One of the hardest skills for a newer player to grasp is what makes a card good. This is difficult because there are a number of factors that go into this. Is it a Limited or Constructed environment? Which format? Whats the meta like? What are some of the popular cards others players may be using? What is your deck trying to do? What other cards do you want to play? Are there other cards that could fill this slot better? How fast is the card? Does it combo well with other cards that you want to use? The questions are endless. The place where such evaluation matters the most is Limited, especially for booster and cube Draft. Picking the wrong cards could make all the difference in your deck’s performance. Even professional players can make a bad pick in these environments at times, so don’t feel too bad about it. Evaluating cards is not an exact science so there are no overall answers that I can give. However, here are a few tips that may help.
For creatures, the easiest way to evaluate them is what is called the vanilla test. Vanilla is a term used to refer to a creature with no abilities. You can evaluate all creatures using this method whether they have abilities or not. You look at the mana cost and its power and toughness. If all three are equal, or if the power is greater than the mana cost while the toughness is still equal to or greater than the mana cost, then it passes the vanilla test. Look at the cards below and see if you can pick the ones that pass the test.
Only 2 of these cards pass the vanilla test; Savannah Lions and Llanowar Elves. The vanilla test only works as a baseline for creatures and doesn’t take into account any abilities that they may have. Most of the time, this test is implemented more in Limited environments when trying to fill out the rest of your mana curve. Its also the most helpful when evaluating creatures for aggro decks. There is also the french vanilla test which takes some abilities into account, mostly evergreen ones. Looking at the card below, Being a 2/2 for 3 mana, Academy Drake does not pass the vanilla test, but it does pass the french vanilla test due to its flying ability. For limited, things like that are always relevant. Flying creatures are great because they can always push damage past nonflying creatures. Menace is also a very good combat ability as well as first strike, double strike, trample, protection, hexproof, and indestructible. In fact, creatures with abilities like these are highly valued in Limited.
For noncreature spells, it’s much harder to evaluate them. But the best way that I have found is to just look at all similar effects in the format and compare them. Let’s say that you want to build a deck that has a bunch of cards like Lightning Bolt. We’ll call it 20 Bolt Burn or something like that and we’ll keep it casual. Below are your initial picks for other cards to include. Obviously, you must have Lightning Bolt and this is going to be the card to compare the rest of your cards to. It would be best to just have 20 copies of Lightning Bolt, but that would be against the rules so you want to get as close to that number as possible using cards that are similar to Lightning Bolt; 1 mana, instant speed, 3 damage, can hit any one target. It’s the best burn spell ever printed so you want to get as close to that as possible. With that in mind, let’s look at the rest of these cards one by one. Jaya’s Greeting – costs 2 mana, still at instant speed, same amount of damage, can only hit creatures, and a bonus of scry 1. Two potential problems; It costs 1 mana more and only hits creatures. Open Fire – costs 3, still at instant speed, still 3 damage, still hits any target. Big problem; it costs 3 mana. Lightning Bolt deals that much damage for 1 mana. 3 red mana can cast three copies of Lighting Bolt for a total of 9 damage. This card is eliminated. Abrade – costs 2, instant speed, deals 3 damage to a creature, bonus of getting to destroy any artifact as an alternative effect. The problems here is that it costs 1 mana more than Lightning Bolt and its bolt ability can only hit a creature. It’s not outright bad, so we can keep it for now and keep going. Anger of the Gods – costs 3 mana, but it also deals 3 damage to *each* creature and has an added bonus of exiling any creature that it kills. Lightning Bolt can only hit one target, but this hits every legal target. Rather than just use up a bunch of bolt cards as creature removal, you can use one card to hit more than you would likely have the mana for if you were to cast multiple copies of Lightning Bolt individually. So Lightning Bolt is a for sure keeper, Anger of the Gods also has a strong argument for a keeper, Jaya’s Greeting and Abrade are okay, but there may be something better out there, and Open Fire is gone.
Let’s move Anger of the Gods into the sideboard pile, because it will be good against some decks, but useless against others. Since Open Fire is gone, let’s ignore all cards the have a converted mana cost of 3 or higher. Lightning Strike reads exactly like Lightning Bolt, the only difference is the mana cost. Searing Spear reads the same as Lightning Strike so it’s close enough. Searing Blaze; this card costs 2 mana and at its worst it deals 1 damage to a creature and 1 damage to a player. At its best it can deal 3 damage to a player and 3 damage to a creature if you have played a land on the turn you play this. While instant speed does mean that you can use it on your opponent’s turn, having to trigger landfall to get the most out of it makes the card better on your turn which basically means its best utilized at sorcery speed. Sorcery speed can be acceptable at times and I think this is an instance where it is okay. The deck is just running a bunch of bolt effects and this can be 2 bolts on one card, much like Anger of the Gods is multiple bolts on one card. It also maintains the ratio of 1 mana for 3 damage like Lightning Bolt; the only problem is getting a land in play on the turn when you’re ready for that effect. Fiery Impulse is 1 mana, but in order to make it a bolt, you need at least 2 instant and/or sorcery cards in your graveyard. The deck we are trying to put together does have 20 of these cards so the odds of having spell mastery active is quite high. The only problem is that it can only hit a creature, but you will want to do that from time to time so I think this is acceptable. Let’s reevaluate some of the earlier cards. Lightning Strike and Searing Spear have better reach over Jaya’s Greeting so it’s out. They also have more reach over Abrade, but Abrade can destroy any artifact. If that artifact is a 7/7 creature that you don’t want to waste multiple bolt spells on, Abrade can take care of it. So Abrade is now in the sideboard.
