Superior Numbers - In the Margins Redux

Margin Call

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I try to perform numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using a little bit of math. Oh, and currently, there are 43,649 decks in the EDHREC database running Cancel, Explosive Vegetation, and Manalith, and not a single one of them should have any of those cards as part of the 99.

I'm back after a several-month hiatus from writing for EDHREC, and you know what? I missed me. Luckily, my day job's workload has lightened up a touch, and I now have a little more time in my week to sanctimoniously tell strangers on the internet how they're bad at evaluating pieces of cardboard in a children's card game. Everybody wins!

So where to start? Well, back when I first started writing for the EDHREC, it was with a series called In the Margins, whose conceit was that there's a significant number of cards in the format with enough strictly better variants that you didn't need to play the popular-but-subpar option. The thing is, there wasn't a significant number of those 'strictly worse' cards, at least ones that were interesting, and I eventually shifted my focus over to this series, which just focused as a catch-all for any stat-based bit of analysis that caught my attention. During that time, though, they didn't stop printing strictly better variants of these cards. Thus, for my Ali-like return to the writing ring, I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the cards I covered in my initial series and check out all the new reasons we now have to not play them.

Fun for me at least. Probably less fun for anyone still playing some of this bad cardboard.

"Speak to me as you would a young child or a golden retriever."

I might revisit a couple more down the road, but Cancel, Explosive Vegetation, and Manalith are the three peak offenders, showing up in a combined 43,649 decks. Let's look at them.

Cancel. The answer to the age-old question nobody ever asked: "What if Counterspell, but bad?". There are 7,372 people out there who presumably do their brewing with a bottle of grain alcohol in hand because I can't think of a better explanation why this sad card is still showing up in decks. You know what's more troubling than casual alcoholism jokes? The first time I did this analysis nearly four years ago, Cancel was just showing up in 3,834 decks. Somehow the population has doubled since then, despite our database now culling decks that haven't been updated in the last two years. So in addition to the original ten cardboard reasons I listed back in May of 2017 to not run Cancel, there are now a few other replacements we can look at. We'll get to those in just a moment.

Explosive Vegetation is a fine ramp spell if you're already running the 20 other, better ramp spells. Well, technically 23 other, better ramp spells, because since I wrote my previous "Cypress Hill"-themed article back in April of 2018 we've gotten three new, better variants on the Veggies.

Last is Manalith. Manalith is not a good card. There's a handful of super-powerful artifact rocks in the zero- and one-mana slot, but even if you ignore the most expensive options (such as Mox Diamond and the like, which mostly see cEDH play) there are another half-dozen or more really good ones in the two-mana range. By the time you get to three mana, you're at the point where there's 15 or so better options. And in that range, almost all of them are better than Manalith. I went over most of the ones that existed at the time back in May of 2017, and since then we've gotten more and better cards that give us even less of an excuse to run one this saddest of all mana stones.

First we'll look at the better Cancel replacements.

"I'm all out of Nicorettes, which means in about ten minutes I'm going to kill somebody."

Admiral's Order is Cancel that turns into one of the most efficient counters ever printed during the window you turn your creatures sideways, thanks to the Raid trigger. Plus, it'll stay that way until the end of your turn. In a four-player Commander pod, that window isn't a huge portion of the game, but it's much larger than the zero portion of the game when Cancel is good.

Neutralize is a variant that has Cycling 2 stapled onto the rules text. How often are you going to pitch a counter? Probably not that often, but there's no downside to the opportunity. The most bizarre part here is there are three Rielle, the Everwise decks in our database running Cancel instead of Neutralize despite it functionally being a two-mana "draw two" in the deck.

Sinister Sabotage simply adds Surveil 1 to the card, adding a fairly neat little upside to decks that care about populating the graveyard. There's just no downside here even if all you use it for is to peek at the top card of your library. Still, in searching decks for our most popular commander, Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, we see there are 39 lists running Cancel and not running this strictly better variant.

Saw it Coming lets you cast your Cancel for the cost of an Arcane Denial. That's pretty great, especially since it now does double duty of masking any other Foretell cards you may have in your deck. It's too new to really pull and data for yet, but it's just a better alternative.

