Context Analysis: Knowing When To Cut The Good Cards

It is very dangerous to point at a card and say, “That card won me that game; therefore, it should be in my deck.” There’s always more to the story than whether or not the card was good in one particular game or in one particular match. Even Feast of Worms can win games under the right circumstances.
That’s why this concept of negative context analysis is so tough to come to grips with. You improve your deck only very slightly when you realize that a good-in-general card should really be replaced by a jankier card that fits your deck better. If a certain “good” card wins you five out of ten playtest games, you’ll probably never stop to think whether a different card would have won you six out of ten.

Context is a tricky thing to talk about. The concept behind it is simple enough: don’t look at your cards in terms of how “good” they are in a vacuum, but rather in terms of how good they become when placed in your deck.

Most Magic players use “positive” context analysis all the time. Positive context analysis is the process by which one discovers hidden gems, so to speak. Say you’re looking through a box of crap rares and realize one of them is actually a techy sideboard solution to a certain matchup you’ve been having trouble with. The card sucks in every other situation, but in context – in the context of your specific deck, in the context of that one specific matchup – it becomes a bomb.

Hence the term “positive” context analysis – when you place the card in a certain context, its power level increases above where it normally is.

But like I said, we Magic players use positive context analysis all the time. What we tend to do much less of – and what we need to do more of – is to make use of the opposite principle, negative context analysis.

The difference between the two is simple. Positive context analysis helps you identify cards that are usually weak, but become strong in the context of your deck; negative context analysis help you identify cards that are usually strong, but become weak in the context of your deck.

I’ll start off the most obvious example I can think of. Remember what happened when Troll Ascetic showed up in Mirrodin? Every Green mage and his brother was lined up around the block to get his hands on four.

“It’s a three-mana 3/2 that can’t be killed!

“Just how are you going to get that bad boy off the board? How, I ask you?”

“Wow. That card is nuts.”

Considering its crazy abilities, Troll Ascetic was decidedly undercosted. Three mana for three points of power is a fine deal to begin with, and the toughness of two is largely irrelevant when the creature in question is immune to targeted burn and can regenerate its way out of any amount of combat damage.

Yet the Troll saw very little play in last year’s Standard, even less in Mirrodin Block Constructed, and sees almost no play at all in the current Standard environment. What happened?

As good a deal as it was, it turned out nobody was really in need of a bullet-dodging 3/2 regenerator.

The Standard format the Troll was introduced to was defined by Goblins, Affinity, Tooth and Nail, and control decks featuring Wrath of God. Regeneration or no, his 3/2 body moved an insignificant amount of damage against players packing Wrath or Platinum Angel, and as a blocker he was easily swept away by the torrents of damage dished out by Affinity and Goblins.

B/G Cemetery decks and G/W control decks had no vacancies in the creature department, since they just wanted utility creatures and finishers. Even G/R land destruction decks – where the Troll saw the most play – often cut him for bigger monsters or more control elements. In the end, almost no major archetype was consistently interested in what the Ascetic had to offer.

Troll Ascetic was a good card in a vacuum, but proved generally unhelpful in the context of the decks he was being played in.

But Troll Ascetic is an obvious example. The reason negative context analysis is important, and the reason I’m writing about it today, is that right now we just about only make use of it when it’s a glaring example of a Good Card Gone Bad like this one.

There are tons of these “good in general, bad-in-context” cards out there today that are still lurking around in our decks, because they have not made it as clear as Troll Ascetic did that they have become bad when taken out of a vacuum.

Their weakness in the context of our decks does not stick out like a sore thumb, and since they still look like a good deal on paper, we are hesitant to question whether the effect we are getting out of them is still a positive one overall.

You’ve heard it a million times – a player poring over his decklist, looking for someplace to make a cut, muttering to himself “No, I can’t cut that. It’s too good.”

We just saw this concept in action at the finals match of Pro Tour: Columbus. Everyone knows that Cranial Plating is a good card in Affinity, but those of us who watched the webcast from the PT Columbus finals match might recall a certain Pro Tour champion talking smack about it:

“I’d actually rather have, like, a ham sandwich, sitting on that board…than some Cranial Platings…because [they are] not very good against a deck full of burn spells.”

