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

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