Never before has picking the topic for an article easier for me than this deep dive into Strixhaven Limited. Not only are Lesson and learn spells the defining characteristics of Strixhaven, but at the same time, they’re very tricky to analyze. What’s not to like? That’s why I ventured into the 17lands dataset of 460k Best-of-One games to see what the best way to look at Lessons and Learn spells is and share those insights with you.
But first: why are Lessons such defining characteristics of the format? They weren’t overhyped before the set was released as were the MDFCs from Zendikar Rising. On fundamentals, they do look a bit underwhelming too. Learn spells are, in most cases, slightly under rate for what they do. Lessons are also not obviously overpowered. They don’t have the same vibe as companions from Ikoria, where you had to somewhat compromise your deck design to get access to a very powerful card.
Here, you slightly change your deck design to get extra value and initially, this didn’t seem powerful. If you nailed the power of Lesson-learn package (LLP) before the set release, congratulations, you have excellent intuition. But very soon after the set was released, invested players realized just how powerful LLP can be, and the rationale behind its selection.
LLP functions as a toolbox. Each of your learn spells is a gateway to possibility. Imagine having an extensive Lesson package in your Witherbloom deck.
Need a creature? What kind? Would you rather get a 2/1 flyer? Maybe two 1/1s fit your current situation better? Or a 6/6 Fractal in the late game to seal the deal?
A creature on opponent’s side is too good to live? Would you rather exile one of your creatures or have opponent draw a card to get rid of it?
Nothing in your Lesson plan fits the situation? Why not pitch this useless land and spin the wheel on rummage? You see the pattern. The fact that you get exactly what you need for the current board state is extremely powerful. And that’s why extensive LLP is beneficial to your chances of winning.
Now, that’s a strong statement to make. Would you have data to support it, you might ask? I’m glad my own strawman asked me!
Data on benefits of a large and diverse LLP is pretty strong. First of all, players with higher win rates prioritize both Lesson and learn spells higher than the rest. Here you can see that players with win rates over 60 percent get 4.8 Lessons in their sideboard (SB) and 3.55 learn spells in their deck.
When we look at the players with win rates under 44 percent, those numbers drop to 3.75 and 2.85 respectively. More importantly, the number of Lessons and learn spells increases steadily as you go from low win rate players up to high win rate players. This can be of course explained two ways: either LLP is good and increases your win rate, or good players just like to have a broad LLP and they boost the stats of the cards. It seems to me there’s a grain of truth in both those statements: LLP is good and that’s why successful players who understand the format prioritize it.
But there’s an even more striking data on the importance of broad LLP in your deck. When looking at the interaction between the number of Lessons in SB and learn spells in the main deck, we can see a very striking correlation. The more Lessons, and more ways to draw them and the higher win rate of your decks.
As with every selection of data, there are some caveats connected. You’re not always able to pick seven on-color learn spells, which means that apart from the power of the LLP, this graph also shows the power of finding the right lane through the draft. Unfortunately, with the data we have, there’s no way of disentangling those two (or at least I didn’t find one) so be careful with overly sweeping conclusions from this graph. Still, the trend is quite clear and, in combination with the previous graph, gives a strong signal that LLP is essential in Strixhaven Limited.
Knowing that LLP is good is definitely not enough for the CFB frequenters though. I understood you want (and most likely deserve) to know way more before I started writing. And here, my problems started. How do you measure the utility of Lessons in a deck? This question is all but trivial. Analyzing Lessons is unlike any other cards from previous expansions.
First of all, Lessons are not in the deck in a vast majority of cases. This means that we don’t draw them randomly, like other cards. We actually choose to draw them. That changes a lot. We normally compare the win rates of cards in games where they were drawn to the win rates in games where they were in a deck but were not drawn. This metric is by far not ideal, but gives us a pretty good overview of card’s power. In case of Lessons, it’s pretty much useless, all because, as I mentioned earlier, we choose to draw our Lessons.
