[MTGS Classics] Magic Theory From The Ground Up: Part VI

Timmy and Jimmy have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Last time, they upgraded to playing with full decks and learned about the basics of card advantage. In this latest installment of the "Magic Theory From The Ground Up" series, we will expand on that concept and the related issue of card impact.

A Deeper Look at Card Advantage: By the Numbers

I mentioned before that the strictest definition of card advantage refers only to the advantage gained from differences in card tempo (the rate at which players draw cards). But I also said that most players discuss card advantage in a broader sense. In order to understand the higher levels of card advantage, let's first start with a simple principle:

A player who accumulates more cards than his opponent has an advantage. As the gap in accumulated cards increases, so does the chance of winning.

Think of each player as starting with a card total of 7. Each time a player draws a card, his card total increases by 1. Each time a player puts a card in his graveyard (or otherwise out of play), his card total decreases by 1. At any given point in the game, the player with the higher card total is considered to be "ahead." This is the basis of numerical card advantage.

When talking about changes in card totals, it's customary to talk in terms of exchanges and net gains and losses. Ancestral Recall is a 3-for-1 (exchanging one card to gain three), with a net gain of 2 cards. Reach Through Mists is a 1-for-1, with a net gain of 0 cards. Most non-removal instants and sorceries are 0-for-1 exchanges, since they go to the graveyard without giving you any cards back, while permanents are considered 0-for-0 exchanges, since you're neither increasing nor decreasing your card total.

Functionally, numerical card advantage is a relative difference between you and your opponent. You gain ground any time you increase your own card total or decrease your opponent's card total, and you lose ground when the reverse happens. Exchanges only count when they involve cards in hand, cards in play, or cards on the stack. This is illustrated by the following examples:
  • You Putrefy your opponent's Siege Wurm. This is a 1-for-1 exchange. If the Wurm was also enchanted with a Blanchwood Armor, then this is a 2-for-1 exchange in your favor.
  • You Frazzle your opponent's Kokusho, the Evening Star. This is a 1-for-1 exchange.
  • Your opponent plays Mind Rot on you, making you discard two cards. This is a 2-for-1 exchange in your opponent's favor.
  • You play Wrath of God, destroying two of your own creatures and four of your opponents. In total, this is a 4-for-3 exchange in your favor.
  • You play Glimpse the Unthinkable on your opponent. Even though you've milled 10 cards, those weren't part of her card total, so this is a 0-for-1 exchange.

The principle behind numerical card advantage relies on the idea that whoever currently has more cards available has the upper hand. While this idea is simple and useful, it of course isn't entirely accurate. The primary flaw behind numerical card advantage is this:

Not all cards are created equal. Only counting cards ignores what the cards actually do.

And this is a very significant flaw. Magic isn't just a game of hoarding cards, right?

Card Impact

Every card you play is meant to have some effect on the game. A card's impact is a measurement of that effect, expressed in terms of advantages. For example, playing a Kodama of the North Tree has the effect of increasing your lineup (threat) advantage by some amount - this is that card's impact. The degree of impact will vary with the situation. Sometimes, a card will drastically shift an aspect of the game in your favor, while at other times, it may as well be a blank card. In general, cards with high potential impact are more expensive, but this is an issue for next time when we talk about card economy and efficiency.

Under the model of numerical card advantage, every card is treated as having equal value. But we can adjust that model by valuing cards differently, giving more weight to cards with more impact. Thus, trading two Grizzly Bears for a Kodama of the North Tree will still result in -1 numerical card advantage, but you've also traded two lower-impact cards for a high-impact one, which will most likely improve your board position.

When making exchanges, you have to be aware of the impact of the play. Playing a 1/1 against a board of fatties is likely to have very little impact, so it's mostly a worthless play. You would prefer to play something that will shift the balance more.

While threats and other active spells have impact based on the positive effect it has on your situation, answers and other reactive spells have impact based on the negative effect it has on your opponent's situation. Because of this, answers only have as much impact as the object being answered. So Vindicating one of your opponent's threats has much more impact than Vindicating a land in the late-game, even though both are 1-for-1 exchanges.

Accounting for impact allows us to better evaluate card advantage. Simply using numerical card advantage is a start, but without looking at impact, it can be extremely misleading. Understanding impact also lets us look at another form of card advantage, which doesn't involve exchanges at all.

Virtual Card Advantage

Based on the above discussion of the importance of impact, it seems natural to refine the principle that we started with. So instead, let's try this:

A player who accumulates more impact than his opponent has an advantage. As the gap in accumulated impact increases, so does the chance of winning.

Well, this is hardly surprising, since impact is defined in terms of advantages, but it at least gets the point across, and it reflects the fact that getting more cards doesn't help you unless those cards actually do something. You should always be trying to maximize your deck's impact, both in deckbuilding and when playing. When you draw a card, you don't want to be saying to yourself, "This card doesn't help me at all!" Instead, that's what you want your opponent to be saying.

Virtual card advantage is the idea that you can gain card advantage without actually gaining cards or making your opponent lose cards. Instead, you reduce the impact of your opponent's cards to the point where she might as well be holding nothing. This is known as making cards "dead" or "blank."

