Card Advantage Without All the Hullabaloo

There’s an old political joke/philosophical question that puts two notorious world leaders in one room together along with you, the reader. Just for the sake of argument, we’ll say it’s the year 1999 and the two men are Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. You have a gun and one bullet. Who do you shoot? Answers always vary. Some shoot Osama. Some shoot Saddam. Angst-laden teenagers and whiny poets both break the format and shoot themselves. So what does the Magic player do?

“Let ’em stew a while,” he says.”If they line up correctly, I’m pretty sure I can get ’em both.”

And that’s what card advantage is, without all the hullabaloo. It’s the fine art of killing two men with one bullet.

I have returned for another week. Another week of fun. I’m sorry for the big gap in between articles, but hey – sometimes the tally-man comes and he has to tally my bananas. Then, it’s like a beer-goggle fueled bad decision. Daylight comes and I want to go home.

The last article I wrote was a corker for sure, not because it contained some good advice (though I believe it predominately did), but because it was plagued by a number of errors, both clerical and strategic. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call the effort a failure, it certainly wasn’t the rousing success I had hoped for, even if you take into account the fact that I corrected most of the errors in question with a forum response. As a strategy writer, it’s never very satisfying when an article turns out to be suspect in any important way. Not only does it damage your credibility, but it gives you every opportunity to make an ass of yourself as you scramble to pick up the pieces and salvage what is left of your wobbling reputation.

I could say “I’m glad that my article generated a lot of discussion!” except for the small matter of that being a lie. I don’t want people to be screaming at me that I was wrong, I’d rather be correct. In fact, far too many writers mistake the horrible crapstorm that manifests itself in the forums of their pieces every week for a positive thing, when it just isn’t.

I could say “I’m glad that better players chimed in to help me out, now I’m a better player, thanks!” but alas, gentle reader, that too would be a bile-dripping falsehood. I am not glad that people had to take my hand and help me cross the street. I would rather have known, myself, in the first place.

So where to go from that lukewarm offering? Well, despite the problems with the second installment, I think the two-part series was overall a good one, and other people must have thought so too, because I received many comments about how people had read and enjoyed it. The same sort of comments I received when I did that big U/R drafting guide. Some of the people relating these positive reading experiences to me were people from my own home town, and that, gentle reader, sparked a memory.

You see, a lot of people from the sleepy little burg of Sarnia, Ontario (just an hour from Detroit, don’t-cha-know!) read my U/R Drafter’s guide, and I was eager to see if it had any impact on their play. As such, when Friday Night Magic happened to roll around, I kept a close eye on several of the gentlemen who had expressed to me their compliments regarding the guide.

Had it helped their play?


At least, not much. The guide did contain some advice on how to play some of the cards, and presumably that might have gone to their heads along with the pick orders. For the most part, though, while they now knew a fine order for taking the Blue and Red cards of Onslaught, they still screwed up royally in trying to play the cards themselves. It was a real eye opener. For all my efforts, I hadn’t succeeded in showing people how to play the game – I’d only handed out a pick order that they could clumsily follow.

Old sayings tend to come in handy in situations like this. The one that keeps coming to my mind is “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” I suppose that little piece of sage advice, the oldest of old verbal chestnuts, sums up the sordid truth about draft guides and pick orders- they won’t help much if you’re just plain awful at the game.

Who said that, anyway? Churchill? Disraeli? Nietschze? Dorothy Parker?

Farid Meraghni?

Well, who knows. It’s not really important – the important thing is that we accept the fact that advanced advice is lost on those with gaping holes where the basic Magic Theory usually goes. Like in that other great game, which I like to call”self-gratification”, you need a solid grip before you can proceed.

So how do you get better at actually playing the cards? Well, it’s simple. Learn the fundamental theory behind the action. I’ve found there are two areas where novice and even intermediate players can be just awful. The first is effective attacking and blocking, which I may write about sometime down the road. The second is recognizing and capitalizing on opportunities for card advantage. If you’re ever going to be any good at this game, you have to be watching for card advantage constantly. You have to build your decks with card advantage in mind. You have to take card advantage into account constantly when determining lines of play. You might even want to try keeping it in mind while attending church or a barbecue. It can’t hurt.

