Tempo And Card Advantage

Editor’s Note: A long time ago, the first Magic website was The Dojo – a site that is still legendary for publishing some of the most fundamental principles of Magic. Almost all strategical theory can be traced back to the Dojo’s loyal writers, and any serious Magic player owes these old vets a debt of gratitude.

Unfortunately, thanks to financial troubles, The Dojo went out of business in 2000. In a last-ditch effort to save the four years of wisdom that had been collected there at the time, the editor asked the community to archive the articles for future reference. The best of the Dojo articles are reprinted here because they’re still vital to Magic today… StarCityGames.com merely reprints them, adding links to clarify older cards that new players probably won’t have seen so that they can understand some of the strategy. Many of the Dojo’s writers are still active in Magic and write for other sites; give them a shout-out for helping the community grow.

I’ve posted several times about the concept of time on usenet and I’m going to write another rather pedantic one about this concept. The reason this time that I want to do it is that I have seen several Mirage, Visions, and Weatherlight cards misused… And the main reason I think these cards (specifically Memory Lapse, Power Sink, Man o’ War and Ancestral Knowledge) are being misused is because of a lack of understanding of the concept of time in Magic.

If you look at the game mechanics of Magic, there are only two basic limitations:

1) Draw one card per turn

2) Play one land per turn

The two limitations are related to each other in subtle ways.

The first limitation has been discussed at length by the Godfather of Magic theory, Brian Weissman, and it seems that tournament Magic players understand how and why card advantage is good. Even indirect card advantage is fairly easy to spot and understand.

For instance, when you Wrath of God and you kill three creatures with one Wrath of God you are gaining the same amount of card advantage as the card Ancestral Recall does. You can just add it up: Three cards for one.

The second limitation is more difficult to figure out because of the more complicated interactions of mana, time, and casting cost of individual spells in a deck.

Time is for the most part interchangeable with mana.

If you have just a little mana on the board and a slew of creatures in hand, you can take a single turn to play each creature (ignoring for now the effect of drawing a card each turn). This requires time. If, on the other hand, you had a large enough mana base to play out your entire hand, you could do this in one turn – so you can use either a lot of time to play out your creatures, or you can use a large base of mana.

If you play extremely efficient creatures like the Savannah Lion or the Kird Ape, you are building a deck that is mana efficient – and thus one that is trying to win by obtaining a time advantage.

While it is always good to have as much card advantage as possible and as much time advantage as possible, for the most part, decks tend to tilt one way or the other, attempting to establish a time advantage (such as a Stasis deck or a creature swarm deck) or a card advantage (such as CounterPost). A few decks attempt to establish both (such as classic Necro during the”black summer”).

Nearly all control decks with many counterspells have to win via card advantage. With the control deck, you allow your opponent to build up a horde of creatures. You let him play the Lions and Kird Apes and you take your medicine when he attacks. Finally, when you Wrath of God, you obtain a huge card advantage, and you win by having more cards. On the other hand, if the fast creature deck is able to deprive you of enough time with his Strip Mines, he will defeat you via his time advantage. Winning with card advantage and counterspells takes a long time, and you often don’t care if you can play all your spells at once. In a control deck, there are often larger and less mana efficient spells that violate the principles of a time advantage deck. It is difficult to make a deck that wins both via card and time advantage.

Mirage-Vision-Weatherlight is a special environment in that for the most part decks are extremely dependent on a good draw – not too much land, not too little. Because of this and because a good burn deck can win so quickly, most decks have been trying to win via time advantage and not the slower and more controlling method of card advantage.

If you look at the two spells – Memory Lapse and Power Sink – it becomes obvious that Memory Lapse is a card which is useful mainly to preserve a time advantage, while Power Sink is more useful for a deck trying to win via card advantage. The Power Sink requires a lot of mana to use effectively, which equates into not having the time to play out creatures and swarm your opponent. With Memory Lapse, when your opponent plays out a large spell and you force him to try to cast it again, you are gaining a huge time advantage.

In a deck designed for the long games, Power Sink is better. If you use Memory Lapse, your opponent will be drawing that spell again, while you draw something else – which about one-third of the time will be a land instead of a useful spell. So, Memory Lapse slightly increases the effective card quality of your opponent’s library in a long game. In the short term, on the other hand, Memory Lapse gives you an incredible advantage in time.

There are two Mirage-Vision-Weatherlight decks which illustrate this principle beautifully – first, Tom Guevin’s Chicago-PTQ deck:

Creatures (20):

4 Man o’ War

3 Knight of the Mists

2 Serrated Biskelion

4 Cloud Elemental

4 Waterspout Djinn

3 Floodgate

Spells (17):

4 Memory Lapse

4 Dissipate

3 Foreshadow

4 Impulse

2 Boomerang

Land (23):

19 Island

4 Quicksand

Sideboard (15):

1 Floodgate

1 Knight of Mist

2 Serrated Biskelion

“>Rainbow Efreet

2 Suq’ata Firewalker

4 Undo

2 Dream Tides

…and Hammer’s Chicago-PTQ deck (I’m sorry, this is from memory so it’s not exact)

Creatures (12):

2 Rainbow Efreet

4 Man O’ War

2 Ophidian

2 Floodgate

2 Hazerider Drakes

Blue Spells (12):

2 Impulse

4 Dissipate

2 Desertion

4 Power Sink

White Spells (10):

“>Gerrard’s Wisdom

2 Gossamer Chains

2 Sacred Mesa

4 Abeyance

Mana And Land (26):

4 Flood Plain

7 Plains

10 Islands

3 Mind Stone

2 Quicksand

Now first of all, notice the character of these decks. If you look superficially at them both, you might think they are both simply counterspell control decks – but they are extremely different decks, with different goals and play styles.