This means that looking at win rates when drawn will be heavily skewed towards cards that are good finishers and are good when we’re already ahead and want to end the game a bit faster, like Expanded Anatomy. On the other hands, cards like Introduction to Annihilation are more of a Hail Mary*, which will be punished by this type of measuring. Of course, a card used as a last resort will not have a spectacular win rate, because you use it more frequently in situations when your back is already against the wall. But in some cases, it’ll make you win a game that was otherwise unwinnable. So I had to come up with a metric that would better reflect this disparity in the usefulness of Lessons.
First thing I thought about is how often we learn each Lesson. Under the assumption that we learn Lessons when we think we need them, and more often than not we’re right, a card that’s learned in 40 percent of the games will have a larger impact on your draft than a card learned 10 percent of the time, even if in those 10 percent of the games the more niche Lesson has a larger impact. The card learned 40 percent of the time will show up in average of three games of each draft you play and the 10 percent card in maybe one of them. This, on its own, doesn’t measure win rates of a card or its impact on your deck, but is a good indication of how 17lands users perceive the card, which, based on the high win rate of 17lands users, should definitely be considered when drafting.
But this didn’t bring me closer to the answer of how to measure card’s importance for your draft deck. So, I did what any other data grifter would: I did a trial run of different analyses based on the data from the first week of Strixhaven and chucked a whole bunch of different measures at the Twitter public to see what the feedback is. My professional experience is that you’re rarely the smartest person in the room unless you’re alone. There’s nothing wrong in using insights of others to find solutions for your problems, and one of the metrics definitely stuck.
You don’t always get to draft a particular Lesson card. This means that each of the archetypes will have decks with and without access to a particular Lesson. Because of relatively large sample sizes in each group and diversity of builds in those decks, we can have a direct comparison of the impact of having access to each Lesson by comparing the average win rate of decks with and without such access. Of course, not every card can be played in every archetype. That’s why I decided to run this analysis for each of the five colleges, to see where are the best homes for each Lesson and how important it is to prioritize them.
But before diving into the college specifics, let’s go over the methods I used using one card as an example: the Lesson all-star, probably the best pick in the format, Mascot Exhibition. First of all, Mascot Exhibition fits in every deck as there are no color restrictions. Second of all, with minimal effort, you’ll be able to draw it every game if you want to. Third, you’ll want to draw it a lot; it’s good when you’re behind, ahead or on parity. All you need to do is get to seven mana. If you had any doubts if the card is a bomb, the data should completely wipe them out.
First of all, in the best decks for it, Mascot Exhibition is drawn way more often than a card would be drawn from the deck on average. A one-copy card will be drawn in approximately half of your games. In Quandrix (UG), Exhibition is drawn in more than two-thirds of the games. Note that the differences in drawing the dragons in their colleges is related to different average game lengths and different amounts of card draw in each college. And keep in mind that you actively choose to do so – you have a lot of agency over when to have it.
Having a bomb-level card you can tutor almost at will is a very strong ability, and it reflects in the data. Decks with access to Mascot Exhibition won, depending on the college, between 3.7 and 7.2 percent more games than the decks that didn’t have it. A difference between winning 53 percent of the games and winning 60 percent of the games is very large. To put this in context, the difference between the strongest archetype in the format (Silverquill, WB) and the weakest one (Witherbloom, BG) is 4.3 percent, so having versus not having Mascot Exhibition in your SB makes a bigger difference than drafting an average deck in the strongest archetype vs. drafting the same in the weakest one.
Well, hopefully this covers the introduction! Time to dive in to which cards make each college tick. For each college, I’ll give you the data on how often is each card learned, to give you the impression of how useful it is in the archetype and in the second draft, the win rate difference of the decks with and without the given Lesson, followed by a brief data driven analysis. Note that for each college, the Lessons are arranged based on the positive impact of having them in your sideboard for the decks in this college. So the left-most card in Silverquill graphs (Inkling Summoning) is the Lesson with largest positive impact on the WB decks win rate, the right-most card (Academic Probation) has the biggest negative impact.
