There are exceptions disproving the rule of course, and some card drawing engines like Library of Alexandria or Necropotence are so obviously broken that they could hardly be overrated (if anything Necropotence was scandalously underrated by some players and WotC followed them for so long that people had to wait for the next millennium before seeing it restricted, I didn’t have such patience, my interest in the game faltered when I saw it reprinted in the 5th Edition). Such card-drawing engines are few and far between though, with the only other candidates possibly being Yawgmoth Bargain, Dark Confidant and Griselbrand. Those are overpowered, but they’re also something else than just CDEs. Another type of exception is the awesome Whisper of the Muse : since it can be played as a naked cantrip, its double nature make what follows not especially relevant to the card.
Scope of the Article
Out of the scope of this article too are other types of card advantage engine, like those that put land(s) into your hand (e.g. Thawing Glaciers, Endless Horizons, Land Tax) or that put any restriction on the type of cards to be gotten (Citanul Flute), cards that don’t actually draw cards but put cards in your hand (like Browse, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Jace, Architect of thought, Necropotence & Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin) may be considered as some CDE of sort when they don’t let you select it among several card as selecting a card among three or even two is a much more powerful effect than just having the top card of your library. On a similar note Emessi Tome can’t be rated as a card-drawing engine, since even though it will increase your hand size by only one every turn, it will actually draw you two, for a price which is way too low (read : Disrupting Scepter isn’t a good card).
In the right deck Skyship Weatherlight might be good, but I just don’t know how good that would be, the card would require an entire article of its own to analyze decently, and its restrictions don’t seem to fit the bill for a slow game plan.
Also not considered are cards that ask you to play the bonus the turn you obtained it, or within any other constraining timing constraint, like Elkin Bottle or Temporal Aperture. They’re card advantage engine, but of a different kind, though some of the criticism for CDEs (Card-Drawing Engines) apply there too.
Creatures that offer that kind of service are deliberately ignored even when they don’t really do anything else than drawing cards as it is assumed that they’re generally too fragile (indestructible Gods included).
Those exceptions can be derived from the title, but what can’t are card-drawing engines that require multiple cards, like Relic Barrier+Howling Mine, Sylvan Library+Sindbad, or Field of Dreams+Petra Sphinx. Though, if self-contained CDEs are overrated, so would combo CDEs generally be, by derivation. Although some combo CDEs make for extremely powerful decks like the one based on Ad Nauseam + Angel’s Grace.
Cards that are card-drawing engines, but have other relevant functionalities (typically Planeswalkers, like Ob Nixilis Reignited, Jace, Memory Adept, Sorin, Grim Nemesis or Sarkhan Unbroken, but also Dark Confidant, Staff of Domination and to a lesser extent The Immortal Sun or Staff of Nin) aren’t pure CDEs, but more importantly often aren’t overrated, so we won’t examine them in detail, though their card-drawing ability will indirectly be rated here and may make you revised your rating (obviously, “Bob” is a great card, since it’s a card advantage engine attached to a bear-like creature, the combination of the two is extremely powerful and well known as such).
Cards that require to sacrifice a card to draw one, looters or looting engines like Jalum Tome could fit the title of the article, but truthfully I’m only interested in card advantage engine, as I imagine you are, so cards that let both players draw cards (Howling Mine type cards) also aren’t what we’re after here.
CDEs that come with an extra con, like Bottled Cloister and Phyrexian Portal, are ignored if the disadvantage seem to be incompatible with the game-plan of the type of decks that want that kind of effects.
Finally cards that exile cards from the library to be exchanged with the discard of the hand (Knowledge Vault, Moonring Mirror, Bomat Courier etc.) are interesting and if their cost is low enough they may be worth it, with Kyren Archive looking almost fine. But those aren’t proper card drawing engines, as you have to delay the benefits. Interestingly they’re also a discard outlet, which gives them an additional functionality on top of the card advantage one, potentially.
Phyrexian Arena is a little too good for my taste, and it obviously saw some copious amount of play, making its way even among midrange decks.
I’ve done the math and that card is underrated, in most control and midrange decks the average cost of a card isn’t much above one life. The card is unknown, yet is just about as good as Phyrexian Arena; better considering the easier casting cost, worse considering you’re giving away information !
Overpowered CDEs like Necro, Phyrexian Arena, and Underworld Connections excepted, the traditional CDE starts at 4 mana.
