Weak Among the Strong: Revisiting the Scarce Resource

The scarce resource is a fundamental strategic concept, whether in business, life or Magic, but it doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Understanding scarce resource theory will help you draft, sideboard and make tough judgment calls during play, and is just as important a fundamental as card advantage or tempo. If you’ve been looking for a general guide that will lead you to making better plays, this is it!

The scarce resource is a fundamental strategic concept, whether in business, life or Magic, but it doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Understanding scarce resource theory will help you draft, sideboard and make tough judgment calls during play, and is just as important a fundamental as card advantage or tempo.

The fundamental concept of scarce resource theory is that when you rely on multiple distinct inputs to do something, your capacity is constrained only by the scarce resource. Thus, the scarce resource is the one you must protect or increase, while the plentiful resource is less important.

Since I like to use simple analogies, let’s assume you’re making lemonade, and need water, lemons and sugar to do it. You want to make as much as possible. You have virtually unlimited water, enough lemons to make two gallons and enough sugar to make six gallons. What do you go buy at the store first? Lemons, obviously. Adding more water or sugar to your supply won’t increase the amount of lemonade you can make – the whole system is constrained by the scarce resource.

Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual is one of those great cards that illustrate the difference between Limited and Constructed. In formats where Ritual is legal, far more Black decks run four than none – and Ritual was finally considered too good for Extended. In Limited, however, a Dark Ritual in a deck is usually the sign of a bad player.

The power of Dark Ritual derives primarily from the fact that mana is the scarce resource early in the game. (Mana is scarce in early Limited games too, but generally not by enough to make up for the loss of a card given the lack of broken things that can be done for BBB.) Tripling the turn 1 mana available allowed for explosive starts, such as Sarcomancy, Sarcomancy, Carnophage or Duress, Hymn to Tourach. By sacrificing a card for time, the Ritual player was able to do more than his opponent in the early game. By later turns, when time was no longer so critical and cards became more scarce, he hoped to have converted his temporal advantage into something more permanent.

Wizards has learned a lesson. Spells that provide more mana than they cost are very dangerous; even Lotus Petal was banned in Extended. Similarly, mana accelerators that cost one are dangerous, as are lands that produce more than one mana. Accelerators that produce one mana but cost two (e.g. Diamonds, Talisman, etc.) are relatively safe because they don’t provide extra mana until turn 3, when mana is no longer quite such a scarce resource.

Mind Warp vs. Hymn to Tourach

You’re playing Mind’s Desire against an unknown deck. You begin with Island, and your opponent plays a Swamp. On your second turn you tap out to cast Sapphire Medallion, leaving you with the following hand: Island, Underground River, Cloud of Faeries, Intuition, Accumulated Knowledge.

How much worse is it to get hit by Hymn to Tourach than by Mind Warp in this situation? If you get to choose your discards, you can pitch a land and Cloud of Faeries, and on your turn you’ll be ready to Intuition for AK and refill your hand completely, with an excellent chance to win on turn 4. But Hymn to Tourach could take your Intuition or AK or both, leaving you with a much worse hand.

Funeral Charm vs. Duress

Funeral Charm and Duress both cost the opponent a card. Funeral Charm can also kill a weenie in play. It works at instant-speed, meaning you can snatch a person’s draw once they’re in topdeck mode. It doesn’t whiff if your opponent’s hand is all land and creatures. You can even give a creature Swampwalk with it!

Funeral Charm was a nifty little card, and it helped me qualify for my first Pro Tour, but it was hardly an auto-run in Black decks when it was legal. Duress, by contrast, is an Extended staple and when Black decks don’t run four it seems to be because it has been overshadowed by Cabal Therapy.

Why is Duress better than Funeral Charm? Consider the Mind’s Desire example above. Funeral Charm would have gotten rid of a relatively unimportant land. Duress would have taken Sapphire Medallion on turn 1, and now could take Intuition, in either case doing severe damage to the Desire player.

Even if every single card in your deck is as “good” as every other in the abstract – that is, if you wouldn’t change a single card even if you could run as many copies of each as you want – some cards will be better or worse at any point in time, given the context of the hand and/or the matchup.

Force of Will vs. Jackal Pup

Imagine there was a Sorcery that cost R and read: target opponent discards two cards of his or her choice and loses one life. Pretty broken, right? But back in the day when Force of Will was legal, you would happily turn Jackal Pup into such a spell. The reason again is scarce resource.

