Superior Numbers - Invalidating Power Memory

Lemme hear you say, "fight the power"

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I conduct numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using just a little bit of math.

Mission Briefing is a better card than Snapcaster Mage. Not all of the time, but a lot of the time. Most people don't realize that though, because of what I'll call power memory. Overestimating something based on past performance or some other factor isn't something unique to Magic. For example, professional athletes late in their careers often make money based on their performance years earlier than they're statistically unlikely to repeat due to age. How many people kept watching that disastrous last season of Game of Thrones because of everything that happened before? And Bruce Willis keeps getting cast in movies despite the fact that he hasn't actually bothered trying since 2012. People do those things for the same reasons they keep playing Snap over Mission Briefing

Snapcaster Mage has been an absolute monster of a card since it was released in September of 2011, and it didn't stop being relevant once it left standard, seeing heavy play in Modern as well Legacy, and even Vintage. It's a non-Reserved List rare printed in the last decade whose demand pushed it to a high price of $85 back in 2015, something almost unheard of. Even today, after four additional printings, the cheapest copies still hover around $45.

Mission Briefing on the other hand is currently available for a under a dollar, and it's been about a dollar since around four months after it was released.

Now we don't need to go over all the situations where Snapcaster is great. If you're playing Riku of Two Reflections of course the ability to copy that creature for a second body is useful, as is blinking it in Brago, King Eternal or reanimating it in Sedris, the Traitor King. Having that ability attached to a body is useful in decks that care about those things. Some decks running a lot of things to sacrifice to a Skullclamp. Prime Speaker Vannifar wants creatures to use to chain off into a combo. It's great in a lot of places.

It's not in others.

While I don't doubt there are some Talrand, Sky Summoner decks that want to bounce their Snapcaster Mage to recast it, by and large most just want that effect in spell form. There are certainly Kess, Dissident Mage decks that do things that interact with Wizards, but by and large they want to recur that instant from the yard, and it's just gravy if that instant puts more instants and sorceries into the yard via Surveil. There're probably some Kalamax, the Stormsire decks that want a 2/1 on the field for when they copy that Mercadia's Downfall, but by and large they'd prefer to just bring back two things off the cast.

There are 88 Talrand, Sky Summoner decks running Snap but not running Mission Briefing. There are 436 Kess decks doing it too, and another 98 Kalamax decks only running the Wizard without the Briefing. Not all of those are doing so because the need a nearly-worthless chump blocker or because they intended to do something with the body. No, a lot of them are running what is in their build an inferior, radically more expensive card because they remember the power of Snapcaster Mage in other formats.

They're letting power memory make their deck weaker.

Watch who's comin' at you. Who's got the power?

Power memory doesn't necessarily have to be tied to past performance, either. Damnation made a splash when it was released in February of 2007, but that's mostly because people were hyped to see a color-shifted Wrath of God. It certainly didn't become a staple in other formats like Snapcaster Mage, though it does still see fringe Modern play in some black decks. No, the myth of Damnation was built by its price. See, despite being released in 2007, Damnation didn't see its first reprint outside two even more expensive limited edition foils until 2015. It's one of the best, most in-demand board wipes in black in Commander, and for a long time Wizards basically refused to reprint it in a way that allowed the average player to acquire a copy. So the price ballooned and ballooned until it capped out at just over $70. Even today the cheapest Modern Masters 2017 printing is over $35. It's a card whose power memory was formed around the mystique of its price and inaccessibility.

Wrath of God? Well, it was first printed in Alpha, has been reprinted approximately 115 times since then, and has almost always been available for less than the cost of a Big Mac. It has little to no mystique.

So why does this matter?

The five most popular Orzhov commanders in the EDHREC database are in order Teysa Karlov, Athreos, God of Passage, Karlov of the Ghost Council, Kambal, Consul of Allocation, and Teysa, Orzhov Scion.

Now, some of those decks are probably people who just for whatever reason happened to have a Damnation and no Wrath of God. Some are maybe flexing their expensive promo. Some might even be strategically doing so because based on deck construction they need the white pips to rebuild after a wipe more than black ones, so spending black ones on the wipe itself makes sense.

That's not all of them though. No, some of those are people running a more expensive card over its functionally identical budget counterpart because the legend of Damnation (and its price buildup and inaccessibility) tricks the brain into thinking that it's a more powerful card.

And why am I so certain this is why they're doing it?

Because I did it.

I recently built an Orzhov deck, and when putting my list of board wipes together, this was my literal thought process: "Austere Command and I think Cleansing Nova because they're so flexible. Merciless Eviction will hit my indestructible commander, but it's so versatile I think I want it too. Toxic Deluge? Ugh, also will kill my commander. Maybe just a old-school four drop instead. I know I have a Damnation."

I also have multiple copies of Wrath of God, but in my head I defaulted to Damnation. I did catch the biased selection pretty quickly, but I still made it.

In this case, people might not be letting power memory make their deck weaker, but they're letting it make their deck more expensive.

Stop tripping, I'm tripping off the power

This last example of power memory involves former EDH all-star Rafiq of the Many. Rafiq has a problem. A Rafiq Problem, if you will. That problem? As posited by our own Jason Alt, you can build a weaker, less scary Rafiq of the Many deck, but you shouldn't bother because people will just murder you anyway. Rafiq was scary to people at your table back in 2015, so much so that they were going to archenemy you just for having him as your commander. Times have changed a little, but Rafiq still has a problem. You know what other problem Rafiq has? He has a power memory problem, because Rafiq of the Many isn't even that good of a commander in the current era of the EDH format, but people often are still going to murder you anyway because of how good Rafiq once was.

How far has Rafiq fallen? He's only the 7th most popular Bant commander, and he's not particularly close to Roon of the Hidden Realm in 6th. Power of course isn't necessarily the same as popularity, but there is some connection, given the names above him on the list are sledgehammers like Arcades, the Strategist, Chulane, Teller of Tales, and Derevi, Empyrial Tactician. Still, there are tables where, if you reveal Rafiq as your commander, people will swing at you as hard as they'll swing at someone running Arcades, Chulane, and Derevi. I've seen it happen.

In this case folks are letting power memory change how they evaluate the power of a commander and the threat level that comes with it.

Power to the seat that can't be beat

So how do we fix this? Well, it's not easy, aside from being intentional with your card choices. Ask yourself why you're running a card, and then take your answer and examine if it's true.

Question: Why am I running Snapcaster Mage in this deck?

Answer: Because it's the best way to get the effect I want in this deck just like it is in other formats.

Evaluation: Well, Snapcaster is great in other formats where having a 2/1 chump blocker or chip damage dealer can be an actual asset. Here though, those things are way less useful since a 2/1 blocker is nearly irrelevant, and you won't be casting the card at at time when you can probably use it for chip damage, something also less important when dealing with three 40-life pools instead of a single 20-life pool. The conclusion I'm going to come to then is that a lot of the utility Snap brings to, say, Modern isn't present here, and if the card has less utility maybe there are replacements that in this situation outshine it.

How do you avoid letting power memory affect your card evaluation choices? Is it a phenomenon you were even aware of? Are there any specific cards or situations you can think of that strike you as examples of power memory? Sound off in the comments below.

Thanks for reading, and as always, may your numbers be superior.

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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