Conditionality and the If-Meter
By Nathan Fealko on June 20th, 2007 · Filed in Baghdad Bazaar, General Magic · Comments not available just now
(Note: The following narrative may or may not be "slightly" fictionalized.)
"Dang!" my friend Tom said, as I Echoing Truthed his two Wicked Akubas back to his hand at end of turn. He was forced to discard down to 7, dumping another precious creature in the bin. "I wish there was something that let me keep as many cards in hand as I wanted!"
Teh best card everzorz?!!1?!
"There is," I replied, untapping my Islands. My two Ebony Owl Netsukes were poised to deal another 8 damage. "It's called Spellbook. Or even Graceful Adept."
"I want one of those!" he exclaimed. "That way I could play it, attack with all my spirits, Devouring Greed them into the graveyard, and then Death Denied them all back into my hand without discarding any!"
To my credit, all I did was calmly lay down my hand, stand up, and walk outside before I screamed something obscene. New players are notoriously difficult to cultivate in Iraq, and going all Geordie Tait on him wouldn't encourage his return.
I'm sure you've heard similar ideas and perhaps even invented a few yourself. Maybe you've found that Exiled Doomsayer hoses your one friend's morph deck, and you can't wait to order a play set for ALL your decks. Or perhaps you've discovered that Lion's Eye Diamond+Second Sunrise+Eternal Witness+Blasting Station is an infinite-damage combo. That's fine; just don't suggest it to me in person. Unless you like hearing people laugh.
What turns me off so much? Something I like to call "Conditionality."
*cue appropriate drum-roll music*
Conditionality: The "Conditionality" of a card is a measure of how many conditions need to happen/be in place for the card to worth playing.
Conditionality is a topic I've seen referred to off-hand, or explained as it pertains to one or two specific cards (like in a set review), but I've never seen it addressed as a whole. Either this is a subject that's gotten distressingly little attention in the past few years, or it's the best kept secret right now in Magic theory.
If you're confused, just think about it this way: each card has an imaginary "If-Meter." The more things that HAVE to happen for the card to work (or, as pointed out earlier, a combination of cards), the higher on the scale it measures. Like on a Geiger counter, if the card scores high, it's radioactive and could turn you into a superhero, which is about all the good we can say for it.
Red is good...right?
Using the scale:
Green: Useful pretty much all the time. Good for main decks.
Yellow: Often useful, but not in every match. Good for some sideboards.
Red: Never useful or only useful in really specific circumstances. Good for leveling your bed.
For example, Kaho, Minamo Historian is a good card IF you can afford for a 2/2 and IF you can protect her and IF your opponent doesn't have a Sudden Shock/Hideous Laughter/Pull From Eternity and IF you have enough mana this turn to activate her just in case and IF losing those three spells permanently won't kill your deck and IF...GAH! Get it away! Quickly, Alfred, fetch the holy water!
Okay, quick test! Now that you have a basic idea of how the If-Meter works, how would you rate the following cards: green, yellow, or red?
1. Rally the Righteous
2. Meloku the Clouded Mirror
3. Yixlid Jailer
Now, don't skip ahead to the answers! Take a moment and honestly think about what needs to be in place for them to be worth casting. How solidly playable are they? It doesn't matter if you come up with answers different than mine, as long as you have a solid reason for why you think so.
1. Rally the Righteous: Red.
On the surface, it seems like a stronger Rites of Initiation. On closer inspection, you realize that it's only strictly better...
IF: You have more than one attacking creature. ( to pump a single creature +2/+0 is pretty crappy.)
IF: You're doing damage to something significant. (If you're just killing chump blockers or dealing damage to Siege Wurms that won't even die, this card is useless.)
IF: Your newly untapped creatures survive to the next round to defend. (Which is the main reason to untap them, unless they all have activated abilities, which is another iffy-dom.)
IF: Your opponent isn't using the same color creatures as you are. Untapping a Viashino Fangtail or Razia, Boros Archangel that isn't on your side is one of those "oops" moments.
In other words, that's a lot of conditions, and our If-Meter is emitting a loud, annoying wail. On to the next one!
