Magic Theory From The Ground Up: Part II

Welcome to Part II of my "Magic Theory From The Ground Up" article series. Last time, we covered inevitability and lineup advantage. Today, we'll be building on that and examining the basics of resources. So we start our journey back to Timmyland...

What are resources?

After playing many games with larger decks, Timmy and Jimmy realize that the game is purely about lineup advantage. They don't have to worry about mana, so nearly every card at every power level is available to them. They decide that they're ready for more challenging Magic, and one of them suggests they get rid of their "free mana" rule. At first, they suspect that the game won't change much, but they soon discover another dimension to Magic.

Resources are what allow you to use your cards to advance towards a goal. Now that cards have specific costs attached to them, resources become a vital component of the game. Typically, "resources" refers to mana, but there are many other resources available to you. Likewise, the most basic goal is winning the game, but you can also aim to achieve more specific subgoals. Magic requires you to manage your resources well in order to effectively reach your goals.

So what counts as a resource? Almost everything. Mana is a resource. Your life total is a resource. Cards in your hand, your library, and your graveyard are all resources, too. Even something such as the untapped state of a creature counts as a resource (you can "spend" the untapped state to attack or to destroy a creature with Visara, for example). Every turn, you gain more resources through the phases of the game, and you can choose to use those resources for various effects. What resources do you start with? Well, each player begins with an opening hand, 20 life, and a library, and the game develops completely from that foundation.

Building Resources

Timmy and Jimmy currently play with 7-card hands, following all rules of the game except without the draw step. They notice that all the power cards they once played with are no longer as effective because of the resources they require. After playing dozens of games, they start getting a feel for how much certain effects typically cost. Then whenever they find a card that produces the same effect but at the price of fewer resources, they declare that it's efficient. Efficiency is relative, though; it all depends on the costs of similar effects and what alternatives you have at the same cost.

Alongside efficiency, Timmy and Jimmy are also concerned with speed. It takes time to build their resources (mainly by playing one land a turn), but they also want to try to establish inevitability early. A Form of the Dragon is pointless if it appears on turn 9 through your Mercadian Bazaar while you have an empty board and no answers. The opponent could kill you with a Phyrexian Negator long before you have a chance to do anything.

The simplest definition of speed is "the amount of time it takes for something to happen." That's not a very specific definition, but it'll have to do for now. When talking about individual cards, people generally use the term "speed" to refer to two different things: how early it can be played, and how quickly its effect kicks in (for threats, this refers to how quickly it can win). The first definition of speed is directly related to the cost of the card in terms of resources, while the second definition is related to the card's power. So a Darksteel Colossus is pretty slow to come out on its own, but it's a fast clock. A Savannah Lions is quick to come out, and it's a moderately fast clock (considering it's a one-drop). Oblivion Stone, on the other hand, can be played moderately early, but its effect is rather slow. In general, cards are balanced in terms of cost and power. Some cards will be both cheap and strong, making them desirable, while others will be weak and expensive junk.

Speed is important when you consider lineup advantage. When Timmy and Jimmy were playing with free mana, every card in their hand was readily available. Now that they play with resources, they can only use what their current resources allow them to. At the start of the game they can play very little, but as they develop their boards, they become able to use more of their cards. An answer sitting in Jimmy's hand might never get used because he doesn't have the proper resources. Therefore, it shouldn't even be considered an answer! It turns out that we'll have to adjust our previous way of thinking about lineup advantage.

In the last article, I defined lineup advantage in terms of entire decks - the player with the strongest unanswered threats had the lineup advantage. When looking at an actual game, though, this lineup advantage doesn't play out perfectly because you might not always be able to line up the answers appropriately. One reason for this is the varying costs of the cards. If you have lots of answers all costing six mana, and your opponent's deck is full of efficient one- and two-drops, you'll have a harder time using your lineup advantage.

If you think about a game in stages, you could roughly define an early game, a mid game, and a late game. We'll look at these more closely after we discuss tempo, but you should already be thinking about this model as it relates to resource development. Different strategies tend to focus their efforts towards particular stages, and consequently they try to maximize their resource usage during those stages. Aggro decks, for example, love fast cards because they want to establish inevitability in the early to mid game. By tapping out and playing many threats in the first few turns, they can apply lots of pressure before control players can properly develop. Similarly, control decks want fast answers so that they don't get overwhelmed by aggro players, aiming to survive and establish inevitability with powerful (and resource-consuming) cards in the mid to late game. Meanwhile, pure combo decks need to be even faster than the aggro or control decks because they generally don't have answers at all, preferring to focus entirely on winning in the early game. Of course, players may create variations of these strategies by mixing elements from each.

