Sylvan Library Sucks In cEDH

Drake Sasser • November 16, 2022

Sylvan Library by Bryan Sola

Sylvan Library sucks in cEDH. I recently claimed it was in contention for the "card with the biggest delta in power level between perception and reality in cEDH". I claimed a big cause of this is the rift in potency the card has between cEDH and Legacy. It's considered a format staple and raised more than a few eyebrows, so the fine folks here at Commander's Herald asked me to elaborate.

Hi, I'm Drake Sasser. You might know me from Playing with Power, The Miscast or as a Legacy grinder on the SCG Tour of old. These days, I play cEDH. But I don't play Sylvan Library, and this is why.

Card Evaluation

Now, before we get too ahead of ourselves, I think it's important to discuss the most accurate way to judge the potency of any card in any context. To get data on whether cards are good or bad you have to either play games with it, play games against it, or watch games where the card comes up. From those experiences where you reflect on what impact the card had on the game once everything has played out. Did it contribute directly to a win or loss? Would the card have been good if the game went one more turn cycle? Two? Ever?

For cEDH especially each data point should be taken at high value given you won't have a single card of 98-99 singleton often at all without seeded opening hands for testing. Once you have a few data points under your belt it becomes much easier to answer to understand why a card is good or bad. Many people try to figure out the impact cards are going to have without having played any games at all and basing their assessment solely on theory craft. This is a near constant disaster and part of what makes spoiler season so fun.

Now we've established the process by which I reached my conclusions about Sylvan Library in cEDH, we can examine more specifically about why I feel the card sucks.

I played games with it. It sucked.

Why it Sucks

Not only did it underperform in my decks, I watched it underperform in countless "midrange decks" across the table from me and fail to have a significant impact on the game in favor of the player casting it over and over again. It failed to have a significantly advantageous impact on the game on turn one, turn eight, and every turn in between. The games it looked the most impressive were in conjunction with other cards that cared about setting up the top of the library where it was still less effective than other options in the format like Sensei's Divining Top and Brainstorm for more mana at a slower pace!

This didn't make sense to me at all. I refused to believe what I was seeing because the card is quite good in legacy. Heralded as one of the big draws to playing green for much of the pre-2019 Magic era, I'm no stranger to getting rocked by an opposing Sylvan Library and burying my opponents with my own. I know what it looks like when it looks impressive! Why doesn't it put up the same performances up here?

The reason, as it turns out, is easy to discern when you consider the biggest mistake 1v1 players make when giving cEDH deckbuilding a try for the first time. The exchange rate of mana for cards in this format shifts heavily in favor of mana due to the turn economy in cEDH. In 1v1 Magic, you have your seven card hand vs your opponent's seven card hand and a draw step apiece each turn.

To get to your next turn, you only need to survive through one opposing turn. To get ahead in card advantage your seven cards and draw steps need to be worth only a little bit more than each of your opponents cards over the course of the game. In fact, games with razor thin advantages are heralded as interesting and skill intensive and one of the draws of playing Magic competitively.

Whose Turn Is It?

In cEDH everything changes. To get another turn you need to live through three turns, and your opponents have 21 cards to start vs your seven and three draws steps to your one you need to exceed in value if you want to win via card advantage. As it turns out, the secret to Sylvan Library being good isn't even the card advantage mode.

Four life per card with a max of two per turn cycle isn't actually that impressive. It's something you do once or twice on a critical turn in formats where the card is actively good. The ceiling is higher in matchups where life total doesn't matter and the cards matter more, but the real reason Sylvan Library is good is you get to draw the best of three cards every turn across many turns.

You get to have better draw steps than your single opponent across long periods of time all for the relatively small investment of two mana early on. Bring shuffle effects into the equation when the top of the deck starts to look bad and the card really starts to shine. Library is good at providing you with virtual card advantage across a large quantity of turns and in cEDH, the virtual card advantage from improved draw steps is lower value.

It's also unlikely you play enough turns after Library resolves to take full advantage of it since games usually end by turn four. Lastly, even the extra cards you draw are worth less due to the aforementioned shift in value towards mana paired with the necessity of each of your cards to be worth three of your opponents to just break even on card advantage.

Real Card Advantage

This is why I find it strange when Library is viewed as a card advantage engine in cEDH when it is not even in the same zip code of the potent draw engines that frequently meet and exceed 3 cards a turn like Esper Sentinel, Mystic Remora, and Rhystic Study. Stack all of these strikes up against the fact the card cost twice as much mana as two thirds of the most powerful card advantage engines in the format and it paints a clear picture as to why Sylvan Library continues to underperform, even when cast on turn one.

Sylvan Library isn't the only card that suffers from the warped concept of card advantage in a four player format either. Cards like Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time that read to me like they should be very powerful in cEDH like they are in 1v1 formats don't translate well at all either. But Sylvan Library suffers even more than other traditional cards seen as good at accumulating card advantage because you don't get any use at all out of it until your next turn and it gives your opponents political leverage!

"They have a Library! They care about their life total, it's correct to attack them and not me!"

Sound familiar?

Sylvan Library is bad for the same reason Rhystic Study is good. Mana is worth a lot more than it is in 1v1 Magic and cards are worth a lot less. Rhystic draws cards, usually immediately, because people need their mana and giving away a few cards doesn't matter as much and is completely unbounded. Sylvan Library is capped at two cards per turn, costs life, and doesn't even start working until three turns after it's played.

Turn in your Library Card

You can't play more Rhystic Studys, but if you're in the market for specifically more card advantage engines consider simply playing another tutor to find the cards worth having in play rather than playing a bad card hoping it will do a serviceable impression of a real card advantage engine . 

In conclusion, Sylvan Library sucks. Please stop putting it in your decks. Or don't. I can't tell you what to do and it's your win rate not mine. Either way, Thanks for reading!

Drake Sasser is a member of cEDH group Playing With Power, a commentator for Nerd Rage Gaming, and used to grind Magic tournaments on the SCG Tour.