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Theory

An Ode to Scalable Threats

February 19th, 2020Andy Mangold

My buddy Dale has distilled his Cube drafting technique down to a simple mantra: take the most broken cards you can. While other players prioritize fixing, try to force a specific archetype, or focus on drafting a deck with an ideal curve, Dale just takes the most unfair cards available.

Many cube designers use a similar philosophy to curate their lists, running as many broken and individually powerful cards as possible. I know this was one of my primary considerations when deciding what to include in early iterations of my own cube. After all, combining the most powerful cards should make the most powerful decks, right?

Alas, certain types of cards are underrated by this approach. Cantrips don’t affect the board and don’t generate card advantage and as a result might be seen as a waste of a slot, when in reality they provide helpful consistency and flexibility. Aggressive one-drops, which often languish in the sideboards of their respective limited formats, can, by their power combined, run over control decks full of the most powerful finishers ever printed.

Scalable threats are similarly easy to overlook. By their nature, they are rarely the most powerful option at any point on the curve. If I wouldn’t put a 1/1 for 1, a 2/2 for 2, or a 3/3 for 3 (and so on) in my cube, why would I run Stonecoil Serpent? The answer is because scalable threats are Swiss-Army knives that make your deck more effective despite their lack of raw, individual power. A real Swiss-Army knife is actually a pretty bad knife. It’s also a bad can-opener and a bad screwdriver and a bad nail file. That said, I would much rather have a bad can opener than no can opener when I discover that Derek’s contribution to the camping trip is just an unopened can of beans. Fucking Derek. The same theory applies to scalable threats: I’d much rather have a bad one-drop than no one-drop when I am trying to curve out with my aggro deck.

People’s card evaluations are also influenced by a card’s performance in high-level competitive play. Scalable cards do show up in constructed formats, as Hydroid Krasis has demonstrated during its run in Standard, but I believe they generally underperform in this context relative to limited. Sixty-card decks have perfect control over their curve and a vast pool of cards at their disposal to fill any gaps. Even the most streamlined and powerful cubes are scrappy by comparison — you would need an open lane and some luck to draft anything close to a truly ideal curve. The packs rarely break so favorably. It may seem contradictory, but scalable cards help draft decks get closer to the consistency of sixty-card decks even though the scalable cards themselves don’t shine as brightly in constructed.

Advantages of Scalable Threats

They decrease reliance on top-end finishers. Powerful, high-CMC cards are one of the appeals of Cube for many people, but they are fundamentally narrow. It takes a specific deck to cast cards like Will Kenrith, Inferno Titan, or Craterhoof Behemoth, and as a result they often end up in the sideboard or left in the pack even if you’re playing their respective color. Aggro decks in my cube top out at four mana. The average midrange deck can’t cast eight-drops and needs to carefully ration its six mana spells. For those reasons, I am always looking for opportunities to lower my curve without depriving the decks that want them of powerful win conditions — something that scalable cards help with. Many of them are suitable top-end finishers without the risks and narrowness inherent with expensive spells.

They offer more decision points during games, rewarding skillful play. I enjoy pre-releases and other opportunities to play sealed, but some pools lack interaction which can lead to games where the optimal strategy is simply deploying your threats in ascending CMC order and hoping it’s good enough to win. For me, Magic gets interesting when you have to decide whether to disrupt your opponent or develop your own board, which threat to cast between two of equal cost, whether to spend your mana on two smaller spells or one big one, how to sequence multiple spells in the same turn, and all of the layered decision trees created at the intersections of these options. In my cube, I want to minimize the number of games where the best strategy is to cast spells on curve and cross your fingers. Adding just one scalable card to a particular hand opens up several diverging lines of play, giving players additional opportunities to make strategic choices that affect the outcome of the game. Should you run your Voracious Hydra out on turn three to pick off that Mesmeric Fiend or hold onto it until you can play it as a huge finisher? Do you play your Walking Ballista on two if you have nothing else to do with your mana, or give up some tempo to play it later for more value? I want games full of decisions like these.

They allow for more efficient use of mana so decks curve out more often. In Magic, winners and losers are often decided by which player is able to use more mana and cast more spells over the course of the game. It may seem like an oversimplification, but it took a couple years of competitive play before the earliest Sligh decks emerged, demonstrating that a low curve can consistently beat a deck full of much more powerful cards. I’m always trying to ensure that tempo is an important axis in my cube and my games don’t devolve into “who has the most powerful cards”. Scalable threats, which can be slotted into numerous points on the curve, help players use all of their mana more frequently, ultimately making proactive decks faster and more powerful. A hand with multiple five mana spells can be very clunky, but if you replace one of those fives with a scalable card that is strongest on five mana but castable on four, the hand is much stronger even if the individual cards are not. Scalable cards also have a special utility in low-curve decks: you can’t put a seven-drop in your aggro deck because in most games you won’t be able to cast it. However, if you do get flooded you can cast a scalable card for seven. This makes matchups less polarizing and gives you additional outs in otherwise compromised positions.

