Next Level Magic Preview – Card Advantage and Virtual Card Advantage

Thursday, May 28th – The following are passages from “Next Level Magic,” Patrick Chapin’s Strategy Guide that is being released as an e-book, here on StarCityGames.com, at the end of the month. Each week this month, there will be an excerpt from the book for your enjoyment. This week: Card Advantage and Virtual Card Advantage.

Next Level Magic by Patrick

Wow! Barcelona was beautiful, but it is great to be back in America (I could not find Mountain Dew anywhere in Spain). I am in Seattle for the Grand Prix, and from here I fly to sunny Honolulu. What an exciting time!

I am also psyched to so close to the release of my Magic Strategy Guide/Training Course, “Next Level Magic.” I have wanted to write books on Magic my whole life, and I am finally in a position to do just that, although this first venture is more than just a book. It is a step-by-step instructional guide on the entire spectrum of subjects I feel are necessary to master in order to achieve your goals in Magic. Today, I am pleased to unveil a segment from the controversial, but vital, card advantage section.

I am a little overwhelmed by the positive energy that I have been receiving by people wanting to show support for the project, but am truly grateful. This strategy guide has been an incredible undertaking and if not for the support of faithful readers, I wouldn’t be able to dedicate my life to this game as I have. I want to recount some of the encouragement I have received lately, as messages like these really matter to me.

“I’m sorry for probably being the billionth person to randomly add you, but I wanted to say THANKS A BUNCH for posting those excerpts from your book on StarCityGames.com! I only started playing with the release of Lorwyn, but reading the first preview gave me a big jump in my personal playskill. I doubt I would have gotten Top 18 at my Regional’s if not for that. And the others have definitely been a huge asset towards my deck-building skills, etc. Thank you!”
– Bradley

“Hey Patrick, I read your article on StarCityGames.com, and I’d like to thank you and say that I used your exact 60 (but a slightly different 15) last weekend in my Regionals. I finished 6-1-1 and winning the playoffs to qualify for Nationals here in the Philippines with around a little less than 150 people, losing only to BW Tokens due to mana screw. I really like the idea of 5CB, and I think it will change the metagame since it can defeat BW Tokens easily. I went 3-1 against BW Tokens. Thanks.”
– Emmanuel

“I’ve been in the game longer than most, and since day 1, Patrick Chapin has been one of the most innovative and creative Magic players I have ever known. Not only is he one of the best deck builders out there, he is also a fantastic player, and offering a strategy guide with insights into his brain will raise the bar for all competitive players.”
-David Williams

“Sir, you are a true inspiration to all Magic players. Thank you for taking your time out to make a Guide for Magic players to help them reach that next level.”

“I’ve met a lot of people in those 14 years since I started playing Magic. I’ve had the luck to meet great people, to face very good players, and to meet many people who were animated by the passion of the game. Patrick is one of the very few people I’ve met that could respond to any of these three descriptions.
I’m glad I met him, and I’ll be glad to read his book when it’s out!”

Olivier Ruel

“Hey Patrick, I have been a big fan of your decks for awhile now, since Korlash, and have been playing Five-Color Control since its development. I recently played 5CB at Regionals, and was wondering if there was any way to work a few Hideaway lands – namely the Red, Green, or White ones – into the manabase, or would that make it too wonky? They seem pretty easy for the deck to trigger. Can’t wait for the e-book, and I’ll see you at to Seattle.”
– Samuel

Again, I am totally overwhelmed by the positive energy as a result of this project. George Baxter wrote some material on Magic almost fifteen years ago, and it really had an impact on me. There has been a real void in Magic literature when it comes to timeless material. The internet lends itself well to the latest decklist, but sometimes it is nice to take a longer view of Magic.

Next Level Magic is a timeless comprehensive training course on not just improving at Magic, but accomplishing your goals in the game. It can be read online, though is formatted for easy print out, as some people prefer a physical copy to read.

From groundbreaking new ways to view Magic by Michael Flores, to extremely efficient ways to think by David Mills, to bold new deck building techniques by Jay Schneider, I have been able to combine lessons from many teachers as well as my own life experiences. Let’s take a look at one of the segments with which Adrian Sullivan, Eric Taylor, and Brian Weissman helped in particular.

Fundamental Building Blocks of Magic: Card Advantage

In a game of Magic, players start with a variety of resources, and all of the fundamental Magic principles are derived from the manipulation of these resources. These resources are, for the most part, components of the turn that you have the ability to do every turn:

• Cards
• Other parts of the turn (Land Drop, Untap, Attack)
• Life total

That’s right; there are really just three fundamental building blocks of Magic theory. You have probably read material on all three, perhaps under the following headings:

• Card Advantage
• Tempo
• Philosophy of Fire

These three concepts deal with the basic manipulation of resources in Magic. The reason there are three is because there are three ways for a resource to be available to you in a game.

