Magic Math – Kaladesh: Dubious Challenge, Combustible Gearhulk, and More

Two weeks ago, I ran some numbers on Smuggler’s Copter, Glint-Nest Crane, and Inventor’s Apprentice. Today, I’ll do the math on Dubious Challenge, Combustible Gearhulk, Aetherworks Marvel, and the new Pro Tour playoff system.

Can Dubious Challenge Work in Modern?

I may be trying too hard here, but Dubious Challenge is the type of card that just screams to have a deck built around it. It may not be the most competitive deck, but at least it can be a lot of fun.

In Modern, it would be awesome to hit Flickerwisp and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. In that case, no matter what your opponent chooses, you’ll always control an annihilating 15/15 flyer at the end of the turn. You can replace Flickerwisp with Glimmerpoint Stag or Brooding Saurian to achieve the same effect, and you can run Iona, Shield of Emeria and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre as additional high-impact creatures.

Here is a quick example build with 10 copies of each of the 2 required types of creatures.

Modern Dubious Challenge

So what are the odds of hitting the jackpot with Dubious Challenge? It depends on the exact situation, but a relevant probability for deck building purposes is for the situation in which you set aside 1 Dubious Challenge from your deck, draw any number of cards (representing your opening hand and any number of draw steps, hopefully including at least 4 mana sources), and finally put Dubious Challenge on the stack. In other words, I determined the multivariate hypergeometric probabilities for all outcomes with at least 1 Flickerwisp-type card and at least 1 Emrakul-type card in 10 draws from a 59-card deck, and then I added them all up.

For this deck with 10 Flickerwisp-type cards and 10 Emrakul-type cards, this approach says that you are 74.9% to hit at least one of each in the top 10. (It would be 69.1% for a 9-9 creature split and 79.7% for an 11-11 creature split.)

To me, missing 1 out of 4 times feels… dubious. It’s probably not consistent enough for a competitive deck, but I’m not going to stop anyone from attempting the challenge.

How Damaging is Combustible Gearhulk?

If your opponent chooses to put the top three cards of your library into your graveyard, then how much damage can you expect to deal?

Obviously, this depends on the specific converted mana cost distribution in your deck, so we need to take a look at an example list. I selected a well-performing one from a recent Standard tournament in Japan. It reminded me of Deck #4 in my article on 20 Kaladesh brews.

Mardu Reanimator

Takaku Yousuke

The converted mana cost distribution of the main deck (after removing 1 Combustible Gearhulk from the deck, in line with the same approach for Dubious Challenge to determine a priori probabilities that should remain relevant throughout the entire game) is as follows:

  • 24x 0-cost cards
  • 11x 2-cost cards
  • 3x 3-cost cards
  • 7x 4-cost cards
  • 4x 5-cost cards
  • 10x 6-cost cards

If you put Combustible Gearhulk on the stack with this deck (after drawing any number of cards), then the expected converted mana cost of the cards revealed is 7.07. That’s a hefty chunk of life. Whether or not it is better or worse than drawing 3 cards depends on the situation, but it’s certainly not inconsequential.

Next to the expected value, the distribution is also important. Suppose your opponent is at 11 life and faces a Combustible Gearhulk. Then they’ll be particularly interested in the probability of taking 11 or more damage. The full distribution can be determined by enumerating all 6^3 ordered possibilities of different converted mana cost possibilities, calculating the probability for each, and then adding it up.


With this deck, the sum of the probabilities of hitting 11, 12, …, 18 damage is 19.8%. Around 0.4% of the time, you’re really lucky and will hit the jackpot of 18 damage. But around 6.2% of the time, you will hit 3 lands and fail to make even a small dent in your opponent’s life total.

As long as you build your deck with a sufficient number of expensive cards, then Combustible Gearhulk’s ability is better than Browbeat in expectation. The fact that cards go the graveyard is also relevant for cards like Refurbish and Ever After. So for these types of decks, it is a powerful inclusion.

Is Aetherworks Marvel Consistent Enough?

Lured by the prospect of a turn-4 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, many players have been trying to make Aetherworks Marvel work. Daniel Weiser, for example, put up an 11-4 finish at the first large Standard event with this build.

Temur Aetherworks

Daniel Weiser, 25th at the SCG Standard Open Indianapolis

I already analyzed Aetherworks Marvel in an article several weeks ago, but it’s worth revisiting the card for this specific deck list. With 8 big Eldrazi in the deck, the outcomes are as follows:

  • 60.0% of the time, you’ll hit either Emrakul or Ulamog.
  • 16.1% of the time, you’ll miss Emrakul/Ulamog but will hit Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot so you can re-spin on the next turn.
  • 10.3% of the time, you’ll miss Emrakul/Ulamog and Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot, but you’ll hit a Kozilek’s Return that you can play to buy time against aggro decks.
  • 13.5% of the time, you’ll miss all of the aforementioned cards and will have to contend with a lower-impact card.

So you are far from guaranteed to cast a big Eldrazi, but when you take into account re-spin opportunities and other good hits, an Aetherworks Marvel activation is very powerful. Still, to get there, you have to draw Aetherworks Marvel and generate 6 energy. That’s not easy. Even though you have Vessel of Nascency and Cathartic Reunion, this deck will have consistency issues, and it’s not easy to find a well-balanced build. But a turn-4 Ulamog is one of the best things you can do in Standard.

The New Pro Tour Playoff System

As was announced 2 months ago, Pro Tour Kaladesh will feature a new Top 8 bracket. This new bracket is a modified single-elimination bracket that rewards a player’s high standing in the Swiss rounds of the tournament.

The following picture gives a representation.


The relevant part of the payout is as follows.

Final Standing Prize money Pro Points
1 $50,000 31
2 $20,000 27
3–4 $15,000 23
5–6 $10,000 19
7–8 $5,000 15

Assuming that every player in the Top 8 has a 50-50 chance to win any Top 8 match (which is a simplification to enable the analysis), the probability to win the event and the expected amount of prize money or Pro Points as a function of your rank after the Swiss is easy to calculate. The numbers are given in the following table.

Rank after Swiss Probability to win the PT Expected prize money Expected Pro Points
1–2 25% $25,000 26
3–4 12.5% $17,500 22.5
5–8 6.25% $11,250 18.75

The impact of your rank after the Swiss is huge! There’s a huge difference between finishing 1st or 8th after the Swiss. As a result of this, I expect that there will be far fewer intentional draws and/or concessions at the top tables in the final rounds. Players are strongly incentivized to play it out. The new structure also rewards a dominating performance during a large number of rounds. All of these aspects come across as positive changes to me.

We’ll see how it all plays out, but I’m looking forward to the start of Pro Tour Kaladesh this Friday!

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