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Rule of Law – The Principles of Card Evaluation Applied (to a Demon!)

 

First, the card:

 

Abyssal Persecutor
2BB
Creature – Demon
Flying, trample
You can’t win the game and your opponents can’t lose the game.
6/6

Some people have said this card sucks. Others, like my friend Brad, are little too excited.

 

Let’s start with a quick list of the card’s upside, since its downside is clearly printed in ink right on the card:

It blocks nearly everything, starting turn 4.
It can’t be Bolted, Burst Lightninged, Bituminous Blasted, Doom Bladed, or Earthquaked
It reduces the opponent’s life total to negatives. Once they go to -5, they can’t Cruel Ultimatum because you’ll just sacrifice it and kill them.
It doesn’t need to attack once your opponent is at say, -5, so it can just stay home and block (especially Sphinxes of Jwar Isle) until you draw a removal spell for it.
In the above situation, they can’t attack with anything that would kill it
Terminate, Tendrils of Corruption, Gatekeeper of Malakir, and Fleshbag Marauder are fine black cards on their own, which happen to kill this thing once the opponent is at <1.
Bone Splinters and Vampire Aristocrat are typically less valuable in the current Standard, but they also get the job done, and combo with other cards such as Thrinax and Bloodghast
Path to Exile, Oblivion Ring, and bounce spells like Into the Roil are useful cards that also get rid of your own Persecutor. It is somewhat awkward for them to Mind Control (they may not have as many ways as you to kill it, and you may have better ways killing them with burn without having to attack through it)
It flies, it has trample

I want to use this card as an opportunity to discuss a few principles of card evaluation.

The first one is obvious to some, but the failure of others to recognize it causes misevaluations to occur on message boards, in cardshops, and on kitchen tables following the release of every set.

Principle of Card Evaluation #1: A drawback is just an opportunity to get something for cheaper than you otherwise could.

There are two types of players: those who always play to win, “Spikes” as we are sometimes called, and everyone else. The “everyone else’s” often don’t want to play a card like Millikin in limited because they might mill their best rare, they might hate Serendib Efreet because they once lost a game with Serendib that they would have won with Wind Drake, and most of them have no interest in paying half of their life to draw 4 cards with an Infernal Contract.

In modern Magic sets (we must exclude cards like Wood Elemental from our discussion, since back then I think they would just design a set and then randomly assign drawbacks to the cards using dice), you typically get to do something at less cost when that something comes with a significant drawback. What this means is that you must avoid looking at a new card and focusing only on how severe its drawback is. If you find yourself looking at Abyssal Persecutor and thinking “why the hell would I want to cast this thing?” you need to evaluate why you are playing Magic. If it isn’t just to win the game, then that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. Trade away your Dark Confidants for a Doubling Season and go play your Rubinia Soulsinger EDH deck that kills your opponent through boredom concession. If your goal IS only to win, regardless of what cards you use to do so, you need to keep in mind that with most great downsides in Magic come the potential for great upsides. Sometimes the downside is too great or the upside too narrow, but you can’t be dismissive without exploring the possibilities, at least briefly in your head (I’m not suggesting you need to test every card).

Principle of Card Evaluation #2: Cards have to have a “niche” in order to see play.

How important is context to card evaluation? There has been debate in the Magic community over whether cards can be evaluated “in a vacuum,” i.e. without context. Can’t we say that Ancient Grudge is better than Shatter without knowing the other cards in the format? Can’t we go a little further and say that Wild Mongrel is better than Trained Armadon? I would say “no” to both questions. Mindslaver, Sorin Markov, and Shaman’s Trance can all lead to someone wishing their Ancient Grudge was a Shatter. This may seem like an extreme example, but Ancient Grudge and Shatter are EXTREMELY similar. As we get down to evaluations that are more difficult to understand, such as “Which is better, Fathom Trawl or Opportunity“ we better know the context.

