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Recurring Nightmares – Dichotomy of Mana Costs

There was once a time, not long ago, when the merits of a newly-released card were weighed against its mana cost. Often, the more expensive the card, the less likely it was to see play in a format like Legacy—where mana efficiency is paramount, and you’re forced to consider the entirety of the cumulative card pool against each slot while determining the best role for every one of the 60 cards you include in your deck.

This was often done in a vacuum, or at best, done by comparing the new cards to similar ones that have been released before. And it’s why a card like [card]Counterbalance[/card], or [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], is able to fly somewhat under the radar until the card is exploited by someone willing to put in the effort.

It’s also why a card like [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] is able to jump to the forefront of the format without much lag time. By employing this card, which is by all accounts overpowered at one mana, players could quickly see the games they’re playing would be shortened, and the tempo shell is already built around the structure of “play a cheap fatty, play defense,” so it’s simple to add this threat to that.

At the same time, there’s a dynamic that’s difficult to see on the surface, but ever present in the background. It’s almost like looking out a window—you know the glass is there, but your eyes only focus on what’s beyond the panes. It takes a shift of focus for you to see the glass itself.

There’s a tension in the format between the early, mid-, and late games. A significant difference in frame is required for each of the three points, and different decks employ strategies to be successful in specific subsets of them.

A deck like Storm Combo is obviously trying to exploit the lack of interaction many decks can bring to bear in the first few turns of the game. By sacrificing long-term advantage for powerful acceleration, they can end the game before a deck like Jund or Goblins ever gets off the ground.

A deck like UW Miracles is built to be successful in the games that go longest. As each turn passes and they add more lands to the board, their options increase—and by playing powerful expensive spells like [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] and [card]Entreat the Angels[/card] that reward them for sinking further into the late game, they can press that advantage and go over the top of the competition.

Between these two bookends lie the midrange decks: the Zoo, RUG, and BUG decks that attempt to press an advantage in the mid-game while closing out victory before the late game decks can take control. These are the bread and butter of the Legacy format, and while I’m planning to discuss the other types of decks, this is where the majority of our discussion will take place.

Essentially, the tension I referred to above is the give and take between mana efficiency and power. It’s the reason why cards like [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] are playable in a format where [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] can frequently be seen annihilating the battlefield, and why [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] saw success this past weekend, despite being considered nearly unplayable in this format for years.

Let’s begin with Alpha.

Swords to Plowshares
[draft]Swords to Plowshares[/draft]

This card has a much greater role in the development of the Legacy paradigm than most give it credit. By its mere existence, the bar on which creatures can be played in Legacy has been raised incredibly high. When you take as a given the mana-fixing available in the format (which, for the purposes of this discussion, I think we must), nearly any deck that wants access to Swords has it.

What that means is a creature like [card]Craw Wurm[/card] (or for that matter [card]Inferno Titan[/card]), which is powerful in the abstract sense, is nearly blank in the context of Legacy because the investment is not worthwhile when the opponent has access to unconditional removal at the low, low price of one white mana. This drives the curve downward, to ensure that you’re not investing more into your threats than your opponent is forced to invest into their answers.

A card like Swords is about as high as the power level of a specific removal spell should ever be allowed to go. Compare it to [card]Brittle Effigy[/card] or even [card]Crib Swap[/card]. The effect of “Exile target creature” costs far more than the one mana StP clocks in at, or requires a serious drawback to play. By switching to [card]Path to Exile[/card] over Swords, you’re effectively casting [card]Time Walk[/card] on your opponent in the early game—and it’s still a tier 1 removal spell!

Much as the presence of Swords pushes the creature curve down, the presence of [card]Daze[/card], [card]Spell Pierce[/card], and [card]Wasteland[/card] do the same for all spells. The blue-based tempo decks in Legacy have the ability to interact on a level that requires you to prepare for mana constraints. Playing around [card]Daze[/card] forces you to play more lands. [card]Wasteland[/card] constricts the mana you can produce, both in color and quantity. [card]Spell Pierce[/card] forces you to be further and further ahead in mana to avoid trading down in the same manner that Swords lets your opponent do with creatures. Investing seven mana into a [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card] only for your opponent to tap a single blue to shut you down is a feeling that you don’t want to experience. It’s why [card]Mana Leak[/card] was such a force to be reckoned with throughout its most recent stint in Standard, and why we were all very happy to see it go.

