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How to Evaluate New Cards

Every spoiler season I give my opinion on the newly spoiled cards, but for this one, I’m going to do something a little bit different—I’m going to talk about the process I use to evaluate new cards. Ideally, you can then apply this process (or something similar to it) yourself in this set and in future sets—the whole “teach a man to fish” bit. So, here are the factors that I consider:

Best-Case Scenario vs. Worst-Case Scenario

Normally, I’m a fan of looking at the worst-case scenario instead of the best-case scenario. When I see Chandra in a GW deck, for example, my first thought is not “wow, I’m going to surprise them with this Chandra and it’s going to kill all their creatures,” it’s “I’m going to draw Chandra and not be able to cast it.” I am a skeptical person, or, as I like to think of it, a realist as opposed to an idealist. I try to see things as they are and not as how I want them to be. It’s less fun, but more effective most of the time.

At first, I applied this line of thought to everything. Then, PT Berlin happened.

For those who aren’t familiar, PT Berlin was the breakout tournament for the Elves deck—the first Heritage Druid/Nettle Sentinel/Glimpse of Nature deck. The deck originated on Magic League and since I played on Magic League, I had access to it very early on. I playtested a bit with it before dismissing it. My reasoning? The deck didn’t work when you didn’t draw Glimpse.

Fast forward to the actual tournament and there were 6 Elves decks in the Top 8, only losing to each other. The deck was broken—many turns faster than anything else in the format—and probably more resilient too. As for myself, I played Zoo to a solid but unspectacular finish.

Why did this happen? Why did I play with this broken deck and fail to see the potential whereas everyone around me seized on it?

The reason was that I focused too much on the worst-case scenario. My conclusion at the time was true—the deck was bad if it didn’t draw Glimpse of Nature. The difference was that I looked at it and thought “well, this deck can’t win if it doesn’t draw Glimpse,” but other teams looked at it and thought “this deck is broken if it draws Glimpse. How can we make it okay if it doesn’t?” They looked at the best-case scenario, and found it good enough to be worth working to minimize the bad scenarios—I only saw the bad scenarios, so I didn’t recognize the potential.

With spoilers, I believe you should take the same approach—look at the best-case scenario. If the worst-case scenario is bad, you can work to mitigate it, but if the best-case scenario is bad, then there’s nothing you can do. You need to know if the bad parts of the card are worth fixing, and to do that you need to know how good it is when it works. For a card to have potential, it has to be good when it’s good, and this is what you should look at. If it has potential, then you try to solve its downsides later.

Take Lupine Prototype. What’s the realistic best-case scenario? A 5/5 for 2, which is very strong. At this point, Lupine Prototype is already worth exploring in my mind, because I can see the payoff for when it works. Is it enough to make up for the times when it doesn’t work? I don’t know, but because I looked at the good scenario and deemed it worthy, I will start testing it to see how it copes with the bad scenario and if it’s worth trying to mitigate the drawback or not. For whatever it’s worth, my first inclination is that in Standard it isn’t, but in Modern it might be.

Power

In my experience, the best way to analyze a card’s power is to compare it to a previous card. If it’s similar to a great card, then there’s a good chance that it’s great—if it’s similar to a card that was always very bad, then there’s a good chance it’s going to be bad.

Let’s take the newly spoiled Eldritch Evolution. When I look at it, the first cards it reminds me of are Natural Order, Green Sun’s Zenith, Birthing Pod, and Tinker. This is an amazing list of cards. Even if the card itself is not as good as those (and it certainly isn’t), you have to acknowledge that it has potential because cards similar to it have been broken in the past. Another example: Geier Reach Sanitarium. What does it remind you of? Mikokoro, Center of the Sea, right? Mikokoro wasn’t broken, but was a playable card. By association, I know that Geier Reach Sanitarium has potential already.

Now look at Ulvenwald Observer. It reminds me of Soul of the Harvest, except it looks even worse. Soul of the Harvest never made any waves in any format, so it’s unlikely that this card will either (though you didn’t need a comparison on this one because it just looks bad). I will very likely not even try this card in any deck because I know that, historically, cards like that just aren’t good.

