Painful Truths vs. Read the Bones

Don’t you just love these evocative card names from MtG?

I’m comparing these two:

but I’m going to bring Abzan Charm into the discussion as well.

This began last FNM, when someone disputed another players choice of using Abzan Charm before using Painful Truths in his Mardu Green deck. I disputed this, because I think in this specific deck Read the Bones is a much better card (and according to decklists from several tournaments, people seem to agree).

Well, things actually got heated, because I didn’t take the arguments at face value. He took this very personally actually as I did pressure him on giving details on his deck, which he couldn’t, because he didn’t know his own deck well enough, which leads me to believe he hadn’t even thought this through.

Well, you shouldn’t make the same mistake.

The magic word here is context. Once again. Both decks and cards are only good in context. Some are easier to fit into contexts than others, but still. There are even situations where Ancestral Recall just isn’t good. Not many, but still. After all, there are Vintage decks that don’t use it.

So, lets compare.

Cards are valuable. When you get an extra one for the price of one life, generally you should take it. That one life isn’t meaningless, but its usually small enough sacrifice for the benefit it garners as card advantage is often a huge benefit. If you feel you can’t pay three life right now, you can also choose to draw just two.

On the other hand, scry 2 isn’t nothing. Its hard to compare it with drawing, but card selection is definitely valuable as well. Actually, in many cases the scry 2 can be very valuable. If you aren’t drawing lands in the early game, scry 2 lets you dig just that much deeper. If you are playing a deck that doesn’t want the lands after a certain point, you can push those lands to the bottom. You’re decks is usually at least 40% lands, so this can be a huge boon in many situations. Also, you don’t need to play more than one color to make Read the Bones work. And again, that one life can matter.

But actually the key to why this conversation even began is one specific card: Goblin Dark-Dwellers. All three of us have been playing it recently.

The problem with Goblin Dark-Dwellers + Painful Truths is that you don’t get to draw any cards off of it, because there isn’t any colors of mana involved. To make GDD work, you need a critical mass of spells for it.

Suppose you want to cast it on curve on turn five on the play, with no mulligans or card draw effects, you have drawn eleven cards, with at least five lands and at least one GDD. That leaves you with five cards to work with. Assuming you are playing other creatures (although some of these decks play very few) and some spells that can’t be flashed back as well, the chances of having a relevant spell in your graveyard are not that good (and relevancy isn’t all about whether its cheap enough to cast, but also whether there are targets).

According to Frank Karsten, you need at least ten targets in your 60 card deck to reach 80% reliability. You need 17 to reach 95% reliability. Of course it isn’t this simple. Maybe you have only a Duress in your graveyard and you know from using it previously that the opponent only has a land in hand, or perhaps you only have Fiery Impulses in your graveyard and you have already destroyed all targets for it. Of course, if you play a full set of GDDs (which often seems like overdoing it), you need to think about that as well.

The number of targets I’ve most often seen on Mardu-lists is 18. If you have a sixty card deck, and you want 26 lands (usually), those 18 spell and three GDDs, that leaves room for 13 other cards. Since you probably want some more creatures, that doesn’t leave much room for unflashbackable cards.

Here’s where Read the Bones comes in. You don’t need targets for it. It fills a role in this deck. You can cast it when the other cards you play are kind of poor. Of course, there will be situations where you don’t want to pay the two life, but that’s why you need a selection of these cards, rather than only removal or relying on getting that one important card into the graveyard (because again, on turn five, you only have five cards to work with). Painful Truths would just occupy space you need for synergies.

Blindly, I would say Painful Truths is better, but in decks using Goblin Dark-Dwellers, the difference is small enough to warrant using Read the Bones instead.

Finally, a word on Abzan Charm: Options are good. Its not quite as flexible cast at sorcery speed as the ability to give the counters midcombat or in response to certain removal spells (burn and Grasp of Darkness, for example) is great. Still, the option of removing Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, Mantis Rider or Siege Rhino is great and if you need something different, you can dig for it.

Therefore, I wouldn’t fault anyone for choosing Abzan Charm over either of these in decks that can cast it, but I would still play some number of Read the Bones. The mix should depend on what you expect to play against, of course. Again, context.

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