If you want to ensure you don’t trade down for your spells, you need to prioritize mana efficiency. The answers in Legacy are extremely efficient. Many of them are even free. This means you’ll be required to invest into them only the bare minimum, or risk being answered at a tempo and mana advantage from the opponent.

The expectation, then, would be for Legacy to be a format of one-drops. It should be the place where anything beyond two mana is completely unplayable, and everyone battles for dominance in the first few turns. Where card advantage is trumping your opponent’s one-drop with your two-drop, and going over the top is a risk you can’t afford.

Of course, we all know it isn’t like that—at least not entirely.

The other side of the coin does exist. And though we’ve seen an ebb and flow in the speed of Legacy before, I can point to a number of specific cards (some of which are rather recent) that are having a significant impact on the mana dynamic of the Legacy format.

Abrupt Decay
[draft]Abrupt Decay[/draft]

More than any other currently played card, this little removal spell is changing the face of the format. Where [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] will punish you for playing expensive creatures, [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] punishes you for being efficient with your mana.

By leaping into the format where efficiency is king, Decay has a balancing effect on the overall mana cost of creatures. A card like [card]Tombstalker[/card], which was definitely good, but not widely played by any means (at least not recently), suddenly becomes a fantastic option, as it simultaneously splits the line between mana efficiency (often only costing BB), and mana cost (dodging [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]). A creature such as [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card], which was heretofore regarded as too much cost for the effect, sees success as a powerful threat that both creates card advantage (which helps with Swords) and dodges Abrupt Decay.

What we’re seeing here is an adjustment in the speed of the format, as it begins to shift to adapt to the presence of a new answer—one that is efficient (as it must be in Legacy), uncounterable, and flexible.

The existence of [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] as a metagame force contributes directly to the popularity of [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]—not because they’re both Golgari cards, although that is pertinent, but because the increased mana cost associated with playing around [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] is made much easier to handle by including mana birds.

If [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] did not have the “can’t be countered” clause, it would still see play—but it would have significantly reduced flexibility, as you couldn’t count on it. In those terms it would be similar to many other spells of the type: [card]Vindicate[/card], [card]Putrefy[/card], etc. That little clause is really where the meat of the power in the spell comes from, as it can dodge the spells like [card spell pierce]Pierce[/card], [card]Daze[/card], etc. that would otherwise prey on it.

The greatest loser of all is the next card in the discussion:

Counterbalance
[draft]Counterbalance[/draft]

Much like [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], [card]Counterbalance[/card] is a predator of mana efficiency. As the overall curve of the format trends downward, the presence of Counterbalance should trend upward. In other words, CB has an inverse relationship with the average mana cost of the format on the whole. Prior to the introduction of [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], [card]Counterbalance[/card] held a fantastic position in the metagame—the likelihood of countering a specific spell with the enchantment was at near peak levels.

Now, mere weeks since the release of Return to Ravnica, [card]Counterbalance[/card] is possibly the worst it’s ever been. This is a double blow that combines both [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] itself and its impact on the format.

While the obvious problem is the omnipresence of the new tool, which completely crushes [card]Counterbalance[/card] in and of itself, the side effect described above is crippling to [card]Counterbalance[/card]. As the format adjusts to find the new equilibrium under the eye of [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], [card]Counterbalance[/card] is finding less and less threats in the one to three mana cost range to shut down.

Taking the spell out of context within the existing format, it’s worth noting that [card]Counterbalance[/card] has a similar effect as [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]—although it’s been seen that the format is slower to adapt to CB than it has been to AD. The inverse relationship between [card]Counterbalance[/card] and the overall mana curve of the format should work the opposite way—as the number of Counterbalance decks increases, so should the curve of the format, to adjust to the major threat.

Against decks not capable of casting [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], [card]Counterbalance[/card] is still a reasonable control measure. Many of these decks still rely on the combination of cantrips and efficient threats to gain advantage. However, the likelihood of playing an opponent that is both significantly impacted by Counterbalance and not able to favorably interact with the enchantment is low enough that it’s worth pursuing another line.

