When is cheap discard good? – Shared Discovery by Rob Wagner
Hi all, the topic for today is cheap (as in 0-2 mana) discard spells and when they are good. The topic has been inspired by the recent Modern PTQ season but truly the ideas will apply to any period in Magic and the ideas come up again and again.
The exact thing that prompted these thoughts has been peoples’ definition of the Jund deck. Something that has been said by several commentators and writers about Magic is that the core of the Jund deck is the black-green cards, but they haven’t always agreed about what they are. Always mentioned are Deathrite Shaman, Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Liliana of the Veil. Sometimes mentioned also are Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. Rarely mentioned is Abrupt Decay.
The reason we all think of the permanents is that they are high-quality Magic cards and no other card comes close to doing what they do. They are all tremendous threats that some decks really struggle to deal with, as well as being answers by themselves. Abrupt Decay is a powerful answer card to a lot of problems, especially in a format such as Modern which pushes you to be efficient with your mana and play cheaper spells; but between a few good 4-drops, lands which are creatures, an overload of 1-mana permanents, and the fact that other similar spells do about as good a job or better (Lightning Bolt, anyone?) means that it isn’t as uniquely important as the threat base.
So, the discard spells themselves. There are a few 1-mana discard spells which are not as commonly used as Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize, such as Blackmail, Despise and Duress, because the range of cards they can take doesn’t match up as well against the format of Modern cards. So, we can first off say that 1) the range of cards the discard can take needs to be cards people reliably have in hand. However, just because that range exists it doesn’t mean that the discard spells are automatically good. People don’t all agree that discard is part of the Jund core even, so we still have work to do.
What are we looking for?
Let’s ask a different question, what are we expecting to see in an opposing hand? Imagine a format where the cards we are taking are all strong and that we can take them. Let’s even just look at the Jund mirror – you fan open your starting hand and you see the following: Blackcleave Cliffs, Verdant Catacombs, Raging Ravine, Lightning Bolt, Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf. This looks like a great hand to me, keep! Turn 1 we make Blackcleave Cliffs and push forward our discard spell, what do we see?
The problem with this hand and decision is this: our opponent has 3 lands, 2 answers and 2 threats, and has what is called redundancy. One of the threats matches up quite well against our threat (Tarmogoyf on Tarmogoyf is a fair fight) and obviously their answers work quite well, so taking one of their answer cards isn’t hugely strong. Additionally, taking one of their threats doesn’t put us in a stronger position than when we started as we have cards which are able to answer those with our Lightning Bolt and Tarmogoyf.
We are glad of the information we have gained, but we haven’t really gained much of an advantage in the game by casting this spell, instead we are only really breaking even. The redundancy our opponent has by their cards doing largely the same sorts of things has protected them from a discard spell breaking up their game plan or pressuring a resource they have little of.
For a more extreme example of redundancy, consider the case of seeing a hand with 3 lands and 4 1-mana 2/2 creatures – your discard spell has done basically nothing but stop their turn 3 2/2!
This is largely my experience of the Jund mirror, where I prefer to take out my discard spells, but it isn’t always the case in Magic. Back in Faeries on Faeries matches, the card Bitterblossom was so strong because it provided a great battlefield advantage, made all your other cards contextually much more powerful and wasn’t able to be removed by the opponent once it was in play. There were no one-mana counter spells to stop it from resolving, so the only way you could prevent an opponent from making it on turn 2 was to take it directly out of their hand with Thoughtseize.
The deck didn’t have the same redundancy because no other card provided the same massive advantage of having a Bitterblossom in play, so if you cast a Thoughtseize and took their Bitterblossom then you really were stopping their plan in its tracks unless they had 2 or drew another. Additionally, you know what the best way to stop your opponent from taking your Bitterblossom with their Thoughtseize was (remember that there were no one-mana counter spells)? That’s right, your own Thoughtseize! So, when there really are so few cards that are as powerful as one another – a lack of redundancy– discard gains a lot of value. Therefore our next rule is 2) discard gets more powerful when there is a lack of redundancy for proactive effects.
The lack of a one-mana counter is quite key there, as during the Caw-Blade era people tried to gain an advantage by splashing black for Inquisition of Kozilek. This was partially foiled by having worse mana and also by the card Spell Pierce (which was good in context anyway) being able to stop your opponent making you discard your turn two play of Stoneforge Mystic, which I don’t think I need to tell anyone was very powerful.
What would make it bad?
As well as a lack of redundancy making discard bad, sometimes people build their decks in other ways specifically to counter the act of discarding a card. Often this is as innocuous as using cards which have Flashback, such as Lingering Souls, or which have Dredge, such as Darkblast.
Occasionally though there are contextually-good cards which are also super-strong against discard, such as Obstinate Baloth and Loxodon Smiter. These already-good cards (better against decks with burn and decks with counter spells respectively) go straight onto the battlefield when your opponent makes you discard them, making them very powerful against decks that want you to discard cards.
You can certainly consider this to be a re-phrasing of the idea of redundancy. Much as lands cannot be taken from someone’s hand, so you are effectively choosing from 3-5 cards with most turn-1 discard spells, you can think of these as cards which you cannot take from their hand. In that event, you will begin looking at hands with only 1-3 cards that you have any interest in removing, and it may not be that those cards would have been relevant during that game because the effect didn’t matter or because they had another card which did the same thing.
However you want to think about it, it’s certain that 3) the cards you make them discard must be cards you want them to discard.
There are many reasons why discard can be good or bad but I think we’ve looked at three of the biggest factors.
1) The range of cards the discard can take needs to be cards people reliably have in hand.
2) Discard gets more powerful when there is a lack of redundancy for proactive effects.
3) The cards you make them discard must be cards you want them to discard.
These largely capture the idea that your spell is going to work (trade one-for one), work well (not have a drawback) and be effective in the plan of disrupting your opponent’s strategy. There are more subtle things that can be said but, as with all learning, once you’ve understood the fundamentals you will know how to deviate from them.
What do you think, have I missed anything important out?
Question: In your opinion, what factors make cheap discard spells good or bad in a format?
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