Tutorial - Card Balancing

Tutorial - Card Balancing

So, you've just come up with an awesome idea, found some killer art and even came up with the perfect name. Congratulations, you're well on your way to making good card. But then, to your horror, you see an empty field in the design form. Something you've completely forgotten about. Something that keeps many good cardsmiths awake at night.

The casting cost field.

With a gasp, you click the field and start thinking, "This card is black. Maybe blue/black? Ok so it needs blue and black. How many colored mana symbols do I need? Is it more blue or black? What about hybrid or phyrexian mana? And then how much colorless mana on top of that? Should it be 2? 3? If I post it at 2 people might say this is overpowered but if I post it at 3 they might say it is underpowered! What the heck should I do? And how much should this ability cost?!"

Well, as some of you have probably seen from many of my long, long, long-winded explanations that pop up in the comments of a lot of cards, I have a thing for balance and playability and have some advice and guidelines for helping my fellow cardsmiths make cards fair in addition to awesome.

Part 1 - What is balance?

A balanced card is one that has a reasonable value/cost ratio. Now any reasonable person following along would immediately ask themselves, what is cost and what is value?

Costs
Most commonly in MTG, cost is mana required to pay a spell. A spell's mana cost breaks down even further into colorless mana, colored mana (including the new <> mana), hybrid mana and phyrexian (shock) mana. The most difficult type of mana to pay for is colored mana. That is why cards that cost two different types of colored mana generally provide more value than ones that only require one, cards that cost three different types of colored mana provide more value than two, etc. The next most difficult type of mana to play is hybrid mana. It is easier than colored mana because you have the option of paying multiple colors to satisfy the requirement. Next up is phyrexian mana, easier to play than both colored and hybrid mana. While it can require you to pay the cost with a source of colored mana, phyrexian mana lets you pay 2 life in order to cover that requirement instead. At first glance this would seem more dangerous than other costs but in practicality, it's actually almost not a threat. Most players are happy to shuck 2 or 4 life away in order to cast a card that would normally be 3cmc with multiple colored mana sources for {1} instead. Health, as Wizards learned early on but regularly forgets, is not a particularly valuable resource. Some have argued that this is even easier to pay than colorless mana since you don't have to tap a mana source to use it. Lastly there is colorless mana which any mana source can pay for, making it arguably the easiest cost.

For example, a spell that costs {1}{r} is easier to cast than a spell that costs {r/g}{r/g} which is easier to cast than a spell that costs {r}{r}. This is why a card's converted mana cost isn't the only factor in whether or not the cost is appropriate for the card.

So how about some other costs? MTG cards throughout history have come up with all kinds of strange and interesting way to pay for a card that isn't just a mana cost for a value. Suspend often gives you greater value for the cost by making you wait a certain number of turns before you can cast it. Madness makes you have to be in the process of discarding a card before you can pay the reduced mana cost. Some cards require you to reveal cards from your hand, discard cards or have certain cards in play in order to cast them. Many cards require creatures to be sacrificed to help pay for them. Essentially, a cost on a card is anything that you don't want to happen by playing it or in order to play it. It is something that harms you directly (losing life, losing creatures/permanents, having to meet special requirements) or indirectly (having your opponent draw cards, letting them gain life or anything else that would benefit them). To save space on this post, I'll put a list of (very) rough mana cost equivalents for alternate costs in a following post.

Finally for costs, there's rarity. A card that costs {1}{w} at common will almost always be strictly worse than a version of that card that costs the same at uncommon. However, in practical terms, rarity only really impacts your chance at drafting a card or finding it in a pack and not its availability. Rarer cards may cost more but just because a card is rare or mythic doesn't mean it gets a free pass at balancing.

Values
Almost anything any player can do in MTG has value. Power and toughness? Value. Drawing a card? Value. Dealing damage? Value. Even things that would seem like hurting yourself, like milling yourself or taking damage can have value in the right circumstances. Given that there are something like 15,000 unique MTG cards at the time I'm writing this, there are almost as many examples of different values provided by cards. The way you should think about it is that any value you provide must have an associated cost. Many cards cardsmiths make start as an idea of how to add value to the game for the caster. The two most common sources of value are swinging the board state (adding value to your side of the battlefield or removing it from an opponent's) and managing hands (drawing cards for yourself or removing cards for your opponents). In a game of MTG, you usually need at least one of those two to be in your favor to win but usually it is some combination of the two.

