Forgotten Lore: Taking Card Advantage

Posted in Feature on October 12, 2009

By Brian Weissman

In the early days of tournament Magic, Brian Weissman popularized a control deck that people called "The Weissman Deck," or, more often, just "The Deck"—a name that should give you an idea of just how dominant and influential it became. (Besides, when you create what Mike Flores has called "the first real archetype in competitive Magic," you have a lot of leeway when it comes to naming it!)

The Deck was based in large part on the idea of card advantage—the notion that if you draw more cards, than your opponent, make him or her discard more cards than you, or neutralize multiple cards with a single card, you'll most likely win the game. These days that might be seen as a bit of an oversimplification, and other theories have emerged to explain why, but in 1996, card advantage was a simple, powerful idea. It's still considered one of the fundamentals of Magic theory and strategy.

In this article, originally printed in The Duelist Magazine #14 in April 1996, Weissman himself outlines the basic principles of card advantage. More than thirteen years later, this remains an excellent explanation of card advantage.

Oh, and keep an eye out for a cameo by Magic developer (and sometime feature article author) Matt Place, then a notable pro player.

Kelly Digges 
Daily MTG Editor

The letter I!n the last year or so, "card advantage" has been the catch phrase for Magic players. But why is it so important, and what can you do to get it? Understanding how card advantage works—the different types of card-advantage cards and the various, sometimes less obvious ways, that card advantage can be achieved—can go a long way toward improving your play strategy.

Let's assume for starters that in a normal game under normal circumstances the most important move you make is drawing a card. Each card drawn grants you new resources in the form of lands and spells, as well as new ways of dealing with what your opponent has put into play. With this assumption in mind, you can also equate every card destroyed or drawn beyond that one per turn with an extra turn taken, at least where draw phase is concerned. Many players recognize the restricted spell Time Walk as one of the most powerful cards in Magic, but comparatively few realize that players use the spell the majority of the time to accomplish little more than what can be accomplished with a Jalum Tome: a few mana are spent to get that very important extra card.

Say that Rutger is playing a standard Necropotence deck and is drawing lots of cards, while Virginia is using a red/white defensive deck. Rutger's deck is based around card advantage, employing cards likeHymn to TourachHypnotic SpecterNevinyrral's Disk, and Necropotence. Virginia's deck, on the other hand, is filled with direct damage, creatures, Swords to Plowshares, and Disenchants.

The early game seems fairly balanced. Rutger plays several creature and artifact threats, and Virginia destroys them. Both players' hands gradually shrink in size as they increase their mana bases and play out their spells. Then, suddenly, Rutger casts his key spell, Necropotence. In one turn, the Necro player draws six extra cards, the equivalent of six extra turns, and quickly overruns Virginia's depleted defenses with the three creatures he has drawn.

Land Tax

Unless Virginia is aided by a similarly powerful card like Jayemdae Tome or Land Tax, she has virtually no way to combat the advantage that Rutger has gained and will almost surely lose. Time and time again, card drawing has proven to be a solid, almost risk-free path to victory, so much so that many players live by the statement "If you draw more cards than your opponent, you will just win."

Classy Cards

Desert Twister

If you really want to understand how card advantage works, it's helpful to categorize the cards that give advantage into nice, neat classes for easy reference. This categorization system was originally conceived by my "tech" duo of friends, John Immordino, who at one time was ranked number one in the DCI, and Jim Weaver.

The most basic cards in Magic, the single-card-effect cards are the least obviously tied to card advantage. This class of cards inherently interacts on a one to-one basis with other cards in the game: you can use one spell to eliminate one of your opponent's cards. For example, when you Counterspell your opponent's Shivan Dragon, you are essentially trading one card (your Counterspell) for one of your opponent's (the Shivan Dragon). Spells like CounterspellSwords to PlowsharesTerror,Lightning Bolt, and Desert Twister are all examples of cards in this class.

At face value, all of these single card-effect cards appear to be the antithesis of what one would assume to be card advantage, since by nature they can never affect more than a single target. Yet in the right situation, you can use them to gain card advantage. A Swords to Plowshares that removes a creature with an instant or enchantment invested in it gains card advantage. A Lightning Bolt that kills aHypnotic Specter generated by a Dark Ritual garners the same. You can also use these cards to ensure the survival of a more powerful card-advantage card if, for example, you use a Swords to Plowshares to destroy your opponent's Scavenger Folk, which would have been a threat to your yet-to-be-castJayemdae Tome. Efficiency is what keeps these single-card effects in competitive decks.

