Whenever a new set comes out, there are approximately 129 articles reviewing either all the cards in the set or some cards with potential. Though most of those will be enough for the particular set they are reviewing, I think they all fall a bit short at explaining the method they use to arrive at the conclusions they get. Sure, you've convinced me that card X is good, but how do I apply that to the cards in the next set?? More importantly, how do I know how good the card becomes if something changes? This is what this article is going to be about - the process of evaluating new cards and reevaluating new ones. I'll also talk a bit about evaluating new cards in Limited.
There are many different approaches to figuring out if a card is good or bad - ideally, you apply a combination of all of them. Whenever a new card comes out, the very first thing I try to do is to identify potential. At this point, the weaknesses of the card are not relevant - all I try to look for is the best case scenario. This is particularly hard for me, since I am very good at finding flaws but not that good with potential (or solutions!), as you might have noticed from my articles. The best way to figure out if a card has potential is comparison to previous cards - Magic has been going on for a very long time and there have been many different cards, and it is very rare that a card is entirely new.
Sometimes, there will be an obvious direct comparison with a previous card - something like [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] and [card]Vindicate[/card], or [card]Caltrops[/card] and [card]Circle of Flame[/card]. If there has already been a card with a similar effect and it has never seen any play, the new card probably won't either, whereas if the card was good then the new card has potential. This is the reason why people see so much potential in [card]Past in Flames[/card] even before they've found a deck for it - the comparison to one of [card yawgmoth's will]Magic's strongest cards[/card] is obvious and so it automatically deserves a closer look. [card]Birthing Pod[/card] is not really "comparable" to [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card], but the effects do resemble each other, and since Survival is such a strong card that automatically makes Birthing Pod a contender too.
Sometimes, though, there is no direct comparison - even then, most of the time, the effect will be similar to a previous effect. Things that are historically powerful include:
- Drawing a lot of cards
- Adding a lot of mana
- Manipulating your library
- Having the possibility to be played for free
- Getting something directly into play from a different zone
- Being a kill condition that is not only a kill condition
I remember, for example, when [card]Memnite[/card] was released - I instantly became wary, because the ability to play a creature with power for zero mana seemed very abusable, even if having to play a 1/1 with no abilities in your deck is a very considerable cost. The same happened to [card]Heartless Summoning[/card], which has the potential to add more mana to your pool than any other card over the course of the game, as well as looking like a combo card - if you did not at least see potential in [card]Heartless Summoning[/card], I believe you're doing something wrong. So far, though, none of those has proven to be exactly broken.
[card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] is a card that should have sent warnings to everyone, but didn't - it includes two very powerful effects, tutoring and cheating casting costs, but at the time they were not fully appreciated because of the circumstances. This brings us to the next step - once you've noticed that a card has potential, you should see if the environment will allow its potential to be fulfilled. It is entirely possible that [card]Past in Flames[/card] turns out to be very bad, for example, despite being similar to [card]Yawgmoth's Will[/card]. When that happens, It is very important to recognize why a card with potential turned out to be bad, because at some point those factors will be removed (due to either rotation or a change in the environment) and then the card will be good, or a similar card will be printed in a format without those factors and then you will automatically think it's bad when it's in fact not.
There are many factors that could make a card awesome in one environment and terrible in other. Some are very specific, like, for example, a card that was only good because of another card. [card]Vampire Hexmage[/card] was very good for a while, but that was only because [card]Dark Depths[/card] existed - if they print a card that is similar to Hexmage, it's probably not going to be good now. [card]Donate[/card] was good because of [card]Illusions of Grandeur[/card] - a Donate for U would not be good nowadays. Some cards are good because of a specific format - for example, all the Dredge cards and [card]Narcomoeba[/card] make [card]Dread Return[/card] more powerful and vice-versa.
Sometimes, the metagame makes a certain card good. Take, for example, [card]Twisted Image[/card] - when you look at the best case scenario, it's obviously very good - it kills a creature and cantrips for one Blue mana. The "average" scenario, though, is that it just cantrips, while perhaps saving one or two life, and the worst scenario is that you can't even cast it. Whether it's going to be at its best or its worse depends solely on what the opponents are playing - you can't actually do anything about it. Still, the best case scenario here is very good, so the card has potential - if it ever gets to a point where you can reliably turn it into the best case scenario because of what your opponents are doing, then the card will be good. The pre-rotation t2 provided that exact scenario, and [card]Twisted Image[/card] was an awesome card in Splinter Twin. Why didn't the first Twin players have it, then? Why didn't I have it in my first Twin list? It's not that I thought "hm, [card]Twisted Image[/card] maybe? Guess not good enough", and it's certainly not that I tried it and disliked it - I never even thought about it, because I didn't have it in the "potential cards to play" compartment of my mind.
