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.

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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.

John SweeneyTrading Card GamesTraditional GamesMagic The GatheringIn 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…
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John Sweeney
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.