Osyp Lebedowicz

The Plating had become a bad card in the context of the matchup it was being played in. It did its job just as well as ever, powering up one creature per turn to deal an obscene amount of damage with one attack, but in this particular situation the pumped-up creature was no longer very likely to make it to the combat damage step. Even worse, Nakamura was bringing in Ensnaring Bridges, which instantly rendered any Platings in play utterly worthless in Canali’s Ornithopter-less deck.

This example brings me to the second reason negative context analysis is frequently overlooked: the tendency of good cards to generate memorable wins through brokenness.

It was the wrong choice overall for Canali to keep the Cranial Platings in, but that didn’t stop him from equipping up his guys with them and smashing in to win the Pro Tour. Good cards are sneaky in that they have a way of reasserting their goodness even when they have become bad overall in the context of one’s deck.

Had Canali ever drawn fewer creatures than Nakamura drew burn, his Platings would have sat on the sidelines and watched Grim Lavamancer and Cursed Scroll decimate his life total. But you’d never know that from just watching the replays – what actually happened was that he drew too many creatures for Nakamura to handle anyway, so the Platings worked just as well as they normally did. If you were to look only at the events of that one particular match, all the evidence points to the Cranial Platings being just fine in the matchup.

It is for this reason that it is very dangerous to point at a card and say, “That card won me that game; therefore, it should be in my deck.” There’s always more to the story than whether or not the card was good in one particular game or in one particular match. Even Feast of Worms can win games under the right circumstances.

That’s why this concept of negative context analysis is so tough to come to grips with. You improve your deck only very slightly when you realize that a good-in-general card should really be replaced by a jankier card that fits your deck better. If a certain “good” card wins you five out of ten playtest games, you’ll probably never stop to think whether a different card would have won you six out of ten.

Going the extra mile to question a card choice that’s done well for you overall (as opposed to sticking with the mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”) is a lot of extra work for a very small improvement. But small improvements like these add up to game wins, match wins, and tournament wins in the long run.

Two years ago, Bob Maher won GP: Detroit by playing a modified version of the then-popular Astral Slide deck. The modification? No Astral Slides. From the official blurb summarizing the tournament:

“Maher smashed face with a Red-White Control deck that a lot of people were calling ‘Slideless Slide.’ Designed by Brian Kowal, someone Maher considers something of a Block Constructed wizard, the deck dumps Slides and Exalted Angels for more land and control cards. In fact, his bustigation was total. The deck went completely undefeated…”

In general, of course, Astral Slide is a very good card in an Astral Slide deck. But Brian Kowal discovered that in context – in the context of the deck, or in the context of metagame, perhaps even in the context of specific matchups – the slot was better occupied by less broken cards.

Immediately following this tournament, the R/W Control archetype took off and became a staple part of the metagame. But what do you think would have happened if I had asked, two days before the GP, “You think Slide might be better off running more land and control cards instead of the Slides and Angels?” I would have gotten laughed out of the store.

Context analysis was what won Maher that GP. If he had just brought a traditional Slide deck like everyone else, there’s a good chance he’d be out $2,400 right now.

Fast forward to the present. Pretty much nobody is trying to break Troll Ascetic anymore, but there is a card that immediately comes to my mind as one of those good-in-general, bad-in-context cards that is cropping up in way more decks than it should be. Consider, if you will, the following list:

Kooky Jooky

By Cabal Rogue

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

4 Eternal Witness

4 Viridian Shaman

3 Hearth Kami

2 Duplicant

3 Rootrunner

4 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

4 Commune with Nature

4 Magma Jet

2 Sensei’s Divining Top

7 Mountain

11 Forest

2 City of Brass

1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers

1 Pinecrest Ridge


3 Plow Under

1 Rootrunner

1 Swamp

3 Cranial Extraction

1 Duplicant

3 Electrostatic Bolt

3 Arc-Slogger

I’ve played against this deck a couple of times in various tournament settings. Most folks adhere pretty closely to the list above, except for one thing. Nearly every single person I’ve played against has managed to “fit” a certain card in, a certain card that people seem to be “fitting in” to more and more decks these days.

