This is going to be a series of articles that are aimed at making you better at card evaluation.
Every year, a few cards are printed that are much more powerful than they initially appear. Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, Nahiri the Harbinger – each of these cards was initially dismissed by most players, and then became a major Constructed card.
Two of the three (Cruise, Angler) I correctly identified as Constructed powerhouses early. This is because of my methodology – looking at cards through the prism of several fundamental rules of Magic. Any card that obeys all of these rules is inherently fair, and will not be in the upper echelon of Constructed cards in the larger formats.
Any card that breaks one or more of these rules must be taken seriously, even if it looks terrible. Those cards may simply be too expensive for a format, or the support for them might not yet exist, but they should remain on your radar.
The First Fundamental Rule of Magic:
1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn.
This isn’t because returning a dead creature to the battlefield is too powerful an effect – Zombify and Resurrection both do the same effect for 4 mana, and Makeshift Mannequin does so at instant speed with a modest drawback.
Dread Return and Unburial Rites are so strong because a number of cards (most notably the Dredge mechanic, but also others like Gifts Ungiven and Quiet Speculation) allow you to get them into your graveyard without ever having to draw the card.
Of the two Dread Return is the stronger, not because sacrificing three creatures is a lesser cost than paying 3W (it generally is not), but because the incredibly hard-to-spell card Narcomoeba exists and has such synergy with it.
Dread Return and Narcomoeba (and Bridge from Below) are examples of cards that break this fundamental rule, by being able to have an effect on the gamestate without ever entering your hand or costing you a draw step. In Modern this interaction is so strong that it is not possible to have both Dread Return and Narcomoeba legal, nor is it possible to have Dread Return and Bridge from Below both legal. Consequentially Dread Return is banned in the format.
Some examples of other cards that break the First Rule. Notice there is a lot of Dredge here:
- Raven’s Crime.
- Life from the Loam
- Demonic Tutor. DT (and other tutors) don’t break the First Rule by themselves. You must draw your tutor for it to impact the gamestate. However, it allows your other cards to break the First Rule in exchange for the mana cost and possibly other costs (such as life and/or card disadvantage) of the Tutor you use.
- Panglacial Wurm. Notice that this card is still terrible, because in the formats where it is legal, there are not many gamestates in which paying 7 mana and a fetchland activation for a 9/5 trample creature is worth it.
- Deathmist Raptor. This card can get into your graveyard at little to no cost, and is often better there than in your hand.
- Soul of Innistrad. Don’t laugh – this guy is at the heart of many ‘not-good-enough-to-be-viable-but-almost-close’ combo kills in Legacy, and will undoubtedly see play if Hermit Druid is ever unbanned. All of these kills involve putting your entire library into your graveyard, then casting Ice Age forgotten enabler Songs of the Damned (possibly with the help of Recoup), then using that mana and exiling the Soul and put three creatures from your graveyard into your hand to win on the spot.
To summarise: Cards which are “live” in zones other than your hand or the battlefield should always be taken seriously, especially if they have efficient effects in those zones.
Late edit: I’ve added a little corollary to this rule in a new post, http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=27, which talks about how this rule affects the Commander format.
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