High CMC Cards & You

AJ explains the theory behind why high-mana cards are bad and should be avoided when possible, applying it to Born of the Gods Limited just in time for the Prerelease this weekend.

"If you have the choice between two cards of comparable power levels, take the one that costs less."

This is a quote that I first heard from Aaron Hauptmann about seven years ago. I learned more about Magic from him than just about anyone else. I was a young kid first learning to sling spells, and he taught me many of the core principles of Limited, fundamentals, and technically sound play. That line is one that has stuck with me over the years, and it has served me well. I’ve heard the quote attributed to Jon Finkel before as well as a handful of others. These days it is most commonly attributed to Ben Stark. And rightfully so, as he is the sort of "godfather" of bringing in the newest age of Limited theory and strategy. But more on that later.

[For the purposes of this article, "expensive" and "cheap" refer to converted mana cost rather than monetary value.]

We all know that expensive cards are bad and should be avoided when possible. Or at the very least that their cheaper counterparts are generally "better." It’s a novice mistake to play a large number of high-drops in your decks, one that we’ve all presumably moved beyond at some point in our Magic development. This is why it’s funny when Luis Scott-Vargas takes—and plays—every seven-drop he sees. But what makes them so bad? Even if we can act as if we know they’re bad (because Aaron or Jon or Ben said so), we may not fully grasp the theory or math behind why that is the case.

That’s what we’re here to discuss today. While these principles or similar concepts can be applied to Constructed as well, we’re mostly just going to be discussing Limited here. And what timing that is with the Prerelease for Born of the Gods this weekend! It’s also worth noting that I’ll be talking mostly in terms of creatures, as that is overwhelmingly more often the case than the alternative. Most of the logic discussed can be applied to noncreature spells fairly easily, but they have to be taken on more of a case-by-case basis due to their dynamic nature and difficulty with which to interact.

Why It Matters

You may wonder what difference it makes. If you inherently know that they are bad and make decisions based on that knowledge, why do you need to understand why that is the case? Can’t you just operate under that assumption and have the same results? Well, I would say yes and no. You will be fine for the most part, but there are still reasons to understand why we do what we do. That may seem obvious, but working with one’s instinct and intuition is a very large part of playing Magic competitively, so to step outside of that and question the basis for the facts we subconsciously know to be true is somewhat unique. And in my opinion extremely helpful and almost therapeutic.

Investigating these principles will help affirm your beliefs and give you added confidence in your decision making in regards to this subject. Plus it may give you a deeper understanding of the game and teach you about the scenarios where there are exceptions and how to identify them. Or maybe it will prepare you for approaching a different concept where similar principles are in action. That way you’ll be able to make your decisions more dynamically rather than following hard and fast rules that may or may not apply to the situation you have at hand.

The Economics

I’m no economist—I’m actually pretty terrible with money—but I love game theory and will try my best, so please bear with me.

Generally speaking, it’s better to have money invested than it is to have money sitting in a bank account (or in a plastic bag from a Chinese delivery place tucked under your mattress). When resources are fluid. they can be parlayed into gain. If they are stagnant, then they can’t improve in quality or value. A seven-drop being stuck in your hand all game is a stagnant resource; you can’t use it to get ahead on board or life or cards or any other metric because all it can do is get grease and soy sauce all over it while it rots under your bed.

Imagine the extremely typical situation in which you have a seven-drop in your opening hand and die before being able to cast it. You were essentially down a whole card for the entire game, and your opponent didn’t do anything to earn that advantage off of you; you did it to yourself!

In games with resources that can more easily be directly paralleled with money, you’ll see this principle all the time. Take StarCraft II (and all variations there within, including other real-time strategy games) for example. The minerals (and vespene gas) that you harvest should be spent as quickly and efficiently as possible. Why does it matter how fast you spend it, you ask? The answer is that by spending the minerals right away you can gain advantages that just holding on to the minerals wouldn’t give you. The minerals don’t accrue value as you save them up. However, if you build a barracks, then you can start producing marines, which can then gain you advantages in combat, worker harass, controlling the map, and so on. You’re investing those resources into furthering your game plan.

You get an army so that you can expand and get another base and mine more resources, which you then spend on getting an even bigger and better army so that you can expand some more, and so on (or "just go f***ing kill them"). As StarCraft visionary and all-around dreamboat Sean "Day9" Plott says, "SPEND YOUR MONEY!"