2. Meloku the Clouded Mirror: Green.
This one's a no-brainer, if you paid any attention when it was in Standard. It was an evasive creature that could survive half of the removal leveled at it, plus it brought tiny little evasive buddies along to help. It didn't need any "Ifs"; if you dropped it, it was going to do something, even if it was nothing more than beat face. And, believe me, that's all it needed to do. Thank goodness he's no longer in Standard. (And, of course, there are no format-defining legendary Blue creatures in Standard right now...nooone at all.)
3. Yixlid Jailer: Yellow.
Yixlid Jailer is incredibly good at what it does. Unlike Leyline of the Void, it even swings for damage, making it a threat on its own. What doesn't give it a pure green rating is that it only hoses decks that rely on their graveyard. Look at Standard today: against Dredge or Aggro Loam, Yixlid Jailer tears up the house. Against Gruul or Dralnu, however, it's nearly a dead card. Plus, it's easier to kill a creature than it is an enchantment. Basically, cards like this that have limited scopes are great for sideboards--they're iffy, but when they hit, they're golden.
2. WAYS TO RATE CONDITIONALITY
There! Now you have a pretty general idea of what a card's Conditionality is and how to rate it. In fact, you probably do this on your own already, whether you realize it or not. Let's take the rest of the article to study what we do subconsciously. Understanding the nuts and bolts will help us do it more efficiently in the future.
It wasn't until I started writing this article that I realized there's two basic spectrums on which to gauge a card's Conditionality. The first is...
A. Play Conditionality
A card's Play Conditionality refers to how often the card can even successfully resolve.
Play Conditionality deals mostly with instants and sorceries and is pretty straight-forward. If you're playing a R/W deck and want a little artifact hate, Disenchant is probably a better bet than Smash.
Smash is effective...IF your opponent is using artifacts.
Disenchant is effective...IF your opponent is using artifacts or enchantments.
Notice that having more targets for a Disenchant makes it score better on the If-Meter. You have twice (or so) as much of a chance of using it as Smash, depending on your metagame. Topdecking a Smash when your opponent is beating you via a Pandemonium is not a fun experience.
Here's a list of factors that could change when you could play a card:
1. Required Targets.
As any Magic player should know, targets are selected for a spell before it's played. Meaning the Hex you're holding in your hand, as cool as it may seem, is only cool if there are actually six separate creatures on the board. (Hopefully they're not all yours.) This is also where the Smash/Disenchant distinction comes up.
2. Mana Cost.
For the most part, we'll assume that you're managing your deck's mana curve correctly and that you won't be drawing a card until you can pay for it. But let's be honest; that isn't always the case. Keep aggressive costing in mind when you're choosing a card to fill a specific slot. We know that if you're just looking for a vanilla 3/3-body, it shouldn't cost you more than (Trained Armodon). You can even get a 2/3-body for (Elvish Warrior) or even (Kird Ape); don't just add four Anacondas without thinking about it. Research. Why use Aven Cloudchasers in your strong white deck when you could be using Cloudchaser Kestrels? I ask you!
Some cards like Force of Will let you sidestep the straight-up mana cost, but that isn't to say they don't have a price. If you don't have another Blue card in hand, or if you're only at 1 life, the card still costs . Which you may or may not have.
(Aside: Mana costing and its sister topic of mana curves are deep subjects, requiring at least an entire article. Although I may do this in the future, for now just keep in mind that yes, technically Akroma, Angel of Wrath is better than Benalish Cavalry...IF you ever get to 8 mana. Oh look, another IF.)
3. Come-Into-Play Considerations.
"Gating" creatures like Doomsday Specter require you have a specific creature already in play to keep the new one on the board. But what if you topdeck it after you've been Wrath of Goded? (God'd? God-ified?) Same thing with Drake Familiar, in a different way. Cards that require you to have something else already set up for them to be useful are just as conditional as a Smash with no artifacts in play. Don't let them fool you!!!
4. Alternative Ways to Play The Cards.
Decree of Justice might have seen little action outside of a trade binder if it wasn't for its cycling ability. Keep an eye out for extra abilities like this one; Wizards loves inventing new ideas to break old rules. Mechanics like morph, replicate, madness, or even forecast give you new times and new costs you can play the same card. Even if the effect is only similar (Decree of Pain's effects when played vs. when cycled), it still gives you one less "If" to worry about.