Coercive Portal was never made for Standard, nevertheless it didn’t see any play in neither Legacy nor Vintage where it’s legal. It just looks like both a fixed Jayemdae Tome and Phyrexian Arena in a duel, and a funny card I imagine in multiplayer.
Even the broken Jace, the Mind Sculptor costs 4 (well it’s not a card-drawing engine, it’s a Brainstorm-engine, which is a different matter). Emmessi Tome, the intriguing Bargaining Table, Tamiyo’s Journal, Mind Unbound, Planar Portal & Ring of Renewal; Trigon of Thought, Honden of Seeing Winds, Treasure Trove and Greed all costs 4 or more mana to cast.
Hands Full, Dead Cards
Drawing cards. Oh, the feeling of the full hand and drawing two cards per turn while your opponent is naked and in top-deck mode.. But really aren’t those cards in hand a bit dead, like doing nothing ? Let’s backtrack. In the beginning there was card-advantage. Weissman is the name associated with the concept, as he did such a good job of verbalizing and theorizing it in one of the most influential article in Magic’s history. While he didn’t name it as Virtual card-advantage the way we do today, he still identified lock cards like Stasis or Blood Moon as powerful card-advantage cards since they nullify the opponent’s cards in their hand.
Since the article was published in a time where Necropotence and Land Tax dominated Type II (in April 1996 Type II was what people played) with soon Prison decks being almost the only resistance to Necro (and Sligh wasn’t known everywhere, when it wasn’t underrated), its card-advantage principle hit right home and it’s my impression that it was considered to be the best way to play the game by most competitive players for quite a while. For many of us card evaluation turned almost exclusively around card-advantage (what’s more on a personal level, just like many people, while I hadn’t theorized it, I lived on the same principles already).
Then people realized that aggressive decks despite being typically devoid of any CA, or at least any CDEs could give control some troubles. People started to understand that actual game actions were an important part of the game too. Anyways, drawing a card doesn’t operate any game winning action (I deliberately don’t use the tempo concept here as I think it has been used in too many ways to be a clear enough notion anymore). On the contrary, by decreasing your deck size by 1, it gets you that closer to losing (decking yourself). Cards in hand only have potential. That’s why prison is also a card advantage strategy : if you can’t play your cards, it’s as bad as not having them in hand, and if you’re facing a Black Vise, it’s worse ! They can only benefit you if you have an effect that makes you benefit from them (like Ivory Tower.. although, wait, gaining life doesn’t actually get you closer to winning the game, and that’s what made control decks so fascinating in the beginning, they made many things that didn’t look like they were geared towards winning the game), otherwise they only represent future actions.. which may never happen, for lack of time or mana. That’s why you don’t expect to use a CDE unless you have a long-term game-plan. Such slow decks will almost exclusively be of the control kind, although decks macro-archetypes aren’t so cloistered that midrange, combo decks and other archetypes wouldn’t try to do some of that too. But the more cards in your hands, the more your investment hasn’t been fruitful : as a control player you’re regularly praying for your opponent to actually play something to counter/destroy/exile. Still, if you can survive while accruing card-advantage over your opponent you’ll be a big favorite. Against a more aggressive decks, this will materialize in you letting your opponent attack you freely while casting and using your CDE, that is : you’re trading life for cards. Altough you may be facing a slow deck that doesn’t put you under any pressure, that’s often not the case, so we have to presume it, since there’s nothing extraordinary about facing early beatdown.
Cards Against Life
Mana is always key in Magic, but there seems to be a special economy between life and cards in MtG that we should look into. So if you play a card drawing engine instead of a card affecting the board, you’re not stopping your opponent’s in any way, you’re just hoping to survive. How much would it cost you in life to get two cards out of your CDE ? Depends on how well you’ve controlled the board of course, the nature of your opponent’s deck, the cost of the CDE’s activation, the metagame etc. We can’t put a number on it, but we can compare those cards with those that will actually exchange life for cards. Typically exchanging two life for a card isn’t great, people don’t fight to get a Greed : if you think about it, activating Greed is like throwing a virtual Aeolipile at yourself to get a card and add a black mana on top of that, the tally is close to nill if you’re under attack. Such cards are more like sideboard cards, really. Paying just one life though, is great, as long as you can only do it more than once per turn of course. It’s not “one less life to pay”. It’s two times less : even by extending Necropotence’s casting cost to a beefy 6, it seemed there was still a problem and Yawgmoth Bargain got restricted in Vintage. But how many life do you expect to lose in exchange for how many cards with non-broken card-drawing engines ? You might have an idea by playing whatever format you’re into by playing the role of the control player, you’ll get a feel for it. In Old School, I see it as 4 life. Per turn. For a while that is, until you’ve accumulated so much mana that paying 4 per turn doesn’t preclude you from being unreservedly active. It fluctuates a lot but that’s my overall impression. That’s two times worse than what Greed’s ability would have cost you (just talking about the cost of the ability in terms of life, since Greed costs 4 it will regularly costs you too in terms of temporary lack of control and action on top of its activation). Of course we have to consider the granddaddy of them all : Jayemdae Tome, since the card costs 4 and 4 to activate, you won’t be doing much so the cost of the tome justifying itself when facing apt agression could be 8 life (and twelve mana, and three turns). That’s why the card is so bad in that case, you’re usually better off not playing it in such a situation. But wait a minute, what are you gonna do with your mana if you don’t cast the Tome and that you have at least 4 mana ? Well, surely you have a great board affecting card of casting cost 4, like, say a Wrath of God..