Another way to view this liquid versus stale resource idea is in context of options available. This starts to sound a bit like interaction advantage theory by former R&D member Zac Hill. If you’re familiar with the concept, then a lot of this should remind you of it. (And if you’re not familiar, you should be! That is if you dig Magic theory even a fraction as much as I do.) More than that, though, it is rooted in Jon Finkel’s Second Law of Magic:

"Generally, the better play is the one that preserves the most options."

Having that seven-drop be uncastable in your hand greatly limits your potential options. The opportunity cost is extremely high on having that card be a seven-drop rather than, say, a three-drop. Even if it is one of a lower power level, the increase in options will often more than make up for the differential.

The Value

Time for a slight sidetrack. In the Pokemon TCG, the resource system works slightly differently than in Magic. Just like you get to make one land drop a turn, in Pokemon you may play up to one energy card a turn. It is a reusable resource, but not like you are used to from Magic (or the World of Warcraft TCG, or Kaijudo, or just about any of the other hundred knockoffs). Rather than having a dedicated place for your resources on the battlefield, you place the energy directly onto one of your Pokemon.

Unlike creatures in Magic, the Pokemon themselves are free to play, but to use their attacks, you need to have a certain number of the right types (or "colors") of energy attached to them. These energy cards can’t be transferred between your Pokemon, and if your active monster dies (excuse me, "faints"), all of the energy that was attached gets binned along with it. That means that typically speaking getting your Pokemon axed is like if when a creature died you had to sacrifice two or three lands. (Plus they get to essentially draw a card as a prize for killing your guy! Talk about a swingy game.)

This naturally leads to some basic concepts of Pokemon theory, such as "try not to get your guy killed" and the slightly less obvious "dudes that need lots of energy are risky" and the many (presumably) various corollaries.

While Magic does function differently, there are still lessons that can be gleaned from observing how the Pokemon TCG’s resource system works. Think of it as an exaggerated version of specific aspects of our own and you’ll see that by taking those concepts to their extremes we can more easily see how they apply to our own game.

A seven-drop doesn’t just represent the one card that is the seven-drop; it represents fractions of the cards of each [mana source or] land that is needed to cast it. You’re likely going to need your first four or five lands anyway, but what about the sixth? Or seventh? It’s likely that your seven-drop is going to take on a significant percentage of the weight of the card value of those lands.

If it’s easier for you to visualize it this way, think of your total card percentage in regards to your casting of a seven-drop. Someone with more time on their hands who is better at math can run some actual numbers, but the loose ideas are enough for us today. If you’re not casting your seven-drop because you don’t have enough lands, then that’s obviously terrible. We’ve gone over that. But let’s say you are casting your seven-drop. That means you have [at least] seven lands. That means that a significant percentage of the cards you’ve seen that game are lands. I hope that your few spells are good or that you have use for all of that excess mana!

You’re ~5% to have that card and seven lands on turn 7 with no draw or manipulation, and that’s not even including the chance you have the wrong colors or taking correct mulliganing into account. Now look at the number of cards you’ve drawn leading up to that point: your opening hand after mulligans plus one a turn play/draw depending. Twelve or so? And now look at how many cards you’ll draw from turn 7 until the end of the game, aka when you’re most likely to want that seven-drop to show up. How many turns does a game of Draft usually last? How about Sealed?

Depending on a bunch of factors like the set being played and aggression of each deck and so on, I’d roughly estimate that you’ll have drawn nearly twice as many cards leading up to having seven mana than you will from seven mana on. The [by far] most likely scenario of not ever even seeing the seven-drop (probably around half the time) is break even, as you’re not getting punished or rewarded for putting it in your deck. After that you’re much more likely to draw it too early and have it lock up a slot in your hand for some amount of time, if you ever get to cast it at all. You have a pretty small window to hit in which you actually see the seven-drop in the game but only draw it when you can cast it (or are at least close).

All of that variance involved and value being invested into it, you better hope that it’s at least profitable when it works!

The Exchanges

One of the easiest and most commonly expressed arguments against expensive cards is opening yourself up to poor exchanges. It’s a huge opportunity for a massive tempo swing if the opponent can neutralize—or even simply delay—your beefy threat because of what you must invest in order to deploy it.

