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


First, the card:


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

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.

38 thoughts on “Rule of Law – The Principles of Card Evaluation Applied (to a Demon!)”

  1. Unfortunately for Abssal Persecutor, it’s a Demon and Baneslayer Angel has protection from Demons.

  2. I’m still up in the air about this card. A lot of cards have drawbacks we like to call “conditional” (ie, having to sac a land for some effect matters a lot in the early game, and fairly little later on), but the persecutor really emphasizes it in a different way.

    If you’re losing when you cast it, it’s basically a 6/6 flying trampler for 4. If the drawback eventually ends up mattering, the card definitely did its job getting you back in the game.

    If you’re already winning when you draw it, it’s basically as if you drew a land (or some irrelevant spell), and being down a card might not be a big deal.

    The question then becomes, how good is the card in a relatively even game? If they don’t attack into it or kill it somehow, it’ll probably put you down at least 1 card when you finally have to kill/bounce it. Are the effects of casting him (opponent holds back attackers, etc) worth those cards 1-2 cards?

  3. When i first saw the card in the spoilers i was captivated by its powerful effect which is a drawback, but just when is it a drawback? It does not do anything but give its controller a 6/6 flying trampler for 2bb since its drawback is not relevant until the game has been decided (under normal conditions).

    At that point all you have to do is get rid of your creature, besides, it would be kind of hard for an opponent to stop your removal if he or she is not holding a relevant counter (assuming they are playing blue which is not unlikely, but still a condition).

  4. This might just be because I’m new to magic and I’m pretty strictly in standard and limited, but why do slaver/sorin etc. make you wish your ancient grudge was a shatter?

  5. because if your opponent controls your turn, they can re-use your own ancient grudge (if its in your graveyard)

  6. If they take your turn, they will do as much damage to your things with your own cards as they can. Grudge will blow up two of your things. Shatter only one.

  7. What I want to know is how badly does MODO break when both players end up with one of these in play and no way to remove it?

  8. You sure you meant trained armadon and not grizzly bears (in the comparison to wild mongrel)? Because a 2/2 for 2 with an awesome ability isn’t necessarily better in a vacuum then a 3/3 for 3.

  9. @ben: Quote: “The question then becomes, how good is the card in a relatively even game? If they don't attack into it or kill it somehow, it'll probably put you down at least 1 card when you finally have to kill/bounce it. Are the effects of casting him (opponent holds back attackers, etc) worth those cards 1-2 cards?”

    Does being down the card really matter, though? Presumably, when you cast the card to get rid of him you win the game on the spot. In other words, it’s the last card of the game (if it resolves). I’m not sure why you would waste a card to remove him if it didn’t immediately end in your opponent losing.

  10. Brian Coghlan (KaGGo)

    If I see an opponent tap 4 lands, 2 or more of which produce black mana, this will be one of the cards I think about hoping they are not casting.

    On a different note, I don’t think black needed this right now. Matt touched on the “We already have Nocturnus for 4 mana”. There are plenty of ways to off this creature that wouldnt disrupt your game plan AND could dual as useful cards in the deck without it, meaning you don’t need to soley dedicate cards to “combo” with it which is always a good start. Path, Fleshbag, Journey, O-Ring, Terminate, Gatekeeper, Wretched Banquet (fat chance), Aristocrat, and Maelstrom Pulse all serve 2 sided roles in regards to Abyssal Persecutor.

    I think where this bubba finds its home is Jund or Rock. Im talking Pre Zendikar Jund, fast jund. Rock might be a better fit having access to path, journey path and pulse whereas Jund pretty much, for all intents and purposes, only has Pulse and Terminate.

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  12. I’m really thinking on another type of deck in which this card would be awesome. It would be something along the lines of:

    4 Vampire Aristocrat
    4 Kalastria Highborn
    4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
    4 Bloodghast
    4 Abyssal Persecuter
    4 Flashbag Marauder

    4 Bone Splinters
    3 Urge to Feed
    3 Tendrils of Corruption
    2 Sorin Markov

    4 Marsh Flats
    4 Verdant Catacombs
    4 Terramophic Expanse
    12 Swamp

    Notice that this deck can make a neat “combo kill”-ish play with Kalastria Highborne, Aristocrat and bloodghasts, along with fetches and some open mana to pay for the Highborn. All the sacrifice effects make it easier to do nasty things without the Aristocrat in play.

    All this combo’s really fine with the Persecuter. Also notice that once your opponent is below 0 with the Persecuter in play, you can announce the spell Bonesplinter choose the Persecuter as target (or any other creature), sacrifice the Persecuter as part of the casting cost, and let it resolve. Even if your opponent has a counter, he can’t stop you from winning.

    What do you guys think?

  13. Just wanted to say this was a great article, you nailed it. I am referring this to all new players I know every time a new set is previewed.

