Opportunity Cost is one of the fundamental ideas in economics and understanding it can help with deciding between cards in your cube.
The basic concept is that because all people have with limited resources (not referring to the awesome podcast of the same name) to allocate, decisions with mutually exclusive decisions (if I do A, I can’t do B) that decisions that people make are decided by what offers more benefit (also known as utility.)
An example of opportunity cost that the Wikipedia article references is this:
A person who invests $10,000 in a stock denies himself or herself the interest that could have accrued by leaving the $10,000 in a bank account instead. The opportunity cost of the decision to invest in stock is the value of the interest.
In other words, if you have $10,000 lying around to invest, deciding how to invest your $10K in stock isn’t just about the -$10K that you’re spending, but what else could be done with the money as you put it towards your mortgage: a car, sets of power 9 or a ginormous TV. (To grossly oversimplify, we’ll say that these options are mutually exclusive: if you’re investing $10K in stock, you do so at the cost of being unable to get a $10K car, since the money’s being used elsewhere.) What does this have to do with cube?
Consider the old staple Shock. Shock was a card that was printed in Stronghold to become a replacement for Lightning Bolt when it was deemed too powerful. Since Shock was the benchmark for burn, variants never were strict upgrades from it (until around the time that Lightning Bolt was reprinted.)
- Seal of Fire traded Shock’s sorcery speed for its ability to be “cracked” at any time.
- Firebolt traded Shock’s sorcery speed for its ability to be flashed back.
- Assault//Battery traded Shock’s sorcery speed for its ability to make an elephant for 3G.
There are few times when there are cards in someone’s cube that are strictly worse outclassed by other cards and making pure upgrades, whether it’s from new sets or newly discovering a card, always makes sense. There are times when cutting a card for something much else at a much higher or lower cost is the right call – if someone’s running Shock but isn’t running Flametongue Kavu or Siege-Gang Commander, making that trade is the always the right one, even if it’s not at the same cost, since both of those cards are much better than Shock. (However, this post isn’t really referring to changes like that, I’m mostly referring to the opportunity costs of running one similar card over another.)
For example, say that you’re already running Burst Lightning and you’re running Shock as well, but you’re not running Seal of Fire or Firebolt (I’m mainly going to ignore Assault//Battery since it’s a RG card and a bad one at that.) Is it the right call to change Shock into one of those cards? Which one? Why?
In this case, you have to evaluate the importance of each benefit. If you’ve used Shock but have never used Firebolt, you’ve probably not given much thought to how important Shock‘s instant speed because that option has always been there. But when considering alternate options for similar cards, suddenly every facet of a card is considered. I’ve found that Seal of Fire‘s “seal” ability was quite good. When considering the strength of Shock‘s instant speed, I realized that the “seal” ability was better as both an on-board deterrent for playing other creatures, but other more subtle abilities. During the Pro Tour: Charleston coverage, the people covering the video frequently said that an opponent facing a Seal of Fire was at a virtual 2 life loss (an opponent facing a Seal at 20 life was ‘virtually’ at 18.) Firebolt‘s 4R to deal 2 may not seem that impressive (“Worst Shock EVER!” one may think) but it’s better when considered that it is that vs. instant speed. Is it worth it? Definitely. While instant speed and while being able to be an on-board trick are nice, their benefits are lower than the 4R flashback.
However, its power becomes much more clear when you think of it as an easier-to-cast Concentrate in disguise, with one of its cards drawn being slightly worse Night’s Whisper (costing you 3 life instead of 2 to draw 2.) Eventually it ends up drawing 4 cards like Opportunity (at the cost of instant speed and 3 life), but the immediate benefit is essentially drawing 2 cards and a 1U card that draws 2 at the cost of 3 life. Seems better, right? Better than Inspiration‘s instant speed, Foresee‘s scry 4 and Courier’s Capsule‘s ability to split its cost? Easily!
The concept of opportunity cost can be applied to other cards which perform similar functions.
In Adam Styborski’s pauper cube blog, someone asked him why he’s not running Penumbra Bobcat, since the Spider is really good. Adam touched on why he’s not running it, namely the fact that there are much more efficient creatures at 3 mana in green like Nessian Courser and Civic Wayfinder [along with their clones.]
Giant Spider is a card that’s on the cusp of playability in commons cubes since while it’s a pretty decent creature, it isn’t… quite good enough to make the cut (also see the point that Adam made in that just because a card doesn’t make the cut in a cube doesn’t make it bad, it’s just got very stiff competition.) At the cost of turning a colorless mana into a green one, Penumbra Spider gives itself a very nice self-replacement effect. It isn’t good enough to push a 2G 2/1 into cubability (is that a word? It is now!) but it does make a card that’s almost good enough cubable. We can also make the same analogy for Unburden. Mind Rot is another card that is on the cusp of common cube playability, but Unburden‘s cycling helps deal with a very relevant weakness of the card – the fact that it can be useless in the late game (opponent having no cards in hand or your opponent’s deadly board being much more relevant than your discard spell.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that trading ease of cost for utility makes a card better. While Prison Term may look like a straight-up upgrade from Arrest, I found that Prison Term‘s ability to transfer almost never was worth it. When I ran Arrest, one of its best aspects was its ability to be used ASAP and its ability to be splashed in decks without much removal, which Prison Term‘s more difficult casting cost made more difficult. In this case, the added utility doesn’t quite make up for the added difficulty in casting cost.
While you can never get a free lunch, you can always get the most bang for your buck.