I’m Ryan Saxe and, as this is my first article here, an introduction seems appropriate. I have been playing magic since Coldsnap, but competitively as of about two years ago. Although I don’t get out to competitive events as much as my peers, I have some decent finishes to my name. I am two for two on day two-ing GPs including a top 100 result, and I cashed the last RPTQ. I am a senior at NYU majoring in Math and Computer Science. I thoroughly enjoy algorithms and problem solving as well, as shown by my previously playing Chess competitively. I am an avid limited player, and this comes from my passion of puzzles and problem solving. Every set is a new challenge, and I hope to enlighten all of you with my approach to limited analysis, which starts with heuristics.
Whether you know it or not, you use heuristics every day. In essence, a heuristic is a solution that is right most of the time; a rule of thumb. They let you minimize effort on decisions as you can apply the heuristic solution and be right most of the time. An example of a familiar heuristic is the following: If you feel pretty sick, putting your hand to your forehead and feeling for heat often will tell you if you have a fever. This isn’t always correct, but what makes it a good heuristic is it’s right most of the time, and nearly effortless!
A common heuristic for evaluating new cards is to compare them to other, similar, cards that we already have experience with. Take Harnessed Lightning as an example. We have all recently played with Lightning Strike, which was very good in limited. Yes, it can go to the face, but that was not the primary use of the card in limited. So now that we have a similar card, we can look at the differences to assist our evaluation. Harnessed Lightning can kill an x/1 or x/2 and leave energy around. It can also kill an x/4 or x/5 if you already have energy. That is a hell of a lot of flexibility for something that we would already consider premium removal. Is that better than going to the face? Probably, as the ability to kill bigger creatures is more relevant in your average game of limited. The heuristic of comparing these cards took off a significant amount of effort in evaluation because we didn’t have to start from scratch.
Heuristics are an extremely powerful tool, and one of the best “level-up”s for your magic play. I won’t get into many of them here, but if you are interested in some of the most useful heuristics for Magic: the Gathering, there is a wonderful Limited Resources podcast on the topic, found here. For now, let’s just apply this tool to one of the most exciting parts of the new set: vehicles!
The most intuitive sub-type to juxtapose with vehicles is equipment. A very close “equipment” representation of a vehicle is that the equipped creature turns into the vehicle. But as Wizards of the Coast doesn’t develop equipment in that manner, we must think of a more classic representation of a vehicle as an equipment if we want to use our prior knowledge. If vehicles were convertible into a classic equipment, it would likely have the following logic: an X/Y vehicle with crew Z is comparable to an equipment that gives +(X-Z)/+(Y-Z) with equip cost of zero (assuming you’re tapping only one creature). Now of course this isn’t how vehicles work, but it is a pretty close representation.
Looking at Renegade Freighter, we see that this card would be a 3 mana equipment that gives +2/+1 and +1/+1 and trample when attacking with equip 0. Now that is an efficient card while you’re attacking! It’s even not that different from Grafted Wargear. But in reality, this card cannot turn 1/1’s into threats and it cannot take an already large monster and give it trample to end a game. That doesn’t mean the card is bad, in fact I think it is quite good. All this means is that there are some significant differences between the example equipment and the actual card we are trying to evaluate.
Let’s look at another card. We would evaluate Sky Skiff as a 2 mana equipment that gives a creature +1/+2 and flying with equip 0. That card would be great. After all, Gryff’s Boon was an amazing card, and I would argue that said theoretical equipment is better! But this isn’t a proper way to evaluate Sky Skiff because we can’t throw it on a 4 power dude and clock the opponent quickly. In fact, the behavior of this theoretical equipment is so different than the behavior of Sky Skiff that our evaluating technique needs to be revisited.
So what exactly went wrong? In both examples, we made an assumption that any creature can be equipped, and the vehicle would behave the same. In reality this is false. The stat-boost fluctuates on the P/T ratio of the crew, and the crew cost limits what can be equipped. I guess it turns out that these differences are so crucial that a comparison to equipment really doesn’t help all that much.
If we think more abstractly, vehicles look like equipment, but when used behave more like creatures because the end result is always the same. Look above for how a lot of players separate creatures from noncreatures. Using this analysis, vehicles belong in the bottom category with the instants and sorceries.
Let’s now think of vehicles as creatures. In fact, a vehicle is just a creature that can’t attack or block unless you tap a creature(s) with enough power to satisfy the crew cost. This helps us re-evaluate Sky Skiff. Now the card looks much more like Welkin Tern. It is a cheap, evasive flier that doesn’t count towards your blockers. It has the upside that it can block as a 2/3 if necessary, but the downside that, if you attack, it is removing another one of your creature’s from both attacking and blocking is a pretty big one.
This means in order to get the most mileage from your vehicles, you have to have a large enough creature count to mitigate this downside. This raises the first heuristic of vehicles in Kaladesh limited: vehicles don’t take a creature slot in your deck. This is going to be correct most of the time. Keep in mind, what separates the good players from the great players is the ability to discern when to break from the heuristic. Here is an example where you should break from this heuristic:
When you have vehicles you have to take higher priority to get a density of creatures in your draft. But considering a card like Fleetwheel Cruiser, or any Crew 1 vehicle when you have a large number of cards with fabricate, those could be considered as creatures due to their propensity for becoming a creature at a low cost.
The key to breaking any heuristic is understanding why the heuristic exists. The above heuristic exists to ensure you draft enough creatures to maximize having both a creature and a vehicle on the field. More so, it is accentuated because it is best to have multiple creatures to reduce the cost of crewing a vehicle. If we need this to reduce a cost, we now can look for situations where the cost is already reduced. Realizing that this was the driving force behind the heuristic, I was able to forge a situation that minimized the underlying issue, and hence no longer needed the heuristic!
Our current comparison technique isn’t perfect, but it will suffice. Over the course of the format, vehicles will settle into their proper pick order. But as of now, this is the best we can do to understand them before we have the pleasure of playing with them. With our limited knowledge, let’s move forward and discern how vehicles will impact the way we draft.
Drafting with Vehicles:
Drafting is one of the most skill intensive aspects of Magic. Every set has different evaluations of the same cards. If you were around for Rise of the Eldrazi, you may remember what was called “the bear trap”. This is the phenomenon that, although a 2/2 for 2 is considered completely playable, they were not playable in that draft format because the top end available was so good that a bear (a 2/2 for 2) would more often than not be irrelevant. This is of course an extreme, but vehicles are likely to warp the format as long as they play on an axis different from the norm.
Vehicles are stat monsters! Looking at Renegade Freighter again, we see a 3 mana 5/4 trample at common. Of course it has the caveats expressed in the previous section, but regardless, that is quite the rate. The fact that nearly all vehicles are significantly above curve will require a focus on curve. Both if you’re drafting vehicles or if you just need to play against them. Having a good curve against vehicles is necessary because of how they play given our evaluation. When a vehicle attacks, it effectively removes at least one blocker for the following turn, so curving out against a vehicle can enable you to attack back for enough damage such that your opponent’s vehicle becomes irrelevant.
The reason for having a good curve with vehicles, is that they give your creatures pseudo-haste. If you can continually play a creature that can drive your vehicle, then you simply played an above curve creature. Hence, heuristic number two is: Prioritize a well balanced curve. Note that this is very different than prioritize two drops (something you may hear a lot), which was necessary in Magic Origins in order to not get run over by some of the marquee commons in the early game, such as Topan Freeblade. In many limited formats, curving 2, 3, 4 is very good, but not necessary. I argue that this curve will be important to surviving and/or winning in Kaladesh limited because of the existence of vehicles.
Furthermore, the reason we do this is to optimize the impact our vehicles have on the game. The other way we can optimize this impact is by the way we use our creatures to crew. If a vehicle has crew 1, it is best to drive it with a creature with power 1. Same goes with crew 2, 3, and so on. But keeping track of the power of every single creature you have during your draft is a lot to ask for. Completing a task to a perfect level is extremely difficult, and the best thing to do is develop a heuristic in order to take off some of the weight!
After looking at all of the power-toughness ratios of the vehicles, I believe the following is a heuristic: If a vehicle has crew cost Z, then I am excited to use a creature with power Z to crew. And I am willing, but not happy, to use a creature with power Z+1 to crew. Additionally, I am almost always unhappy using two or more creatures. This leads to the first generalization: crew 5+ is just bad. 5 power creatures are scarce in limited, and using two relevant creatures to crew is too much to ask.
Continuing down this path, we can use our knowledge that 1 power creatures are often not worth a full card in limited. Hence, if you have a 1/x lying around that already provided value (something like Kujar Speedsculptor or a servo token), this makes vehicles better as crewing becomes a smaller cost. Combining this logic, we come to the following conclusion: Crew 1 will require a reasonable number of fabricate/utility cards to be at its best. Now that we have a good understanding of a strategy to help select and keep track of creatures for crew 1, what changes for crew 2 and 3?
Crew 2 is trivial. The nuts and bolts of limited tend to be creatures with 2 and 3 power, which would imply that crew 2 is the best crew number as most of our creatures can satisfy the requirement to drive to a sufficient margin without effort. Crew 3 is also quite good, as 3 power is also common in limited. So how does the difference between these requirements impact our draft decisions. Well, in limited there is one question that’s answer changes from format to format: what is better, a 2 / 3 or a 3 / 2? From the application of vehicles, if you have a card with crew 2, the 2 / 3 is better, while crew 3 would prefer the 3/2.
You might now be thinking that I forgot crew 4. But if you combine all the logic, crew 4 is optimized by taking both utility and fabricate creatures as well as 3 / 2s. This is actually a significant amount of work, and why I believe crew 4 is a little steep. This doesn’t mean that you cannot play your Aradara Express, but it will be more difficult to sculpt a deck that uses it to it’s fullest potential.
Now that we understand how to optimize each playable vehicle regarding its crew cost, we can define a heuristic in order to apply the above while drafting: Crew costs shift draft priorities. Keeping track of the crew costs of a couple cards is a lot easier than keeping track of the power of each and every creature you draft. If, at each pack, you prioritize creatures with the previously described technique in respect to the vehicles you have, your deck will lean towards the proper optimization. I would advise you to, between each pack, quickly look at the crew cost of all of your vehicles and check if you are lacking in the proper cards that enhance the potential of your vehicles. This way, you can prioritize those cards for the next pack in the same way that, in all limited formats, you make sure you have enough creatures, a good curve, and some removal. Of course this means that picking up vehicles late in a pack are more difficult to evaluate, but we can’t have a perfect solution, and that is the reality of a game as complex as Magic.
To bring everything together, we now have three great heuristics to assist in playing with vehicles. Combining these produces an intriguing discovery. To remind you, we have the following:
- Vehicles are not creatures → prioritize creatures. Every deck needs a good number of creatures, and vehicles don’t count. So make sure not to put too many vehicles in your deck. The downside of vehicles will be even more accentuated if you draw two.
- Prioritize a well balanced curve → Vehicles impact the board the most when you crew with a creature that couldn’t attack anyways. When you curve out, then the vehicle’s behave closer to an above curve creature!
- Crew costs shift draft priorities → We have stated another heuristic for what types of creatures work best with what crew costs. Understanding this allows us to prioritize these types of creatures to fuel our vehicles to the highest potential.
These Heuristics were designed to mitigate the downside of vehicles. Previously we discussed that vehicles are like creatures with an additional, negative, cost. Imagine removing this cost. 2 mana for a 2/3 flier? 3 mana for a 5/4 trample? These cards are spectacular! This doesn’t mean our first heuristic is wrong; Vehicles still aren’t creatures. But, exploiting these three techniques increases the probability that they behave as creatures in a game of Magic.
Hope you enjoyed the ride, and tune in next Tuesday for more limited analysis!