The trouble is there’s only so much, that is, not very much, slots that you can allocate for “expensive” cards, at the risk of having too much unplayable cards in hand for too long, which is a sure way of losing, the curve can variate between archetypes, but there are some limits : the game authorizing only one land drop per turn dictate such limits (although Magic being Magic, there are exceptions, with cards like Fastbond, Birds of Paradise or the moxes for instance). Of course any card will take a slot. But if the card just draw you card(s), then it has to be justified. So unless you have an excessively cheap, and therefore overpowered CDE, the inclusion of the card will deprive you of just as much presumably powerful cards : in Old School, playing 3 Jayemdae Tome might deprive you of a Moat, an Abyss and a Wrath. Now maybe you have the mana and the room to play all that, I’m sure that’s reasonable, but there’s no denying that while you have to decide whenever you put a CDE in your deck, the chances to get a board-breaking card with it are that slimmer. In other words, you’re paying lots of mana to deprive yourself of the chance to get great effects with it. Wrong and exaggerated as they may be those words still depict the right picture : unless you just miser one CDE, that is if CDEs are an actual part of your game plan you’ll need to consider playing with few powerful effects in your deck. Time given, you’ll be drawing, but you’ll mostly be drawing humbly. You’d want to think that by the time you’ve drawn a card out of the CDEs they’ve replaced themselves : they haven’t. At all. Even if you immediately draw another 4 drop, you still have a deck with decreased “active” four drops. But you most likely won’t, you’ll just get a random card, and will have to hope that it isn’t a CDE (you usually don’t need to draw 3 cards per turn, it’s a bit stupid).
Other con of CDEs then : they pile up quite badly. While it’s nice to cruise through your deck casting an X card-drawing spell here, playing the drawn cards, casting another X card-drawing spell there and on and on, CDEs don’t accumulate as well. Not only they typically slog a very important slot in your curve, they also have legendary, even when they don’t. You might be able to play three cards per turn, but not for long, so even if they’re not legendary, it’s about the same, not only they deprive you of some of the most crucial slots in your curve, they also tend to have terrible diminishing returns. It’s a great feeling to draw cards, and I guess I’m not the only one having felt like a fool for brewing a deck that didn’t do much else that playing cards that draw you cards that draw you even more cards. You’re regularly left happy if your opponent destroys your CDE, since its replacement is waiting in your hand : that’s not a good sign. So when you’re in a situation to play your presumed expensive CDE, your cheap cards most likely have already been played, maybe you just drew one, maybe you still have some, but the general case is that you might have to play the expensive CDE for not having anything better to do, even though it’s terrible when under pressure from a high-velocity deck. That’s the thing with CDEs, they really don’t replace themselves. How long until you can consider that you’ve gotten your due out of your CDE ?
Time is of the essence
Most CDEs don’t let you draw cards immediately (unless we’re in the uninteresting case of having a shit-ton of mana already, which probably means that you’ve won already, or that there’s not much urgency anyways). The exceptions are rare, or not exactly CDEs (Planeswalkers).
At an immediate card draw for a modest 5 mana and one life, Bloodletter Quill seems to almost qualify. It didn’t see any competitive play, but still, it could cost you 7 mana and 3 life to get actual card advantage (you’ve played a card, so you need to draw two cards to start to talk about CA), not counting the eventual aggression, but it could draw from the get go, assuming you have 5 mana, then we’d have to assume that you’d have 4 mana available as the game goes on so as to draw for 4 mana when you finally have a lot of mana sources.
