You CAN Play Type I #122: Back to Basics, Part XII: Counting Card Quality, or Why You Can’t

“Card quality” is a mishmash of the possible interactions between all the resources in Magic – beyond just the cards and draw steps – and it’s used in so many different senses you can’t always be sure what the speaker means.”Card quality” has become a piece of Magic space-filling jargon, the way some people say”mise”,”barn”, and”f***” every other word and assume you understand whatever the hell they’re talking about.

Counting Chasey Lain

The Backyard Brawl and your Ten-Second Answers” featured twenty-five different CA counting problems to test T.H.E.F.U.C.C., and I was happy to see it did well for a three-phrase checklist. One disgruntled reader, however, complained about T.H.E.F.U.C.C. tables and blew his top over another count:

> —–Original Message—–

> From: Tyler Smith

> Sent: Sunday, January 11, 2004 4:39 PM

> To: Oscar Tan

> Subject: THEFUCC


> I just wanted to write you about an apparent problem with your article about THEFUCC and the promises it makes. You guarantee faster results than a Chasey Lain video, or my money back. My research shows that this guarantee is intentionally misleading, and in effect no guarantee at all.


> From the moment I put the Chasey Lain video into my player until it gets done rewinding, I find I can’t think about card advantage, virtual or actual, AT ALL. Gone is at least 60 minutes of Magic theory time. Furthermore, for at least ten minutes after the video is over, I still can’t quite decide if casting Ancestral Recall will provide more card advantage than entering the room next door with the two lovely ladies, so basically just trash another ten minutes. After all that, I can finally get down to the business of using some theory to decide the card advantage of the play in question. Therefore, if I choose your method, the Chasey Lain video comes in a 70 + N minutes to decide any particular conundrum, while THEFUCC comes in at only N. 70 + N < N for no values of N, therefore I will never be able to exercise your guarantee. 😉


> Hope you enjoyed my lame joke. Should have seen it coming a mile away. 🙂


> Thanks for the funny (and interesting) article.


> -Tyler Smith


Send in that video and I guarantee I won’t sleep till I’ve solved your problem.

Counting”Card Quality”

Imagine you have a friend whose social life consists mainly of saying”Thank you” to the bus driver before getting off. Now imagine you’re trying to set him up with a girl you think will make him snap out of it. And it goes like:

You: I’ve got a friend I know you’ll love. Want me to set you up?

Him: Who?

You: Well, you don’t know her. But she’s great.

Him: How?

You: She’s nice.

Him: So is my grandmother.

You: She’s fun.

Him: Does she dress in Goth? Does she do nude bungee? Huh?

You: Well, she’s cute.

Him: Britney Spears cute? Natalie Portman cute? Um, Greta Garbo cute?

You: Okay, she’s not prom queen material, but trust me, she’s wonderful.

Him: Next, we’ll be talking about cinnamon rolls. Dude, want to go to Friday Night Magic this weekend?

In real life, I’m a law student and an academic writer, and in both, there’s nothing more annoying than a word that has no meaning. The Philippines has an ugly legal term for it:”surplusage,” or words that add nothing.

In Magic: the Gathering, no term is more hollow than”card quality.”

Theory often begins with card advantage (see”The Ten-Second Card Advantage Solution“), which counts the draw steps you effectively take. This isn’t the same as counting cards per se, though, since when you play a card, you affect other resources such as mana and life, beyond expending the fruits of one draw step.

Thus, beyond the simple draw step count, a”card” in its broadest sense is this entire package of CA, mana, life, and whatever else.

Beginning players may mix up the simpler”card” counted by CA theory, and this broader set of interactions triggered when you play a”card.” The misperception may lead them to denounce CA theory as flawed and useless, since not all cards are equal (the Nuisance Engine versus Phyrexian Processor argument). In other words, they say CA theory should go beyond its limited self-imposed scope, and count”card quality” to make itself complete and useful.

Such proposals reflect confusion, not inspiration.

(Worse, they miss the point of CA theory, which is to count the flows of a single resource. Once you teach yourself to do this, then teach yourself to count the other resources, you can put it all together and form a complete judgment. It’s like a general having to count his men’s guns, then not forget to count their food and gas, then do a final check for morale and see if it’s a good idea to attack tomorrow.)

“Card quality” is a mishmash of the possible interactions between all the resources in Magic – beyond just the cards and draw steps – and it’s used in so many different senses you can’t always be sure what the speaker means.”Card quality” has become a piece of Magic space-filling jargon, the way some people say”mise”,”barn”, and”f***” every other word and assume you understand whatever the hell they’re talking about.

Let’s take some real examples, with some help from our sponsor, Google.com:

Meaning: Play good cards

A Brainburst writer analyzed his deckbuilding and said,”My deck in the last PTQ was focused on synergy too much. That is why I lost. My overall card quality suffered, and despite being a better player than my opponents, I was unable to beat them with my inherent disadvantage.”

What did he mean,”card quality” suffered?

He also said,”What did I do wrong? Well, I didn’t give myself access to the best cards.”

“Play good cards?”

Uh…”Carpe diem?””Be all that you can be?””Live long and prosper?”

It’s catchy and we get the general drift, but we still have no idea exactly what went wrong.