This exchange is profitable in terms of the time and mana being spent by each of the players. You spend a full turn to cast your Duskdale Wurm, and I spend a sixth of my mana to Unsummon it. I get another full attack in and nearly a full turn’s worth of mana to continue developing my board. I’m "down" a card (I spent my Unsummon while you still have your Duskdale Wurm) but up a ton of tempo. God forbid if it was an Essence Scatter or Doom Blade or Pacifism to get that same massive tempo advantage on the exchange at card parity and negating your ability to profit from your big investment.

Mana advantage is something that I have written about extensively, coining it "stock mana." Despite catching a lot of flak from small-minded traditionalists and the theory-impaired, it is a concept that is well respected by the game’s highest theorists and one that carries water. Even though I was bullied out of continuing my work on it, I still steadfastly believe that mana usage is scarily often the telling statistic in a game of Magic. This is [somewhat slowly] becoming more widely accepted as a true measurement of interactions/exchanges. In fact, Matt Costa discussed it a good amount in his recent article called Tradeoffs that I highly recommend you go read apropos of nothing else.

In accepting that mana advantage—and by extension, time advantage (or vice-versa)—is real and matters, you can clearly see how devastating these exchanges can be. You’re risking so much for this reward, and your reward is not only neutralized but neutralized at a loss!

There are also other and more subtle ways in which you leave yourself vulnerable to blowouts by playing expensive cards. You’re tapped out for starters, meaning you are at the mercy of your opponent’s combat tricks and the like. You also expose yourself to things like Threaten effects on your freshly cast monster that you were relying on to stabilize the board. Or Mind Controls for that matter!

A lot of those interactions, including being punished by spot removal, are less pronounced today than they have been in the past. This is because of the differences in the way that Magic sets are designed nowadays. The creatures are all better, faster, and cheaper, while the removal is all worse, slower, more expensive, and narrower. This creates a strange dynamic where while there is less demand for bigger-drops there are also less ways to directly punish a bigger-drop. The much more common way that bigger-drops are "punished" nowadays is more in the vein of being run over while it rots in your hand or under your bed, as discussed earlier.

One last note that is worth making in regards to the design’s effect on this subject is that it used to be that more often than not an expensive bomb was just a big Dragon or the like. Whereas nowadays it’s an even bigger Dragon [or whatever] that also has two or more abilities, all of which are individually unbeatable. This makes them so powerful that it’s a no-brainer to include them despite the risk because the reward is just so high. These are the exceptions.

The Exceptions

Expensive cards aren’t always bad, and I would be doing my duty to describe the differences between when they may be right versus when they may be wrong. The first thought on everyone’s mind is "what about X card—isn’t it a bomb?" The answer is usually "not as much as you may think" simply because people tend to overestimate flashy effects and tend to underestimate the inherent drawbacks of expensive cards (until today!).

But there are certainly bombs that are worth playing despite their hefty price tags. Rather than naming all the expensive cards and putting them into different categories or rating them, I’m going to teach you what to look for when analyzing a potential expensive bomb. Then I will show you examples of me walking through my thought process—the very thought process I’m about to explain.

First, it needs to be powerful. It needs to be worthwhile. The reward needs to outweigh all of the risk you are incurring in hopes of getting that big payoff. Secondly, it is preferably resilient in one way or another. This means that it is at least somewhat difficult to deal with for your opponent at parity or only a slight loss and especially not at a gain. The fifth toughness in a format with multiple pieces of four-toughness removal is a good start for example. Hexproof or indestructible are on the higher end of that spectrum. Another form of resilience can be to give you value even if dealt with. Something like a powerful enters/leaves-the-battlefield effect that you’ll still get even if the opponent has an answer for the bomb itself.

Lastly, a good quality for an expensive bomb to have is to be able to singlehandedly stabilize losing positions and mount comebacks. This is because it is very likely that to have gotten to that point in the game you are behind in some regard. If you’re not, then you didn’t need the bomb anyway! So you might as well prepare for the worst, am I right? Realistically speaking, odds are that you’ve either had a card rotting in your hand for a while, you are flooding, or both. Being able to turn those games around is what makes a flashy expensive card a true bomb.

