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The Vanilla Test in 2024
Determining Minimum Statlines for Limited

Jan 23, 2024
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1.0 Introduction:

The Vanilla Test is one of the best tools for evaluating creatures in limited. I recommend watching Marshall’s full explanation. For a deeper look, this excellent piece on TCG player gives the precise relation between mana and power/toughness. Power creep has often been discussed in the FIRE design era. In this article, we’ll determine the pass/fail thresholds of the Vanilla Test for 2024 limited.

2.0 Vanilla Test Summarized:

The basic idea is to look at a creature’s stat line relative to its mana cost, completing ignoring any abilities. If it has an acceptable stat line, you can treat the abilities as pure upside. If the stat line sucks, the creature needs to have an awesome/synergistic ability to be worth drafting.

Creatures are the most important cards in limited, so raw power/toughness can drive draft orders.

3.0 Methodology:

My basic idea was too look at recent stat lines by mana value to see acceptable thresholds for 2024.

With power creep making cards stronger over time, I included only the past 4 standard sets. Universes Beyond and Horizon sets are generally higher power/pushed so ignored them to avoid skewing the results. I also ignored Aftermath since it was a unique 1-off set.

I only looked at commons and uncommons. Rares and mythics often have pushed stats, skewing the analysis.

I further ignored creatures with additional costs. For example, while Guardian of the Great Door is technically a 2 CMC 4/4, the additional tap 4 casting requirement makes it unfair to compare to true 2-drops.

Finally, I excluded 0/0 creatures. Obviously their playability is 100% dependant on their ability. Since they aren’t subject to the vanilla test they were excluded from the analysis.

Note: For creatures that come with guaranteed +1/1 counters (e.g. Backup mechanic) I looked only at the raw stat line in the spirit of the pure Vanilla Test.

4.0 Results

4.1: 1-drops

The vanilla test is not used for 1 mana creatures. In additional to paying mana, spells also have the inherent price of costing 1 card from your hand (if you cast a spell it’s no longer in your hand). Since 1-drops tend to be lower impact, looking purely at mana efficiency doesn’t paint a fair picture of the cost:benefit.

This doesn’t mean that 1-drops are undraftable, simply that they are subject to alternative criteria. Being low impact makes 1-drops poor top decks in long games. The typical 2+ mana creature dominates (stricter greater Power and Toughness) the typical 1-drop. Therefore, your opponent can invalidate your 1-drops with a simple curve out (2-drop -> 3-drop -> 4-drop), gaining virtual card advantage for free.

In limited, the best 1-drops cover at least 1 of the following 3 criteria:

1)      Able to trade up e.g. Jackal Pup

2)      Can contribute outside of combat via an ability e.g. Grim Lavamancer

3)      Able to attack past bigger creatures via evasion e.g. Phoenix Chick

The second and third criteria also solve the issue of 1-drops being poor top decks. When drafting 1-drops ask two key questions:

1)      Does the card need to be in my opener?

2)      Does my opponent playing an average 2-drop prevent this from contributing on turn 2?

If the answer to either question is yes, you probably want to avoid drafting the card barring specific synergies.

4.2: 2-drops

Total Stats: 2-drops

P+T

Count

% of Total

1

1

1%

2

13

12%

3

22

21%

4

62

58%

5

8

7%

6

1

1%

Grizzly Bears 2/2 stat line is the historic bar for 2-drops. Depending on the deck/set a 3/1 or 1/3 can be better. Therefore, I decided to start by looking at the distribution for total points of stats (i.e. add power + toughness). 66% of creatures had 4 or more total stat points.

P/T Distribution: 2-drops

Toughness

0

1

2

3

4

Total

Power

0

0%

1%

1%

1%

1%

4%

1

0%

11%

5%

14%

2%

32%

2

0%

15%

36%

4%

0%

54%

3

0%

7%

2%

1%

0%

10%

4

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

Total

0%

35%

43%

20%

3%

100%

The next step was to look at the actual combinations of power/toughness. I prepared a matrix to see the overall distribution for 2-drops (if you have trouble following the matrix, can view simplified tables in the appendix).

In particular, 2/2 is by far the most common stat line. Despite power creep, Grizzly Bears is still the threshold for 2-drops in the Vanilla Test. The majority of power creep comes from pushed abilities as opposed to pushed stat lines, so this is not an unexpected result. This result doesn’t mean that a vanilla 2/2 is playable in 2024 limited, but rather that a 2/2 stat line is a fair starting point.

Note that 78% of creature have a toughness <= 2, meaning that 2/1s are often a good approximation of 2/2s (can still trade with equal CMC creatures). However, 1/2s are substantially worse than 2/1s. I’d consider a 2/1 a “conditional pass” – usually playable but weak in sets with a lot of 2 CMC 1/3s or incidental 1/1 tokens.

 4.3: 3-drops

Total Stats: 3-drops

P+T

Count

% of Total

2

2

2%

3

6

6%

4

31

29%

5

48

44%

6

18

17%

7

3

3%

Similarly, 64% of 3-drops have 5 or more points of stats. The relatively high chunk of 4 stat point creatures is driven by 3-drops having flying much more often than 2-drops. Flying is a great ability and therefore R+D usually prints slightly weaker stats.

3-Drop P/T Distribution

Toughness

0

1

2

3

4

5

Total

Power

0

0%

0%

0%

0%

1%

1%

2%

1

0%

2%

1%

5%

5%

0%

12%

2

0%

5%

19%

21%

2%

0%

46%

3

0%

5%

18%

12%

1%

0%

35%

4

0%

0%

3%

2%

0%

0%

5%

5

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

Total

0%

11%

40%

40%

8%

1%

100%

Interestingly, the 3-drop matrix doesn’t give a “typical” statline. 3/2s, 2/3s, and 3/3s combine for ~50% of the population. 2/2s actually form a significant 19% of the population, partly driven by Wind Drake variants. 3 toughness is a significant cut-off point, with 50% of creatures having toughness <3 and 50% having >= 3. Therefore, having 3 power crucial as it ensures that your 3-drops can trade with the majority (91%) of opposing 3-drops.

