The Magic University: I See Dumb People

So I was talking to Mike Flores the other day, and Mike told me,”You know, the great thing about writing Magic Theory is that it immediately rules out all the dumb people from reading your articles.”

I replied,”Well, Mike, the fact that they can’t talk never seems to hinder their ability to type ‘STFU n00b!’ in response to my theory articles.”

So I was talking to Mike Flores the other day, and Mike told me,”You know, the great thing about writing Magic Theory is that it immediately rules out all the dumb people from reading your articles.”

I replied,”Well, Mike, the fact that they can’t talk never seems to hinder their ability to type ‘STFU n00b!’ in response to my theory articles.”

Yep, Magic University, Part Two… Whaddayagonna do?

The subject is more Magic Theory (sort of), and Mike thinks I’m writing for smart people – but I want to write for dumb people too. One should never unnecessarily limit your audience.

My challenge – should I choose to accept it and escape from this article before it explodes – is to go slow enough with this”Theory” thing that all the dumb people can understand it, while going fast enough that the smart kids aren’t surfing the web for porn sites, waiting for the lesson to end. As for making this interesting? Well, that went out the door about the time I became Managing Editor. The funny side of me packed his bags, gave a pleasant wave, and headed down to Florida to wait for Spring Break and ass cleavage.

My life will never be the same.

Back in graduate school, I used to get in trouble for turning in papers that were absolute shi –

(*ahem* – The Ferrett)

…Papers my professors weren’t smart enough to understand. I know – how unfair! They used to chide me for using sarcasm and being”mildly amusing” in scholarly work. Eventually they whipped out the cat o’nine tails, and beat that tendency out of me (nuns and professors are all the same), which explains why all of my writing these days is about as exciting as watching NASCAR with no crashes (or for the Canadians out there, Hockey without the fights, eh?). For this, I apologize.

Anyway back to the topic at hand… I was talking about mute folks in the article I wrote last week (which none of you read, and as punishment, there shall be no links), and discussing why they were problems in a game like Magic, but I’m done wid dat. (Stoopid muties!)

This week, we’s talkin’ ’bout ignant people. You know, the folks who don’t know nothin’. Those folks are the real problem in Magic.

I mean, I have a theory that Magic in general has more dumb folk than any other game played ever. I’m including Hungry Hungry Hippos in that assessment. Unfortunately, I can’t prove my theory, because I’m too lazy to go out and administer IQ tests to all the MTGers, and the Go players, and the Scrabble folks, the chess folks, the Sorry! players… I have bad articles to edit, after all.

But that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. Ignance is a problem.

Thankfully, that’s why I’m here – to dispel ignance! (Since I clearly can’t spell it, I thought it would be clever to add a prefix and make a different word. Oh, the things you learn as an editor.) Today, I’m going to cover the definitions of commonly used Magic Theory terms, so that we can all get on the same page and start arguing over the value of ideas instead of the specific semantics. I’m also going to give you a breakdown of the Categories I’ve developed for Magic Theory.

Before I get to the precise phrasing of the words that will hopefully make people stop arguing about whether Beast Attack tokens are mute, ignorant, or lacking propulsion, allow me to address a few notes.

Q: What makes me qualified to define this stuff?

A: Well, I’ve done the research, and the task needs to be done. Oh yeah, like most Gods, I’m also omniscient, omnipotent (Viva Cialis!), and all-hating, so I have that going for me. Uh oh; I can see the Jews out there telling me I’m a”goyim,” not a God… We’ll address those complaints privately after class, alright?

Aside from the whole”thinks he’s God thing” that I got from watching Alec Baldwin in Malice, the rest of you are probably just as qualified as I am, except I get to name drop Zvi and Flores as references and people are more likely to believe me.

Q: Why does it need to be defined?