They provide meta-flexibility and fill different roles in different matchups. In addition to patching holes in your hand or curve, many scalable cards can be used differently depending on your opponent’s strategy. In a midrange deck playing against control, Stonecoil Serpent may be best utilized as a cheap creature to try and punch through early damage and bait out an inevitable board wipe, as dumping a bunch of mana into something easily removed by a Doom Blade is a liability. In the next round, the same midrange deck might be incentivized to cast a much bigger snake, knowing that their mono-red opponent will struggle to remove a high-toughness creature with burn spells. Using a single draft pick and a single slot in your deck on a card that can be both a cheap beater against control and a stonewall against aggro is a lot of value, even if it’s not the best cheap beater or the best midrange blocker.

Finding Room in Your Cube

I don’t restrain myself to like-for-like substitutions in my own cube, but for those who do I think it’s best to compare scalable cards to top-end finishers with a high converted mana cost. Often times, a direct swap can be made without sacrificing much in terms of raw power level. I’ve selected a few side-by-side comparisons pairing scalable threats with similar, non-scaling cards I see a lot of people playing in their cubes to demonstrate this theory in practice.

Avenger of Zendikar is powerful card with a high ceiling — making a vast army of increasingly large tokens.

However, I’ve cut it in favor of Wolfbriar Elemental. On the seven or eight mana required to play Avenger, Wolfbriar Elemental is similarly powerful: a 4/4 and three to four 2/2s puts more power on the board than Avenger, and it still provides plenty of bodies if you’re interested in some kind of token synergy.1 Even if you find yourself in a game state where Avenger is clearly better, Wolfbriar Elemental is often still good enough. After all, whether you deal exactly lethal with a couple wolves or absolutely bury your opponent in a tidal wave of plants, a win is a win.

If you’re not convinced that Wolfbriar Elemental is an excellent seven drop, consider the more salient argument: in some games, you die with Avenger of Zendikar stranded in your hand where casting Wolfbriar Elemental for four, five, or six mana would have saved you. I’ve noticed players tend to be critical of the “fail-case” when evaluating scalable cards — after all, a vanilla 4/4 for four mana is not a card in consideration for most cubes. Expensive, splashy cards often seem to escape this scrutiny. A vanilla 4/4 for 4 is a lot better than a card you cannot cast. Players tend to focus on how good Avenger of Zendikar would have been if they could have resolved it, not how putting a seven mana card in their deck in the first place likely cost them the game.

For all the Timmys/Tammys out there, these cards scale in both directions, of course. Wolfbriar Elemental is better than Avenger of Zendikar when you’re stuck on five mana, but it’s also better when you’re topdecking in a board stall with Rofellos, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, and Gaea's Cradle in play and you get to make 37 wolves or whatever. Fun!

It’s a similar story with Finale of Glory and Angel of Invention. At five mana, the cards have a comparable effect on the board. Angel obviously has its own modality, but I feel Finale lines up favorably enough against all of them.

There is some gray-area here with Angel’s anthem ability. I don’t rate that effect very highly because its power is contingent on you having an already established board and your opponent not having removal for the Angel. Just like Avenger of Zendikar, there are definitely game states where Angel of Invention is better, but my assessment is that it’s not enough better to exceed the value of Finale’s flexibility. Call the Cavalry may be weak in a vacuum, but it’s great on turn four when you have a Planeswalker to play on turn five that you need to protect. Sometimes you cast Demonic Tutor to get a basic land. Similarly, scalable cards, even when cast for their least value, are sometimes exactly what you need.

Master of the Wild Hunt is a contentious Cube card. Some people maintain that it’s a staple and others insist it’s downright unplayable. I’ve found the abundance of interaction I include in my cube makes fragile, slow value engines like this a bit of a liability, and much prefer the play pattern of a card like Voracious Hydra. On four mana, the Hydra can immediately kill an opposing X/2, and usually survive the encounter. Master, by contrast, has to wait a whole turn cycle and then tap itself down to remove the same X/2, and is likely to lose the wolf token in the process. In this instance, I actually prefer the Hydra on four mana, and that is before we even factor in the value gained from the ability to cast it at other points on the curve, or simply as a four mana 4/5 with trample if that is advantageous. Master of the Wild Hunt is a pretty weak top deck if the game has stalled out — it’s slow to get rolling thus giving your opponent more time to draw out of the stall, where Hydra can immediately remove a big creature and present a fast clock if you have access to lots of mana.

I have a complicated relationship with non-interactive threats like Hexdrinker and Carnage Tyrant in my cube, but if we’re comparing them directly we can put their insusceptibility aside for a moment.

Tyrant is a silver-bullet against control strategies for green ramp decks. It often demands that your opponent find a board wipe or lose, and rather quickly, too. At the time of writing, I believe it to be green’s strongest six mana play. However, that is its only real use. If your opponent is aggressive, you’ll be lucky to live long enough to cast six mana spells in the first place, and even if you do resolve this you can still just die to a burn spell or board full of small creatures that can afford to throw some away to get the last points of damage through.

