Today, we’ll be taking a look at a couple of concepts that can help you in card evaluation. Contingency and novelty are two important aspects of card and deck evaluation, and these can be important to revisit every time a new mechanic or set comes into focus. Having an excellent understanding of these concepts can help you in initial card evaluation (which is useful when deciding what cards are good to speculate on) and when building or refining a deck.
All cards have contingencies in order to be effective, the most common being that you have the mana to use a given card, that your opponent will have the resource that your spell preys on, or that the cards are not going to be blanked by another card on the table, ranging anywhere from a larger Tarmogoyf to a Moat that prevents creatures from attacking. Every card can be either useful or useless, depending on the circumstances, but we should always try to select the cards that are going to be “turned on” as frequently as possible. As Magic players, our goal should always be to use the best tool to accomplish the goal at hand, and that means using the cards that will have their prerequisites met as often as possible, or else that will garnish the greatest benefits if an uncommon condition is met.
Let’s take a look at some cards in the Legacy with strict contingencies and explore whether the power of the cards is worth the possible disadvantages.
I wanted to start with a card that seems to lure many players down a dark path, and there are few better culprits than Smallpox. On the surface, Smallpox has very powerful, game-swinging effects that can dramatically impact an opponent, giving you a huge lead. However, while the card can give you a lot of utility, that utility does come at a cost. Let’s look at how you would want to build around Smallpox: For starters, you must be able to produce , meaning that the restrictions of a deck using the card are going to skew it toward Black. Furthermore, to get the most out of Smallpox, you don’t want to have:
- A land
- A card in hand
- A creature
- Exactly 1 life
Most decks want lands, creature, and cards in hand, so in order to really use Smallpox, or even Pox, you’ll need to build around it. In order to take advantage of the strong control elements of Smallpox, you’ll need to fill your deck with cards that can come out quickly and have an impact before you can use Smallpox, or else you’ll lose those cards when you cast Smallpox. Of course, if you don’t have Smallpox, you have a lot of cards that, perhaps, aren’t exactly stellar at controlling the game. Also, because Smallpox will cut into your lands, you won’t truly have access to the best control spells, which usually require about four lands to cast. Last, because you’re playing a deck that is likely creature-light, any deck with Smallpox is either going to have a lot of dead creatures or a hard time closing out games—because of a low creature count. Having few creatures means that when you do seize control of the game with Smallpox, it will be difficult to leverage that pressure with a clock, because there are likely only a handful of creatures that synergize well with Smallpox in the deck.
To get the most from Smallpox, your opponent must have:
- A land
- A card in hand
- At least (and preferably) one creature
- Preferably only 1 life
Once you have built a deck that is capable of using Smallpox on your end, you’ll need to be playing a deck that has all of the above criteria. Why do I say “all”? Well, let’s take a look at the math behind the card advantage of Smallpox:
−1 You cast Smallpox
−1 If you discard a card (this is negated if it’s a card that’s active in the graveyard, such as Nether Spirit, but most of the time, it won’t be)
−1 If you sacrifice a land
−1 If you sacrifice a creature
Potential losses: −2 to −4 cards
+1 If your opponent sacrifices a land
+1 If your opponent discards a card
+1 If your opponent sacrifices a creature
Potential gains: +3 cards
That means that if all conditions are properly met, you will only lose two resources (Smallpox and a land, assuming you discard a live card), and your opponent will lose three resources. This is the only way that Smallpox can really help you pull ahead in the control game. If you discard a card that is live in your hand, or your opponent is missing one of the items listed on the card, the best Smallpox can do is break even. The math gets really bad if your opponent discards a card that he might want in the graveyard, such as Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur or Life from the Loam—or even if he is missing a land.
Because Smallpox hits so many things, it’s very difficult for any deck, including a deck that you build around it, to escape the symmetrical effects of the card. This is a major flaw, because symmetrical cards are only good when they’re not symmetrical at all. Control decks use Wrath of God because they play almost no creatures that are going to be on the table when it’s cast; Show and Tell, Hypergenesis, and Eureka work because you have an effect that is going to end the game while the opponent has Noble Hierarchs. Smallpox doesn’t work because it isn’t possible to build a deck that is both effective with and without the namesake card, and because it doesn’t supplement a true control strategy, thus leaving it categorized as a Pox deck, which is code for “nonfunctional.”
Smallpox really lends itself well to a flawed thinking pattern that seems to suggest that you’ll be able to control every aspect of the game. First, all you need to do is kill all of your opponent’s creatures—without creatures, your opponent can’t kill you. Then, you make the opponent discard all of his cards; it’s hard for him to come back if he doesn’t have cards. Then, you can destroy all of his lands, so that he’ll have no resources. Finally, you can just kill the opponent, to really make sure that he won’t be making a comeback.
