Examining The Theories Of Card Advantage And Quality

What is Card Advantage, and how do you use it to create decks? A history of theory, from The earliest Dojo days to last week.

In writing this piece, I hope to enlighten the beginning to intermediate player on the ideas of card advantage – and then card quality. As many know, these are old ideas as far as the game of Magic goes, but the formulation of these ideas are among the greatest leaps in theory known to Magic – along with ideas such as a "mana curve" and what has become known as "metagaming" (a topic that I covered recently with help from the Star City staff, in particular, Mike Mason and Aaron Forsythe). I also used several Dojo articles* as reference, and again this should prove useful.

What is Card Advantage?

At its most basic and fundamental level, card advantage is the idea that whoever has the most resources – in this case, the cards you have either in hand or in play, or both – has the advantage. The simplest form of this idea is just to have a card that, when cast, gives you more cards. The ones that do this best are generally considered "broken." The old Ancestral Recall (U: draw three cards or have the opponent draw three cards) gave you the incredible amount of three cards for one card (itself) and one blue mana. For some time now, Necropotence, the black "Skull," had been deemed one of the most powerful cards to see regular play because for one life it allows you to add one card to your hand at the end of your turn.

For the beginner, this seems somewhat at odds – doesn’t paying one life make it easier for your opponent to kill you? – but in the proper hands, the extra cards should more than make up for the loss of life. Historically, in fact, it took some time for "Necro" to be identified as such a powerful card. More recently from the Urza’s block, Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Stroke of Genius were cards that allowed a player to draw cards for either life (in the case of Bargain) or mana (in the case of Stroke). By this time in Magic, awareness of the card advantage idea was so high that these cards were quickly identified for their power, and players immediately strained decks to the limit to "break" their abilities by either trying to gain life, or garner a lot of mana in order to get more cards. These are not the only forms of card advantage, however.

The other epitome of this idea is using one of your cards in such a way that it eliminates the effectiveness of several of your opponent’s cards. The most common way to do this is either by removing them from play or from their hand. One of the most explicit examples is the use of any sort of discard spell that nets more than one card from your opponent’s hand. One of the currently more well known of these spells is Stupor, which for its 2B casting cost nets a simple two-for-one in card advantage.

The hand, though, is not the only target for destructive types of card advantage spells; well-known examples are board control spells like Wrath of God. In this case when Wrath of God is cast, it destroys all creatures in play and can often kill several creatures all at the same time. This economy of play – one card for many – is quite noteworthy. The idea is that if you’ve lead someone into the "trap" of getting Wrathed that the player casting the Wrath will have more cards to back up this play. One will have more cards to play after the Wrath, and thus an advantage to victory. As a strategy, too, one would hope to have better cards for this situation. Your next play might be the rumored-to-be-returning-to-seventh-edition Serra Angel. This is a white flying 4/4 flying creature that doesn’t tap to attack.

Now. Let’s say that your opponent has a deck that is basically just a hoard of 2/2 and 3/3 ground-pounding grunts that he can, since your Wrath, only cast about as fast as he can draw them or one at a time. Following the Wrath and the casting of the Angel, you will hit him for four a turn – and then, since your Angel doesn’t tap to attack, you will be able to block and kill one of his attackers. This is another form of card advantage in that in this situation your Angel can both attack and then block, killing many opposing creatures.

The more effectively a single card can either get you more cards in your hand, reduce your opponent’s cards, or can effectively remove permanents from their side of the playing field, the better it is going to be viewed in the light of card advantage… And the generally better the card is going to be valued.

This is not to say that every card that could possibly give you card advantage is good, but that any card that can do so is worth looking at closely.

Some card advantage spells can, however, be cost prohibitive in other ways. Plainly speaking, this means that they cost too much in other resources (usually mana, life, or time) to be effective. The Black enchantment Greed offers card advantage, but both mana and life must be paid for each card – even after the investment of playing a somewhat expensive enchantment. Further, many cards in this class were denoted by theorists as "invested," and theories of investiture even arose which basically dealt with these ideas of the "cost" of gaining card advantage offered by certain cards… And thus, questions of "Is it worth it?" arose.

