One of the trickiest businesses in Magic is properly evaluating your cards. There are a lot of "grading systems" out there; theories that are supposed to tell you how much a card is worth so that you can properly value it in a given situation. With all due respect to those who came up with or promote those theories – I think they're terrible. In this article, I will explain why one in particular looks so bad to me, and what I myself do when analyzing cards.
If you take a look, you'll notice that Magic is not the only game with a grading score that's supposed to tell you the relative value of a card - Bridge, for example, has its own points system that you are taught as a beginner. However, as you evolve in the game, you realize how limited that point system actually is. As a tool for beginners, it’s great, but when you play at a higher level you notice that these are really just guidelines and there is a whole lot more too proper valuation. I’ve been banned by my friends from making anymore Chess analogies, but if I was not, I’d say that chess masters don’t use a point system either - they simply know what is important in a given circumstance. The reason grading systems are bad is that you can never look at something in a vacuum and attempting to do so is misleading. Valuations in a vacuum may be more efficient, but they will never help you be great at Magic.
One of the theories that has emerged lately is the “Stock Mana” theory. The basis of this theory is that every "effect" in Magic has a standard mana cost, and its stock mana value is the added amount of its effects. For example, "dealing three damage" is worth R, and a 3/3 is worth 2G, so a 3/3 that deals 3 damage would be worth roughly 2GR, or so the theory goes. Using these valuations as a baseline, you then grade cards by comparing their effect and value by their mana cost relative to the R = 3 damage or 2G = a 3/3 baseline. So what?
The first problem with this theory is who sets the baseline? Why is drawing three cards 2UU and not U? Why is a 3/3 not GW? Is dealing 3 damage worth R because the environment has a card that costs R or because that is the intrinsic "worth" of 3 damage within the game of Magic?
Let's take a moment to analyze the true worth of 3 damage. What if you're killing a creature costing 2G, is 3 damage now worth 2G? Does that mean you're up? If your opponent’s only creatures are three Kor Firewalker, is the 3 damage worth nothing? What if your opponent is at 3 life? What if he is at 4? 5? 19? 250? What if you are killing a 3/3 when you are at 3? What if you are at 4? 5? 19? 250?
The point is, it’s very hard to quantify "worth" – because the value of a card is extremely situational. Even if you do accept that Bolt is R and a 3/3 is 2G, what does that tell you? Does it mean you should Bolt the 3/3? We all know that this is not always the case. So, even if you know the 3/3 is worth more than 3 damage, you still don't know if you should Bolt the 3/3 or not. You don't even know if you should Bolt a 20/3 or not – it always depends on the situation. The “Stock Mana” theory does not help when deciding what you should do in a given circumstance; therefore it's useless. Ok, that's not entirely true – it could be useful as a means to generally value whether a card is good or not (for example, you can see Bloodbraid Elf is a 3/2 haste which you would value at N mana and an extra card which is X mana and since its mana cost is much smaller than N+X, it has potential). Even this type of rough valuation doesn’t show much - one of the reasons Bloodbraid was so good was because haste meant she could kill Planeswalkers, and "Planeswalkers with 3 loyalty being heavily played" doesn’t enter any of the “Stock Mana” cost calculations.
So, if you cannot use numbers to evaluate cards, how do you properly evaluate them? What determines whether Bolting the 3/3 or holding onto the Bolt is the better play?
Well, do not despair! To help with those issues, I've developed a new Theory called "The Theory of Brain Usage". It is really simple – every time you see a difficult situation in which you have to evaluate card value, you analyze the entire situation, the big picture, and then you use your brain to figure out the best decision. Easy right?
When you see good players play, it seems they make these decisions almost instinctively. There is no time to add everything into a calculation and figure out mathematically if you should block their Oxidda Daredevil with your Iron Myr - you simply look at board, look at your hand, think of the ups and downs of blocking (do you need the mana? The life? The Artifact?) and then decide to block or not. Basically, you go with your gut. There is no way to be always right when going with your gut, but it is completely impossible for our human brain to calculate the mathematical implications of a block, so while you weigh some of the factors involved, in the end you pretty much have to go with your gut.
Keep in mind that for top players "going with your gut" is not guessing – it’s usually something that you have internalized due to a process of repetition from playing Magic so much and having some things become second nature to you - in the end, there is always a reason for what you do.
I remember when I first met Ben Stark he would be extremely annoying to play against because he would narrate the whole game. If you attacked, he would say out loud "well, so if you attack that means you don't have this card, but then if I block I have to draw a land and then if you play this spell I do this and...." – you get the picture. The reason for Ben’s live narration was probably because, when I first met Ben, he had just came back to playing Magic after years of hiatus. As I interacted with him more, he started doing it less and less, as he internalized the interactions - he no longer had to think everything through. This didn’t mean that Ben’s thought process had changed and that he wasn’t actually applying those concepts, he was doing them instinctively now. These days Ben is much better, faster and quieter during a match than when I first met him. The best way to properly evaluate cards is this: play a lot Magic and try to make sense of why things happen the way they do. That said, there are a couple things you can do to help your build up your "gut."