In the absence of a similar card to compare to, you should look for effects that have historically been powerful. Yes, Tolarian Academy is very powerful, but why? Because it generates a lot of mana very quickly. Every card that generates a lot of mana quickly is potentially powerful because this is a powerful effect. The two effects I would identify as historically most powerful are:

  1. It cheats on mana. When a Magic card is broken, it’s usually because it cheats on mana, either for itself or for other cards. This can be done by simply producing a lot of mana (Dark Ritual, Black Lotus), by costing less to cast in certain circumstances (Phyrexian mana, delve, Force of Will, affinity cards), by being very undercosted (Tarmogoyf), or by letting you play a card or combination of cards that is normally more expensive (Stoneforge Mystic, Collected Company, Animate Dead). In Eldritch Moon, there are a number of cards that fit this criteria—every card with emerge, for example, and to a lesser extent every card with meld. I’m not saying all of those cards are broken or even good, but they’re certainly worth paying attention to because the ability they have is very powerful. You also have Eldritch Evolution and Deploy the Gatewatch as ways to get more mana into play than what you’re paying, and Lupine Prototype, Curious Homunculus // Voracious Reader, Lone Rider // It That Rides as One, Grim Flayer, and Emrakul as undercosted creatures.
  2. It draws cards or manipulates your library for a small amount of mana. Historically, these types of cards have been very good even when they look unassuming. I’m not only talking about Ancestral Recall here, but also Thoughtcast, Serum Visions, Ponder, Preordain, Glimpse of Nature, Necropotence, tutors, Chord of Calling, Birthing Pod, Survival of the Fittest, and Entomb. Finding the right resources is important and doing it for a small amount of mana is usually a powerful effect.

In this set, you have Take Inventory as a cheap spell that can draw multiple cards, and also Tamiyo, Field Researcher, which is a bit more expensive but can still draw a ton of cards. Eldritch Evolution, Coax From the Blind Eternities, and Thalia’s Lancers can provide tutoring. Those cards all seem interesting to me (though at first glance I’m inclined to think that Coax is too expensive).

Power vs. Context

More than absolute power, it’s important to understand what kind of context can make a card good or bad. Sometimes, a card with potential is released but that potential is not realized until something either rotates out or is brought in. Understanding whether a card isn’t good because it’s not inherently powerful or because the metagame isn’t right for it is very important, because at some point the metagame is going to change and you want to be ready if the card does become good.

Sometimes, the whole context of Standard is hostile to a type of card. In a format where Affinity is good, you really don’t want to be the person playing other artifacts, and in a format where Dredge is a popular deck, you don’t want to be the person relying on a different graveyard combo. Being hit by splash hate is a big reason why some card might be powerful but unusable in a certain format, and then when the format changes and the hate cards no longer exist it, it may have the opportunity to become great.

Sometimes, there’s a single card stopping another from shining. Take Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It’s clearly one of the best cards ever printed in Standard, yet when it was first released, it wasn’t broken. The reason was that Bloodbraid Elf was the most important card in Standard at the time, and Bloodbraid Elf made Jace’s life miserable because it was a haste threat that you couldn’t bounce. You’d tap out for Jace, they’d answer with Bloodbraid, and they’d be ahead. As a result, not many people played Jace at first. When Bloodbraid Elf rotated out, Jace became exponentially more powerful.

Something similar happened with Ancestral Vision. In a format where everyone played Remand or didn’t mind tapping out to cast Compulsive Research, it wasn’t actually that powerful, but when Remand rotated out and Faeries was introduced, the card became very good because that deck was actually interested in keeping mana up on turn 3.