The Philosophy of Fire deals with resources that you start with and get no more of, unless you pay for them in some way with the use of specific cards. The most well understood example is that of your life total, but this also includes the cards in your library, how many poison counters you can endure without dying, and so on.

Tempo deals with resources that you have the opportunity to utilize every turn. The most important of these to understand is, surprisingly, the land drop — but the untap phase and attack phase are also important. While they are not as relevant, this also includes the other phases such as upkeep and discard, as well as abilities that you can trigger or activate once (or some amount) per turn, like Planeswalkers or Icy Manipulator.

You start the game with absolutely no Tempo, and it is only through the exploitation of parts of your turn (or the denial of parts of your opponent’s turns) that you are able to gain it.

Card Advantage (or, more accurately, Card Economy) is the big one. This is one of the most important concepts in Magic; its early pioneer, Brian Weissman, changed Magic forever by pushing the theory. Card Advantage is a unique resource in Magic because you start the game with seven cards (so it is sort of like the Philosophy of Fire), but you also draw a card each turn (so it is sort of like Tempo).

Card Advantage is the only fundamental resource that occupies a large amount of territory in both areas — so much so that sometimes it is useful to view it as one, sometimes the other, sometimes both, and sometimes neither. This is just a result of the strange things that happen when these two concepts meet.

Card Advantage is at the very center of all resource management in Magic — and as such, it is generally the most useful building block to describe everything in Magic. Let’s talk about Card Advantage a bit.

Card Advantage

What do the words “Card Advantage” mean, anyway?

Every Magic player who has been to a tournament in the past ten years has heard of Card Advantage. But where did it come from and what does it mean?

Card Advantage is really just the positive side of the spectrum of a concept known as Card Economy. As we mentioned above, Card Economy deals with the one primary resource that a Magic player has that is both initial (seven cards in hand) and residual (one draw phase every turn).

But it is not just this resource that is important to understand, however. Just as the idea of a dollar means nothing without an understanding of what you can do with a dollar, you must understand what a card gets you in order to appreciate the seven cards you start with and the card you draw each turn.

Whenever you summon a creature, cast a spell, or put any permanent into play, you are generally dealing with a variety of costs. The primary costs to a card are the casting cost (or land drop) and the card itself.

One of the most important concepts in all of Magic theory is that whenever you play a card, it is not just the casting cost that you are paying. You are also paying the card that you used. When you cast a Giant Growth to power up one of your creatures, the Giant Growth is gone from your hand. You now have one less card to work with.

This is not to say that Giant Growth is bad, or even card disadvantage. In fact, if your creature was going to die and your opponent’s creature was going to live, but Giant Growth reverses that, Giant Growth can even lead to card advantage. If you don’t lose a card on the board and your opponent loses a card, then your Giant Growth is, in a way, +1 cards. (It would be +2, but the Giant Growth costs a card.)

Just about every player goes through a period of time where they do not yet realize the inherent cost of a card of every card they play. This can lead to any number of consequences such as players throwing zero-casting cost creatures in their deck (thinking they are free) or playing with a variety of creature enchantments such as Holy Strength (thinking that one mana for +1/+2 is a good deal, but overlooking the cost of a card).

During this phase, every card that is all upside looks good to the player. A 6/4 for six mana with no drawback? That sounds great!

The problem is that every card has the inherent cost of a card and must be evaluated at its proper cost in terms of mana and the card. This is why so many one-drops end up being bad. Many of them are just not worth a card, let alone a mana on top of that. Most of the time, I would rather have a card than a 1/1 creature, so unless the creature is bigger than 1/1 or has a good ability, I don’t want to spend a mana and a card to buy it.

There are a lot of cards that draw extra cards. A very popular card design is the cantrip — a card that draws you another card when you play it. This does not make the card free, remember, as it still costs mana and has a few other subtle costs, such as the space it takes up in your deck.

There are no cards in Magic that truly cost nothing, and even the cards that come closest (Urza’s Bauble, Mishra’s Bauble, Street Wraith, and Edge of Autumn) can be abused despite not generating much of an impact on the game. Some players seek to use cards like these so as to be essentially playing a deck that is “smaller than sixty cards,” thereby increasing the chances of drawing the cards they really want.

Okay. So we start with seven cards, we get a new one every turn, and we spend them whenever we play cards. Who cares?

Well, in Magic, generally the player who has the most and best options has the advantage. The whole point of Magic strategy is to give yourself good options, and to take them away from your opponent. Every real strategy in the game revolves around this paradigm.

