Magic can be a fast and brutal game. Typically, you want your cards to have as big an impact on the game as early as they possibly can. However, some of the game's most powerful cards involve investment—spending resources with the promise of a payoff later. Let's explore the concept of investment, ending on a preview card from Dragons of Tarkir and a mechanic that might prove to be quite important in the coming months.
Present Discounted Value
One of the most important things I took away from my study of economics in college was a concept called "present discounted value." After pages of equations and hours of mind-numbing lessons, I learned what my teachers could've told me in a single sentence. Money in your pocket today is worth more than the same amount of money tomorrow.
If I have money today, I can invest it or I can buy something that makes me happy—let's say a pack of Magic cards. With the same amount of money tomorrow, I'll have one less day of investment, or one less day of enjoying my pack of Magic cards.
Present discounted value applies to Magic as well. The same effect early in the game—for example, putting a 2/2 creature into play—is worth much more than the promise of getting the same effect later in the game. Just as you can invest your money, you can use your 2/2 creature (or whatever your card happens to be) toward your goal of winning the game. Advantages have the potential to beget more advantages; things snowball, and it's harder to come back from behind in a game than it is to stay ahead once you get an early advantage.
Along those lines, there's the risk that the game might be decided—or perhaps be over!—before you get to make full use of your slower, later-game effects. All in all, being quick to impact the game is a valuable quality of a card, while being slow to impact the game is a very real drawback.
This is not to say that you should blow all of your resources in a game of Magic right away, or that you should spend all your money the second you finish reading this article! However, it does mean that you should recognize the cost of waiting, and strike the right balance between forcing the action and being patient.
Art by Tomasz Jedruszek
Investment and Tempo
Investment, as a concept in Magic, falls under the umbrella of tempo. Recall that tempo is board presence. It's about getting ahead of your opponent (or at least not falling behind). So cards that require an investment instead of having an immediate impact on the game are bad for tempo, giving your opponent a window to pull ahead of you.
Your goal becomes to drag the game out long enough for your investment to pay off, at which time it might help you to turn the tables.
The saving grace of investments, when it comes to tempo, is that they can sometimes be mana efficient. Spending your mana in the most effective way possible is another important aspect of tempo, and sometimes an investment accomplishes that goal. Some cards require you to invest mana early, but then have a free impact on the game every turn after that. These cards will put you at a tempo disadvantage on the turn that you cast them, but if the games goes long enough, they can wind up paying off in a big way.
Let's look at an example.
Fate Reforged's Sieges are perfect examples of cards that require investment. They have a small impact (or no impact) the turn you cast them, but they offer a tremendous advantage as the game goes long.
Let's look at Outpost Siege, and specifically the Khans mode of the card. For most decks, this is comparable to drawing an extra card every turn. For a game that goes long, you might draw ten extra cards—an advantage so big that you almost can't lose! For a game that ends quickly, however, you might only get zero, one, or two extra cards—not worth the four mana you spent on Outpost Siege. This is the nature of investment, and what makes it such a challenging concept.
So how good is the Khans mode of Outpost Siege? This question depends very much on the nature of tempo in the deck, format, or matchup that you're playing. Two of the most important questions are: "How long is the game likely to go?" and "What's the cost of spending four mana on turn four?" In other words, it's just like an investment in real life! How much are you spending and how much do you stand to make?
If turn four is a very important turn for the deck or matchup that you're playing, then the cost of investing in Outpost Siege is likely too high. Say, for example, that your opponent is playing a deck with Goblin Rabblemaster, and turn four is a point in the game where you're likely to fall hopelessly behind if you can't put an effective blocker onto the battlefield right away. On the other hand, if your opponent is playing a control deck that's not attacking your life total, you can feel more comfortable taking a turn off from impacting the board.
Similarly, the Goblin Rabblemaster deck is trying to end the game quickly so, win or lose, Outpost Siege is not likely to be in play for as many turns, and its payoff will not be as high. The control deck wants the game to go long, so perhaps it's not unrealistic to get six or eight extra cards off Outpost Siege!