As a result, while 5 total stat points is the threshold, 3/2s are much better than 2/3s. Note that 2 toughness risks trading down with the typical 2-drop as per 4.2. As a result, I’d at least give 2/3s a “conditional pass” – great blockers against go-wide decks.

4.4: 4-drops

Total Stats: 4-drops

P+T

Count

% of Total

1

1

1%

2

0

0%

3

0

0%

4

7

10%

5

12

17%

6

25

35%

7

20

28%

8

4

6%

9

1

1%

10

0

0%

11

0

0%

12

1

1%

Hill Giant has historically been used as the vanilla cut-off for 4-drops. 72% of creatures have 6+ stat points, with a robust 35% of creatures having exactly 6.

4-Drop P/T Distribution

Toughness

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

Total

Power

0

0%

1%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

1%

1

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

1%

0%

1%

2

0%

0%

7%

8%

11%

4%

0%

31%

3

0%

3%

7%

21%

14%

0%

0%

45%

4

0%

1%

1%

10%

6%

1%

0%

20%

5

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

6

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

1%

1%

Total

0%

6%

15%

39%

31%

7%

1%

100%

3/3s are the most prominent. Interestingly, 2/4s are 11 times more prevalent than 4/2s (11% vs 1%). I’d tentatively view 3/3 as the threshold stat line. However, a substantial (39%) amount of 4-drops have 4+ toughness. Of course, a 3/3 stat line looks pretty terrible when your opponent has a 4-toughness creature.

With this in mind, it may be better to consider 6.5 stat points as the threshold for the vanilla test. That is, creatures with 7 stat points only need a solid ability which those with 6 need a good ability. With power creep, 3/4s and 4/3s are becoming more common at 4 CMC.

Anecdotally, in recent sets I’ve set a much higher bar for the textbox on 4-mana 3/3s. For example, I loved Chimney Rabble and Besotted Knight (inherently pseudo 2-for-1s) but often cut Curator of Sun's Creation and Ashiok's Reaper (need work/luck to be 2-for-1s).

Putting all this together, I decided to bump the threshold to 7 points and downgrade 3/3s to a conditional pass. In sets with bigger creatures (LCI) a 3/3 isn’t good enough, but in small ball sets (ONE) it is a fine start.

 4.5: 5-drops

Similarly to 4.1, the Vanilla Test is generally not applied to 5+ CMC creatures. In limited you will generally have 2 lands on turn 2 and 4 lands on turn 4 (typically want to keep 2-4 lands). However, you can’t count on having 5 lands on turn 5 which makes a raw mana efficiency analysis misleading.

Again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t draft 5+ cost creatures. Rather, you need to have a different evaluation method. Since you can’t count on deploying them on curve, your expensive creatures should be high impact.

For instance, it is desirable for your 5-drops to dominate (strictly higher Power and Toughness) typical 4-drops. Since boards can get complicated as the game goes on evasion (flying, menace, trample etc…) is especially good on late game creatures. I personally adore haste on my big boys. In recent years chunky life gainers like Ravenous Lindwurm have over performed.

In the early phases of limited games, card draw is much better than scrying since you’re often happy to draw lands or spells. Deep in the game spells become much more valuable than lands, making scry 2 a good approximation of drawing a card. A scry 1 on 2-drop is solid (avoid mana screw) but a scry 3 on a 6-drop (Imperial Oath) scales to being materially more than 3 times as good.

5.0 Conclusion

I prepared a summary table for the vanilla test thresholds in 2024 limited. As mentioned earlier, 6.5 P+T is probably the most accurate 4-drop threshold, but since magic cards can’t actually have fractional stats I rounded up.

Remember that the vanilla test is the starting point for playability – you still want to see useful textboxes!

CMC

P+T Threshold

Threshold Statline

Conditional Pass

2

4

2/2

2/1

3

5

3/2

2/3

4

7

3/4 or 4/3

3/3

Appendix A – Simplified Tables

Table A1: 2-drop simplified distribution

2-Drops

Count

% of Total

0/1

1

1%

0/2

1

1%

0/3

1

1%

0/4

1

1%

1/1

12

11%

1/2

5

5%

1/3

15

14%

1/4

2

2%

2/1

16

15%

2/2

38

36%

2/3

4

4%

3/1

8

7%

3/2

2

2%

3/3

1

1%

Total

107

100%

 Table A2: 3-drop simplified distribution

3-Drops

Count

% of Total

0/4

1

1%

0/5

1

1%

1/1

2

2%

1/2

1

1%

1/3

5

5%

1/4

5

5%

2/1

5

5%

2/2

20

19%

2/3

23

21%

2/4

2

2%

3/1

5

5%

3/2

19

18%

3/3

13

12%

3/4

1

1%

4/2

3

3%

4/3

2

2%

Total

108

100%

 Table A3: 4-drop simplified distribution

4-Drops

Count

% of Total

0/1

1

1%

1/5

1

1%

2/2

5

7%

2/3

6

8%

2/4

8

11%

2/5

3

4%

3/1

2

3%

3/2

5

7%

3/3

15

21%

3/4

10

14%

4/1

1

1%

4/2

1

1%

4/3

7

10%

4/4

4

6%

4/5

1

1%

6/6

1

1%

Total

71

100%

 

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