Rogue Report – Evaluating Rares


So there I am, drafting. Pack one pick one I take a Harrow, a pretty easy one. I love the Harrow deck–it’s got to be my favorite first pick–so I’m excited. The next pack I get I’m shifting through and I see a Lotus Cobra – sweet! It’s a Draft at my place and we draft the rares at the end, so it’s not like I’m taking money by picking up the Lotus Cobra. I do a cursory look-through of the pack, just to see what I’m passing, and I find a Harrow.

Well, this is awkward. I usually don’t pay as much attention to signals as other people, but I hate to pass a third-pick Harrow. Then I start to wonder, which card is actually better? Lotus Cobra has to be insane, right? But Harrow is pretty good too. Also, the more Harrows I have, the better Lotus Cobra is. Even if Harrow is better than Lotus Cobra in a vacuum, there reaches a point where I have enough Harrows that the Lotus Cobra is better than another Harrow. I already have one Harrow, so is Lotus Cobra now better? I can see the sick starts of Lotus Cobra into Harrow and a five mana spell. I mean, Lotus Cobra is a mythic rare, so it just has to be better. I take Lotus Cobra.

After pack one I have solidified myself as GUx, not entirely sure what the ‘x’ is yet. It could be a little bit of everything for Burst Lightning, Disfigure, or more allies to match my Oran-Rief Survivalist. I open up a pack with two clear leaders: Living Tsunami and Emeria Angel. I’ve played with Living Tsunami enough to know that it’s ridiculous, but Emeria Angel is more of a mystery to me. I know the Living Tsunami will be good in my deck, and it goes well with the one landfall card I had so far – Windrider Eel. I know UU will be easier for me to make than 2WW, but I already have Harrow, Lotus Cobra, and a Khalni Heart Expedition, so it’s not like getting to WW will be that hard, it just means I have to make myself GUw. Plus, Harrow and the Expedition play really well with landfall. I mean, Emeria Angel is a rare, so it’s just got te be better, right? I take Emira Angel.

The deck turns out exactly how I want it, minus Grazing Gladehart. I have everything else: two Harrows, Reckless Scholar, Kraken Hatchling, three Windrider Eels, Into the Roil, Journey to Nowhere, etc. I even have Rite of Replication, which is usually quite good, but does really crazy things against allies. I end up winning the Draft, though there are some very close matches (like against Joe’s similar deck, but with the allies, including Turntimber Ranger). I could just accept the deck as a success and leave it at that.

I keep looking back at my games thinking that Emeria Angel is a little awkward sometimes. I’m sitting there with Emeria Angel and Harrow in my hand, lacking in WW. I could play the Harrow so that I can cast my Angel, but I have no lands in my hand so I can’t get a 1/1 immediately. What I would like to do is wait for WW, cast Emeria Angel, and then cast Harrow, getting two extra 1/1s. I keep thinking how Living Tsunami might just be better in that situation, especially because I can cast it on turn four instead of waiting until the late game. Living Tsunami also has great synergy with my other landfall creatures, and even works well with my Reckless Scholars.

It also seemed like Lotus Cobra is worse than Harrow sometimes. I never had the chance for a sick Lotus Cobra start, so maybe my opinion would differ if it actually did happen. Instead, it seemed like Harrow was better. It might also have to do with the fact that Harrow had a lot of synergy with the rest of my deck full of Windrider Eels, and whenever I had that draw good things happened.

A Rare Problem

Whether or not the picks I made in the Draft were actually correct, I seem to have a problem of inherently valuing rares higher that non-rares. In a quest to understand why, I’ve come up with several reasons why rares are harder to evaluate and tend to be inherently attractive.

1) It’s a rare!
Just the fact alone that a card is rare makes it more attractive. The play-pattern of opening a pack of cards, the feeling that you get shuffling to the back to see your rare, is a very positive one. This phenomenon was recently enhanced with the insertion of priceless treasures. Just knowing that there is a chance, even a very slim one, of opening a Mishra’s Workshop, Volcanic Island, or even a Black Lotus, makes the experience of opening a pack that much better. Even without the priceless treasures, there are still cards you want to see. Opening a pack and seeing an Arid Mesa in the back makes you happy. The rare slot itself is very special, and it’s the primary reason for your enjoyment when opening a pack.