Wizard's Retort is a Cancel that becomes a Counterspell if you have a creature with the type "Wizard" in play. Not even counting Changelings, do you know how many blue Wizards there are in Magic? There are 538 of them, and 98 are legendary and can sit in your command zone, yet somehow this upgraded Cancel is in over 3,000 fewer decks than its worse older brother. STAHP!

"We've got our fingers on the scales and we're tipping in their favor."

Circuitous Route lets you get Guildgates in addition to the same basic lands you can get with Explosive Vegetation. If that doesn't seem like a big deal, then you should remember that four Guildgates featuring green are in over a combined 62,000 decks. Gateway Plaza is in another 11,592. There're a lot of people playing Gates, and if you're in green, being able to grab two of them over basics is all upside.

Migration Path simply staples Cycling 2 onto Veggies, giving you an option to swap it for a draw later in the game when ramp is less meaningful. It's a bit of a boring addition, but boring or not, it's a strictly better upgrade that shows up in 1/3 as many decks as its predecessor.

Vastwood Surge gives you the option to kick your Explosive Vegetation to put two counters on each creature you control. Not terribly exciting at that cost, but it's not nothing in the right deck, and it's always more upside than Veggies offers.

"There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat."

Altar of the Pantheon is Manalith that increases your Devotion to all colors and combination of colors by one, and if you use it while you control a God, Demigod, or a legendary enchantment, you gain 1 life. That's a pretty minor upside, but as with all of these, there's just no logical reason to ignore that upside when Manalith offers you zero upside. Still, there are people with the most popular God, Purphoros, God of the Forge, running Manalith over Altar of the Pantheon for absolutely no reason. This one is especially important because mono-color decks tend to very easily generate substantial Devotion, which means Altar might wind up being a rock that more or less makes two mana if you have something like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in play, as it increases your Devotion and the mana it generates.

I should note here that technically there could be a reason to not run Altar in decks like Purphoros, even if it is technically "worse": you might not want your commander to be a creature, just to make it harder to remove.

Bonder's Ornament is only in 1,447 decks on EDHREC, which means that the odds of seeing another one are pretty slim. The reality is when you activate the ability to draw a card, 999/1000 times you're the only one who draws. A four-mana sink (five, counting the tap of the Ornament) to draw a card isn't even terrible; Arch of Orazca is in 11,645 decks.

Fountain of Ichor is a three-mana rock that can be turned into a 3/3 Dinosaur artifact creature until the end of turn.

Midnight Clock isn't quite Manalith, as it only makes blue mana, requires a blue to cast, and is thereby restricted to blue decks. Still, it's close enough that I'm going to count it, given what a bomb the ability to Timetwister yourself after three rounds around the board can be in most pods. If you're in blue and playing Manalith over this, you're wrong.

Skyclave Relic makes it possible to write In the Margins - Darksteel Ingot, as it's not just a strictly better Manalith but a strictly better Darksteel Ingot. That's not something I thought I would ever see.

Spinning Wheel has an activated tap ability that I'm not sure I can imagine anyone ever using, but, and I can't stress this enough, it's better than Manalith. That activated ability could cost 7, 10, or 12, and it's still there, and there's still the possibility that in a long, grindy slugfest when you're Hellbent and your opponent drops a hasty Dragon that's gonna end the game, you can tap it down. It's an ability with no opportunity cost if you're already running Manalith, and while it's probably the worst of this bunch, it's still better.

"This isn't the fear of falling, it's the fear that they might jump."

I feel like I shouldn't need to still point out these cards shouldn't be in decks, but learning from past mistakes isn't always humanity's strong suit.

Okay, and snark aside, there're valid reasons for running these cards. Maybe you're playing with a super-low-powered pod and playing actively sub-optimal cards is a way to keep things in check against less-experienced friends, or maybe you're building from a specific block or set so there's a finite number of options. There's a gazillion completely valid reasons to run these cards.

If, however, you're not doing it for a reason other than you just haven't updated your deck, you really should. Those little changes add up, and eventually a few minor improvements become a major improvement. So until next time, I'll see you In the Margins.

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.

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