When balancing cards, you don't just have to consider changing the cost, you also have to consider changing the value. Maybe your 10/10 doublestrike trampler is a bit excessive. Perhaps that double strike should be first strike and that 10/10 should be more like an 8/2. There are plenty of ways of reducing a card's value without changing the idea you found so appealing.

Comments

  • Golden Ratios
    Unless you're making a full set of cards including lots of lame commons and menial uncommons, you probably want your card to be useful. This means right-off that your value/cost ratio is going to be pretty good with values that start at a higher level. Given the variety of costs and values in MTG it is impossible to do this with numbers but you can think about it more generally with words. If your cost is very low, generally 1cmc or an equivalent, your value should not exceed a solid good or useful. Examples at the higher end of value for very low cost are cards like Monastery Swiftspear, Birds of Paradise and Lightning Bolt. Once you start adding adding cost, you can generally start adding value proportionally. Using Monastery Swiftspear as a good example, the next step up in both cost and value would be a card like Stormchaser Mage. It costs an additional colored mana of a different color making it more difficult to cast but in addition to the stats Swiftspear has it gets flying and an additional point of base toughness.

    So that's just one example, but how do you find a good ratio for your card? Well like the example above, the best way is often to compare it to similar existing cards. What if you're not familiar with all of the thousands of magic cards out there? Well thankfully there are many places online you can search. When I am balancing my cards, I personally use the advanced search on Card Kingdom as it is easy and very comprehensive (disclaimer: I have never bought anything from Card Kingdom and doubt I ever will because they appear to be more expensive than most and I don't even play paper MTG. I just like their search.)

    Let's go through an example. I want to make a really cool assassin, so killing creatures is going to be part of the card in some way. Assassins are usually deadly but not direct fighters so it may be deathtouch or it may be an ability and it will not have a lot of toughness. Small assassins have been done before so I'm going to search for creatures before a certain toughness, pick my color or colors, search for the oracle text "destroy target creature" or "deathtouch", give it a range of CMC that I think should be around what I am looking for and see what kind of existing cards pop up. I'm also going to specify uncommon and up so I don't get the vast number of trash cards. The ones that stand out to me most are Agent of the Fates, Fathom Feeder and Royal Assassin. After thinking about it, an activated ability is more what I was trying to do in that they can kill multiple times with their ability. Both of those assassins happen to cost {1}{b}{b} but they are pretty different conceptually. The Agent is probably more useful. He gets enough power to be a damage threat, his deathtouch makes him scary to block or as a blocker and he actually has two toughness. His assassin tool, however, is a bit more of a shotgun to Royal's sniper. To even trigger it, you have to cast a spell that targets him. Heroic isn't a great mechanic because if you want to use it you really have to build around it. Also, which forcing a sacrifice is more powerful than targeted destruction because it gets around hexproof and indestructible, if an opponent has multiple creatures they can choose to sacrifice, say, the Ornithopter and not the Ulamog. Royal Assassin is squishier and will only ever really be used for its ability. A 1/1 is nothing special, but that ability is potent. Being able to kill any tapped creature you choose means that if an opponent attacks or uses a tap ability, unless it has vigilance, indestructible or hexproof, you get to kill it. This makes Royal great for warding off attackers and threatening things like Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch. What is most important about both of these cards is that neither of them are able to simply kill any creature each turn, or even for a cost. Agent requires heroic triggers which are usually wasteful and cost a card from your hand and the mana that card costs to play and Royal requires the creature to be tapped and only has 1 toughness.

