The Vindicate Test
Card evaluation is one of the core skills every Magic player must develop. It guides the cards you choose in a draft, how you build your deck for sealed or constructed, and a multitude of in-game decisions, like whether you need to counter a specific spell or what creature to use your removal on. It’s also fundamentally subjective — outside of a relatively small subset of Magic cards that have strictly worse counterparts, there is no objective way to demonstrate that any one card is better than another. This combination, card evaluation’s simultaneous importance and subjectivity, leads to spirited debate between players.
Through this discourse, codified, named philosophies of card evaluation have emerged. The Vindicate Test is one such philosophy. In essence, it poses the following question:
If you play a card and your opponent untaps and casts Vindicate on it, are you advantaged or disadvantaged by the exchange?
It principally serves to shake players out of the bad habit of evaluating cards based on how they perform in the best-case scenario by forcing them to consider what happens if their opponent has a removal spell. By providing a specific context and eliminating all other variables we create circumstances where a more objective evaluation can be made. Two players may disagree about how good Colossal Dreadmaw is, but it’s difficult to make the case that it lines up favorably against Vindicate. This small, undeniable truth anchors the discussion and helps players better understand and describe their positions.
Since its namesake’s initial printing in Apocalypse back in 2001, the Vindicate Test has flourished because Vindicate is an excellent abstract representation of a variety of kinds of interaction in Magic. After all, the point of the test is not really to consider how well a given card stacks up against literal Vindicate, but more broadly to understand how the momentum of the game is affected if the threat is cleanly removed, for a fair price, at a reasonable moment. Vindicate gives form to this abstract idea — it defines what “cleanly removed” means, and what a “fair price” and “reasonable moment” are — something it is uniquely qualified to do.
So why is Vindicate the right card for the task? First and foremost, it’s simple. There are only three words of rules text on it: “Destroy target permanent”. With no additional costs, upsides, or restrictions, it leaves no room for distraction. Secondly, it destroys anything, which means our test can be used on any permanent. This flexibility comes at a cost — though it remains the gold standard for removing any kind of permanent, Vindicate is less efficient than narrower, top-tier removal spells and can only be used at sorcery speed. For our purposes, this additional cost and timing-restriction make it a better representative of the average of all possible removal effects.
While it may be tempting to instead measure against premium removal like Swords to Plowshares, there are only two cards in the whole history of Magic that will allow your opponent to unconditionally exile a creature for one mana at instant speed. Whether it’s a sorcery, a creature with an enters-the-battlefield ability, the loyalty ability on a planeswalker, or even just an instant that your opponent is forced to cast main phase because they were tapped out on your turn, there are a multitude of ways your opponent could remove your permanent on their turn for roughly three mana.1
Rather than trying to imagine a vast matrix with the card in question compared to all of the removal in Magic, an impossible task, we use a shortcut: on average, our opponents will probably remove our threats for roughly a three mana investment at sorcery speed. Sometimes they’ll do it for one mana on our end step and sometimes it will cost them six mana on their next turn. The test is predicated on the idea that Vindicate represents a reasonable average of all of these potential outcomes.
The Vindicate Test only poses a question, it does not provide any clear rubric to define what constitutes passing or failing — whether you are advantaged or disadvantaged in the exchange is often subjective. However, there are patterns to cards that earn a pass somewhat objectively.
Each of the following rules defines a category of card that almost always passes the Vindicate Test, but as you’ll see, they all have exceptions.
Trading cards 1-for-1 with your opponent but spending less mana in the process is usually a great way to gain a tempo advantage. Anyone who has missed a land drop while behind on board then had their opponent untap and Vindicate one of their lands knows that this isn’t universally true, but under most circumstances it’s pretty safe to say that cards that cost zero, one, or two mana pass the test. Sometimes my opponent will have to spend their removal spell on my Mother of Runes so I don’t get to untap with it, and that’s a big part of why Mom is so good: it’s not just powerful if I untap with it, it often swings the tempo of the game in my favor even if it’s immediately removed.
Mana value can be misleading, though. Vryn Wingmare and Nullhide Ferox both cost as much or more mana than Vindicate, but still pass by making your opponent’s removal spell cost more. You need access to five mana to cast Treachery, but if it resolves (and you cast it exclusively with mana produced by lands) you get all that mana right back, making it effectively cost zero. I would argue Treachery gets a pass for this reason, but that is somewhat subjective. Whether or not you can actually use the additional mana is contingent on the game state — if you’re hell-bent with no activated abilities to spend mana on, Treachery is just a five mana Control Magic.
Conversely, some inexpensive spells have additional costs and therefore cannot be assumed to pass solely by virtue of their lower mana value. I would argue Bloodrage Brawler fails the test, assuming no additional value was gained from discarding the card when it came into play, because the one mana disparity is outweighed by the card advantage your opponent has gained in the exchange. Same goes if I sacrifice my whole board to Phyrexian Dreadnought only to have it removed, or if my opponent Vindicates my Tempting Wurm after dumping their hand onto the battlefield.