First, erase all your preconceived notions about a card's power – it’s not important if it is bigger/better/rarer than another, all that matters is what it can do for you in a particular game. "I'm not going to trade my 3/2 flier for his 2/1 which can't block my guy, my guy is way better!" is the wrong mentality and won't take you anywhere. Once you're inside a match, a card has no more power than what it's going to do for you in the particular circumstance of that particular game. "But, PV, it's the best card in my deck, I can't throw it away like this!" – yes, you can. The cards work for you to win the game, the game does not work to allow you to play a certain card.
When we talk about evaluation, we are mainly talking about deciding what is more important – playing a certain spell or holding it, targeting this guy or the other, attacking or blocking. To do that, most people's first instinct is to compare one card to the other - for example, is my guy better than his? Is my removal spell better than the target?
DO NOT DO THAT.
The way you evaluate cards is not by comparison to other cards, it’s by comparison to that very same card in another moment of the game. I couldn't care less if my Doom Blade is killing a Squire or a Primeval Titan and which of those is more important to their respective controllers – all I care is about what the Doom Blade is going to accomplish for me. Basically, you ask yourself three questions:
1) Can this card do more for me?
2) Do I need this card to do more for me?
3) Can I afford to wait for this card to do more for me?
In general, the answer to "can this card do more for me" is yes – very rarely will you play a card to its absolute fullest potential – so it is the other two that you have to go to. Imagine a scenario where your opponent plays a turn one Llanowar Elves, and you have a Bolt in your hand. Can the Bolt do more for you? It certainly can. Can you afford to hold the Bolt until it ends up doing more for you? That depends on your hand. If your hand is the kind of hand that can’t beat a fast start, then you use it. If your hand is the kind of hand that will not lose to speed but to quality (for example, Fauna Shaman), then you hold it.
It’s for this reason that you usually immediately run out cards like Peppersmoke, Force Spike and Spellstutter Sprite on any target you can - because those cards often will not do more for you. As a rule the earlier you deal with a card, the more impact dealing with it has on the game – killing Llanowar Elves on turn 15 is not really going to do anything, but when Llanowar Elves is all your card kills, you might as well use it immediately because you are getting its fullest value. It is important to be able to recognize when this is the case and when this is not – there will be moments when you’re going to need that -1/-1 that you burned on an irrelevant Vendilion Clique, or that Force Spike you spent countering an Ornithopter when your opponent was tapped out.
As I mentioned in my Faeries Article, you are generally so happy that you can Spellstutter Sprite or Peppersmoke something that you will do so at the first opportunity, but you don't necessarily have to kill or counter something irrelevant just for "value." Value is a term we use a lot when evaluating cards, but it can also be misleading, since there are moments in time where a card does not matter and dealing with it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. You have to be careful not to get carried away by "fake 2 for 1s" – if your opponent has three 1/1 Goblins and you are at 20 life with a Wall of Omens in play and a Pyroclasm in hand, then sure, you are 3 for 1ing them with that Pyroclasm, but it is so far below what that Pyroclasm is capable of accomplishing that you're better off just saving it. Remember, it’s not a Pyroclasm versus Goblins fight, it’s a Pyroclasm now versus Pyroclasm later fight. Even though you can use the Pyroclasm to 3for 1 your opponent now, you can also keep it and have it do much more for you later at the meager expense of 2 damage a turn.
To be able to properly evaluate a card, it is important to understand both what it’s doing for you now and what it will likely do for you later. Imagine the following scenario:
For simplicity’s sake (and because you realize it was the superior version) you are playing my UB deck from Worlds against one of those non-Kuldotha Mono Red decks (not that anyone would play that nowadays . . . I just wanted to use this as an example . . . leave me alone), and your hand is:
You have to recognize that in this scenario, the Disfigure is doing so much more than killing the Goblin Guide - it is protecting your life total. By gaining, say, six or eight life, the Disfigure is going to let you live for a lot more turns – turns in which you can play a lot more spells. So, by spending this Disfigure, you live long enough to play the Grave Titan that you otherwise would have had in hand when you died – a fair trade, I would say. You also make every burn spell your opponent draws a lot worse – when you're at 3 they're all deadly, but when you're at 9 they don't actually do anything. The Disfigure is also randomly protecting any future planeswalkers you play, and making it so that they cannot chump block in the future. Once you look at it this way, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Disfigure could do more.
So, do you Disfigure it?
I don't. Lets go back to our three questions:
1) Can this card do more for me?