It should be obvious that speed, like efficiency, is relative. A given card may be fast or slow in different metagames. We'll explore metagames later on in the series, but for now, let's learn more about resources.

Resource Curves

When talking about resource development, one should keep in mind the resource curves of a deck. These are graphs that show your available resources over time, where the base unit of time is one turn. Let's first look at some simple resource curves.

This one is pretty straightforward. Each turn, you receive a beginning phase, a first main phase, a combat phase, a second main phase, and an end phase. Each of these phases counts as a resource; without these phases, you wouldn't be able to do anything.

The resource curve for phases (see graph) is generally constant as you only get one of each per turn. However, this isn't always true. There are cards that can give you extra combat phases (Relentless Assault), giving you a resource edge over your opponent. We can also count taking extra turns as additional resources. Because the normal flow of the game has players taking turns one at a time, any extra turn you take (via cards such as Time Walk) is like adding one of each phase during your turn. Therefore, your resource curve is higher in those instances.

Cards are also fairly simple resources. You typically receive one additional card a turn. Unlike phases, though, cards carry over across turns; if you don't use a card this turn, you can still get a use out of it next turn. So the resource curve for cards graphs the total number of cards you've drawn, starting from 7 (unless you mulligan). Card-drawing spells can boost your resource curve in the short run (with one-time effects such as Ancestral Recall) or in the long run (with persistent effects such as Phyrexian Arena).

Life is perhaps the most fundamental resource, though in general you don't actively spend it. Some cards will let you directly use your life as part of a cost (Kuro, Pitlord), and other cards will let you acquire more life (Nourish). More often, your opponent is more focused on your life total than you are. The sample resource curve at the right demonstrates the trend of a decreasing life total against an aggro opponent.

Your life total is a very critical resource because it can often affect the values of other cards. Although you don't lose the game until you reach 0 life, being at a low life total can put you under a lot of pressure. At 4 life, an opponent's Grizzly Bears is a 2-turn clock, which can outrace even your Eater of Days if your opponent is still sitting at 20 life. Your opponent's threats are more urgent when you have less life, requiring you to respond more immediately. When you have lots of life, on the other hand, you can afford to "spend" some of it by absorbing damage while you look for an appropriate answer. So even though life is a simple concept, it can affect the game in complex ways.

- Mana Curve: A player's graph of available mana over time, similar to other resource curves

- Cost Distribution: A graph showing the number of cards in a deck for each converted mana cost (this is what most players call the "mana curve")

In any discussion of resources, especially involving curves, mana is sure to come up. However, there is an important distinction to make here: I use the term mana curve in a different way from the typical Magic player. When I refer to mana curves, I'm talking about graphs of available resources over time, as I've done above with life, cards, and phases. What most people mean by the term "mana curve" is what I call the cost distribution. This is because I prefer to think of "curves" all in the same way, rather than mixing terms. Keep this in mind throughout this discussion so that you don't get lost.

Mana curves are much more complex than the previous resource curves we've looked at. In general, your mana curve will be limited by the line y=x (this would be your mana curve if you played one basic land a turn and had no other mana sources). Of course, you won't always be able to play a land each turn, and you might also have some form of mana acceleration to boost your curve. A sample mana curve is shown at the right.

Right now, Timmy and Jimmy know exactly how their mana curves will play out because they start with their entire 7-card decks in their hands. When we introduce randomness, the expected mana curves will look like actual "curves," but we'll stick to the non-random mana curves until then.

Because mana is necessary for almost everything you play, you want to make sure your deck's mana curve starts strong in the early game, increasing your overall speed. A fast mana curve ensures that you have access to more of your spells early, which means you have more options. Ideally, you want to quickly reach the "top" of your mana curve, where you have enough mana such that you don't need to build any more. You also want your mana curve and your cost distribution to complement each other so that you're not always waiting for more resources. This last concept will be explored much more fully in a later article, as it can be quite math-heavy.

