Benchmarking Creatures in MtG Standard (early 2020)

Wow, no posts this year. Well, not to worry, there will be plenty soon, as I’ve had a bigger project going on since summer.

Anyhow, in his book, Next Level Deckbuilding, Patrick Chapin talked about benchmarking creatures. He didn’t actually use the word ‘benchmark’, but that’s what I’m using. Well, that was 2013, so quite a few things have changed since then, so perhaps it’s time to update that.

The idea here is that we have a baseline for how much we should be willing to pay for vanilla creatures. Of course, usually vanilla creatures are not playable in most formats, but on the other hand, Tarmogoyf is essentially a vanilla creature. Even though you might not be planning on playing vanilla creatures in Standard (and usually not in Limited either), this might still be interesting, especially with the complications involved.

The baseline Chapin presented seven years ago looked like this (C = colored mana):

Cost Size
C 2/1
2 2/2
1C 2/3
CC 3/3
2C 3/4
1CC 4/4
3C 4/5
2CC 5/5
4C 6/5
2CC 6/6
5C 7/6
4CC 7/7
3CCC 8/7
6C 8/8
5CC 9/8
4CCC 9/9

The idea is obviously, that this is the base stats you should be getting for a specific cost, but you are paying something on top of that for the various abilities. This was the time of Return to Ravnica Standard, so let’s use some examples from there.

Blood Baron of Vizkopa is a 4/4 for 3CC. According to the list above, you shouldn’t be paying more than 1CC for a 4/4, so why pay extra? Because you get lifelink and protection from two separate colors. Should you pay that? Well, at the time, both lifelink and protection from black were very relevant, but not in all matchups, so it saw a lot of sideboard play.

How about Snapcaster Mage? It sees a lot of play in all formats where it is legal, so it’s easy to pinpoint how it’s important to get a lot from your mana. That single colorless mana gets you Flash and Flashback for one of your spells. That’s quite a lot, especially in blue, which doesn’t generally have a lot of efficient creatures like this.

Even though the ol’ Snappy was probably the pinnacle of efficiency at the time, there has been powercreep. And while, Snappy is still one of the best of all time, we can see from Theros block how this was already changing. Actually, there was a little known 5/5 for 2CC in Return to Ravnica, Deadbridge Goliath, which even had an upside. Not much of one, but it’s still there. However, in the OG Theros, we got Polukranos, World Eater and in Born of the Gods we got Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Both had very good abilities with no extra mana. Sure they are legendary, which is a cost, although not a huge one in a world with a lot more interaction then we have these days.

The thing is, you can often get very strong creatures these days, but they also tend to come with more deckbuilding restrictions. But, I’ll try to include examples to give you an idea of a creature that might fit into a specific class. However, these are not always as straightforward, as there are various downsides, so make up your own mind.

Another problem with benchmarking based on the table above is that often is that many of the current pushed creatures have more complicated casting costs (like Cavalier of Flame), you need to jump through hoops to cast them Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath) or it’s just… complicated (Polukranos, Unchained). How do we account for that? Obviously, we can’t.

So, with this in mind, the baseline actually looks pretty much the same… except that you always need to get something for the price. So in effect, everything has moved one place upwards. You should now get a 2/1 for 1 and if you pay C, you should be getting something extra, like Venerable Knight or Skymarcher Aspirant. Obviously, neither of these are good in every context. The former is good if there are other knights and the latter is good if you can go wide easily. Obviously, neither is good, if there are cheap blockers and removal.

How about for CC? Back in the day Watchwolf was the best example of this, but that’s long gone. Theros gave us Fleecemane Lion and currently we have Bronzehide Lion, which hasn’t seen any Standard play, as well as Barkhide Troll and Zhur-Taa Goblin, which aren’t printed as 3/3s, but pretty much are and which have seen some play.

For 2C we have Bonecrusher Giant. You wouldn’t play that without additional text either. Stomp on the frontside is the key, but the other text on the Giant itself is also something that definitely makes it more playable against certain decks, although actually not as much as one would hope. Sure, you have to spend extra mana on Stomp, but it is an available option that gets used a lot, even though that side of the card is not very efficient.

For 2CC we have things like Nullhide Ferox, which doesn’t even see any play, as it’s so much worse than Questing Beast.

How about the other way around? Let’s take an 8/8 that sees some play and used to see a lot more, Gate Colossus. How much does it cost to play? Usually 4. This is somewhat deceptive, as it also means that you have, at that point, spent one mana each turn on lands that come into play tapped, so in reality, it’s more. Not that the specific deck would use much of that mana. Also, unless the deck plays Growth Spiral or something similar, you really can’t play Colossus until turn five.

So, yes, there has been powercreep. In many ways this is tied to cards often being more synergistic then they used to be, but at the same time this is a bit of a problem. Much of the gameplay is now gone as most decisions happen during the deckbuilding process. Interaction is pretty bad currently (despite an UW Control winning the Worlds, but that’s largely due to powerful threats even in that deck), so much of the gameplay is just goldfishing. I don’t think they can fix this, because that would lead to couple of sets with poor sales, which they can’t afford, as Hasbro has been promising huge returns from Wizards to their shareholders, so we’ll keep seeing more and more products and trying to make sure we have to buy the cards from the new set as well.

Well, at least around here Standard is suffering, so it’s not really working.

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