While mana cost is a good indicator of a potential tempo swing, it doesn’t mean you’re always favored when your opponent spends more to remove a threat than you paid to cast it.
Cards that come with some additional value that can’t be Vindicated away are often considered to pass the test. Most commonly, these will be permanents with enter-the-battlefield or leave-the-battlefield abilities and planeswalkers, both of which have an immediate impact on the game which is not completely undone by your opponent removing the offending permanent. This value can come from more novel sources, though: haste or flash allow you to use your creature in combat before it dies, Consecrated Sphinx doesn’t have any abilities when it enters or leaves play, but draws you two cards on your opponent’s draw step, before it can be Vindicated, and creatures with board-affecting static abilities like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite sometimes only need to be in play for an instant for their impact to be felt.
However, it would be foolish to assume that any left-behind value results in a passing grade. If your opponent immediately Vindicates your Grave Titan, you effectively paid three mana (the difference in mana cost between Grave Titan and Vindicate) for two 2/2s — a good rate that I would consider a pass. If we put Watchful Giant to the same test, we must decide whether the single 1/1 token created when it entered the battlefield is worth the three additional mana we paid in the exchange — likely not. Between these two extremes there is a whole range of left-behind value created by cards — drawn cards, damage dealt, tokens created, life gained — whether or not that value is worth the difference in mana investment is often unclear.2
Some cards, like Precursor Golem, Alpine Guide, and Master of Waves, have relevant enter-the-battlefield abilities, but the value they generate is undone by Vindicate. It’s conceivable that you could use these resources in some other way before the removal spell resolves, though not guaranteed — another gray area in our rubric.
Ultimately, simply having some kind of ETB or immediate impact on the board is not enough for a card to pass. The value gained and costs paid must be carefully weighed in each case — which is often difficult or impossible without a complete picture of the game state.
Obviously, permanents that can’t be destroyed by Vindicate — those which are indestructible, self-recurring, or cannot be targeted — pass the test. The exemplars of this class of cards are creatures like True-Name Nemesis and Carnage Tyrant, which are almost unconditionally safe from targeted removal. However, not all cards meet this high bar. Even within this relatively straightforward category we find shades of gray.
Cards that can protect themselves with activated abilities, like Aetherling or Masticore, can be considered to pass as long as they’re played off-curve, so as to hold up an activation of their relevant ability. This challenges the fundamental power level of the card: Aetherling may be strong at six mana, but is it still reasonably costed if we consider it a seven-drop? If Masticore is good at four, is it still good at six?
Pack Rat is a unique example in this space. If played with an additional three mana available and at least one card in hand to discard, it can copy itself in response to Vindicate, effectively “protecting” it from targeted removal. Nevertheless, removing any individual Pack Rat token is a 1-for-1 with both players spending a card and three mana in the trade — an even exchange by our established logic. The Vindicate Test would therefore imply that value of Pack Rat is not in its efficiency, but in the ability to turn any card into a threat and the natural resiliency that comes from the cloning ability. Whether that amounts to a pass or not is quite subjective.
Recursive permanents are especially difficult to assess in a vacuum. Remember that we chose Vindicate partially because of how simple it is mechanically. When cards translate or circumvent that mechanic it complicates everything. Rekindling Phoenix, Golgari Grave-Troll, Arclight Phoenix, Feasting Troll King, Bone Dragon, Masked Admirers, Vengevine, Eternal Scourge, and many cards like them can all technically be removed by Vindicate, but the effectiveness of that line is entirely dependent on the game state. Here, the narrowness of our test renders it ineffective.
What about all of the cards that don’t fit into one of these categories? What does the Vindicate Test tell us about all of our three-drops that die to removal and leave no trace? Or our four-plus mana spells that sometimes provide additional value and sometimes do not, depending on the board state or just variance? The test is least effective for these cards — once again the inherent subjectivity of card evaluation becomes clear.
One interpretation of the test dictates that if a card isn’t guaranteed to generate value, it fails. This strict application provides us with an answer for many of the cards the Vindicate Test otherwise offers no insight on. Mulldrifter always draws us two cards, a pass, but Oracle of Mul-Daya is much less reliable, sometimes dying before providing any card advantage, and thus fails by this logic. Where does that leave a card like Ravenous Chupacabra or Hostage Taker, though? Your opponent won’t always have a relevant target in play, so they are not guaranteed to generate value and would presumably also get a failing grade.
