Superior Numbers - Cascading Changes and Vestigial Cards

When Real Life has Cascade

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I do numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using just a little bit of math. Or sometimes no math at all, like we're going to see this week.

"So Dana," you ask, "if you're not gonna pull any stats this week, what are you going to talk about, and how is it your eyes are so blue and arresting?"

The answer to the first question is cascading changes and vestigial cards, and the answer to the second is good genes.

A few months back I did a little work on my basement. Out came the paint, and I cleaned up a little corner for myself to comfortably record the EDHRECast and CMDR Central, transforming the 1970's brown fake wood rec-room paneling into a nice, clean grey. Seeing this, my wife commented how nice it would be if she had a place down there for her desk.

That's where's where things escalated. It's one thing to paint one corner of a basement room, but two corners? You can't just paint two corners, you have to paint all four walls. But you can't just paint four walls, especially not when the ceiling and exposed duct-work haven't been painted since color TV was considered brand-new. So that needs painting, and to paint all that, it's easier to take down the trim, since that needs painting too. But the trim is cheap garbage, so that should just be replaced, and when that's all off for painting, you may as well do the floor, but since the floor is old asbestos tile, that needs to be sealed with a thick epoxy. I also can't very well record in a room next to a constantly running furnace, so some cheap bifold doors should work, but the standard sizes don't quit fit without lopping off two inches, and doing that exposes the hollow core, so I may as well run to the craft store and buy a few big bags of pillow batting to pack into the insides to further dampen the furnace sounds before hanging them....

And that's how painting the corner of my basement took up all my free time for six weeks. That's a cascading change.

This kind of thing happens to decks, too. You add a card to a deck, and that simple addition then makes you realizes that some other changes will also make sense, which then tip further dominoes until that one card winds up altering a surprising portion of your deck. Let me give you a real example from a few years ago, which involves the following cards:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, turn and face the strange

When Hour of Devastation spoilers hit, the card Solemnity made a bit of a splash with the people who pull the wings off of flies, who proceeded to concoct ways to run it alongside Decree of Silence to generate a lock that prevents opponents from casting spells. As someone who isn't a budding sociopath, I was less interested in that particular application of Solemnity than I was in using it as a way to shut out troublesome strategies. I have an Isperia, Supreme Judge Sphinx tribal deck with no counter synergy, so Solemnity seemed like a fairly efficient way to turn off powerful mechanics without really hurting my gameplan. On top of that, it served to keep me from getting killed with Infect while also kneecapping commanders who use energy or experience counters. Plus, hey, my deck was already running Glacial Chasm and Mystic Remora, and Solemnity's ability to keep things from accumulating counters makes those cards even better. Easy peasy. I'll just cut something that's been underperforming, add Solemnity, and that's that.

Except that isn't entirely that. See, given how useful that interaction with Chasm and Remora is, wouldn't it maybe make sense to have a way to find those cards? True Conviction was often a win condition in my Isperia deck, since almost all the bodies are at minimum 4/4s with flying. So maybe I also add Enlightened Tutor to find Solemnity if I have Remora, or to find Remora if I have Solemnity, and it also gives me a way to find True Conviction if it's needed late game as a wincon.

So I add an enchantment tutor that lets me find Solemnity, or a piece that works with Solemnity. I guess since I'm doing that, it wouldn't hurt to add one more piece that works with Solemnity, right? I have this Phyrexian Unlife just sitting here in my trade binder, after all.

Of course, if I'm doing that, why not come at it from the other angle? If I have a way to fetch out Solemnity or cards that interact with Solemnity when convenient, maybe I should also add one to go get Glacial Chasm. Tolaria West is easy enough to slot in in place of a basic land, after all. Worst case, it's a tapped Island, but I can also use it to fetch Glacial Chasm, if needed. And if not needed, well, there're plenty of other targets: Kor Haven can do a lot of work in the right situation, as can Cavern of Souls against a deck with a lot of countermagic. If I see a graveyard deck, I can just go get the newly-added Scavenger Grounds after the Zombie player targets herself with a Traumatize. It's also one more way to fix mana early on if I'm desperate. So in goes Tolaria West, and since everything that's true of Tolaria West is more or less true of Expedition Map, maybe I need to find a slot for that too.

