One of the most important tools that a deck designer can acquire is the identification and evaluation of undercosted cards. Many of Magic's most powerful and most memorable decks have relied on undercosted threat, answer, and support cards. Many cards that seemed silly or scrubby on first glance later graduated to dominating Magic formats due to being undercosted; some required a little help, some flew in the face of card advantage, some were simply not obvious.
What does it mean to be undercosted?
In order to determine what is undercosted, it is important to understand what the baseline costs for particular effects might be. When puzzling through these kinds of effects, I would encourage you to worry less about what a card says in a literal sense, and more about what might happen in a game when you cast it.
Consider these two cards:
Lava Spike and Spark Elemental are two different types of cards; one is a creature and one is a sorcery. But you can't evaluate Spark Elemental as "a creature" in the usual sense; it doesn't behave like other creatures! Spark Elemental attacks with haste (most creatures don't have haste), which is nice...but unlike the vast majority of creatures, Spark Elemental cannot block except under very unusual circumstances. It pretty much does one thing.
You can't do anything with Lava Spike but point it at the opponent for 3 damage on your own turn. There is no guile to Lava Spike; you can't respond to anything with it. You can't aim it at a creature. It is for 3 to the face.
Same with Spark Elemental. It doesn't block. It doesn't tap for mana, exile cards in the graveyard from the game, or search up lands when it enters the battlefield. Spark Elemental attacks. Then it goes to the graveyard. Plus! Spark Elemental can be dealt with via more different stuff. A Doom Blade will stop it like a Counterspell. You can also screw up with Spark Elemental, for example attacking foolishly into a Knight of Meadowgrain, or casting it after combat. But it also has some positive possibilities, like getting a boost from buffs like Teetering Peaks, or trading for valuable utility chump blockers while getting in for a little trample.
But by themselves? In the vast majority of cases, whether sorcery or creature, these are each cards that cost , that you can only use on your own turn, that give you a single shot at 3 of the opponent's precious life points.
There are lots of seemingly unalike Magic cards that have similar effects. For example:
One of these cards is a sorcery and one is an enchantment. One of them costs three mana in a single shot; one costs only two mana...but doesn't do anything unless you pour a total of four mana into it. I am sure you can imagine situations where one is better (it will generally be Divination), and other situations where the other is (Font of Fortunes is better if you are either stuck on two mana or already have eight cards in hand).
But both of these cards have the effect of drawing two cards.
Sometimes effects can be defined by context.
Thoughtseize is a consistent contender for the best card in Standard; Mind Rot, which in theory takes twice as many cards, is seldom played at all; Wit's End is theoretically quite powerful, but has a prohibitive casting cost.
If the opponent only has one card in hand, the spells at , , and ALL PROVIDE THE SAME EFFECT... except for Thoughtseize, that is. In addition to dinging you for 2 life (unlike the other two), it might not take the opponent's last card if that card is a land.
So, hopefully you understand this concept of what it is you are prospectively getting, rather than the strict text on Magic cards.
The deck "market" provides Magic players with a context of how much some of these effects should cost, in mana. Viable decks in competitive formats set a line, somewhere, around what is worth playing, and what it costs to play those things. By extension, anything that costs less than the baseline market cost would be undercosted...and so perhaps highly desirable to play.
- Deals 2 damage.
- Is an instant rather than a sorcery.
- Can damage creatures or players.
Shock is a card that is good enough to play. It might not have been the best burn spell of all time, but it has seen play in most formats where it has been legal. It is the definition of a "bread and butter" staple Magic card—flexible and reliable, if not spectacular.
Anything that either gives you a better effect for the same cost or costs less for the same effect as Shock could be considered undercosted.
Why, yes they are!
But just because a card is strictly superior to another card doesn't make it undercosted. Walking Corpse is strictly superior to Scathe Zombies...but the fact that Walking Corpse comes in a mana under Scathe Zombies doesn't make it undercosted. It is not even a highly desirable creature to play, at all. Diregraf Ghoul is not strictly superior to either Walking Corpse or Scathe Zombies, but at , rather than or , it might be undercosted.
A common route to an undercosted card comes from giving players a route to paying for the card besides tapping lands to pay mana.
Fireblast is the quintessence of a card with an aggressive alternative casting cost. When you are forced to "play fair" with Fireblast, it is relatively inefficient (who pays six mana for a one-shot chunk of 4 damage?)...but when you have four Mountains on the battlefield on turn four, you can potentially use all four mana and cast two Fireblasts if that will win you the game that turn. Turn-four kills are a thing, often overwhelming opponents' ability to react.