A: If you didn’t catch the idea from the little introduction, in order to have meaningful conversations about almost anything, people have to agree on the definition of words that are being used. If they don’t use the same definition for a particular word, then any disagreement turns into an argument about semantics instead of the value of ideas. Therefore, by defining these commonly used Magic Theory terms, I’m trying to help other writers develop a common language so that we have fewer fights about semantics.

Q: Will this work?

A: I honestly don’t know. My name isn’t Merriam, Webter, Funk, Wagnall, American, Heritage, or Complete Oxford English, so I have no idea if people will use these definitions in the future. But I am Alec Baldwin here, so I try not to let that sort of doubt worm its way into my pretty, little head.

Q: Aren’t you biased?

A: Yes, I certainly am. However, I have tried to minimize this as much as possible and stay true to what has been written before. I also don’t work in a vacuum. I have discussions with Magic pros and theoreticians on a daily basis, and have consistently used these people to verify the validity of these ideas and definitions. We don’t always reach agreement, but I can honestly say that most of the definitions below are not my own, but are quoted directly from the source documents by the people who have developed theory previously.

And now… On with the show!

Card Advantage

Magic is at heart, a resource management game, and the first resource that most people focus on are the cards. Card advantage as a theory focuses on two things:

1) He who draws the most cards is more likely to win.

2) If you deal with more than one of your opponent’s cards with just one of yours, it is a good thing.

In order to determine who got the better end of a particular exchange of cards, or sometimes to determine what is the proper line of play, you can go about counting the cards expended by both you and your opponent.

The origins of this theory are generally attributed to Zak Dolan and Brian Weissman, some of which are briefly touched on in this Paul Pantera UseNet post reprinted in an Oscar Tan column.

Pure Card Advantage

It’s basic Card Advantage theory with the caveat that you follow the cardboard. Tokens don’t count until they interact with the opponent’s cardboard. It’s a simple theory, and the simplicity is why it drew so many complaints. If you want more on this one, feel free to read the article.

Virtual Card Advantage

This one is complicated because so many people have taken the concept in different directions, but the central theme is common. It started with edt and this article, and has snowballed since, being dragged in numerous directions along the way. After consulting with various people, I finally settled on the following definition. Virtual Card Advantage is:

Card advantage combined with the added benefits from the act of making your opponent’s cards, whether in play, in their hand, or in their library,”dead.”

To put it another way and contrast it to basic card advantage, it says that he who draws the most useful cards has a greater chance of winning. The traditional example used here is of Moat holding off an army of groundpounders, while Serra Angel flies over for the win. The advantage gained from your opponent’s men not being able to attack due to the Moat is virtual (you haven’t actually removed his creatures from the board), but it is highly useful nonetheless.

Card Quality

Card Quality is one of those ideas that epitomizes why discussing Magic Theory is a maddening process for many people. Throughout the years, authors have used this phrase to mean different things, and thus the meaning itself has been lost. Thankfully, I think Zvi and I have sorted this one out, so that it can regain usefulness as an idea.

Card Quality is a measure external to the game that compares cards and how efficiently they accomplish a particular task.

The task itself varies, and the comparison doesn’t always have a clear-cut answer… But any time you compare two cards for a deck (or a pick order) and try to figure out which one accomplishes the job better, you are measuring CQ. (For a pick order, the job is”winning,” though as always, these things are context dependent.)

Example: When you hear authors say things like Savannah Lions are strictly better than Eager Cadet, or Troll Ascetic is strictly better than Trained Armodon (a debatable point, but one that is generally conceded), they are measuring Card Quality. It isn’t just applied to creatures, it is also frequently applied to burn spells (Shock vs. Volcanic Hammer), removal spells (Smother vs. Terror), card drawing (Ancestral Recall vs. Everything Else), etc.

Obviously, the results of your Card Quality measurement are entirely dependent on context. What do you need the card to do and what are your constraints? In the end, people needed a term for measuring cards against each other in a particular setting, so this is what we’ve got. Also remember that this measurement is strictly external to an actual game. It doesn’t have anything to do with the question”Which card has the highest quality for me now, against this particular deck, in this particular board state?” That sort of question is measured by Card Impact (which I’ll explain at the end of the definitions section).

