Fishing Lessons – The Snowball Effect: Viewing Advantage in Magic

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Tuesday, July 13th – If you are ahead on board, in order to survive, your opponents have to make unfavorable plays and non-beneficial trades. Which then gets you further ahead on board, making them have to take more unfavorable plays. Then you get even further ahead on board, and they have to take even more non-beneficial trades. And so on. Get it?

A snowball begins rolling down a mountain. As it rolls, it picks up the snow it rolls over and gets bigger. Then, since it is bigger, its surface area gets larger and it touches more snow, which it then collects and gets even larger. Which, in turn, makes it get even larger faster as it continues to roll down the mountain. Which then makes it get even larger even faster. And so on. Get it?

Advantage in a game of Magic works the same way.

If a game is exactly even, the first person to gain a small edge is more likely to be able to produce a larger, more significant advantage. It is harder to come back from behind than it is to extend an already existing advantage.

If you’re up cards, it becomes easier to produce card advantage. The more card drawers you play, the more card drawers you draw. Then you draw even more card drawers which you cast to draw even more cards. And so on. Get it?

If you are ahead on board, in order to survive, your opponents have to make unfavorable plays and non-beneficial trades. Which then gets you further ahead on board, making them have to take more unfavorable plays. Then you get even further ahead on board, and they have to take even more non-beneficial trades. And so on. Get it?

All anybody does when they choose to play first is to gain initiative so they can pull ahead, which pulls them further ahead. All anybody does when they choose to draw first is gain card advantage, which makes it easier to produce more card advantage. Every one of those games is actually just another level of Katamari Damacy. Who knew the space-gods were such drunken party fiends?

Once you Mind Spring for 4, you draw more land drops and more Mind Springs to cast for even more, or just Oracles and Jaces and Avengers and keep pulling further and further ahead.

Consider the inauspicious Nest Invader. A 2/2 for two mana that gives you a one-time mana boost doesn’t seem that intimidating, but it really is an amazing card. One of the many reasons it is so good is that jumping you ahead a mana makes it easier to pull even further ahead. Kozelik’s Predator on three, say. Nest Invader is the one who originally rolls that little snowball down from the top of the mountain. By the time it gets to the bottom, you’ve spent 15 mana to your opponent’s 8. Talk about a leg-up. Stock Mana, anyone?

Another good way to think about advantage is that, if you break even for a turn, whoever was ahead before profited.

An extreme example is if someone has a 1/1 and neither player has any lands or cards in hand. If they both draw nothing, the player with the 1/1 came out ahead of the turn because he got to hit for one due to the fact that he was ahead.

A more applicable example would be if you have 8 lands in play and your opponent has 4. You Tectonic Edge a land. You spent a land drop to set them back a land drop, but your 8th land is far less valuable to you than their 4th land is to them.

If you have a creature and your opponent doesn’t, then if he were to spend his turn casting a creature and you spent yours killing it, you are advantaged in the exchange even though you both traded equivalent resources. You spent the same amount of mana, the same amount of cards, and the same amount of time, but you got a hit in. Breaking even when ahead is advantageous.

If you have equal boards but you have 6 cards in your hand while they have 2, if you could spend two cards to make them discard two cards, that would be advantageous for you despite the exchange being break-even if viewed in a vacuum.

There are decks built solely on these principles. Turboland and RG Monument are decks that are built on the snowball effect. In Turboland, the boost of land makes it easier to get even more land, and the card advantage makes it easier to get more card advantage, until finally you have such an overwhelming advantage that their situation is impossible to recover. The Monument deck uses the aggressive side of the snowball effect, choosing to parlay mana advantages into a strong board presence which allows for an even bigger push for board presence, until finally their opponent is overwhelmed, either by the sheer numbers they are facing and speed at which they were deployed, or are taken down by a card designed to abuse the advantage gotten from the snowball effect.

Eldrazi Monument is like a giant catapult designed to throw fat snowballs.

As for an example of a deck that abuses the ability to benefit from a break-even turn, I was hard-pressed to find one from this era; the cards are just too good. It’s hard to maintain absolute parity with a Bloodbraid Elf or any planeswalker. The example that comes to mind when I think of this concept is the old-school Counter-Sliver decks. They play one or two cheap and resilient slivers, then use countermagic to break even every turn while the Little Sliver Who Could gets his beats in.

Some of the older Rock decks play by this principle, grinding out small advantages and using discard and removal to one-for-one the opponent. Decks like TarmoRack in particular.

The concept of willingly one-for-one-ing the opponent and just riding a preexisting advantage is most capitalized on when that advantage is incremental. Think of how much easier it is to willingly trade equivalent resources when you have a source of card advantage on the battlefield.

Dark Confidant is the greatest card ever printed for doing exactly this. If you have a Dark Confidant on the battlefield, then you’re overjoyed to break even for turn after turn with your opponent as you have a body and a stream of card advantage. Forbidian and similar decks follow this principle as well.

(Side note on Dark Confidant: Phyrexian Arena sacrifices costing one more mana for not having to reveal the cards, being less painful, and being harder to kill. Would you play it if it only got the third bonus for the same drawback?)