A few pointers on the data:
- Since I wrote about it earlier, there’s no data on Mascot Exhibition.
- With a couple of exceptions, only Lessons learned more than five percent of the time when in SB are on the graphs.
- Decks in each college may contain a light splash (up to three spells).
- Each Lesson must have more than 500 games when in SB and more than 500 games when not in SB, but most sample sizes are much bigger (10,000 to 70,000 for popular commons).
- Cards that are on the right of the graphs but have a high frequency of being learned are probably learned way too often.
- The win rate difference is impacted not only by the presence/absence of the Lesson itself but by other factors, like openness of the archetype in draft that may result in higher availability of particular Lessons as a result.
- Even relatively small effects are likely significant, as they’re based on large sample sizes, but of course, the bigger the effect, the higher probability it’s real.
Silverquill’s top Lesson is Inkling Summoning, which should not come as a surprise. It’s learned in 56 percent of games when it’s in the sideboard, making it the only card in any college where something other than Mascot Exhibition doesn’t have the highest learn rate. And looking at the impact on the win rate, it’s the most successful lesson for WB decks.
Other key pieces are Expanded Anatomy, Environmental Sciences and Spirit Summoning. This is definitely the best home for Expanded Anatomy. The card just plays well with aggressive versions of Silverquill and combos really well with flying creatures or cards like Killian, Ink Duelist. It’s also the archetype where Environmental Sciences is the lowest priority, although the card still looks pretty solid. As in every other archetype (see later), Environment Sciences becomes essential when you want to splash.
I was surprised by the good result of Spirit Summoning – and it’s not clear if it’s good in the deck or just a great signal that white was open in your pod. Even though Start from Scratch isn’t on color, it has a decent impact on the WB win rate – driven mainly by WB decks with a red splash, where the card performs very well. I also included Confront the Past: even if the card is learned once every 60 games, it shows some impact on the results of the decks that have access to it. I can only assume that this difference is related to variance in data or the fact you can draft the card late when black is open in the pod, so the effect is most likely not linked to the quality of the card itself.
Disappointing-ish Lessons are Introduction to Annihilation, Reduce to Memory and Pest Summoning. They still have a modestly positive impact so I would pick them when the cost of the pick is low, but don’t prioritize them. Academic Probation has a negative impact and, in my opinion, is learned much more often than it should be. Don’t forget you can always rummage instead of learning!
Lorehold Lesson all-stars are all the Summonings that fit the color scheme. 17lands users also seem to have identified the best Lessons, as the frequency of learning corresponds well with the impact of each card on the win rate. Apart from the Summonings, Anatomy and Environmental Sciences are the standout cards. It all fits the picture of WR being a solid, down-to-earth aggro deck.
Interestingly, Illuminate History has a relatively poor win rate. One possibility is that it’s leading to some sort of control Lorehold decks which don’t perform as well as the aggro variants. I was also very surprised at the frequency that Teachings of the Archaics are being learned – 10 percent of the time if it’s in the SB is a lot for an off-color card. This makes me think that the card is mainly in Prismari-gone-wrong decks where blue was cut, and that’s why a card that’s not on plan for the good Lorehold decks that don’t want to have a large hand size is performing so poorly.
This archetype seems to have two main Lessons and the rest of the pack is lower priority. Elemental Summoning and Environmental Sciences both look absolutely essential. Fractal Summoning is much lower on the list, possibly as the archetype already has access to impactful late game spells. Start from Scratch is looking good and is underappreciated both in terms of learning frequency and in terms of being drafted very late. Both Introductions and Teachings look like they’re learned too frequently, given their small impact on the win rate. Mercurial Transformation looks relatively poorly, although the effect is rather small, so it may be completely due to variance. Still, it does mean the card is middling at best in UR decks on average.
