28, May, 23

Are Underplayed MTG Cards Bad or Misunderstood?

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Article at a Glance

More than any other format, Commander challenges the deck-building skill and creativity of Magic players. With one hundred choices, what makes a card right for a deck? Furthermore, there are now more resources than ever to see how others have built a deck. If a sizable portion of players seem to agree that a card is good, or bad, playable or unplayable, that must mean it’s true, right? Not exactly. First, let’s dive into one specific example of an underplayed budget card that is a microcosm for a very large and common Commander topic. Then we’ll talk about the consequences of considering cards unplayable even when they are perfectly fine or even good in some cases.

Is This What an Unplayable Card Looks Like?

According to EDREC, this card is in only 1257 decks of the over one million registered on the site. That means it’s in less than one percent of decks and thus rates as a zero percent card. However, it’s a leap to consider a modest card as unplayable when there are more than enough example of cards that are purely terrible no matter how you use them. Consider one example:

The Worst of the Worst

This is Wood Elemental, one of the perennial favorites for worst Magic card ever printed. This card is bad on absolutely every level. It costs a ton of mana, in more ways than one, because you have to sacrifice Forest for each power/toughness you want this to have. Oh, and those Forests must be untapped. So for a whopping four mana and sacrificing one Forest, you have a 1/1. Four mana and losing a land for a 1/1 with no abilities is really about the worst rate ever. But even if you wanted a 6/6, you would still have to pay four mana and have six untapped Forests to sacrifice. That’s effectively ten mana for a 6/6 with no abilities that kills your Forests.

On another note, Wood Elemental is a rare from the Legends set, so it’s also an expensive card considering just how terrible it is. This is literally pay to lose, and budget is always a consideration for multiple reasons.

There is an old creature from Magic’s history called Craw Wurm that is a 6/4 with no abilities for six mana. Wood Elemental makes Craw Wurn look good. But, does that make Craw Wurm good merely by comparison? This is an important note when we talk about cards in the opposite direction. Just because other, generally better, cards exist does not mean a card does not have a purpose. This goes double for the Commander format, where having redundancy is important for consistency; you cannot count on always drawing any specific card.

Read More: MTG Best Creatures of All Time

Bigger and Better…and More Expensive

Kodama’s Reach is a good example of a card that is significantly better than Gaea’s Bounty in a majority of situations. Well, K-reach is two dollars, and Bounty is at a market price of $0.17. I don’t think two dollars is going to make or break anyone’s budget, but what if you have ten decks? Twenty dollars versus two dollars starts to add up. Cultivate, which is a budget copy of K-reach, is three times as expensive as Bounty. Is the card three times as good? If you’re building multiple decks, will the amount of additional power of these cards win you enough games to make the “dollars per win” metric make sense?

The EDREC top 100 has several land ramp cards. However, having multiple Three Visits can get pretty expensive. So on a budget level, there are plenty of great reasons to consider other cards that might be fractionally less powerful but are definitely a lot less expensive.

Welcome to Highlander

This is Shadowborn Apostle, one of the few cards that explicitly gets around the singleton, one of each card limit of Commander. A much more common way to effectively get around that limit is to play many cards with roughly the same effect. Redundancy leads to consistency. Suppose we play the top ramp cards that’s seven cards currently. For a deck that really wants to hit land drops for effects like Landfall, as just one example, seven spells are not going to do.

Imperial Seal is not the best tutor card. However, it appears often as a fifth or sixth in some deck lists. It essentially does the same thing as the other, better, tutors but is just a little bit weaker. Sure, putting two Forests to hand is not commonly a game ending effect but for the right deck it is exactly what the deck seeks to do.

The Myth of Strictly Better

The idea of “strictly better” has been around Magic for a very long time. Lightning Bolt is strictly better than Shock. That’s one concrete example, but most card comparisons are not that simple and direct. It’s folly to only consider a card in a vacuum. It makes far greater sense in Commander to consider a card as part of the entirety of the deck. If you don’t have enough ways to search up Lands in this current deck, you need to add another card that does it. Gaea’s Bounty could be that card even if other, better, cards are ahead of it.

Also, take Borborygmos Enraged with the aforementioned Gaea’s Bounty. Now your spell tutors up two Lightning Bolts whereas Cultivate and Kodama’s Reach only get you one. There are more than a few other cards like Borborygmos or Land’s Edge that care about getting Lands directly into your hand. Any number of other cards, in red particularly, that want you to discard to draw have a greater synergy with Bounty than other close cards.

The Meta and the Future

Magic is a dynamic game. Nothing is more dynamic than a local metagame. What if your local meta features mass land destruction or repeated discard effects? A case can be made in these situations that a card like Gaea’s Bounty has a special purpose that can be considerably better within this meta than the other cards that work better in other metas. The important part here is that you, the player, are not making this true. It’s the entire game environment and the other players that make this true. So to ever consider a card truly unplayable, or bad, it has to be so limited that the potential upsides never exists… in your meta.

Outside of a particular meta, there is the future. Snag is the only card in Magic that says “discard a forest,” and then the spell is free. However, does that mean that will be the only card to ever say that? Nope, no chance. Eventually, they will print more free spells with this type of interaction. When that happens, players that are more open to the possible potential of particular picks will innovate.

Read More: Stunning New MTG Reprints Causing Price Plummets

Follow the Pack or Lead

Not everyone playing Magic today was playing when Alliances released in 1996. The stratospheric rise of Nature’s Chosen might seem like it came out of nowhere, but this card has been completely playable that entire time. Anyone can see that a card like Instill Energy is better a lot of the time, but if you’re running white with your green, sometimes Nature’s Chosen is incredibly powerful. So powerful that it has cEDH credibility.

Does Gaea’s Bounty have cEDH credibility? No. But does the card have a use, is it worth running? Yes, it’s a perfectly functional card, a good budget option and even performs very well in specific decks. Outside of that, it will function only slightly worse than some of the more commonly played cards. But even then it has potential advantages against certain strategies that you cannot be aware of until you’re in a game.

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot more cards like Nature’s Chosen and Gaea’s Bounty out there waiting to be utilized in the right deck, in the right meta, and at the right time. Sure, on the surface, it seems like many cards are not very good. Don’t only listen to the crowd, make your own judgement and playtest, playtest, playtest!

Read More: The Complete Commander’s Guide to MTG Adventure (Updated)

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