Take Jayemdae Tome, for instance: It is an artifact that costs four mana, which is a fair amount. Now, since it also costs four mana to activate and you need to tap the "Tome" it means that for this item to really net you an extra card – remember, you used up a card casting the Tome in the first place – you will have to invest two turns and twelve total mana to get to a card advantage point. Often times that would be too much of a burden on the tempo of a game – and therefore Jayemdae Tome, while it could provide a good amount of card advantage, is generally too costly in terms of tempo. While you are trying to set up to draw cards off of it, your opponent is likely to use his probable twelve mana and a couple of cards of his own to cave your skull in.

Now we must remember that card advantage in and of itself is only a means to an end. Very rarely will cards that give excellent card advantage be a kill mechanism on their own. There are times when you could draw a whole lot of cards and find that they would all be useless for actually winning the game… Which lends itself to other theorizing.

Some of that theorizing is about card valuations. Some cards are just better than other ones. ** In our example, above we find that Jayemdae Tome isn’t played that much even though it can provide reusable card drawing. As pointed out, it takes two turns and twelve mana just to gain a single card worth of card advantage. A speedy red or green deck on the other hand might well kill you at the cost of twelve mana and two turns without any card advantage. They may then use "card disadvantage" to do that. Card Disadvantage Theory is basically one that states that you can win a game by using a card or cards that are poor from a strictly card advantage idea. *** Many a red deck has literally burnt up their hand and resources to gain a win. Fireblast is a commonly-played red spell in Extended that is often played at a disadvantage in terms of cards, it being cast for the price of two mountains in play – yet if it deals the last four points of damage that wins the game, it has been highly effective. This type of idea plays very deeply into ideas of tempo.

That red deck is looking to win the game extremely fast, and will sacrifice almost any resource to do so. It will gladly sacrifice two mountains now if that will end the game sooner. Of course, this is a risky gambit, since if the Fireblast is countered the red player has just lost mountains that could perhaps have helped in the longer run…But this sort of stuff is what this game is about.

"Virtual" advantage

I touched on this perhaps a little earlier with my Serra Angel example, but let’s do so again.

Some cards and combinations of cards can provide a ‘virtual’ card advantage. The Blue White spell Teferi’s Moat is currently a very good example of this: As one card, the Teferi’s Moat can hold off a whole hordes of opposing creatures. If you cast it and name "Green," and your opponent has an Elf, a Blastoderm, and a Silt Crawler, then even though they have three more cards on the table than you, you have temporarily stopped three of their cards with one of yours.

Now the "virtual" part is a tad trickier. If the player with the green monsters has no way to deal with the Teferi’s Moat, then that spell will render all further nonflying green creatures (which is, as we know, most of them) useless. Say the player with Green monsters is holding two or three of them in their hand. Now those creatures have, as long as the Teferi’s Moat remains in play, been rendered useless – or "dead." If these players have a hand size that is the same, then the player with Teferi’s Moat has just gained a "virtual" advantage. You cannot count it by simply counting up the cards in play and in each player’s hand. In fact, if you count up all the cards in the hands and in play in this example, the Green player has more. His problem is that most (if not all) of his cards have been rendered moot, unable to progress his win condition by attacking. Our fellow with the Moat playing Blue/White will now happily let the Green player play any non-flying green creature he wants and save his counterspells for non-flying, non-green creatures – or anything that would take the Teferi’s Moat out of play. In game terms, he has a huge advantage in cards, even if it’s virtual.

Another example is Blastoderm. The reason that Blastoderm is quite popular and good is that it can be a source of both real and virtual card advantage. The real part is that, as a 5/5 monster, it will very often require that it be chump blocked multiple times. If your opponent has to use two 2/2 creatures to block the ‘Derm before he fades, then you have netted a two-for-one advantage. Now the big ‘Derm has another ability that makes him good in a "virtual" way – and a focus point of standard deckbuilding. That is, since he is untargetable, he renders useless any type of targeted creature kill effect. Creature-killing black spells like Terror can’t touch him, and even if you could muster up five points of flaming death from some targeted red spell for him, you can’t use it. Now if you are holding some spell like this, you are at five life, have no blockers, and the ‘Derm is getting ready to lumber over and kill you… Well, you’ve just been done in by ‘virtual’ card advantage.

Card Valuation

Card Valuation simply means that at different times and in different places the values of cards are different. Card advantage, as we have explained so far, generally implies that all cards are valued the same. Most players generally know intuitively that this is not in fact the case. The players gauge cards, and this gauging happens as soon as possible where many players -all of them, in fact – give explicit or implicit values to the cards. In this age of internet Magic, we are inundated with spoilers and ratings for spoiler cards. And when anyone builds a deck, they put their best cards in it, do they not?

This valuation idea doesn’t stop with the cards outside of decks and games, but continues through out the deckbuilding process with card interaction at the deck level, and then on to games and the interaction and game state there. For instance, let’s say that you draw a hand and it has no land in it. How "good" are the cards in it? How much value do you put on land at this point? Enough that you are lamenting the lack of it? I thought so!

Now let’s say you are deep in a game that is a complete standoff, and that you have plenty of mana to cast any spell. Are you valuing land then? Or are you again bemoaning the fact that while you topdecked a land your opponent drew a burn spell with X as a component and ended the game? So as we see, lands have a high starting value that usually diminishes as a game progresses, and spells have a starting value that generally start low and increase in value as a game goes on.****

What does this mean? Well, it basically tells us that well-built decks win, or try to win, by setting up a card quality advantage, which is a form again of card advantage. They run neither too few nor too many lands, and they run spells in a density that is advantageous. These spells are often highly cost-effective, synergistic, or both. In Extended, Trix has both card-advantageous cards like Necropotence, and disadvantageous ones like Force of Will and Unmask, but the whole package results in one of the most synergistic and format-successful decks of all time. This also tells is that if you can manipulate card quality, then it will very often result in a card advantage type of effect. As an example, if you could draw only spells in the mid-late game while your opponent still is drawing land, you will have a virtual card advantage, as you will be drawing "the business" while your opponent will not. I have a very specific example to show you of this.

Cand!man U/W

David Sutcliffe and his friends came up with the basic design for a U/W deck that I feel is very good and underplayed. I have made my own few small changes to this deck which I have played to a superb record and I am going to use it as a basis to talk about a card that is strictly about card quality: Soothsaying.

Cand!man Counter Wrath 3S
4x Counterspell
4x Absorb
3x Thwart
3x Power Sink
2x Dominate
3x Seal of Removal
3x Soothsaying
4x Fact or Fiction
4x Air Elemental
4x Wrath of God
2x Dust Bowl
6x Plains
2x Coastal Tower
4x Adarkar Wastes
12x Island

First off, the deck is quite full of possible card advantage cards. The first of which is Fact or Fiction, which can put from one to five cards directly in your hand. So too does this card give both players a chance to make judgments in card evaluation that test skill: Dominate, when cast, almost always results in card advantage, as a creature shifts from your opponent’s side of the board to yours. Wrath of God, as we noted, can destroy multiple cards at once. Soothsaying, as I pointed out, is a card of note because it is not a card advantage card in the strictest sense…. But it is truly a card quality card.

What I would like to focus on here a bit is the changes I made to the deck and why. My card "advantage" engine looks like this:

3x Soothsaying
4x Fact or Fiction

7 cards total

While the original was this.

4x Accumulated Knowledge
3x Fact or Fiction
2x Soothsaying

9 cards total

Now obviously what I did was cut four Accumulated Knowledges, while adding a third Soothsaying and a fourth Fact of Fiction. I did this because I felt that an early Soothsaying would be just as good, if not better, than an early Accumulated Knowledge – and I could thus devote more of the deck to tempo issues. I added in another Seal of Removal and another Power Sink, which are both good early spells. Seal is actually a disadvantageous card from a card advantage-counting standpoint, but it does offer early tempo control to the deck, which it can hopefully recover by following with Wrath.

In the heart of these card advantage engines is a Soothsaying vs. Accumulated Knowledge comparison, where we see that neither on its first use offers real card advantage. At their first use, they just allow the caster to be either draw a turn deeper into their library (in the case of Accumulated Knowledge) or some manipulate their next few draw turns (in the case of Soothsaying). In the cast of Accumulate Knowledge, the value of this play is one card at one time. In the case of an activated Soothsaying, the power of this portent is as many cards deep as mana you can afford, but in any case it usually isn’t much more than that for an early Accumulated Knowledge. The second casting of Accumulated Knowledge without Sooth’s portent does net an advantage of one card – but its quality is un-assured. By this time, a lone Sooth may have altered many draws with quality choices made from rearranging varying card orders of varying depths on the top of the deck. As I said, in the current environment I just felt that ensuring a bit more early game tempo control was warranted. In the late game however, David’s engine becomes more powerful with the drawing power of the multiple Accumulated Knowledge cards. What we both know is that in combination the portent ability of Soothsaying plus ANY drawing power is extremely powerful. When given a chance to legally stack the top of ones’ deck and then cast a pure card advantage drawing spell, the results are almost always brokenly favorable. I’ve found that Sooth alone, in any game that goes more than about six turns or so, usually works so well to ensure that I get the cards I want when I want that the advantage of this "card advantage by card quality" is remarkable enough. I get to dig many virtual draws deep into my library, and then put the best spells on the top where I want them. When I need early land I can find it, and when I no longer need to draw land, I just don’t. I get business cards while my opponent is still stuck working his topdeck mojo that that unknown top card will provide what they really need. The odds are far against them here…


The Star City mailing list recently had some interesting conversations about this card in relation to card advantage. As the card became a point of debate with Carl Jarrel’s wonderfully interesting Turbo Chant deck, someone off-handedly replied that milling was "card advantage". This perked some folks up. "How could Milling be "card advantage?" they asked. Well, I’ll tell you that mostly… It can’t.

A library is (or should be) a random assortment of the cards of a deck. A Millstone, when activated, puts two of the randomly-stacked cards on the top of the library into the person’s graveyard. Generally this doesn’t do much, but it generally does advance the "miller" closer to the victory condition of "decking" their opponent – should the game last that long. Still, as the milling process goes on it doesn’t change anyone’s hand size or cards in play. This is not providing any sort of "card advantage." The only resource that it is affecting is the random library. Previously, Israel Marques made some excellent points with his Option Theory of card advantage, but I believe that in general he overestimated that value of the library and the random assortment of cards in it as an "option."

Yes, a deck – and thus a library – is the source of all resources and "options" available to a player in a game. Yes, milling a deck affects those resources and options. Is this very effective in any sort of card advantage terms? Probably not.

Most decks strive to have several paths to victory. In most cases, this is just a lot of creatures; currently, creatures generally have the most options for a card in play being able to both attack and defend, so generally if you mill off, say, a creature and a land, the chances that your opponent draws another creature – the possibility (the Option) of winning the game all by itself – haven’t changed all that much.

But look again at the Cand!man U/W deck. How many game-winning cards does it contain? As there are only four Air Elementals, we see that this deck has a very low threat density. If my opponent mills me every turn he can, there’s a reasonable possibility that he can mill away ALL of the threats and the game would effectively end when that last Elemental hit the graveyard. This is possible for a Millstone, and would then be a very strange form of "card advantage." Still the problem with this is that it’s still totally random. Sometimes in such a case a Millstone could neutralize all threats and other times it could miss…Even if a deck had only one card as a true victory path. That, however, can be changed.

