, but it’s merely for the purpose of an example.) The second Garruk you draw has a Utility of 1, because it does nothing other than potentially bluff. So, the Marginal Utility in this instance is 5 (6 —1 =5) That’s a pretty steep dropoff, going from a useful card to a dead card, good only for bluffing. Since every card in your hand has at least a 1, because each one can potentially be used for bluffing, then any other card here would be just as good, and almost every other card would be better.

However, if your first Garruk is destroyed somehow (using his ultimate at exactly 4 loyalty, Damage, Oblivion Ring, etc.) then the Utility of the second Garruk in your hand rises. Does it rise to a 6? Perhaps… it could be more (if it’s particularly useful right now) or less (if it’s won’t be as effective as the original, based on the game state). Now we start seeing shifting measurements for Utility, but we are going to hold off on that for a moment, and we’ll come back to it later.

The same thing goes for Legendary cards.

Diminishing Marginal Utility: Diminishing Marginal Utility is the idea that each successive card is less useful than the one before it. For example, the first Oreo Cookie you eat is delicious. The second is still quite good, and the 57th is just gluttonous, and gives you less satisfaction.

The first Unmake you draw has a utility of 5.The odds are good you will be able to use it. The fourth Unmake, however, has a lower Utility, because the opponent may not have a fourth creature to use it on. In that case, it, much like the second Garruk, is a dead card. It cannot be used for anything until your opponent puts another creature out.

Now, let us flip the circumstances. Why is Broodmate Dragon so good? Because in the current Standard metagame, targeted removal is popular. Broodmate Dragon requires your opponent to expend two cards worth of utility to negate your one card’s worth of utility. The only way to trade one card for one card in this case is Wrath of God, which has the potential downside of removing the caster’s own creatures as well. So we see Utility tied into Card Advantage.

So then, why do we see some legends, or planeswalkers, or other cards with sever declines in utility played as four-ofs?

Sheer Power, my friends, Sheer Power. (Gratuitous capitalization for Emphasis? Check!)

You see, there is one more variable in the idea of Magical Utility. We can’t guarantee our draws, and we only have odds about how often we can draw a certain card. Let’s use a new example with Bitterblossom.

Let’s give Bitterblossom a utility of 10. It’s pretty obvious that it’s very, very good. But the second Bitterblossom isn’t nearly as good. Perhaps a 4. The third and fourth Bitterblossoms are a 1. So, why wouldn’t we just play 2? Because we have to weigh the utility versus our odds of getting it. If I run 2 Bitterblossoms in a 60 card deck, my odds of finding it by turn 2 to cast are very slim. If I run 4, my odds are twice as good (roughly), and Bitterblossom is so good that it is worth the chance of having a dead third and fourth Bitterblossom in my deck to (roughly) double my chances to get utility out of the first.

This is why, when building a deck, you see two-ofs and three-ofs in there. The remaining amount left out isn’t worth the power level of the card. It’s one thing to realize that Bitterblossom is so freaking amazing that you want one no matter what. It’s another thing to say that about Seismic Assault in Swans, or Wall of Reverence in Chapin/Nassif Five-Color Control. They are good, but not so overwhelmingly good that the fourth one is worth the loss of utility.

Let’s look at a few more examples. In the recently ended Extended season, Zoo was a popular choice, and many people (myself included) believed that four Path to Exile was the right number to run. They have a very high Utility, even the fourth one, because there are a lot of creatures you want to be able to get rid of. Odds are, the fourth one is going to be very good still. Unless you’re playing TEPS. Against TEPS, each one has the same Utility: Almost zero. Sure, maybe a little bluffing, but against TEPS, there’s not a lot of instant speed interaction you could have with them, short of Lightning Helix to keep you off of lethal with a Tendrils of Agony (and that’s a slim chance). So they are pretty much useless. Your only potential use is killing your own guys in response to them killing them instead, so you can go get a land. Basically, they are Basic Landcycling cards. Not exactly great, huh?