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  15. I think it’s sad when people let the existence of Baneslayer Angel hinder their ability to comprehend anything other than dying to Baneslayer Angel. I think this card is not only extremely cool (very appealing to my inner 13 year-old), it’s also extremely strong. He’s a 6/6 who flies, tramples through bird tokens, comes into play on the 3rd or 4th turn, and can be easily played in a deck with lots of relevant removal. He’s awesome, and I’m going to play him, and then I’m going to say curse-words and drink Mountain Dew.

  16. i really like this card i definitely would not play a four of him in my deck though but i can see him being in WBG deck with baneslayer angels and maelstrom pulses etc…im not sure if hes going to be to competitive but we’ll see im definitely going to buy him its going to be fun

  17. i think this would be good with dredge in some cases… why? because it is a 6/6 that can help win with the Flamekin Zealot’s zombie hord… and then sacced or bounced to cause a game win… true you would already win with the zombie hord but in times when the other player has a large ground force to block or chump fliers this guys trample and flying allow for some chump clearing and damaging…. granted with any idea this does need testing, but I’m willing to give it a shot…

  18. Great article. I think we often forget that you can “caddy” for a card with a drawback (even one this astounding).

    Imagine that you have two options that are equal in overall value or utility. If one of them is pretty good no matter what (say like Leatherback Baloth), and the other is great most of the time but has one glaring deficiency, the one with the deficiency is the correct choice.

    Sports teams do this all the time. If I have a guy who is world-class at everything but one thing (defending the run, hitting lefties, shooting threes, etc.), he’ll just be subbed out when the relative importance of his deficiencies is raised.

    I love the idea of Persecutor + Bone Splinters, because just casting Bone Splinters gets rid of him. It doesn’t even matter if the spell is countered, since the sacrifice effect is part of the casting cost. I think the fringe B/R decks will love this guy.

  19. bane:
    The cost I was referring to might not be just measured in your own cards – there is the possibility that this guy’s ability could delay your win for a turn or more if you need to draw the removal spell, which means your opponent would be getting extra card(s), attack phases, etc.

    How likely is this scenario? Less likely if you load your deck with cards like fleshbag, extra removal, etc – but doing that might make your deck intrinsically weaker.

    It’s also kind of tricky to think about which deck would want this guy. I don’t really think jund would (maindeck) as he’s not really card advantage, and while he’s good at blocking big naya dudes, so is bloodwitch (who also doesn’t get pathed or baneslayer’d).

    For vampires, nocturnus has a better best case scenario (your team gets +2/+2, flying vs. you get a 6/6 flying trampler) and a better worst case (you get a hill giant vs. a blank). That said, most vampires are kind of wimpy, so they might value his stats as a blocker more.

    Probably my bet for where this guy might end up is brute force grixis. They already play the terminates (and could incorporate fleshbags), and aren’t as afraid as other control decks to tap out on turn 4 (since they tend to use removal rather than counters). And he’s a lot faster than sphinx.

  20. I think Junk could play him fairly effectively.

    But what I see out of this guy is just a good card. It’s not really the point of trying to fit him into a deck already out there, but trying to make a deck that he fits in.

    His downside is almost non existent because it only matters when he’s effectively done his job and given you the game. Doesn’t sound like much of a downside to me! There are plenty of ways to kill him in every format, and at that casting cost, he could see play anywhere. What about B/G Deathcloud? seems like he would be really good in there.

  21. Matt,
    It’s great to see that the young men from the Costa Mesa scene have grown up, become men of the law, and still play magic. Your comment on having Dark Confident as the keynote speaker was hilarious.


    A former judge

  22. Ok I liked the discussion of how to evaluate the card but I think building a deck around him is generally a bad idea, this card should be evalulated as a 6/6 trample removal target for both sides.

    Bloodghast, Fleshbag Marauder, Bone Splinters, Terminate as 12 methods of removal when he is a 4 of is perfectly acceptable. Bear in mind that at least 8 of these cards are board advantage.

    The curve for my B/R deck tops out at 4 mana with this as the finisher. Its pretty fierce. Using bonesplinters and no fear of a counterspell you can resolve two of him and seriously cause some havoc.

  23. Yeah I really really like this card. Well everything except that little piece of text in the center of the card. Creature type – demon. What a cock tease of a card, seriously.

  24. I like the idea of an aggressive black deck that includes Carnage Altar to interact with the Persecutor and Bloodghast… But the drawback that is the Bankslayer Angel might be too much incentive to _not_ give it a try.

  25. I think this card is extremely overrated right now and will probably see no play. The reason for this is that black already has insanely big creatures for their cost in the 3-5 mana range. This card is pretty close to vanilla… it doesn’t actually do anything other than be huge for its cost. Other black creatures like ob nixilis and bloodwitch would already be better in many situations if this card had no drawback at all. I think this card should have been costed BBB, because a 6/6 for 4 mana that flies is good but not really that impressive anymore.

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