5. Other Miscellaneous Weirdoms.
Some cards just decide to be strange, like Necrologia. Being able to play it ONLY during your end-step is pivotal; you'll be able to play only the instants you draw, and discard down to 7 besides. (Definitely not the new Necropotence.) Same with Daybreak Coronet, which requires you have a creature AND an aura in play first. (And we'll say nothing of 3-for-1 trades here.)
Now that you have some concept of Play Conditionality, let's try a few practice examples. Without looking ahead to the answers (you cheater!), rate the Conditionality of these following cards as Green, Yellow, or Red. (Check back on what those mean if you're also a forgetful cheater).
Fanboy's world comes to an abrupt end.
2. Boros Garrison
3. Rift Bolt
4. Genju of the Realm
5. Harvest Wurm
PENULTIMATE DISCLAIMER!!! I understand that many of you may differ on the following ratings, with anecdotes from your own personal life. ("THAT CARD IS TEH RULORZERZ!!!!!11! I PLAID IT 1 NITE AND BEAT EVRY1Z DECKS WIT IT!") Please, sir, stop shouting. And remember: abbreviating your words doesn't ALWAYS make them cooler. This article isn't focused on each card's actual worth. It's about how to decide that. Like college, it cares only that you form a solid method for approaching the problem, regardless of what your individual answers are. (And if you haven't been to college yet...now you're all set.)
That said, let's just assume that I'm always right.
1. Commandeer: Red
This is my favorite response to a Hellbent Demonfire. It's another conditional card; it's great versus Beacon of Unrest or a Beacon of Immortality/False Cure combo, but it can be uber-expensive or just plain useless against an aggro-creature deck. It's really only useful in a pure-blue permission deck, when you can guarantee open mana or 2 Blue cards you won't need; but even then, you won't always find a non-creature spell worth spending that much on.
2. Boros Garrison: Green
I would rate this the lowest-end of green, however. Boros Garrison and its related "Karoo" lands are excellent means to smooth out your land drops, unless you get an opening hand with nothing but them. I usually don't put more than 3 in any one deck for that reason. Barring that one disgusting situation, however, the Ravnica "bounce lands" lands go the distance.
3. Rift Bolt: Green
You'll see Rift Bolt used a lot in Standard decks today that use direct damage or need a little extra power. Unlike Lightning Axe, it can target BOTH players and creatures, and you can cast it for only if you're willing to wait a turn. It can be whatever you want it to be, like a good...wait, I'd better not go there.
4. Genju of the Realm: Yellow
This is a rather nice card for its converted mana cost, but the five different colors that are required to cast this make it edgy. It rarely saw play in Limited (who in their right mind runs five-color decks in Limited?!), and the few five-color decks in Constructed usually ran cards that were easier to cast. That being said, this card isn't too hard to resolve with a deck dedicated to mana-fixing and can be a lot of fun in Casual. I rate it in the middle.
5. Harvest Wurm: Red
Yes, even creatures may have times when they can't be played. A friend of mine once had a copy of this in his Wurm deck, "just in case" he was playing against a land-destruction deck. We both can guess how many times he got his single copy of THAT creature out.
Those are my thoughts. Feel free to discuss on the forums. (And by "discuss" I mean "be wrong." )
B. Conditionality of Effect(s)
Conditionality of Effect(s) assumes you can resolve a spell, and instead measures how much reliable "oomph" you will get afterwards.
Most permanents (creatures, enchantments, etc.) that get considered for a deck are done so in light of this second spectrum. Savaen Elves have a decent body for their cost, but how much use do you get out of them once they hit? How many times are you going to ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO destroy a land aura? "Ooo, I just killed your Utopia Sprawl, aren't you jealous? Now I'll take 4 to the face from your Giant Solifuge."
Here's a few quick examples that should get you thinking. Just ask yourself, "What are the guarantees these cards will do anything significant once I've cast them?" The less likely that is, the worse the cards are.
1. Viridian Zealot
2. Vulshok Sorcerer
4. Umezawa's Jitte
Go ahead; take your time and rate them. I'll wait.
