Sullivan Library – Magic’s Most Powerful Unnamed Keyword

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Friday, December 26th – Magic is littered with powerful keywords. First Strike, Flying, Regeneration, Trample… each of these are classic. However, today Adrian Sullivan suggests that one of the most powerful keywords in the game is currently unnamed. Intrigued? Then read on!

It was a swing and a miss this last weekend at the Minneapolis PTQ for Pro Tour: Kobe. I marched through the Swiss with a 6-0-1 record before losing in the semifinals to local hero Kevin Delger. Delger would then be dispatched by my long-time friend and colleague Brian Kowal. Kowal has “retired” from Magic, but certainly still seems to be very active lately, winning a Cruise Qualifier with his “Boat Brew” deck, a deck whose low profile continued to amaze me until Worlds gave it a semi-proper spotlight in the hands of Rookie of the Year, Aaron Nicastri.

For Brian, this qualification provides some complications. First of all, there was this whole “I’m retired from Magic” line that he’s been trying to sell for a while, in spite of his occasionally, you know, playing and winning events. Second, now that he’s qualified for Kobe, the decision of where to go on his honeymoon with his new bride, Elizabeth, becomes all the more complicated. It’s a shame we can’t all have these difficult decisions to make, I know, but as you can see, it is not all wine and roses for Kowal.

I had initially intended to write about my journey through the sealed deck and the draft, but something very curious happened in Kowal’s final match that derailed those plans. It has a lot to do with Kowal’s 24th card in his draft deck, the very powerful Viashino Skeleton.

Yes, Viashino Skeleton.

Secret Keyword Fun

We have a lot of really powerful keywords out there. Shroud, First Strike, Flying, Trample, Haste, and Protection are some of the classics. Akroma is as good as she is because of these amazing keywords. Heck, even Viashino Skeleton has more than one keyword…

A simple reading of Viashino Skeleton reveals its obvious keyword, Regeneration. It does, however, have another less family-friendly keyword, as Brian Kowal exclaimed during his finals match, edited here, by me, so Craig wouldn’t have to…

“He has the special ability, um, Crappy! No good card wants to trade with it!”

He attacked with the Skeleton. His opponent, Kevin, declined to block. “See! Crappy!”

There is actually something to this Sh… err, Crappy keyword. A lot of people simply instinctually don’t want to end up trading a good one for a worse one. Trading in your Goblin Warchief for a Trinket Mage does not feel like a great call. This is understandable on a gut level, but there is more to it than that, technically. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let’s go back to Kowal’s match.

Kowal’s deck was a very aggressive Red/Black deck, packing triple Goblin Deathraiders, Lightning Talons, a fair amount of removal, and a number of supporting characters. Some of his last creatures that he put into the deck were less than exciting: an Archdemon of Unx (about which debate rages on whether it is quality or garbage) to the laughter-inducing Viashino Skeleton.

His opponent easily had the best deck at the table that I could see. He was a very aggressive Bant deck, heavy on Exalted, splashing into his Blue for cards like Rafiq of the Many and Bant Charm, and sideboard cards like Deft Duelist (an utter beating against Deathraiders). He very easily dispatched my Five-Color-Goodstuff deck in the semifinals, killing me on turn5 in game two. My draft suffered greatly from my lack of practice in actual live drafts — MTGO always let me know how my curve was looking, and my two reviews of my draft thus far didn’t give me enough of a sense in how I should be focusing more on the early game — and his deeply aggressive deck took advantage of that to just splatter me on the pavement. He had multiple quality, aggressive one-drops, a very tight curve, and could easily be prepared to be the beatdown against a deck like Brian’s that usually would be the beatdown.

Game 1 was over quickly, with Kevin making short work of Brian, despite Kevin having to mulligan. Game 2 looked to be fairly similar when something very interesting happened. They were both putting down some forces onto the table, attacking each other with a Goblin Deathraider versus an Akrasan Squire and a 1/1 Algae Gharial, when Brian dropped a Viashino Skeleton, a mana short of regeneration. The board is Brian’s Viashino Skeleton and a tapped (after attacking) Goblin Deathraider versus an Algae Gharial and an Akrasan Squire.

