If you could ask only ONE question about each card you see, what would that question be? If I could ask only one question about each card, it would be “in what situation is this card at its best?”
This one simple question, when asked about every single card, builds a catalog of every situation and the perfect solution for each. When an unusual situation occurs, you already know the exact perfect card and can pull it out to answer the problem.
If you could ask one MORE question about each card you saw, what would that question be? If I could ask a second question, I would ask, “what are the pros and cons of this card compared to the most similar card?”
This second question, when asked about each similar pair of cards, differentiates each on the most specific level. We understand the situational nuances between very similar cards and understand when to call on one over the other.
If there is a question you never ask, what is it? I never ask “is this a good card or a bad card?” Because I could ask that question about every single card and it would not give me useful information. I don’t develop a catalog of answers for every possible situation. I don’t enhance my understanding of context in card selection. Instead I develop a rigid and inflexible set of rules over what to play and what not to play period. This question does more harm than good.
I never ask, “is this card playable or unplayable?” except in terms of legality for a specific format. Because somewhere, someone is playing with that card RIGHT NOW—and winning! A card is only unplayable in a specific format where it is illegal. Otherwise every card is not only playable in the literal sense, but probably being literally played right at this instant.
We will learn a lot more about cards if we ask what the best possible circumstances are for each, and what the available alternatives are.
When Is This Card At Its Best?
When is Monstrous Carabid at its best? The best situation for Monstrous Carabid is when we want to get a creature into our graveyard without losing a card. When we want a card that has a use at every turn. When we want a card that has flexible effects. Monstrous Carabid is best with Living End.
When is Living End at its best? When our graveyard is full and the opponent’s is empty. When our battlefield is empty and our opponent’s is full. Living End is best with Monstrous Carabids. Living End is best when we can skip the suspend and cast it early and instantly. Living End is best with Violent Outburst.
I’m not interested in whether these cards are good or bad. That doesn’t give me any useful information. If I had asked those questions I wouldn’t have been led down a path toward Living End. Once there, I didn’t consider the deck to be good or bad. I asked when it was best and the answer was “a creature heavy meta.” So that is where I put it.
When is Honored Hierarch at its best? When we have lots of removal and tricks to force it through. When the opponent plays few blockers. When we have bonuses for extra mana but don’t need extra mana. When we want to both attack and leave mana up.
I’m not interested in whether this card is playable or unplayable because people are already playing with it. I’m interested in the situations in which they are playing it, and in which situations they are winning with it the most. That way I can put this card in that situation more often to get the best results.
I’m also interested in the relative pros and cons of cards when compared to the most similar options.
What Are the Comparative Pros and Cons?
There are rare instances when a card is “strictly better” than another card. But technically there are always situations where a seemingly inferior card is better suited.
For instance, in Modern you can play Lightning Bolt or Shock. They both cost the same and read the same, except Lightning Bolt does 1 extra damage. This is as close as you can come to strictly better. But there are still times when a Meddling Mage, a Runed Halo, or a Mindslaver comes down and Shock wins the game where Lightning Bolt doesn’t.
What are the pros and cons of Treasure Cruise vs. Ancestral Recall? Ancestral Recall does almost the same thing for a much easier cost. But I can get a playset of Treasure Cruise for less than a dollar, whereas I can’t afford even 1 Ancestral Recall. Also, Treasure Cruise is playable in Standard, whereas Ancestral Recall is not.
What are the pros and cons of Tarmogoyf vs. Grizzly Bears? The upside of Tarmogoyf is much higher. It can become a 6/7 for the same mana cost compared to a 2/2. The downside is also much lower. This thing can be a 0/1 compared to a 2/2. Grizzly Bears is a more consistent card, if that’s what you want. It might also be playable when Tarmogoyf isn’t, or it might be affordable when Tarmogoyf isn’t. There are times to pick Grizzly Bears.
What are the pros and cons of Honored Hierarch vs. Lifespring Druid? These cards should be compared in Standard because they are the creatures that tap for any color of mana. Honored Hierarch costs only 1 mana compared to 3, which is a big deal. But Honored Hierarch needs an uncontested attack. Honored Hierarch has the potential to be much cheaper and faster, but needs more work and more things to go right.
What are the pros and cons of Forest vs. Swamp? This is really the heart of why we play Magic. Forest and Swamp are historically similarly balanced so it comes down to preference. Forest is more fun if you want to play as the green mage, Swamp is more fun if you want to play as the black mage. It comes down to your unique identity.
When comparing similar cards, it is very rare that “strictly better” is real, and when it is it’s often not what we expect. Treasure Cruise is strictly better than Ancestral Recall, in Standard. It’s all about context. So it’s worth carefully scrutinizing the differences between cards and the different situations where each one comes out ahead. When we ask, “what are the pros and cons of these two cards?” We progress.
The goal of card evaluation is to gather the most useful information in the least time spent. All of our time should be spent asking the most productive questions and none of our time should be spent on the least productive.
- In what situation is this card best?
- What are the pros and cons of this card compared to the most similar available option?
Is this card good or bad?
- Is this card (literally) playable or unplayable, in this format?
Magic is a game of obscure situations that favor the best prepared. The best prepared are those who are most objective in finding out where each card fits best, and putting them there. The most objective ask only the most useful questions.
Think about the most useful questions and ask them. If you are not already doing this, this way of thinking will yield amazing results. You will see doors open and cards enter. You will be on your way to constructing more effective decks for the changing times. You will reap the benefits inside of Magic, and out!