Superior Numbers - Slot-Blockers

Block is for Mathers

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

Ravenform. It's a neat little efficient bit of removal from Kaldheim that can exile an artifact or creature for 2U, either all at once or spread over multiple turns using the Foretell keyword. Sure, it leaves behind a 1/1 blue Bird creature token with flying, and it's limited to times when you can cast a sorcery, but it's still a pretty decent card.

And it's also not playable most of the time.

Why? Because there are finite slots in EDH decks, and Ravenform is generally muscled out by other cards that do the same thing, but better. That's what I want to talk about here: cards that are, on their surface, quite good, but often can't find a slot because enough other better things exist that edge them out of the 99.

"The Only Qualifications for Being a Lineman Are to Be Big and Dumb"

Now, obviously there are extenuating circumstances and caveats here. Just because cards might bump something like Ravenform out of a deck in the abstract doesn't mean they do so in reality. Price, for example, is an issue than can roadblock folks. Generally speaking I'll make notes where that's relevant, but it's also the kind of thing that can be in flux. Yesterday's $90 Three Visits can become $2 today very easily.

Conversely, the opposite can happen. It doesn't even have to be that extreme. For some people, a card hitting $3 can push it out of their price range. Availability is also an issue in that some older cards just don't show up in store cases and trade binders, and then can limit access and make the otherwise less desirable options more attractive. As with price, this is the kind of thing I'll try to note.

I'm also going to focus on cards that are universally good. Force of Will is generally considered one of the strongest counterspells ever printed, but not all decks have enough blue cards in their deck to reliably have one to pitch, whereas there are few if any restrictions in terms of deck construction that might preclude playing a card like Rapid Hybridization.

"Linemen Are Like Salt: Nobody Ever Remembers the Brand"

Pongify, Rapid Hybridization, and Reality Shift are three fantastic, instant-speed targeted removal spells that are often times going to slot-block Ravenform. They range in price from $1 for Pongify to around $4 for Rapid Hybridization, with Reality Shift landing somewhere in the middle. Each one is both more efficient and more versatile, and they generally have less downside. Most importantly, though, you probably don't want more than three of these in a deck, especially given blue's access to counter magic than can solve these problems on the stack.

Now, Ravenform can also hit artifacts, and it can be used in a deck with other Foretell cards to keep it from being obvious which is sitting exiled, waiting to be cast. That's useful, but does it offset the fact that it can be cast in a much narrower window due to being a sorcery? I'm not sure it does. Also, the 1/1 Bird it leaves behind can be relevant in Superfriends decks who don't want to give their opponents evasive blockers, or decks with fliers without trample that might not want to give away chump blockers.

This is just looking at mono-blue decks, too. Azorius and Dimir decks are going to also have access to white and black targeted creature removal spells. All this means that a perfectly good card like Ravenform winds up slot-blocked.

"When You Hang with Offensive Linemen, You Tend to Find Places that Serve the Most Food"

Speaking of cards in Azorius decks that might contribute to blocking things like Ravenform, white has the same problem with Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares being perhaps the two best targeted creature removal spells ever printed. Both are certainly popular: Swords to Plowshares is in 114,470 decks, making it literally the second most popular card in Commander behind Sol Ring. Path isn't far behind as the 21st most popular card overall.

These two cards are effectively keeping otherwise serviceable cards like Declaration in Stone from seeing play. Things get further complicated in white because it has so many open-ended removal spells, like Generous Gift and Council's Judgment. Sure, Declaration can hit a swath of tokens, but that doesn't come close to offsetting the fact that it operates at sorcery speed.

The reality is it's going to be really challenging for any single-target creature removal spell in white to ever break through the slot-block that Path and Swords have erected.

You Block and Tackle Better than the Team You're Playing, You Win

Gift of Estates, Land Tax, and Tithe are the first where price becomes a consistent factor. That's not to say that Path to Exile and Rapid Hybridization at roughly $4 each couldn't be a barrier to entry for some people, but the $35 you see on Land Tax and $55 (and rising) you see on Tithe are a whole different thing. That said, those cards weren't always those prices. Some folks, myself included, were fortunate enough to get multiple copies of Land Tax at $10 and Tithe during the decade-long window when it cost less than Path to Exile. If you happen to be someone in that position, or if you're someone who can spend that kind of money on cardboard, or are in a proxy-friendly environment, there's just probably never going to be a catch-up land mechanic worth running that's as good as Gift of Estates, Land Tax, and Tithe.

Further complicating this is the fact that catch-up land mechanics don't stack all that well. Sure, nobody outside a Landfall deck really wants to top-deck that Nature's Lore when you're already holding a Kodama's Reach and Three Visits, but those three cards stack just fine. Ramping land is ramping land; it's always going to put you ahead.

White's catch-up mechanics? The last thing you want to see when you have a Land Tax out letting you fetch three Plains a turn is another card that lets you put Plains into your hand. That's not to say you don't want redundancy. Redundancy is a great thing, and it increases your chances of hitting an effect you want. But you want to keep that density in check to the point where it provides consistency but doesn't become superfluous.

Football is Blocking and Tackling. Everything Else is Mythology.

The ability to transform a creature into a worse creature while keeping it in on the board is quite powerful. A traditional removal spell allows the player to recast their creature, especially if it's their commander, and the same is even true of white's older series of Oblivion Ring-esque cards thanks to the Commander replacement effect on an exiled card. With a card like Darksteel Mutation, your opponent's commander is just stuck in play, being useless.

The problem with this type of effect is even if they break through the slot-block caused by cards like Swords to Plowshares and Pongify, you probably don't want more than one of them, and they printed the best versions in white and blue the first time around. Sure, maybe Heliod's Punishment or Reprobation would see play if Darksteel Mutation didn't exist, but it does, and it's much harder to get rid of thanks to granting the creature indestructible. You can't just cut a deal to have an opponent chump block and kill it.

Same with Imprisoned in the Moon, which can also target a troublesome land or planeswalker, and is similarly hard to deal with since it makes the target a land. Absent Imprisoned, things like Deep Freeze get much more interesting, but Imprisoned does exist, and you generally don't want a second, worse copy.

Anyone Can Run, Not Anybody Can Block

The "problem" with Phyrexian Arena-style cards is they take a full turn to generate your first extra draw, providing ample time for your opponents to come up with a removal. Mystic Remora and Rhystic Study eliminate that somewhat by generating potential draws immediately, assuming an opponent tries to cast a spell. They also have the potential to generate so much card advantage as to render that risk largely irrelevant.

Still, it's not a sure thing. Rhystic Study can draw you a dozen cards, but it can also draw none if someone has a Nature's Claim in hand and one extra mana. You're also limited to sorcery-casting timing. Because of this, you probably don't want too many enchantment-based draw effects. And when these two are so phenomenal, it's going to be hard for a third to push into that space.


So why am I talking about this? Well, because when it comes to evaluating cards, one thing people miss out on each spoiler season is the fact that a card being good isn't necessarily important. What matters is whether or not a card is good enough to find a slot in a deck where it may be getting slot-blocked by existing, superior cards. It was something I saw quite a bit with Ravenform, and it's something I'd imagine we'll see again as the next expansion is revealed.

Before you get too caught up in how great a card is gonna be in Commander, just look if it's going to have a home, given the completion, and make your evaluation based with that in mind. 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.