Back to Basics #4: Recounting Card Advantage

I wrote last week’s Back to Basics column because I thought I had to clarify a concept discussed in the previous week’s column. Now, it turns out that I have to clarify the clarification, and people ribbed me that the beginner’s article still went over the beginner’s heads.

The nice thing about working is that you can leave work and all associated ideas in the office. I woke up Saturday with a tequila hangover, went to a girl’s house to get breakfast and drop off some photos, and drove to the nearby mall which has an increasing Magic presence. I was amused to see a Beast mirror and Contested Cliffs in action. The kid on one end of the table made a hasty attack and lost half-a-dozen creatures, leaving him with nothing but a Silvos. The older guy dropped Contested Cliffs, used it, Tephraderm, and Canopy Crawler to force Silvos to regenerate and tap, and the rest of the horde finished off.

We had a laugh about how the new Arena polishes off chumps, though it doesn’t force them to tap.

I had a bigger laugh, though, during an Apprentice game the following day. An Academy Rector/Necropotence player got a first-turn Necropotence on me for the second straight game. He played a land, then another, then Force of Willed my attempt to find enchantment removal. Another land later, he tapped out to play Illusions of Grandeur. He was overjoyed when I let it resolve – then paused when I typed,”Life gain on the stack.”

Yes, I had a sideboarded Red Elemental Blast. Oops!

Anyway, there was so much feedback from Back To Basics #3 that I wrote a few clarifications that ran to the length of an entire column, so we’re postponing columns again…

(Re)Counting Card Advantage

I wrote last week’s Back to Basics column because I thought I had to clarify a concept discussed in the previous week’s column. Now, it turns out that I have to clarify the clarification, and people ribbed me that the beginner’s article still went over the beginner’s heads.

I’ll do this by printing some of the messages out of the mini-barrage I got, but the only mistake in last week’s article was Masticore going to the graveyard instead of being removed from the game by Swords to Plowshares (I originally used Diabolic Edict, changed it because I figured it’s being used less, but forgot to change the rest of the section.)

Just how atrocious is Arcane Denial?

Pat Allen wrote:

Before writing an article about card advantage, learning to calculate it yourself is usually good.


“-1 card (Arcane Denial moves from the hand to the graveyard)

+1 card (A card moves from the library to the hand next upkeep)

+2 cards (Two cards move from the opponent’s library to his hand next


0 minus +2 is -2, and you can see that casting Arcane Denial is the equivalent of your opponent casting Ancestral Recall on himself.”

Denial: You lose one (Denial goes to gy), they lose one (spell countered), you draw one, they draw two

-1+1+1-2=-1, not -2

This was by far the most popular comment, but I do my homework. I tried to shorten that section, but I guess I should’ve elaborated a bit more.

The problem is that Pat was trying to move ahead of the article. That table for Arcane Denial appeared in a section discussing the intrinsic card advantage of a particular card on its own, independent of interactions. From a pure card advantage viewpoint, the table is correct since whether or not you counter the opponent’s spell, anyway, it goes to the graveyard and his hand size goes down by one.

Let’s take the example of a Lightning Bolt played on you – which doesn’t affect card advantage, but trades a card for three of your life points. Let’s assume you only have an Arcane Denial in hand, and the opponent only has the Bolt.

If he casts it and you don’t counter, you are left with one card in hand, and his is empty, for a difference of one in your favor.

If you counter, however, both hands are empty, but he draws two cards to your one the following upkeep, which is a difference of one in his favor.

If you take the absolute value of the difference, you get two, not one.

Andrew Hull compared countering to killing a creature with Lightning Bolt, and said if the latter comes out even, then the former should as well. Take note, again, that countering a Lightning Bolt doesn’t come out even in terms of card advantage – just like a Bolt aimed at a player, as above. Andrew is correct only when you kill a creature with a single Bolt.

Joshua Sharp wrote,”It’s bad, but not as bad as all that.” But no, Arcane Denial really is as bad as I say it is, even if you count interactions.

Tobias Ludovici said that Arcane Denial should be considered an”unconditional counter,” so you pre-modify your table. This sounds logical, but there’s a change in the card advantage mainly when the spell countered adds a new permanent to the game when it resolves, such as creatures, artifacts, and enchantments. If, for example, you use an Arcane Denial on an opponent’s Jackal Pup, the table is modified to:

-1 card (Arcane Denial moves from the hand to the graveyard)

+1 card (A card moves from the library to the hand next upkeep)

-1 card (Opponent no longer puts a Jackal Pup into play)

+2 cards (Two cards move from the opponent’s library to his hand next upkeep)

Tobias is thus correct only for some cards. If the card, for example, creates more than one permanent such as Deranged Hermit or Caller of the Claw, you have to modify further. If the card destroys more than one of your permanents (such as Arcane Denial trading for Wrath of God in old Green 5-Color back in Mirage days), the result changes as well.

