The Magic Jerk: Card Advantage and the Early Game

“In order to advance to the midgame with the largest possible advantage, in the early game play as if they have it, until you have the trump.” What does this maxim mean and how can undersatnding it make you a much better Magic player? Only the Magic Jerk knows…

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”

-Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations

Hail Caesar! Oh yeah, and Happy Holidays and all that too of course.

As you may have noticed, the title of this series has changed. What began as pretension has come full circle, and I have now embraced my infamous title. As BDM and the rest of the Neutral Ground crew explained to me, I will most certainly never live this title down while I continue to play Magic, so why not embrace it? Plus the other title really sucked.

Caesar, in his nigh infinite wisdom, speaks of our thoughts controlling our destiny. If you’re a fan of David Eddings, you may have heard of the phrase, “The Will and the Word.” The Will and the Word is a method of Magic that makes your Will become reality, as focused by the Word. Your Will, or what you imagine, is channeled through the Word that you utter, and your thoughts become reality. In a way it is much like Magic: our thoughts define our play. Our play is the physical manifestation of the thoughts we have, just as the Word is the manifestation of our Will.

Obviously there is only one right play, but how does one figure out that right play? Most often it will not jump out of your hand and dance its way onto the table. Rather you’ll have to think about things, weigh many different variables and attempt to come to the best play through difficult math and tough decisions. Well don’t worry, I’m here to make your life a little easier and give you a handy cheat sheet for your early games to ensure that you’re making the right decision. Behold!

“In order to advance to the midgame with the largest possible advantage, in the early game play as if they have it, until you have the trump.”


“It”, in this case, is the trick that will most wreck you. For instance, the other night I was busy losing every draft I played on Magic Online and ran into a situation that I wanted to share with you folks. It’s turn 3 and I have tapped out to play and attack with Ronin Houndmaster (the turn before), leaving back my Hearth Kami. My opponent untaps, plays his third Plains, and attacks with his Kami of Ancient Law, leaving back the Devoted Retainer that prevented me from swinging with Hearth Kami last turn. We’re tied at 18.

At this point I weigh the decision to block or not. If I block, then I can trade my nigh-useless Hearth Kami for a decent creature (I think), rather than the Devoted Retainer that he wants to trade with it. However, if I block and he has a trick (like Blessed Breath or Candles’ Glow) I will trade my Hearth Kami for a card in his hand, which is also fine. However, if I block with Hearth Kami and he has Indomitable Will, then I’ve traded my Hearth Kami for … nothing. Obviously, he has the Will and though I go on to win the game, I lose a card for nothing, and vow to write an article about it to ensure maximum embarrassment.

Looking at our little cheat sheet above we can see that I should’ve not only played as if he had it (which means, not blocking because “it” = Indomitable Will), but I should’ve waited until I had enough mana to use my trump (I was holding a Glacial Ray) in order to two-for-one him (Glacial Ray on the 2/2 in response to his Will trades my one card for his two, generating Card Advantage).

In the early game, the transition to the midgame is of paramount importance. If we advance to the midgame with more cards than our opponent, then we have a sizable advantage, because the midgame usually degenerates into a top deck battle. Unless either player has some sort of Card Advantage mechanism (Jushi Apprentice for instance, a poor man’s Jaymedae Tome) then the game will almost certainly degenerate into playing off the top, and if we advanced into the midgame with either more cards in hand or more cards in play than our opponent, then we are the favorite to win the game.

EDT, one of the true masters of the theoretical aspects of Magic, has a great usenet post about this very subject. Check it out, or if you’re too lazy I’ll just sum up. EDT talks of the difference between “Time/Speed cards” (such as Dark Ritual or in today’s world perhaps Suntail Hawk or Isamaru) and Card Advantage cards (such as Cursed Scroll or Jushi Apprentice/Frostweilder). He also speaks of the transition from the early game to the midgame, and how true Card Advantage cards such as Cursed Scroll give a weenie deck much-needed staying power to win the game in the midgame if their initial rush is somehow stopped.