Besides analyzing risk versus reward, you can also create scenarios for yourself in which you are more likely to be able to reap those rewards. What I mean by this is that you can build a deck that is more likely to be able to utilize an expensive bomb by tinkering with its supporting cast. Card draw is not only good for directly out-carding the opponent but also both helps you make your land drops and makes it more likely that you’ll find your bomb. Being able to take a defensive stance and draw games out accomplishes much of the same thing but is sometimes difficult to accomplish (especially nowadays) and can be risky if the opponent has a bomb or game breaker of their own in their deck.

There are also situations where a matchup dynamic is such that the games are likely to last longer and be more of a slugfest rather than a tight race. These are times where you let the matchup dictate how your deck should look and sideboard in a higher-drop or two that you had cut, perhaps to make room for cheaper but weaker cards.

The Extrapolations

I was drafting M13 on stream one day and went to time on what I believed was a tough pick. Hemming and hawing, I finally settled on Fire Elemental over a three-drop of comparable power level that I was considering. Master mage Eric Froehlich was in the chat and instantly started berating me for my horrible pick. Worst pick he’d ever seen, etc.

"I don’t know. Fire Elemental’s pretty sweet, and I only have one five-drop so far . . . "

"That’s a good thing!"

Ugh. Of course! I was looking at my curve like I needed more top end. I didn’t need more top end! No one ever needs more top end! Alright, that’s a slight exaggeration, but the point stands. Having multiple five-drops would only serve to open me up to the possibility of awkward draws where I have multiple fives in hand and four lands and can’t operate effectively. This may come as a surprise to you, but you don’t actually need to cast expensive spells to win a game of Magic: The Gathering. Shocking, I know! I could hardly believe it myself when I first discovered it, but it’s true! No snake oil here!

People are obsessed with expensive cards; there’s an addiction to win conditions (psst, future article reference alert) in amateur Magic.

If I knew and understood why six-plus drops were bad, why didn’t I take that one more step, that simple extrapolation and apply the same principles to fives? And even fours? Weighted more lightly, of course, but that’s the way it works; a five-drop costs more than a four-drop, but a six-drop costs more than a five-drop. And so on. It scales steeply once you start getting that high, and the struggle to compete for a slot becomes much more stringent. Or at least it should.

The way to do it right is to use the age-old game theory principle of extending the purpose. Mana sinks and kicker-esque cards. Looters, too, which I think is what I took Fire Elemental over, making my pick extra bad (Rummaging Goblin, though in my defense I already had at least one if not two). The wrong way to do it is to just jam a bunch of high-cost cards in your deck so that you’ll be able to do powerful things and so you’ll have use for all your lands.

Side Note: Has there really not been a single article written on extending the purpose? I searched and couldn’t find any. I thought Patrick Chapin had discussed it before but don’t remember where. If anyone knows, please let me know. If there are no pieces on the subject, I would gladly write it. I just find it hard to believe that it doesn’t already exist.

The Applications

I’m going to go through the seven-mana and above cards from Born of the Gods to give you a feel for how these ideas look in practice. It should be noted that Sealed is generally slower than Draft and expensive cards will usually have more of a home there.

Fated Retribution

A Wrath of God that you can either play on their turn or has scry 2. Certainly powerful enough and you’re sure to get your value if you get to resolve it, what with it being a spell rather than a creature. The problem here is that the white cards in general are very lean and aggressive and an expensive board sweeper is not exactly the greatest fit for that strategy.

Silent Sentinel

Medium-large sized flier with a weirdly narrow but potentially powerful ability. Getting back a strong bestow card is appealing, but more likely than not I feel you’ll either be losing so much that you don’t get to attack, you won’t have a [worthwhile] target anyway, or it won’t matter because they’ll be dead to your giant flier. Again, white usually wants to be aggressively stanced, and seven-drop fliers that might slowly gain some card advantage don’t mesh well with how I imagine most white decks want to look like. I’d say steer clear without good reason to the contrary.

Kraken of the Straits

A giant idiot with pseudo-evasion. Nothing special here; I’m sure you can do better. I would say 99 times out of 100 your deck would prefer a generic three-drop to this critter.


Power level is certainly there, either being unblockable or threatening to sweep their board. It also has a bit of built-in resilience with the sometimes hexproof. You’ll at least get to untap with it in play if you so choose. The only mark against this big mamma jamma is that it is unlikely to save you if you’re behind by any significant amount.