What this means for Limited is that when you open a pack and look at a rare, you’re happy. Even if you’re not keeping the cards you draft (meaning you’re probably picking them up at the end based on how well you do) there’s happiness in seeing that Lotus Cobra. Even when we were drafting with Zaiem’s packs and giving all the cards back to him at the end, seeing a Lotus Cobra made you happy because you still wanted to open it. Thus, I’m happier when I look at Lotus Cobra than I am when I look at Harrow, and that certainly influences my decision. Unfortunately, how happy I am when I look at a card is not always in-line with how good that card actually is in Limited.

2) Rares are rarer than other cards
What I mean by that is that you get to play with each rare in Limited a lot less than you do with each common. Even an uncommon comes up much more frequently in Limited than a rare does. When you see a card like World Queller or Blade of the Bloodchief, it’s hard to know exactly how good it is relative to other cards. Sure, you know World Queller is a 4/4 for five with a good ability, so you can orient yourself a little bit. But does its ability make it better than a Living Tsunami? (That’s another pick I had to make once, where again I chose the rare.) Blade of the Bloodchief is a particularly hard one for me. Is that card insane or unplayable? Because I haven’t had a chance to play with these cards and see for myself, it’s really hard for me to judge their power level.

3) Rares do something rare
Rares tend to do things that are more complicated or haven’t been done before, so it’s a lot harder to compare rares to cards you’ve played with before. They aren’t always new or complicated, but compared to commons they sure are. When you see a card like Highland Berserker, you’ve played with 2/1s for two before. You might not know exactly how good that ability is, but the ability of a 2/1 for two can only be so good, so you roughly know how valuable this card is before you play with it. Eternity Vessel, however, is something new to me. I can imagine it being great, but I can also imagine it being a six mana do-nothing. I’m told that Luminarch Ascension is very good, and I know that you would love to have it in your deck, but that’s a trigger I’m not at all familiar with. How easy it is to do what it wants you to do, I don’t exactly know.

4) Other people also value rares
This might be considered an extension of my first point, but rares send strong signals because other people also like rares. In the example of Harrow vs Lotus Cobra after first picking a Harrow, I want to be green. The person to my right seems clearly not green. I know I’m going to send a signal to the guy to my left by passing a third pick Harrow or Lotus Cobra either way. However, it’s hard to think that the guy to my left won’t get a stronger signal that green is open if I pass him a Lotus Cobra than if I pass him a Harrow. Regardless of whether or not Lotus Cobra is actually better than Harrow, the little snake almost screams “Play green!” The fact that there’s two commons missing and a Lotus Cobra still in the pack has something to do with it, sending a stronger signal than a Harrow with a common and a rare missing. However, it also has to do with my first point, that rares are inherently more attractive and “feel-good.”

6) Constructed chase-rare hype
Some rares are liked more than others – again, Lotus Cobra. This is the card you wanted to open at the Prerelease, and he’s supposed to be the best card in upcoming Constructed, according to some people. This hype not only increases how happy you are to see the card (like #1) but it also warps your perception of how good that card is. Limited and Constructed playability are hardly lined up, yet because you expect Lotus Cobra to be the best card in Standard, that can make you think it’s better than it is in Limited.

The new enemy sac lands, like Misty Rainforest, are a great example of this. These are going to define Standard, and other than the little snake and some priceless treasure, there isn’t much you’d rather open in a pack of Zendikar. When I see a sac land in a Draft, I know roughly how valuabe a mana-fixing land is. There’s also the fact that it thins a land out of your deck (either a big deal or completely ignorable, depending on who you talk to). I also know that a sac land does something special in this format, interacting positively with the flagship mechanic, landfall. Beyond mana-fixing, these lands have reasons to be played. You would play Arid Mesa in a blue-white deck just to trigger you Steppe Lynx. How valuable that actually is compared to a spell that could make your deck is hard to evaluate, and the fact that sac lands are so good in Constructed warps your perception of their Limited strength.