Spending a bit more time on Black cards, these two cards are some of the most powerful discard effects in the game, and they require only that you have mana and that the opponent has cards in hand to be effective. However, even with such a small list of contingencies to be met, there are times, and in some matchups frequently so, when you’d rather see any card rather than a discard spell. Sometimes, you’re playing against a deck that creates board presence quickly, and having a spell that doesn’t impact the board is tantamount to death. Similarly, sometimes your opponent is just out of cards after the first couple of turns, for better or worse, and you need to start applying pressure to capitalize on this opportunity. This sort of problem is most common among decks like mono-Black or Pox-based decks that attempt to overload on disruption, but have a hard time closing out the game. While discard effects will nearly always hit a breaking point at which they are no longer usable, we usually see that playing a total of seven such spells is the number that is going to reap the greatest possibility of playing them in the early game, while they are still effective, without hitting too many in the midgame to late game, when they are less effective against most decks.
Spell Snare is a great example of when a contingent card is nearly always turned on, and when something is as efficient and powerful as Spell Snare, it can really change the way the formats it’s legal in are played. Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach are powerful and strong for somewhat obvious reasons, but Spell Snare is a bit more intricate in why it’s powerful. Of course, there is the obvious, when, like every counterspell, it stops the spell from happening, and that effect is incredibly powerful. But with Spell Snare, a Blue player can be on the draw and still have a potent answer for some of the most powerful cards in the format, such as Dark Confidant, Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, or Infernal Tutor, and the list really goes on and on. And while a card such as Force Spike or Daze may be able to hit more spells in the early game, Spell Snare will always do exactly what it says: counter a 2-mana spell for 1 mana. So, even if your opponent is playing off the top, Spell Snare can still be live, whereas a card like Hymn to Tourach or Thoughtseize would need to stay in your hand, and a Daze may not be potent.
However, Spell Snare is a card that will frequently need to be boarded out, and it’s much more reasonable to play around than the other cards we’ve discussed because it’s such a powerful card. In fact, there are even matches in which Spell Snare is positively the worst card you can have, such as against Dredge, Enchantress, or an artifact-based deck. When playing with Spell Snare in a deck, it would be a prudent decision to make sure that there is a card in the sideboard that you wouldn’t mind swapping for Spell Snare on a one-for-one basis, such as Spell Pierce or various forms of removal.
Keep in mind that every card is conditional, and your job should always be to build your deck with either the least conditional cards (cards that are nearly always active and powerful) or with cards that, while very conditional, are huge haymakers that are capable of ending games.
Novelty: one of the Dangers of Cool Things.
Novelty is a concept that occurs mostly when a new set comes out, but can always resurface when a deck-builder or group comes across a forgotten card from the past. The major flaw with novelty is that it usually aims to accomplish a goal in a flashy or otherwise longwinded way that can already be done more efficiently and with fewer resources. The defense for these sorts of approaches is that they are able to play around niche cards that would stop the other decks, and that this makes them viable choices. Of course, they are playing more conditional and worse cards, and more of such cards, which dilutes the deck. There are also people who are so focused on accomplishing a single goal that they can’t understand that the approach they are taking is fundamentally flawed, even on a match-by-match basis.
1 Academy Rector
1 Body Double
1 Carrion Feeder
1 Fauna Shaman
1 Mogg Fanatic
1 Starved Rusalka
1 Tinder Wall
1 Viscera Seer
1 Wall of Roots
1 Wild Cantor
1 Xantid Swarm
2 Protean Hulk
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Gitaxian Probe
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Green Sun's Zenith
4 Natural Order
2 Sylvan Library
3 Pattern of Rebirth
2 Dryad Arbor
2 Misty Rainforest
2 Windswept Heath
2 Wooded Foothills
3 Ancient Tomb
3 Verdant Catacombs
1 Gaea's Cradle
1 Phyrexian Tower
You can Natural Order or Pattern of Rebirth for Protean Hulk, and, if you have a sacrifice outlet, all you have to do is sacrifice Protean Hulk to let you grab Body Double and Viscera Seer. Body Double copies your Protean Hulk, and you sacrifice it to the Seer again to find Reveillark and Mogg Fanatic. Then, you can simply sacrifice Mogg Fanatic to deal 1 damage to your opponent, and then sacrifice Reveillark to return Mogg Fanatic and Body Double, copying Reveillark, and repeat this process several times, Scrying for one the entire time.
