A Standard Approach to Evaluating New Cards

Magic set releases might be my favorite part of the game. We get to see new cards and speculate what decks can be made with them, debate their individual power level, and of course play with them. There are many different angles to examine the new cards, and I will cover just a few of them in this article.
When Amonkhet released in earlier in the year, it introduced a cycle of gods which had a lot of interesting things going on from a card evaluation perspective. In regards to Hazoret, the Fervent, I recall saying something to the effect of “Wow that’s a powerful card, but I’m not sure there’s a home for it, and it’s pretty weak to Grasp of Darkness.” I mention this example because these are some of the focal points of card evaluation in my mind. First, I looked at the card’s power level in a vacuum, which in this case was incredibly strong. Next, I observed the current standard format and if a strong shell existed for the card, which did not exist at the time of its printing. Lastly, I looked at the potential answers in the standard format, and realized that an efficient two mana removal spell that cleanly answered the card existed.

Evaluating Power Level Understanding how powerful a card is in a vacuum can be a very simple affair (Glorybringer, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar), or can be complex and polarizing (As Foretold, Approach of the Second Sun). I think if you asked most veterans of the game how they evaluate the power level of a card they would probably say something like “just look at the card” but I will try to be a little more detailed than that.
First, I would look at how similar cards performed in the past, since there is plenty of data on those cards and there is no data for the new card, this is a good basis. Glorybringer, for example, was functionally similar to Stormbreath Dragon as a 3RR costing 4/4 haste flying creature. Stormbreath Dragon was a major player in many standard decks and has even seen some modern play, and was quite effective at its role as an evasive finisher. Glorybringer, in exchange for a protection from a color (albeit a very relevant one in a format that had Chained to the Rocks), and the ability to become larger for seven mana, can deal four to a creature the turn it attacks. Depending on the format, this exchange could be extremely favorable, so it isn’t hard to see that this card will be widely played barring some extremely efficient answer or otherwise hateful environment for the card (see the decline in play in Magic Online as more and more people packed four Chandra’s Defeats in their sideboard). Using this basis, let’s take a look at a Rivals of Ixalan example.
Azor, the Lawbringer is a 6/6 flyer for six mana that allows you to effectively Sphinx’s Revelation when it attacks, but it’s only form of protection is not allowing your opponent (or opponents if EDH is your thing) to cast instant or sorceries on their next turn. In recent memory, this seems similar to Dragonlord Ojutai, but it is significantly weaker for a few reasons. For the cost of one more mana, you only get one more power and two more toughness, which for a finisher is not better than simply being able to play it a turn earlier. The built-in protection from removal basically requires your opponent to be tapped out to be guaranteed to untap with him in play. Your opponent has the ability to cast instant speed removal on your turn or can use a creature or enchantment removal spell on their turn. Lastly, let’s compare the abilities on attack. Here is where it may be debatable which is better, but I still think Ojutai’s Anticipate trigger has the edge here as well. Where it gets complicated is that Ojutai had to connect with your opponents face (and not a planeswalker) to get the trigger, whereas Azor can be chump blocked and you still get the card advantage. However, these decks thrive on having the ability to leave up mana for multiple answers or countermagic to keep the door shut on the game, Azor’s ability is extremely mana intensive, and in your combat phase on your turn is not when you want to be tapping out with a blue-white based control deck. Based on all of these factors, I think Azor falls well short of the bar set by its Dragonlord predecessor, but since power level isn’t the only relevant part of card evaluation, he could still see the battlefield in Standard. There is room to be worse than Dragonlord Ojutai and still be a playable card. Sometimes, cards can be so unique that the past example method of evaluation is not applicable. These are the most interesting cards to evaluate, because then you need to use a combination of factors, most notably game theory and probability. Books can be written on this subject so I will keep this short with a simple example from Rivals of Ixalan.
The backside of Storm the Vault, Vault of Catlacan is a strictly better version of one of the most powerful cards to ever be printed, Tolarian Academy. However, it takes some work to play with this card that has been banned or restricted in every single format ever made. Let’s analyze the front side of Storm the Vault, which is definitely too unique to compare to previously printed cards. The most important part of analyzing a new card is its mana cost. In this case, the mana cost of four and two different colors is fairly prohibitive and the text on the card has to be quite powerful to justify putting this in a typical Constructed deck. The next step I take is to look at what value the card provides immediately. In the case of this enchantment, you will get a Treasure the turn it comes down if you can get a creature through to hit a player (and not a planeswalker). That is an extremely lackluster effect, and one that does not really help your board state in any way. Since we had to invest four mana into this card, this would need to trigger four separate times to pay for itself with just the triggers. Again, this does transform into one of the most busted cards in the game though, so let’s look at how this is accomplished, which is ending your turn with five or more artifacts in play. In theory, if you played some artifact token generating cards such as Servo Exhibition, this could transform the turn it entered the battlefield, as well as allow you to use the mana (albeit not on sorcery speed spells) that turn. This does give the card some appeal, and this mana could be used to end the game pretty quickly with cards such as Walking Ballista. This brings us to a major fallacy in evaluating new cards called “best case scenario mentality.” Sure, you could have a turn 1 Hope of Ghirapur, turn 2 Heart of Kiran and a turn 3 Servo Exhibition and Bomat Courier, play this on turn 4 and you now have a Tolarian Academy, but what was your opponent doing during this time? It seems like if this was how your turns played out unimpeded, that any curve out of any number of spells would have buried your opponent. Therefore, it is best to analyze these cards with a realistic mindset that not only did your opponent cast spells while you were goldfishing, but casting the best possible cards to interact with your gameplan. How does the card look in this situation? Does it still have some value? If the answer is no, then you have yourself a weak magic card. If your opponent had blockers or simply killed your creatures (or worse still, played a sweeper), this enchantment has no text whatsoever. While there may be a deck that can harness the cards full potential and make it playable, from a raw power level perspective, this card is a major bust.