The concept of a card finding a “niche” means that it must be the best at filling a needed role, in a relevant deck, in order to see play. (Sometimes the role a card occupies is being a weaker version of another card that you are only allowed to play 4 of. For example, the second best finisher in the format could be the “best” card at filling the role of “finishers number 5-8″ in a relevant deck. If this is confusing, just know that a card needs to be the best at what it does in order to see play, unless you are already playing the maximum allowed number of the card(s) that are better than it at that role). It doesn’t matter how “powerful” Korlash, Heir to Blackblade is if there isn’t an effective deck with enough Swamps to use him. It also doesn’t matter how much better Fireball is than Blaze if no relevant deck wants Blaze’s effect in the first place. Abyssal Persecutor has the same cost, and a similar impact on the game, as Plague Sliver and Grinning Demon. Plague Sliver and Grinning Demon seemed “good enough” to play in Black deck looking for a finisher that wouldn’t die to a Volcanic Hammer or Char. What hurt these cards in Standard was not that some other card was better at this role; it was that this Black deck didn’t exist. Abyssal Persecutor is a good finisher in a deck with a lot of creature removal that needs something that doesn’t die to Bolt or Doom Blade and can block nearly anything starting on turn 4. It may fail to see tier 1 play only because a deck with this need doesn’t exist, not because there is a better card to play in said deck.

Principle of Card Evaluation #3: Opportunity Costs, i.e. What Else Could I be Casting?

This is really just a corollary to Principle #2, but it deserves its own discussion. The real cost of putting Abyssal Persecutor in your deck isn’t going to be $5 or 2BB, it will be the opportunity cost of not being able to include some other card. The question to think of is not only “What will this card do?” but also “What else could I be casting?” The most glaring example is in the Vampires deck. A deck with Gatekeeper of Malakir, Tendrils of Corruption, and Bloodghast might be a natural fit for some number of Bone Splinters and Abyssal Persecutors. The problem is that Vampire Nocturnus wants to be in the deck, and the deck can’t afford to play too many 4-drops. Nocturnus is powerful enough without much of a drawback (the 1BBB casting cost and the fact that its just a Hill Giant when the top card is a land are both drawbacks, but nothing like “You can’t win the game”) that Vampires players are likely not going to profit from the addition of Abyssal Persecutor. Only time will tell which 4-drop is better, or whether the deck can accommodate six or seven 4-drops, but this will need to be the framework for evaluating the card in this deck: should I just be playing 4 Nocturnus instead?

In decks that don’t want Nocturnus in the current Standard, things get more interesting. Here is my friend Cassius’ RB beatdown from the 5k in Los Angeles:

The deck has 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir and 4 Terminate, and the two Malakir Bloodwitch that are evidence that Cassius thought something like 2 fatties was a good number. This sounds like a potentially good fit for the Persecutor. Bloodwitch’s “drain life” trigger will sometimes be missed, as will Protection from Path to Exile. Also, is 8 ways to kill this thing (4 of which can be Flashfreezed, 4 of which can be Essence Scattered) enough? Eight removal strikes me as “enough,” but not an optimal amount in a deck that runs him. If we cut 2 Earthquake for 2 Bone Splinters, we will be safer, but we lose a lot of value against aggressive decks like Boros and MonoRedGoblinGuide.

Principle of Card Evaluation #4: Some Cards are Worth Building Around.

The first step for me is usually inserting a card into known archetypes, but sometimes a new card or cards deserves its own deck. Cards with severe drawbacks are more often “build around” cards than other types of cards. For example, Necropotence, Worldgorger Dragon, and Tooth and Nail (costing 9 is a drawback, even though you might not think of it that way) all require you to tailor your deck around them in order to use them effectively. Abyssal Persecutor clearly needs a critical mass of “ways to get rid of it” in the deck to be effective, so we might try a list with 4 Persecutor and some of the better “ways to get rid of it.” The likelihood here is that we end up with a tier 2 version of some other removal deck (like Jund or Grixis) and the upside from Persecutor isn’t enough to cover the loss. Knowing this is the likely outcome, we should still try something like this out:

4 Abyssal Persecutor
4 Terminate
4 Into the Roil (remember, this combos with Fleshbag if you have no creatures out and Gatekeeper generally)
4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
4 Fleshbag Marauder
4 Blightning
2 Earthquake
3 Sign In Blood
3 Divination
3 Cruel Ultimatum

4 Crumbling Necropolis
4 Dragonskull Summit
4 Drowned Catacomb
2 Island
1 Jwar Isle Refuge
2 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
5 Swamp

Principle of Card Evaluation #5: Don’t Throw Cards into the Categories “Good” or “Bad” and Leave them there to Rot.

Regardless of the initial results (if all the decklists I post above are worse than their non-Persecutor predecessors, which is very possible), remember that Context is King. Another card may come out that makes Persecutor easier to sacrifice, or other bothersome cards like [card]Wall of Denial[/card] may fall out of favor or actually rotate out of the format. This principle applies to all cards, but keep a special eye on cards with powerful effects and powerful drawbacks, as these tend to be even more context sensitive than more vanilla cards.

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