There are many tools that a deckbuilder uses when brewing up a new list. Knowledge of the card pool is obviously important as is ingenuity in putting things together in a new and exciting way. But perhaps the most important tool, one that gets used in a lot of different areas, is context. You see, most things in life are defined largely by the context they are in. See a teacher cursing in front of her students and you would likely be appalled, but take that same teacher and place her in a bar on a Friday night and no one bats an eye at the language escaping her lips.
I have been streaming various Standard brews over the last couple of months and, as a result, I get a lot of questions about the decks I am playing. Often people are curious about specific cards that I am playing because they are not common in other people's lists. To help illustrate this, here is the list I played last night on stream.
(A breakdown and Exploration of this list will come in a future article as I am still tinkering with the concept.)
Now imagine you are me, playing this deck, when someone joins the stream and asks, "Kiora is just bad, right?"
The first thing that pops into my head is, "Why is this person coming at me with negative feedback on a card they have never played nor likely contemplated to any meaningful degree?"
The answer to that question is unfortunately too often the same thing, which is that the person asking the question has arrived at a conclusion based off of the opinions of others. As a society, we tend to do this as a shortcut to aid us in understanding things we have yet to experience. For example, I have never eaten Uni (Sea Urchin) as I have been told by many friends that the taste is very bad until you acquire it. And yet, despite never having tried it myself, if you were to ask me how Uni is, I would basically repeat what my friends told me as though it were law. I wouldn't say I didn't know, despite really not knowing, because I want to be as informative to you as possible and therefore I pass along an opinion, strengthening its assumption without any first-hand experience backing it up.
Again, this practice is not necessarily a bad thing, as most of the time using commonly-held opinions or beliefs in place of your own when you don't have one will work out better than not. Avoiding the post office on a Monday probably saves me a lot more time than actually driving there to confirm that they are busy, for example. Or avoiding seeing a movie in theaters that my friends assure me I will hate is probably a safe bet. In general, people have good intent when passing off opinions and following the opinion or advice is rather harmless. When it comes to Magic, though, groupthink and commonly-held assumptions can lead to dangerous outcomes.
When a new set comes out, everyone performs their once-over for the set and arrives at their own opinions. If we did an exercise where everyone was required to write a set review before ever being tainted by the opinions or thoughts of anyone else, we would probably see ratings ranging from one to five on almost every single card. Perform this same exercise after just one week of the cards being known though and that range tightens dramatically because the strain of public opinion now prevents you from presenting an unhindered ruling. This leads to cards that are thought of as bad being underplayed until some force comes along to reverse that public opinion.
For example, cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are two of the most iconic and powerful cards in Magic history. Looking back it might be easy to just think these two cards saw extensive play at all times in their existence. The truth, though, is that while both cards were never deemed "bad" after they saw print, neither card was actually viewed as being unbeatable like we do today. There were plenty of decks that could run Stoneforge Mystic that didn't. Even at the Pro Tour in Paris, many people showed up with decks containing one or two Stoneforge Mystics. Looking back on it, that just seems crazy. Jace was generally seen as strong because it was a planeswalker, but it still took some time before people were playing blue just to gain access to four of the best walker ever. Once Paris happened and Caw-Blade was given to the world, I don't think either of these cards saw play as anything less than a four-of in Standard again.
A public opinion of "fine" had kept both of these cards in check for so long but once their awesomeness was revealed to the world, players could no longer use raw opinion as their source and instead could point to a Pro Tour victory and one of the most dominant deck choices ever made as their evidence.
But what if those cards weren't All-Stars being mistaken for just "good" and instead were actually good or maybe niche cards being mistaken for bad? You see, when the public opinion of something is that it is bad, it doesn't get the same opportunity that Jace and Stoneforge Mystic had to prove themselves, as most people steer clear entirely.
Look at Crypt Ghast, Mutilate, and Gloom Surgeon from my Pro Tour Gatecrash list.
None of these cards were thought of as good. I would be surprised if Crypt Ghast ever saw Constructed play in a Pro Tour even after I played this deck. Public opinion would have led me to avoid even looking at these cards and, instead, investing my time elsewhere. The shortcut was in place and most players were going to follow it. Focus on Jund, or Esper, or Aristocrats. Those are the areas public opinion says are strong. Use your shortcuts! Well, it turns out that I can be pretty damn stubborn and blindly following public opinion has never been my style. Rather than simply accepting public opinion, I wanted to know why the opinion was what it was.
You see, while public opinion was harsh on Crypt Ghast, I fell in love with it. I didn't think about any barriers to the card and instead went straight to Magical Christmasland. If I could make this card work, I could untap on turn five with 10 mana and that is just not a fair thing to do in Standard. Working from this ideal outcome, I then went back to construct a deck that could arrive at this conclusion.
Looking at reviews and analysis of Crypt Ghast by others, it seemed like they started at the obstacles and deemed them too great to overcome. No one else was willing to let their mind wander to a world where they were doing crazy things with Swamps and instead just got caught up on hurdle after hurdle.
"This doesn't do enough when you only have one or two Swamps out."
"Why would you play mono-black in a format with so many colors and so much fixing?"
"How do you expect a four-mana 2/2 to survive for a turn?"