Some cards, on the other hand, were only bad because a certain oppressive card existed, and were that card to disappear then, they would have been good. Take, for example, [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] - its mere existence made it so that clunky creatures like [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] could not even be played. [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card] and the Titans also mean that midrange creatures are worse than they would normally be (in fact, there hasn't been a good season to be a Midrange creature in quite some time). [card]Phyrexian Obliterator[/card] will never be good as long as [card]Dismember[/card] exists - etc, etc.
Sometimes, the problem is that the environment itself is hostile towards a particular strategy - Multiple cards with Flashback being played means that a reanimation strategy with [card]Unburial Rites[/card] might not be as good as it would otherwise be, since people will play graveyard removal. In an environment where Tempered Steel is rampant and everyone runs maindeck [card]Ancient Grudge[/card], then [card]Kuldotha Forgemaster[/card] is not a good card - but, maybe, at some point, Tempered Steel becomes very bad, then people stop playing [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] and your [card]Kuldotha Forgemaster[/card] deck gets the opportunity to shine.
In other occasions, it's the speed of the format, and this is usually dependant on how good the fastest deck is - there is always going to be a deck that is capable of very fast kills, but that deck, be it aggro or combo, is not always good enough to dictate the pace of the format. Right now, for example, I think Mono Red is very good, so if your deck is all expensive cards you will just get killed by Red every time before you can actually play them.
Most of the time, there is no one factor but a mix. A good example is example is [card]Ancestral Vision[/card]; when it was first released, a lot of people jumped at it because of the similarities with other powerful draw effects, but it turned out to be very bad in that particular format because of two things - first, everyone played [card]Remand[/card], which was really good against the suspend; Second, there weren't even any decks that were interested in the effect - blue decks at the time just played [card]Compulsive Research[/card] since they weren't doing anything else on turn 3 anyway. A rotation later, [card]Remand[/card] and [card]Compulsive Research[/card] disappeared and people started to play Faeries, which was a deck that was greatly interested in drawing three cards without having to tap out, and so Ancestral Visions went from almost unplayable to one of the best cards in the format. It might seem obvious now that Visions belongs in that deck and is a very good card, so good that it was banned in Modern, but at the time it was not, because people were still used to the previous format and it had been bad in that one. The key here is to first see the potential, and then understand why the card couldn't fulfill it - once you do that, then you'll be able to recognize when those factors are removed.
Another good and recent example is [card]Daybreak Ranger[/card]. When the card had just come out, Kibler and Brad both posted in our testing group about how much potential it had. When some of the people said they disagreed, Kibler said something like "have you people forgotten about [card]Ravenous Baloth[/card] and [card]Contested Cliffs[/card]?" I, myself, had not - I remember back when the Beasts deck terrorized the other aggro builds by playing bigger creatures and then making them fight the smaller ones (I also remember the Beasts deck not being able to ever beat the best deck - Wake - but that's neither here nor there). Before I could reply, though, Conley pointed out that the format was completely different - now, for example, people tap out on turn 6 to play Titan in over half the decks, which completely outclasses your Baloth + Contested Cliffs one card combo.
This difference in context is everything - the card goes from potentially good to in my opinion pretty close to unplayable. Which is not, however, to say that the train of thought was wrong on the first place - making the comparison to [card]Ravenous Baloth[/card] + [card]Contested Cliffs[/card] enabled Kibler to see the potential in a card that I had as good as dismissed when I looked at the spoiler. When I looked at [card]Daybreak Ranger[/card], I saw that it was bad in the current format (which it was) and took it for a bad card, ignoring its potential - assuming no one had said anything, there would perhaps come a time without Titans and Wraths in which it would have been good and I would not even remember it existed.
The problem was that he went too far, whereas I didn't go anywhere - we should have both found the middle ground of "hm, interesting, this card looks like a combination that has seen play before" followed by "hm, the environment now is a lot different though, that combination would not be good now and neither is this". My evaluation served me much better in the short run, since it is actually bad now, but If the format changes, the card might become good, and Kibler's assessment will help him a lot more than mine did.
Some cards will just be different than anything you've ever seen - in this case, if you're entirely unable to judge at a first glance, you should just assume it has potential - most of those are Planeswalkers. Planeswalkers are insanely hard to judge because they're so different, even among themselves. I remember when Lorwyn had just been spoiled and I had to write an article to a magazine rating the first Planeswalkers and I just had no clue what I was doing - if I recall correctly, my rating at the time was that Jace > Chandra > Liliana > Garruk > Ajani, which is way off - the only thing that is remotely correct is that Jace is the best, but even then, at the time it was not the best, Garruk was.