7) Seeing a rare win is memorable
There’s a big different between a rare winning a game of Limited and a common winning a game of Limited. When I Whiplash Trap your guys at end of turn and swing for lethal, chances are you might have seen that coming. Yep, he had the Whiplash Trap, and that was that. I was at four, and he had the Burst Lightning. Windborne Charge is so good, it killed me again. I can’t beat that card! Even uncommons can have effect. You win or lose the game, and move on.

On the other hand, rares, for many reasons, tend to create more memorable wins. You’re in a bit of a race, and suddenly your opponent drops a Celestial Mantle on their flyer and jumps to 28 life. Next turn they jump to 48 life. They might win the game at over 100 life! That’s memorable. Even something more tame like Kazuul Warlord can blow you out. Fifth Turn Kazuul Warlord followed by a sixth turn ally – yikes! Even if it might be as much of a blowout as Windborne Charge, you remember it more because it’s a rare. You probably didn’t see Kazuul Warlord coming, at least not as much as you saw Whiplash Trap coming.

Back to the Emeria Angel example at the start of the article; I once got crushed by that card. My opponent didn’t even abuse it, he just naturally played a land each turn. What stuck with me was him casting the card, playing a land, and me digesting what it meant for the game state. The card wrecked me at the time, completely shutting down my offense, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Getting crushed by a common is one thing, but getting crushed by a rare is something else. So when I saw Emeria Angel in my pack, I remembered how much it crushed me, so I assumed it must be good. Sure, I also had seen Living Tsunami crush people, but his crushing was much more typical and every-day. He had the Living Tsunami, and there just wasn’t anything you could do. Ho-hum. Emeria Archangel – now that’s style!

Well Done

The point of this article is not that Harrow is better than Lotus Cobra. It is that it might be better, and that I don’t know what the right pick is. Our perceptions of rares are inherently flawed, and in order to draft correctly we need to be able to identify these flaws and correct them. I find the problem of having never played with or against a certain rare before, or at least not enough, to be a big one. I wonder if just playing test-games of Limited and forcing certain rares into your deck could help get a handle on their power.

For example, I know that Archive Trap mills a lot of cards, and that if I mill enough cards I’ll win the game. However, I don’t know exactly how impacting it is to mill 13 cards, and how much extra work I’ll have to do to win that game. I do know that every time I’ve taken Archive Trap, the card I took it over would have been better in my deck. I also know that I’ve seen the Archive Trap deck win a Draft. Somewhere there is a breaking point where the card becomes really good, but it’s really hard for me to tell what that is unless I play with it, and I’m unlikely to play with it because it’s been bad for me in the past. It’s so rare that I see an Archive Trap that I can’t just go into a Draft to force it and see how good it really is.

While this article might not make you a better drafter in the way that an archetype-primer would have, I hope it got you thinking. Next time you see a mythic rare in a pack, try to ask yourself if it really is as good as you think it is. Are you overvaluing this card, and for what reason? Just asking other people after the Draft “would you take this card over a removal spell like Burst Lightning or Journey to Nowhere?” can be very helpful.

Then again, if you’re keeping the cards you draft, for goodness sakes take the Lotus Cobra!

Next week I’ll be telling you all about what it’s like to create your own Magic cards and draft them. Be prepared for something wacky.

Thanks for reading,
Jonathon Loucks
Loucksj @ gmail
JonLoucks on twitter

30 thoughts on “Rogue Report – Evaluating Rares”

  1. Apologies for the double post, but I also wanted to say that I enjoyed this article and it was helpful to me. I often struggle with whether or not to take the rare over some card that would be actually much better in my deck. I think it still depends, but since I usually pay around $10 for my drafts and Zendikar is going to be $15 to draft, I will probably end up taking the rare most of the time.