Now, let’s revisit the idea of Shifting Utility. What is shifting Utility? Similar to Diminishing Marginal Utility, it’s the idea that the utility of a card is not constant. With Diminishing Marginal Utility, the Utility of a card is based on other copies of that card. Shifting Utility, on the other hand, is the idea that a card may have different values of Utility based on other, variable factors.

Bitterblossom is amazing on turn 2. On turn 11, not quite as much. Even waiting until turn 3 instead of turn 2 lessens the utility, as you have one less Faerie Token, and also increases the chance that your opponent has Negate to counter it.

On the other side of that thought, Cruel Ultimatum is a dead card in your hand, with zero utility, until turn 7, when you can cast it. The longer the game goes, the more likely it is that Cruel Ultimatum will have a positive Utility.

Wrath of God measures its utility along another axis, namely the number of creatures it removes. It’s Utility is based, in part, on the number of opposing creatures you can eliminate with only one of your cards, and is lessened by the number of your own creatures you’ll destroy. Not only that, but also by the utility of the creatures you’ll destroy. Destroying three of you opponents Spirit Tokens and your Wall of Reverence, although it may seem advantageous in pure numbers, is not advantageous, because you are actually losing Utility in the exchange.

One last measure of Utility is exemplified in that last example, and that’s the quality of cards traded. If you can trade your worst spell for your opponent’s best, you are gaining utility. This is one of the inherent strengths of B/W Tokens, in that it is very hard for you to trade one of your spells for one of theirs. It is the same strength of Broodmate Dragon.

However, it also has a trickier side. You would happily trade your Negate for their Cruel Ultimatum, because your Negate has less Utility than their Ultimatum. Even though you’re trading one card for one card, the Utility of those cards are very different. This is also why Vendilion Clique is so powerful. I have had a number of people ask me why it’s so good. They lose a card, but they get another one, so you’re just paying 1UU for a 3/1 flyer with Flash. But Vendilion Clique is only as strong as your ability as a player. If they reveal a hand that contains cards with a lot of Utility, you make them “trade down,” meaning that the odds of them drawing a card with as much or more Utility than the one you’re forcing them to get rid of is small. However, if they reveal a hand full of less than stellar cards, you don’t make them get rid of any of it, because the chances are they will trade up. And since giving them a better hand is bad for you, you let them keep their garbage, and move on with perfect knowledge of their hand. So, even though they are maintaining equal Card Advantage, they are probably losing Card Utility, and thus the power of their hand is decreased. Not to mention, a Peek effect is pretty decent too. So, with that effect, you’re not banking on actual card advantage, but on Utility advantage. Because not all cards are created equal.

I want to expand on that last point there. Not all cards are created equal. Obviously we know that, which is why there are so many cards not being played at the highest level. But even then, there are higher and lower tiers of cards. But more importantly than even that, there are threats and there are answers. As we’ve heard Zac Hill mention more than once recently, there are no wrong threats, only wrong answers. How does this interact with Utility? Quite simple, actually. An answer has to have a threat to be useful. Path to Exile is no good against TEPS, and Volcanic Fallout isn’t exactly good against Zoo. Terror won’t help you against Chameleon Colossus. But each one of those aforementioned threats is good by itself. So, we see that a threat, Ceteris Paribus*, carries more utility than an answer based solely on its potential to actually affect the game.

*Ceteris Paribus is, shockingly, an economic term meaning, roughly, “All Else Equal.” Basically, it means with no differentiating factors.

Much in the same way that spells are naturally better than creatures, because all spells effectively have haste, we see that threats are better than answers based solely on their ability to have immediate Utility.

Next time you’re slinging spells or deciding decks, keep in mind which cards will actually have utility, and which ones may leave you high and dry.

Until next time, this is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice.

P.S. I really wanted to make a Batman Joke in reference to a Utility belt, but I decided that you, as the reader, shouldn’t be subjected to my Bad Puns. However, if you really want one, maybe I’ll throw it up in the forums, if there’s sufficient interest.