What's Stronger, Ancestral Recall or Pot of Greed?
- Samuel Šulovský
Inspired by a tweet from a former pro player and current designer at Wizards of the Coast, this article attempts to compare cards from two vastly different game systems. A thought exercise just as much as an exercise in hilarity, you may learn a thing or two about Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh! along the way.
What is the stronger card — Pot of Greed or Ancestral Recall? It's quite an innocent question, right? But the more I thought about it the more I realized just how difficult the task of comparing the two really is. Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh! are two very different card games each with a rich history behind them that influenced the way they are today.
Let's start with a relatively surface-level overview of the differences between the two games. First of all, the deck size is different: Yu-Gi-Oh! has 40–60-card decks and an Extra Deck consisting of fifteen extra cards that cannot be included in the Main Deck, whereas Magic has 60+-card decks with no special deck whatsoever. Both feature a fifteen-card Side Deck or sideboard. In Magic, you can run up to four cards with the same name, while in Yu-Gi-Oh! you may only use three. Yu-Gi-Oh! limits the player to up to seven Monsters and five Spells and/or Traps on the field at any given moment, including during resolution (on the chain or on the stack). Magic does not restrict the number of permanents on the board. The starting hand size is also different: Magic players begin with seven cards in hand and can mulligan any amount of times to draw a new hand of seven cards, then place a card from their hand on the bottom of their deck for every mulligan they have taken that game. In Yu-Gi-Oh! the starting hand size is five and there are no mulligans whatsoever — this is one of the more defining features of the game. Yu-Gi-Oh! also knows no special resource or mana system. If you have the card in your hand and the card isn't somehow restricting you from playing it, you can play it! The only limits the rules of Yu-Gi-Oh! place on you are that you may only Normal Summon one Monster per turn and can only activate Trap Cards a turn after they are set. For those uninitiated into Yu-Gi-Oh! that means you have one consequence-free Monster Summon per turn and Trap Cards cannot be activated right away and must sit face down on the field until you end the turn.
Pot of Greed Is Free!
Let's start our comparison of the two cards with the obvious: "Pot of Greed is free! It must be better!" Yu-Gi-Oh! has no system of resources and costs, so Ancestral Recall definitely costs more to play. Meanwhile, drawing three in a game where about a third of your cards are resources and drawing two in a game without them will net the same amount of extra action on average. I wouldn't call the debate over here though.
Ancestral Recall also has more things going for it. For example, if your opponent has less than three cards in their deck, pointing Ancestral Recall at them would win you the game. Ancestral Recall can be played during your opponent's turn, Pot of Greed cannot. We see a lot of differences coming up already and we haven't even looked at them in context of the evolution of their respective games yet. Ancestral Recall is part of the "Power Nine" — arguably Magic's nine most powerful cards ever and hasn't seen print since 1993. As a result it is extremely rare and sports a price tag of €1,500 on Cardmarket. It has been banned from all formats except Vintage, where cards don't get banned and instead are "restricted" to one copy per deck. Ancestral Recall costs one blue mana to play and every blue deck in Vintage runs it; it's an autoinclude. As you might imagine, Vintage tournaments are rare and rarely get more than a couple dozen participants.
Pot of Greed is the most powerful card in Yu-Gi-Oh! without a doubt. It is banned in Advanced Format. Since premiere events in Yu-Gi-Oh! only come in Advanced, it sees no play outside of smaller tournaments that use Traditional Format or "Goat" Format. These have, however, virtually no official support. In the formats it is legal in it sees play in every deck; it's also an autoinclude. It's easy to see how these two cards compare: both are extremely powerful draw spells that make gaining an advantage in cards far too easy. What's the deal with card advantage, anyway?
Since everything in Yu-Gi-Oh! is free to play and there are no special resource cards to pay costs, Pot of Greed guarantees you'll draw into further haymakers of often mythic proportions. On the other hand, extra draws in Magic usually require a high investment of other resources, whereas Ancestral Recall is almost as free as it gets. A comparable effect nowadays costs three to four times as much mana. Ancestral Recall is often cited as a broken card because it lets you trade one resource (mana) for another resource (cards) too easily, or at too good of a rate. In Magic, there are many more examples of powerful cards that let you trade resources too efficiently.
This brings us to another important point about Magic: one mana is categorically worse than zero mana. Ancestral Recall requires a commitment of one blue mana, which means not every deck gets to play with it. You have to have at least some way of producing blue mana to pay for it. This means that, even in Vintage, where it is legal to have one Ancestral Recall, not every deck does. Sometimes your main game plan is more valuable than the value provided by Ancestral Recall. A great example of this is the infamous Dredge deck that doesn't have to play any mana producing lands and doesn't bother with casting spells, making Ancestral Recall with its one blue mana requirement rather obsolete.
