Limited Lessons – Evaluating New Cards for Limited Magic

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This weekend, we finally get our hands on Lorwyn! The prerelease is one of the most eagerly awaited weekends in the Magic calendar… but how can we maximize our chances of success? Without experience in playing the cards, we must rely on our evaluation techniques when faced with all-new pristine cardboard. Today’s Limited Lessons sees Nick Eisel present us with some fine advice on card evaluation…

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I’ve had requests in the past to write an article outlining how to evaluate new cards for Limited Magic. For whatever reason I never got around to doing so, and with the Lorwyn prerelease this coming weekend it seems like now is the time. Lorwyn is a great set to have in mind when writing this type of article because a lot of the new things it introduces are truly groundbreaking, and therefore difficult to evaluate in terms of their strength in Sealed and Draft. All I need to do to get this point across is merely to mention the Planeswalkers and I think you’ll agree that the upcoming set has some interesting twists for us to figure out.

To give you an idea before I get started, this is not a first impressions article on Lorwyn. The goal here is to show you how to think about new cards dynamically so that you will have a better chance of evaluating them correctly. I will be using spoiled Lorwyn cards in most of my examples to help set the tone for the new set, but it is not the focus of the article. If I do my job well, you should be able to apply some of these concepts this weekend at the prerelease in situations where you’re unsure if a card is good or not. All information on Lorwyn cards comes from MTGSalvation.com.

As human beings we habitually assign value to things in life based on past experience in similar situations. This type of deductive reasoning is the best thing we have to go on, since our experience dictates what we like and dislike and helps us to lead better lives in the future. Without getting all philosophical here, evaluating new Magic cards tends to work the same way. If a particular card or ability wasn’t that great in the past, chances are that it won’t be that great now. The same is obviously true for something that was excellent in a past set.

When you are trying to dispense value onto something new, the logical starting point is to compare it to things in the past and use that information to make a distinction. Allow me to make an example before moving on.

Goldmeadow Harrier
Kithkin Soldier
W, Tap: Tap target creature

What’s the first thing you think of when you see this card? Was it…

Master Decoy?

I know that was the first thing I thought of when I saw this card. The cards are nearly identical, though the new Kithkin is cheaper and has one less toughness. Master Decoy has been excellent in any Limited format it was available in, and since the Harrier is such a close cousin, I’d be willing to bet large sums of money that it will also be a top common.

Some of us aren’t happy stopping here and simply accepting that it’s definitely a strong card. If you’re like me, you like to compare things and try to give the card a numerical value in your head. A good example of this is when Loxodon Mystic was printed back in Darksteel. It has the same tapping ability of the Decoy, but is slower and also bigger. This is both good and bad, since it won’t come online until later in the game but is also capable of attacking if the board is favorable to do so.

In terms of evaluating the Harrier with Master Decoy in mind, I’d say there isn’t too much difference, though you may actually want the extra point of toughness that the Decoy has. Initial instinct will tell most of us that the Harrier is better than the Decoy because it is cheaper and essentially the same card, but this could be wrong if Lorwyn features enough pinging effects. Coming out one turn earlier isn’t too big of a deal for a tapper when we’re talking about turn 1 versus turn 2, because there won’t be anything to tap down for a little while anyway.

Hopefully you get the point and I wasn’t too convoluted in all of that.

Moving on with the idea of Precedents holding a large role in the evaluation of new cardboard, I want to talk about new twists on old ideas. Wizards loves to do these types of things, and this is the best mindset to be in when determining how they are different from the past versions and whether this makes them better or worse.

Let’s start with the rare Commands in Lorwyn. Each color has one, but I’ll use the one that was spoiled on MagicTheGathering.com that we know is 100% confirmed.

Cryptic Command
Choose two – Counter target spell; or return target permanent to its owner’s hand; or tap all creatures your opponents control; or draw a card.

I’m sure that when you first saw this card you started imagining all of the possibilities just as I did. Although this looks like an entirely new concept since you’re choosing two of the abilities on one card, it really is just a different type of Charm. A “Super-Charm,” if you will, for each color.

Piracy Charm
Choose one — Target player discards a card; target creature gets islandwalk until end of turn; target creature gets +2/-1 until end of turn

When you look at them next to each other, they really are the same concept except the Commands are more explosive. There’s never been a Charm that could counter a spell and return a permanent to owner’s hand all in one card. There’s no doubt that the Commands will be very playable and, in some cases, bombs.

Another parallel that can be drawn, especially with Cryptic Command, is to Suffocating Blast or Mystic Snake. In both of the previous versions you got a counterspell plus another benefit, but the benefit was fixed. Cryptic Command lets you decide what benefit you want based on the game state, which is a huge plus. Not only that, but it’s not restrictive like Suffocating Blast, and it can actually be played without countering anything by using two of the other modes!

I don’t want the point to be taken in the wrong frame of mind here simply because of the example I used. It’s basically a no-brainer that Cryptic Command is a bomb. The idea is that when you’re trying to give out approximate value to a new card, you want to look for direct descendents in older sets or find a card with lots of similarities. Doing this will help you to picture the new card in action and decide what impact it will have.

