Muddying The Theory Of Options

The Theory of Options is valid, but impractical. My advice is to stick with the tried and true Theories of Magic.

Last week, Israel Marques wrote an article about his newfound Theory of Options. If you haven’t read it, you’d better before you continue reading this article; it can be found here.

Basically, Israel stated that there’s an underlying set of Options in any Magic game that a player can choose from. Having more Options is Option Advantage, and, therefore, is a Good Thing(tm). He also divided Options into three kinds: Future Options, Current Options, and Turn-Based Options.

* Future Options, as he described them, are the cards in one’s library
* Current Options are cards in one’s hand
* Turn-based Options are " . . . the total number of mana producers and threats that are currently in play . . . [and] any special abilities that any cards in play have (including [a creature’s] ability to attack or block . . .)."

I’ve read over Israel’s article several times, and there’s something that keeps nagging at me. It’s not that the theory is incorrect – the idea of Options itself isn’t wrong. However, it doesn’t have the same universal truth that theories such as Card Advantage does. The main problems with the theory are that it doesn’t apply to some wildcard factors such as weird decks or powerful Turn-based Options. Allow me to explain.

For instance, let’s take a look at a situation where the Theory of Options is blown out of the water. Bad Player is playing with a deck with sixty-five lands in it, and Good Player is playing Bargain. At the beginning of the game, Bad Player has Future Option Advantage. And, with each card that the Bargain player draws, Bad Player has greater Future Option Advantage, even to the point where Good Player has zero cards in his library. According to the Theory of Options, Bad Player has the greatest chance of winning the game. However, that’s right before the Bargain Player hits him for the last Soul Feast (or blasts him out of the water with Blaze, if you’re playing my version of Bargain :-)). Although this eventuality was covered in the fact that Turn-Based Options hold the key to winning despite Total Option Disadvantage, that makes the theory non-universal, unlike the Card Advantage Theory.

Now, granted, this example is extreme, but a deck packed with Fact or Fiction, Accumulated Knowledge, Opt, Brainstorm, Jayemdae Tome, etc. with Morphling as its win condition is definitely going to have more Turn-based options (which, in my opinion, should be weighted more than Future Options), but it won’t stand a chance against Stompy.

But, if you discount these extremes of bad decks, then we find that Option Advantage is a theory for excellent players. A bad player isn’t going to maximize his Total Option Advantage because he might Shock an opponent or counter Fires of Yavimaya instead of Saproling Burst. The problem that arises with portraying the Theory of Options as exclusively for pros is that pros tend to play complex and symbiotic decks. And, this is where the Theory of Options becomes impractical.

I think that Israel was oversimplifying his own theory when he said, "Normally, each player has approximately the same Total Option count (seven Current Options, fifty-three Future Options) at the beginning of each and every game." I think that this is completely incorrect because if it were true, then Total Option advantage would be based entirely on the number of cards in each player’s graveyard.

See, the Total Option count at the beginning of a game is astronomically huge. Here’s why: " . . . each 2/2 represents three options; the creature itself is one, its blocking ability is two, and its attacking ability is three." By this statement, Israel is (correctly) saying that each card provides you with a number of Options, either Current or Turn-based. So, at the beginning of a game, one has a huge number of options available to him.

Let’s take a look at an example, shall we? Here’s a decklist for my favorite deck. Next to each card, I’ll write how many Options it provides. Each creature, barring a special ability, will be three unless it has a special ability. I’m still not sure about why the creature itself counts as an Option, but I’m trying to stick to Israel’s original theory here.


4x Blastoderm – 3
4x Noble Panther – 3
4x Charging Troll – 4
4x River Boa – 3
3x Thermal Glider – 3
1x Nightwind Glider – 3

4x Parallax Wave – 5
4x Armageddon – 1
4x Wax/Wane – 2

4x Llanowar Elves – 4
4x Birds of Paradise – 4
4x Elfhame Palace – 1
4x Brushland – 1
6x Plains – 1
8x Forest – 1

So, that totals to a nice, round 150 options at the beginning of the game.

But, there’s so much more to it than that. Let’s look at Parallax Wave for a moment. Parallax Wave will let you fade out anywhere from zero to five creatures, severely altering the number of Options on the board at any one time. You could use the Wave to fade out an three of an opponent’s blockers, reducing their Options by nine. Or, you could fade out five of your own creatures in response to a Wrath of God, reducing your options by fifteen.

Armageddon also has an effect on Options. If your opponent has no mana-producing creatures after you ‘Geddon, and you have three, then you have mana advantage. Even if he has seven cards in his hand, if you have a land and a Blastoderm in your hand, you’re likely to deal some massive damage. So, essentially, Armageddon can make an opponent’s Options useless, thus giving you real Option Advantage verses his virtual Option Advantage.

Now, if we move away from the decklist, we see how the matter can be complicated even further. What if you have an Elvish Piper on the board? It serves to turn Current Options into Turn-based Options, which might then perform any number of Options. Let’s say you also have a Parallax Wave out. Now, you might fade out your Ancient Hydra in order to replenish its fading counters. That Ancient Hydra could take out as many as five of your opponent’s Turn-based Options, reducing his option count by fifteen. And, that’s using only one Turn-based Option. Or you might fade out an opponent’s Bird of Paradise so that he has to bounce his Fleetfoot Panther when he plays it. That’s neither Option Disadvantage or Advantage, but you know it’s a Good Thing(tm).

Now, let’s take it a step further. What if one of the cards in your opponent’s library is a Living Death or Yawgmoth’s Will/Agenda? Those cards open up a great number of options, giving him a huge Option Advantage. If we say that your opponent’s playing with Living Death, then your use of Millstone to put creatures in the graveyard isn’t necessarily good. You’ll be getting massive Future Option Advantage, but as soon as your opponent casts Living Death, his Current and Turn-based Options fly through the roof.

Now, if you’ve got a Wrath of God, then that’s one Current Option that gets rid of all of those Turn-based Options. But, essentially, those Turn-based Options were only created because of one Current Option. So, you’re trading a Current Option for a Current Option. Fair deal? Not if your opponent made Avalanche Riders, Ghitu Slingers, and Keldon Champions come into play.

So, what I’m trying to say is that for each Option you have in your deck/hand or in play, you might have many other Options that are affected by it. In that way, the number of Options in a deck is astronomical, making the Theory of Options impractical. Although it holds true that Option Advantage is usually a good thing, sticking to the more calculable, universal, and applicable theories already established in Magic is much more beneficial and much less confusing.

So, what’s Millstone? The whole purpose behind the Theory of Options was to place Millstone in a category. Israel determined that it doesn’t create card advantage because it doesn’t affect the cards in play or in hand, and that was the major quandary. Well, I think it’s quite simple. Millstone is a counter-threat. It prevents your opponent’s threats from hitting the table in the first place. Although it may not create card advantage, it acts as a preventative measure against opposing threats.

The Theory of Options is valid, but impractical. My advice is to stick with the tried and true Theories of Magic – they really are universal enough to apply to every card.

Daniel Crane