This Card Is for the Birds

Posted in Learning Curve on January 15, 2003

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

Everyone who plays Magic has said it about their opponent at one time or another, “He got so lucky!” Today’s column is about how some players seem to get lucky more often then others. Why, if we look into the subject a little we might even determine that…



…it might not be about luck at all!

With the Legions Prerelease looming closer and closer I though it would be interesting to talk about constructing Sealed Decks. I was inspired to today’s topic when I first looked at the preview card featured here today, Cloudreach Cavalry.

Cloudreach Cavalry

I assumed that as a 1/1 for it would have flying built into it, but on closer inspection I realized it only gains flying if you control a Bird—in which case it also gets a hefty +2/+2. A 3/3 flier for two mana seems like a real beating. You don’t even need to have an actual Bird; you could have Illusions in your deck that can become Birds. Imagecrafter, Mistform Mutant, and even Mistform Mask can give your Soldier his "Bird Bonus" when you use their abilities to change a creature to Bird.

We haven’t even discussed Artificial Evolution yet (although Bennie Smith did do an excellent Single Card Strategy piece on it!). There are a plethora of Birds, Illusions, Wizards, Mutants, enchantments, and instants that will allow you to have a mighty 3/3 flier instead of a puny 1/1 chump blocker. The real question is, how many Birds, Illusions, etc., do you need to play with to make this guy worthwhile?

You know, I have seen this card before. In Torment he was the Barbarian Outcast—a 2/2 for that required you to have a swamp in play or sacrifice the Outcast. How many swamps would you need to play with to have him in play at the end of turn two? In Planeshift he was a nasty gating creature like Lava Zombie. In an environment where Sealed Decks were often four or five colors, how many red and black creatures did you need to play with in order to have him not just gate himself? In Urza's block he was Covetous Dragon, and he needed artifacts. As you can see, there have been creatures that need other cards in play to function correctly for a long time.

Cloudreach Cavalry joins Barbarian Outcast, Lava Zombie, and Covetous Dragon on the list of cards that need help to shine.

What does this have to do with today’s lesson? “He was so lucky!” You hear Magic players say that all the time about their opponents. “He cast a turn two Barbarian Outcast every game against me! I had one sitting in my hand and I never drew a swamp! He was so lucky!”

I am sure you will hear similar tales of woe about the Cloudreach Cavalry. “He got so lucky to beat me! Every game it was a 3/3 flier! Mine just sat on the ground and I never drew a bird. How many birds is that guy playing with?”

There’s that question again. How many Birds do you need to play with in order to “get lucky?”

Today's Lesson:
Playing enough cards to support a strategy.

If you are playing with the right number of cards, can it really be considered luck? I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that luck doesn’t play a role in Magic. What I am going to try and get across here is that you can minimize your luck by making sure your deck is able to perform the tasks you require of it.

But back to the question at hand: How many Birds is enough to support playing with the Cloudreach Cavalry in a 40-card Sealed Deck? Obviously, if you play with one Bird the likelihood of drawing both the Cavalry and the Bird is really slim. Even two or three Birds—or things that can change creature types to Bird—will probably not warrant his inclusion in your deck. Remember you want to play the Cavalry on turn two, and you want to have a Bird in play the next turn every time. I would estimate that you want to have at least six Birds with relatively low mana costs—a number that should give you a Bird in your opening draw of seven cards in just about every game. Personally, I would not be entirely comfortable with the Cavalry unless I was playing with eight or more Birds or creature type changing cards. Fortunately Legions adds almost a dozen new Birds to the environment.

Make sure you play enough Birds, or creatures that can become Birds, to keep the Cavalry airborne.

While we are talking about Sealed Deck, let me take a moment to address the most important thing you can do to make sure your deck performs the tasks you require. Play with enough land! In a forty card deck you should be playing with either 42% or 45% land—that’s 17 or 18. There are some exceptions to this but if you stick to this parameter you will be shocked by how often you “get lucky.” In Constructed formats you can play with slightly less land, with 24 lands—an even 40% of a sixty card deck—being a good rule of thumb.

This concept of playing with enough cards for your deck to perform the tasks required of it is not in any way limited to Limited. I have been working with a group of friends on a Standard deck that revolves around Future Sight. The first build that we had only contained three copies of the Onslaught enchantment. When we were able to play the spell on turn four (yes, I know Future Sight costs five mana—we’re using Rampant Growth and Far Wanderings!), more often then not the deck would win. The games that we didn’t draw a Future Sight were not even competitive for us; the deck depends on having Future Sight in play. Finally, I stumbled across the brilliant idea of including a fourth copy of the card in the deck—a full 33% more Future Sights then the previous build. The deck was definitely improved as evidenced by our playtest opponents telling us how lucky we were to get a Future Sight so often.

So what did we go over today?

1. If you are playing with a card that is dependent on other cards in your deck, make sure you are able to play with enough of the other card to justify the former's inclusion. In the case of the Cloudreach Cavalry we determined that six or more birds will give you a reasonable chance to draw a bird in your opening hand. Obviously in Constructed formats with 60 card decks you would want to play with even more Birds—a dozen or more—before you consider its inclusion in a white beatdown-style deck.

2. Play with enough land. At least 17 in Sealed Deck and 24 in Constructed formats. Your mileage may vary based on your deck but this is a good starting point to make your decisions from.

3. When building a Constructed deck that revolves around a key card, it is much better to play four copies of that card then three copies. It seems very obvious but it is easily forgotten or overlooked in an effort to squeeze in another card. Trust me, in general four is better then three.

So here’s hoping you all draw enough land at the Legions Prerelease, that your Cloudreach Cavalry is always a 3/3 flier, and all your opponents are envious at how often you “get lucky”. I can be reached at the address below for comments, criticism, and all that good stuff.

Brain may be reached at

Latest Learning Curve Articles

Daily MTG

December 23, 2004

Three Days to Go by, Brian David-Marshall

This article really set the stage for me to move on to The Week That Was. The news regarding the success of the Seething Song/Furnace Dragon sideboard from Japanese events was a major de...

Learn More

Daily MTG

July 28, 2004

Round and Round by, Brian David-Marshall

Something pretty unusual happened two weeks ago. I have spent so much time traveling around to do event coverage (I am in Malaysia as I write this) that I don't have much opportunity to p...

Learn More



Learning Curve Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All