It is abundantly clear that Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is an amazing Magic card, but that wasn’t always the case. Upon its spoiling in Origins, Flip-Jace was universally panned by respected professionals as well as the community at large. Every set review I saw (save only LSV’s) spoke poorly of the new Jace, going so far as to call it a distant 5th place in the cycle. It was unanimously delegated to being a niche, fringe role-player at best, and unplayable nonsense at worst. Comparisons to Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded were being drawn, and you can’t get much more maligned than that as a planeswalker.
Needless to say, It did not take long for young Jace to go from the laughingstock of his cycle to the standard-defining and format-spanning card it is today.
You could count on one hand the number of times in Magic history that a card has gone from entirely disregarded to ubiquitous staple like this. The most iconic examples are likely Necropotence and Lion’s Eye Diamond. Not a bad short-list to be on. Granted, in those days people didn’t understand the balance of resources or how to assess drawbacks objectively yet. Those examples [and nearly all of the others] come from a world before internet, when Magic strategy and theory were in their infancy.
So what happened with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy? How did everybody get it so wrong this time? And, more importantly, what lessons can we learn from it, both in terms of how this specific card operates, and about how we as players evaluate new cards?
There are two obvious reasons for Jace’s initial response being tinted negatively: the first being that expectations for Magic cards don’t get much higher than for new Planeswalkers, let alone for THE Planeswalker; Jace is essentially the front-man for Magic: the Gathering, after all. Besides being uber-iconic, he also carries the weight of historically being absolutely busted; every single one of his 5 (!!) previous printings have been highly tournament-playable. He also holds the honor of being the only Planeswalker to have a card banned from tournament play: Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which is inarguably one of the greatest Magic cards of all time. Not exactly small shoes to fill.
The second reason is that the Origins Planeswalkers are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Starting as creatures and “getting their spark,” flipping into Planeswalkers is entirely new to the player-base. Newer things are obviously harder to judge, as we don’t have experience to draw upon when evaluating them.
Those are the easy, cop-out answers–not exactly the most teachable/learnable phenomena. We can do better.
Tangibility of Attributes
The first major factor in how Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy became so underestimated is a fundamental misunderstanding of dynamic value. Players generally tend to try to analyze each ability in isolation, then maybe throw on some invisible bonus points for having multiple abilities. The problem with this is that the average player tends to vastly undervalue flexibility and having options while vastly overvaluing printed numerical values. Tangible attributes are easier to evaluate by nature, and that simplicity is inherently attractive to us, so we subconsciously bias our assessments in favor of those traits.
These evaluation shortcuts serve well enough for most cards–especially simple creatures–but ones as complex and dynamic as a flip-Planeswalker? You’re going to have to dig a little deeper.
On the face of it, the numbers are not great: 2 mana for an 0/2 is clearly not a good rate, a Merfolk Looter is of variable strength, -2/-0 is not impressive, -3 to Flashback a spell is a bit on the pricey side, and the ultimate is often going to be underwhelming at any price point, let alone a whopping -9. In fact, the only impressive number in the stat-line is the starting loyalty at 5 [going on 6], but is that enough to redeem giving up efficiency in all of those other attributes?
The short answer is yes. The medium answer is that it doesn’t matter, because the combination of all of those options and abilities adds up to a card that is great despite its seemingly lackluster stats. The long answer is, well, this whole article.
Vacuums Don’t Exist – Tactical Applications
As I always say, “context is king, and everything is relative.” Once you recognize that a lot of Jace’s lines of text depend heavily on contexts that are, at the time, unknown, the next step is to explore those potential contexts. This is best done through praxis; while pure theorycraft certainly helps, it can only get you partway to true understanding.
By viewing Jace and his abilities as numerical values rather than considering dynamic applications, here’s a short list of interactions and applications, many of which were largely missed by the reviewers:
• A Looter generates graveyard synergies and interactions such as reanimation. This may seem obvious, but it’s a factor that was obfuscated by the seeming lack of graveyard stuff to do [at the time, in Standard only]
• A Looter helps facilitate Delve cards, which are already widely used, especially in Blue.
• With use in conjunction with Delve cards, you can manipulate if/when Jace flips.
• With fetchlands, getting to 5 cards in the graveyard is easy, consistent, and controllable.
• You don’t have to activate it into removal, inconveniencing your opponent by having Jace ready to flip if their shields are ever down while simultaneously not giving them a window to kill your threat. This also makes him near immune to Sorcery-speed removal once active.
• Similarly, if -2/-0 would not be enough to blank a creature and/or you want to avoid giving your opponent an opportunity to line up attacks at the flipped Jace, you can pass the turn, block their biggest creature, and then Loot+Flip Jace.
• Being a Legend was oft-cited as a substantial mark against it, but multiple copies is almost never a problem. First of all, if you have a Jace and don’t want a second copy, just loot it away. But also, due to the front side and back side being different, you can have two Jaces in play and time your usage of both to extract the most value from redundant copies. Not to mention that your first copy is likely to be killed anyway.