There’s an old political joke/philosophical question that puts two notorious world leaders in one room together along with you, the reader. Just for the sake of argument, we’ll say it’s the year 1999 and the two men are Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. You have a gun and one bullet. Who do you shoot? Answers always vary. Some shoot Osama. Some shoot Saddam. Angst-laden teenagers and whiny poets both break the format and shoot themselves. So what does the Magic player do?

“Let ’em stew a while,” he says. “If they line up correctly, I’m pretty sure I can get ’em both.”

And that’s what card advantage is, without all the hullabaloo. It’s the fine art of killing two men with one bullet.

I get the idea sometimes that most players have heard all about this wonderful thing called card advantage, and they know it is good, but they don’t know how to properly identify, quantify, or predict it. Some players only come to realization that an opponent is four or five cards up well after the fact, and with little indication as to how it happened. The first step to being a good player and finding effective lines of play is to understand the fundamentals of card advantage in its three forms:

Pure, Virtual, and Effective.

This article is about the first and most basic type: Pure Card Advantage.

Utilizing an easy system, you can actually quantify PCA without too much trouble. With practice, it becomes a simple task to figure out how many cards up or down a given course of action will put you. All you need to keep in mind is that all cards have only three possible stages or states when in game: they are drawn (or otherwise gained), invested, and/or spent. D Infy G, my dear Watson.

Drawing or gaining a card is the simple act of adding a card to your hand, either from your deck (new resources) or from your graveyard (cards that were formerly spent). Having a card returned to your hand from play doesn’t count. That’s a loss of tempo, not card advantage.

Examples: Drawing your card for the turn. Returning a Hammer of Bogardan during your upkeep. Resolving (not casting!) a copy of Inspiration. Drawing a card for no reason (a.k.a.”running the cheats”,”the illicit pluck”,”Yoink!”)

Investing a card is what you do when you put a permanent into play. You have taken one of your resources, your precious cards in hand, and put it into play for the purposes of winning the game. Note that once a card is actually put into your graveyard, it is considered spent. You cannot invest Instant or Sorcery cards – they are one shot deals.

Examples: Playing a land. Casting a Ravenous Baloth. Casting Circle of Protection: Red.

Spending a card is what you do when you cast an instant or sorcery, sacrifice a permanent, or have a permanent destroyed. Once a spell if out of your hands, never to be used again, it is spent. The same goes for a permanent that hits the graveyard. Don’t confuse this with that other type of spending you do with regards to cards, the one that delays your rent payment.

Examples: Sacrificing a Goblin Replica. Casting an Electrostatic Bolt. Casting (but not resolving) an Inspiration.

With those guidelines in mind, you can figure out how many cards you are up or down by using the following calculation method:

When you invest a card, there is no change.

When you draw or otherwise put an additional card in your hand (i.e. gaining a card), that’s +1.

When you spend a card, like when you cast an instant or sorcery, or an invested card gets put into your graveyard, that’s -1.

Card advantage is the treetrunk from which this game is hewn. The clay from which it is sculpted. The flush during which it that last nugget finally swirls down. Every deck in Magic has ways of gaining pure card advantage, some more roundabout than others. Let’s borrow some examples from the current Standard environment to explore what I mean.

Affinity plays Thoughtcast, Thirst for Knowledge, and Rush of Knowledge, all of which are cards designed to do one thing – replace themselves with many additional cards. Out of the sideboard, you can see options like Persecute that can knock multiple cards out of an opposing hand, or Cabal Interrogator, which will provide card advantage over a period of turns if left unchecked. Affinity also packs numerous pieces of countermagic, which come in handy when it comes time to stop opposing card advantage powerhouses like Wrath of God and Akroma’s Vengeance.

A fist in the eye socket also works well in stopping Akroma’s Vengeance.

(A quick note on gaining card advantage vs. preventing your opponent from doing the same: stopping an opponent from getting”cards up” on you is essentially the same as getting”cards up” yourself, assuming parity of board position. You will wind up a certain number of”cards up” or”cards down” either way. The choice usually comes down to your role in the match-up. If you are the aggressor, you will want to prevent your opponent from seeing additional cards in his deck and finding answers. If you are the control player in the matchup, you will want to proactively gain card advantage in by finding and utilizing those answers. Almost all matchups work like this.)

In W/x Control builds, spells like Wrath of God and Akroma’s Vengeance serve to provide massive card advantage. In addition, they often serve to prevent opposing players from getting X cards up, by destroying card advantage engines like Phyrexian Arena, Graveborn Muse, Astral Slide, Lightning Rift, and so on. Eternal Dragon is a very robust card that can essentially trade with any number of removal spells (barring something like Duplicant). Visara the Dreadful can eliminate legions of enemy threats, all of the investment of one card.