In our world, Card Advantage cards have become less powerful (Cursed Scroll is unlikely to see a reprint anytime soon) and the act of gaining Card Advantage has become much more subtle and farther reaching. For instance, in years past, Card Advantage cards could single handedly take over games, as a top-decked Cursed Scroll was Shock on a stick. In today’s world of creature combat from turn 2 and powerful finishers (Devouring Greed or Dance of Shadows for instance) damage and Card Advantage becomes an issue from turn 2.

So how does this help your Magic game? It gives you the tools to make the right decision at a specific stage of the game. The early game is of ever-greater importance, and tiny mistakes are as important as fundamental mistakes due to the importance of each card. If you throw away a card (as I did with my Hearth Kami above) to a trick, you are behind in cards and are forced to go two-for-one against your opponent in order to regain parity. In the case of my game, I was able to establish parity when I Befouled his Kami of Ancient Law, resulting in a loss of Card Quality for me but a two-for-one in terms of Card Advantage.

The importance of tricks and early game Card Advantage illustrates why bluffing is so powerful. In the middle or late game it may be much more difficult to swing a 2/2 into your opponent’s 3/4, but in the early game your opponent will be much more wary of losing his 3/4 to your Kodama’s Might. This is why bluffing is important in the early game, and why, in the early game, you should never, ever, cast spells before your second main phase if you have an attacker. Why? Simply because your opponent can’t afford to trade his creature for a trick, or God forbid a permanent trick like Indomitable Will or Otherworldly Journal or Serpent Skin. You see, I made the wrong play by calling my opponent’s “bluff” in my game, and suffered badly because of it. In this case, bluffing buys you extra points of damage and if you advance to the midgame with a sizable life lead, sometimes you can nullify your opponent’s card advantage by being able to kill him faster than he can stabilize. (This harkens back to EDT’s Time argument, as Time Cards can often overcome their Card Disadvantage by killing your opponent faster).

What separates a great player from a good one? Knowing when to bluff. I’ve watched some great players in my time and one thing I’ve always noticed is that the really good ones always seem to know just when to attack, when to hold back, and when to bluff the trick. Watching a lot of novice-to-average players at Neutral Ground shows just how often “obvious” bluffs are missed, as 2/2s stay back almost constantly and by the time the midgame rolls around, almost ten points of damage have been missed. That’s two-and-a-half Pulse of the Fields for your opponent purely because you didn’t play as tight as you could have.

A few weeks ago I wrote about using your life as a set of chips, using the metaphor of chips because you can spend your life actively, rather than passively. In the early game, your life is your best friend, it’s a free 20 points of damage that can absorb quite a bit of abuse before you have to start helping it out with blocking and such. Obviously the strictures of a good race must be followed (in that, you should be dealing as much damage to your opponent as you are taking) but it’s important to remember just how powerful your life is, and how important it is to never give your opponent extra life.

Each missed attack, or missed point of damage via a timid Kabuto Moth or a missed aggressive Indomitable Will play, is another chip in your opponent’s pile that can be used as he chooses. Giving your opponent choices is the worst method of playing Magic, and most good players will agree that tightening the noose of options is the most effective way of ensuring a game win.

I’ve read many articles that focus on introducing far-reaching theories of Magic that seek to understand everything at once, such as the Grand Unified Theory. Now I’m no Zvi Mowshowitz, but as I was discussing the above maxim last night, I came to the realization that even though this tenet fails once you reach the mid-late game, it doesn’t have to be a panacea for all of Magic’s misplays. Rather, if it just functions well in the early game, it is powerful enough to be offered to the public as a method of improving your play.

I hope it helps.

-Michael L. Clair

[email protected]

P.S. You’ll notice that the aforementioned Day 2 report is not here. People seemed rather bored with last week’s article and to be honest I didn’t have the most fun writing it. If anyone wants to see it, or an article on Team Limited or Team Rochester, just let me know in the forums.