As I said earlier, there are almost always hypothetical scenarios where a card can do more for you. Unless the answer to this is a definite no, we move on to the second question.
2) Do I need this card to do more for me?
Possibly. For all you know, your opponent might play Plated Geopede, Kargan Dragonlord or even Kiln Fiend next turn – and then you’ll really wish you had that Disfigure. Having the Disfigure in your hand in this situation is worth more than the two damage, based on what it can hypothetically do for you.
3) Can I afford to wait?
You can – you are not at 2 life or a lower life total, you're at 18. However, if they do play a Plated Geopede, Kargan Dragonlord or Kiln Fiend, the situation will be much, much worse for you – you can’t let that happen, so it’s worth taking two damage to make sure it doesn't.
Now let's go back to the Counterbalance deck we played in the last Legacy GP (similar to Tom Martel's second place list). In that deck,when playing against Zoo we would usually Force of Will Wild Nacatl. That play is clearly terrible - you trade TWO cards and a life point for their one casting-cost guy. Why were we doing it then? Because, in the end, it is not about their one casting-cost guy, it is because of what Forcing that Nacatl accomplishes. By Forcing their Nacatl, you buy yourself a lot more turns and in those turns, that you would otherwise have lost, you get to play more than the two spells that you sacrificed to get there.
Sometimes there is a lot more value to a card than can be immediately perceived. Take Lightning Bolt for example – it is clearly very versatile. However, it could be that merely having Lightning Bolt in hand and not in the graveyard is worth a lot, even if you never get to cast it. It might mean, for example, that you can play a Jace and Brainstorm, without fear that they are going to kill Jace with Raging Ravine – in this situation Bolt is doing a lot more for you than simply killing a guy. Just having a card in hand can be powerful, because they don't know what it is – a card very rarely has zero value
Imagine a Scars draft where your UB opponent plays a good artifact – a Trigon of Corruption for example - and you have a Revoke Existence and a Kuldotha Phoenix in hand. Now, Revoke for Trigon is a good trade - Trigon is the better card, and it’s going to be somewhat problematic for you. However, having the Revoke in hand might just be more valuable, because with it you don't have to fear Volition Reins or Corrupted Conscience on your Phoenix! Even if they do not have the card, the mere fact that the Revoke is in your hand is going to enable a different play style from you, a more aggressive one – you can now play your bomb without fear, whereas without the Revoke you might have to bait their potential Control Magic with something else before playing your bomb. In this situation the Revoke is certainly able to do more for you, so if you can afford to wait, you should, because the potential upside is greater.
In fact, in Limited most of the time you should just wait. The same reasoning is applicable to removal spells – as long as you have a removal spell in hand, you have nothing to fear. That Arrest in your hand does a lot more than kill a guy, it means you don't have to be afraid of a random bomb destroying you, it means you don't have to be super aggressive in the hopes of killing them before they can do anything. I remember reading Owen writing about Jund vs. Mythic, when he said that he would usually kill the mana guy, unless it was the last removal in his hand – he always wanted to have one spell left to kill a potentially troublesome creature. In Magic, there is a lot of value in having options and resources, and most of the time people don't take into account the power that having cards in hand gives you when evaluating whether they should play their spells. There is also the fact that, with a general removal spell (i.e. not a -1/-1 kind of card), the longer you wait the better your target is likely going to be. Every turn you spend without killing a guy, you trade a little damage (either taking or not dealing) for the upside of being able to kill a better target. If they do not play a better target, you can always go back to killing the first target you had. Which, again, does not mean you should always wait – sometimes you should just go ahead and play Arrest on that Plague Stinger, because in the end it's not Stinger you're trading for Arrest, but the ability to play a lot more of your spells that you would otherwise have died before playing.
It might be that you can’t afford to wait, though – say the Trigon is just going to beat you through Kuldotha Phoenix anyway, and you have go ahead and Revoke it. Remember that dead people don't play spells, so there are no limits to what you’ll do to stay alive. Your last point of life, the last card in your deck or the 10th poison counter all have infinite value. Using three Forked Bolts to kill Primeval Titan is certainly not optimal, but leaving the Primeval Titan there is even worse, because it's just going to kill you next turn.
Go back now to the finals of PT Kyoto - LSV versus Nassif. There was a game in which Luis had three (or more) attackers and played a precombat Ajani Goldmane, leaving Windbrisk Heights untapped. Most people would have countered the Ajani, because the Ajani was certainly more "powerful" than the counter in that moment, but Nassif asked if his counter could do more for him, and it turned out it could - if LSV had a Plains in hand to play and activate Heights, and had a Head Games under the Heights, then Nassif would need the counter that turn to stop it.