    Are you tempted to make an assassin who can just tap to destroy a creature each turn? Well cards like that exist, but their cost is a heck of a lot higher in order to compensate for their increased value. Avatar of Woe gets that for a whopping 8cmc. More recently, Ethersword Adjudicator gets that kind of action except it costs 5 mana to get out and then 2 colors that weren't even in its casting cost + {1} to use the ability. Mind you, both of these cards have other advantages over our little assassins in addition to the regular targeted killing to go with their cost increase.
  • No-So-Golden Ratios
    Let's take a look at a few cards that missed the mark and went overboard on the amount of value the provide for their cost. One of the first examples that comes to mind is the Deathrite Shaman. First, it is a 1/2 for {g/b} giving it a very low cost and enough toughness and power to block and kill 1/1s. That's not overpowered, so let's look at what it can do. It's first ability is very good. It can tap, exile a land from a graveyard and give you one of any color mana. Having to exile a land is more difficult than just vanilla Birds of Paradise mana production but it is also an advantage. Exiling cards from an opponent's graveyard is value and producing and color mana is value. Next, you can pay {b} and tap it to exile an instant or sorcery from a graveyard and make each opponent lose 2 life. Running flashback? Sorry. Running snapcasters? Sorry. Not only do I eliminate that threat but I also hurt you while doing it. Not only that, but I can do it to my own instants and sorceries in my own graveyard to trigger the loss of life it I want to. Same goes for the last ability, but with {g}, creatures and gaining 2 life. You get an absurd amount of utility and value from a card that only costs either a green or black mana. This card used to cost a ton but WOTC decided to ban it in modern and even after that they're still worth more than many lower-tier decks.

    What about a card I mentioned before, Noble Hierarch? While not as egregious as the Deathrite Shaman, this card packs a ton of value into a very cheap package. It only costs {g} and it is primarily a mana generator so right-off we can think about it compared to cards like Birds of Paradise and Elvish Mystic. It has no power like Elvish Mystic and it can't produce any color or have flying like Birds of Paradise so it seems balanced, right? If that was it, I would say yes. But it has Exalted. Exalted is not one of the best abilities but for our little Noble it makes a huge difference. Most obviously, it attacks as a 1/2 when alone. More importantly, you can continue to use it as a mana source and let another of your creatures attack and get the +1/+1 bonus from exalted, meaning you can get solid extra value out of it even if you are using it as a mana source. That is why these little suckers cost around $50.

    Let's talk about everyone's favorite recent ratio tipper, Siege Rhino. First up, the cost. A full set of abzan colors and a colorless, {1}{w}{b}{g}. Admittedly, three color cards are inherently harder to cast than others, but running a three color deck is pretty easy and pretty common given the abundance of sources that produce multiple colors of mana. So what do we get for our 4cmc? A big, scary rhino. A 4/5 with trample. There are other cards that have the same or very similar power/toughness and trample but even the best of them cost at least {1} more and usually more than that. Ok, so right there we've got a pretty powerful card. It is the enters the battlefield effect that pushes it over the edge. Your opponent loses 3 life, a free Lava Spike. Now, Lava Spike on its own is a good card. Plenty of burn decks use it alongside Lightning Bolts. But wait, what's that? There's more? You also gain 3 life? I know I've said gaining some life isn't all that valuable but 3 life is just edging into the territory of being noticeable and it makes just playing Siege Rhino into a 6 point swing in health totals between you and your opponent. That effect alone costs {3}{b} (Blood Tithe) and you can drop a card like Restoration Angel (which is white and can go in an abzan deck) and trigger it again. Pro tour games have been won simply by getting an opponent to 3 or less life and then top-decking a Siege Rhino. The only thing keeping their $ cost from being astronomical is that they can still be obtained in packs.

    I Don't Understand the Whole Ratio Thing...
    I have been going over lots of examples and discussing the intimate details of how costs are determined and what values are associated with them, but let's back up a bit and look at this from a less complex perspective. What is the ultimate goal when creating a realistic card? You want to make something that would be played and something that wouldn't be banned. A realistic card for MTG can't be so powerful that it ruins the game. While WOTC has made cards like that (I'm looking at you, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Eye of Ugin post-OGW), they regularly get banned from play and become infamous rather than famous.

