What is MTG Quadrant Theory, and what do you do when it doesn’t work?
Quadrant Theory is a fantastic tool for MTG card evaluation and is the accepted gold standard for deciding a card’s strength in draft. When a new Magic: the Gathering set comes out, I’ll always use Quadrant Theory as a basis to decide card quality and pick orders. But a few recent sets have seemed, at times, to defy the guidelines laid out in Quadrant Theory. Why is this? Before I try to explain, here’s a quick description of what Quadrant Theory is.
What is Quadrant Theory?
Originally developed by former Limited Resources podcast host Brian Wong, Quadrant Theory was introduced in Episode 184 in May 2013. Simply put, it asks you to think about how a card performs in four different stages of the game, or quadrants. They are:
- Development – the early turns where you’re playing cards out from your opening hand. You’re looking for cards that will affect the game and don’t cost too much mana.
- Parity – no player has a specific advantage, usually because neither player can profitably attack. You’re looking to find a way to break the stalemate, and both players are drawing off the top of their deck.
- Winning – you are able to profitably attack and the opponent is not, so you’re looking for ways to close out the game.
- Losing – your opponent is able to attack you and you’re looking to stabilise the game.
Essentially, you’re looking to fill your deck with as many cards that perform well in as many quadrants as possible. If you do that, you’ll have a well-balanced deck. Let’s use this method to look at some cards from recent memory.
Crawling Sensation – Shadows over Innistrad
- Development – It costs three mana, so you can usually cast it on time. However, it isn’t immediately board impacting. If you play this on turn 3 and your opponent plays a decent creature, you’re fairly far behind. If you want to start filling your graveyard though, it gets you going. Nothing spectacular, but it does the job.
- Parity – Crawling Sensation is not particularly impactful here. It doesn’t help you break through a board stall immediately, and it could take a while to get going. But over a number of turns, this could gain you value, both from your graveyard and from a number of tokens.
- Winning – If you’re already beating down your opponent and looking to close a game, Crawling Sensation is very poor. It doesn’t add more pressure to the board immediately and only offers minimal pressure later on.
- Losing – If you’re looking for Crawling Sensation to save you when you’re behind, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
So overall, Crawling Sensation is OK in two quadrants, and bad in two. Not a card you’d likely want to put in your deck.
Era of Innovation – Kaladesh
- Development – Era of Innovation costs only 2 mana, but it won’t do anything in the first few turns of the game, because you aren’t very likely to have spare mana lying around. And even if you do get extra energy or extra cards, that’s still not affecting the board. Not great.
- Parity – this card is kind of all or nothing. If you have enough energy to draw three cards, that’s absolutely fantastic! But if you don’t, then you need to wait until you then start drawing artifacts or artificers to get anything – otherwise this card is a blank. Inconsistent.
- Winning – this card doesn’t really help you here. You’d probably rather have a creature to apply pressure, unless you can cash it in for three new cards immediately.
- Losing – unhelpful. Even if you are able to immediately draw three cards, you won’t be able to use them to their full potential because you already spent two mana on casting this. In most situations, you’d probably prefer a card that could stabilise the board.
This card looks terrible! At best, Era of Innovation is inconsistent in one quadrant and bad in all the others. Here’s another example:
Slither Blade – Amonkhet
- Development – this card is at its best here. If you cast Slither Blade on turn 1 you can start attacking right away and get damage in.
- Parity – Slither Blade will certainly get through a board stall, since it can’t be blocked. But one damage per turn gives your opponent a lot of time to find an answer.
- Winning – this doesn’t apply much more pressure than you already are, but at least it can’t be blocked.
- Losing – being unblockable doesn’t help you, and a 1/2 body doesn’t really get you back into the game.
We’ve got a card here that doesn’t seem impactful enough to have an effect in anything but the development quadrant. Sorry, Slither Blade.
What do these three cards have in common?
Well, they all look pretty bad in terms of Quadrant Theory. So that leads us to believe that we shouldn’t put these cards in our decks. But actually, what they also have in common is that they are all pretty decent playables in their respective draft formats. Let’s look at one final card:
Death-Hood Cobra – Modern Masters 2017
- Development – This card’s pretty solid here. There’s not too much more you can ask for than a 2/2 for two mana.