On a personal level, I would rather have gone with Seth Burn and used the term”Card Efficiency” here, as that is actually what you are measuring, the efficiency of card X at accomplishing job Y. However, everyone else seems to have defaulted to Card Quality, so I have been overruled.


I’m not going to delve into the research on the various definitions of Tempo here, as that will be saved for the Tempo installment of the University. Suffice it to say that there are many subtly different uses of the word”Tempo” throughout Magic history, and some of them mesh, while others do not. Instead of giving you my own rendition of the definition, I’m going to quote a Zvi article that he’s currently working on, and use his definition as the one that should be pushed forward.

“I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to find the best definition of tempo. Life can be considered as a part of tempo, but I think that it is better to consider life loss as one of the results of tempo loss instead. I also don’t think tempo can be measured as something as simple as the combined mana cost of your permanents in play, and at this time I’m not even going to explore what would happen with that definition. Eric Taylor made the claim that mana and time are mostly interchangeable, and Chad Ellis explained why things are not that simple.

“Instead, I’m going to use this one:

“Tempo is the rate at which the current situation will cause you to gain or lose advantages.”

That definition ties in to what he’s working on (Advantage Theory), but it also provides a baseline definition that encompasses most of what has been written about tempo theory before. Magic is a game of resource management; tempo is a measurement of how quickly those resources are changing. This means that only incorporating board position or life or cards or library size or whatever is not enough – which is why Zvi has taken a more holistic approach with his definition, and why I feel it’s the best one with which to appropriate for future use.

For those who feel this definition is controversial because it isn’t the same definition that people have been working from for the past ten years, I can only say that I will deal with this in much greater depth in the first subject lesson of the University, which will be (strangely enough) All About Tempo. By that time, Zvi’s articles will be published, and I’ll have time to better rationalize and defend this particular set of words.


Rob Hahn actually defined this one in the classic Dojo days with his”Theory of Deck Speed.” After looking over this article numerous times, I’m still not sure I completely agree with all of it, but I’m also pretty sure that my opinion here doesn’t matter. Here’s how Rob defines”strategic speed,” though for our purposes we can use this as a definition for speed in general.

How fast a deck can put its strategy into action.

A corollary to this is,”A deck is fast if it is able to unfold its plan of action quickly.” Obviously,”quickly” is a variable dependent on the speed of a format, which directly ties this concept to that of the Fundamental Turn.

Fundamental Turn

The definition for this was originally formed in Zvi’s article”Clear the Land and the Fundamental Turn.” The author defines Fundamental Turn thusly:

For beatdown or combination decks, the Fundamental Turn is the turn you kill your opponent. For a control deck, each aspect can be said to have an FT, but the most important one is the turn in which the deck’s strategy begins to work, and you make up for any early disadvantage.

The primary use for this idea comes from predicting a metagame for a format, and then using the Fundamental Turn of that predicted metagame as a measuring stick for new deck ideas.


Michael J. Flores covered this topic twice (the second time after being hassled by edt, which is never a pretty thing), but his second article is probably the clearer of the two in terms of definition and execution. (It’s also interesting to note that the article received 2.79 Stars out of 5 by The Dojo voters, indicating they were just as cranky then as the StarCityGames.com forums are today.)

Investment is the mechanic by which a player voluntarily concedes short-term card economy for the purpose of a long-term advantage.

Mike uses a variety of examples to better illustrate this definition, including his original Jayemdae Tome/Whispers of the Muse discussion. I’m sure there are plenty of cards that you can apply this theory to today, but the most relevant new card is probably Isochron Scepter. Fortunately for me, that’s a topic for another author on another day.


This concept originally came from Zvi’s discussion here, which is a Brainburst Premium article. Typically we don’t link to these articles because most people don’t have access to them, but I will be doing so throughout the University project in order to be complete when I’m trying to reference ideas. I’m also quoting a little more extensively here than I normally might, because many of you may not have read the article.

A player is said to have inevitability if and only if from the current position he will win a long game. A player is said to have inevitability in a matchup if and only if they have inevitability on turn 1.

Zvi continues his explanation by saying,”In a large percentage of Magic games and matchups, the goal of one deck is to have inevitability and then preserve it long enough to take advantage of it. Preserving inevitability sometimes just means staying alive, but it can mean other things as well. Often it means not losing too much card economy along the way. Every traditional control deck works like this. Psychatog would seem to be the best current example of such a deck. Psychatog’s strategy could be looked at purely as inevitability backed by a maximum amount of defense once that inevitability is established. The ease by which Psychatog seizes this advantage during deck construction may be its biggest edge. The deck gains inevitability in two ways. First, it has it because of the combination of Psychatog and Upheaval. If the game goes long, it will automatically win off of that – unless it is facing another blue deck, in which case things become complicated. It also has it purely because of Psychatog. Every card it uses gives it an extra effect, while its opponent’s cards are simply lost. If the enemy has nothing to compete with this effect, all a Psychatog deck will have to do is trade off and it will win.

Thus far, Zvi has been the only one to really do much besides reference the idea, and to him it’s merely an expansion of the concepts presented in Flores'”Who’s the Beatdown.” Regardless of its origins, the idea remains useful.


Symmetry is one of those concepts that most players understand intuitively, and is defined simply by:

Cards or effects that have an equal (or nearly equal) impact for both players.

Cards typically referenced here are things like Wrath of God, Armageddon, Stasis, Winter Orb, Howling Mine, or Mass Hysteria (okay, Mass Hysteria has never been referenced, but it could be). In his article, edt also includes two principles of symmetry for discussion:

1) The only way to gain advantage with a symmetric card is to break the symmetry.

II) All symmetric cards require a combo to break their symmetry.

Deck Templating

Flores discussed this in the second installment of his most excellent (insert air guitar jam here) Building Broken Decks series of articles. The concept wasn’t particularly new even then, but it describes the majority of activity that PTQ players do on a week-to-week basis with regard to Constructed deckbuilding. Deck Templating is defined as:

Taking an existing deck or archetype and working on some specific card choices and numbers in order to improve the design or adapt it to a metagame.

If you look below where I’ve broken down the theory categories, the other side of the coin from templating is”Deckbuilding From Scratch,” which may have been the most popular way to build decks in the early days of game, but has taken a backseat to templating for many years now.


I think most people who have been reading Magic articles for a while understand the concept of the metagame, but the term is used all the time, so it deserves a full definition:

The breakdown of deck archetypes and popular card usage (predicted or actual) for any given tournament/format.

Draft events include some additional ideas, such as”How many players at an eight-man table can a particular color support?” but the definition above should hold true in all cases.

There’s always a time element to the metagame, as the decks and cards players will play fluctuates from week to week. In fact,”metagame” itself has taken on connotations that you can fill whole articles discussing, but I think this definition boils the ideas down to the essentials.

Card Impact

There’s an old writing strategy that says put the stuff you are most worried about at the end of an article, because people likely won’t be paying attention by then anyway. Since this definition is completely new, and since Zvi’s article series still hasn’t been published yet, I’m the one who has to break the ground here. How lucky!

Card Impact is an in-game measure that is defined as:

The effect a card has on your probability of winning a game.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I know there other articles that cover this in greater depth in the pipeline right now, so I’m going to be brief.

First of all, this assumes perfect play.

Second, since it is in-game, it’s matchup dependent. The value of a card at any particular point is dependent upon the board state, how much life each player has, what cards each player has in hand, etc… a lot of things. At any particular point, though, you can estimate the number of”helpful” cards left in your deck (or”outs,” since we’re stealing poker concepts here anyway).

