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Energy in Limited

It’s not too often we’re introduced to a new resource, but here we are with energy. It also happens to be everywhere in Limited, which means it’s important to look at what it means for in-game decisions. Simply put, energy is similar to mana as a resource that you can use, but it doesn’t reset every turn, so you’ll need to be careful with when you use it and how much of it you use. Ideally you’ll use the last bit of energy you have then win the game shortly thereafter, but the best way to find the proper pacing will be through practice in games. Because I’m writing this before any of us have played with the cards, I’m going to guide you through my initial understanding of energy, and how you can decide when and where to use it in your early games at the prerelease.

What is Energy Worth?

Because energy is a resource, it has to have some sort of exchange rate. As a simple comparison, let’s take a minute to think about the mana system in Magic. You can pay some amount of mana for an effect or you can pay more mana and get a bigger effect. Note though that this scaling power is not simply additive. The reason behind this is that increasing mana cost is increasingly restrictive. A 5-drop is harder to cast than a 4-drop, but a 6-drop is harder to cast than a 5-drop by more than the difference between 4 and 5. This is because of the time required in turns and amount of cards needed (usually number of lands) to pay the appropriate costs for these expensive spells.

To see this in effect, let’s look at two cards in Standard. 5 mana in Standard can buy you a Reality Smasher, a very powerful card. For exactly double that mana you can instead get Kozilek, the Great Distortion ,which is far more than twice as powerful. Kozilek simply ends the games it’s cast in.

We see Kozilek cast all the time in Standard, then, right? No, because Kozilek isn’t particularly efficient and is worse than Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, which is its main competition. Cost, efficiency, and competition are the three main components to determine what is worth spending mana or energy on.

To get a sense of what energy is worth, let’s look at the effects you can get for EE (two energy):

There are varying degrees of power here among these abilities, but they offer a sense of what E is worth. Note that Aetherstorm Roc obsoletes using energy on Thriving Ibex in much the same way that Ulamog obsoletes Kozilek since the Roc’s effect is just better for the cost. The fact that there are different levels of power and efficiency for EE means that you will have different incentives on where to use that energy, depending on which card you have in play and which future energy-dependent cards you have in your hand and in your deck.

If we instead look at all the E costs (which are too long to list out one by one) you’ll see that there is a wider array of effects, many of which are trinket abilities that you would want to use in differing scenarios. The idea here is you can have many places to spend E, all of which are only conditionally powerful, but through choices you can find the best uses. This is similar to Charms which have individually weaker modes, but choice makes situational effects much stronger.

Let’s also compare the EE effects to some of the bigger ones:

Clearly Aethersquall Ancient’s effect is much more powerful than putting 4 +1/+1 counters on creatures or tapping 4 creatures. Yet it’s cost is exactly 4 times those abilities. This is again due to the difficulty of paying high costs. In this case you need to resolve a 7-mana creature and have 8E, which is not exactly a small price to pay. Thus, this creature is a perfect energy sink. It’s the type of payoff card that if you work toward it and use its ability, you’ll win that game.

Energy Producers

If I describe Aethersquall Ancient as an energy sink, then where are we getting all this energy to dump into it in the first place? You’ll want to save up energy from different places so that you’ll be able to use the energy sink as soon as possible. Of course, in the case of the Ancient, it’s its own E producer, but the card is far more powerful if you can pay 8E the turn you cast it rather than spend 8E three turns after you’ve resolved your 7-mana creature. What are some good energy producers to help reach this goal? I see three different classes of producers:

This card is a true energy engine. There will be games where you consistently use its ability to generate energy without ever cracking it for the 3-card bonus. Though that will usually be the purpose of all the energy you create, it won’t be the case every game you cast this card. Energy is a flexible mechanic and will play differently depending on where you spend it. I hope this fixes the escalate problem I mentioned last week where the cards promise flexibility but in practice always end up with the same play pattern.