You will see control decks that draw extra cards. They don’t really need extra cards to win; beyond that, extra cards give them more and better options. You will see discard or land destruction decks that cripple the opponent’s ability to play their cards. This is the very definition of taking options away from the opponent. Counterspells are so inherently powerful because they do both: they give the caster options and take them away from the opponent.

Even a mindless Mono-Red Burn deck is based on options. Surprisingly, a Mono-Red Burn deck with few (or no) creatures is actually best viewed as a combo deck that generally tries to deny the opponent options by reducing their life total to zero before they can play the cards they want.

Every single card is either about giving you more and better options or denying your opponent options.

Dark Ritual gives you options two turns before you would have had them. Esper Charm gives you the option to destroy an Enchantment, draw two more options, or take away two options from your opponent. Hill Giant gives you a plethora of options, as all creatures do, the most important of which is attacking and blocking.

I know that this may come across as basic, but that is the point: we are talking about the basic building blocks of Magic. With a proper understanding of the basic components of Magic, we can better evaluate everything from in game decisions to deckbuilding to evaluating new cards that come out.

Understanding the physics of Magic leads to winning at Magic.

This is why Magic theory is so very important to those that care about succeeding in tournament Magic. Okay, so drawing extra cards is good and taking them away from your opponent is good. How good are we talking? How much is a card really worth?

This is a much tougher question, as it is completely contextual. In the abstract, we can talk about the value of a card, but in reality we are just talking about the value of a card in the context of all legal Magic cards.

The value of a card changes depending on the format. For instance, in Vintage, cards are a dime a dozen. Cards like Ancestral Recall, Timetwister, Necropotence, and Library of Alexandria ensure that merely buying a card for three mana is not an exciting prospect.

On the other hand, Esper Charm is one of the better cards in the current Standard, as it is primarily used as a way to draw an extra card (remember, it costs you a card) for only three mana. (It does give you other options, but it is also a difficult three mana.)

So how much is a card worth?

There is no hard-and-fast rule here, though it can be useful to use comparisons rather than hard numbers. Remember, the utility of a card is vital to understanding its value. This is why a Merfolk Looter is good, despite it not technically drawing you extra cards. What would you rather have in your hand: seven lands, or three spells you could cast and two lands? In general, the utility is just as important as the physical cards.

You can argue a case for a card generally being worth around two mana, but the reality is that it is not about how much mana you spend. If you have four lands in play and tap two to do something and don’t use the other two, it is essentially like you spent four.

Also, a huge misconception among players is that mana costs scale up arithmetically. The reality is that six mana is not just two more than four mana, and eight mana is certainly not just two more than six mana. We will talk more about casting costs in the section on tempo, but there is more to say on card advantage.

As of Spring of 2009, Standard is full of two-for-ones. This is a specific type of card economy that involves cards that are essentially worth two cards in some way. Esper Charm is an easy two-for-one to understand, but what about Bloodbraid Elf? What about Call of the Herd? This is where we start to get into “Virtual Card Advantage.” Is a Hill Giant in play a card? What about a Call of the Herd token?

Virtual Card Advantage

This is a grey area of Magic theory that I think is best resolved as viewing tokens as creature cards. This is not to say that Dragon Fodder is a two-for-one (although it can be). The question is whether or not the creature token is worth a card at all… And that comes down to the specific game state. If you have Glare of Subdual in play, every body counts, just as if you are playing a control mirror where your opponent has spot removal and no creatures.

On the other hand, if you are involved in a creature battle and all of the creatures trump 1/1s, then how much are they really worth?

I generally like to think of tokens as being worth a card while they are in play, whatever their size, although they are often very weak cards. Just as you would generally not spend a card to get a 0/1 creature, a 0/1 token in play is usually not worth a card. But a 2/1 or larger creature is usually worth more than a card, and a good ability like Flying and a good creature type (like Faerie) can mean a lot.

The only real area of dispute is that of 1/1s. Sometimes a Mons’s Goblin Raiders is fine. Other times, it is best to view two of them as a Dragon Fodder. In the abstract, though, I generally put the value of a 1/1 token at worth around two-thirds of a card (at least in the current Standard). This is because the gold standard is the Grizzly Bear, and it takes two 1/1s to trade with one, although you will also have opportunities to trade with random 1/1s, 2/1s, and removal spells.

When evaluating the card economy of something, you have to look at more than just how many cards it draws you, but how many cards it affects. Each permanent that is a useful piece to you is, in essence, a card. Each permanent you take away from your opponent is a card. Each card your opponent discards is a card. Even things that affect the game from an unusual zone, like Firemane Angel, are a card.

