Four of a Kind

Posted in Beyond the Basics on December 29, 2016

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

How many copies of any given card should you put in your deck?

When deck building, this is a question you have to answer for every card you want to include. (That is, unless you're playing a singleton format like Commander.) And it can be tricky: What separates a four-of card from a three-of card? When should you play two or one of something? These are all things you have to solve for—and all before ever sitting down and playing with the deck you're trying out!

Now, the good news is that Magic decks aren't unchangeable, and after playing your deck, you can always go back and tweak your numbers. But having a strong starting spot will go a long way toward easing your deck building along.

My plan is to eventually write four articles over the course of many months, going over each quantity in detail. (Sorry, Relentless Rats fans, just numbers one through four here.) And today let's kick things off at the top end with the maximum: four copies!

Playing four copies of a card is your maximum—and naturally, that means these are the cards you are most likely to draw in a game. These tend to be cards that are some of the most important and integral to your strategy.

What are some reasons that might be the case? Well, let's run through five of the most common reasons you'll want to play four copies of a card.

1. You Need to Draw This Card Early On

If you want to be able to consistently cast a card very early in the game, then you absolutely need four copies of it. You want to make your chances of finding this card early as likely as possible.

Let's take a look at a classic example: the turn-one mana accelerator.

Elvish Mystic is not a strong late-game draw. It's little better than a land at that point. In the midgame, it's usually not all that impressive either. So why would you play four? Because of how strong it is on the first turn!

Many, many games have been decided by whether someone had a first-turn Elvish Mystic. (So much so that now most of the cheap acceleration we make costs at least two mana.) You can start powering out your threats quicker than your opponent, putting you at a sizable advantage. The risk of it being weak if you draw it later on is worth the power of having it early.

But it's not just mana creatures; this is true of many one-drops. For example, if I'm building an aggressive Black-Red Vampire deck that wants one-drops, I'm definitely including four copies of this card:

Once again, the power of a 2/1 diminishes quickly as the game goes on. But in an aggressive deck, being able to play a 2/1 early and start dealing damage to your opponent can easily amount to 6 or more damage over the course of the game. It's well worth the risk of drawing it on turn ten. (And note that in a highly aggressive deck, often your plan is to make the game end early, which means you're less likely to have the problem of drawing a Falkenrath Gorger on turn ten.)

2. This Card Is Good at All Stages of the Game

More great candidates for four-ofs are cards that are strong practically no matter when you draw them. Sure, they might be better or worse at different times, but they're seldom going to be outright bad to see.

Here's one example:

If your opponent is planning to kill you with creatures, Path to Exile is going to be a good card to have basically always. Early on, ramping them slightly is going to matter more than in the late game, but even if you see Path to Exile early, you'll still happily fire one off. Lightning Bolt is in similar territory: for one mana, the 3 damage to a creature or to the opponent's face will usually be relevant.

Another great category for this is card drawing.

If your deck wants to play Divination, four is very likely the number you should be playing. There's no point in a normal game where having more cards is bad, and you're happy to cast Divination on both turn three and turn 20. The cheaper the card drawing, the more likely this is. I can't imagine playing fewer than 4 Preordains in most decks that want it, for example.

There are plenty of creatures that fit this bill, too. Here's one that's popular in Standard right now:

On turn two, the Advocate is a 2/3 with vigilance. Later on, it's a 4/5 that also makes your creature lands awesome. Note how its power scales as the game goes on—that's usually a pretty good indicator that it's a card you can safely play four of.

The Advocate also fits nicely into another category of card. Which is...

3. This Card Is Inherently Very Powerful

Raw power is an important metric here. A card can be a little pricey and dead in your hand sometimes if it means that its incredible strength is going to make up for the fact you were clogged on three of them for a few turns. You really want to see this card over the course of a game.

Here's a good one to take a look at:

When Sphinx's Revelation was in Standard, many of the decks that played it played four copies. Now, it's pretty weak early. It doesn't even start doing anything until four mana, when it's an extremely unimpressive draw one card and gain 1 life.