    When it comes down to it, the value/cost ratio of a card is really when you ask yourself, "What does this card do and how much should I have to pay to do it?" There are cards out there that are pretty much game-enders (Omniscience, Iona, Shield of Emeria) and cards that are literal game-enders (Door to Nothingness, Hedron Alignment) but they all are incredibly hard to cast or actually use. They are cards with incredible value and incredible cost and so they are not generally overpowered. Likewise, you should look at each piece of value your card provides and determine what the cost of that value is.
  • edited March 2016

    Part 2 - What balancing rules should I follow?

    Apart from maintaining balance with a fair value/cost ratio, there are a few things that should also be taken into account when making a card:

    What are you balancing for?
    This is a big question. Is your card designed for standard? What standard? Was it designed against a block? A custom set? The most common answers to this question are that a card was either designed for modern or commander. The reason for this is that standard doesn't have enough variety for most and legacy is virtually impossible to balance against. Modern gives you a lot of options and is easy to build interesting decks in and the singleton format of commander makes crazy combos somewhat less of an issue.

    Nothing can be unbeatable.
    Card or combo in MTG can be beaten. The harder it is to beat, the more value it has, but there is absolutely nothing in MTG that can ensure a victory without any hope of counter-play. Door to Nothingness can be countered or destroyed before it is activated. Progenitus has protection from everything but you can still be forced to sacrifice it or kill it with a board wipe if it gets out. Iona can be countered or picked apart by multicolor decks if it gets out. One of the easiest ways to think about it is that if there's nothing or very little you could put in your sideboard to prevent a card from controlling or ending a game, that card probably shouldn't exist.

    The 'turn four' rule.
    This one is pretty well-known in MTG balancing. It goes that in modern, any deck that regularly or consistently wins before turn four is anti-competitive and, in not so many words, overpowered. This is what got about half of the cards onto the modern ban list. Bannings of major offending cards from these combos killed decks like Storm, Shoal Infect, Birthing Pod, Dark Depths and most recently Amulet Bloom.

    Playtest.
    If you're hung up on how good a card might be, try simulating a few games with it in a deck. Sites like Tapped Out offer you the ability to simulate games with decks you create from the entire library of MTG cards. Just replace that card you're working on with some other card you wont confuse for being an actual part of your deck and see how drawing and playing through a normal game would go if you had some copies of your idea in a good deck.

    Avoiding the unexpected combos.
    'Expect the unexpected' is some pretty bad advice. Even so, when you make a card you should be wary about potentially crazy combos that it can have with existing cards you're balancing against. This is pretty much what got the other half of the cards onto the modern ban list. Splinter Twin and Pestermite/Deceiver Exarch got Slinter Twin banned. Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull got Stoneforge Mystic banned. Dark Depths and Vampire Hexmage got Dark Depths banned. When most of the newer of those cards were made, they didn't take into consideration that there were other cards in the format that got ramped up to 11. MTGGoldfish recently had an article about terrible old cards that turned into game-breakers when newer cards were released. You can find it here. One of the most horrible examples of this happening was with the release of OGW. WOTC somehow forgot that Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple were still around resulting in incredibly powerful eldrazi cards from OGW becoming nearly free to play. Eldrazi decks quickly took over standard (where they don't even have that combo) and modern and were even so powerful that they made a showing in legacy. Only recently have other top-tier decks started slowing them down and WOTC has already outright stated that the next set of bans will include a card from the combo in order to bring down its power. That is the exact sort of situation you do not want to create when making a card.

    You don't need to make the best-in-class.
    A good idea doesn't have to be on a top-tier card to make it a great card. Thankfully, the MTGCS community reflects that pretty well. You don't see the obscene game-ending mythics or unfair combo supporters showing up in the popular list nearly as often as you see commons, uncommons and rares that have interesting ideas to them. That 10/10 double strike trampler isn't going to impress anyone nearly as much as that new mechanic keyword you spent some time coming up with or that effect or ability that no one thought to use that way before. Cards you make shouldn't necessarily be the best card at what they do, nor should you even necessarily balance against a best-in-class card.

