That’s a Clown Question, Bro

Since I previewed Elderscale Wurm last week, I visited some forums to gauge initial reaction to the card. Said reaction ran the gamut from elated to angered. People [loved/hated] how many 7s were on the card. People [loved/hated] that its power level was lower than Primeval Titan’s. People [wanted to stick it in their Commander decks/thought it didn’t deserve printing]. In summary, forum posters [adored/ignored/deplored] the card.

There isn’t a universally loved card; that’s fine. What isn’t fine is the following style of reasoning:

“It just gets Vapor Snagged anyway.”
Geth's Verdict exists, so this card’s dumb.”
“It’s amazing because of this card and this card and this card!!!”

Each of these, which come up every spoiler season, is a different spin on the same clown question: What is this card in a vacuum? They don’t sound like they’re the same thing, but they are, and to ask that question in any form is detrimental rounded to stupid. Why? Well, it’ll take an article to explain, so how about this article?

How Is Magic Played?

Not with cards in your binder, and not with putting your favorite cards on the table at once and saying, “Deal with it, yo.” It’s played with decks. This means that when you see a card in action, it’s in the context of every other card, not just in your deck, but in your opponents’ decks. Including a card in a deck is in the context of every other card in its format, from Standard all the way to your kitchen. (Sounds like I’m advertising rotisserie chicken or stuffing or something . . . )

Frost Titan
Generally, when someone says “this card is broken” or “this card is terrible,” that person means it in a context, whether the person consciously acknowledge that context. For a while, Frost Titan was considered the runt of the Titan cycle in set reviews for not doing enough compared to anything players wanted to do at that time. Then, other Titans became so prevalent that Frost Titan’s tapping them down was a big deal. Frost Titan’s value skyrocketed, and you could find plenty of articles singing its praises. Frost Titan led players to play with fewer Titans, at which point Frost Titan’s tapping ability wasn’t as good.

So, is Frost Titan a good or bad card? By itself, it is neither. In a deck and in a format, it can be fantastic or mediocre. Although Frost Titan is a dramatic example, the idea holds true for every card. Cancel is mediocre in a metalcraft deck because Stoic Rebuttal exists. Both are mediocre in an aggressive format focused on depth (if there’s no one important spell to counter, it might not be worth the mana); Mana Leak is better there. Phantasmal Image and Sun Titan are somewhat co-dependent on each other for value. It’s all about the interactions.

With that in mind, here are the types of fallacies the quotes above demonstrate, along with what it means to evaluate a card for whatever you’re doing—Standard, Two-Headed Giant Archenemy Planechase (yes, people play this), and so on.

To clarify as we move into this section, looking at a card in a vacuum doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking at it by itself. Vacuums can have stuff in them and still be vacuums. What a vacuum can’t have is air. Metagames, however loosely defined, function as air flow, changing the environment and pressures over a card. You can analyze things in a vacuum, but you can’t live in one. Cards live in decks, and decks live in environments. To analyze a card in a vacuum, then, is to choke the life out of a card by providing it the wrong environment. How can you do that?

“It Just Gets Vapor Snagged Anyway” – The Vacuum of Status Quo

Doom Blade
This one’s more commonly known as the dies-to-Doom-Blade argument. It takes whatever a format’s biggest problem is, assumes that problem will remain in existence if the card being analyzed doesn’t answer it, and from there, it decrees a card good or bad. The inherent randomness of playing Magic with shuffled decks weakens this argument. Your opponent won’t always have the Vapor Snag, and even if he does, you might not always have the card that’s weak to Vapor Snag.

That has two implications that are the main issue with this vacuum. The first is that including a card isn’t the same as including a strategy. Imagine if your playgroup is tired of graveyard-based decks—dredge, Recurring Nightmare, flashback, threshold—and starts to weave answers into the majority of its decks—Tormod's Crypt, Reminisce, Necrogenesis, Laquatus's Disdain (okay, probably not the last one). In that playgroup, should you take Devil's Play out of your burn deck?

Probably not. A card with flashback doesn’t mean your deck is weak to graveyard hate. Besides, if everyone else is abusing their graveyards, the graveyard hate will focus on them and not the person whose entire graveyard interaction consists of Devil's Play. Your opponents normally will be unable to save their answers for your single burn spell, even if it’s a good burn spell.

Now, in that playgroup, you probably should shelve your Burning Vengeance deck, your Unburial Rites deck, or any deck you’d describe as “my [card interacting with a graveyard] deck.” There’s too much your opponents can do against those decks to make it worthwhile. But that’s a function of the odds, not of card versus card. In playing a game with a major element of randomness, you should focus on establishing the best odds for success.

The other problem is a natural outgrowth from my multiplayer hypothetical: Metagames change to avoid new answers. This process can be subconscious and is inevitable. If you sidestep graveyard hate by playing decks that don’t care about the graveyard—or play into it and give Gorilla Titan that big banana it’s always wanted—those Tormod's Crypts are apropos of nothing. If enough people do this, graveyard hate becomes a liability for not answering what’s going on. This is how things change.

Consider our new friends Elderscale Wurm and Thragtusk. Thragtusk is obviously a fine answer to Vapor Snag. As a single card, it doesn’t “deal with” Vapor Snag, but if it can be part of a larger strategy against Vapor SnagDungrove Elder, Thrun, the Last Troll, and Thragtusk in the same deck, for example— Vapor Snag stops being an answer and starts being a dead card.

