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Hedron Archive Is Terrible And You're Terrible If You Play It | Commander Quickie


Alright, friends, here's the scoop: Hedron Archive is terrible and you're terrible if you play it.

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Hedron Archive is a 4cmc mana rock that taps for 2 colorless mana. In addition, you can draw 2 cards by paying 2 mana and tapping + sacrificing the archive. This card is very popular in Commander: according to EDHREC it shows up 9% of all the decks in their database, beating out cards like Worn Powerstone and Sword of the Animist.

Lots of people love this card. In doing research for this article, I asked people on Twitter why they like Hedron Archive so much and three main arguments kept popping up:

  1. It's good card draw in White / Red / Boros decks.
  2. It's good ramp in non-Green decks.
  3. Being both ramp and card draw makes it way better.
  4. It's one of your best card draw + ramp options on a tight budget.

I disagree with most of the common responses, however, and that's how we got here: I'm going to explain why Hedron Archive is overrated, why most decks shouldn't be running it, and finally what decks it's actually good in. Come for the clickbait title, hopefully stay for a lesson in good deckbuilding!

 

It's Terrible Card Draw

"It's good card draw in Red / White / Boros decks, Tomer! Those colors don't have better options!"

Let's get this bit out of the way first because it's the easiest argument to shoot down. Drawing 2 cards off Hedron Archive requires casting the Archive for 4 mana, then spending an additional 2 mana and sacrificing it. You just spent 6 mana to draw 2 cards. That's a terrible rate: paying double for a Divination -- a card that is too weak to ever see play in Commander -- is a really, really bad spot to be in.

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Divination is a Blue card though, and Blue, Green, and Black have access to tons of amazing card draw options. So what about the colors that have less stellar card draw options: White and Red? Would Boros colors be desperate enough to play a 6cmc Divination? Absolutely not!

I find it strange that people keep saying that Red has bad card draw. That may have been true a decade ago when Commander first appeared as an official format, but over the years, WOTC has been great at pushing amazing Red card draw options to choose from. Red has tons of burst card draw options in the form of wheels, from the classic Wheel of Fortune, the remix version Reforge the Soul, even a Wheel we can cast from our graveyard with Runehorn Hellkite. Any of these cards can take us from zero cards in hand back to a full grip of seven instantly. But we also have an ever-increasing number of incremental card draw options in the form of what's called "impulse draw" such as Outpost Siege, Tectonic Giant, and Light Up the Stage, which let us temporarily cast the top cards of our library. There's a solid mix of these cards to choose from at pretty much any price point. Red and Boros decks are absolutely fine when it comes to card draw and should never stoop down to playing a 6 mana Divination.

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Now I admit that Mono White is a bit harder to fill a deck with good card draw. There's only a handful of White cards that I'd count as good card draw, but they do exist. Mentor of the Meek is an all-star in many White decks, especially when paired with efficient token generators (Elspeth, Sun's Champion). And of course there's Land Tax, which in my opinion is one of the best cards in the entire format, making sure you never miss a land drop and only gets better if you spend those excess lands to activate cards powerful cards like Scroll Rack or Mageta the Lion. There's a few more, but not a lot that have a white color identity. 

However, Mono White has another source of card draw, and that's colorless card draw. White is the best color to take advantage of colorless equipment that can draw it cards, like Mask of Memory, Sword of Fire and Ice, and the almighty Skullclamp. These are all repeatable sources of card draw that are far more efficient than Hedron Archive's draw 2 for six mana, and White is uniquely positioned to take advantage of them because it's the primary color for Equipment support: we have tons of equipment tutors that fit a range of budgets, like the expensive Stoneforge Mystic, the decently pricey Stonehewer Giant, or the budget-friendly Open the Armory. On top of finding our equipment, White has additional equipment synergy such as drawing cards off Puresteel Paladin and Sram, Senior Edificer, or getting them back from our graveyard with Nahiri, the Lithomancer.

