Players often struggle with which card to include in a deck when two cards run close in cost, power, and/or abilities. In the first of a series of articles I shall try to apply a systematic method to choose which card ought to be included.
I figured it'd be good to start with the classic duel between Bonesplitter and Trusty Machete. These two simple yet powerful cards are easy to understand yet the choice between them isn't always obvious.
The cost to cast is identical, 1 mana, as is the power increase on the front end, +2. So the cards have two differences, the equip cost and the defense boost, +0 for the bonesplitter and +1 for the machete.
First let us take a step back and consider the circumstances in which we would play these cards. Both are very low-cost which suggest that they can be played early in the game they will likely have a greater proportional effect. In the beginning of the game it's really important to meaningfully act on each turn. You don't want to lose a turn because you don't have enough mana or you don't have anything to play. Let's consider the following creature.
With the Bonesplitter in your opening hand, your first few turns could look like this:
Turn 1: Plains, Tap, Zealot
Turn 2: Plains, Tap, Bonesplitter, Tap, Equip to Zealot, Attack for 3.
Turn 3: Plains, Tap, Tap, Tap, Always Watching, Attack for 4 with Zealot.
This works because Bonesplitter only costs to equip.
However, with the Trusty Machete, the sequence might run:
Turn 1: Plains, Tap, Zealot
Turn 2: Plains, Tap, Trusty Machete, attack for 1
Turn 3: Plains, Tap, Tap, Equip Zealot, attack for 3
What if I play the Machete on turn 1?
Turn 1: Plains, Tap, Trusty Machete
Turn 2: Plains, Tap, Zealot
Turn 3: Plains, Tap, Tap, Equip to Zealot attack for 3.
Notice that by playing the Zealot first, I get an extra attack in on turn 2, which I do not get if I play the Machete first.
So in this scenario I have attacked for a total of 7 damage by turn three with the Bonesplitter, but only 4 damage by turn three with the Trusty Machete.
So it would appear that the Bonesplitter is better than the Trusty Machete. But is it?
Early in the game, probably. The Bonesplitter offers the same offensive power (+2) with a cheaper equip cost of . In the opening stage of the game, Bonesplitter has the advantage simply because it is faster to equip. That is, the lower equip cost more than offsets the slight boost in defense (+1) from the machete.
So this leads us to look for cases where the Trusty Machete might be a better choice. Consider the following creature.
The powerful Benalish Marshal is a 3/3 with a built-in Honor of the Pure for your other creatures, not to mention awesome flavor text. We wouldn't want to lose the Marshal to a card such as
Equipping the Bonesplitter doesn't protect the Marshal which costs three mana to cast from a lightning bolt which costs one mana to cast, but equipping the Machete does because of the +1 defense boost, making the Marshal a 5/4 instead of a 5/3. So the Machete is a defensive as well as offensive card. Of course, the Bonesplitter equipped to a creature that's blocking is also defensive — any weapon can be used either to attack or to defend — but in that case what makes it defensive is the situation rather than the card itself. Machete can be defensive because that's built into the card.
Another factor to consider is how many Bonesplitters and/or Machetes you're going to put into a deck. Many of my creature-based decks include a full set (4) of Bonesplitter, because it is nearly always a useful card, because of the low equip cost and because I can stack multiple Bonesplitters on one creature. True, I can stack multiple Machetes on one creature, but I'm paying double the mana to do that, and that's going to really slow me down when I need to move weapons from one creature to another. But you could fairly ask, if equip cost is the rationale, why not play a card like
The simple answer is that with Bonesplitter you're doing double damage. We estimate that double damage of Bonesplitter is worth more than the 0 equip cost of Shuko, because doing 3 damage on turn 2 or for example 5 damage on turn three with a creature like
is better. After all, while there are other ways to win, the goal of the game — especially when playing a creature-based deck — is not to conserve mana but to reduce your opponent's life total to zero. All of these scenarios of course assume that your opponent is sitting on his thumbs during the first few turns. That's not reality, of course, but we need a standard yardstick to measure with. The opponent may do anything, so by assuming he does nothing, we remove that many variables from the "equation" as it were.
So far, we've been singing the praises of Bonesplitter and we haven't been too keen on Trusty Machete. But I actually run two Trusty Machetes in my main Shivan Dragon deck to protect important creatures like
I don't often draw the Machete, but when I do, I get it into play quickly (turn 1) so that when these guys hit the board later the Machete's ready to be equipped. Any flying firebreather is powerful, so you want to protect it, if at all possible.1
Another related reason to play Machete is that a */2 creature is easier to pick off than a */1 creature early in the game. It is generally harder to kill a tougher creature with direct damage, and it's more than "twice" as hard to pick off a */2 creature than a */1 creature. But in my opinion this still doesn't offset the significant advantage of the 1 mana equip on Bonesplitter versus 2 mana for Trusty Machete. Supposing I draw and play Serra Zealot on turn 2, and I hold
on turn 3 if I cast Trusty Machete and then have to pay 2 to equip, then I won't have the mana to play this card on my opponent's turn. As Righteousness is a probable battle winner, I want to be able to play this card on my opponent's turn.
Verdict: In this head to head the advantage goes to Bonesplitter. Because of its higher equip cost, Trusty Machete can't compete with Bonesplitter in the earlier turns of the game when a creature-based deck needs to get in as many attacks and much damage as possible. However, the +1 defensive boost provided by Trusty Machete may come in handy later in the game to protect a important early */3 creature from lightning bolt or other direct damage cards. Trusty Machete has some defensive capability unlike Bonesplitter, and remains a good card if you don't have Bonesplitter. If I were playing 1 or 2 of these and I had some */3 creatures I wanted to protect, I'd go with Trusty Machete, but if I'm playing a set of four, or for most other reasons, I'll go with Bonesplitter.
1 A "firebreather" is a creature that has any ability similar to ": +1/+0 until end of turn."