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By: Sabi0, Kyle Lewis
May 02 2018 11:00am
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Hello readers. In this installment of Back to Basics, we’re going to be continuing our discussion of card advantage. In our previous entry we examined: how a normal game of Magic develops, differences between being on the draw and on the play, and how cards like Divination put you ahead. Today we are going to be paying special attention to interaction and how card advantage can be won without using cards that explicitly generate it. We’ll also look at how Planeswalker cards have changed card advantage in constructed and the relationship between cards and combat.

The Case of Terminate


Terminate offers everything a mage could want out of a removal spell: it’s cheap, unconditional, and instant speed. Spells like Terminate most commonly function as a one for one, trading your spell for their creature. To wit, if our opponent plays a Grizzly Bears, and we cast Terminate on it, we have broken even on cards. Going one for one is typically fine if unexciting for both players. Sometimes, however, going one for one on cards is actually to a single player’s advantage. For example, if a player is ahead on cards, one for one trades will very often favor that player. How so?

Last time we talked about how cards like Divination are a way to get ahead on cards, but getting ahead on cards isn’t enough--you need some way to convert those cards into game actions. The beauty of removal spells like Terminate is they give the player a way to convert their advantage into a more reasonable board state. Taking out your opponents best creature achieves several objectives for the person trying to win through card advantage. For one, it makes the game longer by removing an intimidating threat from the board. It also skews card quality in your favor, as you aren’t just denying your opponent a card, but their current best card. Additionally, simply reducing the number of cards available to both players by one implicitly favors the player with more cards.

To illustrate this point, consider a situation where both players have only basic lands in play. If one player has four cards in hand and the other player has seven, of course the player with seven is winning. If you reduce the numbers and instead say that one player has four cards in hand while the other has one, the player with four cards is still winning, but I would argue they are winning by a great margin than they were at seven to four cards. This is to suggest that the fact that seven to four being an advantage of 175% compared to the 400% advantage between four and one has actual bearing on a game of Magic. In a word, the fewer cards available to both players, the more consequential card advantage becomes.

It’s also important to remember that, just because a removal spell’s most common application is as a one for one doesn't mean you need to settle for that. One classic way to get extra value out a removal spell is to cast it in response to your opponent playing a combat trick or creature enchantment. If your opponent goes for a Temur Battle Rage on their Death's Shadow and you cast Terminate in response, you are looking at a two for one and a sizable blowout. Another fairly common place to find extra value is in gang blocking. If your opponent blocks one of your creatures with two of theirs and casting Terminate would swing combat in your favor, that’s extra value. Removal spells can also get added value by clearing out blockers standing between you and opposing planeswalkers. It would be impossible to cover every case where perfect timing of a removal spell nets you extra cards or virtual card advantage, but the takeaway is to not take timing for granted and learn to see the pros and cons of playing your spell at different points where you have priority.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that sometimes things can go wrong and your removal spells can be worth less than a card. Some control decks for example will go out of their way to make sure they have no possible targets for cards like Terminate. Their goal in doing this is to effectively turn your Terminates into blank cards and thereby generate card advantage before the game even starts. The infamous modern Lantern Control deck is an example of a deck like this, as is the modern Boggles deck which packs only hexproof creatures. In heavily optimized formats like modern, decks like this are a reason to favor more flexible cards like Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay, but in formats like Standard and Limited, having your removal spells be completely blanked is much less of a concern.  

That’s not to say that your removal is completely safe in these formats. Most creatures that see play in standard are selected because even if they get removed, they still are able to generate some value. Using Terminate on a Champion of Wits is something of a hollow victory when your opponent will still get the effect and can threaten to eternalize it later in the game. This is not to say you should never make that play even if it feels bad. One of the marks of a good player is a willingness to spend a full removal spell on an eternalize token (or even a Lingering Souls token) when the situation calls for it. Sometimes you will just have to live with being on the bad end of a trade and try to make the best of it. Good players will often have to remind themselves that it doesn’t matter how a creature got on the battlefield, once it’s their it has to be dealt with. In other words, there is no shame in Terminating a Ravenous Chupacabra, even if it feels terrible.

Let’s shift gears at this point and move our discussion of card advantage from removal to combat. Like a well timed removal spell, creature combat offers a great depth of play and many possibilities to create advantages. Here we’re going to focus on two essential tactics for getting the better end of the combat step, pressure and tricks.

Under Pressure

Goblin Offensive

A common idea in Magic strategy is that Magic is about creating more and better options for yourself and fewer and worse options for your opponent. In combat, you and your opponent work in opposition to create a board state. As such you often won’t be able to generate card advantage on the board without a little Coercion. The most common way the scales get tipped in one player’s favor happens when a player is forced to chump block. If, for example, your opponent is at five life and you have a 5/5 creature, your creature must be blocked every turn unless your opponent is somehow able to gain more life. If your opponent’s creatures never have a total power sufficient to kill your 5/5 creature, every attack you make should put you up a creature on the board. As a general principle, the more life a player has, the more liberty they have when it comes to blocking or paying life; denying your opponent this liberty will lead to better trades and more cards for you. We’ll further explore how pressure affects the game in the following sections

On the Merits of Being a Petty Conjurer of Cheap Tricks

Giant Growth

Though less common in constructed, combat tricks are an important part of most limited environments. Limited is typically the most combat focused format at any given time, and players are less likely to have cheap instant speed removal; these are two of the biggest reasons tricks are so prevalent. Typical limited decks can usually afford to play between zero and three combat tricks, and knowing when to deploy them, or not rely on them at all, can be critical to your success in the format.