    Newer examples are right-er.
    If you're balancing against existing MTG cards and aren't sure which card/s you should pick among multiple, it is usually a good idea to go with the newer cards. What is seen as normal and balanced in Kamigawa might be either crap or mind-blowingly powerful now. That is why most sets out of standard have mostly very cheap cards and then anywhere from 5-20 that are very expensive.

    Don't forget your outside resources.
    MTGCS is a community of people who love MTG and want to imagine new possibilities for it and share them with others... And people that want to make MSPaint planeswalkers and Dragonball Z creatures with fake rules. If you are curious about a rule or a potential combo or an aspect of balance, ask someone or post on the forums. When it comes down to it, there is no harm in creating a card that isn't balanced. It probably wont get as much attention as a balanced card but no one is going to take away your crayons and tell you you can't draw just because you used MTGCS to make something that wouldn't be considered as a real MTG card and flagged it as 'realistic'. The WOTC designers don't develop cards or sets alone and without input either.
  • edited March 2016
    Other Considerations
    • A toughness of 4 or greater puts a creature out of 'lightning bolt range'. This means a card light lightning bolt or lightning helix, two very commonly played damage/removal spells, can't kill it on their own. This makes the creature slightly more threatening. Similarly, 6 or greater puts it out of Dismember range, though this is less of a consideration.
    • Counterspells shouldn't cost {u}{u} or less without a very good value restriction.
    • Giving a creature even 1 power makes it a blocking threat, meaning it can trade for other creatures even when blocking and stall out token decks.
    • Like I've said a number of times now, life gain isn't really a big benefit. Sure, it's not a bad thing if it comes tacked onto an otherwise useful card or if you happen to be playing against a racing red deck but the reason life gain has been getting cheaper and cheaper recently and pure life gain cards have vanished from the last few sets is because playing a card to gain life is essentially detrimental to you. To make a long and complex explanation as short as possible, playing a card like Angel's Mercy costs you 4 mana and a draw and doesn't change the board state. If there are things out taking away your life and instead of doing something about them you gain a bit of life, you are wasting resources. This is one of the reasons why Path to Exile replaced Swords to Plowshares, it is much worse to give an opponent a land than some life.
    • More to come...
  • Very informative. Thank you for putting this together.
  • edited March 2016
    Incredible tutorial - Everyone ought to give this a good read.

    Just one thing: Tappedout.net is a draft/draw simulator, but can't actually play a game of magic (like Cockatrice), right?

    Also, I just want to add one or two cards to the list "please don't do this" - Blood Baron of Vizkopa
    This card is nigh impossible to get rid of except for combat damage and counterspells - it dodges so much spot removal its ridiculous.

    And, the one I am surprised @Strongbelieves didn't mention, is: Tarmogoyf

    4/5 (can even go to 5/6) for 1G? Whoever made this card and approved it must have been on something.
  • Part 3 - Ability Synergy

    Let's say you are working on your card's balance and you are considering giving it a few abilities. In this case, keyword abilities. You want to give it abilities to fit the theme of the card but aren't sure about what kind of cost you should associate with them. The important thing to note is that often multiple abilities are worth more than the sum of their parts. So while you might want to give a creature hexproof or menace or any number of abilities, if you're going to give them multiple abilities, they should probably cost more than they would if you added the cost of either ability individually. Here are some examples of ability combos that are particularly potent and deserve higher costs:

    Master Assassin - First Strike/Double Strike, Deathtouch
    This is the first combination I wanted to address. The combination of abilities evokes the idea of a fast, lethal and near-unbeatable fighter. There are currently two cards in all of MTG that have both abilities that are both mythic and about five more than can gain both or has one and can gain the other on its own. This is because of how difficult it is to respond to a creature with both abilities. They can kill 95% of creatures in the game in a fight without any risk. To remove them, you need to use a removal spell (or other control), another first/double striker, an indestructible creature or combat tricks like Ride Down or damage prevention. These abilities negate a massive amount of threat as a blocker and pose a massive amount of threat as an attacker, often leading to them going unblocked.