Even with slimmer pickings in White, you can actually set up a powerful card draw package in basically any deck thanks to how good White is at tutoring them up. Even Mono White can do way, way better than a six mana Divination.

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It's Bad Ramp

"It's actually good ramp in non-Green decks! Costing 4 and tapping for 2 is a good rate! It's two Mind Stones stapled together, what's not to like? It's better than Mind Stone actually because it generates 2 mana instead of 1!"

These answers all came up in my question on Twitter. Yes, there's even one person arguing that Hedron Archive is better than all the 2cmc ramp options like Mind Stone and the signets (Arcane Signet) because it produces 2 mana instead of 1, so it'll generate more mana than the 2cmc options over a long game. Strangely enough, most defenders of Hedron Archive don't run Dreamstone Hedron, aka three Mind Stones stapled together, despite following the same logic -- Dreamstone Hedron sees play in only 3% of all decks in EDHREC's database. The reason why Dreamstone Hedron sees less play than the other two cards is because it's worse ramp than the other two, but the same logic as to why it's worse than the other two can be applied to figure out why Hedron Archive is so much worse than Mind Stone.

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The problem with these arguments is that they ignore a fundamental aspect of good deckbuilding: each card in your deck should serve the deck's specific game plan in the most optimal way possible. Cards that don't serve the deck's game plan, or serve it poorly, are worth cutting if your goal is to optimize your deck. In the case of ramp, the question you should be asking yourself is, "what is this card helping me ramp into?" Now for the majority of Commander decks, the cards that are the critical engines that turn on the rest of their deck are often found in the 3-5cmc range; in many cases the commander is the most important engine. Until those decks can start their engines, they're just sitting around idling. That's why I've always been a loud advocate for ramp cards that can be cast on turns 1-2: these cards allow decks to optimally use their mana on their first turns and ramp into the deck's engines so you can start actually progressing your game plan. There are other considerations when picking the right ramp cards as well, but converted mana cost is always a top criteria.

Let's highlight the deckbuilding philosophy with two examples: Kaalia of the Vast and Siona, Captain of the Pyleas. Both these commanders are the key engines to their respective decks, and usually the most optimal way to brewing a deck around them is to cast them and start generating value out of them as quickly as possible. So if we want to cast these cards as quickly as possible, the best ramp cards will be ones that let us ramp into them. For Kaalia, this means ramp cards that are in the 1-2cmc range since they let us cast Kaalia on turn 3 (a turn early), with mana-fixing options like Talisman of Conviction and Arcane Signet being especially good here since Kaalia has WBR in her casting cost. Similarly for Siona, 1cmc ramp lets us cast Siona on turn 2; two amazing options include Utopia Sprawl and Wild Growth, which can get even better in Siona decks since they often run Enchantress and specifically Aura payoff cards.

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It's not like non-Green decks are lacking in 2cmc ramp either, even on a budget. Any deck has access to Mind Stone, Everflowing Chalice, or Wayfarer's Bauble. Any multicolor deck has access to Signets (Orzhov Signet) and Talismans (Talisman of Creativity), and even White and Red has access to surprisingly good ramp cards like Curse of Opulence. The options are there if you know where to look.

The biggest weakness of 3cmc+ ramp spells is that, in many decks, they aren't ramping into anything in particular. They're just ... ramping. And if you're running a bunch of 3cmc+ ramp spells instead of 2cmc ramp then you're going to spend a lot of games sitting there idling while your opponents are starting their engines way ahead of you.

That's not to say that any ramp spell that is above 2cmc is unplayable, far from it, but unless they're in a deck that lets them ramp into a particular thing then they need to provide something more to the deck than just tapping for half as much mana as it costs to cast it. For example, Chromatic Lantern is 3cmc and taps for only one mana, but it's amazing in 5C decks for the mana-fixing it provides. Mirari's Wake is 5cmc but doubles the mana output of your lands and pumps your army a little, amazing for Go Wide decks that are focused primarily on land ramp. And these cards, strong as they are, do not replace your 2cmc ramp but instead enhances your ramp package.

