Weak Among the Strong: Reciprocal Card Advantage

There is one form of card advantage that no one talks about and which I suspect very few understand: Reciprocal card advantage. What is Reciprocal card advantage? That’s what I’m here to explain.

Although I’m thrilled to be a part of SCG Premium, there are some concepts that are just too important and too elegant not to share with everyone. With that in mind, I’ve asked Ted to make this article available on the free part of the site.

Card Advantage.

Everyone writes about card advantage. There’s straightforward card advantage, like casting Ancestral Recall. There’s potential card advantage, like Waking Nightmare – which can be a 2-for-1, a 1-for-1 or a dead card, depending on the opponent’s hand. There’s virtual card advantage, like when your 1/4 blocker keeps multiple 2/1s from attacking. There’s tempo-based card advantage, which in turn comes in two forms – an opponent using spells in a sub-optimal way because of your pressure or an opponent dying with cards in hand. There’s card quality advantage, which might be created by thinning your deck of lands or by something like Sensei’s Divining Top (especially if combined with shuffle effects) so that even if you aren’t drawing more cards you are drawing better cards. There’s even Wakefieldian card advantage whereby you build your deck such that your opponent is running cards that are dead against you.

Technically, Wakefieldian card advantage comes in four forms:

Lesser Wakefieldian card advantage is when your opponent has dead cards against you in their main deck and probably knows it. For example, if you ran a deck with no artifacts during the reign of Affinity you achieved Lesser Wakefieldian card advantage. Your opponent undoubtedly realizes that you’ve made a strategic choice to dodge the metagame hate and will sideboard in whatever useful cards he has to replace his dead ones.

Sneaky Lesser Wakefieldian card advantage is when, in the above situation, you sideboard in artifacts and wreck your opponent. Beware, however, that this can lead to Sneaky Lesser Wakefieldian comeuppance if your opponent outguesses you or simply doesn’t have enough worthwhile things to sideboard in.

True Wakefieldian card advantage is when your opponent has dead cards against you but doesn’t realize it. Superior True Wakefieldian card advantage is when your opponent actually sideboards dead cards in against you. The classic example of this is when Jamie was playing Secret Force and everyone knew he had multiple Chokes (and Tsunami) in his sideboard. Against Counter-Sliver, Jamie would board in the Tsunami but not the Chokes – and many of his CS opponents either sideboarded Disenchants or kept the ones they were running main in order to get rid of Choke! This caused Alan Webter to remark that Jamie’s opponents often mulliganed against him and didn’t even know it.

Finally, False Wakefieldian card advantage is when the reason your opponent has dead cards in hand is because you aren’t running creatures. Oh, so clever. Go tap your Islands, Blue-boy.

That aside, there is one form of card advantage that no one talks about and which I suspect very few understand: Reciprocal card advantage.

Before I dive right into explaining the concept in Magic terms, some analogies might be helpful.

Suppose you’ve just bought a copy of my first published game, Succession. You’ve played it and been amazed at how much fun you had and how great a game it is. (In fact, you’ll probably understand this article better and be a better Magic player overall if you stop reading now, go buy a copy of Succession, play it, and then return to reading.)

I’ll wait.










No hurry, take your time. The article will still be up, or you can always do a search.













Go on, it’s a fantastic game. And there’s Phil Foglio art, too!








Look, I’m trying to make a living at this. You don’t want Jade to starve, do you? Don’t make me put up another picture of her, ’cause I’ll do it. Just go to your local game store, buy Succession, and no one gets hurt.














Okay, I’ll assume you’ve bought it. But since I want everyone to understand this concept – not just the premium members and not even just the people who don’t make angels cry (i.e. those who buy my games), I won’t use the Succession analogy. Let me explain with a Chess analogy so everyone gets it. You’re playing the Ruy Lopez opening, and have chosen the Double-Delayed Exchange Variation. As a result, you’ve given up a Bishop for a Knight (often called the loss of the minor exchange) but in return you’ve damaged your opponent’s queenside pawn structure. Naturally you will seek play on both wings, aiming to create pawn weaknesses on the kingside (where your opponent will almost certainly have to Castle) while simultaneously putting pressure on your opponent’s weakened pawns, hoping either to win one of them or to fix them in place.

Your opponent, meanwhile, will try to open the game up – particularly in the center – so that his two Bishops will have plenty of scope. He may even sacrifice one of his doubled pawns to do so, especially if this results in you having a weakened pawn structure in return.

The point is that while you made gains they were reciprocal gains – you damaged his pawn structure but gave him an extra center pawn and the two Bishops. In turn, he may give you a material advantage (extra pawn) for the reciprocal gains of an open board for his Bishops and you having a crappy pawn structure.

By seeking our reciprocal gains, rather than one-sided gains, you aren’t gaining as much – but the gains are easier to come by, because your opponent isn’t going to put as much effort into fighting them. We’d all like our opponents to have damaged pawn structures and we’d all like to have the two Bishops. (Actually, there are some people who think Knights are generally better than Bishops. These people also think that Craw Wurm is undervalued as a victory condition in Vintage.) We’d all like to have extra pieces. But our opponents aren’t going to give them to us – we can only get them if we outplay them over a long period of time, if they blunder, if we topdeck or they get manascrewed.

Since this is Chess, you can probably ignore the last two. But the point is that pure gains are hard to come by because your opponent is trying to stop you from getting them. Reciprocal gains, however, can be easier to achieve because the resistance is lower.

A lot of MBC players like Phyrexian Arena. Personally, I think Night’s Whisper is generally a superior card. It costs one less mana and gives you two cards immediately. That means you’re two cards up on the turn you cast it, one card up on the following turn and even after two turns. Only on the third turn and beyond are you ahead with Arena. A case can certainly be made that the Arena’s ongoing card advantage is still worth it because MBC is playing for a long game in which it kills pretty much everything and an Arena will keep providing it with the gas it needs to win. In any case, both cards suffer from the same problem – they aren’t reciprocal.

Suppose you’ve got an Annul in hand against an MBC player. He taps three for Phyrexian Arena – are you going to tap one to counter it? Almost certainly. Same thing if you’re holding Mana Leak and your opponent goes for Night’s Whisper. Sorry Charlie, only reciprocal cards get to resolve.

But what if he plays Howling Mine? Suddenly your little Blue heart is all aflutter – you’re going to draw an extra card per turn forever! You probably lose the ability to spell Counterspell, let alone cast one.

Howling Mine is reciprocal, so your opponent won’t fight it. He may point at you and laugh, but you’re much more likely to get your card-drawing engine in play.

Alternatively, you can run Phyrexian Arena but make sure everyone at the tournament knows that you have no way to gain life in your deck. Then only cast the Arena when you’re fairly low – say at three life. In this case the Arena offers reciprocal advantages to your opponent so he’s much less likely to counter or remove it. Card advantage, baby!

There are lots of examples. It took Mike Long to show us that Prosperity was the best card-drawing spell ever made – not only did it let you draw X cards, but it let your opponent draw X cards, too! Mike fully exploited Reciprocal card advantage with Prosperity as well as cards like Infernal Contract (he gets cards, but loses life) and even Reciprocal Mana Advantage (Squandered Resources) to create ProsBloom, a deck that reciprocated the opponent to death.

Or Drained them, whatever. The point is that he didn’t try to run cards that only did nice things for him and because of reciprocity and systematic (arguably pathological) cheating he was able to make a lot of money playing Magic.

You don’t have to cheat to be like Mike Long. Well, okay, you might if you really wanted to be like him personally. But if you just want to win at Magic, the key thing to remember is reciprocity.

Hugs ’til next time,