    Toxic Trampler - Deathtouch, Trample
    While not quite as powerful as the above combo, this one certainly is notable. The obvious reason is that a deathtouch trampler can take out multiple blockers at once. The trick to this combo is, however, that if your trampler has deathtouch, it only needs to do one damage to each blocker. That means if a 6/6 deathtouch trampler is blocked by a 0/4 creature, it will do 1 damage to that creature, kill it, and do 5 to the player. That is why there are no creatures in MTG that have both abilities.

    Multitasker - Vigilance, tap abilities
    This one is a bit more common and not as potent as some of the other combos but the reason it is powerful is pretty simple. A creature with vigilance can attack and use its tap ability in the same turn. The reason this isn't quite as powerful is because being able to attack doesn't mean you necessarily should, leaving you with just the ability.

    Tap Master - Tap ability, untap ability
    This is another rare one, and for good reason. Being able to untap a creature and use its abilities multiple times is very, very useful. This was the basis for combos like the recently-banned Splinter Twin combo and very similar to the recently banned Amulet Bloom combo. A notable exception that does it well is Ethersworn Adjudicator which has high costs for both its powerful tap ability and its untap ability, meaning using it even twice a turn is expensive and using it more than that is unlikely. A card that does it in an unbalanced way is Nettle Sentinel. This is why you infamously see them alongside Heritage Druids to dump an astounding number of elves onto the battlefield quickly. This is doubly true for untapping mana sources. Triply true for cards like Jeskai Ascendancy which is currently one of the best ways to do storm in modern.

    Turtle Tank - Indestructible, Hexproof
    I think this one is pretty obvious. The only ways of removing it are untargeted exile/bounce and infect/wither. Too few options for your opponents means too much power for you. If you're going to make a card like this, you've really got to pay for it.

    Sneaky Striker - Avoidance, on-hit effects
    This one has a lot of variety and can range from fairly weak to obscenely powerful. The idea is that there are a multitude of creatures that have abilities that trigger when they deal combat damage to an opponent. This is supposed to make those abilities a bit less of a sure thing because a blocker can prevent them from triggering. When you give the creature that has the ability trigger avoidance skills, you make it a much more sure thing. Flying and menace make it less likely to be blocked but still possible. Same with oldschool fear and intimidate. Shadow is essentially unblockable, as is (obviously) giving the creature unblockable. These turn an ability that would be somewhat difficult to trigger into a sure thing and that makes it much more valuable. This is one of the reasons the Sword of X and Y cards are so powerful. They have double on-hit effects and their protections let them sneak by a lot of blockers.

    Sapping Jerk - First Strike/Double Strike, Wither/Infect
    Another fairly obvious powerful combination is attacking during first strike and putting -1/-1 counters on the opponent's creature. This is because it means you get to debuff it (including its power) before it gets to strike. Your 2/2 first strike/wither can fight anything with 3 or less power without dying because it applies the counters before the normal combat damage step. It wasn't exactly a powerhouse when it was in standard, but Fists of the Demigod gits both of these abilities to a black/red creature making it an instant annoyance. Three creatures have some variation of first strike and infect/wither naturally and they all have low stats, the best of which is hideously expensive.

    Pick and Choose - Scry, Draw
    This doesn't just apply to creatures. Letting a player scry is powerful. They get to look at the top X cards of their library and reorder them on top and put the ones they don't like on the bottom. Even scrying 1 can help you skip a bad draw next turn. Adding draw to scry make it frighteningly useful. Essentially, you are saying you get to look at the top X of your cards, put the ones you don't like on the bottom of your library, order the ones you do on the top and then immediately draw Y of them. This is dangerously close to tutoring. Anyone who has seen the recent rise of Collected Company (and how powerful it has been since release) knows how powerful these kind of effects can be.

    Know of any inherently powerful ability combos I didn't cover? Feel free to add them in replies.

    More to come...
  • edited February 2017
    I'm reviving and diverting this thread to discuss specific examples of questionable balance and provide detailed analysis on exactly how those cards would be played in a variety of formats and what sort of impact they would have.

