Time to get some value out of my education, Magic style.

As I mentioned in my article last week, which you can read here, I am currently finishing up not only a computer science major, but a human factors engineering major as well. If you’ve never heard of HFE, here’s my elevator pitch: other types of engineers optimize systems for things like power output, or chemical yield, or asymptotic complexity. Human factors engineers optimize for usability, so we’re focused on creating safe, simple, positive, and accessible user experiences for new systems. I often find that I can apply the lessons from my human factors classes to other aspects of life, and today I’d like to share a lesson that has helped me elevate my Limited game.

One of the tools human factors engineers use frequently is the use case. As the name might suggest, use cases are just typical situations that something is probably going to be used in. By developing a list of use cases, human factors engineers have an easier time thinking critically about how a given system will be used, and they can make better-informed design decisions as a result.

Similarly, Magic players can take advantage of the concept of use cases while evaluating cards. Here’s how to do it:

  1. For a given card in a given format, generate a list of ways you might want to use that card.
  2. For each use case you’ve developed, comment on how good that card is at filling that role.
  3. Based on your comments, assign the card a score on some consistent rating scale.

That’s it! Later on, you can look back at the scores you’ve assigned and use them to help you with whatever decisions you need to make. Now, let’s apply this skill and look at some cards in terms of use cases.

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Common cycles often shape Limited formats, and this cycle is no exception. All of these cards see some play in the right deck. Each of them is reasonably strong when played on-color, and the flexibility of having no colored mana symbols in their casting costs is a great feature. But, in what other situations might you want sleeve them up and shuffle them into your deck?

To make this question easier to answer, I’ve laid out four use cases to consider when evaluating colorless cards with activated abilities that cost colored mana:

  • Maindeck, on-color: This is the case where you drafted the card because you planned to play it in a deck that can regularly activate its ability. Essentially, you’re pretending that the card is colored with the color of its activated ability. As a result, this measure translates to the general power level of the card as it was designed, and cards like these are usually evaluated this way. A good question to think about is, “How powerful is this card, generally?”
  • Maindeck, no sources of the activation color: You finished the draft, your deck is looking pretty good, but you’re a bit light on playables. You eye that artifact creature in your sideboard pile, wondering if you should bite the bullet and move it to your mainboard. Here, you have to ask yourself, “Would you maindeck a vanilla creature with this card’s stats?”
  • Maindeck, mild splash for the activated ability: Same situation from before, but now you have a Prophetic Prism or two. This means that sometimes you’ll get to use the off-color ability, especially if the game goes long. How does this change your evaluation from before?
    • Also note that two prominent color fixers in Kaladesh, Servant of the Conduit and Aether Hub, need energy for their abilities to work. That means that when you’re relying on these fixers, you might only get one or two chances to use your off-color ability. As a result, try to only combine these cards with splash abilities that only need to go off once or twice to make an impact on the game.
  • Sideboard, no sources of the activation color: You have to draw a line somewhere, and quite often that means leaving artifacts with off-color activations in your sideboard. However, there might be some matchups where a specific set of stats might give you an edge, and you think about slotting that card in for game 2. For a given card, when is this a good idea, and how often are those situations going to arise?

Now, the only thing we have left to do before we evaluate the cards is to choose a rating scale. I like using a rating scale from 0 to 5, where 0 means “this card is so bad in this use case that it’s negative EV to even waste my precious seconds evaluating it,” and 5 means “this card is so good in this use case that it’s always making the cut, no questions asked.” As you might expect, the on-color rating is much better than the other three in this case.

You might notice some similarities between this rating scale and other scales you’ve seen used in card evaluations, such as the one Luis Scott-Vargas uses in his quarterly Limited set reviews. However, there is one major difference, which brings us back to the premise of this article. Most rating scales factor in all the potential use cases of a card to arrive at a single composite rating. For example, a card like Plummet is often not playable in the maindeck, but it gets some points on most scales for being a great sideboard card. Our scale is different in that it keeps these use cases separate, leaving us with more information when we’re making specific decisions about cards.

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Since I’m running out of space, I’ll be diving deep into the specific evaluations of this cycle in my article next week. For now, to drive home the value of use cases and provide some closure to this process, here’s my evaluation for the first card in the cycle.

Bastion Mastodon

Use Case Comments Rating
Maindeck, on-color For white midrange decks, Bastion Mastodon does serious work, especially in a race. With the abundance of 3-power creatures, it is quite hard to kill an X/5 in Kaladesh, making this elephant difficult to kill on either offense or defense. Plus, with 4 power, it packs a punch toward incoming attackers as well as opposing life totals, and the fact that you can have both for the low price of one mana propels Bastion Mastodon from unexciting playable to lucrative curve topper. 3.0
Maindeck, no sources of the activation color Without the ability to give itself vigilance, Bastion Mastodon is a Wayward Giant that has a harder time making an impact while attacking. It can easily be chump blocked by servos, making it less than ideal in a situation where both players are looking to get some attacks in. Play it only if you’re a midrange deck lacking other beefy creatures in the 5+ drop slot. 2.0
Maindeck, mild splash for the activated ability One of the best things about Bastion Mastodon, even in a white deck, is that it sits on the board and disincentivizes attacks from your opponent until you’re ready to let it do some attacking itself. This often occurs late enough in the game on its own that you’re pretty likely to have drawn some specific type of card, namely your splash source. As a result, playing Bastion Mastodon on a splash isn’t too much worse than playing it in a base white deck, and I consider it the best card in the cycle to consider splashing. 2.75
Sideboard, no sources of the activation color Generally, if you need a 5-drop this bad, you’re either playing this card in the mainboard or you have better options. I suppose you’ll board it in against other midrange decks if your maindeck choice is particularly bad at blocking (e.g., Long-Finned Skywhale). 0.5

As we’ve learned this week, use cases can help you break a card’s function down based on what you’re trying to do with it. Next week, I’ll dive into the rest of the the cycle and provide some final thoughts about use cases. For the future, if there are any other cards you’d like me to analyze in terms of use cases, shout it out in the comments!

Are you a Modern player that’s bored with the decks that are currently dominating the format? Read this article by Charlie Rinehart-Jones that takes a look at an old favorite that’s ready to make a comeback.

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