Where Was The Confusion?

That section of the article just gave a baseline for Arcane Denial, in short. Doing it my way is less confusing in practice, and less misleading. If you automatically adjust by one card if the card whose card advantage you’re gauging is a counter, then you might think that you’re losing just one card if you use Force of Will on a Price of Progress. However, doing it my way shows you that you’re really losing two.

(Incidentally, this implies that a Counterspell or Mana Drain have an intrinsic card advantage of -1, and Force of Will and Misdirection have -2. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true, although they move up to 0 and -1, respectively, against spells that create permanents like creatures, artifacts, and enchantments. This is really why you don’t bother to counter a first-turn Lightning Bolt, or play one on the opponent if you’re the red player. On the other hand, just because there’s card disadvantage doesn’t mean you don’t counter Price of Progress!)

This is clearer if we take another section of Pat Allen’s letter:

“#3: Roy plays a first-turn Swamp and Mox Jet, followed by a Hymn to Tourach. Quillian taps the Island he played on his turn and casts Disrupt. Compute the card advantage or disadvantage generated by that play.”

“#3: You save yourself two cards.

“-1 card (Disrupt moves from the hand to the graveyard)

+1 card (A card is moved from the library to the hand)

+2 card (You no longer have to move two cards from the hand to the graveyard)

“Another way of looking at it is that you have the same hand size if you counter, but lose two cards if you don’t, and the difference is two.”

It asks what the card advantage is, not cards saved. You gain one card, not two.

Disrupt: You lose a card (Disrupt goes to gy), they lose a card (countered hymn), you draw a card.

-1+1+1=1, not two.

Again, let’s check the results. Assume that you each have two cards in hand, and one of yours is Disrupt while one of his is Hymn.

If you don’t counter, he is left with one card in hand, while yours is left empty, putting you at a disadvantage of one card.

If you counter with Disrupt (which is a cantrip), he is still left with one card, while a new card replaces your Disrupt and keeps you at two, putting you at an advantage of one card.

Again, the absolute value of the difference is two cards, not one. Thus, my table must be correct. And again, you can’t simply adjust by one just because you’re dealing with a Counterspell.

Apparently, this topic is more confusing than I thought. I used accounting concepts, so if your Dad or roommate is a CPA, try asking him to explain it to you (Certified Public Accountant, not Casual Player’s Alliance member). The tables in the original Back to Basics article roughly used a perpetual system of counting (or counts the individual”transactions” involved to compute the net change at the end), while the checks in this one roughly use a periodic system (just check the numbers at the end of all the transactions to compute the net change at the end). Because both methods should arrive at the same result, one can check the other.

Try making the tables with either method, thus, if you understand the second one presented here better. (Here, you can deduct the expended spell, since you’re just counting final hand sizes instead of the net change between two plays.)

Again, trust my numbers a bit and give them a little time. Although the concepts in”Back to Basics” articles are fundamentals, that only means they’re very broad.

I discuss why you don’t count the expended Hymn (it’s going to the graveyard whether or not you counter), but if you ignore the two cards you no longer lose, you mislead yourself about how good or bad the play is. Following this logic, a countering (with a normal counter, not a cantrip like Disrupt) will always produce -1 card advantage, or zero if you erroneously count the opponent’s expended spell.

The problem here is that you will end up thinking that countering Specter’s Wail, Ancestral Recall, a five-point Mind Twist, and a ten-point Braingeyser produce the same swings in card advantage.

What About Life Gain?

The end of Pat Allen’s letter read:

“#5: Since you’re still at twenty life, wait before killing the Masticore. You gain a maximum of five cards this way (the opponent can let Masticore go or some other circumstance can force you to use the Swords earlier).

“-1 card (Swords to Plowshares moves from the hand to the graveyard)

“-1 card (Masticore upkeep during the first attack)

-1 card (Masticore upkeep during the second attack)

-1 card (Masticore upkeep during the third attack)

-1 card (Masticore upkeep during the fourth attack)

-1 card (Masticore upkeep during the last attack, where you cast Swords) -1 card (Opponent moves Masticore from the board to the graveyard)”

“Last time I checked, players could damage themselves or gain life.

That’s right, but I tried to emphasize that last week’s article dealt only with card advantage, keeping it independent of other resources such as mana and life points. First, I didn’t want to confuse anyone. Second, the value relationships between different resources aren’t fixed; it’s hard to say, for example, that trading one card for three life is a good or bad trade without a context. It’s probably a bad trade intrinsically, for example, because Healing Salve sucks, but a play that saves three life to buy that last turn needed to win is always good.

