Everything’s Relative: Card Power Examined

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I love receiving feedback on articles. Not only is it critical to finding out what readers want to see, it's a loaded vein of content ideas. I can't think of everything, after all, and more importantly other people will ask questions I'd never consider and/or seem obvious to me. But only because I'm me. If I knew my own blind spots, they wouldn't be blind spots. Also, sometimes readers ask questions about things that I do consider but don't have space to adequately explain and/or the topic is too big or tangential to cover in the same article. The latter is the case for today's topic: Why is Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer more powerful than A-Dragon's Rage Channeler?

Context Is Everything

The short answer is that power in a vacuum is meaningless; the only thing that matters is power in context. And I'd like to leave it there, but I definitely wouldn't get paid for that, so now it's time to explain myself.

As to the topic: When I posted the Modern Banlist Watcchlist a few weeks ago, I put Ragavan on the list for being a little too close to Deathrite Shaman for comfort. In the subsequent reddit discussions a lot of players were questioning having Ragavan and not A-Dragon's Rage Channeler (DRC) on the list. Some felt it should be there in addition to Rags, and some thought it should be instead of Rags. And honestly, had I been writing that article back in August, DRC would have been there instead of Rags. However, the intervening months shifted my thinking. And as with all things, the context is key.

Case in Point

Often, players want to examine and discuss all things Magic: The Gathering in a vacuum. That's wrong. Everything must be put in the context because the game doesn't occur in a vacuum, it occurs in context.

Consider a thought experiment: Which card is better, Tarmogoyf or Rotting Regisaur? Every single competitive player reading this just rolled their eyes, declaring "Tarmogoyf! OBVIOUSLY." To which I respond with a smug smile and reply, "Really? Why?" And a conversation similar to the following will take place.

Tarmogoyf[/card] costs less. Sure, that's a huge point in its favor. Cost is a big driver of power. However, that also means that Goyf is always dead to [card]Fatal Push, where Regisaur isn't without revolt.

[card]Tarmogoyf[/card] is playable in more decks than Regisaur. That's a good point. There certainly are deck that want a lower curve and/or need to keep cards in hand.

[card]Tarmogoyf[/card] can be an 8/9 for two mana. Regisaur is a 7/6 for three with a drawback. Those are good points, but let me counter:

  1. Goyf can be an 8/9, but it probably won't be unless you're really trying. That requires both the unlikely enchantments and tribal cards in the graveyards. Bitterblossom and Tarfire don't see any play, and enchantments are trickier to destroy than most permanent types. The typical upper limit for Goyf's stats is 5/6 (artifact, creature, land, instant, sorcery) and sometimes 6/7 from dead planeswalkers. Or, smaller than Regisaur.
  2. Goyf's stats are actually */*+1, where * is the card types in graveyards. Against a Rest in Peace, that amounts to 0/1. Regisaur is always a 7/6.
  3. How big a drawback is Regisaur's drawback? Midrange Jund empties its own hand with Liliana of the Veil anyway. And if you can't discard, so what? Doesn't make you sacrifice the Regisaur, meaning it's a live topdeck in the mid- to late-game, just like Goyf.

Protection form black is really common. Protection from green is not. Again, very true. However, that's a quirk of the current metagame. If this were 2018, that distinction would be irrelevant.

This will go on as long as I want to play Socrates and/or you don't angrily stomp off. The point is not that Regisaur is actually better than Tarmogoyf (don't be ridiculous). The point is that there will always be circumstances when a "worse" card will be better than the "better" card. What matters is the relevance of that difference in practice.

A Tale of Red One Drops

With that explained, I can now circle back to my original topic. The reason that Rags is on my list rather than DRC is that in the context of the metagame, everything Ragavan does is more powerful than DRC. DRC is a powerful card in Modern and Legacy. However, DRC's power isn't intrinsic to the card, where Ragavan is great anywhere. Which may be why it shows up everywhere.

Which is ultimately the largest single complaint I'm hearing about Modern: Red one drops are omnipresent. This isn't something new and isn't necessarily a problem. Lightning Bolt is the most played card in the history of Modern, and the margin isn't close. What's changed is that Bolt's been joined by Ragavan, DRC, and A-Unholy Heat, and it now feels like every deck must play those four cards. It isn't true, but it does feel that way.

Which then leads players to ask how whether something needs to be done. And while the consensus is that Modern is good right now, right now is the key. This feels like a metagame that can't be sustained indefinitely, and the prevalence of red cards is a concern. And when players are looking at potential problems, DRC and Rags are at the top of the list. But it's not clear which one, if either, are the problem.

Experience Matters

I didn't think Rags was better than DRC when Modern Horizons 2 dropped, and initial impressions backed up my assessment. Ragavan usually died without gaining value, where DRC and Mishra's Bauble do gain value. At the time, Izzet Prowess was still everywhere, meaning so was Lava Dart. Thus, attacking with an X/1 was unlikely. DRC netting immediate value outweighed everything else.

However, as players got better at playing with Ragavan and Prowess faded away, the scales began to turn. The strategic and operation-based implications of both cards became more pronounced and Ragavan's impact on games fully emerged. It was the experience of actually playing both cards that changed my mind, especially next to each other. Which is a great way to explain why context is so important to card power.

Head to Head

First, consider the cards on their own.

  1. Mana Cost: Exactly the same
  2. Stat line: Ragavan is a 2/1 while DRC is a 1/1
  3. Vulnerability: Removal that kills one will kill the other if they're just cast. If Ragavan is dashed, it dodges sorcery-speed removal. If DRC is delirious, it's protected from Dart et al. Every creature that would block and kill one of them also kills the other.
  4. Abilities: Ragavan has dash and a two-part ability that triggers on damage to a player. Said ability generates a treasure token and exiles the top card of the opponent's library, to potentially be cast. DRC adds a surveil trigger to each non-creature spell played and with delirium gains flying and +2/+2, but must attack each turn if able.