First of all, what is your scarce resource in the matchup (whether you’re playing control or combo Blue)? Most likely it’s time or life. You have card-drawing and will win the late game, but your biggest liability is that your life total will dip below one before you manage to win. Thus one life and a card is almost certainly better than taking two a turn.

Second, there’s a good chance that the Pup is a scarce resource for your opponent. His remaining hand could easily be something like Mountain, Wasteland, Mogg Fanatic, Cursed Scroll, Seal of Fire. Assuming you can lay basic land on your turn, his next turn is going to be Fanatic and Scroll, with you still at nineteen. Unless he draws another two-power beater, his offense has been greatly reduced.

Chrome Mox vs. Mox Diamond

I think if you showed these cards to an average Magic player who had never played with either, he would say that Mox Diamond is the better card. Instinctively most of us consider spells better than lands, and even if you recognize that this can’t be true (else you’d just run fewer lands until they were in balance), Mox Diamond produces mana of every color! And yet Mox Diamond doesn’t show up in any top Extended decks today, while many of them run four Chrome Mox.

A few Pros have tried to explain why Chrome is more valuable than Diamond. (For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that you can cast Chrome Mox without imprinting anything for Affinity or Storm value and the fact that discarding a land is a cost to play Mox Diamond. While those aren’t completely trivial, they are not, in my opinion, the main reasons.) Since Chrome Mox is a mana source, these pros explain, it replaces a land slot, while with Mox Diamond you need the land to discard to it so it replaces a spell slot. While this is true, I think the real reason is better explained in terms of scarce resource theory. Consider a hand with two lands, a Mox, three spells…and a seventh card that can be given up to power the Mox. Where are you more likely to be able to take advantage of scarce vs. plentiful resources?

If the seventh card is a land for your Mox Diamond, there’s not likely to be that much difference. Most lands serve the same basic function of tapping for mana, and the benefit of pitching a Wasteland against a deck that plays only basics isn’t likely to be much of a gain. By contrast, being able to choose which of four spells is less useful in the current matchup is potentially huge. You could have too much permission and not enough search or vice versa; you could have a utility spell that is dead in the current matchup. Your opponent might be off to an explosive start that makes Deep Analysis a luxury you don’t have. Or that extra spell to choose from might simply be the madness outlet that turns a garbage hand into turn 1 Wild Mongrel, turn 2 Arrogant Wurm, turn 3 Roar of the Wurm.


It’s great playing against Desire and having Stifle in hand. I’m sorry, did you say that I’m playing against Goblins and his Piledriver has six friends the turn before I can Wrath? I’m sure I meant to say Awe Strike. Oh, it wasn’t Goblins but RDW and he sent Volcanic Hammer to the dome? I’m so glad I have Misdirection so he can Hammer his Jackal Pup.

Wishes are all about scarce resource. Combo decks put one-ofs of each piece in their sideboard, and wish for whatever piece is missing. Control players find whatever card breaks their particular opponent’s back.

Necropotence and conversion of resources

Necropotence stands as one of the most powerful Magic cards ever. While “card advantage” goes a long way to explaining this power, the full beauty of Necropotence can only be understood in terms of scarce resources. Necropotence allows players to convert various resources into other resources, thus allowing them to increase whatever resource is scarce at any given point of the game.

Let’s look at one of the “big success” Necro decks, piloted by Randy Beuhler to a PT win:


Winner – PT Chicago 1997 – Extended

3 Gemstone Mine

3 Lake of the Dead

2 Bad River

4 Badlands

4 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]

8 Swamp

4 Order of the Ebon Hand

4 Knight of Stromgald

1 Ishan’s Shade

4 Demonic Consultation

4 Drain Life

3 Disenchant

4 Hymn to Tourach

2 Firestorm

2 Incinerate

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Necropotence


2 Circle of Protection: Black

1 Disenchant

1 Firestorm

3 Honorable Passage

2 Mind Warp

3 Pyroblast

3 Terror

Early on, the scarce resource is mana. Randy isn’t running Dark Rituals, but he has other ways to rule the early stage of the game. Four Bolts and two Incinerates give him good answers to cheap creatures, and he has eight pump-knights of his own. But the broken card, at least for Randy’s deck, is Firestorm.

Firestorm gives up cards for tempo. In many situations this would be awful, but Randy is more than happy to exchange cards for mana (e.g. using one mana and three cards to kill off two creatures his opponent probably spent 3-4 mana on).

Once the first few turns are over, Randy is ready to do the most obvious Necropotence exchange: cards for life. With Hymns to offset Firestorm and lots of good one-for-one cards, Randy and his opponent probably both have two or three cards in hand on turn three – i.e. cards are becoming the scarce resource – when Randy drops Necropotence and fills up.