Solemn Simulacrum.

Is Solemn Simulacrum a good card? Clearly.

The Sad Robot is a board-affecting card advantage machine, frequently generating three-for-ones while stopping an incoming attacker for a turn, or pecking away at the opponent’s life total in the control mirror until he spends a card getting rid of it, netting you even more cards.

The fact that he generates so much card advantage, which most players will agree is abstractly a “good thing,” causes Jens to find his way into just about any deck running basic land these days.

But what does he do for this deck?

Let’s start with the extra land. How useful is a fifth land to Kooky Jooky? Well, the deck’s mana base incorporates 22 lands, 4 Birds of Paradise, and 4 Sakura-Tribe Elder for a total of 30 effective mana producers. That’s half the freaking deck.

With those numbers, the Kooky Jooky player has an 83% chance of having five mana by turn 5, and that’s not even factoring in the mulliganing of no-land and one-land hands, or the extra lands that can be turned over by Sensei’s Divining Top.

It’s also pretty clear that the deck as it stands is not suffering from any mana inconsistency problems, since Adrian Sullivan and his teammates took the list to a combined 24-3-4 Swiss record at States this year. So if Jens isn’t needed for his mana production abilities, the question still remains – what is he needed for?

Perhaps it’s the 2/2 cantrip body. A 2/2 for four, even if it does replace itself after dying, is frankly atrocious against both Affinity and Tooth and Nail. Against Affinity it will almost never do anything but chump block, and four mana for a cantrip Psychic Puppetry is hardly what I’d call “Constructed worthy.” Against Tooth and Nail, he beats down for two, which is a pretty irrelevant clock when he doesn’t get to start attacking until turn five. This is doubly true against KCI, which combos out even faster than Tooth and Nail.

So his land-searching is hardly necessary in any matchup, his 2/2 body is no good against Affinity, Tooth, and KCI…basically, the only thing he’s good against is being a plain old two-for-one against the Green/X and mono-X decks. But if all you’re getting out of your sizeable mana investment is a simple two-for-one, you’re much better off going with Plow Under – it’s much better against all of those decks, and it happens to be the nuts against Tooth and Nail as well.

Well, I take it back. I guess there is one thing Jens does in this deck that Plow Under doesn’t – he gets cloned by Kiki-Jiki. In fact, I’d say it’s reasonable to assume that warm, fuzzy dreams of Xeroxed Simulacrums are the source of his frequent inclusion in the deck. Problem is, the deck is already saturated with Kiki targets.

Besides mana producers, this deck consists of four Kiki-Jikis, four Magma Jets, two Divining Tops, and cards that are really good in conjunction with Kiki-Jiki. Once the Legendary Goblin is in play, he’s practically guaranteed to start taking over the game; additional targets for his ability are not what this deck needs.

I’d wager this is the conclusion Adrian and his teammates came to as well, and that’s why they left it out of their builds at States: good card overall, no good in the context of the deck.

All right, now why do I keep harping on this? Context analysis, be it positive or negative, is already something we do regularly (regardless of whether or not we call it that by name), so why am I going to such great lengths to explain how it works?

Because as much of it as we do now, we never do enough of it. It can take days, months, even entire seasons for players to remove outdated cards from their decks simply because they are terrified by the idea of removing “good cards” in the process. My goal in writing this is to put a name and a face on this concept; if we can make a habit of thinking about it more, of talking about it more, we will by necessity begin to pay more attention to it.

So go through your favorite decklist after you finish reading this. Look at each card and think, “Why is this in here? Am I running it just because it is a ‘good card,’ or is the effect it provides helpful to the overall strategy of my deck? If I wanted to, could I get away with running something else in its place?” Then try something else out in that slot, brainstorm ideas for other cards that might gel better with your deck’s specific goals, and see what happens.

Always remember – as good as your deck is now, there’s a better build out there waiting to be discovered. And no matter how counterintuitive it might seem, sometimes taking out the good cards is the only way to get there.