On their own, the cards are fairly evenly matched, but DRC is ahead. Ragavan starts with better stats but DRC gets better as the game progresses and can facilitate the transformation. Surveil is a known good ability, and given Modern's graveyard synergies, DRC is a decent enabler. Dash was great in Khans of Tarkir draft, but I don't remember it being too relevant in constructed, and definitely never in Modern. And a trigger that only triggers when attacking and unblocked doesn't sound powerful, especially on a fragile X/1.

The Tricky Part

But, what about when Rags does connect? That's where things change. Stealing the opponent's top card is a rare ability that has only been Constructed-relevant once (to the best of my memory): Nightveil Specter was a great card in Khans Standard. Admittedly, that was primarily for the devotion is provided, but stealing cards was frequently relevant, particularly against UW Control when it stole land drops or counterspells to sandbag. However, Rags doesn't steal lands, and stolen spells must be used that turn. That all sounds weaker than Specter, which isn't Modern playable.

Additionally, the spell can't be cast with just any mana, as with Specter. To make that happen Rags makes a treasure token each time he steals a card. Which is really hard to evaluate. On the one hand, Lotus Petal is a cornerstone of many Eternal combo decks, Simian Spirit Guide is banned, and there's never been a Modern-playable card that makes treasure repeatedly. On the other, Rags has to connect multiple times to cast any off-color spell with more than one mana pip, limiting the utility of the stolen card.

Which means that while DRC is fairly straightforward to understand and evaluate, Ragavan has a number of problems. One half of an ability is obviously strong, but the rest of it is marginal at best. Its other ability is similarly pretty marginal. Thus, a standard evaluation would have DRC as far more powerful.

Experience Teaches Otherwise

And that's why it is so important to test cards. Once players started playing with them, Rags has emerged as the far more useful card. A significant part of that is Rags fits into any deck with red mana while DRC requires a lot of non-creature spells to be useful, severely impacting its splashability. However, it goes far deeper than that; on a strategic level, Ragavan is far more flexible than DRC, which is a key to power. And the stealing ability has proven much better in practice than it looked.

Treasure Is Valuable

The main thing is that players have discovered is that the payoff of Ragavan isn't the extra card. The odds of stealing a non-land card are 2/3 or less, given typical Modern land counts. Of those cards, how many will be relevant the turn they're stolen and usable? However, the treasure token is useful 100% of the time. The banned list tells the tale: free mana is extremely powerful because casting more and/or bigger spells than the opponent should win the game.

In fact, using the treasure to actually cast stolen spells often feels weak compared to holding onto it. For UR decks, it's preferred to keep the treasure around to cast Counterspell after tapping out for Murktide Regent. In Jund Saga, the treasure is better served casting additional spells each turn or buffing construct tokens.

Losing cards to Ragavan feels bad, especially when it was something critical or something that wrecks you. Losing to your own cards just hurts worse. However, the real danger are the treasure tokens building up into an overwhelming advantage. And that causes fear, which changes player behavior.

The Board Stall

Which leads to the unexpected effect of Ragavan both causing and winning board stalls. Normally, if I play a one-drop and my opponent also plays a one-drop, I want to attack mine into theirs if it will trade. I get use from mine while denying them use of theirs and I get the damage race going in my favor. If the opposing one-drop is Ragavan, however, the decision calculus changes. I feel the need to keep Rags from hitting me for the above reasons, so I hold back unless I can immediately remove it. Just by existing, Rags creates a board stall, and that effect continues the more creatures are added to the board.

However, Rags can also break stalls. Having dash means that Rags is a surprise attacker on an otherwise stalled-out board. When that happens, Rags will usually draw a blocker that might otherwise be useful elsewhere because players don't want to absorb its hit. Damage that otherwise wouldn't get through then does, and/or blocks end up more favorable than otherwise. Dash also means that players need never expose Rags to sorcery speed removal, which is huge in the world of Prismatic Ending.

DRC can be used to beat a stalled board, but it is riskier. Flying is explicitly an evasion ability, meaning that when the ground is filled with constructs and Goyfs, DRC nonetheless attacks for lethal. But then, there's no choice. Gaining flying comes with the attacks-every-turn drawback. A delirious DRC must be attacked into Abnormal Endurance, where Rags can wait for a better opportunity.

Strategic Considerations

Which is the headline reason that Rags is the far more strategically flexible card even in decks that can support both. DRC is a straightforward card, and some of the decisions are taken out of its controller's hands. More importantly, the opponent knows what to expect from DRC and doesn't have to wonder if they should be afraid, meaning it doesn't alter play patterns advantageously.

Leaving DRC on the board isn't great, but it isn't as dangerous as Rags. As Search for Azcanta // Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin proved, repeatedly surveilling is good, not game breaking. If your early Regent gets answered, what was really accomplished? Meanwhile, an unmolested Ragavan will have produced a huge mana advantage and maybe some hard card advantage. Not to mention the Splinter Twin effect of striking fear and uncertainty into the heart of an opponent's plays. And that's better.

Conversely, players getting hit with DRC don't have to fear anything. It's one or three damage a turn with no additional effects. That's not great, but it's manageable. Rags hits for two and gains value while doing so. That alters the clock in ways that are hard to quantify, but definitely to be avoided.

Heed the Lesson

Ultimately, that was the decider for me on the list. Repeated Ragavan hits lead to the game slipping away regardless of anything else happening. And that's the biggest sign that it is more powerful than DRC.

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