With Modern set to undergo some drastic changes starting this week, last weekend's Open in Indianapolis was a last hurrah for me and Five-Color Humans. Both Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf encourage players to fill their decks with cheap disruption, in particular Lightning Bolt, which is a nightmare for a deck filled with small creatures, even if some of those are well-positioned against cheap spells.
I didn't put a high priority on innovating for this single tournament, and there isn't much flexibility in the Humans deck to begin with. I registered the following list:
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 2 Kessig Malcontents
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 3 Meddling Mage
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 1 Kytheon, Hero of Akros
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Over the course of the weekend I was frequently asked about the singleton Kytheon, Hero of Akros. Why that one drop over other options? I had played two copies of Thraben Inspector in the Classic in Philadelphia so why would I change?
As it turns out, the answer to this question leads to an interesting thought exercise in how we evaluate cards. Simply put, Kytheon, Hero of Akros has the highest upside of all the options for an additional one-drop Human and it's not particularly close. Transforming it into a planeswalker can win games that Thraben Inspector and Experiment One can't.
But as anyone who has played through a preview season knows, evaluating cards solely based on their power level when at their best is a trap. Every three months we get sucked into imagining the brokenness of casting Myr Superion off of Burning-Tree Emissary without thinking about the times where the Superions clog our hands. So we force ourselves to also think about how bad a card is when it's at its worst.
The range of outcomes between a card's best case scenario and its worst case scenario gives us a good idea of how powerful a card is, but the picture is still incomplete. It's important to get a sense of how difficult it is to build a deck in which the card's potential is maximized. If a card demands that the rest of the deck be built around it, then it will only be good if those other pieces exist in the format.
For example, Ancient Ziggurat is a very powerful card but demands a lot out of your deck construction by placing a very low cap on the number of non-creature spells you can play. Humans gets around this restriction by having so many disruptive creatures like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Kitesail Freebooter, and Reflector Mage. Because it takes a very specific context to make Ancient Ziggurat function near its ceiling, I say it has a high opportunity cost.
These three metrics--a card's floor, its ceiling, and the opportunity cost of putting it in a deck--are the primary means of evaluating its power level. However, it's rare that a card scores highly on all three metrics. How do we choose between a card with high ceiling and a low floor to one with a lower ceiling and a higher floor?
The reality is that both cards have their place, and the trickiest part of card evaluation and deckbuilding is knowing when to play the high-risk card versus when to play the low-risk card. Let's go deeper into these three concepts to see how you can be more systematic in finding the right cards for your next deck.
In a strict sense, every card has a floor at or near a zero since there will always be some corner case scenario where it's uncastable or irrelevant. So the most important thing to keep in mind when evaluating a card's floor is to imagine a reasonable range of likely scenarios. A card like Tarmogoyf could be a two mana 0/1 which is horrible, but in practice that almost never happens. The card is almost always a 3/4 or a 4/5, which is an excellent rate and gives the card a very high floor.
And it is generally cards that are simple in design with a good rate that have the highest floors. The floor of a card is what it does with no help from other cards so it makes sense that standalone cards have a high floor since they don't depend on that help to be good. Watchwolf is always going to be a two-mana 3/3, but Grim Flayer will sometimes be a 2/2 and sometimes be a 4/4.
I've focused mostly on threats above, but this framework also works for reactive spells like removal and counters. These cards have a floor that is dependent almost entirely on how restrictive they are. Disallow and Vraska's Contempt can answer a much wider variety of threats than Essence Scatter and Moment of Craving, which is why the latter pair don't cost as much.
Another way to guarantee a high floor is to include options. Modal spells like the various Charms and the Commands will almost always do something useful since you can choose whichever mode is best for a given situation. Note that there are many abilities that are modal in nature, for example cycling, kicker, and morph. All of these abilities gain their power by increasing the number of options on a given card, thus making that card's floor rise.
From this we can see how the floor of a card is closely related to a deck's consistency. The more high floor cards a deck has the more often it will do its thing and you'll get to play a game of Magic, whereas a deck filled with low floor cards will have a high fail rate. Thinking along these lines it's easy to see that cheap cantrips are among the cards in Magic with the highest floor. From turn 1 to turn 20 it's rarely a bad time to draw and cast a Ponder or Preordain and few cards are better at increasing a deck's consistency.
So when is it important to put high floor cards in your deck?
The most obvious place is in decks that aren't reliant on synergy. Most midrange decks rely in the individual power level of their cards because they play a blend of proactive and reactive cards and thus, don't have enough deck space to properly leverage most synergies. They use their disruption to break up opposing synergies and force the game to be played at the floor of the individual cards, so they need generic, high-rate threats and broad removal.
However, don't make the mistake of thinking that synergy decks should be filled with low floor, high ceiling cards. Decks built that way will be very powerful but incredibly inconsistent and/or highly vulnerable to opposing disruption (think Oops All Spells in Legacy). All decks should have a base of high floor cards for consistency's sake. It's for this reason that the base of all good combo decks is a suite of card selection spells.
The consistency of all decks is very important, so your core cards should have a high floor so you can consistently execute some sort of game plan in the face of disruption. For example, the most powerful draws that Elves in Modern has involve going off on turn 2 with Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel and playing most of your creatures, but in practice Nettle Sentinel is among the worst creatures in the deck, and it's better to trim them rather than the less exciting but more consistent mana creatures, Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic.