Resource Acceleration

Typically, the more resources you have, the better off you are, since you're more able to create a lineup advantage for yourself. We've seen some examples of boosting resources in the last section (Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, etc.). Resource acceleration refers to long-term boosts in your resources. Accelerating early gives you an edge in speed, especially when you're accelerating your mana. Mana acceleration gives you a way of getting around the one-land-per-turn limitation on your mana development, effectively "breaking the curve."

Timmy: Okay, I'll play my Tropical Island and a Mox Emerald. I'll tap for two green and play Channel, making enough mana to drop my Darksteel Colossus. Your turn.
Jimmy: Well, first I'll play my Mountain and two Black Lotuses, sacrificing both and tapping my Mountain to get enough mana for a Form of the Dragon. HA!

As you can see, some methods of acceleration can be very powerful indeed. (Where did Jimmy get two Lotuses from, anyway?) But as the game progresses, mana acceleration becomes less valuable, since the point of it is to generate a heavy lineup advantage before your opponent can combat it. Once both players are in the late game, additional mana becomes pointless.

However, there's another way to abuse acceleration: "going infinite." If more resources means a better position, then infinite resources should be infinitely better, right? Many combo decks have won by taking advantage of infinite resources (okay, an arbitrarily large amount of resources). You can give yourself infinite turns, infinite cards (having your whole deck in hand should be good enough), infinite life, infinite mana, etc. Although none of those actually wins the game in itself, each directly or indirectly leads to a win.

Resource Conversion

Resources are converted into other resources all the time. Phases turn into cards in hand and mana, those cards and mana turn into permanents, and so on. Many cards directly convert resources, such as Channel. Although every deck converts resources, some decks focus on being able to convert resources quickly to create powerful effects. Such decks revolve around resource engines, which aim to amplify the process of conversion. One of the best examples of a deck with a powerful resource engine was the Mirage block ProsBloom:

ProsBloom (Mike Long)Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Cadaverous Bloom
4 Natural Balance
4 Prosperity
4 Squandered Resources
1 Drain Life

4 Infernal Contract
4 Impulse
4 Vampiric Tutor
1 Three Wishes

2 Memory Lapse
1 Power Sink
1 Elven Cache
1 Emerald Charm

4 Undiscovered Paradise
3 Bad River
7 Forest
6 Swamp
5 Island

This innovative deck was the first to show the power of a resource engine. It generally started off with a Squandered Resources, which was used to convert tapped lands into mana. Although this meant the loss of lands, the deck then used Natural Balance to turn that lack of land into even more lands. Cadaverous Bloom converted cards in hand into even more mana, while Prosperity converted that mana into even more cards, which then became more mana than the ProsBloom player started with. Among the cards drawn would be another Prosperity to continue the process. By drawing enough cards, the ProsBloom player could finally generate enough mana for a lethal Drain Life. And if you look at the utility cards, you'll find additional powerful conversion tools in Infernal Contract and Vampiric Tutor.

You can see that the ProsBloom player is actually gaining resources at each stage of conversion, just in a different form. Although Wizards of the Coast has become more careful about printing powerful engine cards, such as the ones in ProsBloom or Necropotence, you can still sometimes use the available resource conversion cards to create your own engine. In the previous Type 2 format, I had built this casual Ironworks deck inspired by ProsBloom:

The deck's plan is similar to ProsBloom's. Accelerate the manabase and aim to play a Krark-Clan Ironworks (this deck's parallel to Squandered Resources and Cadaverous Bloom). Use the Ironworks to generate enough mana for a large Read the Runes (while floating enough mana for a Roar of Reclamation), then drop everything else into the graveyard and play the Roar. By also keeping another Read the Runes in hand, or by drawing into one with the card-drawing artifacts, you can continue the process until you find a Goblin Cannon and shoot for the win.

Although this deck isn't nearly as consistent or resilient as ProsBloom was, it still demonstrates the power of focused resource conversion. But you don't need to focus just on engines. Individually, you can still find many conversion tools that can be very profitable when used correctly. When evaluating conversion cards, just remember that losing resources isn't always a bad thing.

Same Theory Time, Same Theory Channel

I've already gone on longer than I had meant to, and we still haven't even covered all the basics of resources! Next time, we'll continue our discussion of resources, and I'll be talking about disruption and attacking resources. I'll also start building the framework for tempo. See you then!


Credits: Goblinboy (editing), iloveatogs (banner)


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