Another new twist on Precedent that Lorwyn offers is the Evoke ability.

This is another way of getting something extra out of a card and has many Precedents on which to evaluate. I think of Evoke as kind of a reverse Kicker effect. Imagine if we took Thornscape Battlemage from Planeshift and Time Spiral and changed it to have Evoke instead of Kicker. It would look something like this.

Thornscape Evoker
When ~this~ comes into play, deal two damage to any target.
Evoke R

This idea is flawed for a number of reasons but should get the point across anyway. Yes, I didn’t take the White kicker into mind, which is why Kicker is different from Evoke anyway. Also, the Evoke cost might have to be R1 on this card in order to make it fair, but I’m really not sure, nor does it matter for the purpose of explanation. With Kicker you’re paying extra for the ability, and with Evoke you’re paying extra to get the creature.

Take the following as an example…

When Mulldrifter comes into play, draw two cards.
Evoke 2U

That’s a lot of text to digest. At its core, Mulldrifter is Counsel of the Soratami if you Evoke it. Counsel was always a fine addition to a Limited deck, and Mulldrifter comes with the benefit of a free 2/2 flier if you pay two additional mana… quite the deal. The same is true for Shriekmaw, who can be used as a Terror and offer a cheap Fear creature if you have the mana to spare.

This is another simple example, as Mulldrifter is pretty easy to evaluate and amazing in Limited. The point again isn’t to highlight Mulldrifter as a new card featuring a brand new mechanic, but to get you to see that you can draw parallels to past cards when you are unsure how to rate a new card, or even a new ability.

I could write an entire article (and it would be lengthy) merely on the concept of Precedents and how big of a role they play in Magic in so many areas. Although the game of Magic is constantly changing and evolving, most new design ideas hark back to an earlier mechanic or card type. It’s important to keep these humble beginnings at the forefront of your mind if you want to accurately determine the worth of new cards.

If for some reason that doesn’t work, there are other areas to which we can resort…

The idea of Context is how good a card will be based on the rest of the environment. It is somewhat hard to use a lot of Lorwyn examples to get this concept across, since we haven’t actually played with the new format yet. I will make some examples based on speculation and past formats.

If you remember back to the initial tribal theme block, Onslaught, there were some cards that were better than expected due to the principal of Context. I’m using this example since Lorwyn is also built on tribal mentality.

Like Tidal Visionary before him, this guy was underrated for quite some time. It wasn’t until everyone had a month or two to draft the set that they started realizing that this guy stopped Cruel Revival, pumped guys for tribal effects, and slowed down Sparksmith.

As I was saying earlier, it all goes back to Precedent.

Ameboid Changeling
Changeling (This card is every creature type even if this card isn’t in play.)
Tap: Target creature gains all creature types until end of turn.
Tap: Target creature loses all creature types until end of turn.

Will this guy be amazing as well? I’m unsure, but I’m leaning heavily towards yes. The answer to this question will be found through Context once we get a chance to play with the new cards.

Any card can be evaluated on Context based on its surroundings. The environment will either give it strength or make it weaker depending on what else is available.

Cloudchaser Kestrel
Yep, it comes into play and destroys an Enchantment. It’s a 2/2 flier for 1WW. If this were all the information we had to go on, we’d say it was a fine card… but we couldn’t really go further. The information we need to determine if this is simply playable or a bomb is based on what else is also available in the format.

Building on this example we have Viridian Shaman. This card dates back to Uktabi Orangutan, although the new version is spiced up a bit with the Elf creature type. Its value has fluctuated over the years in Limited since it was printed in a couple of different sets.

First, it was printed in Mirrodin, the Artifact set. Since the majority of cards in the set were Artifacts, and this girl comes into play for the low cost of 2G and kills one of your opponent’s cards in the process, she was essentially a bomb. I mean seriously, a Flametongue Kavu that can kill the majority of the cards in the set? No brainer.

Next, she was reprinted in 9th Edition and had very minimal impact. Why? Context, Context, Context. When there aren’t a lot of Artifacts around to blow up, she became a sideboard card at best in most instances.

Finally, she’s been reprinted in 10th Edition and very maindeckable in my opinion, but also nowhere near a bomb. The reason for this is that there are more powerful artifacts in 10th and they need to be answered immediately. If you throw Master’s Edition into the mix with 10th then she becomes close to a bomb again, as there are even more artifacts there.

So you can see that one card has gone from bomb to sideboard card to middle range over the course of the years after being printed three times. The reason for these drastic changes in value is entirely based in the idea of Context.

Okay, so that’s all well and good and we know that the Shaman is going to kick ass if good artifacts are around. How do we apply this idea to evaluating new cards in new formats? Quite simply, we practice the formats frequently and also make sure we know every card available so that we notice interactions. Doing this will help the process of deciding what is good in the Context of a format.

