It may be cool to hate on Lotus Cobra now, but the initial hype surrounding the card was just absurd. The Magic community honed in on Cobra’s potential, what it could do at its best. People weren’t looking at decks Cobra would actually fit into, or how it would realistically play; it was all turn three Ultimatums and Baneslayers.
It’s not like Lotus Cobra is the only card this has happened with; most every new spoiled card receives the same treatment (though none really present such enticing best case scenarios). Now there is nothing wrong with getting excited about the potential of new cards, to think of what they can do when maximized, but that is no way to go about honestly evaluating cards.
Lotus Cobra is symptomatic of a flaw in how we think about Magic: we tend to be pretty bad at thinking in terms of average case. We do a good job of thinking about the best and worst case scenarios for cards, but the average case, the true value of cards, proves to be pretty elusive.
Take a look at what happened with Tarmogoyf. It’s not like we didn’t see the potential of a two mana 5/6 or better. It’s just that we also saw the potential of a two mana 0/1, and the worst case scenarios seemed so much more likely. It took quite some time, and presumably a fair amount of play with the card, for us to catch on to how good Tarmogoyf was on average.
It is completely understandable that we are bad at thinking average case. It is easy to imagine the best possible scenarios for a card, as well as the worst. It’s easy to see that Lotus Cobra could possibly fuel turn three Ultimatums, and it is also easy to see that at its worst Lotus Cobra will be a vanilla 2/1 for two. It’s also easy to see that neither of these cases is especially realistic. Honing in on what exactly is realistic – that’s more difficult. We can’t just think of one scenario that will demonstrate the average value of a card like we can for the best case and worst case.
Our inability to think in terms of average case is not terribly problematic when it comes to individual cards, as we can reason through how good a card will be on average by comparing it to similar cards. A card like Lotus Cobra shouldn’t be too hard to correctly evaluate, as we know how good so many similar cards are: Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch, Devoted Druid, Bloom Tender, Smokebraider, etc. Devoted Druid in particular gives a great anchor for Lotus Cobra. Sometimes Cobra will generate more mana, and sometimes less, but a Devoted Druid that can also swing for two a turn is a pretty reasonable way to look at the Cobra. (And note that Devoted Druid has seen tournament success powering out Regal Ultimatum, even almost realistically on turn three, so it’s not out of the question for Cobra to be found doing something similar. But Devoted Druid hardly resembles something broken, and neither does a small upgrade on it.)
For cards without close siblings, like Tarmogoyf, the first Planeswalkers, Path to Exile, the new “quest” cycles, and so on, we are much more lost. With no comparison point to anchor our valuation, we are left to actually work through how good on average a card is going to be, and these cards are evidence of just how bad we are at that.
Where we really get wrecked by thinking in terms of best case and/or worst case is not in evaluating individual cards, but in evaluating matchups and how games tend to play out. Failure to think average case hurts us most when it comes to building and selecting decks. It’s not your deck’s best draws that matter, as those are going to win the majority of games without help. It’s not your opponent’s best draws you need to be concerned about beating, as those are highly unlikely. It’s all about what happens on average.
Be honest with yourself. When you are a brewing a list, are you thinking about consistency, about what your opening hands are going to look like, about how you are likely to curve out? Or are you instead thinking of all the cool things you can do, of what your best draws will look like? Which approach do you think is going to lead to building better decks? When it comes to thinking about matchups, do you focus on the opposition’s best draws, and figuring out how to beat those? Or do you instead have a good sense of what a regular draw looks like, from both your side and theirs?
It’s easiest to think about how decks draw at their best, as that is something we can easily glean from just looking at a decklist. Players who don’t play a ton of Magic, but do spend a lot of time thinking about it (you know who you are), tend to suffer the worst from this. It’s too hard to get a feel for what an average draw is without plenty of play. Jamming a bunch of games can get you a pretty good sense of how games realistically play out, and give you a proper springboard for your thoughts. Without actual experience reigning in your expectations, it’s just too easy to get caught up in what every deck is capable of. Thinking about one deck’s nut draw versus another’s is counterproductive, as it’s irrelevant which deck nut draws better. It is especially important to realize that the best draw versus best draw is not at all representative of how games usually play out, or of the favorite in a matchup. A deck’s very best draws are not only quite rare, but also have no bearing on how well the deck typically draws.
Five-color control, throughout its life in Standard, had the worst nut draws in the format. Literally every single other deck nut drawing would completely smash Five-color’s very best draws. And that never stopped 5cc from being one of the top decks. Against a deck drawing perfect amounts of mana and spells, with a perfect curve, all those draw twos and CIPT lands sure look real awkward. But most often, decks would have holes in their curve, and not hit the perfect number of lands at just the right times, and 5cc would be able to keep up. Suddenly all those draw twos and CIPT lands are no longer awkward, but instead are ensuring consistency. Those cards didn’t do 5cc’s best and worst draws any favors, but they sure did make its draws on average very good. It seems like control decks in general are often underrated because their best and worst draws are so unimpressive, even when their average draws are completely dominant.
Don’t focus on beating your opponent’s best draws, as they don’t come up often and you won’t be beating them often no matter how hard you try. If your deck on the draw can’t possibly beat turn two Bitterblossom into turn four Mistbind Clique with basically any other action, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bad Faeries matchup. This will only happen in roughly 15% of your games against Faeries, so there’s no reason you need to focus on winning those games. You are much better off thinking through the other 85% of games, which are both far more common, and where any deck changes you do make are much more likely to make a difference.
One last point I want to hit on is that as a general rule, you best improve your average draws by maximizing not your best draws, but your worst. If you have an above average draw, by definition you are a favorite to win. By maximizing your best draws you are gaining percentage points in the relatively small number of games that you lose with an above average draw, and you are probably doing so at the cost of your worst draws. If instead you make your worst draws better, and best draws worse, you gain percentage in a larger number of games. To illustrate, let’s say you are 75% to win a game with an above average draw, and 25% to win with a bad draw, and you can add a 10% chance to win a game you otherwise would have lost to either your good draws or bad draws. For your good draws, you get an extra 10% in 1/4 of your games, whereas for your bad draws, you get an extra 10% in 3/4 of your games. You clearly get more out of focusing on the games you were likely going to lose than the games you were likely going to win regardless (Time Warp in Faeries struck us as a good example of a win-more card during Nationals testing, and for that reason we ended up not playing any in our final version – LSV).
See ya in the comments, where I can’t wait to hear how average you thought this article was.