Chalice of the Void
[draft]Chalice of the Void[/draft]

Slightly more narrow than Counterbalance, but often more reliable, [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] hasn’t seen a lot of play in the last few months (years?). Because of the ability of Legacy decks to find two mana on turn one, and the structure of the tempo decks that revolves around one-mana cantrips, Chalice has the ability to shut down entire hands. Occasionally, you resolve a Chalice at 1 on turn one, and your opponent is unable to play a spell for the entire game!

While it is possible, and sometimes even correct, to set a Chalice for a number higher than one, it becomes more and more difficult as the mana cost increases. For this reason, in metagames filled with Chalice decks, it is often correct to err on the side of playing higher cost spells that are objectively more powerful. Of course, most of the decks playing Chalice are attempting to prevent that in other ways.

The dividing line appears at four.

Below four mana, you’ve mostly protected yourself from the tempo loss from Swords, Spell Pierce, Daze, etc. It’s still a trade you don’t love to make, but it’s reasonable given the investment you’ve made. Above that line, you’re investing a significant amount of resources into your spell, and typically can’t recoup them. It’s also the point at which most of the mana-cost-based answers break down.

You can’t [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] a [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], nor can you hit it with [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card]. It’s difficult to counter a [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] with [card]Counterbalance[/card], and your opponent will have to invest two whole turns into playing a [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] and blowing it for four—a trade you probably aren’t happy to make, but one that is reasonable, given your investment. These are the tradeoffs made at the divide between mana efficiency and power.

When you invest into these 4+ mana spells, you expect them to significantly change the course of the game. Cards like [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card], or [card]Moat[/card], or [card]Batterskull[/card], or even something like [card]Sower of Temptation[/card] come with an expectation that there will be a major shift in the focus of the game when they resolve. This is the reason entire decks have been developed (and successful) entirely around avoiding the opponent ever getting to the four-mana threshold, in a number of ways.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, combo decks attempt to circumvent this necessity entirely by playing out a winning hand in the opening turn or two of the game. By doing so, they limit the opportunities an opponent will have to interact, and subsequently the number of cards they’ll be able to see to find gainful interaction.

While a card like [card]Counterbalance[/card] or [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] can be devastating to a deck like Ad Nauseum Tendrils, the ability to win before that spell has resolved is a very real thing. At the same time, the expanding mana curve of the format plays directly into the hands of the combo player, as the metagame shifts away from early interaction and into higher cost, later game spells. Between the decreased effectiveness of Counterbalance and Chalice driving their play down, and the higher curve of the competition, you’d think combo would be dominating in the current metagame—but as we can see from the results of the recent events, that isn’t the case. So what’s the missing piece?

Well, even though we’ve seen a shift toward a higher mana curve, the answers for smaller spells still exist—and they’re still very good. It may be true that players are out there playing spells like [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] and [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] that circumvent [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]—but a multitude of people still play [card]Daze[/card] and [card]Spell Pierce[/card], and it’s even a good idea to cram all those cards into the same decks.

On top of that, as the higher cost spells become more popular, hand disruption like [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and [card]Duress[/card] get better and better, as you’ll have more time to hit those cards as you develop your mana, and you’ll be likely to hit higher power level cards, since the games go longer. Both of these issues are problematic for the combo decks, and are a big reason why they still don’t dominate.

On the other side of the curve, the control decks love the new paradigm. They have much more time to go over the top, and received a nice new toy to help along the way in [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. Much in the same way that Jace was difficult to resolve through maindeck Dazes, Pierces, and Wastes—[card]Wrath of God[/card], while still a blowout against the tempo and midrange decks, was equally hard to rely on. Now, with the introduction of Verdict, you can play the come-from-behind game like you want to, and need to worry about far less in the meantime.

The combination of [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card], [card]Lingering Souls[/card], and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] buying you all the time in the world in the early to mid-game, the removal being unable to deal with your threats like [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] and [card elspeth, knight-errant]Elspeth[/card], and the rest of the format dealing with the combo decks for you, it seems like a very good time to be an Esper control deck.

Of course, it always seems that way to me.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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