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Mar 28 2018 12:00pm
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When I was getting started in Magic, the world was very different. It was the year 2000: Invasion had just come out, high-speed internet wasn’t a thing, people still went to malls, no one had nostalgia for the nineties. I was in fifth grade, playing Magic in study hall. Our group’s grasp of the rules was tenuous at best--for example, we thought activating Bog Witch let you search your deck for three Swamps and put them into play (dark times, friends). Magic coverage and strategy simply wasn’t something the average new player had easy access to. Our gains in skill were, consequently, glacially slow. My friends and I all basically had five-color-bad-stuff decks, and we enjoyed playing our long chaotic games where a spell might not be cast before turn seven or eight--much like Commander players do today (rib, rib).

It wasn’t until I was a several years older and regularly playing at a local game store that I got my first inkling as to how Magic really worked. The older guys at our shop were very fond of quoting the phrase “card advantage wins games,” and for a long time I knew the phrase but didn’t really know what it meant. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, it finally clicked: card advantage really does win games and it’s everywhere. While this was an epiphany at the time, I still had a great deal to learn; I’ve now been playing for almost eighteen years and still find Magic has more to teach me. As the Zen master Dogen said, "there are those who are enlightened on enlightenment and those deluded within delusion." In Magic this is particularly true. Over the years, the best players I've met are the ones who realize they always have more to learn, while those who think they already know everything stagnate.

The goal of this series is to provide the reader with a large scale picture of Magic theory and strategy. This article will be part one of a look at card advantage. Once we have covered the basics of card advantage, we will take an equally in depth look at The Philosophy of Fire and tempo. These three concepts: card advantage, The Philosophy of Fire, and tempo are the fundamental building blocks of Magic theory. My hope is that newer players will find this a helpful and accessible introduction to Magic’s theoretical ideas, and that experienced players will use this chance to examine and perhaps reevaluate their understanding.

What is Card Advantage?

Divination

The most basic way to gain card advantage is by drawing extra cards using a card like Divination. In a game of Magic where neither player mulligans, both players start the game with an equal number of cards. The player going first (often called being “on the play”) takes their turn without drawing a card, then the player going second (AKAed as being “on the draw”) takes their turn and draws a card. On this turn, the player on the draw is up one card on their opponent--they have access to eight cards while their opponent only has seven. When play passes back to the first player, that player draws a card, bringing both players to eight total cards--we often call this equality of cards being “at parity”. When the first player passes the turn, the player on the draw will again (assuming nothing’s changed) be ahead on cards, until they pass the turn back to the first player.

To expound, let’s say it is the third turn of the game; the person on the play casts Divination. Divination is a very clean example of card advantage because all it does is gain you one card. Let’s break that down. At the start of the person on the play’s third turn (let’s start calling them Player-1) they have drawn a total of nine cards, the same number as the person on the draw (Player-2). When Player-1 casts Divination, what they are basically doing is spending a card (going down to eight) in order to gain two cards (going up to ten). This might seem weird, but for now let’s conceptualize it this way. It’s Player-1’s third turn and now they are sitting at a total of ten cards while Player-2 still only has nine. On Player-2s third turn, they will have seen ten cards bringing the total back to parity. After both players forth turns, they will have both seen eleven cards.

What Player-1 has done here is no small feat, they have effectively negated the advantage Player-2 had from being on the draw. Now Player-1 is always either ahead or at parity on both turns and draws--a nice place to be. Imagine that instead Player-2 had been the one casting Divination. Player-2 would still be at a disadvantage on turns, however, they would be up two cards on Player-1--again a nice result.

Now at this point you may be asking yourself some questions: why are we counting Divination as minus one and plus two rather than just plus two, hasn’t Player-1 really drawn eleven cards? Yes, but they have also had to pay a cost for them, and understanding that cost is important for fully understanding the concept of card advantage. It’s true that in a game of Magic cards don’t simply accumulate in player’s hands; ideally players are playing at least a land every turn in the early game in addition to creatures and other spells. Our goal at looking at cards in this way is to picture how many cards a player has to work with at a given point in the game compared to their opponent.

A common tendency for new players is to think about a game of Magic in terms of your whole deck, but typically only a fraction of it actually matters in a given game. A typical Magic game will end before turn ten (that is, before both players have taken ten turns), and if the game isn’t literally over by then, it’s often decided. In a game where neither player draws extra cards, by the tenth turn, Player-1 will have drawn sixteen cards and Player-2 will have drawn seventeen. In such a situation those sixteen cards are all you have to work with; like the sixteen pieces of a chessboard, you need to get value out of each one. In short, we count Divination as minus one plus two as a way to say: “for the cost of one card, I get two cards.” Imagine if divination only drew one card; it wouldn’t really do much because you had to spend a card (and three mana) to just get another card.

When is a card Not a Card?

Serum Visions

While having extra cards is always good, not all cards are created equal, and sometimes the quality of cards drawn is more important than the quantity. Take extraneous lands as an example. All players are familiar with the frustration of drawing a land late in the game when they have all the mana they could ever need. In such a situation, we might call the drawn land a dead card. We can think of drawing a dead card as one point of card disadvantage. Let’s imagine it’s gotten to the late game, and Player-1 and Player-2 are both empty handed and looking to draw some action. If Player-1 draws lands three turns in a row while Player-2 draws creatures on each of those turns, we can conceptualize that as Player-2 being up three cards, even though the number of cards they’ve drawn is equal.