    First up is Nitris, Ætherborn, a card made by a user as an example for the recent two mana planeswalker contest:
    image

    At first glance alone, this is a very good card in a vacuum. For two mana you can start looting by plusing it or generate as many 1/1 fliers as possible by minusing it. If you happen to work your way up to 7, you get to use a better version of Blatant Thievery.

    A quick assessment of this card is that in limited formats (draft, sealed) this card would be an instant, first pick, build-around bomb. Simply playing this card makes the rest of your deck better. In constructed it is a very good card and would likely see legacy play and absolutely see commander play in the same slot as Jace, the Mind Sculptor. More on this in a later post. It would also obviously be played as a very powerful card in commander.

    So now to get into the card itself. This spawned from a discussion with @Tomigon on the card's abilities and is mostly unedited:

    An in-depth look at the value of looting

    If you take Brainstorm over Merfolk Looter in EMA draft you are doing it wrong. Brainstorm is a great card, being a cantrip that lets you pick your next two draws, but Merfolk Looter is a draw engine. Brainstorm let's you select more options immediately but then you spend two turns drawing cards that you know about, meaning if you don't have what you need in your hand plus the top three cards of your deck, you're screwed. It is comparable to Ponder in that it is instant speed (vs. Ponder's sorcery) and lets you put cards on top if you need to like in Miracles or Shardless but Ponder gives you the option of shuffling if you hit dead cards which can be a live saver. Comparatively, looting is one of the best things you can do in limited games. Every time you do it your hand either gets better or your deck gets better, usually both, by virtue of you hitting a card you want over one in your hand or hitting a card you don't want and getting it out of your deck. You turn cards you don't need into cards you do need (fixing mana flood or mana screw) and because of that, you want to loot every single turn, on your opponent's end step or in response to something you need a solution for. Not only that but you get to do it every single turn as opposed to the one-shot from Brainstorm.

    In constructed where there are more uses for Brainstorm's top of the library shenanigans, instant speed and the fact that you actually draw all three cards it gets an edge over your standard looting cards, especially since most of them are attached to squishy creatures, the easiest thing to remove, but that doesn't mean looting still isn't an incredibly valuable option. Discarding also becomes more of a benefit in constructed thanks to the obscene amount of graveyard and discard shenanigans that aren't just possible but are pretty much required for any kind of competitive play.

    So, Smuggler's Copter. Is a 3/3 flier that start swinging turn 3 and doesn't die to sorcery speed removal good? Absolutely. 100%. It's baby sister, the Sky Skiff, is usually a decent pick in KLDx3 limited and was a good sideboard card for fighting fliers or getting over a board stall. Sure, it has one less power, but otherwise it's effectively the exact same card. So why is it totally unplayable in everything except KLD limited, where it is only ok, when Smuggler's Copter got played in every single standard deck? The looting, obviously. Decks can swing for unblockable or hard-to-block 3 on turn 3 just fine without Smuggler's Copter. Unlike Merfolk Looter which is hard-pressed to get through more than one turn in a constructed format without dying, Smuggler's Copter spends most its time as a harder-to-kill artifact. It also loots on attack or block, letting you loot before the combat damage step and meaning it doesn't have to get in for you to get value like Looter Il-Kor or one of the dual color swords. The reason it was such an omnipresent card (and is already showing up in modern and even legacy) is because every single turn your hand or deck or your hand and deck get better, as does your graveyard. Having the best possible hand every turn while filling your graveyard with either things you don't want or things you specifically want to be there is how you win games. If Tibalt didn't have the words "at random" on his first ability he would be a good planeswalker. The weakness of his other two abilities would keep him from being a great or overpowered planeswalker, something this card does not have.

    That's it for the mini-lesson on why looting is such a good mechanic. Hopefully it starts to put into perspective why this is such a powerful card. Tomorrow at some point I will cover the issue with planeswalkers being non-interactive (harder to deal with) and the second ability on this card which I have dubbed "Talrand's Bae."
  • Talrand's Bae, or why the -1 is so important

    Blue doesn't have that much token generation. Apart from token copies and an oddity here or there, the only blue cards that tend to generate tokens are some merfolk. the bid daddies of merfolk token generation (that is merfolk that generate tokens, not merfolk tokens) are Lullmage Mentor, Master of Waves and of course, Talrand, Sky Summoner.