If that happens, Elderscale Wurm stops being Vapor Snagged because nobody’s playing the Vapor Snag to do so. In other words, Thragtusk’s playability in a broader context can change the playability of the Vapor Snag, which in turn can change the playability of other cards. This is how Pro Tour winners win. They look at how new cards change the answers, and they build to those future answers.

Alexander Hayne’s winning miracles deck from Pro Tour: Barcelona is a great example. Several pros were playing Huntmaster of the Fells because it had been answering what was played, but at the event, people zagged around Huntmaster with Wolfir Silverheart, hexproof creatures, and so on; there wasn’t much important for Huntmaster to transform and kill, nor were there many reasons to obtain 2/2 Wolf tokens. Hayne’s Terminus and Devastation Tide anticipated this development; he was beating the answers to the answers, zigging to meet the new zag . . . and other strange phrases. That is a big reason he won. He didn’t build to answer what was; he built to answer what was going to be.

Good cards and good decks exist in this give-and-take environment, no matter how competitive that environment is. The status quo isn’t an answer to a card’s playability—that status quo will change sooner or later.

Geth's Verdict Exists, So This Card’s Dumb” – The Vacuum of Infinite Solutions

Geth's Verdict
It’s easy to remember the cards without good answers. They get banned. Again, a banned card is a product of its environment; few Commander players want the head of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Legacy players aren’t worried about Biorhythm.

But after those cards, what does that leave? Everything else. Every format has a solution to ninety-nine percent of its cards. The existence of a solution doesn’t say by itself whether a card is playable.

Geth's Verdict sometimes sees Standard play, but it’s an occasional role player. It isn’t as ubiquitous as Vapor Snag, not because it’s ineffective, but because Delver of Secrets decks are more common than decks that could use Geth's Verdict.

The existence of Geth's Verdict is not a reason by itself to play or not play a card. Playing good creatures isn’t a bad idea just because Zealous Conscripts exists. What matters is whether a solution is frequently played, whether your deck as a strategy is weak to that solution (i.e. how effective that solution is), and the upside of that card when the solution doesn’t show up.

Simply put, if a card’s not on the banned list, that’s because a reasonable solution exists to that card. So why judge a card based on that? It doesn’t add any information to the analysis; it just says words. Leyline of the Void’s existence has not ended dredge decks in Legacy, nor does it end the shelf life of your casual reanimator deck. No card by itself is powerful enough—or can be included above four in a deck—to do that. So unless Relentless Rats answers your format, this is a bad analysis.

Threats exist. Solutions exist. These truisms do not help you evaluate a card.

“It’s amazing because of this card and this card and this card!!!” – The Vacuum of Solitaire Magic

Assault Strobe
I’ve been trying to hammer home the idea that while you build decks out of individual cards, you’re building to hedge your bets, up your odds, and form coherent strategies rather than pit your card against an opponent’s card and see what wins. Strangely, this makes the exuberance of “it’s great if I play X, Y, and Z” the flipside of the Vapor Snag argument. The former’s associated with newer players and the latter’s associated with tournament players, but they’re committing the same error of ignoring the odds.

These errors are looking at different odds, mind you, but they are both rooted in unrealistic views on game play and deck construction. Yes, you can kill someone on turn two if your opening hand contains Copperline Gorge, Glistener Elf, Assault Strobe, and two Mutagenic Growths. The existence of that line of play might encourage you to build a deck with that possibility in it, but it’s a specific draw with few interchangeable pieces.

There are a gazillion awesome ways to kill someone in Magic. Finding those ways isn’t difficult. But Magic generally isn’t played with everyone’s deck running at 100% efficiency. Opponents kill your stuff; you kill their stuff. That’s how it goes. So, it’s incorrect to build a deck that only works at 100%. Give it a chance to win when it doesn’t draw everything it means to.

Can it win at 80% efficiency, or 60%, or 30%? Magic is played in those areas, especially multiplayer, where one or several opponents should be able to kick at least one leg out from under your deck. You play more one-legged Magic than anything else. Build your winning strategy with that in mind because otherwise, it won’t be a winning strategy.

Spoiling the Spoilers

Nantuko Shade
It’s the Magic 2013 preview season that has me in a tizzy about how people, from wide-eyed newbies to cynical veterans, react to new cards. In an attempt to be realistic, I don’t intend to kill any enthusiasm; I’m trying to increase it over the pessimistic tones of the unimaginative. But the fact that cards are spoiled individually doesn’t mean it makes any sense to evaluate them that way, for good or ill. A new card might have enough cards around it to make a new strategy and a new successful deck. Reprinted cards might not have that critical mass to make them work. Ask Nantuko Shade and Voltaic Key how their Magic 2011 reprints panned out.

Cards need decks, and decks need formats in order to thrive, and new cards are no different than old cards in that respect. From the Pro Tour to your casual group, it’s the same ideas. Pour your enthusiasm into deck ideas and try them out; you won’t find out if a card’s good if you only play the games in your head. Finding out what works and what doesn’t will give you sustainable enthusiasm for a new set, and that sustainability’s far more fun than asking the clown question for every card that could be put in a vacuum.