The second class, the multicard-effect cards, have a one-time use that can let you draw or destroy more than a single card. These cards are undeniably powerful forces and have long been the backbone of competitive decks in Classic (Type I) and Standard (Type II) formats. Examples of these cards includeArmageddonAncestral RecallHymn to TourachPrimitive Justice, and Hurricane. Since they have larger, more powerful effects, multicard-effects cards generally have higher casting costs than their single-card counterparts. Using a multicard effect to eliminate fewer than two of your opponent's cards tends to be an inefficient use of a higher–casting-cost card. For example, Lightning Bolt is a single-card effect that inflicts 3 damage for one mana; Flare is a multicard effect that deals 1 damage for three mana, so it would be a waste of resources to use Flare on only one target.

Drop of Honey

The third class of card-advantage cards is permanent multicard-effects cards; these cards give card advantage continuously over time. Many cards in this permanent class are artifacts like Disrupting Scepter. Once it's in play, you can use Disrupting Scepter repeatedly to make your opponent discard a card. Other examples of these permanents include BrowseThe AbyssOrcish Artillery, and Drop of Honey. The large majority of creatures in Magic are also classified as permanent multicard effects since they have the ability to deal continuous damage. Your opponent may block your creature with one of his or hers, and each time your creature survives but your opponent's dies, you've gained card advantage. This class of cards operates somewhat inconspicuously, often granting no advantage when cast but facilitating dramatic, often game-winning dominance over time.

Mana Flare

The final class of cards in Magic, the rule-bending cards, are potentially the most powerful and certainly the least straightforward. Rule-bending cards are almost exclusively enchantments or artifacts; they do little by themselves, but under certain circumstances they can generate unrivaled card advantage by first bending the rules of the game so that you can turn that bending to your favor. Mana Flare is an example of a rule-bending card, since it causes all mana-producing land to produce an extra mana. By itself, that does not give you card advantage. But if you combine it with Book of Rass, you're able to pay 1 Mana and 2 life rather than 2 Mana and 2 life to draw a card.

These cards also tend to create locks, which are the ultimate in card advantage, since they render the remainder of the opponent's draw phases ineffective. The most obvious example of this is with Stasis, which denies players an untap phase. If your opponent can't untap mana but you have a way of getting around that problem, then you've gained card advantage since your opponent will have limited mana sources. Combined with Kismet, which makes all of your opponent's lands, creatures, and artifacts come into play tapped, you've created an almost unstoppable lock, keeping your opponent from using any new cards put in play. Other examples from this subtle category include Time ElementalFastbondNether VoidWinter OrbBlood MoonIsland Sanctuary, and Arboria.

Getting the Right Mode

So now you know why card advantage is indeed an advantage, and you know the different classes of cards that grant card advantage. You know which ones are most effective in the long run, as well as when in the game you can cast them to get the most advantage. Now let's look at why they're effective by exploring the modes through which they accomplish card advantage. You can gain card advantage through card drawing, card destruction, or card nullification, and though all of these are ways to achieve card advantage, some means are more effective than others, depending on the situation.

Drawing extra cards is effective in and of itself. Remember Rutger and Virginia? Rutger was able to win because he had three new creatures in his hand, while Virginia's hand resource was depleted. With the exception of a few restricted blue spells like Ancestral RecallTime Walk, and Braingeyser, a majority of the cards that gain card advantage through drawing are permanents that have multicard effects. The most commonly used of these (spells like Necropotence and Land Tax) have served as the fundamental card-drawing engines behind a number of competitive tournament decks. If you watch decks that are built around these cards in action, it's very easy to see why card advantage is so important.

Ancestral Recall

Card destruction also grants card advantage if you eliminate more of your opponent's cards than you give up. For example, casting a Hymn to Tourach to rid your opponent of two cards in hand grants card advantage. Also, if you destroy your opponent's Bog Imp that's enchanted with Unholy Strength using a single Swords to Plowshares, you've similarly gained card advantage through card destruction.

So what's more effective: card drawing or card destruction? Whether it is cards in hand or cards in play that are being destroyed en masse, there is no denying that card advantage gained through this second technique is powerful indeed.