Hedron Archive also provides something extra: the ability to sacrifice itself to draw 2 cards. And while that's a neat perk, it's just not enough for me. You want to play some good 4CMC ramp? Thran Dynamo is 4cmc but taps for 3 mana, a great rate. Smothering Tithe drowns you in mana and it only gets better once you toss it in a deck that cares about artifacts (Goblin Welder). Those are ramp cards that justify their higher cmc. Hedron Archive does not, at least not usually.

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Two Bad Things Don't Make A Good Thing

So Hedron Archive is bad card draw and bad ramp. However, the Archive can be either of these things, making it more flexible than cards that are strictly card draw or strictly ramp. That flexibility makes the card much better, right?

Not really.

Two bad card don't make a good card. Just run better ramp and better card draw, people.

 

 

Where Hedron Archive Is Actually Decent

I've explained why Hedron Archive is bad card draw and bad ramp. No matter what colors you're playing, you've got better options than Hedron Archive. It's one of the most overrated cards currently played.

However ... I would still recommend it in very specific decks.

Remember how I said that each card in your deck should serve the deck's specific game plan? Or that your ramp cards are supposed to ramp into something? Well, there are times where Hedron Archive fulfills that purpose! There are at least two different types of decks where I'm more than happy to recommend Hedron Archive as a ramp card.

Example 1: Dramatic Scepter Combo. This combo involves imprinting Dramatic Reversal on to Isochron Scepter, casting Reversal with the Scepter, untapping nonland permanents that produce 2 or more mana, then using that mana to activate the Scepter infinite times for an infinite loop. You can win a bunch of ways with this, such as pinging everyone to death with Ral, Storm Conduit. Since Hedron Archive taps for the exact amount of mana needed to pay for this loop, it's actually a solid ramp option if your deck's game plan is to combo off with Dramatic Scepter!

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Example 2: Ultra Ramp Decks. While most decks have their engines costing between 3-5 mana and therefore want to speed up to that amount, some decks are shooting for higher amounts. The most extreme example of this is Kozilek, the Great Distortion. Kozilek decks want to quickly and consistently ramp up to 10 mana so they can cast their commander. That is a huge amount of mana, especially in a colorless deck, so it requires a huge amount of ramp. The idea here is to play a ton of ramp in your deck so you can quickly vomit out your hand full of ramp on the battlefield, cast Kozilek, instantly refilling your depleted hand. In this case, not only Hedron Archive good in this deck, it's one of the better ramp cards available, because both tapping for two mana and being able to recycle itself is incredibly relevant here.

Another similar example would be Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded, which I wrote a primer about: the deck's strategy is to ramp out Purphoros, then use its ability to start cheating out our huge beaters. Purphoros costs 5 mana to cast and if we need to hardcast our beaters then we'll need 6+ mana, so we need more ramp than usual; I was running 15+ ramp/ritual cards in the $50 sample just to consistently get our game plan rolling. Between all our ramp and how quickly Purphoros can deplete our hand, we need lots of card draw to refill, which is why the deck runs as many Wheels as possible, and similarly Hedron Archive's ability to recycle itself when we no longer need it is quite useful.

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So ... Is Hedron Archive Terrible?

In most of the decks Hedron Archive is being played in, yes, it's terrible.

It's never good card draw. It just isn't. Even Mono White can do way better.

It's bad card ramp in most decks. The exception are decks where your engine you're ramping into has a much higher cmc than normal, or you're using it as part of a combo, or some other good reason that makes this usually bad ramp card into a decent one. Context matters.

And that's it. What started off as just a rant about a card I don't like and think is played too much has devolved into me trying to teach deckbuilding philosophy. I'm not sure if that's an improvement or not. But at least now I can stop talking about it. Thanks for reading!

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