Life is rarely the scarce resource (especially when you’re Hymning your opponent), so being able to transform one life into one card is as powerful as trading sugar for lemons would be in our lemonade example. But if Randy’s life ever does become an issue, he has Drain Life to regain some of it, i.e. he can convert mana and a card into life…which will then turn into more cards. And against Red decks (the most likely opponents to make his life total a scarce resource), he boards in a third Firestorm, three Terrors and three Honorable Passages. (Going to three also means he can Consult for them with reasonable safety.)

Knowledge is Power

I recently wrote about Team Sealed and my 3-1 Hankyu Very Much deck from GP: Chicago. My one loss came because I ignored the scarce resource rule. My board was Mothrider Samurai, Kami of Old Stone and Ghostly Prison. My opponent’s board was Smithers with Serpent’s Skin, Kami of Fire’s Roar and Orochi Sustainer, with four lands. I swung for two and passed the turn.

My reasoning was as follows: if he just swings with both of his men, I block Smithers with the biggest butt in town, take two and he does virtually nothing for the turn. That’s a good deal. He only does five to me if he makes his land drop and has a two-mana spirit, so he can stop my Kami from blocking. If he has a more expensive spirit so he can only swing with Smithers (after not letting the Kami block) I’m not going to block Smithers with my Moth anyway, so I’m better off having attacked.

In the abstract, my decision was correct. I’m happy with the scenario in which he hits me for two and does nothing else. The “take five” scenario is unlikely and also involves him playing a meaningless (with Ghostly Prison out) threat onto the board. By attacking, I’m doing a guaranteed two to him at the cost of possibly taking two more damage myself. So why not attack?

The reason is that my life was the scarce resource in what was otherwise a tremendously favorable matchup for me – R/G beats against U/W with fat butts and Ghostly Prison out. The two that I did to him was meaningless; I was either going to lose the match by going to zero or win by taking control of the board. The two that I might prevent him from doing to me could prove critical. And in fact, it did – a Zubera joined his side and he hit me for five instead of just three. Later on he was able to knock me down to three, and the game ended when he topdecked Yamabushi’s Flame. I can gripe that the odds were still good for me (I had two Candle’s Glows in my deck), but the fact is if I’d ignored the chance to do some meaningless damage to him and had my Moth keep an eye on his Kami, he would never have gotten me into burn range.

As you test for the upcoming Extended season, do you know what your scarce resources are from match to match? In the RDW mirror, it’s usually land and Cursed Scrolls; cards like Jackal Pup and Goblin Cadets are welcome to sit out the fight, while flexible removal like Seal of Fire and Mogg Fanatic are great for controlling the board until scroll lock hits. In RDW vs. Mind’s Desire, it’s time and life – your goal playing RDW is to deal twenty before they kill you in a single turn, which requires a mix of hitting hard and delaying that turn. Extra land and Cursed Scrolls are dead weight while Jackal Pup and Goblin Cadets are your working men, with Seal of Fire making it much harder for them to go off.

If you’re packing Cabal Therapy, do you know what to name in your various matchups? I recently overheard someone “saying” (actually it was on the StarCityGames.com discussion forum) that the top cards for R/B Goblins to name against Mind’s Desire were Desire, Cunning Wish and Familiar. In my opinion this is a mistake – Desire’s scarce resources are actually Sapphire Medallion, Intuition and Accumulated Knowledge. Their dream start involves a Medallion on turn 2, followed by Intuition for AK, AK on turn 3 (during your EOT), at which point they are set for their big turn 4. Mind’s Desire on its own isn’t worth much without the card drawing that fuels it into a big spell, and the AK engine is the way they are most likely to make that happen.

Now obviously Mind’s Desire and Cunning Wish are important parts of the combination. But are they the scarce resource in the early game? I would argue no and thus would set my discard on very different sights.

Understanding your scarce resource in a given matchup helps you know when to mulligan. Imagine you’re RDW on the draw going into game one. A hand like 3 Mountains, Wasteland, 2 Cursed Scroll, Seal of Fire and Mogg Fanatic is great…if you know you’re in a mirror match. Your Fanatic will at least trade for the 2/1 he leads with and your Seal will protect you from Blistering Firecat while you get your Scrolls set up. But it’s an obvious mulligan against Mind’s Desire. (Mike Flores article on the RWD mirror discussed the testing challenge of having to make “honest” mulligans based on an unknown opponent and not taking advantage of the (unrealistic) knowledge of scarce resources in each matchup.)