Now, it isn’t that the end of the combo is long, or that there is a better deck that wins with Pattern of Rebirth. It’s how bad the cards are. It’s almost as if someone said, “We need to build a deck that wins with Pattern of Rebirth.” Now, people say this about Tendrils of Agony, Emrakul, and even Argothian Enchantress, but the reason Pattern is so weak is that it’s creature-based, and that the creatures are so bad—none of them can stand on their own. I’m certain that if there were more efficient creatures, it might be okay, but even that doesn’t deal with the other glaring problems in the deck. The disruption suite is to just play Gitaxian Probe and then play Cabal Therapy, which can be a potent plan, but it really requires both cards, and the ability to sculpt draws and protect the combo is almost nonexistent. I’ve seen the deck play enough times to witness how many blanks it can draw in a row. I think this is a fine deck to play around with at a local event, where it’s mostly playing for fun and a small prize, but the first time this deck was really featured was at the Grand Prix, and, since then, people have taken it to other large-scale events. The cuteness of winning with Protean Hulk (again) isn’t worth the hoops that must be jumped though.
There are obvious ways that you can avoid novelty, such as by simply asking yourself, “Is this an efficient way to win a game?” It’s a great way to weed out some unsound concepts. But there are times when these decks and concepts creep into other avenues of thought. For another example, let’s take a look, at the two varying builds of Flash Hulk, circa 2009.
Novelty as a History Lesson, as Seen in Flash-Hulk
The first time I ever saw Flash-Hulk, just before the deck made it to The Source, it was playing with Disciple of the Vault, Arcbound Ravager, and either Phyrexian Walker or Ornithopter. A few days after that build surfaced, the deck was streamlined to use Shifting Wall and Phyrexian Marauder so that the opponent would lose immediately, rather than having the deck depend on Arcbound Ravager. This change cut several additional cards out of the deck, and it went a long way toward making the deck competitive. However, a few days later, what seemed to be a strict improvement of the deck came out: using Kiki-Jiki and Sky Hussar or Karmic Guide, along with a protection creature (either Benevolent Bodyguard or Sylvan Safekeeper) to win. This change allowed the deck to cut several chaff cards. Look at the differences between these numbers.
Cards, in addition to Flash, Hulk, and tutors.
Disciple-based win: 12 cards
Kiki-Jiki-based win: 5 cards
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Karmic Guide
- 1 Body Snatcher (in case a creature becomes stuck in your hand)
- 1 Carrion Feeder
- 1 Benevolent Bodyguard or Sylvan Safekeeper
Freeing up seven cards for only a small amount of vulnerability was a great step for the deck, and a step that made it possible for the deck to become the dreaded monster of its day, since a builder would then be able to fit in Lim-Dul's Vault and other cantripping effects to smooth out the deck. However, not everyone felt that saving seven cards was worth it. Of course, in this example, Stephen is able to win more easily because of his choice, but there wasn’t a Disciple kill in the Top 16 of that event, so that may mean something, too.
Keeping with Flash-Hulk for just a moment longer, there were a number of people who diluted the deck just to enable the possibility of a win on the opponent’s upkeep. The fabled turn-zero win was, of course, Flashy, but it didn’t actually make the deck better—in fact, quite the opposite.
Dream Halls and Hive Mind
In more recent times, we can see this same principle displayed with the rise and fall of Dream Halls a few years ago and how it was essentially replaced by Hive Mind. While Hive Mind is a bit cheaper, more of the cards have more functionality, and parts of the combo can even be used to protect you. Take a look at the differences:
Dream Halls Combo: 15 cards (11 solely for the combo)
- 4 Dream Halls
- 4 Conflux
- 3 Progenitus (which does have some use for Show and Tell)
- 3 Cruel Ultimatum
- 1 Bogardan Hellkite
Hive Mind Combo: 13 cards
The main attraction of Dream Halls is to use a formerly banned card to play an absurdly unplayable card like Conflux and chain other impressive spells. Also, with Hive Mind, the Pact of Negations and Pact of the Titans can be used, in some cases, to protect you or the combo, meaning that the number of uncastable “chaff” cards is only about two. Additionally, Hive Mind can protect itself from opposing counters, whereas Dream Halls actually enables them. In short, Hive Mind is a pretty big upgrade from Dream Halls.
If you’re going to a (large) tournament that you intend to win, ask yourself with some honesty, “Is every card in my deck pulling its weight to help me win this event?” If your answer doesn’t come immediately for every card in the deck, it’s time to reevaluate it, ask for your friends’ opinions on the subject, and, if they are just saying “It’s bad,” challenge them on the point; it’s worth the argument if you can learn something new about the deck you’re playing.
On a personal note, I thought I’d be way ahead in testing for Worlds, for which I have the time off approved. However, I’m running into a problem in that I do really not like any of the decks in Standard. I started a new job, and that has been really cutting into my ability to test for any format, but now that I’m fully in the swing of the new schedule, I should be able to get cracking on some serious testing. Sadly, no amount of testing may result in a deck appearing from the mists that fits my play style.
~ Christopher Walton in the real world
im00pi at gmail dot com
@EmperorTopDeck on Twitter