TIME!!! PUT YOUR PENCILS DOWN! YOU'RE DONE! YOU'RE DONE! THAT'S IT--WHAT'S THAT, SUSY?! I DON'T WANT TO HEAR YOUR PATHETIC EXCUSES ABOUT YOUR SILLY LITTLE EPILEPTIC EPISODES! YOU'RE FINISHED!
Where was I? Oh, yes.
1. Viridian Zealot: Yellow
This was a first-pick choice in Mirrodin block drafting, but then again, 290 out of the 300 cards were artifacts. Or something like that. Even outside of the artifact-heavy block, it's quite useful...IF the opponent has a target on the board, and IF you don't mind sacrificing a warm body for the effect. In other words, it depends on the match-up.
2. Vulshok Sorcerer: Green
It's not big or flashy, but it sure is useful. It's a Prodigal Pyromancer that doesn't have to wait a turn to go active. One damage may not seem like a lot until you're adding that last bit of fatal damage to an enemy blocker or taking the opponent's life down a ping at a time at EOT.
3. Hivestone: Red
Well, here's a nice, cheap artifact that I'd been praying for for a while. Until it got printed. Then I realized that too many things needed to be kept in play for this to be valuable (the Hivestone, a sliver with a decent ability, and a non-sliver creature). Even if you manage to get all three out on the board, you'd better pray your opponent doesn't pack any form of removal. ‘Cause that would never happen.
4. Umezawa's Jitte: Green
You can include it in every deck, it only costs total to BOTH play AND equip, and dealing combat damage with a creature that doesn't even need to stick around isn't exactly hard. And if you act NOW on this low, low price, we'll ALSO throw in instant-speed beefing, instant-speed removal, and a little life-gain on the side for good measure. 'Nuf said.
5. Nekrataal: Yellow
Nekrataal has actually been a pretty good staple card in Black decks using creatures. It can spot destroy a beefy creature and leave you a 2/1 first striker to boot. What doesn't earn it a full green status is that it's only good IF the opponent isn't also using Black creatures or artifact creatures and IF his remaining creatures don't have toughnesses over 2. That being said, Nekrataal has seen tournament action for years; don't underestimate it.
The metagame abhors a vacuum.
3. COMPARING CARDS
As you may have already guessed, the almighty If-Meter doesn't work well in a vacuum. If it's the only card we could include in our deck for a certain purpose, we're basically stuck with it, however sucky it might be. However, if we're judging two similar cards against each other for inclusion in a deck, the If-Meter is free to shine at its best.
Just like when you're building a deck for a particular metagame, you can't judge a card's Conditionality all by its lonesome self. Its pros and cons can only be truly quantified when compared against cards that do similar things. To truly help you get a grasp on using Conditionality, I'll present a few exercises, pitting card against card, letting you see Conditionality in action. Hopefully, you'll be better prepared when deciding between card A and card B in your own decks.
Auratog vs. Squire in a white weenie deck.
We're starting out with a no-brainer I tried to keep simple. Both cost , both come in with 1/2 bodies. But...
Auratog is a good card...
IF you already have another enchantment in play and
IF you don't mind losing it for a temporary boost.
Squire is a good card...NEVER.
My pick: Auratog.
Sometimes even a conditional ability is better than none at all. Why do you think everyone hates Squire?
You must briiing us...a
Tivadar of Thorn vs. Paladin en-Vec in the same deck.
Okay, here's a similar situation, but both have abilities now. Both have first strike, both have protection from red. And both have one more bonus besides. But...
Tivadar of Thorn is good...IF you need to deadify a goblin.
Paladin en-Vec is good...IF you're gonna play against any deck splashing Black.
My pick: Tivadar of Thorn.
Danger, Mike Flores, Danger!
Echoing Truth vs. Boomerang in a Blue bounce deck.
Echoing Truth is good...
IF: What you're targetting isn't a land.
Boomerang is good...
IF: You don't need to bounce more than one permanent.
IF: You have twice as many colored mana open.
Boomeranging an opponent's Karoo land (e.g. Selesnya Sanctuary) on turn 2 is cute, but Boomerang quickly disappoints as the game progresses. Echoing Truth is cheaper, plus it can annoy the crap out of a Relentless Rats deck or hose a whole army of tokens...although that's just an added perk, not part of its conditionality.