  2. In a perfect world one would evaluate the card for its play value rather than any other reason outside of the game. But inside the game the only issue with rares is the fact that they are usually a 1 of regardless how good the rare is. If you are counting on a 1 of for the win then you will often be dissappointed.The article mentions the fact that they are rarer but does so in such off handed fashion its easy to miss the importance of that statement.

    Consistency is the key to a good deck be it limited or constructed If the rare fits within that then by all means take it. Taking the Emeria to spash a WW and commit to that being the splash color is a mistake. Taking the Emeria to not play against it might have been justifiable as Living Tsunami does have some drawbacks of its own even though its often enough a winner on its own.

    The thing that most people dont look at when drafting is how bad can this card be in my deck, Tsunami can be great but it can also be a big bust by locking you out of multiple spells and be answered by an opposing Drake forcing you to sacrifice it to move on.

    In most cases a rare is a card you never dont want to see. I mean you are happy to see it nearly every time. Where as other cards can be dead at various times. However a card like Cobra is one of those cases where there are times in a game where Cobra is an inconsequential 2/1 and nothing more.

    If you can get beyond the color of the symbol and put the card in context of what it can net you in the long run. ie do I draft Cobra and be happy or do I draft a winner and win the PTQ. Context is everything in evaluating a card rare or otherwise. To be better always try to put the proper context to the decision to draft any card.

    Its a good article and something that those who are trying to take their game to a new level should listen to. Examine the motivation for your picks and you will be halfway there to making less and less bad picks.

  3. Normally I’d take the on-color bomb. If I was playing casually against friends, I might have taken the Emeria, just as an experiment, but even then I’d tend to take the Tsunami

  4. One of the beautiful things about the Fetches in this set is that they are very good with all the land fall and although they aren’t bombs I have deffinetly had decks where my fetch was the MVP. (Foil Misty Rainforest in U/G Baloth.dec at the prerelease ftw)

  5. Very nice article.

    @ Chris: I don´t get the point with, rares are usually a one of, don´t depend on a one of for the win.
    Most cards in your decks will be one ofs, even the commons.
    Yes you don´t want to build an entire deck around one card but very few rares are like that. Lotus Cobra might be one of them and personly.

    I´d pick Harrow 100% of the time, atleast if it was a major event or like in this article, draft with rarepick at the end. Harrow is often awsome and always solid. Cobra is just a worse Birds of Paradise in limited which is not very exciting.

    I think number 2 is the most valid point, some rares are obv going to be super awsome but some card are more uncertain and need to be tested. this is especsially tricky with cards that only fit some strategies since you will have to play LOTS of games to be able to evaluate them correctly.

    Number 3 is also kind of valid in that some rares can just win the game for you in a position where you´d be loosing if you didn´t have that card.
    I still remember loosing in the draftfinals to a friend a few years back. Format was Ody-Ody-Torment and I had a sick deck, with Call fo the Herd, Doubble Wild Mongrel and 3 Faceless Butchers among other goodies. Ironicly thosoe Butchers cost me the match when my friend ploped down uppheaval the turn before I was going to kill him, then beating my face in with 2 monsters that were under my butchers. Basicly that was the only card in the format that could save him and it was also the only time I ever watched Uppheaval being good in limited.

    Again, Great Article and Congrats on the Cobra you won from the draft 😀

  6. @DM the point of the 1 of is that its likely to be a 1 of in the pool. In most draft decks you usually can draft some multiples or at worst cards with similar function withing the deck. Commons will usually have several repeats in the card pool and can be expected to show up. I was not suggesting that rares dont have their place only that being able to draft a more consistent performer is generally better (that is if your objective is to win)

  7. @ Chris: Wouldn´t this just be an arguement for takeing the rare?

    Like in the Example with Cobra vs Harrow.
    I think harrow is the better card but I allready have one and since it´s a common I´m likely to be able to pick up another one later on.