As I was saying, your Dark Confidant or Ophidian or Shadowmage Infiltrator or Bitterblossom or Jace or Jace or Elspeth or Gideon (and so on) not only make it more beneficial to break even, but also make it far easier to accomplish exactly that! They are the beneficiaries and the benefactors!

It’s sad that strategies like this are practically dead due to the power level of the cards, specifically the midrange and aggressive-midrange cards. You can’t ride small advantages or break even turn after turn while milking an incremental advantage engine, because it is too easy to break out of such scenarios.

A good example of this is Thepths versus Zoo in the previous Extended format. The strategy that was having the most success with GerryT’s deck in its unfavorable match-up was to board in a lot of removal and Jace, the Mind Sculptors, and grind them out, becoming a quasi-UB Control deck. This strategy worked brilliantly for quite a while, but then all of the Zoo decks adapted. Everybody thought that the match-up became bad again due to Blood Moon being very effective, or because the Congregation at Dawn hate package was shutting them down. The truth is that the reason that Thepths started losing is not due to those strategic overhauls, but because of an incidental side-effect of them: The Zoo decks all started playing Bloodbraid Elf.

It is impossible to play UB Control using Dark Confidant and Jace, the Mind Sculptor as your main sources of card advantage when facing down Bloodbraid Elves. The fact that they escaped Smother didn’t help either.

In Standard, it is near impossible to land an incremental advantage engine long enough to matter. It is also extremely difficult to consistently be capable of maintaining parity for a turn when facing explosive Lotus Cobra based turns, Bloodbraid Elves, Elspeths, and so on. So where does that leave these concepts I’m discussing today? Well, Legacy, but the strategies also hold true for Limited.

One of the best ways to get ahead in Limited is to have a pump spell through a double-block, or a removal spell in response to a pump spell/Aura. There are 3 ways that these situations arise:

1. The player getting blown out made a mistake
2. The player getting blown out was put into an unfavorable situation where they were left with no better alternatives
3. The player getting blown out was baiting with the play, or otherwise felt neutral about the seemingly disadvantageous play.

The second scenario is one that is created by pressing advantages; advantages that could be gained in the first place by utilizing a rolling ball of snow. By curving out properly, especially if mana-boosted, you leave your opponents on the back foot. That is what leads them to make unfavorable trades and risky double-blocks or other two-for-one opportunity plays.

Have you ever been in the process of being tempo’d out and were forced to cross your fingers and hope they didn’t have it? Whether it’s moving in on the double-block or casting your Pacifism effect on a ground pounder when you know he has a Dragon in his deck, whatever the situation specifics were, we have all been there. And this is why.

There are five types of cards in the scope of this article. There are cards that roll a snowball, there are cards that keep the ball rolling, and there are cards that utilize big snowballs. Then there are cards that help you maintain an advantageous position, and there are cards that give you that advantage in the first place.

Cards that roll snowballs are things like spawn producers such as Nest Invader, mana acceleration and fixing like Ondu Giant, and the levelers like Skywatcher Adept.

Cards that keep the ball rolling are bigger spawn producers like Kozilek’s Predator, midgame threats, and removal.

Cards that utilize big snowballs are fatties like Eldrazi or Pelakka Wurm, combat tricks like Might of the Masses or Wrap in Flames, effects that benefit from being ahead such as Pennon Blade or Soulsurge Elemental, and effects that pushes your tempo over the top such as Venerated Teacher or Training Grounds.

Cards that help you maintain an advantageous position are removal against creatures, things like Emerge Unscathed against removal, bounce, and solid blockers.

Cards that give you an advantage that makes maintaining it worthwhile are things like evasion creatures such as Hada Spy Patrol, repeatable effects such as Brimstone Mage, or a bomb that you are waiting to deploy like Eldrazi Conscription.

Obviously there is a ton of overlap and some ambiguity about specific roles depending on certain deck or draw dynamics, but you know what I mean. Viewing cards in different terms is a refreshing way to switch things up to try and learn more, and I recommend trying to think of cards in these terms for a few drafts and see how it impacts your evaluations.

Looking towards the new Extended, we can use Faeries as an illustration of a good Snowball deck. Bitterblossom is a variation on the Dark Confidant example from before, and countermagic is the age-old tried and true way to consistently break even. Ancestral Visions is another card that makes it beneficial to break even by giving you the big pay-off. With the countermagic and Mistbind Cliques, you have multiple Time Walks to capitalize on the advantage that you have generated.

As Sam Black talked about in his article about Faeries, Jace Beleren is great in the deck because upping it is good. The +2 ability is beneficial because of the way that the Faeries deck is designed. Almost all of the cards are two-for-ones, and many of the cards become better with more cards.

Spellstutter Sprite gets better with more Faeries, and gives you a body on top of countering a card. Mistbind Clique is better when you have more cards because you have a better board so it becomes more profitable to Time Walk them. Scion of Oona obviously gets better for having more cards. Then Bitterblossom, Ancestral Visions, and Cryptic Command are worth more than one card. That means that even though both players are drawing a card with Jace Beleren’s ability, the Faeries player is coming out on top ever so slightly.

Not to mention that eventually he draws cards solo.

I feel like I let this article get away from me at some point, but I can’t figure out where. I think it might have something to do with the fact that I was on and off of painkillers for dental work while writing it. Hopefully at least some of the points I was trying to make still come across.

Happy Tuesday.

AJ Sacher