Then Nassif had to figure out if he could afford to keep the counter - it's all for nothing if Ajani is just going to kill him anyway. After a while, he decided he could actually beat Ajani, and that made holding the counter for the possible Head Games the winning decision in his mind – all of this was based on having the insurance that the counter in his hand gave him. In the end, LSV had the Plains and the Head Games, and we would probably have had a different PT winner if Nassif had countered the Ajani.
Generally, when you are playing a control deck "can I beat this" is the question you're asking, because you want to be reactive. When you're playing an aggro-control deck, though, the picture changes a little bit, because sometimes even though you can beat a card, you'd rather not give them any chances. This happens when you're playing Faeries and your opponent Wraths, for example – clearly you "can beat" Wrath, but by countering it you give your opponent one turn instead of six, and who knows what can happen in those six turns?
One generally useful tip is that, if you’re going to end up doing something later anyway, just do it now. If you have removal and they have a guy that you know you’ll have to kill at some point, just do it now. The same idea applies with a trade – it doesn't matter which card is better, if you’re going to have to do it anyway you're just taking damage and giving your opponent more use of his cards by waiting, and holding a Doom Blade for two turns isn’t going to make it multiply.
It might be that a card is so important for your opponent that it’s worth a bad trade for you. Again, this is not because their card is "better" or "more important" than yours, it’s just that stopping that card does more in the grand scheme of things than whatever else the cards you used to stop it would do for you at any other point in the game. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to recognize how important a card is to your opponent.
Let's go back to the Bridge analogy for a moment. Bridge is a two part game - the bidding and the playing. When bidding, you bid on how many of the 13 tricks you think you and your partner can take together if a certain suit is the trump. To evaluate which suit you think is the trup, you need to take information from your own hand, which you can always see, and inferences from your partner's hand based on his own bids. There is something else, though – the opponents. At a high level most people will be competent and sometimes you just trust them to make correct decisions. If the opponents bid that they're going to win 12 of the 13 tricks, then they probably think they're going to win those 12 tricks. Why do they think that? There has to be a reason. If they didn't have at least three aces, they wouldn't bid that. So, if you have one Ace, you can conclude that your partner probably doesn't have any. Knowing that your partner doesn’t have an ace, how do you interpret his bid - what does he have? And so on.
No matter what the card game, each person sees their own cards, makes assumption about their opponent's cards, and then makes a decision. There are certain cards that your opponent is in a much better position to evaluate, because of what he sees and you don't and sometimes you can trust their decisions based on that. If they are extremely conservative about a creature, that creature is probably important, even if you cannot tell exactly why. In one of our practice matches here in Paris, my opponent hard countered every single piece of acceleration - he Flashfreezed an Explore when I hadn’t missed a land drop. The following exchange followed:
Me: "Wow, you're being aggressive with those counters,"
Durdle: "Well, I know something you don't."
Me: "Your hand?"
Except that, by the way he played, I also got to know (or have an idea) of what was in his hand – he had to tap out for something, and he couldn’t afford to do so and have me drop Primeval Titan on him, so he had to keep me off 6 lands on that crucial turn, whatever the cost.
In Chiba I was watching a team draft, Owen vs Nassif (I understand that I always namedrop the same people, but that’s because those are the people I talk to and the people I hear stories from. Anyway it doesn't really matter who did what). Nassif had a Sylvok Replica in play, among others, and Owen had a Trigon of Rage. I don’t recall the exact situation, but Nassif was probably going to use his Sylvok Replica on the Trigon so his attackers wouldn't get killed. In Owen's hand there was a Saberclaw Golem and a Bloodshot Trainee. Owen then tapped out and played the Golem. Nassif actually paused and said out loud "why would you give me that guy to kill?". To Nassif, the fact that Owen chose to play the Golem when he knew Nassif was going to use the Replica anyway was weird, because it simply gave him a better target (while tapping Owen out so that the Trigon was no longer a threat).
Nassif thought for a while and in the end he just killed the Golem and bashed, and then Owen was free to play the Trainee a turn later, to go with his Trigon. Then Owen died to Galvanic Blast, but that's kind of irrelevant – the point here is that Nassif understood that Owen knew things he didn't. Based on what he was seeing, Owen thought the Trigon was worth more than the Golem, so he offered the Golem as a target instead of the Trigon. Nassif then decided to kill the creature anyway, but he actually thought about what was going on, which is the important thing.
I also remember reading in a report that LSV played Karsten (I think those are the people involved) and chose to draw. The following game Karsten said "well, you've played this format a lot more than me, so I'll draw too". Sometimes, if you are not in a position to judge something, you might want to trust your opponent's judgment.
In the end though, it all comes down to what I said in the beginning – you have to use your brain. It doesn't matter what grading system people come up with, nothing is ever going to beat the Theory of Brain Usage, so I suggest you adopt it. The next best thing is to just play a lot of Magic, though it's best if you do those two in conjunction.
I hope you've enjoyed it, and see you next week!
(PS Good luck to me in Paris!)