Magic the Gathering Theory — Card Advantage

John delves into the world of Magic the Gathering theory and tackles one of the fundamental principles, card advantage.


In Magic the Gathering, deck ar­che­types come and go, and cer­tain strate­gies wax and wane, but they are al­ways un­der­pin­ning fun­da­men­tal ideas and me­chan­ics that will help you ex­cel at the game in any for­mat. The con­cept of card ad­van­tage is one of these. Put very sim­ply: card ad­van­tage is any sit­u­a­tion or ef­fect that re­sults in you hav­ing more cards, and there­fore more po­ten­tial re­sources, com­pared to your op­po­nent than you did be­fore­hand. A sit­u­a­tion where you gain card ad­van­tage is a sit­u­a­tion where you gain cards.

First, let’s cov­er the ba­sics of the types of card advantage:

Card Draw

theroy side 1There are ef­fects in which you gain spe­cif­ic types of cards; such as Land cards or Enchantments. These are card draw ef­fects for colours that typ­i­cal­ly don’t get sim­ple “draw X cards.”

The most ba­sic type of card ad­van­tage is sim­ply draw­ing ex­tra cards. Mana ef­fi­cient and low cost mul­ti­ple card draw is rare and ex­treme­ly pow­er­ful. Cards like Ancestral Recall were dubbed too pow­er­ful and un­der cost­ed be­cause of the ad­van­tage of hav­ing so many ex­tra cards ear­ly in the game. Easily re­peat­able card-draw is hard to come by as well be­cause it can take over games very quickly.

The card Opportunity, when tar­get­ing the cast­er, will gain you three ex­tra cards. One card spent to cast it, four cards drawn.

Discard Effects

The oth­er side of draw­ing your­self cards is get­ting rid of opponent’s cards straight from their hand. Cards like Mind Rot and Hymn to Tourach are clas­sic card ad­van­tage dis­card spells that net you a sin­gle card.

These have be­come less preva­lent in re­cent years, es­pe­cial­ly ran­dom dis­card ef­fects, be­cause Wizards of the Coast de­cid­ed they were sim­ply not that fun. When a play­er can choose which cards they dis­card this ef­fect is less harsh.

Removal and Combat

Any way of tak­ing your op­po­nents cards off the board is a form of re­moval. Spells that kill mul­ti­ple of your opponent’s crea­tures or re­move mul­ti­ple lands, en­chant­ments, or arte­facts whilst leav­ing your own un­touched can be mana in­ten­sive, but that’s be­cause they are pow­er­ful. One of the most com­mon ways of gain­ing card ad­van­tage is to force an op­po­nent into block­ing a spell in such a way that they will lose mul­ti­ple crea­tures; or sur­pris­ing them with a spell that means your crea­tures will not die or trade from combat.

If you spend a card to give all your crea­tures +2/+2, and they kill three of your op­po­nents crea­ture, then you are up two cards in that situation.

Symmetrical Effects

In many games you can set up sce­nar­ios where an ef­fect will re­move a lot more of your opponent’s cards than your cards. These ef­fects are seen as “fair” be­cause in the­o­ry they af­fect both play­ers equal­ly. The clas­sic one of these is Wrath of God lead­ing to mass crea­ture re­moval be­ing called “Wrath ef­fects.” These cards can ef­fect arte­facts, en­chant­ments, lands, and take many forms such as Back to Nature and Shatter Storm. Seemingly sym­met­ri­cal cards can all have ex­treme­ly one-sided ef­fects in the right circumstances.

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For ex­am­ple, if you had one crea­ture and your op­po­nent had three and you played a Wrath of God then you would be up a sin­gle card. You lost one crea­ture and spent one card on the Wrath ef­fect. Your op­po­nent just lost three creatures.

What Is and Isn’t Card Advantage? 

When a card draws you one ex­tra card it is re­ferred to as a cantrip. This is not card ad­van­tage nec­es­sar­i­ly since you break even; it costs you a card to get that ef­fect. Cards that sim­ply get rid of a sin­gle opponent’s card are not card ad­van­tage ei­ther; even pow­er­ful cards like Thoughtseize are sim­ply an even trade.

A card that sum­mons more than one crea­ture like Dragon Fodder, or has more than one ef­fect like the cy­cle of com­mands is seen as pseu­do card ad­van­tage, but does not tech­ni­cal­ly net you ex­tra cards. You al­ways need to be care­ful to take the card you spend ini­tial­ly into ac­count when think­ing about card advantage.

Managing Your Resources and Utilizing Card Advantage:

When talk­ing about card ad­van­tage, the term “Two for One” or “X for One” is used a lot. These can ap­ply to any­time you gain net cards, but gen­er­al­ly they are used for ac­tions or ef­fects that cost your op­po­nent more than you on board or in re­sources. If you cast a spell that is able to kill two of your op­po­nents non-token crea­tures then that is a clas­sic two for one.

We of­ten think of mana and land as the only re­source in Magic, but avail­able cards is an equal­ly — if not more im­por­tant — re­source. Getting rid of your op­po­nents re­sources whilst ex­pend­ing as few of your re­sources as pos­si­ble is core to al­most all strat­e­gy games, not just col­lec­table card games. This is most pro­nounced in the ear­ly part of the game, as falling be­hind ear­ly on with re­sources makes it hard­er to get back into the game.

New play­ers are of­ten very wary of let­ting cards die in com­bat, but if they would trade for a bet­ter card from their op­po­nent then that can of­ten be the best move. You shouldn’t be afraid to lose crea­tures, or use spells, if they take up an equal or greater amount of your opponent’s re­sources. This is the foun­da­tion of mak­ing good de­ci­sions when play­ing Magic the Gathering.

