Magic Theory From The Ground Up: Part I

Card advantage. Inevitability. Tempo. Mana curves. These are some of the elements that make up the theoretical side of Magic. The theory is critical to better deckbuilding and better playing skills. But some of you might ask, "Where did all this theory come from?"

In this series of articles, we'll be building Magic theory from the ground up. Starting from the basics, we'll work our way up to more advanced topics, taking a look at the fundamental components of the game to see what makes it tick and what players need to win. We'll begin with some simple topics today: inevitability and lineup theory.


Timmy and Jimmy are new to the game of Magic. Because the rules are a little too complicated for them, they've decided to start out with the simplest form of Magic possible: they each start with a single card in hand, and they can play their cards without worrying about mana (no "X spells" allowed).

Timmy: Okay, I've got a Gnarled Mass. I should be able to win with a 3/3!
Jimmy: Well, I have a Fire Elemental! BOOYAH!!

Timmy, being quite a quick learner, realizes he's lost the game and instantly scoops. Determined to win the next game, he digs deeper into his pile.

Jimmy: Okay, I have the Elemental again. Think you can beat me?
Timmy: Yup, I found a Scaled Wurm! IN - YOUR - FACE! Muwahahahaha!

Both of them realize that whoever has the biggest creature wins, and there's never any need for them to actually attack. The winner is already decided at the moment they play their creatures. The next several games has them searching their collections for bigger and bigger beef.

At this point, Timmy and Jimmy understand the basic concept of inevitability. Let's define it as this: having inevitability means having a position such that if neither player plays any more cards from hand, you will eventually win. For these two newbies playing only with vanilla creatures, inevitability requires having the biggest fat. Whoever plays the largest creature establishes inevitability, and the game is over at that point.

Note that inevitability changes hands throughout a typical game. In the first example, Timmy establishes inevitability by playing a Gnarled Mass. At this point, he has a creature and Jimmy has nothing, so if neither player plays any more cards, Timmy will eventually win. Unfortunately for Timmy, Jimmy can play a card, and that Fire Elemental turns the tables in his favor. Because both players have no additional cards to use, Jimmy's inevitability is now guaranteed, and it's pointless to play the game out to the end.

In fact, for Timmy and Jimmy playing with 1-card hands, the winner's already decided even before the first turn. Jimmy might happen to catch a glimpse of the Wurm, then give up immediately. Since he knows his Fire Elemental can't win, it's hopeless to even try. One might say that in this case, Timmy's deck has an "inherent inevitability" against Jimmy's deck. This means that for this matchup, Timmy has the overall lineup advantage. But wait! What's lineup advantage? I'm glad you asked.

Lineup Advantage

Timmy is frustrated because the biggest creature in his collection is an Avatar of Might, which is too small to stop Jimmy's Leveler. He's about to quit Magic altogether, but he decides to learn more of the rules, hoping to find some loophole. Then he discovers the magic word "destroy." Everything falls into place, and he challenges Jimmy to another game.
Timmy: Okay, I play Intrepid Hero.
Jimmy: WHAT!? A 1/1?? You've got to be kidding me! That can't stop my 10/10 Leveler!
Timmy: My turn. I tap my Hero to destroy your Leveler. Now you've got nothing! (He proceeds to explain the rules to Jimmy, who is still in disbelief.)

Timmy has just learned the power of answers. Before now, Timmy and Jimmy only knew about threats, which are the cards that actually move you towards winning a game. Answers are cards that will neutralize threats. When the game consisted only of threats, the player with the larger threat won. Now, Timmy has an answer to his opponent's threat, leaving his lowly 1/1 up against nothing. It's as if Jimmy never even had a card in his hand to begin with. Timmy was able to regain his inevitability by removing the opposing threat.

When playing Magic, it doesn't matter how many threats you have or how big they are if your opponent has a way to answer all of them. Threats can only help you win as long as they're active.