This class of card offers you a way to use E, but doesn’t give you a huge payoff for doing so. However, this gives you EEE attached to a 1/3 for the low price of 1U. This means that if you can use the EEE elsewhere, you’ll likely be getting a much better deal. Scrying 1 is still strong and will let this card be good in certain places, but I like that it’s never free to do so unless you don’t have any other better places to use E. In this way I think the role of energy producers and sinks have a natural and interesting relationship.

This last class of card goes one step further and gives you E without offering a way to use it on the same card. Clearly you have to pair this with other cards that can use energy or else part of the effectiveness of the card goes to waste. If you have good energy payoffs but few ways to produce energy, you’ll have trouble deciding where to spend it.

On the other hand, it will be difficult to get too many producers like Aether Meltdown and have nowhere to spend the energy, since a single good sink will gladly use all that energy. Ideally you’d want some balance between energy producers and payoffs. Where it gets interesting is when you already have a lot of one type and can take a strong card of the same type or a weaker one of the other. These decisions will create drafting and build considerations that will keep the Limited environment fresh even as it develops.

This all sounds complicated and daunting but you shouldn’t be scared of such complexities. These concepts come up again and again in different contexts. We just saw this idea with emerge enablers and payoffs, where you needed to carefully balance between the two or risk drafting a deck that wasn’t particularly good at doing anything. Drafting Kaladesh will be similar except you get to draft from a much wider pool of cards caring about balancing enablers and payoffs. This allows for a lot more mixing and matching of differing energy cards so that you maximize their effects differently from game to game.

Energy in Aggro, Midrange, and Control/Combo

Energy presents a new subset of goals depending on which colors you are and how many energy cards you have. If, for example, you are in RG and have a low-to-the-ground aggressive deck, then you’ll want to spend energy any chance you can to pump up your creatures and stay ahead on board. You don’t really have the concept of energy producers and sinks here since the cards themselves are self-contained packages. You can simply take the cards at face value. Voltaic Brawler comes along with two attack activations when you need them. Thriving Rhino is a 2/3 that becomes a 3/4 on its first attack. Bristling Hydra is a 4/3 that requires two removal spells to be killed. I’m oversimplifying here of course, but if your deck is truly aggressive you are going to want to spend energy as quickly as possible to gain advantages and end the game before your opponent can take over with more powerful spells and E activations.

Piloting a midrange deck is the hardest type of deck when determining where to use E. You’ll have some early threats that might care about it, but then you need to decide whether or not using EE for a +1/+1 counter now is more useful than saving that for a bigger effect two turns down the road. Similarly, you’ll need to decide if you want to snowball a single threat by piling on any energy you generate, or if spreading out those effects will be better.

You’ll also have a mix of producers and sinks in your deck but you won’t necessarily draw the perfect mix of them every game. This means you need intimate knowledge of your deck so that you can make informed decisions on when to go ahead and use your non-renewable resource. Judging that is of course tricky in much the same way you need to think through possible lines and ways that a game will play out without perfect information. But then again, that’s what makes Magic so great.

When it comes to control and combo decks, the first thing to remember is that these types of decks are the least common in draft. You need a lot of specific requirements to draft a successful version, and you’ll have to go through specific sequences to win. These decks are all about inevitability, and that means patience with using energy.

Perhaps you have a deck with one or two bomb cards alongside an Aetherworks Marvel. The entire goal of your deck is to trade off resources and keep using Aetherworks Marvel to go way over the top of your opponent. Because of that, you should be cautious about your use of energy. Here it will usually be wrong to attack and pay EE just for a +1/+1 counter. It’s unlikely you’re the beatdown in any given game, and you have to be careful with resource allotment or you’ll simply be playing a worse version of a midrange or aggro shell. Which energy build-arounds are worth working toward will become more clear after we get a chance to play with the cards, but the idea of conservation with this strategy should be considered throughout the whole format.

I hope this gives you some food for thought moving into your first events with Kaladesh. A new resource presents new challenges, but learning how to maximize your energy costs will be a lot of fun and something I’m looking to explore very soon.

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