The above paragraph also makes it clear why (legal) scouting is so valuable and why you should try not to let anyone know what you’re playing unless you have to. If your opponent happens to flash you a Task Force or Pernicious Deed while he’s shuffling, that tells you a lot about what resources are scarce in the coming match.

Evolving the main deck

A recent Neutral Ground tournament showed the next evolution in Life: inclusion of Aether Vial. Since Life is a combo deck based around creatures, Aether Vial is a natural addition. It gets around permission, Orim’s Chant and Rishadan Port, avoids awkward situations where you’d like to lead with Nomad en-Kor but don’t want it to get Firebolted, and allows the deck to go off without spending mana on creatures. In short, Aether Vial helps the deck with its scarce resource – getting its combo into play (whether through permission, mana denial or in some cases dodging removal).

Nor is Life the only tier one deck that can be made better by inclusion of Aether Vial. You’ve been warned.

Sideboard selection

Knowing the scarce resources in each match can lead to superior sideboard selections as well. One possible (as yet untested) example is my suggestion of Sun Droplet for the RDW mirror rather than Dragons. If the battle is indeed going to come down to Scrolls and land, you want cards that help you win that battle. That either means more land (or land destruction), search, artifact removal or, in this case, a card that virtually eliminates the chance that the game will be decided by creature rush and that nullifies an enemy Scroll when it comes down.

Another example from Extended past is the use of Price of Progress in Counter-Sliver. At first this is a nonsense idea…Price of Progress is one of the cards Counter-Sliver most fears…from RDW. But there were other decks that relied on non-basic lands (e.g. RecSur) where Counter-Sliver was the beatdown deck in the matchup. Price of Progress was a great finisher against those decks, and all the more powerful for being unexpected.

Scarce Resources in Draft

Some of the applications of scarce resource theory are fairly straightforward. If your curve has a hole in it, you want to fill that hole, even if it means running a somewhat sub-par creature. An exception can arise when you have a lot of mana-ramping that distorts your curve: if your Green deck has two Tribe Elders and three Sustainers, your three-drops can be virtually non-existent in favor of Order of the Sacred Bell and Feral Deceiver.

A draft deck can be light on victory paths, removal, late game power, etc. During the draft you can try to remedy this by adjusting your card valuations in favor of whatever resource looks scarce. (In the Hankyu Very Much example, Hankyu shored up two of the deck’s scarce resources, removal and victory paths, making it an MVP in the deck.) During play you can adjust your decisions, knowing that you have to save your removal, guard your life total, or take control of the board before bringing out one of your scarce victory paths.

Looking at CoK block, scarce resource theory often comes up when trying to abuse the block’s mechanics of splice and soulshift. Valuations of individual spirits can often vary greatly depending on how much soulshift you already have. Burr Grafter can be a virtual bomb if it lets you trade off early spirits and then get them back, but if you already have two Gibbering Kami and a Rootrunner, soulshift 4 may be less urgent than other tools for your deck. Similarly, in my Rochester Top 8 draft I had two Glacial Rays, meaning that splice vessels were scarce. Otherworldly Journey and Blessed Breath are both fine cards, but I probably wouldn’t have splashed them had I not needed ways to manufacture extra Shocks.

A Final Thought

The scarce resource in a match isn’t always obvious. Looking at the Desire example above, it seems quite natural to think that the key combo card (Desire) would be the scarce resource – there are only four in the entire deck! In practice, however, it may be that the engine is more vulnerable to disruption in other areas, either removal of the Medallions/Familiars or card-drawing engines, or simply the elimination of two better-than-free spells by having Seal of Fire prevent Snap from resolving on Cloud of Faeries.

Going back further, I remember my early days as a Magic player when I read an insightful article that explained that the scarce resource (not using that term, of course) in Necropotence was Nevinyrral’s Disk because the Necro player had to get rid of his own Necropotence to start drawing again! Skilled players, the article explained, would target the Disk with Jester’s Cap. Nowadays we chuckle at this idea, but the article was written by a serious player.

Often the best way to determine the scarce resource in a matchup is simply to play it from both sides. Learn from experience which cards you’re happiest to see in your opening hand and which permanents you hate seeing leave play. When you lose, are you losing through inevitable card advantage or because you start the game with 20 life and not 25? Asking and answering these questions is the key to figuring out which resources (yours and your opponents) are scarce.

And knowing the scarce resources means knowing the match.

Hugs ’til next time,