Death and Modular Taxes: A Rebuttal

Dana Roach • September 3, 2021

Disallow by Min Yum

The title calls this a rebuttal to Jason Alt's piece from yesterday about modular cards, but it's not so much that as it is an expansion of my original tweet in article form. This is even more the case since Jason's article isn't entirely disagreeing with me, and I don't entirely disagree with him. It's just looking at it from another perspective, and it's a perspective I completely understand. Does Jason make some really good points? Yes he does. Is he a smart guy with a lot of interesting things to say about Commander? He certainly is. Is he the Midwest's elusive Smiley Face Killer? None of us can conclusively rule it out.

Now, before we get into whether you're wasting value on modular cards with modes you don't use, I'd like to take a step back and talk card evaluation.

I think in general players aren't great at evaluating cards for EDH. I mean, they're fine at doing it in a vacuum. Is Sol Ring good? Yep. In practice however it's way more complicated than looking at say Mortify and concluding it's a good card. Mortify is a good card. Absent strict budgetary restrictions however, it's just not good enough. The reason is Orzhov colors have access to things like Anguished Unmaking, Council's Judgment, Despark, Generous Gift, Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, Utter End, and Vindicate. So while Mortify is good, it's not good enough to justify a slot that would bump one of those other cards. It's a problem that happens every preview season, and I'm sure I've been guilty of it. A new card drops, and people fall over themselves talking about how good it is. That's fine to note a card is well-designed and playable, but what's way more important is whether or not it's good enough to consistently find a slot in decks when compared to the alternatives.

That good enough evaluation matrix is determined by looking at what else you could run in that slot, and trying to guess how often a card competing for a slot is better. Sometimes stacking the choices up head to head gives an obvious winner. Sakura-Tribe Elder is just better than Rampant Growth in 99.9% of cases, for example. Both can be cast at during the same phases and both go fetch a land with the same restrictions. But Steve is a creature, meaning it can chump block before used, and is more easily recurred. It's almost always a better choice. Most of the times though things aren't that clear cut and that's because there's what I call a tax involved.

When you include Scavenger Grounds in a list, you're usually doing so in place of a basic land. There's a cost being paid by doing so; Scavenger Grounds isn't fetchable, it gets hosed by things that punish non-basics like Blood Moon or Ruination and it only produces colorless mana. Those are the taxes you pay to run Scavenger Grounds over that basic. Now for me, the tax I'm paying there is almost always worth the added value the card gives me in the form of being able to empty someone's graveyard at instant speed if I need to do so. This is really what almost all decisions about cards comes down to, aside from those situations where one card is just strictly better than another; does the value it generates justify the tax being paid?

To go back to our specific case here, the tax you're paying on Disallow compared to Counterspell is one colorless mana, and for the colorless mana you also get the option to cast it a Stifle.  That means holding up an extra mana one if not multiple times. That feels like a lot. Looking again at Scavenger Grounds for me it is. Being fetchable is rarely a concern, I don't see that many non-basic hosers, and if I see them then one more land isn't gonna save me, and I run a diverse enough land base than I can afford colorless utility lands. The tax I'm paying is minimal to the point of being non-existent. For Disallow? It wasn't.

That's the axis around which your decision revolves when evaluating modular cards as well; there's almost always a tax baked into the card's cost, and you need to decide if the tax is worth it. To use the original tweet that started this whole conversation, I argued that at least for me the tax I was paying on Disallow wasn't worth the utility it provided. That's maybe not true for you with that specific card, but it was for me. The point really isn't Disallow necessarily, it was just a good way to talk about the tax you pay for utility you may not ever use.

The tax you're paying isn't always static either. To again use Disallow as an example, every turn I keep that spell in hand and keep mana up to use it if needed is another turn of tax compared to Counterspell. It's one mana for one turn, two for two, three for three, etc. That's less of a big deal if you have mana sinks in a deck, and especially so if your commander is the sink like in the case of Kenrith, the Returned King. It's still an issue in a lot of decks however.

For me, the tax on Disallow wasn't worth the rarely used added utility when added up over multiple turns across multiple games. That's not to say there aren't situations where having an optional Stifle stapled to my Counterspell wouldn't have saved me. It's more a question of how many games did wasting that much mana cost me, vs how many Disallow would have won thanks to the modes.

It's relatively easy to look at Scavenger Grounds and make that mental evaluation. I can't think of many times, if any I've looked down at the utility land and thought "ugh, if this was just a basic swamp I'd have this locked up." There are however plenty of times I've cracked Grounds fully aware of the fact that I may have lost the game without it.

Conversely I found that every turn I kept mana free for a Disallow that I didn't use it felt terrible. All I found myself thinking was "if this was an Arcane Denial/Negate/Stubborn Denial I could have done that other thing last turn".

I should also note here that just because you never use a mode doesn't mean the tax isn't worth it, either. I've never once cast the golem mode on Masterful Replication, and if you check back in three years that might still be true, but that's okay for me because the copy mode is strong enough. The decks where I'm running that card would run it even if it only had the copy mode. The same is true of Flesh//Blood in my Fling deck.

In the end, I wonder if this comes down to me being a pessimist, and Jason being an optimist. For me all I see are the wasted opportunities where I could have done more with my turns. For him, he's willing pay a little more for an option he might not use. I focus on the opportunities that were denied by paying my mode tax and he focuses on the opportunities the modes provide. My weekends are spent hiking and biking, and his are spent leaving cryptic smiley face graffiti to mark his dark passage.

Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcasts. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son where he has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.