- Parity – For a two drop, Death-Hood Cobra’s pretty strong in a parity situation. The ability to threaten Deathtouch means it can attack into bigger creatures, and Reach means that it can block any pesky fliers the opponent has.
- Winning – Death-Hood Cobra doesn’t slam the door on the opponent, but threatening Deathtouch allows you to attack into or through high-toughness blockers.
- Losing – for a two drop, Death-Hood Cobra does pretty well here. Since it can get Reach or Deathtouch, it can stop fliers or big creatures from attacking you, giving you time to come back into the game.
Wow! We found a card that’s pretty good in all quadrants! Death-Hood Cobra ought to be a pretty high pick then, right? Wrong. Death-Hood Cobra is a borderline playable card at best in Modern Masters 2017.
To help me work out why, I went back and listened to Limited Resources, and their podcasts on Quadrant Theory, and in ‘Quadrant Theory Revisited’, episode number 248, they talked about Illusory Angel. And they struggled to give it a rating in in basically all of the quadrants.
So what’s going on here?
We’ve got Illusory Angel, which defies categorisation. We’ve got Quadrant Theory failures as good, playable cards, and we have Quadrant Theory all-stars as low, low picks! Let’s look at the ‘good’ cards for a moment.
Crawling Sensation has synergy with Delirium strategies and self mill Epitaph Golem decks, in an environment which gives you time to set up.
Era of Innovation has synergy with Energy strategies in an environment with a number of pushed Energy cards.
Slither Blade has synergy with hyper-aggressive decks containing lots of equipment, auras and pump spells in an environment which encourages early aggression.
Death-Hood Cobra has no synergy with Green’s theme of tokens in Modern Masters 2017, and the environment was a slow format which rewarded card advantage, meaning Death-Hood Cobra’s strengths, being a cheap creature which can trade 1-1 with stronger creatures, weren’t as effective.
Then there’s Illusory Angel. It’s a card which absolutely requires synergy – it can’t even be cast without casting another spell!
You might have noticed a couple of repeated words there.
Synergy and Environment
The usual use of Quadrant Theory does not take synergy between cards, or the environment in which we assess the cards, into account. So looking for cards which are strong in all four quadrants won’t always tell you the whole story. For a conventional limited format, Quadrant Theory does a good job of building you a balanced, consistent deck which should give you a good chance to beat most opponents. But for a particularly fast, slow, or synergy-based format, it doesn’t quite work as well, because the a balanced deck may not actually be the best type of deck in those formats.
So in an unconventional format, what should we do? We can think about which quadrants are more likely to come up in these unconventional formats, and bias our card evaluations towards those quadrants. What I mean is this.
In a fast environment, you don’t have a long time to set up. So cards which are good in the development stage should be given higher priority. Also, you’re more likely to be in a winning or losing scenario (where you come out faster than the opponent or vice-versa), so those quadrants should also get a boost.
On the other hand, the parity quadrant is less likely, so you may want to focus a little less on cards which are good in a board stall. The faster the environment, the more you should skew your picks towards the development quadrant. This is what leads to Slither Blade being playable in Amonkhet draft, and a card like Luminate Primordial being practically unplayable in famously fast Gatecrash draft.
The reverse is true for a very slow environment. In those formats, cards which are most effective at parity should be prioritised, with less emphasis given for cards good at development or when you’re winning. Cards which are good when you’re losing should still be considered, since it’s still possible in any limited format to fall behind on board, just through a bad draw on your part.
In formats where synergy is highly rewarded, then one’s way of drafting should be totally different. Instead of focusing on the quadrants so much, you should focus on the interactions between your cards. It’s a little (or a lot) more complicated than that, but drafting synergistic decks is a topic for an entire article on its own.
1. Quadrant Theory, when followed to the letter, will result in drafting a balanced, consistent deck, which should work for conventional draft formats.
2. For unconventional draft formats, work out the environment, then which quadrants work best in that environment.
3. For faster formats, focus more on the development, winning and losing quadrants.
4. For slower formats, focus more on the parity quadrant.
5. For cards or formats which rely heavily on synergy, pay less attention to Quadrant Theory and more attention to how well the cards work together.
How can you put this information to your advantage? Try and work out as quickly as possible what the environment of each format will be like, and start rating each card appropriately. That’ll give you an advantage before everyone else works it out too.
Thanks for reading.