All of those things are reasonable concerns and I can understand why they came up, but instead of looking for solutions to these issues, they were seen as too much of a nonstarter and Crypt Ghast quickly found itself out of people's minds and into people's bulk bins.
The issue is that those assumptions or statements all put the card into a single context. That context is the current Standard, unchanged. It is my job as a brewer, to question those preconceived notions and hopefully, at the end of the day, have people question their own preconceived notions.
I saw mono-black as an opportunity to have a manabase that didn't deal six damage to me each game. I saw mono-black as an excuse to run Mutilate which was a premier sweeper without a home, even dealing with indestructible Falkenrath Aristocrats. I saw mono-black as a reliable home for Victim of Night, arguably the strongest spot removal in the format but much too difficult to cast in most shells. Mono-black was a deck waiting to happen and Crypt Ghast was just another incentive to add to the pile.
And just how could I have my 2/2 live for the turn? Well contrary to popular belief, your opponent doesn't always have it. Even if they did, we can potentially snag removal with a discard spell or we could bait that removal onto another creature. Vampire Nighthawk and Gloom Surgeon presented all kinds of trouble for aggressive decks. Since aggressive decks were most likely to have cheap removal that could off the Ghast while applying pressure, this was important. If we could play these other creatures before Ghast, they would act as lightning rods, increasing the chances that the coast was clear for Crypt Ghast to live.
All of these points would be irrelevant if there was nothing exciting to ramp into, but it just so happens that Griselbrand, arguably the best big creature ever printed, was in the format and seeing essentially no play. This means that I could be the only person casting Griselbrand in Standard which just meant my opponent was likely to be that much less prepared for it. (If Griselbrand reanimator was popular, for example, it's possible there would be too many Pithing Needles or something in people's boards to run this strategy.) Everything lined up and, in the context of that Pro Tour, Crypt Ghast felt like an edge to be had...so I went with it. And despite playing some 12 or so cards that literally no one else in the room was even considering, I managed to snag a Top 16.
Context is everything.
Back to Ramp
People look at the above Sultai list and question a lot of things. Isn't From Beyond just in here because it's one of my favorite cards? Isn't it just bad at being a ramp spell?
Well, that statement is far too generic and gives little context. Is it bad at being a ramp spell? If you're looking to jump from four mana to eight mana the next turn, then yes, it is pretty bad, but look at our deck. Our deck wants to shoot from four mana, to six mana. Does From Beyond do this pretty reliably? You betcha. Compare this to other cards that do the same like Hedron Archive and Explosive Vegetation. First of all, these two cards go from four mana to seven mana and, because we have no seven-drops in the deck, that extra mana will generally be wasted. This means one of the advantages of both of these cards is irrelevant.
Looking at the upsides beyond ramp, since we can conclude that all three of these cards are sufficient for our ramping needs, From Beyond just offers more than these other cards. Explosive Vegetation offers mana fixing as its perk and that's about it. Hedron Archive offers you a few cards down the line, but asks you to exchange your mana production for it. Now here is what From Beyond can and will do:
- Provide an ongoing board presence to stabilize against aggro/midrange
- Acts as a threat/win condition against control.
- Mana expansion is additive, meaning you can eventually get three or more mana from this in a turn.
- Provides a tutor ability for versatility.
- Protects threats from traditional Edict effects.
That is a lot of neat little features that turn From Beyond into much more than just a ramp card. If I were approaching things in a vacuum, Hedron Archive would definitely be the better ramp card, but when the context of the deck asks for a lot of specific things and From Beyond delivers on all of them, it just makes so much more sense.
This same reasoning can be applied to Kiora, who actually got the nod over Hedron Archive in the above list. In most decks, I can completely understand how Kiora is a bit underwhelming. Most lists do not play a bunch of mana creatures and most lists do not have such an even breakdown of card types. We have nine two-mana ramp creatures that turn Kiora into a total house on turn four. Additional, our deck is 26 lands, 18 creatures, and 16 spells. This makes Kiora's second ability fairly reliable as a "draw two" and it will almost never whiff completely. Mechanically, Kiora functions at a higher than average rate in this list.
Additionally, our deck asks for the things that Kiora provides. We want a four-drop that accelerates us to six mana. Kiora checks out. We need a card to give us card advantage to help fight against all of the random midrange stuff running around. Kiora checks out. With both From Beyond and Kiora we are taking a slot in our deck dedicated to ramp and adding versatility while still maintaining the original intent.
No one builds decks in a vacuum, so assigning cards values in a vacuum is only useful as a rough guideline. If you read someone's set review, that person is evaluating the cards based on assumptions they might have and based off of known factors in the environment. It is absurd to expect them to run every algorithm they possibly can in order to determine future factors that might influence the card in one way or another. Therefore, you get a single rating that estimates the strength of that card, to the best of the writer's ability. This is not law. This is not a decree. At best, it is an educated guess. Even if half of the community agrees with that person and all jump aboard the "this card is bad" train, it is still just a bunch of guesses. I don't know about you, but I prefer to define my world on more than just a bunch of guesses.
Question reality. Question your peers. Find a context that Shatters the "truths" they hold.
It is entirely possible there is no context in which the card is good, but do not take that as a given. Explore. Evaluate. As a deckbuilder, this effort you put in is what separates you from others. Define yourself and define your context. Until next week, thanks for reading!