So to recap on what you have picked so far: Lightning Bolt, Lightning Strike, Searing Spear, Searing Blaze, and Fiery Impulse are all in the main board, while Anger of the Gods and Abrade are part of the sideboard. If creatures start to get out of hand, you can bring in Anger of the Gods and take out either Lighting Strike, Searing Spear, or Fiery Impulse. If artifacts are a problem, swap out Fiery Impulse or Searing Blaze for Abrade. As new sets with new cards are released, you may feel like swapping out some older cards that don’t perform as well as the others and there is nothing wrong with having to reevaluate what cards you are using. It’s part of getting better and learning how to optimize your deck. Now for a moment I want to talk about why 2 mana burn spells are okay in this scenario. In my opinion, and lots of other players’ opinions, Lightning Bolt is perfectly balanced as far as burn spells go. If you want to stick to 1 mana for a burn spell, either the damage decreases, or your targets are limited. Such is the case with Shock and Flame Slash. Shock can hit any target at instant speed for 1 mana, but it only deals 2 damage. Flame Slash can deal 4 damage, but only to a creature at sorcery speed. Now these are still perfectly acceptable cards under certain circumstances, but you’re making sacrifices in some aspects. There are also cards that can be a Lightning Bolt under the right conditions like Fiery Impulse above and Wizard’s Lightning. Sometimes these conditions are just not worth it. In the case with Wizard’s Lightning, who says I want my creatures to be Wizard type? I would have to have at least 10 of my creature be Wizards just to have the necessary consistency. If this was a Wizard tribal deck, sure I’d be glad to run it over one of the above cards. Why Fiery Impulse is okay is because there are 16 other cards in the deck that are instants and the odds of having two of those in the graveyard at any time is pretty high. In other words, there are no other cards closer to Lightning Bolt than some of those 2 mana cards.
Another way to tell if a card is good is by the effect it has on the board when it comes into play. This doesn’t necessarily refer to enter-the-battlefield triggers. Something like Charging Monstrosaur, a 5 mana 5/5 with haste and trample can put a lot of pressure on the opponent and even has the potential to end a game when timed correctly. Since it has haste it can attack on that turn, and due to its trample ability it can’t be chump blocked as easily as something without trample, so there is a very good chance that this will deal damage to the opponent or take out a blocker or two which can weaken your opponent’s board state. Anthem effects like Gaea’s Anthem also affect the board right when they come into play. Let’s take a look at some examples of cards that do not affect the board right away. Colossapede does pass the vanilla test, but it doesn’t do anything until the turn after you play it which gives your opponent more time to deal with it or find a way a way to do so. Sigil of the Empty Throne may seem like an amazing effect, but by the time you can play it the game is probably nearly over and you just wasted 5 mana on an enchantment that can’t do anything until your next turn. If you manage to survive it can be a huge payoff, but the majority of the time this is not what you want to be playing. There is a very particular strategy to making it work in Constructed, and if you try to build around it, you may be sacrificing some more effective cards to do so. This is an example of one of those trap cards that Wizards puts in booster packs for Limited. It has a very powerful ability, but its not proactive enough for the aggro environment of Limited. The only place it really works is in Commander.
The last thing I want to talk about is B.R.E.A.D. This is a strategy used when drafting. The idea is to separate the cards in a pack into 5 categories; Bombs, Removal, Evasion, Aggro, and Duds. Bombs are cards that can swing the game in your favor. Often times these are creatures with triggered abilities or enter the battlefield triggers that are very strong. They can also be creatures that are very hard to block, an enchantment that slows down your opponent, something that powers up the creatures on your side of the board, or something that gives you a lot of card advantage. Removal is exactly what you would expect it to be, removal spells. Removal is king in Limited. If you cannot answer your opponent’s threats, it’s game over. Evasion is cards that have combat abilities like flying or cards that can grant that ability to others. Remember that Limited is an aggro based format, so most of the time you and your opponent will be turning creatures sideways at each other. If your creatures can get by without being blocked, it’ll be that much easier for you. Aggro is just picking out what you want to fill in your mana curve. Remember that aggro decks want to play on curve as well as they can so having enough smaller creatures in the right slots is important. Finally, there are the duds. These are cards that are not good and you were forced to pick towards the end of the pack. Most of the time, they may not even be in the right color. You can still use a few of these if you need to fill out your deck a little more, but that’s a rare scenario.
That wraps up card evaluation. Remember, it’s not an exact science. With experience, you will get better at identifying good and bad cards. The best way to get the hang of it is to just practice and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself at times. If you have a few friends, try a cube draft to get a feel for Limited. If one of your friends has a deck that gives you a hard time, try putting together a deck designed to beat that deck. Let me know what you want to see next (or leave some lingering questions) in the comments down below.