• The +1: -2/-0 often requires players of creature-based strategies to overextend into mass removal in order to pressure the walker. Mass removal happens to play well with Planeswalkers, especially those that can flash that Wrath back.
• It can also synergize with things like Exert Influence that care about a creature’s power. Similarly, working against Ferocious is something that comes up from time to time.
• When it flips, it actually exiles itself and comes back flipped, making it a new object. This protects it from things like Silkwrap if ready to flip, and we’ve seen this trick used to get around the upkeep trigger to exile all your Ancestors that you’ve Rallied.
Those are just a few off the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of many more tips and tricks that may not have been apparent at first but have since become common knowledge once people started playing with the card. Once these interactions and added decision potential were realized, it quickly became apparent that any models for evaluation we had previously constructed through our experiences weren’t applicable in the slightest.
Even something as simple as it being a creature is cause for investigation; it’s easy to see how that may be a disadvantage, as letting your opponent’s creature removal kill your Planeswalker is far from ideal. But most reviewers stopped there, failing to invest the relatively insignificant amount of time it would take to ponder scenarios in which its power and toughness could be a boon.
Blocking 1/1s or chumping late is nice and all, but what I really mean is its newfound synergies–ones that we take for granted now but were missed until after release–things like Ojutai’s Command and Kolaghan’s Command being able to regrow the young mage, which can then rebuy the spell and rebuy another Jace! These value lines of play are common in standard and end up deciding a huge percentage of games.
Rally the Ancestors is another one we’ve seen be utilized to great success, as well as being able to hit a Planeswalker off of things like Collected Company or Manifesting it with a Mastery of the Unseen. Or just having a body to insulate your Dragonlord Ojutai from Fleshbag Marauder. The list goes on. There are plenty of Raise Dead and Reanimate type effects that it turns out having a printed power and toughness is often a boon rather than a drawback.
Any of these individual interactions and you wouldn’t see too much of a change in standing, but add them all together along with the multitude of others, and you start to see the bigger picture of how nuanced and diverse both the tactical applications could be as well as how deep the strategic implications can go.
Magic is Complicated – Strategic Implications
The other side of our lack of context–or rather, of contextual understanding and application–is the way the card can be utilized strategically. That is to say, how it plays in terms of overarching gameplans and its effects on deckbuilding.
How can you best use a Merfolk Looter? Well, what is a Merfolk Looter good at? Velocity and card selection spring to mind. Both of those want the deckbuilder to put narrow, but high impact cards in their deck; the velocity helps them find it when they need it, and get rid of it when they don’t.
How can you best use a Flashback? By using high impact spells that are worthwhile to invest the resources necessary (in this case, 3 loyalty) to get an [extra] use out of it.
It’s convenient how those line up, don’t you think? Even furthered by the fact that this type of tweaking benefits from the velocity that your Jace can utilize to flip more quickly and consistently. We’ve seen these deckbuilding principles really come to the forefront of the deckbuilding world since the printing of Snapcaster Mage (though Japan had already been doing it for years). More on that parallel in a bit, and more on that subject another time.
I’ve already touched on building to utilize your graveyard, but there are lots of ways to do this outside of traditional reanimation strategies. In fact, at the Legacy GP in Seattle/Tacoma, I played a deck which utilized Goryo’s Vengeance [and Shallow Grave] which works well with the Jace itself! A discard outlet that acts as a back-up reanimation spell or velocity card, that can be resurrected and flipped using superfluous reanimation? Sounds like a match made in heaven, and one that is legal in Modern, as well.
Speaking of Modern, we saw Corey Burkhart top eight GP Pittsburgh with Gerry Thompson’s Grixis Control deck utilizing Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy as a maindeck 4-of in conjunction with some of the synergies and deckbuilding principles discussed today. When you think of the scope and range of Jace and his impacts on how decks are built, you can see how influential his printing truly was. I have my suspicions that’s only the beginning our seeing his face show up in Eternal formats.
Put to the Test: Increased Options and Decisions
Now that we’ve covered some potential uses and deckbuilding principles surrounding the card, let’s look more closely at what the sum of the parts means in terms of edge. All of these seemingly small interactions and utilization tweaks are nice and all, but what makes it so that all of Jace’s numbers that seemed so lackluster are now worthwhile?
Each decision that is made in a game of Magic pushes edge in one direction or another (though this is likely a subject to go more in-depth on at a later time). Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is one of the most option/decision-intensive cards of all time.
Every card has the base input of when to put it in your deck, but beyond that, the rest are in-game decisions. When a hand is keepable or not can be a factor for some cards that would push you heavily in one direction or another, things like 8 drop finishers. After that, we have to decide when to deploy it. Spells have to be timed and often targeted, creatures have combat-oriented options of attacking/blocking.
Jace brings this to a whole new level. Since I’ve discussed a good amount of this incidentally throughout the piece, I’ll put this part in a simplified list form:
-When to activate the loot (sorcery-speed? When they tap out? End step?)
-What to discard (usually going to have 4-5 options here, and have to look multiple turns into the future to make an accurate decision)
-When to take X action to make Jace flip faster, or keep it from flipping
Then, Planeswalkers are, by their very nature, extremely option-heavy card types (most of the time, at least).