    The Cobra however being Mythic and everything, even though the card is weaker in general can potentially lead to some real blowouts and it´s worth picking it up jsut to have a shot at it since this will be my only chance to get one.

    The consistency problem only really comes up if you try to draft a certain deck that depends on some cards to be good, again Harrow being a fine example. Fueling 5cGreen decks in invasion or 5c Allies or landfall decks in Zendikar.

    Still you are more likely to be able to pick up a worst card with similar function if the initial card is common then rare. Like for example Expedition Map or Lay of the Land.

    Even uncommons sometimes have unique effects that you will have one shot at during an entire draft and rares even more likely so.

    If by more consistent performer you mean haveing more 2 and 3 ofs in your deck by all means, draft the common but I disagree with it being generally better.

    And if you after pack 1 Green with a Harrow and in pack to you open Ob-Nixilis and Harrow, don´t you another take Ob and hope to pick up another Harrow or 2 instead of takeing Harrow and planning on filling your deck out with Haga Crocodiles?

  8. Edit* >>And if you after pack 1 are Green with a Harrow and in pack 2 you open Ob-Nixilis and Harrow, Don´t you rather take Ob?<<

  9. Edit* >>And if you after pack 1 are Green with a Harrow and in pack 2 you open Ob-Nixilis and Harrow, Don´t you rather take Ob?
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  10. when has ob ever gone to second pick?

    Anyway, good article. I recently took a P2P1 burst lightning over beastmaster ascenscion, having drafted g/R aggro in the first pack and dug it all the way. In the past, I’d’ve definitely just thought “OMG +5/+5”. Maybe that means I’m improving?

  11. Edit* Sorry, read that wrong, I see what you’re getting at with Ob. Thought you meant P1P2.

  12. Unless you’re referring to being counter-attacked for 4 damage, the celestial mantle example would put you to 56, not 48.

  13. Re: Archive Trap

    This will usually available late pick, meaning you won’t have to (shouldn’t) pick it over a power common/uncommon, but you will likely have the choice of it or a low power common later in the pack. Most of the time it’s not that great unless you are drafting a deck which you think will have a dominant board position and be able to control the game and mill them out. It’s still not something I’d turn down a card that’s always playable for, but if you have a Hedron Crab or two it starts to get interesting!!

    Re: Lotus Cobra/Harrow and Living Tsunami-Emeria Angel: Harrow is the right pick (if not keeping the cards!), and if you had that second Harrow your Emeria pick is more valid- pushing you into a landfall deck that wins with Eels and Angels. With the Cobra, the Tsunami is a better pick as it has more synergy (negating the drawback a bit) and you will have better mana.

  14. This is a good article. My first draft was just a few weeks ago, and I ended up opening a Time Warp in my second pack and a Platinum Angel in my third pack. I was playing UW skies, so they both fit my scheme, BUT, I definitely sat there thinking “are these really that good for a draft tournament?” I ended up coming in 3rd, and both cards actually won me a game (separately, of course!)…

    I think Lotus Cobra needs to combo off of landfall. This is obviously Harrow’s job…they have a unique synergy. So, although Harrow alone is great, Lotus can also hit for 2 on the first few turns, so I think its better, but only by a small margin…

  15. I draft a lot and I really think that the right call in an unsanctioned draft like this is to play the rare. If you are trying to get better at making the right call I think you should make the decision that will come up less often, then you can hopefully evaluate it so that you can be more certain of the right pick when you are drafting in a PTQ top 8 where it really matters. It is hard when you are in an important draft to make the right decision. Sometimes that Mythic Rare is really going to be amazing in your deck, but you feel you need to draft conservatively because this draft matters. I think it is right to get these tough picks out of the way early in a draft that has little consequence (other than rare picks.)

  16. You picked Emeria Angel because it would be easy to cast with Harrow, Lotus Cobra, and the Expedition, yet you were upset that you actually had to cast Harrow in order to play the Angel!

    Splashing a double white card that you want to play as early as possible is the reason the Angel didn’t work out like you hoped it would. Of course Living Tsunami would have worked out better; it is an on color bomb that you don’t need Harrow, Cobra, or Expedition to cast!