Context can also have some negative connotations, and Lorwyn has solid examples of that. The Champion ability is a mix between Gating and something of a reverse Faceless Butcher effect. Since we don’t have the full set spoiler available to us yet (at the time of writing) it’s hard to determine exactly how good these cards with the Champion “drawback” will be. We can however determine how the presence of other cards will impact the value of the mechanic.

The first way that Context could impact the Champion mechanic is if there are lots of “comes into play” (187 effects) available. This could turn Champion from a drawback into a second use of the ability. In essence, the Champion mechanic is like the Wormfang Mechanic (there’s Precedent again rearing its head). I used to love putting Gravedigger under Wormfang Drake and creating the loop of digging up the Drake if it ever died. Championing is specific to creature types however, so some races may be technically better at championing than others just because they have good 187 effects to abuse with the mechanic.

On the flip side, Championing could be much worse than it appears on paper if there are lots of Instant bounce and kill effects available. This allows your opponent an easy two-for-one, and puts you far behind on board. If this is the case then you can’t effectively try to Champion unless your opponent is tapped out, or you have multiple victims for the ability so that you don’t get screwed in the process.

While we can’t fully determine the implications of the Champion mechanic without having the full spoiler and also playing some games, we can postulate what things will make it better or worse in advance so that we are ahead of the game when we get to the point of actually evaluating it.

A final example of Context in action is Oubliette. This card was reprinted in Master’s Edition and is basically unstoppable in MMM draft. The reason for this is that there isn’t enough Enchantment destruction in MMM, and so the card functions as a three mana Terminate in a set with a low power level overall in terms of commons. When you add 10th into the mix, Oubliette is still playable, but now there is an abundance of Enchantment destruction and it’s not nearly as valuable anymore. You just may get ambushed by Demystify in the middle of combat, or two-for-oned by Cloudchaser Eagle.

Lorwyn poses a similar question with Oblivion Ring.

Oblivion Ring
When Oblivion Ring comes into play, remove another target nonland permanent from the game.
When Oblivion Ring leaves play, return the removed card to play under its owner’s control.

The value of this card can increase or decrease dramatically based on the rest of the set. Context in action yet again.

To summarize, we want to first look to Precedents when assigning value to new cards, but we must also appraise them in terms of their surrounding environment. Neglecting the impact of environment causes most players to miss supposed sleeper cards.

Game Situation
If a card or mechanic has little or no history, you can still try to imagine an average game and what kind of impact the card will have. There are always obscure cards like this when a new set is printed that have us scratching our heads for a brief period of time.

The first one I want to talk about is also from Lorwyn.

Dolmen Doorway
Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt to attacking creatures you control.

The other day a friend asked if I thought this card would be good in Limited. At the time I responded that I wasn’t sure, but after some deep thought I have a better idea.

The way that I figured out my evaluation of this card was to imagine what type of deck would want this effect, and then how it would have a strong impact on a game. Once I did that, the only thing left was to determine if my visions were realistic or not. In a normal or average deck, I’d say that this card is most likely not worth it. You’re spending two mana and a card for an effect that does nothing if you are behind on board or on defense in any way. In a slower more controlling deck the card also does nothing, because your creatures will likely be bigger and not need help and you can’t justify spending a card on this. The only situation where I can see this card doing what it is supposed to do is in a very aggressive deck filled with creatures. If you want to attack every turn with your whole side without worrying about the consequences, then this is the card for you. This effect would be amazing in combination with Vigilance creatures, as you can attack without any worry and still have plenty of defenders.

In short, by envisioning what type of deck would want this and how the game would play out, I determined that this is a very niche card that will only have a positive effect in a super aggressive creature strategy. In most cases it isn’t going to be worth spending a card on.

The Planeswalkers themselves are best answered by looking to Game Situation. The reason for this is that they are totally new and unique, and we have nothing to compare them to and no Context to put them in. I see no real need to go into detail here as they are all obviously amazing for Limited, and the real question will be how to maximize their abilities based on game state, and how to best defend them once they are in play to ensure longevity.

If you haven’t had a chance to play games with the new cards and you can’t find any Precedents to go on, the best thing you can do is try to imagine how the card would function in a typical game. This section is noticeably shorter than the previous two because you can do this with any type of card and there aren’t specific examples necessary.

When you’re busting open your packs this weekend, or combing the spoiler the night before in an attempt to figure out what’s hot and what’s not, be sure to take some of these principles into mind. Most things in Magic are drawn from similar cards in the past, and we should look back to those cards in most cases when trying to evaluate. Once we get to play with the set more, Context plays a huge role in figuring out what works and what doesn’t. If you’re still unsure after all of that, just try to imagine the card in action and how it will play out with the rest of your deck. If you can’t come up with realistic situations of it working how you want, simply don’t play it. Most of the time it’s too situational when you have trouble coming up with regular spots where it will be effective.

I hope this article helps, and maybe I’ll do a similar piece in the future with more ideas on evaluating new cards.

Nick Eisel
Soooooo on MTGO
[email protected]

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