Hexdrinker presents a dizzying array of options. Play it for one mana in an aggressive deck as a Savannah Lion, cast it and immediately level it up three times for a resilient midrange threat reminiscent of Thrun, the Last Troll, wait until you’ve got nine whole mana and run it out as a pseudo-Progenitus, or anywhere in between. Whether your resources are worth investing into the snake and at what rate is contingent upon the cards you have in hand, the board-state, and the strategy of your opponent’s deck. Unlike Carnage Tyrant, I believe it has a home in basically any green deck and it opens up many different lines of play, not just praying you get to six mana before you lose.

Unlike our other examples, Carnage Tyrant is quite a bit better than Hexdrinker as a six drop. I’m willing to sacrifice power at that specific slot in exchange for opening up different options along the curve. A sufficiently leveled Hexdrinker will end games just as effectively as Carnage Tyrant, even if it takes more mana to get there.

Even though Consecrated Sphinx is wildly powerful and a favorite among many cubers, I’ve been looking to cut it for awhile. It can take over a game unanswered, but occasionally eats instant-speed removal before your opponent’s first draw, which is blowout city. Nevertheless, I preferred it over the alternative big blue finishers. At least I did until Ravnica Allegiance.

The printing of Hydroid Krasis gave me a perfect opportunity to hedge on the risks associated with Sphinx without robbing my blue decks of a powerful top-end option.2 Though Sphinx creates a wide array of possible outcomes, in my experience, it’s most likely to draw two cards before biting the dust. If this is fair assessment of the average result of casting the card, Krasis is very comparable at six mana.

Whether you rate the absurd ceiling on Consecrated Sphinx or the modality of Hydroid Krasis more highly is a matter of opinion. For me, even though a Krasis on six isn’t as good as an uncontested Consecrated Sphinx, how likely am I to need or use the fifth or eighth cards I draw off the Sphinx anyway? Drawing two and putting a decent body on the board will often be good enough, and the flexibility of Hydroid Krasis is a big upside. I’ll always take an X=2 Krasis, boring though it may be, over a Consecrated Sphinx if my opponent is playing aggro.

This comparison also shows most starkly how moving towards scalable cards tends to decrease polarizing, swingy gameplay. If Consecrated Sphinx is in your cube, some games will completely revolve around it, for better or worse. Scalable cards, by definition, have higher floors (they almost never do nothing) and lower ceilings (they aren’t the most powerful option at any given CMC) and make games more about incremental advantage than big, blowout plays. Neither approach is inherently better, of course — it’s a matter of your design values — but I hope the comparison demonstrates that you don’t have to give up much in terms of power to introduce more flexible cards, should you so choose.

Caveats

Scalable threats have been a boon to my cube given my current draft and gameplay goals, but they have tradeoffs which must be measured in the context of your own cube and objectives.

The primary drawback is that most scalable threats only work properly when cast from your hand. Reanimate, Natural Order, Through the Breach, Show and Tell, and Green Sun's Zenith basically do nothing with most of the cards I’ve highlighted. For similar reasons, they get uniquely owned by O-ring style interaction and are often a non-bo with blink enablers. I don’t support reanimator, blink, or any kind of “cheaty” strategies in my cube, so these downsides have a minimal effect in my environment.

Scaling cards are best utilized in certain kinds of decks — proactive ones that want to use their mana efficiently and gain an advantage by applying consistent pressure instead of relying on specific, key cards — namely aggro and especially green-based midrange. If these archetypes don’t thrive or aren’t supported in your cube the advantages of scalable cards may be outweighed by the costs.

Scalable threats also have diminishing returns. I’m very happy to have a single scalable card in my opener to smooth out my curve and fill the gap of whatever I’m missing, but I would be much less happy with an opening hand full of X spells. I’ve highlighted examples where scalable cards line up favorably against fixed-CMC alternatives, but at the end of the day they are less powerful, on average, than their non-scaling counterparts. I believe this sacrifice in raw power is worth it for the benefits I have outlined, but en masse they can become a liability. I don’t think I’ve found the limit yet. I’m still longing for more scalable threats for my cube, but these diminishing returns is what has kept me from testing less appealing options like Endless One or Wildcall.

Conclusion

Dale is a good player, and his “just take the powerful cards” strategy has served him well — but the truth is I don’t want that to be the best approach to my cube. I want to reward my players for drafting a cohesive deck, not just a pile of good cards. Scalable threats help make cohesive decks come together more often by introducing flexible picks that can fill a number of different roles. They’ve improved my drafts by allowing me to cut down on narrow, high-CMC cards, and improved my games by helping players curve out more often and giving them choices that reward thoughtful play. Even though they may not be the most impactful cards in isolation, I believe they’ve made my decks more powerful and brought my high-level archetypes — aggro, midrange, and control — into sharper relief.

If your goals overlap with mine give scalable threats a chance to shine in your cube!


  1. This analysis assumes that any deck that runs Wolfbriar Elemental and is capable of producing seven or eight mana will lean fairly heavily towards green, giving it plenty of green sources for the multikicker. I have found this to be the case in my own cube, but your mileage may vary.

  2. I know, I know — Hydroid Krasis is a blue-green card, not just a blue card. Don’t worry about it!

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