Suppose your opponent is playing pure weenie beatdown, and she has no flying creatures. If you were to play a Moat, you've effectively made all of her creatures dead cards, even though they're still sitting in play. Their impact has been reduced to zero, and they can be ignored, for the most part. While you haven't gained any numerical card advantage (no +cards for you and no -cards for your opponent), you've made a very high impact play. The number of useful cards in your opponent's deck has dramatically shrunk, and every new card she draws could very well be useless.

Be aware that virtual card advantage is generally temporary. While those weenies might be nothing now, she might happen to draw a Naturalize to kill your Moat. If that happens, all of her cards suddenly regain their impact, and you're back where you started. You would've been much better off actually removing those creatures from play.

There are two primary forms of virtual card advantage. One, you might have an "answer" to cards in your opponent's deck such that it eliminates their impact and reduces them to being dead cards. The Moat scenario was an example of this. Some more examples include:
  • Your opponent has an active Frostwielder in play. Any 1-toughness creature in your deck is useless until you can remove the Frostwielder.
  • You have a Chalice of the Void set for 2. All of your opponent's 2-converted-mana-cost cards are dead.
  • Your opponent is playing a weenie rush deck with no creature removal. Once you play a couple of big creatures, your opponent can no longer afford to attack. Thus, you've neutralized all of his weenies with your larger threats.

The other form of virtual card advantage is when you have your opponent drawing answers that don't have any appropriate targets. This can come up often in metagaming, where most players are maindecking a card that answers a specific group of cards, and you choose to play a deck that has none of those cards. Examples of this are:
  • The metagame is artifact-heavy, so everyone is maindecking Naturalize. You play a deck that has no artifacts or enchantments, making Naturalize a blank card for your opponents.
  • Your deck has a lot of creature removal, expecting to see a lot of aggro decks. You get paired up against a combo deck that has no creatures, so all of your removal spells are useless.
  • You win the first game of a match. You know your opponent is going to sideboard in some answers to specific cards in your deck, so you sideboard those cards out and replace them with other cards that he doesn't have answers for.

Card Advantage Strategies

To flesh out these extensions of card advantage, let's revisit our heroes Timmy and Jimmy (you didn't forget about them, did you?). We'll examine some of the decks that they built (or rather, copied) and see how they use various forms of card advantage as a central strategy.

Like all versions of Draw-Go, this deck's strategy is to generate massive card advantage. The large number of counters serve as high-impact answers, effectively stalling the game until the deck reaches six mana. At that point, Whispers of the Muse starts accumulating numerical card advantage to keep control of the game, along with the mass removal of Nevinyrral's Disk. The low number of permanents provides virtual card advantage against other decks' answers, and the particular win conditions in this deck are also notable: Stalking Stones serves as both a land and a threat (thus preserving its impact in the late game), and Rainbow Efreet's ability preserves the virtual card advantage granted by the low permanent count.

This deck features lots of sources of numerical card advantage, such as Dark Confidant and the combination of Life from the Loam plus cycling lands. Attention is also paid to card quality, with the inclusion of the Tops, the Wishes, and the discard spells. The centerpiece of the deck, however, is the Solitary Confinement, which provides the ultimate in virtual card advantage, negating the impact of almost every spell in the opponent's deck.

Astral Slide decks can be very powerful due to their very strong control capabilities. This deck features plenty of mass removal to generate card advantage, and it combines this with resilient creatures. Eternal Dragon is particularly good at defying death, which means that when it goes to the graveyard, it's almost like you really haven't lost a card. Effectively, your opponent's removal spells will exchange with it at less than 1-for-1.

Eminent Domain (and the similar land destruction strategy) focuses on denying your opponent mana. By attacking his manabase, you're trying to prevent your opponent from playing useful spells - this is a very dedicated attempt at creating virtual card advantage. Without mana, every spell in your opponent's deck is a dead card, basically guaranteeing you the win as long as you can prevent him from recovering. The deck offers little in the way of numerical card advantage, other than by gaining control of your opponent's permanents, but the virtual card advantage and the tempo advantage are more than enough.

Further Developments

So far we've seen strict card advantage, numerical card advantage, and virtual card advantage. None of these completely defines the game, but they all work together to demonstrate the value of your cards. Strict card advantage emphasizes the importance of drawing cards in greater quantity and quality. Numerical card advantage is very valuable for its simplicity, despite its shortcomings. Virtual card advantage is an often overlooked aspect that subtly influences how decks match up.

Card impact is the most important concept to consider when looking at overall card advantage, even though it's difficult to define or measure. But impact is what wins games, and we'll need to explore it much more in the future to better understand all the nuances of card advantage, as well as creating a stronger framework for identifying critical turns and for studying manabases.

While quickly skimming over the decklists above, you may have noticed other aspects of those decks that make them strong. Some will become clearer in the next part of this series, when we take a look at a few more concepts of deck construction involving mana, card economy, and efficiency. So don't miss out next time, as we continue our climb into the higher levels of Magic theory!


Credits: Goblinboy (editing), iloveatogs (banner)


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