The Philosophy of Card Evaluation

Quentin has spent the last four months travelling around the world… he’s back, and this article sees him in a reflective mood. Mr. Martin takes us through the card evaluation process, and warns us against the dangers of ignoring the surrounding ephemera that can cloud rational judgement. Never take a card’s worth at face value… there’s more to this skill than one might expect.

It’s been a while. Last month, I returned from my four-month vacation around the world. My travels have taken me far; and yet, I could never completely remove Magic from my path. It began with a Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur, reappeared in Auckland in the form of a core set pack, and reared its ugly head in Cuzco when I bumped into someone I had practically learnt to play the game with nine years ago, who was wielding six Invasion era pre-cons. I almost threw them away in Rio, but it seemed somehow sacrilegious. Now I’m grateful for my reverence, as “Soar” contained a Mystic Snake (which has now been reprinted), netting me some much-needed cash.

I don’t think I can stop raving about Time Spiral. From purely a Constructed point of view – or even more pleasurably, from that of a nostalgic gamer – the set shakes things up. If I were to hazard a guess as to the identity of the happiest man in the world right now, topping my list (just above Natalie Portman’s boyfriend) would be Jeroen Remie. If that man could somersault, he’d be down the gym embarrassing young Russian girls. This man, much beloved of his Rock, might find the reprinting of Wall of Roots and Call of the Herd pleasing; but I’m talking about Spike Feeder – Jeroen’s favourite piece of cardboard. Coupled with the myriad of good Green cards in Standard right now, and it’s safe to say that I’m happy to be testing for Worlds with the Dutchies.

I was saddened that Spectral Lynx, rumoured to see paint again, was nothing more than a myth; with the presence of such quality Green, the lil’ feline looked perfect. But we cannot have it all. We will just have to settle for Void, Bad Moon, Avalanche Riders, Mystic Enforcer, Psionic Blast, Gaea’s Blessing, and Whisper’s of the Muse. Every Timeshifted card, with the exception of Enduring Renewal, seems to be a great (Psionic) blast from the past, one that became the solid foundation of their relevant Constructed formats. They weren’t the cards that broke the rules or left a player feeling violated; they were the clean cards that made people smile no matter which side of the board they were on. Sure, they brought back Craw Giant, Squire, and other do-nothing itchies, but some packs have to be bad. It might mean that there are too many cards in Standard right now, especially with Coldsnap being present too, giving the format more of an Extended feel, but this seems to me to be a good thing. It intuitively feels like the last Extended format before the old duals rotated out, which (in my opinion) was one of the greatest ever Constructed formats.

A brief aside – I am glad that the flavor of the Timeshifted cards involves those that break the “color pie.” I think that the “pie” is a good guideline for what most cards within each colour should contain, but it shouldn’t be as rigid as Wizards have made it recently. When I first saw Char, I thought the pie would be forever in place, and it was with a huge sigh of relief I first greeted the reprinting of Psionic Blast. Breaks in the pie provide interesting deckbuilding options and more versatility. Now, when you build a deck, much like Draco Explosion of the past, you know that most Blue mages will be on sixteen to start the game, due to Blast and the new Duals. Although Gaea’s Blessing is fundamentally a Blue card, and will end up more often than not in Blue decks, that splash of Green will open up some doors. Amongst other things, efficient artifact removal will become available.

Ravnica’s guild cards and a lot of gold cards for the most part started this degeneration of the color pie. Gaea’s Blessing is essentially a Simic card, much like Mystic Snake and Temporal Spring were in the past; it is not a breaking of the pie, but a fusion of the colors for the better of Magic.

In all the excitement that the new set has brought, I am not here to talk about the new Limited format or its Constructed alternate. I want to delve into the inner workings of Magic and understand what it is that makes cards or certain deck strategies not only “viable,” but “good.” For Constructed, the application of this knowledge is normally called metagaming, where the environment shapes what is good – Silver Knight when there are lots of Goblins, Duress when there is lots of Control, etc. One of the best examples of when the metagame and the cards available in an environment made a card far better than it was is Wildfire Emissary – and it’s another gorgeous card I readily welcome back onto the bench. To understand why it was so hot the first time around would be to explain an ancient Standard format. To skip forward a few chapters, the two most efficient and common removal spells at the time, and of all time, were Swords to Plowshares and Lightning Bolt; later came Incinerate. The Emissary’s large butt of four was the golden number at the time, and its protection from all things holy kept it safe, shiny, and new. It was a card that exploited not a niche of the metagame in the way that Pyroblast, Wax / Wane, and Oxidize have done, but that rather than answering a need, it came forward as a solution.

A similar situation can be seen in triple Onslaught Limited. Why was Cruel Revival such a high first pick? It was one of very few cards, commons especially, that could deal with the set’s bombs. Five was the magic number in Morph block – escaping the clutches of Pinpoint Avalanche and Death Pulse; which allowed Visara, the Dreadful and Venomspout Brackus to sail around unperturbed at their own pace. In triple Onslaught, it was often the “bad” Black decks that would defeat the “good” Black decks – why? Anurid Murkdiver. He escaped almost all of Black’s removal – Swat, the magnificent Cruel Revival, Infest and, later, Clutch of the Undeath. His zombie status and his habit for lurking unseen through Swamps assured him his niche as one of the best card in the mirror.