Yu-Gi-Oh! on the other hand only features two resources: cards and life points. This means there is no resource restriction on Pot of Greed. If you have Pot of Greed in your hand, you can use it and get an extra card. If you have two, two extra cards! No drawbacks, no ifs or buts, no resource conversion, just pure resource generation. Pot of Greed effectively allows the player who drew it to start the game with one extra card in hand, no questions asked. An important point to make here is that since cards in Yu-Gi-Oh! can usually be used right away —like Pot of Greed itself — you can also immediately use the advantage the Pot generates for you. Pair Pot of Greed with other powerful cards like Delinquent Duo and you might start to see what the problem with it is. Another prime example of trading one resource for another in Yu-Gi-Oh! would be Upstart Goblin. It makes your opponent gain an eighth of their starting life total and draws you one card. Upstart Goblin is so powerful in Yu-Gi-Oh! that it had to be "limited" to one copy per deck.
Fixing What's Broken
There have been numerous attempts to "fix" both of these cards. Some more successful than others. Let's first look at one of the most famous fixes in the Pot lineage. Recently, a specific "fixed" Pot of Greed made waves in the Yu-Gi-Oh! community, cleanly separating players who have yet to understand how important card advantage is from those who already have. Pot of Desires also lets you draw two cards, but you have to banish/exile (different words, same concept) the top quarter of your deck face down and afterward you cannot activate another Pot of Desires until your next turn. When I first started playing Yu-Gi-Oh! I couldn't quite wrap my head around this card, but it's one of the most played draw spells in the game. Why? Because the size of your remaining deck simply doesn't matter when the extra cards help you win the game immediately.
Throughout Magic's history, there have also been many "fixed" renditions of Ancestral Recall that let you do something with the top three cards of your deck for one blue mana. One of my favorite things about Magic is how different pieces work together to turn innocuous looking cards into absolute powerhouses. One such powerhouse is Brainstorm. Brainstorm is a direct downgrade to Ancestral Recall and was supposedly designed as such. It reads: draw three cards, then put two cards back on top of your deck. You basically draw the best card from the top three immediately and then put two cards away for later. Brainstorm has many positives, but the one that I want to highlight is the interaction it has with cards that involve shuffling your deck. If you intended to use one of those anyway, Brainstorm effectively reads: draw three cards, then shuffle the two worst cards in your hand into your deck. While this isn't Ancestral Recall by a mile, it still allows you to dig deep into your library for as little a cost as possible and accumulate an advantage that will become hard for your opponent to match.
Apples and Oranges, Cards and Cards
There are many more ways in which seemingly similar cards between the two games are received and understood differently. Of course, the two game systems vary wildly, but it's interesting to see how they react to similar ideas. When you look at Yu-Gi-Oh! cards through a Magic lens, many of them seem absurdly overpowered. Consider Topologic Zeroboros, a boss monster that can be powered out on turn one and if you summon another monster it exiles all cards on the field and comes back in your next upkeep/Standby Phase. Destroying everything on the field isn't a common effect in Magic at all. When you consider that Zeroboros isn't even seen as a top-tier card, you can easily see how someone who doesn't play a lot of Yu-Gi-Oh! would be left scratching their head.
Likewise, Magic cards also bring about some confusion for Yu-Gi-Oh! players. Teferi, Time Raveler is seen as a game piece that denies your opponent a lot of options and makes the game miserable for them. Why? It returns a card from the field to the hand and stops your opponent from playing spells at instant speed/spell speed 2 and higher (same concept, different words). In Yu-Gi-Oh! such cards are extremely common and even more powerful. Cards that disallow the use of entire card types or completely stop special summoning are all commonplace. The extreme power level of cards and the ability to construct incredible turn one boards necessitates the creation of similarly high-octane answers, so that the game doesn't devolve to a die roll.
I hope that these few parallels highlighted how different Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic are and helped shed some light on the one you don't play. Maybe it even encouraged you to give the other game a try. Both have a rich history full of powerful combos, ludicrous cards, and memorable formats. In terms of Magic cards, it would probably be clearer to do a comparison with a card like Black Lotus, which lets you ignore one of the game's main ideas: mana builds up slowly turn by turn. The Lotus ignores that by giving you a lot of mana for free the same way Pot of Greed gives you a lot of cards for free. In the end it's all apples and oranges and ultimately we cannot say which is better globally.
Hopefully, this article has made you think about how similar game pieces may have completely different ramifications in different environments and you have enjoyed to think outside the box like this. Maybe you even learned a thing or two along the way!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.