However, the power of this card late game came from being exactly what you wanted: a way to refuel your hand and get out of damage range. Many of these big card-drawing spells are in this space, with Dig Through Time being another.

Or how about this creature:

A turn-two Tarmogoyf doesn't tend to be too impressive immediately, but it quickly scales up. Like Sylvan Advocate, it's a huge creature late in the game and something you can plop down early and be fine with. You could have an opening hand with four Tarmogoyfs and have it be a reasonable keep sometimes!

Here's another:

It costs five mana, and yet it's still usually a four-of backbone in the Esper Dragons deck. On turn five, it's so strong that even if a few sit around in your hand early you're in good shape precisely because you can cast it on turn five.

Let's do one more:

Snapcaster Mage isn't great in the first few turns, and you have to draw a lot of spells to make it strong. But assuming you constructed your deck properly, it's going to be a powerful card in the midgame that provides tons of card advantage.

Now, there is some give and take here—you don't just want to jam 4 Emrakuls into your deck because it's powerful; the risk of it sitting in your hand forever needs to be taken into account. But provided you expect to cast your cards in a timely fashion, raw power is a great reason to play a four-of.

4. This Card Is a Combo Piece

In combo decks, often you absolutely need to draw a specific combo card. You can't win without doing so, and you have to find it consistently.

A good example is any two-card combo. Especially if you don't have ways to search up individual pieces, you'll likely want to play four of each piece to increase your chances of drawing it. Take the Splinter Twin combo, for example.

When Splinter Twin was still legal in Modern, decks looking to assemble the combo played four copies of each piece (and some Pestermites to boot!) just to maximize their chances of finding both together. The deck could immediately win upon resolving Splinter Twin on its Exarch, so even though Splinter Twin did nothing until the turn it won the game and extra copies in hand would be dead, it was worth it.

5. This Card Is Even Better in Multiples

If you want to draw many copies of a particular card, then you certainly want four copies of it! Some cards make this obvious by explicitly calling it out. Look at Take Inventory, for example:

I really can't imagine a world where I play fewer than four copies of this card. You want to draw as many as you can to make each of them better.

Of course, a card doesn't need to explicitly say something to make this true. Most burn spells have this feature.

Imagine you're playing a burn deck that wants to send a lot of direct damage to your opponent's head. Well, one Incendiary Flow is 3 damage. Two is 6 damage. Drawing all four is 12 damage! Damaging effects compound like this, and so playing a bunch of them can all work toward the same goal.

This is just inherently true for many creatures, because even better than one strong creature is two strong creatures! For some it's even more true, though. Take a tribal lord, for instance:

Pumping up all of your Elves in an Elf deck once is great; doing so twice is bonkers! They each affect each other, in addition to making all of your other creatures even larger.

Fantastic Four

Hopefully this gave you a great foundation for when to put four of a card into your deck. And while, as always, there are exceptions to these rules, hopefully they give you a great baseline to start from. What's important is that you have a good starting point, and then playing games will inform you if you should bump your numbers around.

If you have any thoughts or questions at all, I'd love to hear from you! You can always reach me on Twitter or Tumblr, so don't be afraid to tweet or ask me a question. You can also send me an e-mail in English at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Have any specific questions about whether something should be a four-of in your deck or not? Send it my way and perhaps it'll make a great discussion point for a future article!

I'll talk with you again next week. See you then!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

Latest Beyond the Basics Articles

BEYOND THE BASICS

Tales from Designing Commander (2017 Edition) by, Gavin Verhey

I can't believe Commander (2017 Edition) is nearly here! As the lead designer, I'm thrilled to finally see this project released into the wild. But before that, in this little, curious g...

Learn More

BEYOND THE BASICS

The Main Course by, Gavin Verhey

Each turn in Magic consists of many, many parts. Untap. Upkeep. Draw. Countless priority passes back and forth as you cast spells and give your opponent an opportunity to respond. The in...

Learn More

Articles

Articles

Beyond the Basics Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All

We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience. By clicking any link on this page or by clicking Yes, you are giving your consent for us to set cookies. (Learn more about cookies)

No, I want to find out more