I may be talking about old formats, and I might have lost a few of you along the way… allow me to bring us back to the more beaten path. For those of you who have not been playing for too long, I will bring you back into the game by once more talking about Morph block. It is precisely Morph that I am talking about. For those of you who did not play back then, lots of creatures in Onslaught had Morph, and I want to focus on how this effected the Limited environment. Some formats are defined by Bears, and others are defined by the popularity of Hill Giants, but Onslaught was all about Gray Ogres. When you tapped three mana, you would be expected to put a 2/2 into play. More than any other Limited format, this block was defined by what happened on turn 3. Every man and his dog would put their Morph into play on the third turn. What did this mean? If you got your 2/2 a turn earlier- say a Glory Seeker – you were ahead in the race… but they could make an endless stream of Morphs and trade you into their late game, stalling your tempo. It was the cards that were at least a 2/3 for three that stood out from amongst the crowd; as well as Morphs that, if you went first and therefore had the “first” fourth turn, could attack into an opposing Morph and survive the block if it occurred (one reason why Skirk Commando was so successful was because there were more good Morphs that could survive being blocked on turn 4 than those that couldn’t – which is why, in the most part, they were considered “good” – making it unblocked for most of its career).

These Morphs – Snarling Undorak and Battering Craghorn, and cards like Wretched Anurid – were good because of their environment. It is how a card fits into its environs that determine whether it is good or not. Magic is a game where everything is ruled by a strict law, unlike the world where man only tries to map an inductively sound law upon nature and forces it to heel to his word; Magic is completely objective in its set up. We can derive from these objective set of rigid laws an understanding of everything that goes on within them, if we have the know-how. Because its foundation is sound and inflexible, everything within it can be completely understood, and to understand the cards, they have to be taken in context with each other – in other words, subjectively.

I think I might have wondered nostalgically into my discarded Philosophy vocabulary, and I shall stagger my way back into the language most of us comprehend.

What I am trying to say is that cards are good for several reasons: they provide an answer to a majority metagame (Duress), they fit an unexploited niche in the metagame (Wildfire Emissary), they are better than the majority of cards in the metagame (Call of the Herd) or they break the rules of Magic in an effective fashion (Time Spiral). To summarise: bullets, niche, good, or broken. The exception are cards played in very specific combo decks, that helped the deck achieve its goal – tutors and efficient, cheap card draw; these cards supporting the core of the deck – whichever card combination succeeded in breaking the “rules.”

Given these distinctions, you can identify what the purpose of a deck, composite of its individual cards, is intended to do. Some decks are made up of a bunch of cards that are just “good,” with a few cards that answer specific problems the deck has to face. For example, PT Junk was a collection of quality cards like Call of the Herd, Spectral Lynx, and Swords to Plowshares, but it was also a prime example of a deck where most of the cards were chosen for their ability to deal with the rest of the metagame – Wax / Wane for Trix, Powder Kegs for Miracle Grow, and the crushing sideboard Samite Ministrations for Red Deck Wins. Yawgmoth’s Bargain is one of those cards that breaks the laws of Magic, allowing you to draw far too many cards a turn, and if you reflect back upon the deck in its Standard era (it never truly appeared in Extended, thanks to Zvi’s complaint to Wizards when he built multiple decks that could easily kill on the first turn), all the cards within the Bargain deck could be identified as either broken cards – Yawgmoth’s Will to go with his Bargain (aside, it would be interesting to see, if printed, whether Yawgmoth could live up to his awesome power) or those dedicated to fulfilling its turbo combo goal – Grim Monolith, Dark Ritual, Skirge Familiar, and the kill of Soul Feast.

Examples in the current metagame would include Dragonstorm in the broken/degenerate combo category; other examples of cards that are good because they break the rules are Urza’s lands and Resurrecting Akroma, Angel of Wrath. Call of the Herd, Lightning Angel, and Akroma are examples of cards that are just better than they should be. The most played bullets are probably Persecute and Cryoclasm, whereas niche cards might include Paladin En-Vec and Demonfire.

The subjective nature of Magic is currently seen by the influence of the removal spells in both Standard and Limited. Having a toughness of four is very important, as it escapes Call of the Herd, Rift Bolt, Volcanic Hammer, and Lightning Helix, but five is even better as it dodges Char and Psionic Blast. In Limited, Rift Bolt, Strangling Soot, Orcish Cannonade, Grapeshot, and Feebleness all entail that things with four toughness are worth having around. One of the reasons for the absurd strength of Errant Ephemeron is that it has a big enough butt. Cards like Dark Withering, Lightning Axe, and Temporal Isolation are inversely good because they do more than the norm.

If any lesson can be learnt from this article, it is that if you take a step back and analyse a format, rather than individual cards, you can understand what is good… and this will help you when drafting, choosing what cards to play, and in general how much worth to ascertain each card. If you understand why certain decks or cards are good, rather than just understanding that they are (also an important step), you will improve your game immensely.