    No matter how hard I try, I still get suckered into taking the Mythic over something I would rather have in my deck. I would have taken the Cobra for all the reasons you posted!

  17. First pick: Sphinx of Jwar Isle or Journey to Nowhere?

    I took the Sphinx; the rare factor was not insignificant. I’m not sure it is right in a draft that really matters.

  18. The point I was trying to make earlier is that the quality of the card in context not just its rarity that needs to be your decision maker. There are common cards that in context are amazing. There are rare cards that in context are terrible.

    We all know that rare doesnt always mean good. First Pick Sphinx over journey is an easy pick. Journey cant target sphinx and the likelihood of more than one journey being in the pool is much higher than Sphinx

    A 5/5 flying shroud creature is good in virtually any format. When we learn to look at the value of the card itself in context our drafting gets better.

    To help me in this Ive gotten away from looking at the symbol colors on the cards except to get an idea of what someone else may have drafted. I try to focus squarely on the name of the card and recognize what it does. I know too often I have looked at the rares or uncommons in the pack and passed over good quality cards in the commons slot that I didnt even realize I had passed.

    With regard to the rarity issue the only thing that makes me pick a rare over another card at this point in my drafting is its power level in proportion to its probability to actually help me (or in the case of a weak pack its ability to hurt me)

    Someone else made the point that not having a consistent decision making mindset leads to poor performance when it really matters. This is very true. Just like with most athletes the game winning shot, hit or catch isnt the first of its kind its simply what they have trained themselves to do.

    The article gives us reasons why we may draft a rare over a possibly better card and as they say knowing is half the battle. The battle is how to “knowing why we might” determine if we actually should. Its all about context and applying as much context as we can good and bad to our decision making process. Like I said we often focus too much on how “good” a card can be for us without spending the time to focus on how “bad” it can be for us.

  19. Sphinx and it’s not even close. Removal’s nice, but bombs (and the Sphinx is one!) are never to be passed over in pack 1. Like, what deals with Sphinx? Nighthawk I guess? Summoner’s Snare? It’s a short list.

    I don’t even necessarily like Journey as much as I liked ORing in Shards. There’s more playable ways to kill the Journey in this set – Mold Shambler, Kor Disenchant Dude… I guess Relic Crush isn’t TOO bad…

  20. Agreed, you pretty much always go Jwar Jwar Sphinx > Journey P1P2. And you may hatedraft Ob Nix over ANYTHING at ANY pick position. You definitly don’t want tot see it across the table from you.

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  22. I think Lotus Cobra vs. Harrow is really a question of how much tempo you need in your deck. Usually I prefer Lotus Cobra. Here is why:

    1. Lotus Cobra comes out 1 turn sooner than Harrow.
    2. Lotus Cobra needs to be removed by the opponent immediately or else you will (probably) pull off some busted plays.
    3. Lotus Cobra can be a speed bump when you are stuck on 2 lands, whereas Harrow is dead waiting for the 3rd land.
    4. Harrow is almost always the better top deck late game as it will trigger landfall(s) while Lotus Cobra is just a 2/1 dork.

    Lotus Cobra loves decks with Goblin Ruinblasters. Harrow prefers decks with Rampaging Baloths.

  23. Why is no one talking about the fact that Cobra is a 2/1 for two? Like. You pick WW 2/2s with no real abilities CRAZY high in this format.

  24. As a few people have said, if you’re just seeing the value of the card, try picking the Lotus Cobra. I don’t really think there’s that much that you can do with it that’s ridiculous, but find out how to value it as a draft pick. (I’m pretty sure you’d rather have Harrow about always, though.)

    In the case of Emeria Angel vs. Living Tsunami, I can’t believe you took the Angel. In my experience, Living Tsunami is a ridiculous house, whereas Emeria just packs it in to every generic removal spell in the book (fine, not Disfigure – every other generic removal spell in the book, though).

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