R/G Land Destruction decks have Pure Card Advantage elements such as Molder Slug, which can eliminate any number of opposing artifacts if left unchecked, but they win many of their games with an aggressive strategy of creating Virtual Card Advantage – the type of card advantage you get when it doesn’t matter what your opponent draws, because he can’t cast any of it. Still, cards like Viridian Shaman, Hammer of Bogardan and Contested Cliffs (with Beasts) can work to trade with multiple enemy cards.

Sligh, Goblins and other beatdown designs generally function by killing quickly and thereby denying the enemy any opportunity to grab massive card advantage and swing the game (this is another aspect of Virtual Card Advantage, which will be discussed in a future article). Still, you can see the Pure Card Advantage elements of these beatdown designs start to come to the forefront when mirror matches are played. Siege-Gang Commander can serve to take out many, many enemy creatures, Rorix often trades with multiple opposing cards, and cycled Gempalm Incinerators will usually put you a card up.

In the case of Goblin Bidding, the game is often ended by a massive rush of card advantage that is too much to overcome.

In Limited, Pure Card Advantage is no less prevalent. Many consensus Limited powerhouses function as such because of the potential for massive card advantage. Grab the Reins, Molder Slug, Oblivion Stone, Solar Tide, and other famous Mirrodin bombs have achieved that status because of an uncanny ability to generate sick levels of positively unfair card inequality. For instance, GtR with Entwine trades for two opposing creatures. The modern day version of the MtG’ers answer to that old”two men, one bullet” question, if you will. The others are even more ridiculous in this regard, and used to the fullest possible extent, why, it’s almost enough unadulterated card power to send cosmic rays of cardoriffic energy blasting out of the caster’s nose!

Or other orifice!

Yes, Pure Card Advantage is everywhere, in every play. The game is built on top of it, underneath it and amidst it. Are you ready for some fun, fun, fun? Let’s see if you can identify the Pure Card Advantage gained or lost in the following scenarios!

Pure Card Advantage Quiz

How much Pure Card Advantage is gained or lost in each case? Answers are at the end of the exercise, and will be expressed in net gain or net loss of X cards.

(Answers below!)

1. You play an Aether Spellbomb and sacrifice it to draw a card.

2. You resolve a Thoughtcast.

3. You play Thirst for Knowledge, discarding Mana Leak and Broodstar.

4. You cast Wrath of God, destroying three enemy creature cards.

5. You cast Deconstruct on an opposing Pewter Golem and use the mana to play Fangren Hunter.

6. You lay a land.

7. Your opponent tries to cast Rancor in his River Boa. In response, you cast Cunning Wish, retrieving a Swords to Plowshares in your sideboard. You then cast Swords to Plowshares on the Boa, fizzling the Rancor.

8. Your opponent casts Beast Attack, you Circular Logic it. Next turn, he flashes back Beast Attack, which trades in combat with your Arrogant Wurm.

9. You cast Lightning Bolt on your opponent.

10. Your opponent casts Goblin Warchief and attacks with Warchief and Goblin Piledriver. You cast Wing Shards, and he is forced to sacrifice both creatures.

11. You attack with your Fangren Hunter, your opponent blocks with Clockwork Vorrac. Before damage goes on the stack, you cast Predator’s Strike on your Fangren Hunter. The Vorrac dies in combat and you deal three damage to your opponent.

12. You cast Akroma’s Vengeance, destroying your opponent’s Visara the Dreadful, Oblivion Stone, and Phyrexian Arena, while simultaneously destroying your own Eternal Dragon.

13. During your upkeep, you return the Eternal Dragon to your hand.

14. You cast and use Mindslaver. During your opponent’s turn, you draw for him, then you make him attack into your team, losing three creatures to your none, and cast Arrest on his own Skyhunter Patrol.

15. Your opponent attempts to equip his Spikeshot Goblin with Loxodon Warhammer. In response, you Terror the Spikeshot. In response to that, your opponent taps it to kill your Leaden Myr.

16. On turn 4 you cast Isochron Scepter, imprinting Predator’s Strike. You attack with your Leonin Skyhunter, and use the Scepter to put a copy of Predator’s Strike on the stack, dealing a total of five damage. On your opponent’s turn four, he casts Altar’s Light to remove the Scepter from the game.

