Feature Article – Counting the Cost

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When a new set release hits the streets, people invariably go gaga over the new tools. “Look at Aven Mindcensor,” they’ll say. “It totally hoses Dragonstorm! And Yixlid Jailer spells death for the Dredge strategy!” However, while such cards do have obvious applications in the metagame, they come with a considerable amount of baggage. Are these hidden costs worthwhile? Chad is keen to find out…

Some cards just never live up to their hype… and it’s usually because the hype was based on the card’s good points and not on the cost involved in running it.

Let’s take a look at one example, Aven Mindcensor. Adrian Sullivan calls it the number one White card in the set, and Mike Flores had this to say:

This card is the rocks. It has the same number of super powers as mana in its cost, and all three of them are relevant. The body is just fine for a low-to-mid cost flyer.

The first sentence is the hype. The second is true, although calling flying a super-power is a bit much from Mr. Who Blocks himself. The last sentence is, well, just silly.

Aven Mindcensor costs three mana. Three mana! In Standard you get a 2/1 for one mana; even in Block you get a 3/1 or unbounded 2/2s for two, many of which are harder to block than a 2/1 with flying. Don’t even get me started on what three mana should do in Extended.

Aven Mindcensor is, in short, powerful… but it costs you a lot to run it. If you’re WW and you maindeck it, what are you taking out? If it’s one of your early drops, you increase the risk of unplayable hands, and massively reduce the likelihood of a dream-curve start where turn 3 involves playing two threats. It’s certainly possible that flash and semi-hosing of library search is enough to make this a good card, but this isn’t “just fine creature plus good abilities.” It’s “crappy creature with (hopefully) game-swinging abilities,” and its viability will hinge on whether those abilities are truly game-swinging or not.

Next up, a similar hoser that I have to admit got me excited too: Yixlid Jailer

Once again, the cost seems so modest — come on, he’s a bear! The thing is, Black decks have two-mana 2/2s with abilities already, and 2/1s do die more easily than 2/2s. Running this guy means weakening your deck except against a small subset of opponents.

How about Magus of the Moon? If I had a nickel for every person who wrote something like, “It’s a Blood Moon that swings for two so it can be maindecked,” I wouldn’t be rich, but I could at least buy a soda. Hey, nickels don’t go that far.

So what’s the cost? For one, Gray Ogre isn’t a big shakes. More importantly, however, Magus of the Moon (like Magus of the Scroll) comes with a heavy price for being a man — he dies. You might even face the irony of providing your opponent with the Red mana he needs to play Sudden Shock or somesuch, assuming he hadn’t already found it.

History shows us that small hoser creatures almost never work out quite as well as we think they might. Whether it’s giving all artifacts an upkeep of one, hassling search or cutting off graveyard effects, these cards suffer from two problems.

First, they are generally inferior to whatever else is fighting for that slot, making them dubious maindeck players. Can White Weenie afford to run such a mediocre beater (one that compounds their existing vulnerability to Sulfur Elemental) against the broad field just to up their win percentage vs. Dragonstorm? What Black deck — outside of a format dominated by graveyard-abusing decks — can afford to run an otherwise-vanilla 2/1 for two?

Second, they are vulnerable to removal, making them unreliable — especially if they form your sideboard strategy.

Imagine for a moment that you board in four Aven Mindcensors / Yixlid Jailer and Dragonstorm / Dredge boards in Serrated Arrows. If your first thought is that Serrated Arrows isn’t their best option, that should show you how vulnerable the mediocre creature that hoses you strategy probably is. Now imagine that they boarded in four copies of Shock. Unless they haven’t got a single Red mana to spare, you just added to their storm count.

The net result is that such cards usually aren’t good enough for the main (because they’re sub-par versus too many opponents) or the sideboard (because you can usually find a better card for the purpose without the added costs of being attached to a man).

Why run 60 cards when you could run 56? (There’s actually a good answer…)

Next up, a card that’s getting a lot of hype: Street Wraith. Adrian Sullivan calls it Black’s number one card in the set, and says:

I’ll admit it. I missed seeing this card for what it was: a bona-fide way to make your deck actually be only 56 cards. Other things, like the various Baubles and such that have been printed, fall short of this because of a simple reason: mana or time. If they are free, they have a time delay that stops them from actually truly shrinking your deck to a 56-card deck, or they cost some small amount of mana.

In some decks, or in some formats, you’re not going to care about paying two life. Particularly in combo decks or in format where the game is going to be over too quickly for two life to actually matter, Street Wraith can truly shine in those decks. Don’t expect it to see much play in every format, though. The Wraith needs the right environment for two life not too be too great a cost.

Our own Mike Flores includes it in his Top 20 for the set and says:

Formats: Whichever ones have combo decks.

This card is already getting reasonable buzz as a pair of scissors cutting deck size from 60 to 56. Yes, I think that 3/4 beats will commence more often than they are planned for.

A lot of people seem to have bought into the idea that the Street Wraith represents a straightforward trade: play 56 cards instead of 60 at the (trivial) cost of two life per copy. Some people seem to think it should be a four-of in almost any deck, while others just think it’s an auto-include in combo.

They’re wrong, because they’re ignoring one of the very real costs of Street Wraith. If you don’t already know what it is, let me give a hint — alternate text that would, if it were real, make Street Wraith the real deal:

Cycling – Pay 2 life. (Pay 2 life, Discard this card: Draw a card.) If Street Wraith is in your opening hand you may choose to cycle it before deciding whether to take a mulligan.

