This may be the lowest hanging fruit to pick but one of the most talked about cube aggro cards, for all cube rarity restrictions, from the upcoming New Phyrexia set is this guy:
Porcelain Legionnaire is an obvious card at first glance. You get a 3/1 with first strike for either a fair cost of two colorless and a white, or an aggressive cost of two colorless and two life. First strike is great in Limited, and it comes bundled with an alternate cost feeds into most breakneck aggro decks.
But there’s some subtlety going on here that warrants a little closer look.
Let’s talk “Phyrexian mana” for a minute. If you haven’t seen it yet, the mechanics article explains it succinctly:
That strange symbol you see is a [white] Phyrexian mana symbol, and it has counterparts in the other four colors. A Phyrexian mana symbol can be paid with one mana of its color, just like a normal colored mana symbol. But it can also be paid with 2 life, letting you cast some spells on the cheap, cast other spells (like this one) for free, and cast spells of any of the five colors no matter what colors of mana you can generate.
Effectively, wherever a Phyrexian mana symbol appears the spell has an alternative cost of less colored mana for some multiple of two life. Alternative, non-mana costs have a long history of being abused or leveraged for significant advantage. Consider this spell with an alternative cost:
If you play Legacy even a little bit you’re sure to see Force of Will sooner rather than later. While the actual card advantage of the card is debatable under many different contexts, it’s ability to buy tempo (that is, stopping somebody from killing, disrupting, doing something otherwise unfair to you right now) is undeniable.
While Phyrexian mana is not equivalent to cashing an entire spell out for free like Force of Will (except, of course, for the nine where it does), casting a card using Phyrexian mana is to directly value the tempo gain from mana efficiency at the expense of your life total.
All of the Phyrexian mana spells can be leveraged to great effect, but particularly shine when the tempo gained is obviously superior to the life loss. Cards like Mutagenic Growth (one to be discussed another day) and Gut Shot have their use in taking opponents for a blowout ride. Tim Willoughby made this point clearly:
Gut Shot and Mutagenic Growth are not the sort of spells you want to be casting too early. These are precision strikes that are built to catch people unawares, especially as you can cast them at any time. Typically I can only see myself casting Gut Shot targeting a player if it kills them or one of their planeswalkers. Likewise, I never want to cast Mutagenic Growth unless it kills a creature, a planeswalker, or a player.
That means these spells are absolutely best when opponents aren’t able to anticipate the play at all. But creatures are a little different. Unlike Gut Shot and Mutagenic Growth, Porcelain Legionnaire will often be highly rewarding to play as early and often as possible. Instead of holding it back, waiting for the right window to play it, Legionnaire reads as a card that simply costs two colorless and two life to stop in.
And thanks to that alternate cost the Legionnaire can appear in any aggressive deck in a cube, which is why most cube builders are looking at it so much.
While the alternative cost is useful and certainly helps support aggressive strategies, there are two pieces of information that need to be factored in.
1) First strike is a powerful defensive ability.
A blue-white tempo deck finds the most utility in a creature that can stabilize the board and serve as a powerful weapon on the offense. Whether you’re ahead or behind, casting this for its “fair” cost is still very effective. Three power for three mana is a fine ratio at pauper and quite reasonable to bank on.
In short, the alternative cost is not a requirement in its effectiveness.
2) You’ll often not have this available to cast on turn 2.
If you missed some of the bonus analysis I provided at the end of the Trinket Mage review you should check that out to help frame and clarify where I’m getting my numbers below.
Let’s assume you’ve drafted Porcelain Legionnaire and you want to know how often you’ll have this available to cast (that is, be in hand) on turn 2, also assuming no discard disruption from your opponent, mulligans required, or hand-sculpting spells played by you, and also ignoring whether we’re drawing a sufficient number of lands.
That is, we’re assuming the best natural scenario under purely illustrative circumstances; factoring in conditional draws is a bit trickier and relatively unimportant as assuming additional conditions (hence, ‘conditional’ probability) lowers the odds anyway. In fact, most other scenarios period will obviously have lower odds, but I’ll get to some similarly illustrative Brainstorm and Preordain cases later to help clarify.
And, as a final note, I use the term ‘illustrative’ to indicate that the math is slightly fuzzy and is not meant to be taken with scientific precision. I’m making a point of general odds of things occurring, not iterating to demonstrate a theorem conclusively.
Back where we started, we have a 40 card deck with one copy of Porcelain Legionnaire, so:
- On the play (8 cards seen; 7 in opening hand plus turn 2 draw): 20%
- On the draw (9 cards seen; 7 in opening hand plus turns 1 and 2 draws): 22.5%
The vast majority of your games, Porcelain Legionnaire won’t be seen until sometime after your second turn. While I will almost always choose to cast this for two colorless on turn 2, the best natural odds of having it on exactly turn 2 is a pretty poor wager to take.
Taking this a step further, I believe that white-blue is exactly where this card belongs, both permitting an aggressive start and backstopping a strong defensive stand if needed. Thanks to playing blue, let’s see how much better the odds become with casting either Preordain or Brainstorm on turn 1.
Here’s how I’m handling Preordain and Brainstorm. Brainstorm straight up draws three cards and you put two back. The next turn, you draw one that you’ve already seen. So, your sample size only increases by two: the two cards deeper you see compared to simply drawing on your next turn alone. Preordain, however, let’s you see up to four more cards: two from scrying and if it’s there you can it to put back on top to then draw it (success). Otherwise, you put those two on the bottom then draw your third seen card. On the next turn, turn 2 you draw the fourth.
(So, yes, Preordain is a very, very good card and can be better than Brainstorm in specific circumstances, like this one. It’d be absolutely absurd as an instant.)
- On the play (10 cards seen): 25%
- On the draw (11 cards seen): 27.5%
- On the play (12 cards seen): 30%
- On the draw (13 cards seen): 32.5%
And to clarify, the odds of having either Brainstorm or Preordain in your opening hand, assuming you have both in your deck:
- On the play (7 cards seen): ~29.6% (0.2962)
- On the draw (8 cards seen): ~32.8% (0.3282)
Note that it doesn’t make sense to talk about having both in your opening hand as you can only cast one or the other prior to your second turn where you would need your two available mana to cast the Legionnaire. We are only looking for one success.
- The odds of naturally having Legionnaire on turn 2 are poor.
- The increased odds of having Legionnaire on turn 2 after playing either of the best hand-sculpting spells on turn 1 are still poor.
- The odds of having either of the best hand-sculpting spells in hand for turn 1 are poor as well.
Conclusion: Porcelain Legionnaire will regularly be cast as a two-drop, as that is a choice made when playing it, but most often not actually on the second turn. But when you do have it… damn.
Whether you call it a two-drop or three-drop, it’s still good either way.