The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 3

This continues on from http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=18 and http://www.mtgbrainstorm.com/?p=33, which are worth reading first.

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 three Fundamental Rules of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn. This was discussed in Part 1.

2) Players have reliable access to at most X+1 mana on turn X, except for turn 1, where they are limited to 1 mana. Exceeding this limit requires extreme investment of resources. This was discussed in Part 2.

3) Cards must have an impact on the gamestate commensurate with the amount of investment required to deploy them. The primary form of investment is mana, and cards with low mana costs and high forms of other investment are often dangerous.

Let’s unpack this third rule, and start with a couple of examples. First, let’s begin with a card with an absolutely massive impact on the gamestate, Worldspine Wurm, and ask a question: “Why is this card not good?”

The Wurm is extremely difficult to beat once resolved. 15 power, all with trample, is almost always a two-shot KO and often will kill in one swing. And if it does go to the graveyard, it splinters into three individually dangerous threats.

Yet the card obeys the Third Fundamental Rule of Magic. Its impact on the gamestate is massive, but completely commensurate with the investment: resolving an eleven mana spell. In fact, you can get far superior threats in today’s Standard for nine to ten mana, and all of those cards are outclassed by Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.

The investment required to cast Worldspine Wurm is surviving until you have 11 mana, which necessitates aggressive ramping, playing a lot of lands and other cards dedicated to mana generation, and also delaying or negating your opponent’s gameplan until around the 10th turn of the game.

If you can do all of that, the Wurm is merely the finishing blow that seals a game you already deserved to win.

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Let’s contrast the Wurm to a card that breaks the Third Fundamental Rule right in half.

Treasure Cruise was good but fair during its tenure in Standard, but has earned its way into the Modern and Legacy banned lists and the Vintage restricted list, and if Frontier becomes officially supported in the future, it will probably wind up banned there.

Ask yourself: What is the total cost at which this card’s effect is fair?

The correct answer is going to vary by format, but spending 3U to draw 3 cards is a strong effect in Standard and weak but passable (maybe) in Modern. Spending 2U to draw 3 cards is strong to broken in Modern, and strong in Legacy and Vintage.

Cheaper than that is ridiculous. Spending U to draw 3 cards is (almost) equivalent to a card that is a serious contender for the most powerful card legal in Vintage, A-Call.

You’ll notice I do not include the cost of exiling cards from the graveyard. This is because in a best case scenario, this cost is marginal or even completely irrelevant, and careful deck construction allows you to set up this best case scenario often.

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What does it mean to ‘invest’ in casting a spell?

Casting a spell costs mana and sometimes other resources, for example life to cast Infernal Contract.

Each turn players have a maximum amount of mana, which is discussed in the Second Fundamental Rule of Magic.

Using these resources to cast one spell precludes using them on other spells. For instance, mana invested in casting Chandra, Flamecaller cannot be used to cast Inferno Titan.

While this last point is obvious, it is important – your spells all compete for the limited amount of mana you can generate. However, spells often do not compete for other limited resources.

For example, Treasure Cruise and Infernal Contract do not compete for their non-mana resources at all.

This is why nonmana costs, or variable costs (like Delve) where something else can substitute for mana are so potentially dangerous and why you should start by evaluating these cards in a best-case scenario. You should evaluate these cards by assuming these costs are irrelevant, then determine if that assumption makes the card broken.

In the event that it does, you should try to build a deck where that assumption (that the nonmana costs can be ignored) is true.

You might fail to do so, and for some cards, such as Rise of the Eldrazi’s long-forgotten draw spell, Shared Discovery, it may not be realistic to build such a deck at all.

In such a case, you should keep the card in mind, and revisit it in the future if the right synergistic cards are printed.

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As a corollary to this rule, cards which convert one nonmana resource (such as life) into another resources (such as cards in your hand) should always be evaluated as dangerous and potentially strong.

Even the terrible-looking Skirge Familiar was a pivotal part of one of the stronger combo decks in the history of the Standard format (then called Type 2), Renounce Bargain. If this deck resolved Bargain and Familiar, it was almost guaranteed to win the game that turn.

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Finally, what gamestate impacts are commensurate with various levels of mana investment?

Imagine a 6/6 trampling creature, with no other rules text, that is mono-green.

In Limited, you’d be content to pay 4GG for this creature, and very happy with it at 3GG. In fact you’d probably be happy first picking it at 3GG.

In Standard, there have been formats where you’d pay 3GG for this effect, and others where it would not be playable at 2GG. But usually, at 2GG it would be one of the stronger cards in the format, and at 3GG it would be a fringe playable card.

In Modern, it would not be playable at 4 mana but might see play at 1GG. (Considerably stronger combat-oriented 4 drops in other colours – Siege Rhino, Phyrexian Obliterator, Abyssal Persecutor, Desecration Demon, see little or no play in the format).

In Vintage, it might see play at 2 mana.

This question is too broad to have an absolute answer. Format-specific experience is the only way to get a feel for it, especially for unusual effects like Sadistic Sacrament or Snugglecopter (may the poor banned guy Rest in Peace).

But your starting point should be to look at cards with alternate costs, and ask  the following questions:

  • Is this card’s best case scenario utterly broken?
  • If so, can I build a deck where the best case scenario is realistically achieveable?
  • If I can, how big are the sacrifices needed to do so?

This analysis was the reason I picked Treasure Cruise as worthy of banning in Legacy as soon as I saw it on the KTK spoiler. It also results in a lot of false positives (I still half-think Inverter of Truth can be made to work in Standard, but it has done a fat lot of nothing so far…), but playtesting can allow you to filter out ideas that you cannot make work.

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