Level_One

[Common] Casting Costs

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The letter I!n my sophomore year of college I started looking forward to Thursday nights. I went to the University of Pennsylvania—the school where Magic: The Gathering was born—but in that less information-saturated time, long before the Pro Tour or even FNM, we had few ways to connect with other local players. It turned out that dozens of guys from around the city (many of whom didn't even go to Penn, although some of whom were Richard Garfield's original playtest buddies) would gather on Thursday nights at an on-campus cafe.

The crowd was decidedly unstructured. There was loads of trading, and players of disparate levels of experience (and levels of commitment to Magic) would scrum together in nebulous group games. Bless me! In those days I considered a group game "advanced" Magic and one-on-one duels as basic/kids' stuff.

Group games in those days were something else. You could easily see one player powering out a Serra Angel with Black Lotus (the way the deck, err, The Deck we studied last week might have)... while at the same table a red mage could have a Gray Ogre on the battlefield.

...which is why I mention this.

I'll never forget the third turn when the fella across the table summoned that Gray Ogre. It really bothered me, although at the time I didn't have the language to well describe why. It's not like his collection was so abridged that he didn't have good cards; he had lots of good cards like Lightning Bolt or more passable creatures. It's just that he also played a Gray Ogre. What's the problem with Gray Ogre?


Let's take a moment and think about a few reasons why (at least as we get more serious, structured, or strategic) in our approach to Magic why we might want to avoid playing something like a Gray Ogre:

  • A Gray Ogre isn't a very efficient card for 2 ManaRed Mana. At 2 ManaRed Mana you could play a Flames of the Firebrand, to take out some fool's Gray Ogre, and have a point left over for another small creature (or your opponent's face).
  • A Gray Ogre isn't a very good creature card for 2 ManaRed Mana. Especially if we are going to be playing at crazy wild tables where some folks play Mox Pearl or Timetwister, surely we can do better than a vanilla 2/2 for 2 ManaRed Mana. Manic Vandal and Suq'Ata Lancer both offer more to their 2/2 bodies at 2 ManaRed Mana than Gray Ogre.
  • 2/2 creatures suck. Not only does a 2/2 red creature "just die to Doom Blade" but to Shock, some portion of a Flames of the Firebrand, and a large number of creature-combat scenarios.

I don't really buy that 2/2 creatures (or at least all 2/2 creatures) suck. But the first two points are fairly damning. Are there any reasons why we would want to play a Gray Ogre?

  • We are in the market for a 2/2.
  • The flavor text. I must say, in circa twenty years of playing Magic: The Gathering, Gray Ogre still commands my flavor text.

"...people don't actually want to buy products.
"What they want is to either have a particular experience, or solve a particular problem.
"You know who 'needs' to buy a drill?
"Someone in the market for making holes."

—YT, from "How to Think About Magic"

The reality is, Magic players will often find themselves with better decks when playing with some number of 2/2 creatures... even "vanilla" 2/2 creatures with no special abilities. So it probably isn't the case that 2/2 creatures suck in the abstract.

What you might have noticed is the two more salient points against Gray Ogre are competitive arguments around its cost, with card-advantage implications. It's not so much that you never want to pay 2 ManaRed Mana, but that you wouldn't want to play 2 ManaRed Mana for this particular piece of cardboard.

If a Flames of the Firebrand (or Arc Lightning for the older-school players) can trade with a Gray Ogre at par mana and maybe a little something extra... that is a potential card-advantage issue. If a Manic Vandal is essentially a Gray Ogre that smashes the opponent's Bubbling Cauldron when it hits the battlefield... that is both a card-advantage issue and a question of returns. Even if I am willing to pay 2 ManaRed Mana for my 2/2, I could be getting so much more!


Without engaging in the interminable black hole of a conversation about what makes a good/playable Magic: The Gathering card in general, I hope you see my point here. Today, we have language to describe—even for players just now making the leap—why a Gray Ogre might raise an eyebrow... and also the shared experience to engage in what we might be paying for common effects (like a 2/2 body). The rest of this Level One will be a bit of a list RE: the latter.

As you progress in your understanding and approach to competitive Magic, an attention to how much your cards cost will become increasingly important to understand how much you are paying for your cards.

I give you some...

Common Casting Costs

One Mana

Almost all types of Magic cards have commonly-played exemplars at one mana. Utility creatures, offensive creatures, defensive spells, disruption tools, and facilitator spells are the most common playable one-mana options.

2/2 creatures

In case you were wondering just how much you should pay for a 2/2 body... the answer, barring a spectacular add-on, is one—or even zero—mana.