It's not the most exciting way to build decks, but it's the most effective.
Now we're on to the exciting part. Seeing a deck fire on all cylinders with all its components coming together in harmony is one of my favorite parts of Magic, which is why you often see me playing combo and other synergy-laden aggro decks. Tarmogoyf may be a great Magic card, but it's a lot less fun than attacking someone with a Thassa, God of the Sea on turn 4 or casting a lethal Tendrils of Agony on turn 3.
Unsurprisingly, where a high floor is typified by raw rate and midrange decks, high ceiling cards are found in those that rely on synergy. Mono-Blue Devotion was a great example of this, often described as a pile of draft commons supporting Thassa and Master of Waves. The rest of the deck was more powerful than it was credited, but I'd be lying if I said it was just as easy to win games without those powerful payoffs than with.
Of course these kinds of cards go beyond powerful build arounds. Take, for example, G/W Company in Modern. Many lists play a singleton Azusa, Lost but Seeking, a card that has the potential to take the deck's synergies to another level, but when things aren't going well is a small body with little impact on the game. High ceiling cards are often used to give a deck another gear when both players have a strong draw.
Of course, that other gear isn't necessary when your normal gameplan is good enough, so there is the potential for these cards to be win more as well as hit their floor and be a detriment, which is why they are most appropriate when used sparingly. Most decks have a few flex spots to play with, and it's those spots where high ceiling cards thrive. The last few spots are often going to be weaker cards anyway, otherwise they'd already be in the deck, so being able to get a huge effect from what are ostensibly your worst cards is a huge benefit, and you won't draw them frequently enough to see their downside often.
This is why I went from Thraben Inspector to Kytheon, Hero of Akros in Humans. The thirteenth one-drop is a flex spot that isn't going to make many appearances, so when it does I wanted the card that could have the highest impact on the game, and that's the one that can transform into a planeswalker.
Of course, there are cards that come up even less than those in the maindeck--sideboard cards! Successful sideboards are built on the backs of high ceiling cards because you're only bringing them in when their floor is guaranteed to be high, so you might as well go for the most upside. Narrowly powerful removal spells like Golden Demise and Chandra's Defeat or expensive threats that are a liability against aggressive decks all make excellent sideboard cards.
There are some concessions made to having flexible sideboard cards so that you can be prepared for a wide variety of matchups, but those concessions are only made to the minimum amount necessary to have cohesive sideboard plans and not a single card more because the ideal is to have the highest potential cards possible in games 2 and 3.
The last of my three metrics, opportunity cost, is the trickiest to define. Essentially, it's the level of constraint playing a certain card puts on how you build the rest of your deck. A card like Anointed Procession is powerful, but only in a very specific shell.
Modern is filled with cards that have high opportunity cost because the format is large enough to be able to satisfy their high deckbuilding constraints and unlock their full potential. Ancient Stirrings needs to be in a deck with nearly all colorless cards but finds multiple homes in Modern, to the point where there has been talk of banning the card. Same for Mox Opal, Hollow One, and Restore Balance. Cards with a high opportunity cost are often of the high ceiling variety since they depend on the cards around them, but not always, as seen in the above example of Ancient Stirrings.
Obviously the more restrictive a card's mana cost the higher its opportunity cost and vice versa, which is a major reason why Smuggler's Copter was so oppressive. Having that high a rate appear on a card that could be played in any aggressive deck meant that it did see play in every aggressive deck, irreparably damaging the diversity of aggressive decks in Standard.
The central question to answer when thinking about the opportunity cost of a card is "Is the payoff for my effort worthwhile?" If you're going to jump through some hoops to make a certain card work, then the result better be significantly more powerful than what the rest of the format offers. A deck like Merfolk in Modern compares unfavorably to Humans on that metric, since it's about as fast but with significantly less disruption, so unless Spreading Seas is incredibly well-positioned I don't see the point of playing Merfolk.
The cards with the lowest opportunity cost are those that are good nearly all the time, like cheap cantrips and those that reward you for simply playing a normal game of Magic, like Tarmogoyf.
When Tarmogoyf was first printed you would often see players add Chromatic Star or Evolving Wilds to their deck to pump it, but it quickly became evident that those cards were unnecessary. Plenty of types hit the graveyard organically so there's no need to help it along at the cost of playing weaker cards.
I don't think any of these concepts are new to most experienced players, but I often see them rely on one over the others in justifying adding or removing a certain card without thinking about how they interact with each other. You need to use all three in concert and within the context of your deck to make an informed decision.
Consider the various options for graveyard hate in Modern. It's a more complicated process than picking the most powerful option in your colors. Jund wants a high floor card that accrues value so it utilizes Nihil Spellbomb most often.
Then there's Dredge, a deck that draws very few cards after its opening hand, so playing Leyline of the Void makes sense since the floor of the card, drawing it after your opening hand, is highly unlikely to occur while the ceiling is incredibly high.
So as with everything in Magic, context is critical. This is a heuristic meant as a guide, not a strict set of rules to be slavishly followed. But I find having a systematic process for making complicated decisions helps immensely in wading through the many variables and distilling the problem to its core elements.
Magic is amazingly daunting in its complexity, so any way you have that can reasonably simplify it will be helpful.