Hey there! I’m Marcus, Danish Magic player, two-time Pro Tour competitor, Bronze pro and Limited aficionado. My approach to playing, thinking about and (now, again) writing about Magic revolves around understanding the broader, general theories of Magic and then applying myself to putting them into practice in the formats as they exist now. In light of recent developments in Limited as well as Standard and Modern, I thought today would be a good day to talk about…
Bad Cards and Good Reasons To Play Them
When I had handed in my 2000-something words on Boros last time, I really thought I had talked more about Healer’s Hawk than was at all reasonable and justified. And then the Pro Tour happened, and my good friend Kasper Nielsen as well as a lot of other players in the top 8 went ahead and proved me very wrong. I tuned in to a top eight interview where Brian David-Marshall’s first question to Kasper after the last swiss round was, “when, exactly, did you realize you would be playing Healer’s Hawk in Standard?”.
And that is a very reasonable question to ask. Those of us who have played Magic of any kind for a while certainly looked at Healer’s Hawk initially and thought it would be more “cute” than actually “good”. Much less “first-pick worthy” or “Standard breakout”. We looked at Healer’s Hawk and saw a Bad Card. And I am not here to tell you that it is not that, but merely to help talk through the good reasons to play “bad cards” like it.
Let’s start with the bird in question before moving on to other cards and more general principles.
How the hell did Healer’s Hawk happen?
When we first dove into Guilds of Ravnica Limited, it quickly became quite obvious to a lot of players that Boros (and especially: the White, aggressive elements of Boros) was one of the strongest themes in the set. I will not bore you with the details from last time, but suffice to say that the Mentor mechanic as well as the general quick pace of games upped the value of both one-drops in general, and of Lifelink creatures as well. A lot of the best mono-colored Convoke spells (Venerated Loxodon and Conclave Tribunal) are also White and become a lot better when you have one-drops helping you cast them – an interesting emergent property of Convoke is that one-drop creatures can be cast and used to cast other spells at the same turn, effectively becoming “free”. And let us not get started on turn three Rosemane Centaur in Selesnya in Limited.
That is: There were a lot of reasons why Healer’s Hawk overperformed as a card in Limited, to the extent that some pros argue picking it over the solid removal spell Luminous Bonds in draft. How did we go from this to playing it in Constructed? That, too, requires some consideration.
I like to think at least part of it is emergent from the recent Limited formats. When we got Guilds of Ravnica, we went from a format where a lot of games ended off the back of Heroic Reinforcements and straight into another format where aggressive White strategies were powerful and quickly became popular. The powerful mono-White convoke spells I mentioned above are both clearly powerful enough to make their way into Constructed, bringing with them the same incentive of low, White-intensive curves. You may recall my excitement brewing with Conclave Tribunal early in the format. As it turns out, I was mostly on to something there.
Both of these cards allow you to capitalize on early momentum, namely having committed many smaller and perhaps individually insignificant creatures to the battlefield during the first three turns of the game. They allow one player to capitalize on initial pressure by forcing through damage and concluding the game before the opponent can deploy the more powerful cards they might have in their hand. At that point, it does not matter that you have no more cards in your hand yourself.
Add to this the until-now somewhat underutilized white aggressive tools we got in Dominaria, Benalish Marshal and History of Benalia, and you have plenty of rewards to play cheap, white creatures, almost no matter what they are.
Legion’s Landing serves both as enabler and reward for this strategy, and Adanto Vanguard is an absurdly effective tool at pressuring controlling decks that might otherwise dominate strategies like this with sweepers such as Deafening Clarion and Ritual of Soot. Dauntless Bodyguard has backup duty on this account. And then, once you run out of Savannah Lions and you want more one-drops, what do you look for? If you predict that others will be interested in closing games fast and only interact sparingly with problematic permanents, Lifelink and evasion both begin to look very attractive. And that is how we got to where we were at the Pro Tour, I think. But Healer’s Hawk is not the only “bad” card which has seen play in Standard recently…
Going Deep: Adding Dive Down to “real” strategies in Standard
For a while now, Standard has been home to a deck which is affectionally called “mono-Blue shitters” because, well, because of the cards the deck contains. A lot of them look quite bad. Wizard’s Retort with 8 wizards? Check. Mist-Cloaked Herald with no Merfolk lords? Yup. Basic Islands? Loads of them.
The deck wins by establishing a quick, evasive clock, preferably including one or more Curious Obsessions to keep up in cards and to keep hitting land-drops despite a relatively low land count. Eventually, its goal becomes to protect this clock with disruption in the form of the aforementioned counterspell as well as Siren Stormtamer and, yes, Dive Down. For those of you who have already happily forgotten Ixalan Limited, welcome back. Tempest Djinn will take you for a round and there is nothing you can do about it.