Okay, but if I'm running Tolaria West and Ex Map to find lands, and if I'm running Solemnity to keep things from getting counters, doesn't Dark Depths make a little sense? With Solemnity out, a card I can now tutor for with Enlightened Tutor, it comes into play and just automagically turns into Marit Lage. At that point, if I'm running Dark Depths, doesn't it make sense to run Thespian's Stage and Vesuva? Both give another way to auto-trigger Dark Depths, and they're almost never going to be dead cards even without Depths. Plus, I now have ways to tutor up whichever part of the combo I'm missing.

But if I add Dark Depths, a land that doesn't tap for mana, into a deck that already has a land that doesn't tap for mana (Glacial Chasm), along with a land that by default only taps for colorless (Thespian's Stage) which could mess up the balance of my mana base. I probably need to up the land count by one to offset that, which means cutting something else to add in the Tundra I picked up. (Yes, I traded a Tundra into my Sphinx tribal deck. Stop judging me. Maybe you're the real weirdo for not running one in your tribal build. Ever thought about that!? I'm not getting defensive, you're getting defensive!!!)

Anyway, that is a cascading change. I started the process by adding Solemnity, and twenty minutes later I was adding Solemnity, Enlightened Tutor, Tolaria West, Expedition Map, Dark Depths, Thespian's Stage, Vesuva, Tundra, and Phyrexian Unlife, and that's on top of the fact that I was already looking for room in that deck for other new Hour of Devastation cards like Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign and Scavenger Grounds. The act of adding Solemnity cascaded out and changed 10% of my entire deck.

So why is that a problem? Well, if your deck is tuned to function a certain way, pulling out 10% of the cogs and gears that make it work and replacing them with ropes and pulleys can significantly impact its performance. In my case, I wound up removing a few mana rocks, and the fallout from that made the high-cost Sphinxes in my deck difficult to cast. By making my deck "better", I made it worse.

That isn't all that can go wrong, however, and here's where I want to talk about vestigial cards. I'll use another real-world example, which this time involves the following:

I watch the ripples change their size but never leave the stream

Sometime last summer I noticed Skullclamp wasn't performing that well in my Glissa the Traitor deck. I mean, it's Skullclamp; it wasn't bad or anything. Even if you just throw it on a random body and attack, it's got a decent chance of drawing you some cards. But it wasn't doing disgusting things like it used to, and it wasn't doing the same disgusting things that it seemed to do for everyone else.

The reason for this seems obvious, but I had to actually sit and look at my deck to see it. Luckily, like a perfectly normal person, I log all the changes I make to my decks.

2018 07-14 Add: Pir's Whim Remove: Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons

2018 10-16 Add: Dust Bowl Remove: Grim Backwoods

2019 05-16 Add: God-Eternal Rhonas Remove: Pharika, God of Affliction

2019 07-16 Add: Plague Engineer Remove: Ogre Slumlord

2019 08-02 Add: Embodiment of Agonies Remove: Ophiomancer

The common theme there? Over the course of a year I removed four cards from my deck that make 1/1 tokens, along with a sacrifice outlet, Grim Backwoods. This left me with a Skullclamp that had almost no targets I could kill on demand to draw cards. On top of that, in removing Hapatra from my deck, I had neglected to remove Black Sun's Zenith, a board wipe that was a questionable inclusion at best even when I had a card in the deck that cared about -1/-1 counters. Removing Hapatra had created not one but two vestigial cards in my deck, remnants that no longer served a compelling purpose.

Time may change me, but I can't trace time

Okay, so we know what cascading changes are, and we know what vestigial cards are. The former can sometimes cause the latter, but they aren't necessarily linked. However, they both are things you need to be aware of when you make changes to your deck. So how do you do that?

The easiest thing for me is to just use a visual deckbuilder. I'm personally a fan of for its ease of use, visual spread, fantastic UI, and many reasons beyond. However, no matter what you use, I think you're doing yourself a disservice as a player if you aren't keeping track of your deck in a way that lets you give it a once-over every now and then, which lets you visually check to see if there are any cards left in your list doing nothing but getting in the way, like your appendix.

Second, when you make changes to your deck, take an extra second and look at the invisible strings that run from those cards to other cards in your deck. You don't need a conspiracy board for that or anything, just ask yourself what other cards in your deck will be impacted by what you're removing. Just asking myself what removing a token-maker would do to my deck would have very quickly made me realize it impacted the efficacy of Skullclamp, but I didn't do that until I had pulled every token producer in the deck.

Thanks for reading, and as always, if you have any feedback or examples of your own experiences with cascading changes and vestigial cards, or just want to talk about my dreamy blue eyes, go ahead and sound off in the comments below.

Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcast. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son. He has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.