There are many factors that provide context for whether a card is good or not, but I think a rough guide of things to analyze would include:

  • The speed of the format. This is usually dictated by the fastest major deck. If it can kill you turn 4, then it’s likely that 10-drops aren’t very good. If most decks are slow, however, then resilient threats and big bombs become better. In Standard, the fastest deck is Humans, and it’s prevalent enough that I would not like to play a clunky deck, so I’m probably not going to pay much attention to clunky cards.
  • The available removal. Unless they are very powerful, threats are usually good when they’re hard to answer. What does the removal look like in this format? Is it cheap or expensive? Toughness-related? Sorcery or instant? Does it exile? How about the sweepers—how much do they cost?

In Standard, the most prevalent removal spells are Dromoka’s Command, Reflector Mage, and Languish. Because Dromoka’s Command is so prevalent, any new enchantment automatically gets much worse. There aren’t many enchantments in Eldritch Moon so far (Oath of Liliana seems to be the best and you don’t really care if it gets destroyed), but even if they released some great enchantment, it would likely have to wait for the next rotation to see major play.

Reflector Mage is even more oppressive than Dromoka’s Command, and I’d say it’s the most limiting factor in this Standard format, even if it’s not in every deck. It’s an incredibly efficient card that sees play in a variety of decks and the mere fact that it exists means that clunky creatures without enters-the-battlefield triggers are less likely to be good. A card like Mirrorwing Dragon matches up poorly against Reflector Mage, and I’m pretty sure that Gisela, the Broken Blade is not going to be as good as it could have been because Reflector Mage exists (though it’s still going to be good). A card like Ishkanah, Grafwidow, however, is better than it would normally be because it’s a great blocker even if they have Reflector Mage.

This format also has Declaration in Stone and Stasis Snare and relatively few burn spells—the fact that Gisela has 3 toughness is not that big a deal, but it would have been a major issue in some past formats, and the card would likely be completely unplayable in a format where Lightning Bolt was legal. The same is true for the new Thalia—it’s going to be good because its 2 points of toughness are not a big liability in this format (anything that kills it would kill it even if it were bigger), but if everyone suddenly starts playing Fiery Impulse, then it’s probably not going to show up in big numbers.

There are some toughness-related black removal spells, and for those the most important point of toughness is the 5th because it lets you survive Languish and to a lesser extent Grasp. In this regard, Mirrorwing Dragon and Ishkanah come out ahead, whereas a card like Bloodhall Priest is a little bit worse than it would be in a different format. Selfless Spirit would be a great anti-sweeper in some formats, but since the most common sweeper in this format is Languish, it doesn’t do that much. When Languish rotates out and the new sweeper is something like Planar Outburst, then Selfless Spirit is probably a good card to keep in mind.

In Modern, things change radically. Not only is the power level bar obviously higher, but Lightning Bolt is very common, so cards like Thalia and Bruna are very unlikely to see play, whereas something like Bedlam Reveler has a lot more potential (as it also dodges Abrupt Decay). Dismember is also much more common than Grasp or Languish, so having 5 toughness doesn’t mean anything, but having 6 toughness would be important. On the other hand, most sweepers are damage-based or flat-out destroy the creatures, so Selfless Spirit has a higher chance to shine.

The Size of the Creatures

As a general rule, you want new creatures to match up well with what’s already played. In Standard, I’d say that 2/3 is the most common combat you’re likely to face in the early game because of Sylvan Advocate and Reflector Mage, though 3/3 is also common, and some white decks have a bunch of 2/1s. This means that a card like Stromkirk Condemned is powerful because it can become a 3/3 and beat most things it ends up battling. In a format with a lot of 3/2s or 3/4s, however, it wouldn’t be very good. Thalia, similarly, is excellent at attacking, because 3/2 first strike can swing through most things, but if she were a 2/2 or if this were a format of 2/4s, then it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.

As the game progresses, Avacyn is likely the most important card you have to fight, which means you want your big creatures to have 5 or more toughness (or 7 if you expect her to flip a lot). Mirrorwing Dragon is significantly better at 4/5 than it would have been at 4/4, and Bruna, the Fading Light has good stats because it can block even the flipped version.

That’s what I have for today! I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and see you next week.

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