I Am Strictly Better Than You

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An argument broke out on Twitter about a week ago regarding the term "strictly better", and it's an argument that I've seen countless times in many different venues. It's time to set the record straight, once and for all.

First of all, the term "strictly better" is not new. To my recollection, the term was first used by members of R&D in the duelist in the mid 90's to explain why they would never reprint the original dual lands. The official stance of R&D at the time (and history shows us it is still their policy) was that they would never again make lands that were strictly better than basic lands.

So what does it mean to be strictly better? For card A to be strictly better than card B, one of two conditions must be met: either card A must have identical rules text to card B for a cheaper or less colour intensive mana cost, or card A must have an identical effect of card B with other abilities for an identical mana cost. It is important to note the the supertype "legendary" is a drawback on a card and relevant to the discussion, whereas the supertype "basic" is ignored for the purposes of these discussion. Do not attempt to argue the latter point. If you want to argue the latter point then either you need better reading comprehension skills or you suffer from short term memory loss: I just said that the first definition of "strictly better" stipulated that the original dual lands are strictly better than basic lands.

The first condition is very easy to check. Counterspell is strictly better than Cancel because it has the same rules text for 1 less mana. Were there a counterspell that cost 2U that would also be strictly better than Cancel because while they both cost three mana, the hypothetical version is less colour intensive. Dark Ritual is not strictly better than Cabal Ritual because while Dark Ritual costs 1 less mana for the same base effect, Cabal Ritual has a threshold ability as well. Simple enough? God I hope so.

Now we get to the tricky part. At least, this is the part that others find tricky for reasons I will never understand. A-Shattered Seraph is strictly worse than Shattering Pulse. Shattering Pulse has the same effect for the same cost, but it also has the buyback option. It should also probably be in your EDH deck. Kavu Titan, as well as at least a dozen other cards, is strictly better than Grizzly Bears. Again, identical card, except Kavu Titan has kicker. At first glance it would appear that Braingeyser is better than Mind Spring because you have the option of making another player draw cards as well. However, while they have identical mana costs, they have different effects. The general use of these two cards is normally the same, to make yourself draw cards, and in that regard Mind Spring is better because it can't be redirected and you can cast it even if you have shroud. Even so, the effect is technically different and they cannot be compared in strict sense.

So where do the problems come up? Why do people have difficulty with this? The first trap that people fall into is comparing apples and oranges. You might say that Volition Reins is strictly better than Confiscate, but you would be wrong. Volition Reins is regular better, sure. However, while they both cost 6 mana and have similar effects, they do not have identical mana costs nor identical effects.

You see, comparing cards as "strictly better" is basically like science. You need a control with only a single variable. Only then can you make an accurate judgment on one card being strictly better. Lightning Bolt and Aether Shockwave have the same mana cost. They also share the effect of dealing two damage to something, however Lightning Bolt does a third damage. Vampiric Tutor is strictly better than Imperial Seal because they have the same mana cost and effect, but Vampiric Tutor can be used at times when Imperial Seal cannot. It's important to note that the effect does not have to be good or useful, so long as it is not a drawback. Flagstones of Trokair is not strictly better than Plains because while it has the same cost, text, and an additional positive ability, it has the negative ability of being legendary. Conversely, a hypothetical card:

Strictly Better Forest

Land - Forest

({T}: Add G to your mana pool)

{o0}: Punch yourself in the face

would be strictly better than a Forest because it always can do what a forest does identically, but it has an additional ability. You will never use that additional ability unless you're a masochist, but it's still there.

The second post common pitfall people encounter is trying to compare cards with multiple similar variables. Zap is not strictly better than Blinding Flare. They both cost the same and have some of the same rules text. However, they both have an additional ability. As such, they cannot be compared in strict terms. Zap is clearly better, but not strictly better.

And now the elephant in the room: the most common argument used to prove that cards are never strictly better. Corner cases card interactions. Simply put, card interactions are not taken into account. Cards are strictly better than each other in a vaccum. Mindslaver and Counterbalance do not change anything. Counterbalance argues that more expensive versions of identical cards can be better, however this is dependent on the makeup of the Counterbalance deck and the metagame. The existence of Counterbalance changes nothing about what the cards do. Likewise, Mindslaver does not make cards fail to be strictly better. I'd rather be holding a Shock than a Lightning Bolt if I get Mindslavered, but that's because Lightning Bolt is a better card. Someone forcing you to play sub-optimally does not change the actual efficacy of a card.

One final note on this whole "strictly better" debate: should you always play a strictly better version of a card given an option? Nope! That's right, identifying a card as strictly better does not necessarily invalidate the existence of other cards. Champion of the Perished is strictly better than Nature's Ruin because Perish buries whereas Nature's Ruin destroys. However, if Meddling Mage is running rampant and your opponent is expecting you to board Perish, you'll be glad that you played the strictly worse card on your sideboard instead. Magic is a complicated game and identifying cards as strictly better, while potentially useful, is not the automatic end to all conversation.

I hope everyone in the world reads this and understands it so that this conversation never needs to come up again. And if I ever catch you improperly using the term "strictly better", I will [cast]Donate[/card] my hypothetical Strictly Better Forest to you, Mindslaver you, and force you to activate it's extra ability until you give yourself a concussion.

8 thoughts on “I Am Strictly Better Than You

  1. "Mind Spring is better because it can’t be redirected and you can cast it even if you have shroud."

    "Simply put, card interactions are not taken into account. Cards are strictly better than each other in a vaccum."

    While you didn't say Mind Spring was "strictly better", your analysis contradicts your methodology.

    1. How so? Card interactions are not taken into account in determining which is strictly better. They are taken into account in determining which is the regular kind of better. The truth of the second statement in absolutely no way is relevant to the discussion of the first statement.

      1. I'm glad you put it that way. Another way to put it is that the discussion of first statement is in no way relevant to the topic of the article. It's a debatable which is "better", and tangential to the real point of the article. In an article describing a "science", a haphazard comparison that eschews your methodology is out of place.

        1. Jeebus is actually reinforcing his point that "strictly better" must be used within the appropriate context and with the appropriate definition. He is doing that by pointing out that while their functions are similar, they are not exactly the same. The entire purpose of that paragraph is to point out that people misuse the phrase "strictly better" when comparing cards of like function. Since people often use "strictly better" to compare cards that have similar, but not exactly the same, functions it makes perfect sense to address the issue.

      2. Let me add, I think the entirety of the article is bang on. I'm really glad you chose to succinctly clarify an issue that's been so misrepresented. However, the Mind Spring point juxtaposed with the precision of the rest of the piece, sticks out as discordant.

        1. Stric9 nailed this one. The Mind Spring point was to illustrate how cards that have similar functionality and that are normally used identically are frequently compared in a strict sense, but that it is incorrect to do so. The other comments were explaining why Mind Spring is functionally better, which is what leads most people to their incorrect conclusion that it is strictly better. It is also to point out that while Mind Spring is considered better, there are too many variables to compare them strictly.
          If this still doesn't make sense to you, then I'm unfortunately out of ideas because I have no idea where the disconnect in logic is coming from which is making it hard to address.

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