Underworld Connections is bordering on overpowered, letting you draw a card for 1 life and one virtual mana, at a casting cost of 3. It’s a bit like transforming one of your land into a painful and unconditional Library of Alexandria : yes, please ! This one saw extensive play, although even that wasn’t enough to see it banned.
And, Planeswalkers and broken CDEs aside that’s about it. Planeswalkers are hard to compare to nude CDEs, especially if they have other relevant abilities, but they have to have some since they’re more fragile than artifacts & enchantments. Some of the most relevants are noted above in the first chapter.
But for the most part, the typical CDE only let you get a card the turn after you’ve played them. Let’s examine in detail what happens when you play them :
- Turn A :
Play an expensive permanent, of cost 4 or 5. Unless you’re in the late game which doesn’t really matter since you’ve probably won in that case just by the fact that you got there with your control deck, you probably can’t play anything else of consequence. This eats your turn. Your opponen’ts can then be very active, your freshly played CDE is of absolutely no help there, you’re giving up time, initiative and most likely many life points.
- Turn B :
You’ve drawn an additional card : your CDE has reached do-nothing cantrip level.
case 1 : you don’t need much mana to get a card out of your CDE, good for you get a random card, now is that card helpful ? What are the chances of that ?
case 2 : you play a Tome-like CDE, you probably have to choose between doing something, or drawing a card.
- Turn C :
You’ve drawn two cards, great ! Your CDE has reached Divination level.
case 1 : You’re starting to see actual card-advantage. But probably not quality advantage, you’ve just accrued a +1 card, possibly a land, so you can do your land drop like you’ve been taught to do and you’ve played an expensive card two turns ago, what are the odds that you’ve actually improved your situation as compared to having played an actual expensive and powerful do-something card ?
case 2 : you might have drawn an impactful card, out of the two, maybe you can start playing. Maybe ? Please ? Should I pray for you ?
- Turn D :
Congratulations ! You’ve now seen as much additional cards as you would have with a Brainstorm or a Portent. Good for you.
I find that sequence of events congruent with the usual functioning of the typical CDE : it’s also the first reason why I consider most to be overrated. You’ll need to have a lot of time on your hands to actually benefit from such cards. Now of course that’s what it’s all about, you’re playing control, you need to draw a lot of cards, and assuming you don’t have access to unrestricted Braingeysers-like spells, you almost certainly have to find a CDE, such is the nature of the traditional control beast. It’s fine and in the order of things if that makes you lose to aggro, such cards are often a necessary evil.
Then it’s a metagame decision whether to play them maindeck or not. Reasons for including them maindeck : you have almost no good aggression in the format, your early game is superb, or aggro is so overpowering that it’s pointless to try to contain it so you might as well arm for other slower matchups where your CDEs have the time to shine.
The card I like to compare the CDEs the most to is Wrath of God. WoG will be unuseful against some decks, but if you’re getting battered by creatures, the wrath is like the referee peeping the end of the game, or the school bell ringing the end of recess : time to get serious people ! Jayemdae Tome is saying : batter me again, and then again next turn, unless I draw a WoG, cause if I use the tome next turn it will have “replaced” itself at the cost of two entire attack phases for you. It’s like casting Time Walk on your opponent, two times, probably more. But as we’ve seen it’s more versatile, drawing card it would seem is always good, or potentially could be useful against all sort of decks (though I believe we’ve shown this isn’t the way to do it against aggro, if you had a god draw against aggro, like with multiples StPs, or they had a terrible hand, you’d survive those J.Tome activations, but it’s already a given in this scenario that you’re golden, and that it’s no thanks to the Tome), the way to have a metagame where such a slow and weak card could still maintain your chances against aggro is to have a very weak aggro card pool, or just too good early game defenses. But always remember about such slow card -drawing engines, that even after three turns, you’ll only have obtained two cards, but since you’ve played an expensive one, it’s a stretch to talk about card advantage there.
While Honden of Seeing Winds is like the “fixed” typical blue card drawing engine, Phyrexian Arena, Underworld Connections & Coercive Portal are maybe the only great card-drawing engine (considering broken cards aren’t actually all that great). I leave you with, my favorite find in this venture : the Mind’s Eye. It’s a very nice and intriguing late-game CDE since in addition of being a good CDE it’s a trump to your opponent’s CDE and it might even neutralize actual great cards like Sylvan Library or Brainstorm.