(If you can’t visualize this, picture yourself with a Morphling on the board and one last counter in hand, the opponent at five life, and he topdecks a Lightning Bolt with you at three life. You lose one card to gain three measly life… But who’s complaining? And again, who’d complain about using Force of Will on Price of Progress?)

The relationship between different resources (as opposed to counting cards against cards) is something we can try to explore in another column, since that’s extremely complicated. For now, just keep in mind that other resources may be more important than cards in hand or in play at some points.

The Missing Dark Ritual

Fay Smith wrote:

While considering strict card advantage, you discount the Dark Ritual completely. But what about the purpose of the card? It is card disadvantage by its very nature in that it does not net a card draw or a permanent on the board, yet is still played in many top-tier decks…

…Countering the spell still nullifies the intended effect of the cards in question. You counter the spell being cast and nullify the tempo gain of the Ritual. NET GAIN is one card.

Getting a spell cast using Dark Ritual countered hurts, but whether or not it’s countered, you already give up a card to play that spell earlier. As noted in the article, the Dark Ritual isn’t going to matter.

If you insist that Dark Ritual should be counted in the computation, consider that if this is true, a Stupor countered using Force of Will is an even trade, but a Stupor played using Dark Ritual and countered using Force of Will is a good trade. That doesn’t make sense, does it, since it’s apparently the same Stupor?

The advantage of having a spell played earlier thanks to Dark Ritual isn’t one that can be analyzed from a pure card advantage theory which, again, we had to stick to so as not to overwhelm beginners.

Fay continued:

The dismissal of cards already cast as being ‘sunk’ and not counted is the most glaring item. If applying accounting principals to Magic is your thing, consider that the sorcery or instant in question still contributes to the game even if it is already committed… Any one of these should shift your analogy from ‘sunk’ to ‘investment,’ and investments must be considered when balancing the books.

As mentioned, some spells affect other resources but not card advantage and have to be analyzed outside the computations. Others like creature, artifact and enchantments spells put a new permanent into play if they resolve, and just move a card from the hand to the board. If the latter is”investment,” then it’s easily counted in card advantage computations.

Some Cards Are Better Than Others?

Fay Smith wrote:

I am writhing in agony over the card advantage article I just read, Back to Basics #3. There are a few points that are screaming to be elucidated and I would very much like you to evaluate them for me…

I understand that some things are considered ‘sunk’ when counting advantage and disadvantage of certain actions or decisions, but that does not mean they are irrelevant. When you talk about the card advantage of counterspells you say that you disregard the spell the opponent cast, because it is already cast, gone, decision made.

However you disregard the actual rules of the game, in that while the card/spell may already be played, it is not yet resolved so must be counted in counter trades. A Counterspell is a one-for-one trade; you trade one card so that they don’t get theirs. It is disruption, almost identical to Duress, except that it is more versatile in targets (any spell), and can only target a spell on the stack.

You get into this later, somewhat, when talking about card interactions and summing the advantage of combinations. Two things to remember, cards in your deck are more valuable than cards in opponents. You must run on this assumption, if your deck is directly inferior to your opponents, you will, by definition, have less of a chance of winning.

Also, strategic countering can dismantle a deck, as some of the most potent decks are combo, and one or two cards.

Card quality is a completely different topic from card advantage, and I couldn’t squeeze the former into last week’s article. When you look at card advantage alone, you have to assume first that all cards are of equal quality or you’ll get too confused. Consider, further, that you have roughly the same probability of drawing a certain card or a non-mana card with every draw, and drawing more gives you more chances to draw into needed cards anyway. And if the cards in your deck suck, well, that’s a different story, too..

Finally, most of the most powerful cards in the game swing card advantage, anyway, so you can analyze quality using card advantage in many cases.

But like I emphasized at the end of last week’s article, if you have to use Mystical Tutor for Swords to Plowshares to take care of a newly-played Phyrexian Dreadnought, then do it by all means if the alternative to loss of card advantage is losing!

Fay also wrote

[C]ards like Demonic Tutor should be counted. (do you counter the tutor, or the card the tutor fetches?) If you counter the tutor, then the card that they were going to fetch could come up still. If you counter the fetched card, you have effectively countered both (neutralized the effect of).

While this makes sense, it has nothing to do with card advantage. If an opponent uses a Vampiric Tutor, he suffers from the card disadvantage no matter what happens to the spell he fetched. If you counter a spell, any card advantage produced by the play has nothing at all to do with whether it was topdecked, fetched with Vampiric Tutor, or fetched with Demonic Tutor.

Hopefully, this clarifies the last article, and if you have any more questions, feel free to e-mail. I’ll take the feedback into account for the next articles, and I guess I have to simplify the articles and explain even more.

Till then.

Oscar Tan

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University of the Philippines, College of Law

Forum Administrator, Star City Games

Featured Writer, Star City Games

Author of the Control Player’s Bible

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Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance