CASUAL FRIDAYS #92: Card Advantage, Your Dog, And You

In sensitivity toward those readers without dogs, this article will ignore the full title and focus only on card advantage and you.

I was reflecting on this site’s overlong examination of politics in multiplayer (no, don’t worry; I won’t go there again for a while) and how it all got started back in my Dojo days. That was a real war, sonny; we didn’t have these newfangled”radar” and”yooo-boats.” Good men peed themselves in the trenches, shouting out”You should NEVER play a card like Earthquake, man…Everyone will come after you!” To which I (playing the role of the Kaiser) would reply,”Not if you calculate X right.”

I couldn’t put the right words to how I felt about those wonderful, sweeping effects back then, because I was still catching up on some of the game’s basic theory. Rob Hahn’s basics on card advantage was stuffed in an archive, even then.

Once I read those basics, and multiple Internet authors’ efforts to flesh them out, my multiplayer (and other) deckbuilding became a great deal better. The Hall of Fame shifted a bit to emphasize the card advantage aspects of its luminaries. In the last version, the Hall underwent another, slighter shift to recognize”signal” value of some multiplayer cards; but card advantage still dominates most of the top spots. (And I just now realized it’s time to update the Hall — nominees, as usual, are welcome; and I do have on file all of the suggestions since the last edition.)

And I’d really like to break down the concept of card advantage in multiplayer, and show a ground-up construction of a card advantage deck, using some of the newer treats in Apocalypse.



The basics of card advantage, in any format, are not difficult to grasp:

  • Cards in your hand represent resources you can use to improve your game position.

  • When you play a spell, you are losing a card from your hand.

  • When that spell is a permanent, you gain the card back, a one-for-one investment from your hand to the board.

  • When that spell is an instant or sorcery, you lose it, a zero-for-one investment from your hand to the board.

  • If the instant or sorcery takes an opponent’s permanent off the board, you get a card back: You’re at one-for-one again.

So playing a Grizzly Bears gives you one-for-one. Playing a Giant Growth on the Bears when they are unblocked gives you zero-for-one card disadvantage (and one presumes you felt it was worth it, to do the last three points of damage and win the game). Playing a Giant Growth on the Bears when they are blocked by a Hill Giant gives you one-for-one: The Giant Growth for the Hill Giant.



Card advantage ties very closely to board position. If the Grizzly Bears and Hill Giant are the only two creatures on the duel board and you play Giant Growth on your Hill Giant, first you and your opponent must lament the fact that you are playing the lamest, most vanilla game in the world, with little more than Fourth Edition cards. Then, you must appreciate the mistake that the Giant’s controller made in bothering to block your Grizzly Bears, since he can just trade three-for-two damage every turn and eventually win. Then, you can pat yourself on the back for trading an instant Giant Growth, which will never stay on the board to do more damage, for a Hill Giant, which would. one-for-one removal — that’s the goal of most removal cards, be they Lightning Bolt, Disenchant, Counterspell, or whatever.



The majority of those strategic truths we hold in duel, which seem so redundant when I explained them above, all shift in multiplayer.

A parallel board position in a three-player game would have each opponent staring you down with a Hill Giant. Your board position, even though no single player-player axis is terribly different, is far worse. If you swing with the Grizzly Bears, you are now potentially trading two-for-six. Of course, you may decide the risk is worth it; after all, if your first opponent with a Giant swings back, he doesn’t have three-for-two damage anymore, he could easily find himself trading three-for-five.

(The last example is not just worst case; it’s quite likely. Smart group players tend to assess threats and attack the person with strongest board position, who when all other things are roughly equal means the life leader. So if you hit opponent A with your Bears (A at eighteen), and he turns and hits you back with his Giant (you at seventeen), most”fair” opponent Bs either will sit and do nothing — or, if they have an additional blocker to play, will attack player A since he has more life and a better creature than you. Of course, if you hit A again — not just because you’re really mean and ditching my life-leader theory, but also because I’m trying to show a mathematical pattern here — you will stick him down to thirteen, he’ll take you down to fourteen, and opponent B will set her sights on you with the two creatures she now has on the board.)

So all this math makes many players’ heads hurt, and they just want to get rid of the damn creatures so they can just swing without consequences. So we pack our Terrors and Shocks and Swords to Plowshares…Except now we realize they work differently, and possibly worse, than they did before.



Spot removal has to play a different role in multiplayer. When it is only used to get rid of Hill Giants, it is strictly group-inefficient. In a three-player game alone, you need twice as many conventional removal cards as you would in a regular duel to win the way you think you’re going to win. In a five-player game, you officially have no room for lands.

So why do good players still play Vindicate or Terminate in some multiplayer decks? There are two reasons. First, some threats (like a dragon legend or Lifeline) are untenable and absolutely must be removed. You accept one-for-one inefficiency to preserve your ability to win at all.

Second, spot removal can be used to change the board so that threats are assessed differently. A Shatter on a Coat of Arms can completely change people’s willingness to attack. This happens, of course, because your”one-for-one” removal really affected far more than one target — it shrunk a whole army of elves.

And that’s when one-for-one is really good… When it’s NOT one-for-one.



The most obvious example of one-for-many card advantage was mentioned at the top of the article: Earthquake. Board-clearing sorceries (and occasionally instants, or permanents) are the most direct route to card advantage in multiplayer. Please, please, don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that such cards are a bad idea in multiplayer because they”attract too much attention.” They attract attention for a reason: They work. (Tru dat — The Ferrett)

GLOBAL SWEEPERS are only the loudest example of cards we could call”super-efficient” or”group-efficient” cards. Also in the mix:

  • TWO-FERS. A short cousin of the global sweeper, the”two-fer” differs in that it has targets and allows you greater control over your card advantage. Invasion block is full of these — Hull Breach, Jilt, Reckless Spite, Orim’s Thunder, Barrin’s Spite, Fire/Ice — but let’s also remember standbys like Fireball. These still do lose a bit of luster in very large group games.

  • REPEATERS. Cards whose effects you can use over and over again. Spellshapers like Arc Mage are a good example. Ditto Tranquil Grove, Phyrexian Plaguelord, and the latest in domain technology…Legacy Weapon. These can be huge bombs — even Devout Witness can single-handedly wreck many casual multiplayer decks — and are often the first permanents targeted. It’s not unusual to see one repeater used to destroy another repeater.

  • RECYCLERS. Mainly found in the black and green colors, these are cards that either bring back other cards, or bring themselves back. Victimize, Weatherseed Treefolk, and Volrath’s Stronghold (a repeating recycler) all fit here. I love recyclers because they confer a psychological kick to the teeth to your opponents: All that effort to get rid of my bombs, and I’ll just bring them back again.

  • SEARCHERS. Not all cantrips are group-efficient: Reviving Dose, for example, gives you just a bit of extra time and your next card, when perhaps your best bet in seven-player chaos was something more permanent-oriented, like Aura Blast. But there’s no doubt super-efficient card advantage can be found here: Pursuit of Knowledge, Prophetic Bolt, and perhaps Soothsaying. Also candidates for this list are the tutor-style cards, but many of those do not get you card advantage per se (unless you are tutoring for, say, a Plague Wind). They’re still nice to have in your deck.



Really, my thoughts on card advantage in multiplayer didn’t come together very well until Nemesis, when the”signal” Seals came out and really gave us more sackable tools in group play. (Until then, the best sackable”Seals” were Bottle Gnomes and the growing enchantments like Legacy’s Allure and those in Urza’s cycle.) Then it became a lot easier to be aggressive in group games, because the backup wasn’t just”maybe in your hand”…it was out on the board. You could sweep the board with Forced March and have a Seal of Doom ready for the first retaliator. (Notice that discard has shifted from an impossible multiplayer archetype to merely very difficult, because with so many sackables in Masques and Invasion block, you can suffer your own discard through vehicles like Bottomless Pit and still maintain threats… But on the board instead of in your hand.)

So signals are an important part of maintaining the board position you want, after you get the card advantage you need from super-efficient cards.

That said, I’m trying to separate out my theories on signaling from my theories on card advantage. So the deck I’m about to build doesn’t carry too many signals in it, instead focusing on the different ways card advantage works.



Scanning recent expansions, and particularly Apocalypse (we DO want to use new cards, after all!), for a card — and preferably a creature — that I could base a card advantage deck on, I came up with the following short list:

Card Drawing: Ophidian, Thieving Magpie, Wall of Blossoms, Jungle Barrier, Raven Familiar, Thalakos Seer

Card Thieving: Doomsday Specter, Marsh Crocodile, Chilling Apparition

Both: Fungal Shambler.