Let’s take Giant Growth as our case study. I hasten to point out, Giant Growth is a fantastic combat trick, it’s so good, Wizards has stopped printing it in standard legal sets. The card, however, is simple and iconic and will do a good job of illustrating how combat tricks commonly function.

Perhaps the most common way to use a combat trick is to win a combat you would otherwise lose. If you attack with a 2/2 and your opponent blocks with a 4/4, you can use Giant Growth to swing the fight so that your creature lives and your opponents dies. In this case Giant Growth basically functioned as a removal spell. Part of the reason players sometimes eschew combat tricks completely is because in their most common application, they are basically worse than removal. It’s true that in this case you got the effect that you wanted, but compared to a removal spell: you had to assume a sizable risk (if your opponent had instant speed removal or a trick of their own, you may have gotten two for oned), your spell is conditional (while this is true of some removal as well, the Giant Growth only works if your creatures are of comparable stats), and it blanked your attack (the Giant Growth trick consumed your creatures attack that might have otherwise dealt two damage).

The upsides of Giant Growth, however, are very real. First, it’s cheap; most combat tricks only cost one or two mana. Second, it’s flexible. Combat tricks can do things removal spells can’t and can sometimes create bigger advantages. Third, they’re accessible. Premium removal can be hard to come by in a draft and demands an early pick, but you can typically pick up a combat trick or two with virtually no effort.

One of the big merits of combat tricks is that they can deal damage to your opponent or their planeswalkers. We’ve already talked about how the threat of a lethal attack can force your opponent to make unprofitable blocks. Combat tricks make this threat all the more potent. Once your opponent knows or suspects you have Giant Growth, there is little difference for them between being at four life and being at one. You can use this to your advantage by saving combat tricks until later in the game. Bluffing is another big advantage of combat tricks. Leaving mana up and lands in your hand is a great way to trick your opponent into thinking you have a combat trick. Most opponents will block when they think you have a trick if they think it will at worst result in a one for one trade, but they often won't let a creature through if they suspect a trick will represent lethal. Keep these ideas in mind as you look to set up lethal attacks, even if they are potentially several turns away to get full value out of your tricks.

A few bullet points related to combat tricks are worth mentioning. One is saving your creatures from removal. In limited, there is often a good amount of removal that keys off of toughness; recently we had Moment of Craving and Firecannon Blast. Trading your trick for one of these cards one for one is often a good deal and incentives you to play combat tricks in your main over something like Negate if damage based removal is of primary concern.

Also, when your opponent’s deck seems removal heavy, there’s no shame in casting combat tricks when you can. This usually means when your opponent is tapped out and you can trade your trick for a creature or even damage. While the timing may be sub-optimal, it’s much better than a blowout, and sometimes this is the sort of disciplined play you have to make. Similarly, sometimes it will be best to go down a card and trade your weak creature and a trick for a stronger one. When this takes out a creature you otherwise have no answer for, this is very often the correct line.

I Would Walk 500 Planes

Jace Beleren

There was a time when reusable sources of card advantage were not always playable or even available in standard. With the advent of planeswalkers, that will probably never be the case again. Having a planeswalker survive on the board effectively grants you a free spell every turn. For this reason, standard games often become about protecting your own planeswalkers and attacking your opponents.

Once your opponent has played a planeswalker you have two means of dealing with it, using a removal spell or attacking it (or some combination of the two). Often using a removal spell is an okay result, but part of what makes planeswalkers so good is that they do something as soon as they hit the board. This means that your one for one trade with a removal spell will very often be to your disadvantage. This is almost inevitable, but worth thinking about in the grand scheme of the game. Attacking a planeswalker gives you the chance of making a more equitable exchange on cards, but this is easier said than done and if things go bad they can quickly spiral out of control. The best defence against an opposing planeswalker is to make them difficult to cast by establishing control of the board. Your opponent will typically need to take a turn off from developing their board in order to cast the planeswalker and the window this creates can allow you to turn the tide of a game. Typically removing a planeswalker through combat the turn after it comes down will be a profitable exchange for you, as it will usually mean your opponent basically gained some life and overpaid for a spell.

The upside of planeswalkers being so hard to deal with is that resolving one will almost always be good for you. To get maximum value out of your walkers, try to avoid playing them when you can’t safely defend them, taking into account the possibility of removal. This will sometimes mean using a plus ability to keep its loyalty high even if using another ability might be more relevant. Other times, the threat of something like a Vraska's Contempt will make you to want to use your most high impact ability ASAP. Knowing which route to take is often matchup and board state dependent, but the line is often not too difficult to suss out based on how much damage your opponent can threaten on board and what cards they realistically have to cope with planeswalkers.

Wrapping Up

Thanks for reading this introduction to card advantage. Next time we are going to take a look at another foundational concept, The Philosophy of Fire. In that article we will really go deep in our discussion of pressure and the relationship between cards and life totals. Until then, best of luck in Dominaria.