Kevin had an option, here. With Brian’s board being what it is, he could attack in with his Akrasan Squire, offering a trade with the Deathraider, and pumping up the Gharial, or he could sit back for a turn. As a deck whose power was largely based in Exalted, and with his Rhox Charger in the yard, Crappy as he was, that Viashino Skeleton still represented a huge threat. Certainly, the proper play here is to attack into the Skeleton and hope for the trade. Kevin clearly didn’t see it that way, though, and held back for the first time in the match.

What Kevin was doing was applying a little bit of instinctive math. His Akrasan Squire was a better card than Brian’s Viashino Skeleton. It was obvious what his thought process was: “I’m certainly not going to trade this for that!” The trade would be a loss, in his mind… In a vacuum, he would be right; he hadn’t considered that, contextually, the Skeleton was actually of very high value.

This is a highly common mistake. It is clear, for example, that Shivan Dragon is better than Incurable Ogre. It is also clear that Infest is better than Knight of the Skyward Eye. Sometimes, though, you have to make that trade, all on its own, because it is simply the best call contextually, even if in a vacuum, one is seemingly the better card. Context doesn’t care about a vacuum.

This mistake was compounded shortly thereafter. After the Squire trades with Brian’s Deathraider, Brian unloads with a Grey Ogre and Dragon Fodder, now joining the Viashino Skeleton in facing off a 4/4 Gharial. Kevin fails to draw a Blue mana, and is sitting with a hand full of Blue-based cards. Brian swings in with the team, and Kevin has a choice of blocking one of the 1/1s, the 2/2, or the Viashino Skeleton. The correct block here is the random Grey Ogre. Here, it is a question of tempo. The game had shifted to Kowal — he had the momentum. Kevin, though, continued to disrespect the Skeleton by blocking it. The card advantage count would be the same, because no matter what he blocked, he was going to get one of Brian’s cards in the process. By giving Brian the choice to regenerate the Skeleton he was essentially saying that he thought that getting rid of the worst card in Brian’s hand was better than getting rid of a 2/2 on the table. Brian discarded an uncastable Ridge Rannet, and dropped some new, crappy creature.

It wouldn’t end up mattering. Kevin wouldn’t draw that Blue source he needed, but he also didn’t play in such a way that would have allowed him to capitalize on the possibility that he might draw the blue land. His hand was chock-full of goodness, but he was rapidly running out of time.

What blindsided Kevin was the Crappy mechanic. This crappy thing wasn’t worthwhile. Let’s not deal with it. This crappy thing is no good. Let’s “punish” Brian for having played it.

If I had built Brian’s deck, I can tell you that there is no way that I would have played the Viashino Skeleton. It is an incredibly Crappy card. And if I hadn’t seen Brian’s match played out, I certainly wouldn’t have considered even sideboarding it in. But I would have been wrong.

Brian’s deck was a solid 22 cards, looking for a few more to finish it out. To my mind, the Skeleton wouldn’t have even been worth considering, but there really weren’t many options vying for that filler position. Contextually, though, the Skeleton happened to be a fantastic card to plop in front of an Exalted-based Bant strategy. With little in the way of actual removal, the hapless Bant player is actually confronted with an annoying creature in the Skeleton, which can completely blunt the attack of a single creature. Sure, you’re losing a man every turn, but in essence, without Trample in the mix, Viashino Skeleton might as well be Constant Mists.

It doesn’t matter if a card is Crappy if it is Right.

Card Calculus and Card Value (A preview of my Grant Unified Theory)

In the next year, I’ll be going into my Grand Unified Theory of Magic. I’m pretty proud of it, I have to say, and it’s been a real pleasure blowing the minds open of many of the Magic theory peddling writers out there as I’ve hawked it around, looking for defects. I hope that you’ll all enjoy the fruit of years of Magical labor that I’ve been engaged in.

In the meantime, though, let’s examine the question that Crappy cards like Viashino Skeleton bring up when we think about trading them. Why don’t we want to trade our Goblin Warchief for another 2/2 like Trinket Mage? Why don’t we want to offer our Akrasan Squire for Viashino Skeleton?