Can you guess which ended up the star of the show? I know Fungal Shambler is expensive, but in casual play that shouldn’t be too much of a hardship. And since I got the shiny foil at the Prerelease, and then busted one out one of my prize packs there, I figured that was a sign. (Let’s all please try to remember that not every deck decision I make is exactly logical!)

So we start with

2x Fungal Shambler

We can see where the colors of the deck will be pretty quickly, both from the Shambler’s colors and the colors of the cards on the short list above.

I am lucky enough to have four Doomsday Specters, and I’m thinking that a deck built around card advantage will be able to find more than one and recur any that are burned away. In they go. Marsh Crocodile is impressive, but I’m thinking about them for a different deck, and I can easily see the four-slot of this deck getting real tight, real quick. Chilling Apparition is nice — very nice — in multiplayer; but I think I’m going to have the blue-green early, and the black late.

Moving to card-drawing, my first choice from the above list is Jungle Barrier. I’ll need a tall wall because four- and five-power creatures are crawling all over our group. Wall of Blossoms is too short for the ground defense this deck will need, given the fright I’ll be giving people in the air with the Specters. Plus, they’re in every damn green deck I build and I want to give them a rest. Ophidian is likely one of the best creatures ever printed for card advantage (at least until Finkel’s card comes out in Odyssey), and I may yet include them in a future version; but Raven Familiar and other three-drops related to my theme prevailed below.

4x Doomsday Specter

4x Jungle Barrier

2x Raven Familiar

A quick confession: The Raven Familiars were initially Thalakos Seers. The Seers have a tiny bit of signal power, and work on a different tempo to give you your card advantage while you’re gating them with the Specters (since you get the draw as they leave play, rather than enter play). But after trying out the deck once or twice, I had to admit they’re just not very exciting. Raven Familiars are simply superior there.

Now, I have to give consideration to two facts: First, I need more blue and/or black creatures that gate well; and second, as we said, board position is the kissin’ cousin of card advantage. So I added the following:

3x Man o’ War

4x Mystic Snake

I actually don’t have four Mystic Snakes yet; three are currently cleverly disguised as two Savage Gorillas and an Uktabi Orangutan. (No, they’re not proxies; I play them as is.)

Really, the fish and snakes are amazing at this restaurant. With Doomsday Specter as your busboy, you just want to serve them again and again.

Now it is possible — theoretically possible — that this bundle of creatures is enough to get the job done. But I still have some creature slots left, and I could use both another big finisher, and some additional early drops:

4x Gaea’s Skyfolk

3x Anavolver

Again, I’m forecasting on the Anavolver: Right now two of them are Living Airships, which are simply delectable in their own right. Neither of these creatures are pure card advantage. (The Anavolver comes close, since it regenerates and therefore renders many removal spells useless.) But both are incredible board advantage — the Gaea’s Skyfolk because they’re smart-lookin’ flyers on turn two, and the Anavolvers because they’re bone-chilling, 6/6 regenerating flyers on turn seven. (Really, the Fungal Shamblers ought to look for SOMETHING, shouldn’t they?!?) The Volvers are also a perfectly respectable 3/3 on turn four, if you’re in a pinch. We’ll be able to return them to hand easily with Man o’ War…And perhaps even from the graveyard…

That’s twenty-six creatures — way more than many decks have, but I like the fact that our bluish card-advantage deck also has more creatures than the opponents will have. With the remaining eight slots, I want to up the ante with the card advantage, and also do a little counterintuitive board play…

2x Spinal Embrace

2x Urborg Uprising

4x Temporal Spring

The Embrace and Uprising are easy to explain: They’re the late black that gives this deck a truly nasty edge. Two-for-one advantage off the Embrace is a minimum — three or four-for-one is perfectly possible if you get the right creature — and the Uprising is an automatic three-for-one.

The Temporal Spring, of course, goes against everything I’ve written in the article so far. Isn’t that swell? Here’s why I have them in there: I want to learn more about them. I don’t think they’re good multiplayer cards, but they fit the color, I don’t have much else to do on my third turn, and they will give me a rest from troublesome artifacts and enchantments until I can counter them with Mystic Snake.