17. You attack with your Goblin War Wagon and Yotian Soldier, your opponent blocks your 3/3 with his own War Wagon. After damage has been put on the stack, you cast Forge[/author] Armor”][author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] Armor, sacrificing your War Wagon, and putting four +1/+1 counters on your Yotian Soldier.

18. At the end of your opponent’s turn, you cast Electrostatic Bolt on his Goblin Dirigible. In response, he casts Razor Barrier, giving it protection from Red. You untap and cast Grab the Reins with Entwine, taking his Dirigible, and throwing it at his Fangren Hunter, killing both creatures.

19. You cast Viridian Shaman to kill an enemy Bonesplitter. On your next turn, you play your 24th card, a Synod Sanctum. Your opponent attacks with a Elf Replica, you block with the Shaman, put damage on the stack, and remove it from the game with the Sanctum. While you are tapped out, your opponent casts his own Viridian Shaman on your Sanctum.

20. You cast Akroma’s Vengeance with five mana open. Your opponent casts Mana Leak. You pay it. Your opponent casts Mana Leak again, with two mana open. You cast your own Mana Leak targeting his, and he cannot pay. Akroma’s Vengeance resolves and destroys two Seat of the Synods, a Vault of Whispers, a Great Furnace, a Lightning Greaves, a Broodstar, a Myr Enforcer, and two Talismans.

21. You cast Millstone and activate it, milling two cards into your opponent’s graveyard – a Thirst for Knowledge and a Seat of the Synod. During your end step, your opponent casts his sideboarded Naturalize on your Millstone.

Answers: Pure Card Advantage Quiz!

1. You have neither gained nor lost card advantage. You invested a card to the board, then sacrificed that card (-1) to add another card to your hand (+1). A net gain of zero cards.

2. You are up one card. The Thoughtcast itself is one card spent, but it gains you two cards, for a net gain of one.

3. You have neither gained nor lost card advantage. The Thirst for Knowledge is one card spent or burned (-1). You added three cards to your hand (+3) but then discarded two of them. (-2)

4. You are up two cards. The Wrath of God was one card spent (-1). It was, by itself, able to trade with three enemy creature cards (+3), for a net gain of two cards.

5. You have neither gained nor lost card advantage. The Deconstruct is one card spent (-1), but the Pewter Golem is one enemy card negated (+1). This is a net gain of zero. The addition of the Fangren Hunter to the board is one more card invested, but this is neither a card spent nor a card gained.

6. This is a net gain of zero. You have simply invested a card.

7. You are up one card. Your opponent casts Rancor on his River Boa, an investment of one card (but neither a gain nor a loss, yet). You cast Cunning Wish (-1) to fetch Swords to Plowshares (+1). You cast the Swords (-1), removing the River Boa from the game (+1). The Rancor then fizzles (+1, once it has hit the graveyard it is no longer invested, but rather spent).

8. You are down one card. Your opponent casts Beast Attack, which you counter. This puts him up half a card- he has spent 0.5 of a card, while you have spent a full card. The next turn, he invests the other 50% of his Beast Attack. You trade it with an Arrogant Wurm, which you yourself have invested. Both cards are now spent (another -1 for you, another -0.5 for him). Net loss, one card.

9. You are down one card. You have spent one card (-1), the Lightning Bolt.

10. You are up one card. Your opponent casts the Chief and attacks, you cast Wing Shards, which resolves and creates a storm copy, and is thusly spent (-1). As a result of the resolution of Wing Shards, your opponent loses two of his invested cards (+2). A net gain of one card.

11. You have neither gained nor lost card advantage. You spend your Predator’s Strike (-1). His invested Clockwork Vorrac dies in combat (+1). You are even.

12. You are up one card. You have spent an Akroma’s Vengeance (-1) to destroy your own invested Eternal Dragon (-1) but also three of your opponent’s invested permanents (+3). A net gain of one card. In the long run, though, this play has gained you much more card advantage than that, simply by denying your opponent the opportunity to create his own. We’ll get to this later.

13. You are up one card. You are adding a card to your hand without spending another card to do so, this is a straightforward (+1), a net gain of one card.

14. You are up four cards. You spent the Mindslaver (-1), but it trades for three creature cards via combat, and two more cards (the Arrest and the Arrested creature) afterwards. (+5). A net gain of four cards.