Mulligan decisions are among the most skill-testing in Magic. A Street Wraith in your opening hand is like only getting to look at six of your opening seven before deciding whether or not to ship it back. For those of you who like math, that’s just over 14% of available information for a potentially hard decision. For those of you who don’t like math so much, that means that sometimes you’ll face a hand with five spells, a land and a Wraith and have no idea whether that Wraith is “really” a land or “really” another spell.

I’m not saying that the Wraith is a bad card, but it’s only really good in decks that can get full value from it. Vintage Ichorid, for example, can use it to Dredge on turn 1 after discarding to Bazaar of Baghdad — that’s a lot more than just shrinking the deck to 56 cards! Dredge decks in other formats can do much the same (albeit on a lesser scale), speeding up their dredge engine by a turn. But just running it to cut your deck size because you’re running combo? (Many combo decks involve above-average difficulty of mulligan decisions.)

I’m glad that Mike realizes that auto-cycling isn’t enough for most decks (even most combo decks!) and that unless you’re Dredging or otherwise taking extra advantage of Street Wraith… like running out a 3/4 regenerator?

With some cards, the cost is waywayway too high. Take Magus of the Vineyard, which Adrian Sullivan calls Green’s #5 card of the set and says:

Effects like Magus of the Vineyard are very dangerous. Giving your opponent a significant resource before you get access to it can be an incredibly risky proposition, especially versus the most explosive of decks. There are complicated ways around this (with cards like Teferi and such), but in some instances, the Magus of the Vineyard provides a huge challenge to an opponent. Use that mana, Blue/White control deck!

Clearly, for this card to work, you need to be able to exploit the mana that you get from it very quickly. This Magus gives you such a jump on your curve, some truly extraordinary things are possible. Holding down your opponent’s answering extraordinary things is the challenge. Discard is one option; prayer another. The thing about a Magus is that, unanswered, a deck that runs it is likely to roll over any opponent. If, that is, you don’t just lose from playing it in the first place.

I’m going to edit this slightly. My description would be:

Effects like Magus of the Vineyard are very dangerous, but usually they are only dangerous to you. Giving your opponent two extra mana before you get access to it is suicide and you deserve to lose if you play this awful card. There are some super-lucky situations in which it will actually be good, and if your opponent’s deck doesn’t have removal or, well, spells really, you could be okay. Hey, if that doesn’t work you could add three Swamps to your deck and replace the Magi with Soul Collectors — at worst you can always run them out as morphs, amiright?

The irony is that the biggest cost / problem with Vineyard (and its Magus) may not even be that your opponent gets to use it first. Potentially worse is that to have any chance of benefiting from giving up a card to give both players GG each turn you have to build your deck around the assumption that Vineyard is going to be in play. You’ve already given up a card, so you can’t do reasonable things — you need a high spell curve full of powerful things. What happens when you don’t draw Vineyard… or, in this case, when you lead with Magus and your opponent kills it?

The significance of all this goes beyond nitpicking other writer’s “top cards” choices. The tendency to focus on the benefits of cards, while ignoring or underplaying their costs, is an ongoing problem for most Magic players, both in Limited and Constructed. I’ve long since lost track of how many times I’ve questioned a card in someone’s deck and been told, “Well, if such-and-such happens and this-and-that applies, this card can be really good,” without so much as a thought as to whether the card is worth a precious slot in the deck.

I may loathe Mike Long, but his decision to play just one Drain Life in his Bloom combo deck is a perfect illustration. How many of us would have been willing to give up the safety of having another Drain? In some environments (e.g. where Duress was legal) it might well be right to run two, but Long judged that the cost of having a card that didn’t get his engine going in the first place was too great.

If you want to see deck discussions that really understand the cost of cards, check out the Vintage forums or any of the threads about one of Stephen Menendian articles. Man, those guys really understand the cost of having a card in your deck, which makes sense — when a format is full of degenerate plays, any sub-par card is potentially a game-loser.

The same logic applies to other formats as well. Top drafters often eschew cards that other players run or even consider high picks. Ask them why and the answers often relate to hidden costs. “It’s great on turn 1 but often dead as a topdeck.” “RR in the casting cost makes it unreliable and would force me to run more Mountains than I want.”

Look at Richard Feldman Glass Cannon. Like probably everyone else reading the article, I was impressed by Feldman’s metagame call, choosing a by-no-means obvious deck and running it very close to a Top 8 result. What struck me the most, however, were two cards in his sideboard: Viridian Shaman and Elf Replica.

Feldman’s deck ran lots of mana and four Skyshroud Poacher. The Shaman and Replica are therefore removal spells for artifacts and enchantments that he can fetch into play. A lot of us would be tempted to run them (or at least the Shaman) maindeck as an answer to Jitte or any other rogue surprises out there. We’d be focusing on the good side and hey, it’s only one slot each! Surely with our Flash matchup being so absurd we can move one Leyline to the board…

And that’s the trap.

The best deck designers are absolutely ruthless about cards. They rarely run cards that are merely situationally good, and when they do they are fully aware of the tradeoffs. More often than not, the only cards that make the cut are those that do the most to furthering the deck’s victory path and those that offer flexible and efficient disruption to opposing plans — in other words, those that do the most with the least total cost. The next time you’re tuning a deck of your own creation or looking for the final cards to cut in your draft deck, follow those criteria and watch your results improve.

Hugs ‘til next time,