Eater of Hope

High-power flier with a seemingly strong ability. It will be very deck dependent how good that second ability ends up being, but I feel like it’d be perfect for allowing the Eater to eat, aka in a race. Block two of their guys and blast another is likely enough to finish the job. Now, it may look resilient, but that is mostly an illusion. For starters, if you want to have regeneration up, you’ve bumped your seven-drop to an eight-drop. Secondly, the four toughness means Lash of the Whip and Rage of Purphoros both still get the job done even through a potential regen shield.

Fated Return

Seven mana for a Zombify is a bit pricey even if it makes the creature indestructible—ahem, excuse me, I mean gives it indestructible. The added value of either getting to ambush an opposing creature in combat or to scry 2 is certainly nice. This is a card that is going to be very polarized even for a seven-mana spell. Besides the difficulty to cast it, sometimes you won’t even have anything all that great and amazing that’s worth reanimating. Or if you do, they already died to it the first time around, so you never have to reanimate it anyway.

It is neat that you can reanimate something from their graveyard though. They play some giant monster; you kill it, casually take it for yourself, and give it a shiny new coat of armor. Just be careful doing this against blue. You’d already feel a little silly if they had a bounce spell for your guy; you definitely don’t want them to have a bounce spell for their guy!

Marshmist Titan

Excluded because it shouldn’t ever actually cost you seven.

Archetype of Endurance

Finally a real answer to Geist of Saint Traft! Just a couple of sets too late . . .

And since when is the symbol of "endurance" a wild pig? Shouldn’t that be the Archetype of Laziness, or Filthiness, or Deliciousness? Either way, eight mana is a whole heck of a lot. The body isn’t even all that impressive. Vulpine Goliath costs a full two less, tramples, and has a popular theme song. If they wanted to target any of your other creatures, odds are they already have by the time you floop this particular pig. And I doubt the hexproof wiping will come up all that often. Call it a hunch.

The End

Looks like that’s all for the seven-plus drops in Born of the Gods. Just a taste of taking the ideas discussed today and applying them to some real cards. I hope you enjoyed it, and be sure to have solid justifications for your fatties at your Prerelease this weekend. I will be back in two weeks’ time with a plethora of Modern brews for you. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve already gotten a peek at one of them. Let’s just say we may have gone a little deep . . .

P.S. Play your Eternity Snares this weekend! I don’t ever really read much in the ways of set reviews, thus I don’t know how much this has been discussed already. So, you know, forgive me if this is all parroting, but I’m pretty sure Eternity Snare is going to be quite good.

Almost all of the removal is slow and expensive anyway nowadays, so it’s not unheard of for a six-mana sorcery to be used for elimination. Hip of Sherlock—I mean, Sip of Hemlock is an actually desirable effect. As for Eternity Snare, drawing a card is quite a bit better than having the opponent lose two life. Annihilate is a quality Magic card. But perhaps even more important than the pure two-for-one goodness is the fact that there finally exists an answer to a bestow Voltron without blowing up the pinata and still being behind on board and under pressure.

There are of course drawbacks. I said I think Eternity Snare is probably going to be fairly good, not that it is pure upside. For starters, you have to face an attack before it will lock them down. That’s not a huge deal; it’s not as if you were guaranteed to not have already been attacked were your Eternity Snare the aforementioned Sip of Hemlock instead, meaning you only have to face an attack you wouldn’t have had to otherwise some percentage of the time.

Plus there’s a cool little game theory thing in action here where the quality of the Snare and the size of the attack you have to face scale nicely. If the attack is small, then it doesn’t matter all that much that you had to face it. As the attack gets bigger and it’s more problematic that you had to face it, by its very nature the value of your Eternity Snare greatly increases as well!

There’s more. Man, I could have written a whole article on Eternity Snare it seems. Some warnings: it doesn’t work on vigilance crits or crits on defense. Also, it’s an enchantment, so it can be killed and the Voltron released by any number of Naturalize effects or even Gods Willing. Lastly, the Voltron can also be let out of the cage temporarily with any of the numerous combat tricks that untap the creature. So watch out for blowouts from Savage Surge, Triton Tactics, Breaching Hippocamp, and Crypsis. Not to mention Portent of Betrayal and Akroan Conscriptor. And don’t forget both Prophet of Kruphix and Kiora’s Follower essentially hard counter it!

But despite all of that, I think Eternity Snare is going to be quite strong. Just play smart with it (and against it!).