I reject these sorts of binaries. Magic is complicated enough that almost nothing is guaranteed. There is a decent chance you will not get any value from Oracle of Mul-Daya the turn you play it, but it’s also possible that your opponent has Narset, Parter of Veils in play, keeping you from drawing cards off your Mulldrifter. Worse yet, they could flash in Notion Thief in response to you casting it.3 For most cards, there is not an absolute answer, but rather a certain probability of the spell realizing it’s full potential, usually dependent on other probabilities, like whether or not your opponent has a creature in play that is worth targeting with Ravenous Chupacabra. I believe good card evaluation acknowledges these complex layers of nested and interconnected probabilities instead of shoehorning every card into inflexible “pass” or “fail” buckets. Each player must decide for themselves how often they expect a given ability to be relevant to the game, and whether that upside is worth risking the moments when the card is stuck in your hand.
Thought experiments like the Vindicate Test are useful tools for grounding card evaluations. They challenge our natural biases and force us to consider different perspectives when assessing a card’s potential while also giving us a helpful shorthand to communicate efficiently with other players and build on our collective understanding of the game. Like any tool, there are correct and incorrect ways to use it — knowing how to apply it properly is the difference between improving your card evaluation skills and stifling them.
If you’re playing in an environment where removal is scarce, or significantly below the power level established by Vindicate, the test is not useful. At a pre-release, I am unlikely to have many cards in my sealed pool that pass the Vindicate Test, but my opponents will have limited access to removal. In this context, it would be a mistake to rate my most powerful cards harshly just because they leave behind no value if they’re immediately removed. I’m playing Drakuseth, Maw of Flames if I open it, and you should too. In multiplayer formats like Commander, instant-speed interaction tends to be heavily favored over sorcery-speed alternatives — when evaluating cards in that context I would adjust my assumptions to test how good a card is if it never makes it to my end step. In popular constructed formats with established metagames, players often have knowledge of the pool of cards they’re likely to play against. When this information is available, it’s far better to weigh your threats against the removal you know your opponents are going to have instead of using Vindicate as a stand-in for an array of unknown removal.
It is important to remember that the Vindicate Test is not a comprehensive means of card evaluation. Using it to dismiss other people’s opinions or shut down the conversation around a card demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of its reach. After all, if it is your only benchmark, you would naturally conclude that Staunch Defenders is a better card than Baneslayer Angel. It is not.
Named heuristics often have an undeserved air of certitude about them — less experienced players are likely to lean on them in lieu of putting in the work to construct their own argument for or against a card. “Card X fails The Vindicate Test” sounds objectively true, even though we have demonstrated that it is rarely that simple. Even if a particular card does fail, that ought to be the beginning of your analysis, not the end.
Plus, sometimes your opponent just doesn’t have it.
- None of the highlighted examples are exact clones of Vindicate, and that’s sort of the point. There are so many unique cards with removal effects that it’s impossible to imagine how a given threat lines up against all of them. Some cost more mana and come with additional benefit, some cost less mana and are restricted in what they can remove.
- There is no clean way to use precedent from Magic R&D to measure the ETB value of these cards. Taking Watchful Giant as an example: we can’t ask whether or not the single soldier token of value it generates is worth three mana by comparing it to a theoretical card — a vanilla 1/1 for 3 mana — because even though this soldier did cost us three mana, it did not cost us a card. It came attached to the Watchful Giant. We may then look to compare our three mana investment to other sources of 1/1 tokens that don’t cost a card, such as the activated ability on Mobilization. If we use this as our benchmark, it would actually imply that a single soldier for three mana is a decent rate: Mobilization is a relatively efficient repeatable source of 1/1s when compared to recently printed cards like Westvale Abbey, Dawn of Hope, and Ironroot Warlord. However, this comparison also breaks down under scrutiny, as the value of these other effects comes from their repeatability, and we can’t make as many 1/1s for three as we want with Watchful Giant, just the one. If Mobilization only allowed you to activate it once it would be quite bad.
I believe the closest existing mechanic to compare this value to is kicker effects. Many kicker cards are vanilla or french vanilla creatures that have some extra ETB value if their kicker cost is paid. In these cases, the effect is not repeatable, and R&D has helpfully separated the mana cost of the primary creature from the mana cost of the additional effect — the kicker. This leads us to Sergeant at Arms as a point of comparison for Watchful Giant. According to Sergeant, three mana is worth two 1/1s as a one-time ability stapled to another card. Giant only gives us one, so I’m confident in my initial assessment that it should not be considered to pass the Vindicate Test. If our opponent spends three mana to remove it the value left behind is not worth the additional three mana we paid, even just by the standard set by a fairly unremarkable common.
- In a specific environment it is sometimes possible to make more absolute statements about card economy. If a given format doesn’t include Narset, Parter of Veils, Notion Thief, or any other way to punish card draw, it’s quite safe to assume that Mulldrifter’s additional value is guaranteed in that context. Unless you’re playing against a mill deck and you only have one card left in your library, of course.↩