Elemental Augury

Elemental Augury is an enchantment with this effect: "3: Look at the top three cards of target player’s library and put them back on the top of that player’s library in any order." Now with this AND a Millstone in play, we can gain, for two cards and five mana a turn, a "lock" on the card quality that our opponent will receive. Realize that this takes an investiture of two cards to begin with… But this idea and a lot of others were actually brought up for this discussion by Aaron Forsythe. I myself had this sort of deck a time or two, using some library Portents and Millstones to affect card quality in an opposing deck. Now by activating first the Augury and then the Millstone, we can make a player draw what we feel is the worst of three cards – generally a land. This won’t work all the time but it will work enough (barring some card advantageous drawing power by our opponent like a Tax/Rack combo), that we can gain again our card advantage by quality, since we will allow our opponent mostly land while we ourselves draw from a normal "option" density-accessible library. Notice again how flimsy this idea is, though, in both investiture and disruption by any opposing card drawing.

IBC Constructed

Taylor stated that as a format slows down, the power of card advantage cards goes up. If we look at this in terms of what we discussed about card "disadvantage" and tempo, this makes sense. Since WotC seems to be slowing down the formats almost universally as much as they can – and especially judging by the card sets of the newest blocks – we can believe that card advantage should be gaining in power. I think this is true.

The Invasion block is rife with card advantage possibility, starting with the much-ballyhooed Fact or Fiction and going right down to the untargetable Blurred Mongoose. For those that have been following, the U/B combination has been at the forefront of the IBC block murmurings… And why not? These colors in this format are all about card advantage, being full of cards like the aforementioned Fact or Fiction, Probe (especially when kickered), and Bog Down. So, too, it has discard creatures like Ravenous Rats, Blazing Specter, and Doomday Specter. Many IBC creatures have untargetability and color protection, making their "virtual" card advantage possibilities high. In short, the whole of IBC Constructed is really about who can generate the most real and virtual card advantage – and in short, who forces the opponent to have useless cards.

I know for a fact that many top pros and builders think that the best combination of colors for the block is U/B/R… And why not? These colors again are packed with the card advantage cards I have mentioned… Yet my teammate Mike Mason has generally turned this against the builds that I have seen. By running maindeck Blurred Mongeese, which are cheap and untargetable, along with other color-protected creatures and his own removal, he often gains a virtual advantage over any targeted removal spells that a U/B/R might be playing. As several versions of this deck are running only a minimum of creatures*****, it makes the uncounterable untargetable Mongoose play almost a walk-away win. Besides blocking, there is only Void to deal with such a creature in a U/B/R build. My own preferred deck packs Rout and Glimmering Angel, both with card advantage possibilities a-plenty.

To end, I know that I’ll be keenly watching for the Pro Tour in Tokyo results knowing that card advantage, both real and virtual will play a big part in who the winners and losers will be for this heady format.

Will Rieffer

* – From history, Eric Taylor seems to me to be at the forefront of card advantage ideas. While I’m not particularly sure who would get credit for formulating the idea (although it may likely be Weismann), Taylor at least seems to give the best and most detailed analysis of the idea in writing. This article owes much to him, to say the least. I would note, however, that card advantage and many of its offshoot ideas were often used intuitively by the best players ever since the games’ inception. Degenerate decks drawing massive cards have been around since almost the beginning, and I can remember at the time of revised seeing a "Masters" class tournament (no restrictions) were first and second turn kills were the norm, generated off of massive card drawing and advantage.

** – Very soon after the game’s inception, its inventor, Dr. Garfield – at that time a graduate mathematics student – called it one of the most interesting supply and demand models that he had ever seen.

*** – We will note that "Card Disadvantage" as goal idea is discounted by Taylor. No deck strives for card disadvantage; they only will give in to using it to promote tempo or speed.

**** – Note here that when facing a land destruction deck, lands can have great value in midgame – and that some decks, with Moxes and Black Lotus for example could start off well enough without any land. So, too, do very expensive spells start out the game "dead" in your hand. This is generally why decks without severe mana acceleration need to limit themselves to around a maximum of four to six spells that cost four mana or more.

***** – Sutcliffe’s U/B/R deck uses only two Pyre Zombies for creatures. It probably needs to cast a Void for two to really successfully deal with a Blurred Mongoose. See link.