Tinker has a lot in common with Fireblast. The effects that the two cards provide are like night and day, like fire and water—or in this case, at least fire and machinery. But both cards trade card advantage to enable undercosted effects. The market for 4 damage to a creature or player at instant speed is at least three mana ( for Flame Javelin, or and 2 life for Char); so zero mana is quite a discount. But what about any artifact in your deck? Because that's what Tinker does for !
Tinker costs less than what it gets, generally.
And sometimes, Tinker could just win the game on the spot.
"Winning the game on the spot" is generally undercosted at .
Undercosted Creatures Via Specialized Contexts
Like other effects, creatures have a market scale for how much they (should) cost. Remember: We are grading cards based on what effect(s) they offer, not just what the cards read!
Players achieve undercosted effects largely by manipulating the contexts in which those creatures appear.
Elvish Warrior never really set the world on fire at ; it was not 100% evident that players with a wide variety of options should invest two mana for a 2/3 creature. But what about only one mana? It might not be clear what the fair price for a 2/3 creature should be, but one mana has consistently slid under that bar.
...and don't get me started on this Cat:
A 3/3 creature for one mana is the very definition of undercosted.
The fair cost for any of these creatures is above four mana...but the practical cost can be in the neighborhood of , , or .
Using cards like Entomb or Careful Study to put a large creature in your graveyard, you can "cheat" on mana costs to get the full effect of an elite threat creature for a dramatic discount. But as with Loam Lion, Kird Ape, or Wild Nacatl, you need to create a particular context to cash in on undercosted creatures. Rather than playing Forests in your red or white deck, here you need to invest in special cards to put your creatures in the graveyard...and get them back out again.
The net effect of obtaining a very powerful creature is accomplished at a substantial mana discount via Reanimate and its like.
A 2/2 creature isn't opening a lot of doors in the abstract, and certainly not at a price tag of four mana. But in a deck of many, many artifacts, Frogmite was zero mana. A 2/2 creature for zero mana might not be splitting the table in half, but at least it was undercosted.
Remember our discussion of Divination vs. Font of Fortunes a few moments ago? The market for drawing two cards is between three and four mana. In the same decks that played Frogmite, Thoughtseize allowed mages to draw two cards for just .
Short- and Long-Term Costs and Undercosts
The cost(s) we think about when playing particular cards isn't just what we pay to get a particular effect a single time. The ability to generate useful effects multiple times for no incremental mana is what makes Planeswalkers so great, so often.
Unlike other powerful cards, Planeswalkers like to stick around for multiple turns, dragging out games and providing more and more value over time.
Consider a card like Elspeth, Sun's Champion;
The genius of a card like this is that she can produce a powerful effect, and then go on to produce a different powerful effect, turn after turn, while leaving your mana free for other considerations.
Don't fall into the trap of just looking at Elspeth's three abilities and trying to price out when she becomes a good deal. Sure, you can say that making three 1/1 creatures is about three mana in some combination (Timely Reinforcements slash Rith's Charm slash Spectral Procession) meaning that if Elspeth gets three activations, she has netted three mana...but that is not a great reading of her net effects or effect on a game.
Imagine the opponent has one large creature and wants to kill you with it. Elspeth can make three creatures, block the large creature with one, providing you with some amount of life that you could price depending on how much life it was; and also attack for 1 or 2...and make another three next turn, while netting more and more damage from the non-blocking creatures.
This combination of moves is different than just a three-mana token-production sequence. Plus, you can't discount the fact that Elspeth's loyalty keeps going up, which will foul the opponent's strategy if left unchecked.
The same is true for Elspeth's "Retribution of the Meek"–like ability. The mere presence of this ability on the card may act as a deterrent for the opponent to ever play a large creature (mayhap a second large creature) for fear of lost card advantage. In a sense, while you are making your tokens and attacking, you may also be getting the effect of a passive Unsummon you never actually have to play, as your opponent's mana is left fallow and you are now not being harangued by a(nother) large monster.
And while I would concede that Elspeth is much less exciting when an opponent's one permanent is Illness in the Ranks rather than, say, a monstrous Arbor Colossus, hopefully you can see that there are contexts where Elspeth, Sun's Champion is an undercosted steal, even on six.
Meanwhile, poor Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded attracted few, if any, friends on . As no one was in the market for his particular brand of looting, Tibalt failed to find a market, let alone characterization as undercosted.
Next week: This chapter of Level One closes with "The Only Way to Play the Game."