Card evaluation is among the trickier skills to improve at in Limited because it requires understanding the unknown. With the release of a new set, players evaluating cards are off on their placement of card strength because that requires context and good fundamentals. Even great players like LSV constantly reevaluate their understanding of cards, which is part of the reason why LSV’s recent BFZ redo series was so fantastic since it didn’t stop after the baseline set at Battle for Zendikar’s release. Evaluating a card and then locking in a grade or value for that card is dangerous. Experience demands constant reevaluation because it brings out new information that would be foolish to waste.
After playing with a set over time, however, it becomes obvious that some cards just simply aren’t good enough to make the cut 99.99% of the time. These are not “worth a card,” because the effect they add to your deck doesn’t make up for the fact that you have to use a card in your hand each time you want to deploy it. The most basic skill of card evaluation is deciding whether or not a card is worth including in your deck.
As an example case, I’m going to examine 1-drop creatures to determine if they meet the threshold of a card’s worth.
Sludge Crawler—A Card Most Were Wrong About
When BFZ first released I wouldn’t touch Sludge Crawler. Culling Drone, its big brother, looked like the vastly superior card. Historically a 2/2 for 2 with upside is a totally reasonable card but a 1/1 for 1 mana is generally unplayable. 1/1s get quickly outclassed and just aren’t worth the cost of a card. Sludge Crawler is different though. It rewards you early because it has ingest which enables processing, and can be relevant later in the game due to its pump ability. Without either of these abilities it would be marginal at best, but combine all these aspects and it really pulls its weight.
So what do we learn from Sludge Crawler for card evaluation in future new sets? Its two main strengths are synergy and mana-cost relevance. Let’s look at each of these aspects. In our first games with BFZ we had never played with ingest before, but it quickly became clear that combining ingest with Processors was a worthwhile pursuit. Getting that first card into exile is the most important one, and given that Sludge Crawler can almost always ingest a card before being interacted with, it started to look appealing.
Additionally, BFZ just has a lack of stellar 2-drops. Sure, there are a bunch of playables, but we’re in a far distant land from Magic Origins. This matters a lot. Imagine for a moment that BFZ has a bunch of 2/2s for 2 mana and that those cards are good in the format. You play a Sludge Crawler in that context and attack on turn 2 into an opposing 2/2. Your opponent blocks, and now you spend 2 mana trading with their creature and just have to pass the turn. Not a particularly exciting scenario, right? And yet it could be an extremely likely one if BFZ were more skewed to the early game. The context of BFZ and lack of good early plays make Sludge Crawler an even better card than a simple 1/1 with some synergy.
Given the analysis I’ve just done, it’s clear that most of us didn’t give Sludge Crawler its due respect, and it’s so easy to fall into this trap. The card was disregarded initially due to historical comparisons and some specific BFZ contextual oversight. Here’s where reevaluation is key. Once a bit of context is established, Sludge Crawler drastically moves up the ranks, and at that point is clearly worth a card despite how it first looked. Being close-minded will lead to never playing with card and dismissing it even when others will tell you to try it. Think about the bigger picture. Ask yourself, “What is this card trying to do and is it enough to make it worth playing?”
Kitesail Scout, Aven Skirmisher, Suntail Hawk
Are any of these worth a card?
Let’s analyze based on synergy and format context. BFZ is all about playing large threats quickly and snowballing synergy into a victory. Does a 1/1 flier that isn’t even an Ally help this goal? No, not even remotely. It’s just not worth a card. Sure, you could play it turn 1 and maybe deal 4 or 5 damage, but that’s the best-case scenario. Imagine drawing the card on turn 4. Now you get 2 damage in before your opponent plays Wave-Wing Elemental. Compare that to our poster child Sludge Crawler which can still be relevant due to its pump ability.
Moving back in time, what about Aven Skirmisher? At least we had a synergy payoff in that the card was a Warrior. In a dedicated deck, this card was actually playable because it combined nicely with Raider’s Spoils and Chief of the Edge. The problem was that it was only good under these precise circumstances and often got run as a 1/1 flier for 1 mana without any synergy which again is not worth a card. The lesson here is that you can sometimes work with a bad card that is normally not worth a card, but can be under the right circumstances.
Finally we return to M14. For those who didn’t play at the time, it was a glacial set where Divination was the best common, and playing a 1- or 2-drop was often a mistake because they were so small and meaningless compared to the better 3- and 4-drop creatures. Given this knowledge was a 1/1 flier without synergy worth a card? As you would guess, the answer is, once again, no. Suntail Hawk was not only horrible, but was also in the worst color. White in M14 Limited is comparable to green in BFZ Limited. Everyone wanted to stay clear of it.
But this thought process led to an unusual scenario. If you were the only drafter in white, or one of two, you could scrap together a good deck. The trick was that white’s key archetype revolved around bad creatures like Suntail Hawk and Hive Stirrings to combine with Fortify to go under the rest of the format. Red often paired with it for reach, usually in the form of Lava Axe. As you can see these are all cards that go extremely late in the draft because on their own they are very bad. In combination they can be worth a card if everything goes right. But just because you can go way out of your way to make something worth a card doesn’t mean you should—you won’t achieve your goal and your deck will fall short. I’ve seen too many decks lately with 1-2 Tajuru Warcaller and 20 bad playables to be convinced that going all-in on bad synergy cards and a couple of all-stars is a strong strategy
Dig a little deeper next spoiler season. See if anything looks innocuously powerful because of potential synergy. Try the card and see if it lives up to your expectations or falls flat. Then once you get a sense of the format, reevaluate. Are there any cards that became better because of context? Can you combine cards to work together to form a powerful strategy, and is it worth the effort to try and make that strategy work? Are there synergies that seemed weaker than they are in actual gameplay? The key is constant questioning. Reevaluate and you’ll never be disappointed. The second you settle for being good at a format is the moment you’ll fail to realize something new that you’ve missed.