    Talrand is a pretty crazy card. He was a massive limited bomb and build-around card, much like UR decks in the recent SOI/EMN block. As a 2/2 for 4, he doesn't impress that much on the face. Obviously, he's not a big and scary 5/5 for 4 like you'd get out of G, GR or Naya. The nice thing is that he doesn't have to be. Talrand is a value machine. What does blue do the most? Cast instants and sorceries. What does Talrand do? Make you a 2/2 flier every time you cast an instant or sorcery.

    So how good is making 2/2 fliers off of casting instants and sorceries? First, it is a cast trigger. That means that once you cast the spell, Talrand can die and they can counter the spell and you will still get your 2/2 flying drake. That means that unless your opponent is holding a Disallow, Stifle, Voidslime, etc, you will get at least one drake if you can cast a spell after resolving Talrand. Cast a counterspell? Get a drake. Cast some kind of unsommon? Get a drake. High Tide? Drake. But the real strength of the ability comes from the sheer number of cantrips blue runs for draw and hand fixing. Imagine of the text of Brainstorm read: "Draw three cards, then put two cards from your hand on top of your library. Create a 2/2 blue drake with flying." Brainstorm, Serum Visions, Preordain, Ponder, Frantic Search, Gitaxian Probe, Opt, Impulse, Treasure Cruise, Anticipate, Dig Through Time, Merchant Scroll, Quicken, Ancestral Recall, Mystic Speculation. If you have enough mana to cast Talrand, you have enough mana to cast 3-6 cantrips that draw you into more cantrips while fixing your hand and getting 2/2 drakes while you do it. Not only that, but if you have to get into a counterspell war over one of your cards or to protect Talrand, you are still generating drakes while doing it.

    To make a long story much shorter, Talrand is a value machine. He makes almost every single thing you do in your deck have 3 mana worth of additional value, the price of your average 2/2 flier. This is why he is by far the number 1 mono blue commander, beating out Azami, Lady of Scrolls by more than 20% and Teferi, Temporal Archmage by more than double. He will work with any mono blue deck and synergizes with any mono blue deck simply because of how much value you generate off of his ability.

    Now that we have a better idea of the strength of the mechanic as a template, we can assess the value of the example card's -1 ability. It is worse than Talrand's ability in two ways, it makes 1/1s instead of 2/2s and it isn't automatic, you need to use the -1 ability to do it, meaning it can only happen on your turn and will only generate value once the ability resolves during your main phase. Right off, the limited window it is active during and the smaller creatures make this about half as powerful as Talrand.

    What, then, makes this still such a good ability? The first important thing to recognize is that mana cost scaling for value is not linear. This means that if you're willing to pay 3cmc for a 2/2 flier, you wouldn't necessarily play 6cmc for a 4/4 flier or 9cmc for a 6/6 flier. Spending more mana on something is inherently harder and spending two mana on something is more than twice as hard as spending one mana on something. It is a greater risk and you expect to get greater value out of that risk. That is why, if you want a cheap flier that is better than a 1/1, you're going to probably spend ~3 mana but if you want a cheap flier that is, say, a massive creature with game-ending abilities (Consecrated Sphinx, Dragonlord Dramoka, Aurelia, Kokusho, Dragonlord Silumgar, etc) you are going to have to pay more but you will get a lot more value per mana for what you pay. In a format like Vintage, count the number of cards that are played with more than 4cmc. When you have access to every card in Magic's history, you have to play the most cost efficient cards and still have the mana left to fight for them, meaning most expensive CMC cards are literally unplayable. Decks in Legacy are the same way. There are almost no cards played in either format that are cast for more than 4 mana. Modern is almost the same way with Tron and Bant Eldrazi being notable exceptions due to being ramp decks. Standard tends to be more flexible with costs thanks to the small card pool but even so, the few cards that are played with a high CMC are generally the deck's win conditions.

    To be continued...
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