Example One: You are facing an aggressive deck with ten points of creature damage on the board. You have a Plains, and two Islands in play, a Wrath of God and no White mana-producing lands in hand, and are at nine life. The impact drawing a Plains here would have is very high, while the impact of drawing most of the cards in your deck that are not Plains is low (or, in most cases, null).

Example Two: You are playing a W/G deck and your opponent is playing a mono-Red deck. You have Worship, Four Forests, and two Plains on the board. The probability that you will win if you should draw one of your four Troll Ascetics becomes very high. Therefore, the impact Troll Ascetic (with Worship on the board) has is great.

Card Impact is a method of conceptualizing (but not necessarily quantifying) the fact that the value of all cards in a deck changes throughout the course of a game. It also pushes the idea that calculating outs for particular play scenarios is useful – an idea that is intuitive to many, but one that hasn’t seen much theoretical discussion, and is not adequately addressed by Virtual Card Advantage or similar theories.

An idea that goes hand-in-hand with Card Impact is something Zvi calls”Line Up Theory.” Line Up Theory is essentially a matchup metric that examines the cards before they see play and tries to determine which cards are particularly problematic for a deck to deal with, and which cards are not considered to be threats. Zvi explains it like this:

“When entering a long-term battle, it should often be considered in terms of line up theory, especially when there is an interaction of counters, removal and threats. This is the most basic application of card impact. It will normally take the form of one player claiming he cannot possibly lose, and then explaining why by lining up his spells with his opponent’s spells. It will go something like this: If I Naturalize these three artifacts and counter these nine threats, then you can’t kill me since your other cards are not a problem, and I have four copies of Naturalize and thirteen counters. That means that barring a random fluctuation early in the game, I will be able to deal with all of your threats, and then eventually kill you in some other way.”

In some ways, it’s just a fancy name for what you learn from playtesting a matchup, and determining which cards you pack in your sideboard to improve your ability to win, but in other ways it’s a lot more. This should give you enough of a definition for both Card Impact and Line Up Theory to move forward, and then Zvi’s article can flesh out these concepts further whenever it sees publication.

Categories of Theory

I’m just going to list these right now so you can see the myriad of directions available to take things. I plan to cover all of these Categories, and the articles within them, in future installments (assuming I live that long).

In the meantime, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

The most effective way to give you this information would be in flowchart form, but now that I’m out of the business world, all my flowcharting software is gone. Therefore, I’m going to represent this as best I can in pure text format and hope you’ll forgive the ghetto presentation.


Schools of Magic

->General Applied Theory

Card Advantage


Card Quality

Mana Curve


Mulligan Theory

Information Theory and Bluffing

Play Improvement

Miscellaneous (Useful, eh?)

-> Constructed

Deck Creation from Scratch

Deck Templating

Fundamental Turn

Law of Repetitiveness

Archetype Play Advice


Metagame Clock and Archetype Classification

Rogue Deck Theory


-> Limited – General

Deck Creation

Mana Mix

The Metagame

-> Draft

The Rule

Booster Draft

Rochester Draft

Defensive Drafting





I’m still trying to flesh out a lot of the categories in the Limited section, because most theory for those areas is contained in articles that discuss pick orders or are tournament reports. In other words, it’s not obvious that those articles contain theory, so finding them is more than a little tricksy.

And there’s the bell, so I’m going to let you all go with no assigned homework for this week. Just think about what we’ve discussed today, and how it applies to the game you love. I’ll gladly field any questions, complaints, and flames in the forums.

Look for the next Magic University installment in a couple of weeks, when I’ll probably talk about the history of Tempo and cover any gaps I’ve left in my first two articles. Or I’ll try and make Ken Krouner happy by writing a whole article devoted to show tunes and Barbara Streisand lyrics.

You don’t bring me flowers…. You don’t sing me love songs…

Ted Knutson

The Holy Kanoot

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