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
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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