Now Planeswalkers have been among us for a while, and, though they're still all different and worth paying attention to, there are two main aspects that, in my opinion, make planeswalkers good:
1) It's cheap. Of course most spells are better if they're cheap, but with Planeswalkers it means a whole extra activation, at least - a cheap Planeswalker is exponentially better than a more expensive one. A [card]Jace Beleren[/card] that costs four means, among other things, that it has either one less card attached to it or two less loyalty.
2) It can defend itself. [card gideon jura]Gideon[/card] is good despite costing a lot, since it has natural defense because of his high loyalty (and, occasionally, the -2 ability). It is just very miserable to play a Planeswalker and use it for a [card]Fog[/card] - you want them not to be able to simply kill it on their attack step.
There are some exceptions, but not many - there is [card koth of the hammer]Koth[/card], for example, who is neither cheap nor able to defend itself, but is still very good. The reason Koth is very good is that he is basically a decent creature that can't be killed, with a very high bonus in the Ultimate. If Koth was a creature, he wouldn't be nearly as good - what in other planeswalker's cases might be a weakness (being attackable), in Koth's case is a strength since that kind of deck specifically wants a permanent that cannot be removed - you can simply kill any creature that threatens it.
There are also the external factories that affect every Planeswalker's playability - hasted creatures, manland, the amount of control in the metagame, whether the blue decks can afford to tap out, etc.
Evaluating new cards in a sealed or draft format is a lot harder, because everything is new - whereas in Constructed you are working with a high percentage of what you already know, in Limited you don't know anything. Some of the things are very obvious and never really change, such as "removal is good" and "fliers are good", but this is where I feel like you can make a mistake:
- The relative role of each color: this is very important because, like in Constructed, you want to analyze the cards in context, but here the context is not given to you. Most of the time, red and black will have removal and bad creatures, blue will have fliers, green will have fatties, white will have fast aggro guys, or fliers, or defensive guys, or all of those - but that is only most of the time. In Innistrad, for example, from what I can gather, the role of blue is putting cards in your Graveyard so that you can use Flashback and play undercosted guys - in this scenario, cards like [card]Armored Skaab[/card] and [card]Makeshift Mauler[/card] become much better. In Invasion draft, Green provided mana fixing, so [card]Quirion Trailblazer[/card] was actually fine. In Scars, one half of the green decks wanted to kill you with Poison, which makes [card]Untamed Might[/card] better than it'd have been in any other set.
- The important power/toughness: in every format, there are a couple key numbers that should find, namely what the removal kills and what will make creatures come out ahead in combat. In Scars, for example, the key number was two - most creatures had two power and both [card]Galvanic Blast[/card] and [card]Arc Trail[/card] did two damage. For this reason, [card]Cystbearer[/card], [card]Oxidda Scrapmelter[/card] and [card]Skinrender[/card] were so good - they had bodies that outclassed the competition (among other things). In M12, most creatures had two power and one or two toughness, and most of those were playables, so a card like [card]Warpath Ghoul[/card] gets much worse than it was in M10, since it'll often trade with a smaller guy and the extra power (that you paid a lot for!) will have been wasted.
- The speed of the format: this is generally what dictates whether expensive cards are good or not (brilliant, I know). Some formats, like Zendikar, are so fast that a card like Kalitas becomes bad. Rise of the Eldrazi, on the other hand, was so slow that a card like [card]Skeletal Wurm[/card] was playable, when I cannot imagine any other format it could have seen play in (In fact, I've heard a very handsome, intelligent and charming guy won the RoE Pro Tour by attacking with [card]Skeletal Wurm[/card] in the final game!). [card]Cancel[/card] is also a good example because it is the exact same card and radically changes from format to format - it was much better in M11 and Time Spiral than it is in M12.
The speed of the format is a function of the power of the cheap creatures and the availability of cheap removal - in Rise, for example, not only are the cheap creatures bad, but the removal is very good - you had a ton of answers to any guy in the common slot to the point where a 2/1 for 2 was not actually playable, as opposed to being actively good in M12. I remember when I started playing Onslaught draft and one of the biggest "discoveries" was that [card]Glory Seeker[/card] was actually good in that format, since everyone was playing 2/2s for 3 so you might as well play a 2/2 for 2.
Well, this is it. I hope the article was not overly basic (it is sometimes hard for me to judge this, as I seem to have a different idea of what is "obvious" than most people), and that it helps you the next time a set is released and you have to try and evaluate the cards. See you next week, or this weekend if you're going to Chile!