Looking at a Random Card: Crowd Favorites
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Crowd Favorites: I resolved to bring the number of entries in this category up to 40 before the year ends, so here we go for the last time in 2011!
There’s a certain species of cards in Magic which seems to be a collection of freak designs, but is actually intentionally made. Crowd Favorites belong to it, as well as Ancestor’s Chosen, Kemba’s Legion, Pale Wayfarer & Rockcaster Platoon: The 7-mana white uncommon creature. (Kami of the Honored Dead belongs technically, but, in contrast to the others, actually fits in the structure of creature designs for its block.) I don’t remember where exactly I read it, but in some article on magicthegathering.com there was a reference to it, and I’m quite convinced I remember correctly that it was Ken Nagle who outed himself as a fan of these cards (why would that guy EVER say ANYTHING I don’t hate?)
Let’s make this short, because the new year is coming ever closer: These cards suck. 7 mana is a lot to pay (actually, to wait for) even in limited, and since they are just uncommons, and since White’s creatures – for some probably color-pie-related reason – are supposed to get worse the further you go up the mana curve unless they are rares or mythics, you don’t get nearly enough of a compensation out of them for waiting until they actually hit play. Crowd Favorites is probably even the worst of the bunch, being a vanilla 4/4 unless you pour a lot of additional mana into them (and just because you finally got to 7 mana it doesn’t mean that you don’t need your lands for anything else anymore). I’m really not sure what the purpose of these cards is: Luring noobs into playing cards which will be a mulligan most of the time they draw them in their opening hand or during the first few turns? (It’s not as if beginning players could even learn from that experience – it takes a good amount of general strategical understanding to realize that you need to avoid having dead cards in hand by lowering your mana curve.) Sometimes frustrating players who, due to bad luck, get into a lategame stall against a noob player and are then forced to watch in horror how they lose to a terrible card which their opponent shouldn’t have played in the first place? Disappointing players who draft a deck specifically geared towards accumulating mana and employing these creatures just to realize that the payoff isn’t worth it? It’s a mystery to me, but hey, if Ken Nagle likes them, do you need any other reason?
I’m not sure how many players realize that 7 mana isn’t just “one mana more than 6 mana”, but an entirely new ballpark of expensiveness. See, you just don’t run more than 50% mana cards in your deck (and you shouldn’t). Thus, if you start out with your original hand of 7 cards, you will very likely have emptied your hand from all mana cards before you reach 7 mana (and otherwise you are obviously severely flooded, with only a few business spells). That in turn means that you will, on average, have to wait a little over two extra turns to get from 6 to 7 mana, possibly for longer than the game actually takes to be decided…
Let’s take a look at an example for a “perfect” draw. You play first with a deck which contains exactly 50% mana cards, all of them lands. You draw your cards in “perfect” distribution, meaning mana and business in alternate order. You also manage to fall perfectly into your mana curve. So, each turn you play a land and a creature which uses up all your mana, like, say:
1st turn: Plains, Elite Vanguard
2nd turn: Plains, Leonin Skyhunter
3rd turn: Plains, Chapel Geist
4th turn: Plains, Moorish Cavalry
5th turn: Plains, Serra Angel
6th turn: Plains, Jhovall Queen
…and now you’ve emptied your hand. You’ve made optimal use of your resources each turn, and it is quite likely that the game will be decided before your 7-mana creature, which will hit the table on your 8th turn and be ready to attack and use its activated abilities on turn 9 has any impact.
Now, this sequence of plays is as unlikely as they come, not just because you naturally will almost never draw that perfectly, but also because you will not build your deck with an even distribution of creatures across the mana curve. I won’t get into details here, but I will postulate that there are stops in the mana curve at 2, 4 and 6 mana which require some additional effort or time to overcome: 2 mana is the limiting cost for dependant mana cards to be reliably employed on the turn corresponding to their cost (meaning that, within the bounds of reasonable manabases not entirely bent towards accelerating mana cards out, you can expect to play a Coldsteel Heart on turn 2 with regularity, but not a Worn Powerstone on turn 3). 4 is the amount of mana cards you can expect to draw until your fourth turn with any regularity, meaning it is the last consecutive turn where you will usually not miss a land drop (once again assuming a reasonable manabase, and not etxra draw effects). 6 is the cost of the most expensive card you can reasonably expect to cast without having to wait for an extra turn before with unused mana.
These steps are important to keep in mind whenever you construct a manabase and mana curve. They are the reason you cannot count cards costing 3 mana or more as mana acceleration unless your deck is specifically built to support them – your supposed mana acceleration will actually slow you down here. They are the reason that you have to be especially wary how many cards costing 5 or more mana you put into your deck, because you are likely to get to 4 mana in 4 turns, but then stay there for another turn – too many more expensive cards will manascrew you. And they are the reason you should only play cards for 7 or more mana only in a specialised deck, or conscious to the fact that they will probably be a mulligan whenever you draw them early. Yes, that ist the criterium for including these cards in a limited deck: Are you willing to effectively mulligan roughly an additional third of the time for the lategame power this card provides? For Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, the answer is probably yes (provided you play a deck planning to have a lategame at all). For Archangel, it depends on how much your deck needs to gamble on being able to harness its power instead of relying on a more solid early game. For Crowd Favorites, the answer is almost certainly no.
I don’t even think that decision is matchup-dependant. If you feel that your games against an opponent might get drawn out that long that you seriously consider to add such an underwhelming lategame card to your deck, you might instead want to look into sideboarding into a faster version of your deck (and maybe include some land destruction). There might be a few cases where it could actually be correct to put in your Crowd Favorites, but they are certainly no justification for a designer to put that creature into an environment in the first place.
In summary, I really hate these designs. These cards are largely unusable in limited (you don’t really expect me to comment on their constructed value, do you?), and they can even create moments of frustration when less experienced players put them into their decks and lose while they clog up their hand. I like to avoid this kind of noob traps in my cubes – for me, it is important that less experienced drafters and deckbuilders are subtly guided into putting together decks which can at least participate, a goal which can be achieved by modelling the contents of a cube after the contents of a typical competently drafted deck (significantly more than 50% creatures distributed along a good mana curve). Crowd Favorites would be actively damaging that goal by luring beginners into using them, leading to less enjoyable gameplay. That is why they don’t just get an E for being no use, but are even downgraded to an E- for threatening to worsen players’ enjoyment.