Isamaru, Hound of Konda
Goblin Guide
Frogmite

Isamaru, Hound of Konda has a mild penalty on account of being a legendary creature; Goblin Guide has two huge upsides (haste and information), but also a potential penalty (opponent may draw extra land cards); Frogmite says "4" in the top-right but often costs even less than one actual mana due to affinity for artifacts.

Carnophage
Sarcomancy
Diregraf Ghoul

Black 2/2 creatures at the one tend to suffer even more severe potential penalties than Isamaru, Hound of Konda. Typically, they are offensively efficient but defensive liabilities, like too many All-Star NBA guards.

Play This, Not That


The small drawback on Isamaru, Hound of Konda (and 2/2 creatures like it) more than make up for a potentially huge delta in mana.

Acceleration Creatures

One mana is a big casting cost for green. Many of its acceleration staples—including multiple cross-format All-Stars—call Green Mana home. While it isn't unheard of to pay more than Green Mana for an acceleration creature, you had best be getting a lot for that extra mana (see below).

Birds of Paradise
Arbor Elf/Llanowar Elves/Fyndhorn Elves/Elvish Mystic
Deathrite Shaman/Noble Hierarch

Depending on needs and format constraints, you can see ostensibly eyebrow-raising cards like Elves of Deep Shadow at the one, and even Boreal Druid. For cards like this, the extra mana that a Zzz Elf costs is taken more into account than possible specific mana shortcomings of a playable one-drop.

Play This, Not That


An extra mana is a huge leap for cards in this class, especially seeing how their purpose is to speed you up. If you pay a second mana (or more) for an acceleration creature, you had best be getting something awesome.

Point Removal

One mana is an important casting cost for point removal. The short answer is that if you are paying more to kill a single threat card than that threat card actually cost to play you will often end up falling behind.

Lightning Bolt
Path to Exile/Swords to Plowshares
Ghastly Demise/Dark Betrayal/Deathmark

Lightning Bolt might be the best red card of all time. Formats where Lighting Bolt are legal demand special attention to 3 versus 4 toughness in creature selection because higher mana investments are simply pointless in the face of this fantastically versatile spell. That "lesser" versions of Lightning Bolt like Shock (2/3 a Lightning Bolt for the same cost), Lightning Strike (exactly Lightning Bolt for twice the cost), or even Volcanic Hammer (a slow version of Lightning Strike) are all staples in their respective Standard formats really cements this card's place as a benchmark card.


Essentially unconditional point removal at one mana, like Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares, tends to come with severe-enough penalties that it gives players pause... but not necessarily enough pause to not play it. You'll note that if you are killing a six-drop with Path to Exile you are probably at the point in a game where it doesn't matter if the opponent is getting an extra land, but you rarely want to point one at a turn-one Noble Hierarch. One of the important innovations of last week's The Deck was that Weissman devised a strategy that didn't care at all about the opposing life total, allowing him to Swords to Plowshare without express penalty. The rule of thumb here is you generally want to spend less killing something than your opponent spent making it.

Some playable one-mana point-removal cards have targeting limitations. You can only kill black creatures, or nonblack creatures, under particular conditions, say.

Inflexible Lightning Bolt Proxies

Lava Spike
Rift Bolt
Shard Volley
Spark Elemental

Lightning Bolt is in a class by itself; but shockingly, many of its severely limited cousins, like Lava Spike and Spark Elemental (Lightning Bolts that only hit players), or costly analogues that cost cards or time, like Rift Bolt and Shard Volley, are playable.


Draw and Filter

Ancestral Recall
Brainstorm
Ponder
Preordain
Gitaxian Probe/Peek

One-mana Blue Mana cards that say "draw a card" at both sorcery and instant have become staples in multiple formats. The bar is fairly high even for cards this cheap; for example, Obsessive Search never saw any traction.

Play This, Not That


Although Telling Time is legal in the Modern format, at two mana, it is too expensive to flip Delver of Secrets in many deck; the slightly less flexible (but less expensive) Serum Visions is the Insectile Aberration-flipper of choice.

Discard

Cabal Therapy
Duress
Funeral Charm
Thoughtseize

The opposite number of blue draw and filter, black one-mana spells like the above are cross-format Staples.

Play This, Not That


Addle and Coercion have seen play in very small formats (with commensurately fewer options). For discard spells to warrant two or more mana, they tend to be very high-impact, like Hymn to Tourach or Blightning.

Two Mana

Before you start paying "lots of" mana for your cards, know that two-mana options are some of the most robust backbones of Constructed play. The two includes everything from the most flexible interactive cards to the most defining creatures of the game's rich history.

Black Point Removal

Doom Blade
Go for the Throat
Terror
Victim of Night

Playable black point removal is more or less pegged at two mana, perhaps most iconically Doom Blade. Any options are going to be compared against this mana cost.