The best way to think about card ad­van­tage is to imag­ine both play­ers as hav­ing an iden­ti­cal deck — only one play­er draws two cards a turn. Who is more like­ly to win? The play­er with the most po­ten­tial re­sources to put on the board. Think of it like this: you can spend two cards for every one card your op­po­nent spends and still re­main on an even foot­ing. Card ad­van­tage is not a guar­an­teed way to win a game, but it will in­crease your odds of win­ning. And over a large enough sample-size uti­liz­ing card ad­van­tage has a pro­found effect.

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Colours like Black and Blue rely heav­i­ly on one for one re­moval like counter spells, or sin­gle tar­get kill-spells. In these strate­gies it is vi­tal that the play­er is able to re­plen­ish their sup­ply of cards in or­der to re­act to sit­u­a­tions. Green is a less re­ac­tive colour, and is more based around board pres­ence and ef­fi­cient crea­tures, so Green has the least amount card-advantage. Effects that grant card ad­van­tage are heav­i­ly linked to the colour pie, and it’s worth look­ing up Magic the Gathering colour pie if you are un­fa­mil­iar with it.

An ar­che­type that stems al­most en­tire­ly from card ad­van­tage is Blue/White con­trol. Cards like Sphinx’s Revelation are in­cred­i­ble card ad­van­tage cards in the mid/late game. With enough mana it can net you a huge amount of cards and life — all from a sin­gle card. It’s an ex­am­ple of a card that is ef­fi­cient, scal­able, and im­pact­ful; so much so that in its time in Standard con­trol mirror-matches could de­volve to a star­ing com­pe­ti­tion, with each play­er not want­i­ng the oth­er to counter their Sphinx’s Revelation.

Blue/White con­trol also re­lies on afore­men­tioned Wrath ef­fects. It en­gi­neers a sit­u­a­tion where you are most­ly ab­sent from the board, and that al­lows you to pun­ish play­ers who over-extend their crea­tures. Having ac­cess to both mass card draw and be­ing able to set up sym­met­ri­cal ef­fects heav­i­ly in the player’s favour is what makes this form of con­trol so po­tent. With ac­cess to bet­ter mana you can also add in Black for more po­ten­tial tools and Two for Ones. This large slice of the colour pie, known as the Shard of Esper, is the most re­liant on card advantage.

Dead Cards

Is the card worth the cost of a slot in your deck? In oth­er words, is a card worth a whole “card?” Is the ef­fect good enough to make it worth that valu­able re­source of cost­ing you a spot for an­oth­er card in your hand? If you can’t play a card, or a card has lit­tle to no im­pact, it’s ba­si­cal­ly like you don’t have that card at all. In this way you can ba­si­cal­ly cause your­self card dis­ad­van­tage by play­ing too many spells with lim­it­ed or tem­po­rary ef­fects, cards that only ap­ply in nar­row cir­cum­stances, or cards you can’t pay the mana cost of.

This is why you don’t want too many com­bat tricks in your deck un­less it serves a spe­cif­ic strat­e­gy. This is also why many of the best spells in Magic the Gathering pro­vide you with some kind of card ad­van­tage. Wizards of the Coast has ex­per­i­ment­ed with this by mak­ing cards with lim­it­ed ef­fect re­place them­selves by draw­ing you an­oth­er card. This is meant to mit­i­gate the low im­pact of cards seen as “not worth a whole card.”

Card Disadvantage

If it takes mul­ti­ple cards to get a threat into play then it might be a good deal, some­times you just need to take a hit in terms of card ad­van­tage to stay in the game. This is not a cast-iron rule, but a point of the­o­ry you should keep in mind for your de­ci­sion mak­ing. You shouldn’t be so fo­cused on card ad­van­tage that you don’t take steps that would pre­vent you from los­ing the game in the first place.

theory insert 3

This is also where the trade-off in tem­po can come in. Tempo is a con­cept I will cov­er in a sep­a­rate ar­ti­cle, but ba­si­cal­ly it’s ef­fects that set your op­po­nent back on board but don’t cost them any cards since they are re­turned to their hand. Cards like Unsummon are tech­ni­cal­ly card dis­ad­van­tage ones since you spent a card sim­ply to re­turn a crea­ture to its owner’s hand. Again, it’s al­ways key to keep in mind that the spell you just cast uses up a card.

The be­stow me­chan­ic in Theros was a way of try­ing to get around the po­ten­tial card dis­ad­van­tage of play­ing en­chant­ments. When a crea­ture is killed then it’s an easy Two for One when that card is en­chant­ed; if the en­chant­ment sticks around as a crea­ture it re­moves that disadvantage.

Summing up

Like all things in Magic the Gathering, card ad­van­tage is sit­u­a­tion­al. People of­ten put too much faith in rigid codes of prac­tice, but the key to be­ing good at Magic, or any game, is know­ing how to adapt to giv­en sit­u­a­tions. The val­ue and pow­er lev­el of cards vary wild­ly, so what you get out of an ef­fect will vary equal­ly as much. If you are sim­ply de­stroy­ing two crea­tures that have no ef­fect on the game, or are draw­ing a bunch of lands, then you don’t need card ad­van­tage as it will not be much help.

This is but a sin­gle facet of the game of Magic; a game that has so many vari­ables that each match will present its own set of chal­lenges. Card ad­van­tage is im­por­tant, but you can just as eas­i­ly die with a full hand of sev­en cards. It’s not the amount of cards that will have you win, it what you do with them and at what stage in the game that matters.

The only way to get good at Magic the Gathering is to play it, but un­der­stand­ing the the­o­ry be­hind it all is vi­tal to mak­ing the right de­ci­sions, and know­ing why cer­tain de­ci­sions should be made.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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