My pick: Echoing Truth.
I'm serious this time. No, really. I swear.
Reclaim vs. Gravedigger for recursion in a Black/Green deck.
Reclaim is good...
IF: You don't mind skipping a draw to get the card you need (assuming you cast it EOT).
IF: You don't mind rehashing an old threat that's already been dealt with once, and might get dealt with again.
IF: You don't mind it being a dead card if you have no good targets in the graveyard.
Gravedigger is good...
IF: You don't mind spending a little more for a 2/2 body with a hit/miss effect.
IF: You don't need to return a non-creature card.
This debate bring out an interesting point. Sometimes you're just looking for a card that just gives you a particular effect; you don't care if it's tacked onto a creature or not. However, as happens in most cases, an effect that's tacked on a warm body, even if slightly more expensive, is still more reliable. Gravedigger will always give you a 2/2 body you can swing with, regardless. Reclaim might just laugh at you. Don't be the victim of Reclaim's vicious taunts. They can sting your pride.
My pick: Gravedigger.
Allow me a moment to invent
better flavor text.
Last Gasp vs. Swallowing Plague in a mono-Black control deck.
Last Gasp is good...
IF: You don't need to kill a creature with over 3 toughness.
IF: You don't need to gain life.
IF: Your opponent can't pump the creature in response.
Swallowing Plague is good...
IF: You don't need to destroy a creature at instant speed.
IF: Your opponent isn't using indestructible creatures/creatures that regenerate.
IF: You don't mind tapping out for it.
Here's one that isn't so straight-forward. I was recently stuck between these two for a casual deck. Do I pick the one that can deal almost as much damage as I have mana AND give me life to boot OR the one that can kill at instant speed, despite regeneration and prevent damage effects?
As it turns out, the deciding factor for my deck was when each could be played. Yes, Swallowing Plague can "hit for more," but it can only do so during your main phase, when the stack is empty. And there are any number of ways to respond to it, leaving you tapped out and the creature still alive. Last Gasp can be played before/during/after combat damage, can kill indestructible/regenerating creatures, and probably won't leave you tapped out if countered. The life gain from Swallowing Plague is nice, but repeated hits by the Charging Troll that won't die would put a crimp in that bonus.
My Winner: Last Gasp. (And now that Sudden Death is in the card pool...ooo. *shivers*)
Quick Note: The If-Meter will usually steer you in the right direction, but it isn't ALWAYS the final say. Sometimes it depends on the deck; one that uses Shepherd of Rot or Bond of Agony as a win condition would definitely appreciate some extra life-gain on the side. The idea of Conditionality is, ultimately, a rule of thumb, and rules of thumb always have exceptions.
That's right, Magic-lings, I'm assigning HOMEWORK! And if you don't do it, you FAIL READING THIS ARTICLE!!! How do you like THAT???
Seriously, though, here are some good matchups that should get you involved. Decide which one is better (for the most part), hopefully using something I've said in this article, and speak out! I'm looking forward to seeing your thoughts. And, perhaps, personal experiences, if I have the patience.
1. Ancestor's Chosen vs. Patron of the Kitsune for your casual multiplayer group. You're not using foxes.
2. Browbeat vs. Concentrate in a Blue/Red Burn deck. (A classic debate.)
3. Cloudpost vs. the Urzatron (this+this+this) in a Wurmcalling deck.
4. Rancor vs. Wildsize in a Green beatdown deck.
5. Fortune Thief vs. Worship in a Red/White draft deck.
Assume for the exercises that these are the only cards you can count on, and that it's one or the other.
I'll see you on the forums!
P.S. "Fanboy" image commissioned from "Jayeb" and www.UGMadness.net, used with permission. Mentioned so I don't get my butt sued!
By Nathan Fealko on June 20th, 2007 · Filed in Baghdad Bazaar, General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Nathan Fealko
Nathan Fealko graduated from a tiny, sequestered college in NY with degrees in Creative Writing, Communications, and Psychology that he still hasn't used. Taking a break after college, he spent time travelling the world and relaxing in exotic locations like the Korean DMZ and Baghdad. He also learned how to run really fast in ballistic armor. Recently out of the Army, he teaches English to small tots in Taiwan.