I don’t think the deck is that great, but it certainly preyed on some of the early Golgari decks that could not race it and did not have enough direct interaction to break through the amount of defensive disruption the deck built up. I played the Golgari side in a best-of-21 pre-board session of the matchup between rounds in Warsaw (don’t ask why) and felt pretty lucky to get in three wins against a worse player before he got to 11. It was bad.
But that’s not the deck I want to talk about, because Dive Down has made waves (heh) in a deck where being a Bad Card is more the exception than the rule. I am, of course, talking about the Niv-Mizzet decks.
I don’t want to mince words here: Niv-Mizzet is a hammer against control decks. But despite all the text on the card, it is a somewhat vulnerable single pillar to construct an entire gameplan against decks filled with point removal on. Enter Dive Down.
Dive Down has a very clear functionality: It is extremely effective at protecting a key creature for a key turn. As with other cheap tempo plays, its main drawback is the piece of cardboard you give up by having the card in your deck and hand. The mono-blue deck rebuys this by recouping with Curious Obsession and Chart a Course, or by ending the game before the opponent gets through your current holding of protective tools.
Niv-Mizzet just supercharges this axis. Not only does Niv-Mizzet always draw a card when you cast Dive Down, not to mention often when your opponent casts whatever prompts you to use the Dive Down. You are up two cards already. It also almost immediately takes over a game if you get to untap with it just once, in part because you can then protect it with “real” cards such as 3-mana counterspells. Given Niv-Mizzet’s prohibitive cost, Dive Down is the perfect tool to bridge that one turn where all you have to do is keep your dragon alive. The pattern of “Niv-Mizzet -> Dive Down your removal spell -> untap” is so powerful and backbreaking that including a narrow, “bad” card like Dive Down makes sense here, and the card advantage and inevitability provided by an unanswered Niv-Mizzet more than makes up for that.
Bad Cards in bigger formats: It’s more likely than you think
“Very well”, you think, “you have to play ‘Bad Cards’ in Limited, sometimes because you have no better options, and the Standard card-pool is small enough that there are certain situations which call for including ‘Bad Cards’ there, too, but surely, that is the extent of it? Formats such as Modern with much larger card pools get around this problem, surely?”
Well, my rhetorically very compliant reader, I am not sure it is as much a “problem” as a “feature”, but my answer in any case is “no”. A year ago, I would have pointed to Ghoulcaller’s Bell or Codex Shredder as proof of this, but at this time, I think there is another 1-mana artifact that more ubiquitously demonstrates my point.
Arcbound Worker is on the surface, for lack of a better term, a “shitter”. It has been a long while since a 1/1 for 1 mana was playable in Modern, and the little construct does not do a lot of work to convince us to put it in a deck on its own: Modular reads as more of a deckbuilding restriction than an upside on this little bugger.
As it turns out, however, Hardened Scales and Arcbound Ravager are enough of an engine to make the little Worker worth including. Lined up alongside the popular Walking Ballista and Hangerback Walker, traditional Affinity mainstays Mox Opal and Steel Overseer, the “free” artifacts of Darksteel Citadel and Welding Jar, and a manabase that can still support both Pendelhaven and a playset of Inkmoth Nexus, it shines. Add a few Animation Modules and an Evolutionary Leap on top for the grindy matchups, and you have an extremely powerful, proactive and linear Modern deck capable of ending the game on turn three or even two, which is exactly where you want to be in Modern if you ask me.
I have played with the Hardened Scales deck in the latest RPTQ in Stockholm as well as at the team unified Grand Prix in Liverpool recently, and while I think the deck was a whole lot better positioned a month ago than it is today, it is still absolutely a powerful deck, despite playing a “bad card” like Arcbound Worker.
So, where does that leave us (and our bad cards) going forward?
When and why to play with bad cards
If you leave this article thinking you can expect success no matter what or how many bad cards you put in your deck, I regret to inform you that that is not the case. Knowing when to play with bad cards – and what bad cards to play with – is a discipline, not something that comes easily or which should be done willy-nilly. Though it is an interesting thought experiment, none of these cards ended in successful decks because a deckbuilder started with them and asked, “what is the best deck I can put this bad card in?”. Rather, a deckbuilder started with one of the best cards in the decks we have talked about – cards like Hardened Scales or Niv-Mizzet, Parun – and asked the same question. And after adding a lot of good cards that contribute towards the same general strategy, only then looking at and correctly identifying that a “bad card” could complete the deck’s strategy, shore up a fatal weakness in an otherwise powerful construction, or help position a deck specifically to fit into a metagame where it would otherwise falter.
Always start building from your best cards. But be sure to know your bad cards for when you cannot quite find the tool to add the last polish or dimension to your deck. And do not be afraid to try out bad cards for good reasons in testing. The worst that can happen is that you are wrong. And that is one of the best ways of learning.
Until next time,