I bring this up to call attention to the fact that card advantage is not as cut and dry as it might first appear. When we talk about ideas like dead cards, or a card not doing anything, or a card not being worth “a full card” we are dipping into a topic called virtual card advantage. Virtual card advantage is when the total quantity of cards hasn’t changed, but circumstances have lead to the value of cards changing. In the real world situation of a competitive Magic game, virtual card advantage is often just as good as raw card advantage.

Virtual card advantage can take many different forms, and it’s a complex topic which we will devote more time to later. For now let's look at one more example. Consider again the above scenario, both players have empty boards, plenty of mana, and no cards in hand. If Player-1 draws and casts Serum Visions to draw a card (say a land, which they don’t need) then looks at the top two cards of their deck and sees two more basic lands. They scry both those lands to the bottom of their deck. How many cards has Player-1 drawn? It’s a bit tough to say. The easy answer is they spent a card to draw a card, which is true. They also spent a card to draw a dead card, which is also true. They also spent one card and got three cards closer to action, which is true as well. We can also say, in this situation Serum Visions did basically the same thing as Ancestral Recall. The number we assign to this situation is kind of arbitrary, but we can comfortably say that Serum Visions provided virtual card advantage. In this situation, all Player-1 cares about is finding a spell to cast. Because Serum Visions got them three cards closer to that goal, I would call the Serum Visions a three for one.

Other Routes to Card Advantage

Wrath of God Mind Rot


Drawing cards is the most simple and clean form of card advantage, but there are cards across all colors that provide either immediate card advantage or the opportunity for card advantage or virtual card advantage. Let’s look at some examples of other forms of card advantage. Mind Rot looks like an exact analogue for Divination. If you cast it and your opponent discards two cards, you have gone up a card just like with divination.

If we dig deeper, however, the differences between Mind Rot and Divination can actually end up being fairly stark. What if your opponent doesn’t have two cards in hand? If they only have one you are only going even on cards. Sometimes that’s good enough, but not getting the full effect out of your cards is usually a pretty rough situation. What’s more, if your opponent has no cards in their hand Mind Rot is actually useless to you. Even outside of the worst case, once a good player knows you have Mind Rot they can play around it, sometimes to great effect. Make no mistake, resolving a Mind Rot is great, but if your opponent has already been able to play out their best cards and perhaps left less impactful (or even dead) cards in their hand to dump to your Mind Rot, you might actually be falling behind by playing it. In such a situation, your opponent would be leveraging their skill at hand management to create virtual card advantage.

By contrast, Divination always gives you what’s advertised.. Even if the cards it provides aren’t what you would most want to draw, you had some control over the outcome (you selected which cards go in your deck and perhaps have done things over the course of the game to manipulate your library). This is highly preferable to giving your opponent a choice over which cards to deny themselves, which will always be the cards they need the least. Card drawing also has fringe benefits like helping you make land drops early on.

I mention all this not to say that Mind Rot is bad, but to push the idea that card advantage is often something you have to work for. While Divination will usually just be good when you cast it, Mind Rot requires you to judge which matchups it’s appropriate to play it in and how to time your spell over the course of the game. For example, it’s sometimes good to slam Mind Rot on turn three to slow your opponents development and make their hand more awkward. Other times it’s better to wait and try and get your opponent when they only have a few expensive cards left stranded in their hand; such situations can make Mind Rot a game winning play. Other times Mind Rot will help you resolve an important spell through suspected counter magic; even if your opponent only has one card in this case and it ends up being a land, knowing they can’t counter your best spell is probably the best Mind Rot can do that game.  

Wrath of God is similar, in that it is a situational means of attaining card advantage. The ideal situation for a wrath (which is also used as a general term for any card that destroys a bunch of creatures), is when you are very far behind on the board and can trade one card (the wrath) for several of your opponents creatures. Say you have no creatures on the board and your opponent has three. If you fire off Wrath of God, you trade one card for their three, going up two cards and getting very far ahead. Like Mind Rot, the skill in playing a Wrath of God is knowing when to cast it. Sometimes you will want to wait to see if your opponent develops their board a little bit more; sometimes this will backfire and your opponent won’t play anything else as they hammer in for damage. Sometimes you’ll want to play creatures into your own wrath effect to goad your opponent into overextending. Sometimes you’ll use Wrath to trade with only one of their creatures, or you’ll play Wrath and end up behind on cards. All of these are defensible uses for a Wrath of God. When each of these lines of play is correct is highly situational. Consider such questions as: how much life do both players have, how many cards are in each players hand, what’s on the board, what kind of deck is each person playing, what can you expect the remainder of the game to look like etc. All this to say, keep card advantage in mind when making these decisions, it will be an invaluable guide, but remember it is not the whole story, as we will see in greater depth as we continue.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. Next time we are going to continue our discussion of card advantage by looking at other forms of card advantage, such as Planeswalkers and creatures, and how to fight for card advantage through interaction. If you found this article useful, maybe share it with a friend who you think would get some value out of it, and if you have feedback or suggestions for future topics, feel free to post them in the comments section below.

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