15. You are down one card. You spent the Terror (-1), which killed an enemy invested card (Spikey, +1), but that card itself destroyed one of your own invested cards (the Leaden Myr, -1). A net loss of one card. Note that this was still likely well worth it. Again, we’ll talk about this later.

16. You are down one card. You invested the Isochron Scepter, spending the Predator’s Strike in the process. (-1). You attack, cast a copy and deal five. On your opponent’s turn, he spends an Altar’s Light (+1) to remove your Isochron Scepter from the game. The Scepter is no longer invested, but spent (-1). A net loss of one card.

17. You are down one card. You spent Forge[/author] Armor”][author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] Armor and Goblin War Wagon (-2) in order to beef up your Yotian Soldier. Following this, the enemy War Wagon took the ‘ol dirtnap from the stacked combat damage. (+1). A net loss of one card. Still, your board position is looking rosey, as you have a 5/8 Yotian Soldier!

18. You are up a card. You spent the Electrostatic Bolt (-1), and in turn, your opponent spends a Razor Barrier (+1). On your turn, you spend a Grab the Reins (-1) to gain control of his Dirigible and sacrifice it to destroy his Tel-Jilad Archers (+2). A net gain of one card.

19. You have neither gained nor lost card advantage. You destroyed a Bonesplitter by investing a Shaman (+1). Then, you removed the Shaman from the game (-1) after stacking damage on an Elf Replica, killing it (+1). Then, your opponent invested a Shaman of his own to destroy your Sanctum (-1). A net gain of zero.

20. You are up nine cards. You invest an Akroma’s Vengeance to the stack. Your opponent casts Mana Leak, you pay, it is spent (+1). He casts Mana Leak #2, you cast your own Leak, it resolves (-1), his Leak is countered (+1), Akroma’s Vengeance resolves and is spent (-1), destroying nine enemy permanents! (+9)

21. You have neither gained nor lost card advantage. You cast Millstone, investing a card to the board. Your opponent casts Naturalize, spending a card (+1) to destroy your Millstone (-1).

Well, don’t keep me in suspense! How did you do? Which class of Pure Card Advantage Expert are you? If you got:

21 CORRECT: Eugenius Class

18-21 CORRECT: Krouner Class

14-17 CORRECT: Sporto Class

9-13 CORRECT: Yawgatog Class

4-8 CORRECT: Ankscelsior Class

1-3 CORRECT: Farid Class

0 CORRECT: MtgSecrets Class

1-20, but claimed 21 CORRECT: Osyp Class

Declared test an affront to all players, refused to take: Mousseau Class

So now you know how to identify Pure Card Advantage. Because you have this knowledge, you are much better equipped to prevent opposing players from using card advantage against you! Of course, you only have one piece of the puzzle.

Many different factors go into a winning Magic game – you can’t just grab yourself a fistful of”two-for-one’s” and hope to cruise to victory (though such is sometimes the case). You have to know when to mulligan, you have to know the key cards in the matchup, you have to have a finely tuned deck and sideboard. You have to have a keen knowledge of the format and the cards you might see, as well as a solid mental game that will keep you in it when things look bleak.

The good news is that basic card advantage theory can help you in developing some of these skills and attributes! While deciding whether to mulligan your hand, ask yourself:”Does this hand provide me with the potential to gain card advantage, or to nullify opposing card advantage?” If the answer is”no”, and testing shows that long-term card advantage is key in the match-up, then you might consider running the mulligan, sir! Pure Card Advantage is also a factor when determining whether to play or draw in Limited (some Sealed formats are slow enough that the extra”pure” card is the right call!), and of course the most effective sideboard cards are often those that provide the most pure card advantage.

I’ll leave you with this simple piece of advice that you can put to use right away. When you’re examining the board, always look for opportunities to maximize pure card advantage. If your Viridian Shaman has already destroyed an artifact, try to make it trade for an opposing two toughness creature. If you suspect your opponent has Predator’s Strike, keep that Electrostatic Bolt handy for just such an occasion.

Don’t just blindly throw out your cards and hope to trade favorably. Be crafty! If a shmoe like me can learn to do it, I’m sure you’re already halfway there!

Next time I chime in, we’ll talk about some more advanced concepts: Virtual Card Advantage and Essential Card Advantage. While you’re waiting, bone up on your card advantage and make each elbow do the work of many. See you later!


Geordie Tait

[email protected]


GT__ on #mtgwacky