Eventually, I expect to replace two of the Springs with two Pernicious Deed — the ultimate in both signaling and card advantage. What I do with the last two is up for grabs — and I’ll take suggestions. I think I want an early-drop utility creature, which suggests another Man o’ War, or Raven Familiar, or perhaps a Stern Proctor.

Of course, I may also keep the last two Springs in. Like the Anavolvers and Urborg Uprisings, they are end game back-breakers.

As for lands, I would suggest one Soldevi Excavations and one Volrath’s Stronghold. I’m also strongly recommending Strip Mine and/or Wasteland… Juicy non-basic lands should be crawling all over your group (including this deck)! Then suit your colors to taste, with an obvious preference for blue-green. Since I’d like this deck to be a”champion” for a while, I have put in enough of the old-school dual lands to make sure mana is never a problem. (If you don’t have lots of the new or old dual lands, you might consider Urborg Elves in some of your earlier creature slots.)

Here’s the deck as I hope to have it polished in about a week, with appropriate nod to the latest Tool release (since, as the song says about your Volvers,”I know the pieces fit…”)


4x Gaea’s Skyfolk

2x Raven Familiar

3x Man o’ War

4x Mystic Snake

4x Jungle Barrier

4x Doomsday Specter

3x Anavolver

2x Fungal Shambler

2x Spinal Embrace

2x Urborg Uprising

2x Pernicious Deed

2x Temporal Spring

1x Soldevi Excavations

1x Volrath’s Stronghold

1x Strip Mine

4x Tropical Island

4x Underground Sea

4x Bayou

5x Island

4x Forest

2x Swamp

Right now, a larval version of this deck is 3-0, one win in six-player chaos and two wins in two-man team, where the Temporal Springs are WAY more impressive.

Some notable plays…

  • Dave has several 3/3 kavu running around. He sends one of them at me, violating our group’s well-established”don’t attack Anthony when he has 3UUB open” rule. (To be fair, I was life leader at the time.) I play Spinal Embrace, stealing Gary’s lovely Gerrard, Overpriced Hero and giving the board a reason to cheer early in the game. None of us care for Gerrard very much; in fact, I think Gary will be dropping him from the deck soon.

  • Later that evening, in a team game, Dave once again violates Rule AA-3UUB. (Again, I was the logical choice to attack. Dave wasn’t being stupid; he knows what he’s doing. In duel or team, the aggressive player needs to play through all that control garbage. It’s not like the card is going anywhere.) This time, a Scoria Cat and Chimeric Idol are his co-transgressors. I TAP OUT to play Spinal Embrace, thereby enjoying my own 6/6 kitty and feeding her some tasty turtle soup.

  • Carl plays a Radiant’s Dragoons on turn four. I Temporal Spring his fourth land. Good yucks. It would have been more impressive if the deck wasn’t based on Death or Glory, which just brings the dorks (including Highway Robbers, Angel of Mercy, and all those other charter members of Club Lifegain Jerks) back in the late game; but we’ll ignore that tiny detail.

  • Seeing Toim playing black-white, I send the Doomsday Specter at him, expecting to get a juicy Death Grasp or Vindicate out of his seven-card hand. My choices? Four swamps, a plains, a Mournful Zombie, and a Necra Disciple. After verifying with the group that I do, in fact, have to take a card and thereby subject myself to deep embarrassment, I pull the Zombie.”Ha HA,” I shout quasi-victoriously, slapping the Zombie into his graveyard in what has to be the most pathetic Doomsday Specter haul of 2001,”Let’s see you gain one life a turn, starting on the turn after your next turn, NOW! Yeah, that’s right, let’s see it!”

  • Later that game, Toim plays Desolation Angel with kicker. Yeah, whatever, she’s puny…

THAT would have been a good Temporal Spring. Yeah, I think I keep a couple in the deck.

COMING SOON: Don’t forget the DEADLINE for Break this Card: Guided Passage is THIS COMING THURSDAY, MIDNIGHT, C.S.T.! I think we’re in shooting distance of 100. I haven’t even begun to respond to entries, so don’t panic if you haven’t heard from me yet.

Also coming soon, version 4 of the Hall of Fame! This time, I’ll probably skip the artwork in a gesture of goodwill to The Ferrett and his misguided philosophy of politics in multiplayer…Oops…


Anthony Alongi

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