Mind Twist

One of the ways to approach the argument (suggested to me by my friend Matt Place, one of the quarterfinalists at the 1996 World Championships) is to look at it from the standpoint of ratios. Say that Rutger has seven cards in hand and Virginia has the same. After drawing up to eight, Rutger, the drawing aficionado, casts Braingeyser for five extra cards. This increases his hand size to nearly twice that of his opponent (171%), a substantial advantage. Rutger plays one or two cards and then discards back down to seven. On the next turn, Virginia draws and casts Mind Twist, forcing Rutger to discard five cards. After the random discard takes place, Virginia, despite having manipulated the same number of cards as Rutger did on the previous turn, now has a hand size that is over three times larger than Rutger's (350%)! This example compares the power of card drawing and card destruction, and partially explains the relative restricted and banned status ofBraingeyser and Mind Twist.

Furthermore, a destruction-based strategy can operate outside of cards in hand, unlike a drawing-based strategy. A Jokulhaups that annihilates three times as many of your opponent's permanents as it does yours can give you a card advantage equal to that provided by the most powerful restricted sorcery such as Braingeyser. Even casting a single destructive multicard effect like Dust to Dust or Fumarolecan swing a game heavily in your favor.

Certainly, the decks that win most consistently embody both card-drawing and card-destruction strategies. The two most dominant deck types in Standard (Type II) over the last six months or so, monoblack Necro decks and white/green Armageddon decks, are studies in card advantage, and both gain that advantage through nearly equal parts card drawing and card destruction.

Finally, card nullification is the most powerful and least straightforward of the card-advantage modes. When you nullify a card you are making it unusable, either because your opponent cannot cast it or because you've made it useless for him or her to cast it. Kismet's effect on a Ball Lightning is a great example of card nullification. Also, you can create card nullification by playing with cards like Autumn Willow or Deadly Insect that can't be targeted. Your opponent may have to hold a Terror in his or her hand for a long time if there's nothing to cast it on.

deadly insect

Cards that work on card nullification are generally so powerful that they can seal up a game completely by themselves, representing the ultimate in card advantage. For example, if you cast Blood Moonagainst an opponent who is playing with all nonbasic lands, you could conceivably seal up a game on the first turn, since your opponent's land sources would only produce red mana. Or you could take out a key mana source by casting Stone Rain or Strip Mine, thus nullifying your opponent's next six draw phases, all of which are spent drawing spells that can't be cast. The one disadvantage to the strategy of card nullification (and the primary reason for its general lack of popularity in the tournament circuit) is its dependency on lock cards, which are by nature weak and combo-oriented. When combined withStasisKismet can shut down any deck permanently; alone, it's merely annoying.

Luck versus Skill

So why does card advantage win? Besides the obvious reasons (more options, better ratios, etc.), the answer lies in a general property of Magic as a game. As much as optimists tend to ignore it, Magic is a game in which luck is often the deciding factor. When two players of relatively equal skill pair up with competent decks, the winner will almost always be the person with the luckier draw. But skill in deck building and card play can compensate for some degree of luck, and that skill often comes in the form of card advantage. Good players know how to take advantage of having good luck or of their opponent's having bad luck, and good players generally have a solid understanding of card advantage.

I was playing against my friend Yan and had what I thought was a good draw: two Mana Crypts ("During your upkeep, flip a coin. Opponent calls heads or tails while coin is in the air. If flip ends up in opponent's favor, Mana Crypt deals 3 damage to you; Tap: Add two colorless mana to your mana pool.") and a Jayemdae Tome, and when he couldn't deal with the artifact threat, I figured I had the game sealed up. Yan's deck employed a lot of land destruction, and by the fourth turn in the game he had destroyed every land I had in play and had cast a Nether Void as well.

Mana Crypt
Nether Void

Well, I quickly discovered that my stellar draw wasn't quite as good as I thought, as I failed to draw a single land through the next twelve draw phases. Under normal circumstances, no land for twenty-four draws (counting the Jayemdae Tome) would have meant certain death, but thanks to the power of the single Jayemdae Tome, I was able to weather the storm until the land finally showed up. In a game where I discarded twenty-four consecutive cards, I wound up being the winner, thanks entirely to the choices granted to me by the power of card advantage.

Whatever style you wish to play, be it fast and frenzied or slow and tactical, the surest way to defeat your opponent consistently is by dominating him or her in the war of card advantage. Whatever style you play, though, can and should incorporate a mix of all classes of Magic cards, whether single-card effects or lock cards, card drawing or card nullification. Once you've got the right mix, you'll be able to focus on flawless play and prudent drawing.

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