If we think about the concept of card advantage, a part of the reason we don’t want to do the trade is that we instinctively view the trade as a loss. One card is just better than the other. The Viashino Skeleton, our card advantage-trained minds tell us, isn’t really worth a card. This is the same kind of thinking that has been espoused by very smart Magic minds, who will claim, for example, that a Kher Keep token is not really a card (but a Call of the Herd token is).

This kind of thinking is an accidental conflating of capital C.A. Card Advantage with an actual measure of the effectiveness of those cards. Card Advantage does not care how good a card is. I’ll say it again:

Card advantage does not care how good a card is.

Card advantage is only about counting. It seems pretty clear that in Extended, Wild Nacatl is better than a Defiant Elf. The real problem is in the actual comparison. How much better is a Wild Nacatl? We’re kidding ourselves if we think that any answer that we give is anything other than arbitrary.

Even for seemingly obvious comparisons, like Shock to Lightning Bolt, we’re still basically guessing. With more subtle difference, like, say, the difference between Incinerate and Lash Out? It’s not simply the question of which is better than another on the whole, in a vacuum, but there is also the question of the contextual.

Each card has a particular Card Quality that is a part of it. This value is essentially arbitrary, but it absolutely can be debated. We do this all of the time. “Card X is better than card Y!” These kinds of debates are fairly regular. Importantly, some cards values increase when compounding with each other. Faeries is an abundantly obvious example of this phenomena.

The measure of the Card Quality may be arbitrary, but it is still on some level measurable. A huge amount of considerations go into it. Casting cost, power/toughness, the power of its effect, and the like. Squire is absolutely a worse card than Tarmogoyf.

If one card has a value of, roughly “1,” a card like Squire, which is deeply weak, maybe has a value of (and I’m making this number up, out of thin air), say, 0.6. Another card, like Akroma, Angel of Wrath, is incredibly valuable. Maybe I think it has a value of, about, 1.9. Maybe another player puts its value at about 1.4. The actual number for these things is not static, and is based on a huge combination of factors, such as cards available in the pool of cards in a format, cards available between the two actual decks, the possibility of seeing certain cards, and the like. Akroma’s value is certainly much greater when facing an opponent who can’t counter it and has no answers to it than it does against a deck with Counterspell, Force of Will, and Swords to Plowshares.

Whenever we’re examining trades, these things come into mind. The equation for our actual Card Value is actually pretty simple:

Card Value = Card Advantage times Card Quality, for every card.

So, if a Kher Keep is producing tokens every turn, at an arbitrary value of 0.3 CV per kobold, it is disingenuous to say that it isn’t producing Card Advantage. A token from Kher Keep is, essentially, the same thing as a Kobolds of Kher Ridges, albeit with the “Token” keyword. It doesn’t feel like the same kind of Card Advantage as produced by an Urza’s Factory because a Factory Worker is a much better card than a kobold. To say that you aren’t getting the same amount of Card Advantage is silly. It’s just that the effective Card Value produced by Kher Keep is far worse than that from an Urza’s Factory.

Asking Card Advantage to figure out everything for us is asking way too much of Card Advantage. Card Advantage is a good tool for counting what the heck happened. If you are making a trade in combat, and you are just chump blocking, with no risk of death anywhere in sight, it is a good thing to realize that you are losing Card Advantage, and that that is a meaningful means to measure who is winning or losing a game. On the other hand, if you want to get an effective measure of why we make certain kinds of decisions in the game, it becomes important to measure the distinctions between Card Advantage, Card Quality, and Card Value. I’ll go far more deeply into this in my upcoming article series, so just stay tuned.


It’s going to be an exciting year for me. I’m on the quest for admittance into grad school, I’m about to hop back into more extensive Magic playing than I’ve been able to this last year, and I’m playing more Limited again. Right now, I have a ton of decks that I love in Standard, I’m working on several for Extended, and I’m at the point where I feel like I really have the hang of this Shards thing.

This just leaves me the question of what to write about in the New Year? I’d love to hear from all of you about what you’d like to see more of. Feel free to tell me in the forums, or shoot me an e-mail.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be at a PTQ in Chicago, and then I’ll be off to Detroit. It’s likely that you won’t see me in LA, but, who knows? Maybe I’ll be convinced by a wealthy patron, and just have to go.

Until next time…

Adrian Sullivan