-When to plus it and on what creature (seeing the future of how your blocks will go for the various potential attacks can be a pretty complexly branching tree)
-When to minus it and on what spell (again, likely to be something that involves turns of vision to maximize the effectiveness of these decisions)
-When to let damage fall onto Jace or when to block or use removal to protect him (combat involving Planeswalkers can get very difficult from both sides of the table)
-And lastly if/when to start playing towards the ultimate and all of the decisions that entails.
The more decisions there are from both sides of the board, the more often the player making the correct ones is going to persevere, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is nothing if not a giant pile of options at all times to both players. They had to give him a whole additional card on the back just to fit all of his rules text!
One of the biggest pitfalls that reviewers fell into when evaluating Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was drawing parallels to perennial all-star, Snapcaster Mage. The reasons should be apparent, as they do have a number of aesthetic similarities: Blue creatures costing 1U that let you cast instants or sorceries out of your graveyard. The problem with the comparison is that the similarities end there, and trying to equate the two on a field of battle where one is the very definition of the metrics being used, of course the “new challenger” is going to end up falling short–if they didn’t, then we’d really have a problem!
How many times has Snapcaster Mage cast a Wrath of God (or in his day, Supreme Verdict)? I know I did so fairly regularly. That Wrath cost me 6 mana and left me with nothing. Jace doing the same let me invest the first two mana on a previous turn, allowing me to Wrath for 4 mana and either hold up countermagic or redevelop! And speaking of redeveloping, in addition to the “free” loot I got out of the deal, I’m also left with a Planeswalker that is only one “off” turn away from giving me another spell!
Snapcaster can attack, Jace can give creatures -2/-0. Snapcaster can do an Ambush Viper impression, Jace can be cast proactively aka before you’re needed to choose and pay for a spell or lose it forever. Snapcaster can be used at instant-speed, Jace can pay alternate costs for the spells it is casting out of the graveyard.
You can see how the archaic side-by-side method of comparison falls way, way short of doing justice to either party.
Unbounding Our Telepathy: Better Practices for Initial Evaluations
In this new age where side-by-side comparisons fail us, numerical interpretations are incomplete, and cards are far more dynamic and option/decision-intensive than in the past, we have to set aside much of our developed intuition when evaluating these new cards. That isn’t to say that our somewhat antiquated mental shortcuts are never useful, nor is it to say that the new ones I’m about to propose are always useful. Simply, I have found my interpretations of these new, often overly complex cards to have undergone a fundamental shift over the past couple of years.
No longer are simple answers like “good cost-to-stats ratio” or “it’s card advantage” wholly solving of the puzzle that is a Magic card. With that, here are the new traits that I have found myself drawn to and prioritizing when analyzing new potential cards for constructed consideration:
The more reactive a card is, the bigger the onus on it is to be well above the line for power-level. Something being proactive means that it can be cast any time and will put the test onto the opponent. The classic mantra, “There are no wrong questions, only wrong answer” applies more now than it ever has before in the history of Magic. It is a game played more on the board and aggressively than it has been in a long time, and our card [and deck] choices should reflect this.
#2: Consistently Good
Obviously being good is good, but what I mean by consistently good is that it is something you want at any point in the game, as well as in various different game types. Is it good early? Is it good late? Is it good when ahead? Is it good when behind? Is it good against aggro, and control, and combo, and midrange? Is it good as my only spell? Is it good in a hand full of spells? Is it good when mana-light? Is it good when flooded? And so on. The more of these boxes you can check the “yes” column on, the more likely it is to be a winner.
#3: Plays Well With Others
This is a consideration of how many natural synergies you can generate with other highly playable cards. If you have to reach into the unplayables box to find some positive interactions that have pay-offs to make the card worthwhile, you’re almost certainly going to be better off doing something more streamlined.
#4: Option and Decision Intensive
Does the card give you lots of wiggle room in how you play with it, letting you sculpt games to best utilize it as well as tailor its use to the situation at hand? Does playing against it and trying to navigate game-types defined by its presence give opponents headaches and fits? Is there a fundamental misunderstanding about how people interact with that card which gives you unseen equity for its use? These are the hardest to evaluate without hours of playtesting, but there are definitely some cards of a high enough power level that also scream skill-intensive, and those cards often end up being major players. This isn’t a trait that is exclusive to tricksy blue cards with novels for text boxes; something like Eidolon of the Great Revel passes this test with flying colors! Putting your opponent under immense and unique pressure and have to make decisions weighting their resources based partially on hidden information [such as your hand] definitely qualifies as Option/Decision intensive.
Moving forward with these factors under consideration, we will be able to more accurately evaluate new cards, even if they are unlike anything we’ve seen before. How we think about cards and contexts informs every aspect of our game, from deckbuilding to in-game decision-making, so try to keep an open mind and always look for the potential uses of a card rather than only its potential downfalls. We all know about the “dies to Doom Blade” fallacy (though maybe that’s worth discussing further another time), and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to dynamic and complex cards as well. Thanks for reading.