Play This, Not That


Devour Flesh doesn't give you what you want all the time—it gives your opponent life—but at least it costs two; the extremely flexible three-mana version, on the other hand, never reached Doom Blade's popularity in Standard.

Flexible Lightning Bolt Proxies

Incinerate
Lightning Strike
Searing Spear
Volcanic Hammer

All of these cards are basically worse than Lightning Bolt... but the effect is so potent that two mana is acceptable... even for the slowest version, Volcanic Hammer!


Counterspells

Counterspell
Mana Leak
Remand

Play This, Not That


Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin claims he likes Cancel more than Counterspell because it isn't hard to play Counterspell (Counterspell being SO GOOD). But it takes real commitment to play Cancel. Most cards like Cancel—flexible Counterspells that cost three mana—give you something a little extra.

Part of what makes these so compelling is that they answer so many different kinds of cards... all generally at break-even-or-better mana.

The Defining Creatures of Magic: The Gathering

Arcbound Ravager
Dark Confidant
Meddling Mage
Scavenging Ooze
Snapcaster Mage

Magic: The Gathering is largely a game of awesome two-drops. Once upon a time, River Boa was the best; then Wild Mongrel—there have been lots since. Many of the iconic decks in Magic history feature some kind of awesome 2/x creature for two mana that does a lot of work or somehow obtains card advantage or some other massive advantage.

Play This


Gut Check—Tarmogoyf is the bar. Generally 4/5 or bigger for just two mana, just think a moment about how good a large creature must be for it to cost three, four, or more mana.

Enchantment and Artifact Removal

Ancient Grudge
Disenchant
Revoke Existence

The effect is generally pegged at Disenchant—efficient, instant speed, one-for-one at two mana. For less flexibility (Ancient Grudge, Ray of Revelation, Divine Offering) you tend to get card advantage or some other upside.

One-mana options like Oxidize and Nature's Claim are particularly desirable given their mana discounts.

Play This, Not That


It is often better to pay less mana than to have access to even a dramatic upside.

Defensive Acceleration Creatures

Wall of Roots
Sylvan Caryatid
Vine Trellis

Most of the acceleration creatures at this casting cost are good defenders, and are resilient based on high toughness or hexproof.


Noncreature Acceleration

Farseek
Into the North
Rampant Growth

Effects like this at 1 ManaGreen Mana tend to facilitate your colors without exposing creatures to opposing removal. Rampant Growth can get Mountain, Into the North can get Snow-Covered Island, and Farseek can get Temple Garden.

Play This, Not That


Fertile Ground doesn't dig for lands and give you the touch and shuffle... but it is so much cheaper than a card like Ranger's Path there is no comparing their relative levels of popularity over time.

Three Mana

Card-Advantage "Gray Ogres"

Borderland Ranger
Chittering Rats
Manic Vandal
Uktabi Orangutan

Remember how we started this article? On Gray Ogre? You will often see cards like Gray Ogre (2/2 creatures for three mana) played as long as they do a little something extra, generally promoting card advantage. In some formats, analogues that don't quite produce card advantage, like Man-o'-War, still see play.


Point Land Destruction

Icequake
Molten Rain
Thermokarst

The twenty-plus year history of Magic: The Gathering offers a huge number of three-mana sorceries that can destroy a land, from Stone Rain to Rain of Tears, to some that even deal some damage along the way like Molten Rain and Theros's own Peak Eruption.

Play This, Not That


Four-mana Demolish, over a ten+-year lifetime, was a staple in approximately one total deck, whereas the three-mana version saw play almost wherever a red mage could afford to cast it.

4 Damage

Char
Flame Javelin
Flames of the Blood Hand

Other Flexible Counterspells

Counterflux
Dissolve
Dissipate

These cards tend to have a little more oomph than Counterspell but cost a mana more.


Flagship Threat Creatures

Three mana is also home to a number of hard-to-categorize creatures that comingle offense and utility. Cards like Vendilion Clique, True-Name Nemesis, Knight of the Reliquary, and Centaur Healer offer very different packages in exchange for three mana.


Four Mana

Big Sweepers

Day of Judgment
Damnation
Supreme Verdict
Wrath of God

Four is the cost you most typically pay for any and all creatures on the battlefield.


Hefty Life Gain

Loxodon Hierarch
Obstinate Baloth
Ravenous Baloth

Cards in this class are often 4/4 creatures that somehow bestow 4 life.


Flagship Game Winners

Bloodbraid Elf
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Most playable four-mana spells can win the game themselves.


No single article can really cover the breadth of what constitutes a playable card, or how much you, personally, should pay for one... especially a unique card with an effect you happen to like. The purpose of this article was to give you some context and help you steer clear of some obvious cost-based pitfalls.



 
Mike Flores
Mike Flores
@FiveWithFlores
Email Mike

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Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

 
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