Magic the Gathering Theory — 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:
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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