Going back to Timmyland, we find that they've progressed enough that they've decided to start playing with 2-card hands (still without mana constraints). This gives them more options for answers and threats, but their games often end up with only one player having a creature on the board. They realize that the key to winning is in having unanswered threats. This gets them thinking: "Okay, so I want enough answers to get rid of his threats, while having more threats than he has answers for." And this is the basis for lineup theory.

Lineup theory states that if you take your deck's answers and line them up with the appropriate threats from another deck, and you take that deck's answers and line them up with your deck's threats, then whoever has the strongest remaining threats (that aren't lined up with an answer) has the lineup advantage. Having the lineup advantage means that in an average game, you're more likely to have inevitability and therefore win the game.

There are different methods for increasing your lineup advantage. The simplest methods are increasing your number of threats and increasing your number of answers. You can also choose less answerable cards (such as Kodama of the North Tree or Darksteel Colossus) to give you an edge in threats. You can choose more versatile removal (Naturalize instead of Oxidize, for example) to give you an edge in answers. Mass removal is also a powerful option, since it gives you the opportunity to use one card as an answer to multiple threats (we'll come back to this point in a future article).

For Timmy and Jimmy, versatility is especially important. With Intrepid Hero, Timmy was able to squeeze a threat and an answer into a single card. This virtually doubled the size of his deck, creating more opportunities for a strong lineup advantage. Even when building with larger decks, using versatile cards can still provide a great benefit.

When you're in a position where you have the lineup advantage, all you have to do is properly line up your answers. Use your answers effectively, eliminating only the threats that you can't beat with your own threats. Remember that even if the other player has active threats, you can still have inevitability by outclassing those threats and being in the position to win the damage race. Abstractly, you can view any threat as an answer to a smaller threat (one that yours can outrace). This is another form of versatility; if the threats were evenly matched or you had the smaller one, you'd be on the losing end of the lineup, and you wouldn't be able to win the damage race. So don't just waste your strongest removal to trade with your opponent's weakest threat. By eliminating the stronger threats, you're effectively turning your own threats into answers.

Basic Strategies

With lineup theory and inevitability, we can understand basic deckbuilding. The three fundamental decktypes are aggro, control, and combo. Timmy and Jimmy begin experimenting with larger hands, and their knowledge of lineup theory lets them try out these different strategies.

Pure aggro decks aim to win through sheer threats. By playing lots of threats or hard-to-answer threats, the aggro player wants to outnumber the opponent's answers. Although the opponent may also have threats, the aggro deck relies on its unanswered threats being much stronger than those on the other end of the table. The aggro deck may also mutate into aggro-control, which uses some removal to answer the largest opposing threats; this strategy has a lower threat count, but it can fight more easily for inevitability on the board.

Control decks take lineup advantage in the other direction. The control player hopes to line up an answer for every opposing threat, leaving the opponent with no active threats on the board. The deck takes its time to eventually win, generally with a hard-to-answer threat. Vulnerable threats are useless in control decks because such decks have a low threat count, so if the opponent also has adequate answers, the game would just end in a draw.

Pure combo decks ignore the board altogether, playing with no answers. The combo player tries to assemble a winning combo quickly, ending the game with an instant threat (and hoping that it goes unanswered). In a single turn, inevitability is established and the game is won. One variation is the slower combo-control deck, which uses a control strategy to buy time to put the combo together. The lock deck is another variation; instead of winning with a combo threat, this deck puts together a combo that tries to answer the opponent's entire deck, giving it the freedom to win in whatever way it wants. An example of this is the old-school Stasis deck.

These three approaches to lineup theory and inevitability form the foundation for deckbuilding. As Timmy and Jimmy continue to evolve their game, we'll see more on how these approaches interact.

The Next Level

In the next article, Timmy and Jimmy will start playing with mana, and this will give us the chance to explore resources, speed, and efficiency. Until then, try looking at your games in terms of lineup theory, and see if you can identify who has the advantage in a given matchup. Keep in mind what answers you have, and work at trying to line them up properly with your opponent's threats. Knowing these concepts is critical in deciding what and when to answer.

See you next time, and don't forget: Intrepid Hero is tech. Wink


Credits: Goblinboy (editing), iloveatogs (banner)


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