Potential Decks for the Card Once we have established the baseline power level of the card, how strong the card is in combination with other cards in the format is the next topic to cover. Where this becomes the most relevant are combo or synergy cards. For example, when the card Scapeshift was printed, it may as well have had no text, because while a mass Crop Rotation is a powerful effect there wasn’t really any synergy with it until the card Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was printed. When I first played magic in the ‘90s, we wrote on Lion’s Eye Diamonds to use as proxies, but after mechanics like Storm and Dredge entered the game, and cards like Goblin Charbelcher and Infernal Tutor, it became one of the most powerful cards in Legacy and had to be restricted in Vintage. These are two extreme examples to make a point, but it doesn’t always have to be as clear cut as this. Sometimes cards are good enough to be played but simply don’t have a critical mass of other cards to synergize with. Relentless Dead was an extremely powerful recursive threat, but the card did not see wide play until several sets after it was printed when Amonkhet provided multiple “anthem” effects for Zombies in Lord of the Accursed and Liliana’s Mastery.
Rivals of Ixalan is building on the tribal themes, and Daring Buccaneer is a very aggressive one drop pirate if a potential Pirate-based aggro deck exists. It should be obvious that if you are playing this card without other Pirates, it simply is not constructed worthy. A 2/2 for 2R was not playable in 1993, and it certainly isn’t playable now. Looking at just standard legal red playable Pirates, there are quite a few to choose from: Rigging Runner, Fanatical Firebrand, Kari Zev, Dire Fleet Daredevil, and Captain Lannery Storm. I won’t bog this article down with the math, and I’m sure Frank Karsten will cover this, but I would feel confident about being able to play this card on turn 1 reliably with about 12 or more other Pirates in my deck (Edit: Frank did the math, 12 other Pirates is good about five out of six times). Therefore, there are definitely enough playables to make this card a reliable turn 1 play and as such, is worthy of consideration. Whether or not a Pirate creature shell is superior to the stock Ramunap Red starts of Bomat Courier, Earthshaker Khenra, and Soul Scar Mage will remain to be seen, but it is certainly worth investigating.

Potential Answers to the Card Lastly, how the rest of the cards in the format interact from the opposing side should be observed. This is a fairly straightforward concept, and there’s no better example than an extremely powerful artifact from Rivals of Ixalan.
The Immortal Sun has a lot of business going on, and if you have this in play for more than a couple turns, I would expect you to run away with the game easily. However, this format has an extremely popular two mana answer to the card that many decks are running three or four of in their main deck in Abrade. As such, building a deck around this card carries an inherent risk and will likely result in disappointment when your opponents answer your haymaker with a card that is meant to deal with turn two Longtusk Cubs and Kari Zevs.

Conclusion Obviously this article only touches the surface of the many facets of evaluating new cards. I hope you enjoyed reading my views on the three most important factors when looking at how good new cards are for Standard. It will be interesting to seef the Rivals of Ixalan cards can provide tribal decks ample ammunition to overcome the energetic menace in the coming weeks.

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Previous Articles · Storm in Vintage Cube:https://www.massdrop.com/talk/2975/storm-in-vintage-cube · An Early Look at Rivals for Standard:http://dro.ps/shaun-rivals · Why I Never Drop From Tournaments: http://dro.ps/eric-nevergiveup · The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy: http://dro.ps/jon-sideboard · Blue Moon Beach Control: http://dro.ps/scott-bluemoon · A Commoner's View on Pauper: http://dro.ps/mark-pauper · Top 5 Modern Decks: http://dro.ps/pascal-modern
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