Remember, we are interested in utility. A 0/1 token just doesn’t give you the same options that a 3/3 does. A Firemane Angel in the graveyard may be completely irrelevant in a given matchup, or it may be worth half a card a turn. It all depends on the relative value of the utility it offers.

What about Millstone? Does this destroy two cards a turn?

No, Millstone does not. Cards you have not yet drawn are not the type of resource we talk about when we talk about card economy. The cards in your library are a fixed resource at the beginning of the game — and if you don’t act, they will never replenish themselves. The cards in your library are discussed more in the section The Philosophy of Fire.

Actually, to many people’s surprise, Millstoning your opponent can be a double-edged sword. You do gain the knowledge of some of the cards they play, you take away options from when they are Tutoring cards, and if they run out of cards, they lose… but there are a lot of cards in Magic that benefit people from the graveyard.

Whether we are talking Dredge, Tarmogoyf, Flashback, Unearth, reanimation, Delve, Incarnations like Wonder, or Threshold, there are countless ways for people to take advantage of the cards in their graveyard.

In general, Card Advantage is a Good Thing.

More and better options is generally what we want — so if we have two options and one involves better card advantage, that is a strong point in favor of it. This is why experienced players typically do not chump block early on.

Chump blocking is blocking with a creature that is just going to die without killing the attacker. The express purpose is to prevent some damage (or, occasionally, to prevent whatever it is that the attacker is accomplishing by attacking). Inexperienced players make the mistake of throwing a 2/2 creature in front of a 4/4 the first chance they get, even if they are at twelve life.

Here, they are confused about the relative value of the options the 2/2 creature gives them compared to the options that the four life gives them. A useful thing for them to consider is what are they going to do if they draw a 2/2 next turn? Block again? If they had just not blocked the first time, they could double-block and presumably kill the 4/4.

Even if you don’t draw another creature, you could always just block next turn, so why give up that option now?

This is not to say you never should chump block unless it will kill you. In fact, if you have several fliers on the table that will kill your opponent during your next attack phase and your opponent is playing some kind of aggressive Red deck, it can be perfectly reasonable to throw a 2/2 in front of a 4/4 while at twelve life. In this case, you might just want to make sure you don’t die during this attack phase.

The key is to figure out what you are really trying to accomplish. Regardless of whether you are trying to take control or beat down your opponent, generally you are not going to want to chump block until the attacking creature would kill you (or if you would prevent more damage than you are likely to ever incur again from one hit). The primary exceptions to this are if some other card economy is affected (like getting hit by a Deus of Calamity, which would destroy a land) or if the life you would lose is worth more to you than the card you are sacrificing (like blocking a Rafiq of the Many with a Saproling token).

When playing games of Magic, it is generally better to have more “cards,” though how important this is depends on how much the concept of more options matters to you. This is why control decks typically care much more about card advantage than aggro decks. If you are trying to react to your opponent’s threats, you are generally going to need more options than they have, since some of your options will not be the ones you need or want.

Simply having more cards is not the end, but rather a means to an end. The point of most control decks is to reach a Stage 3 that trumps their opponent’s game plan. Drawing extra cards is just one of the best ways ever devised for making this possible…


As we just saw, card advantage is so very tricky because it deals with a resource that you both start the game with (seven cards) and gain over time (a card a turn). Tempo is actually much simpler, though there has actually been a lot less written on it. As a result, it is more commonly misunderstood than card advantage…

Thanks again to everyone that has come out at supported the cause and helped provide feedback. The Magic Culture is one of the most important things in my life and I am honored to have a chance to provide a new way to contribute to it.

Whether you are reading “Next Level Magic” for the entertaining stories from the old days and a love for Magic theory, or you are serious about working your way up the game, whether it is winning PTQs, GPs, or FNM, there is not just something for everyone who loves the game, but a ton of it. There is so much of our rich culture detailed in the course, but there is also a very well thought out and complete look at Magic theory designed to produce results.

Basically, what it comes down to is, “Next Level Magic” is the best tool I know how to produce to help people win more at Magic, as well as a rich collection of the Magic culture that we love so very much.

I have received a ton of requests from people to hurry up and release it, but I am currently focused on preparing for Pro Tour: Honolulu and don’t want anything to distract from the task at hand.

“Exclusive focus on the task at hand is a true secret to success.”

I am far too excited to release the course to wait on it, though, so I am pleased to announce the launch of “Next Level Magic” the week after Pro Tour: Honolulu! Pro Tour: Honolulu is one week away and requires my full attention breaking the format with Bucher, Olivier, Juza, and company, but “Next Level Magic” goes live the week after. That’s right; we are ready to go in two weeks!

Stay tuned for more info! I will be appearing in my regular column Monday and next week will feature the final sneak preview of Next Level Magic before we go live!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Next Level Magic by Patrick