In Quandrix, the two best performing Lessons are exactly the same as in Prismari – Elemental Summoning and Environmental Sciences. This, for me, is a strong signal on how important Elemental Summoning is in the more midrange-tilted Temur colors. Compared to Fractal Summoning, which is pretty bad on turn five, Elemental makes a 4/4 road block that, in this format, should be good enough against aggro decks not built around the flyers. That capacity to stabilize makes it a must-have addition in UR. Fractal Summoning is, of course, not a bad card by far. But it plays a much less important role of a finisher rather than the stabilizer Elemental Summoning is. Environmental Sciences of course is a guarantee not to miss land drops, which is key to the success of any midrange deck in Limited.
Other Lessons seem to be on a relatively even level – decent but not essential. In general, aside from the top two, Lessons in both Prismari and Quandrix seem to be important in quantity but the type of Lesson makes only a small difference in the win rate. The main difference is the frequency they’re learned with. Data suggests that Teachings, Introduction to Prophecy and especially Expanded Anatomy are very much overused by Arena users, given low benefits these cards offer. It seems to me that, since the effect on the win rate is small, in this particular case it might be useful to prioritize deck playables over those Lessons during the draft portion. Keep in mind that drafting seven Lessons, two Campuses and only having 36 cards left to make your deck is not a lot, so maybe it’s worth it to focus on the Lessons with the highest impact on your results instead.
Last and actually quite possibly least, we have Witherbloom. Here, we can see a whole different story than in Prismari and Quandrix. Lessons seem key for the archetype. It may be related to the shortage of card draw in the color combination, which can be offset by having an extensive LLP. Having access to Pest Summoning has a dramatic effect on the BG performance.
Only Mascot Exhibition (in all decks) and Inkling Summoning in WB have a higher impact on the win rate. But here I wonder – is it mainly due to the power of the card? Or is it that if you can’t get the Pest Summoning, you probably shouldn’t draft BG, as a pod can sustain roughly one good Witherbloom deck, and if the Summonings don’t wheel, it likely means you should pivot to something else.
Necrotic Fumes is particularly here as you should most of the time have easy sac fodder and can easily trade up. Teachings again looks like an underperformer, which is a strong suggestion the card isn’t something you should value highly in any deck really. Two results that did surprise me were relatively poor numbers for Introduction to Annihilation and, especially, Expanded Anatomy. Taking into account the 27 percent learn rate for that card, having no win rate impact is surely disappointing.
Phew. Hopefully this overview gives you some insight to how to assess Lessons and what Lessons are key to each archetype. But before I end – there was one question I had several times: how important are Environmental Sciences for splashing? The card has a generally good performance in two-color decks. As you may remember, the data includes decks with a splash in the colleges. So how does Sciences perform in decks with splash versus decks without splash?
As you may have expected: well. Very well in fact. Across the board, Environmental Sciences increase the win rates of decks with a splash. The improvement ranges from good in WB, UG and BG to great in WR and UR. This means that realistically, if you want to splash, you better have access to Environmental Sciences.
Again, the difference between a splashing Prismari deck with Environmental Sciences and one without is as big as the difference between worst and best archetypes in the format, which is a lot. Based on this, I would prioritize Sciences early, as it opens multiple alternative lanes in your future draft. For example, if you pick it early, if you open Lorehold Command in pack three while being in Silverquill and you’ll have an easy time splashing it. If you don’t have the Sciences and you do open Lorehold Command in pack three, you should be wary of going for the splash. Command should just go much lower in your pick order at that stage than it would be with SB Sciences.
I hope this article helps you think about the Lessons in a different way or, at least, confirms the feelings you had about Lessons from your own experience. The main take home message is: Lessons are good but some are essential for the archetype and should be prioritized, while others should be picked with less urgency without sacrificing picking cards good for the actual deck. Oh yeah, except for Mascot Exhibition. Not picking it is self-harming, even if you have a very aggressive deck that you think is unlikely to reach the seven mana threshold.
*For fans of actual football, played predominantly with feet and with an actual ball: Hail Mary is the equivalent of goalkeeper going forward to increase the field advantage during a corner kick in the last minute of a must-win game.