Look at all of Tom’s creatures: He has an immense army of rather fearsome attackers. The Cloud Elemental is not there to block; he’s there to attack. Hammer’s deck, on the other hand, relies on a much slower attack with creatures that are more difficult to kill.

We can tell that Tom’s deck is a fast attacking deck and Tom plans to win based on time: He will hit his opponent so hard and so fast that his opponent will not have the time (or the mana – which, as I’ve been saying, is practically the same thing) to stop him. The counterspells are designed to reinforce this goal of doing damage, not for defense.

Hammer, on the other hand, cannot attack his opponent with such quickness. Hammer must protect himself against threats and stay alive long into the middle or end game, where he can finally achieve victory via one of his card advantage engines, such as his Sacred Mesa. The Gerrard’s Wisdom, by the way can also be used as a card advantage engine (mainly against burn by trading several burn spells for one Gerrard’s).

Because of this, the counterspells employed by the two decks must be different. Tom has to use the Memory Lapse: He is going to be in situations where he will count his mana, count his opponent’s life, and think,”If I can just hit him two more turns, he will be dead.” With such intensity focused on generating a time advantage, Memory Lapse is a far better spell. Hammer’s deck, on the other hand, is willing to give up time for card advantage. Because of this it, would be suicide to run Memory Lapse in Hammer’s deck. So what if you force your opponent to recast his Necrosavant and waste five mana with Hammer’s deck by using a Memory Lapse? Because of the slowness of the deck and the need to win via card advantaging your opponent, the Power Sink has to be used in this case.

Notice also how time can be traded for card advantage, which is especially easy to see in Tom’s deck. If you Memory Lapse a card, you often have the option of then Foreshadowing it, gaining card advantage. However, this whole combo takes up four total mana, and if you can simply kill your opponent by casting another Puff Daddy, then you sometimes want to (but rarely, since the combo Foreshadow plus Memory Lapse is so good for card advantage) give up the card advantage for time advantage.

The two decks also use the Man o’ War differently. For Guevin’s deck, as soon as you draw a Man o’War, you generally just play it out, and go whack your opponent senseless with whatever creature you already have in play. On the other hand, with Hammer’s deck, you often have to wait with the Man o’ War for quite a while. Sometimes, you want to wait to get up to eight mana so you can apply the Man o’ War/Desertion combo. Other times you want to wait until you have enough blue so that when you Man o’ War your Floodgate, you can be sure that all of your opponent’s creatures die. You are trading off valuable time to generate card advantage.

The last thing I want to write about is this Ancestral Knowledge card.

First of all, in plain and pure power, it is much weaker than Impulse. A large amount of testing has been done with that card and it has always come up weak. There are several ways to analyze the reasons why this particular card is a poor card, but for now I just want to continue analyzing it in terms I have been using so far here – that of time and card advantage.

The first problem with Ancestral Knowledge is that is violates card advantage. You play this card, it goes away, and then a turn later you draw the card you want. If you just happen to want a single card, it operates effectively like a ten-card deep Vampiric Tutor that costs two. Because of the way that it violates card economy, it is impossible to use in a deck which relies on card advantage to win.

Secondly, it ties up your mana supply with a cumulative upkeep. Because of this cost, in a fast time-advantage deck, you too often simply lose the initiative by tying up your mana supply. Thus, because of the loss of the card, it is too card inefficient to use in a control card advantage deck… And because of mana requirement, it is too dangerous to use in a fast beatdown deck.

That leaves one type of deck which could possibly use Ancestral Knowledge – a trick deck like sands-a-poise. I think it would fit in nicely – except for one thing – the Vampiric and the Enlightened Tutors are quite simply better than the Ancestral Knowledge for this sort of thing. However, it’s easy to imagine the day when the tutors rotate out, that you might see Ancestral Knowledge played in trick decks.

There is also the deck-thinning of Ancestral Knowledge to consider; however, it is very easy to misjudge is the value of the deck-thinning properties of this card. Another related card is Land Tax. Many articles have been written on the power of the land tax and they often stress how the Land Tax is thinning the deck. But this isn’t the true power of land tax: Land Tax draws cards, plain and simple. Land is a resource just like a spell, and to stress the deck-thinning attributes of land tax is to miss the point of the huge card engine going on. To actually take advantage of this huge card advantage is relatively easy: One of the most common ways is to use Armageddon. Now it doesn’t matter how”thin” your deck is, the most powerful aspect of Land Tax after you Armageddoned was drawing the extra cards, so that you can play out a bunch of land after the Armageddon. A card is a card, even land… And when you are drawing more cards, you are generating a card advantage. If you want, there are many easy ways to convert the land from Land Tax into a higher quality card – with, for instance, Brainstorm – but it’s still the amount of cards that you draw which is the true power of Land Tax.

If the power of Land Tax were all in the deck-thinning attribute, then Ancestral Knowledge would be a good card after all. But it isn’t.


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