Speaking generally, investments will be better in slower matchups and slower formats. (Outpost Siege, Citadel Siege, and Palace Siege are bombs in Sealed Deck!) Speaking more specifically, they depend on exactly what else you could or should be doing with your mana at that point in the game.
Investment with Everyday Cards
It's easy to understand that the Khans mode of Outpost Siege is an investment—it pays off as the game goes long. However, you can apply the concept of investment to basically any Magic card.
In our earlier discussions of tempo, I mentioned cards like Elvish Mystic, Abzan Banner, and even lands as being a form of investment. You spend resources in the early turns in exchange for more mana in later turns.
When you're attacking, a creature is an investment that will begin to pay off the following turn. Creatures with haste, creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities, and Planeswalkers will sometimes be preferable because of their ability to impact the game immediately.
Similarly, some spells have their full impact immediately, like in the case of Wild Slash or End Hostilities. Others can be considered investments. When you cast Divination, you're making an investment in the sense that it might take you a couple of turns to play the fresh cards you draw into, but you'll have gained card advantage when all's said and done.
Rebound is an old mechanic that's returning in Dragons of Tarkir.
If a spell with rebound resolves, you'll get its effect twice—once immediately and once the following turn. Rebound is a healthy, balanced way to make an investment. The fact that it has some immediate impact will prevent you from falling too far behind in tempo, and the investment pays itself off in full within a relatively short period of time.
Let's take a look at Profound Journey itself!
Simply on its own merits, Profound Journey provides card advantage, being able to return two of your permanents from the graveyard to the battlefield. Even more exciting, though, is the prospect of building your deck around the card and maximizing your chances to return something powerful.
Although Profound Journey is a white card, its effect seems at home in the Sultai colors, which are very concerned with the graveyard. My first instinct is to put Profound Journey into an Abzan graveyard deck, using green and black cards to fill your graveyard quickly.
These colors also have some of the most powerful creatures in Standard that you can return directly to play.
Profound Journey is particularly appealing compared to other cards with similar effects in that it can return noncreature cards to the battlefield. It would be perfect in a deck built around Whip of Erebos, allowing you to return your Whip to play if it dies or gets "milled" (i.e., put directly into your graveyard from your library). Moreover, we happen to have some rather powerful Planeswalkers around these days…
Now, before we get totally carried away, let's take a closer look at the possible weaknesses of Profound Journey. We focused today on investment, and the fact that you have to wait a turn for the rebound takes away a little bit of the card's value. In particular, when you're talking about a seven-mana spell, you really want it to swing the game in your favor immediately, even if you're on the brink of losing.
You're making an investment when you can Profound Journey, but one way to mitigate the costs of this investment is to return a permanent with a large immediate impact on the game. In other words, you could return Atarka, World Render to the battlefield, but now you're making an investment in both the rebound of Profound Journey and in waiting a turn to attack with your creature. You'll be in great shape if the game lasts a few more turns, but we don't want to count on that.
Instead, Ashen Rider, Hornet Queen, or even Siege Rhino or Doomwake Giant are the types of creature cards you'd most want to target. These creatures have an immediate impact on the game and help you survive to rebound Profound Journey. Planeswalkers are also great options. Permanents with immediate impact on the board will help you reap the rewards of your investment as quickly as possible.
One perhaps-not-so-obvious aspect of Profound Journey and its rebound ability is that, on the rebound, you can return something that may have died after you cast Profound Journey the first time. So, if you're able to chump block with a creature, or have a sacrifice outlet like Butcher of the Horde, you can wind up returning the same card twice! This will make it doubly difficult for your opponent to attack you while Profound Journey is exiled to rebound. If your opponent is going to kill your Hornet Queen in combat, your opponent had better be sure he or she is ending the game as well!
I'm quite excited about Profound Journey, and about the return of rebound in general. Evaluating spells with rebound requires an understanding of investment, since getting an effect next turn is less valuable than getting the effect immediately. However, casting a spell with rebound is an investment that you can typically feel safe in making, since you get at least some immediate impact and realize the full rewards of your investment within a fairly small period of time.
Try to think about cards in terms of investment and how quickly they can help you to turn a game in your favor. You can see investment in spells with rebound, in cards like the Sieges, and in just about any other Magic card you can think of.