Meaning: Power-to-mana ratio

Another Brainburst author wrote:”The [Goblin] Brigand looks useable, but as a two drop you already have Goblin Piledriver and Sparksmith. Also, as a card quality choice, it isn’t dramatically better than various ‘must use’ cards.”

“Card quality choice” probably means that two-power-for-two-mana is standard for two power barring Savannah Lions (see”Counting Tempo, Part II“). He probably also means that nothing sets it so far apart from the damage potential or whatever ability mix other weenies have.

Meaning: Abilities-to-mana ratio

An MTGParadise writer theorized:”Personally I am not a fan of hate drafting but I also don’t think you should be handing your would be opponents this sort of card quality [Akroma, Angel of Wrath] when 75% of your deck has already been built. So what if it costs eight mana? This is a first draft pick.”

All he’s saying is that you’d gladly pay eight mana in draft for a creature that can win in four turns, is hard to block or remove, and simply dominates the board.

Reader Tom Carpenter, an American engineer in an aluminum foundry, and I simplified creature abilities in the most general sense. We theorized that your main concern is power (which affects a victory condition) and almost everything else from first strike to toughness affects the game by nullifying opposing creatures or cards. Thus, this is usually the simplest spelling out of”good creature.”

Meaning: Cycle dead cards

A regular discussed casting Thirst for Knowledge and discarding Darksteel Colossus on the Misetings forums. He said:”You’re discarding a card you can’t use for one you can use. This means you’re gaining card quality advantage.”

“Card quality advantage?” What’s that, the latest female Viagra?

Let’s draw up a quick T.H.E.F.U.C.C. table (from”The Backyard Brawl and your Ten-Second Answers“), assuming he’s writing off the Colossus as irrelevant for the time being:

Play: Misetings poster casts Thirst for Knowledge, discarding Darksteel Colossus. WTF?

-1 CA (Rule 1: Thirst for Knowledge leaves Jarrod’s hand)

+3 CA (Rule 1: Three cards move to Jarrod’s hand from his library)

-1 CA (Rule 3: Darksteel Colossus is”dead”)

-0 CA (Rule 1:”Dead” Darksteel Colossus leaves Jarrod’s hand)

Total: -1 +3 -1 = +1 CA

All he meant is that it’s better to discard a”dead” card here instead of two others. The same thing happens when you cast Brainstorm, put two useless cards back on top of your library, then reshuffle. Something similar happens when you cycle a Decree of Justice on Turn 3.

The”card quality advantage,” though, is easily explained by CA theory.

Meaning: Cycle less useful cards

Another Brainburst writer wrote:”Read the Runes is good, since it then gives you card quality and replaces itself.”

Again, he just means he’s replacing dead cards with new ones. Or, he’s improving the selection in his hand to set up better resource trades against his opponent, and discarding cards less useful to the matchup at hand.

Impulse is the simplest example of this. Perhaps it fetches Fact or Fiction to outdraw a control opponent, Powder Keg against a couple of weenies, or a counter to keep an opponent down. You can see the benefits by projecting the resources trades over the next turns (see”Counting Shadow Prices“), and counting cards or mana might spell out the exact set of benefits.

“Card quality” here is shorthand for this diverse range of possible benefits.

Another Star City author wrote:”Out of those decks, the last two are the best – pretty much because of the cards Fact or Fiction and Counterspell. These two decks are just too good at neutralizing threats and gaining silly card quality/advantage. It seems the only consistent way to beat them is to get an obscene start with G/R and hope they don’t get Fact or Fiction and Wrath/Tog.”

Same meaning implied, years after Impulse.

Meaning: Disrupt opponent’s hand

A Star City contributor described Tendrils of Despair:”Sacrificing a creature you’ve already paid for and one additional mana to get rid of your opponent’s two worst unplayed cards… Not only do you not gain card advantage, you also lost card quality and lost tempo as well! This is the worst discard spell…”

Another said:”Stupor usually doesn’t come out fast enough to totally disrupt your opponent, and while card advantage is less important than card quality when it comes to discard, if you Ritual it out you go two-for-two.”

The discard context is like the Impulse context, only done in reverse. Instead of trading a spell in your hand for something more useful or that will gain more of a resource you need, you take that more useful card from your opponent.

If you Duress away Ancestral Recall, Yawgmoth’s Will, or The Abyss, you’re robbing him of card advantage in the next turn or next next. Duress away Swords to Plowshares and you preserve your own tempo. Duress away Dark Ritual and you rob him of mana next turn, slowing him down.

Thus, the precise quantification of”disruption” and”best” and”worst” cards in hand lies in specific resources. It’s just convenient to abstract all the possible specifics into”card quality” (see”Counting Tempo, Part III“).

Meaning: Thin land from library

Another Brainburst writer said:”Weathered Wayfarer ability generates slow card advantage and improves card quality, but the big difference is that it also fetches artifact lands. Having an endless supply of artifact lands makes numerous Shrapnel Blasts less of a liability, and it makes Isochron Scepter with Shrapnel Blast a wholesome, fun time for the whole family.”

A Star City author listed:”4 Krosan Verge (is card quality advantage and extra speed better than just drawing 1,000 cards? This is the test.)”

“Card quality advantage.”

There’s that earful again.

Old school players familiar with Land Tax and Thawing Glaciers know they mean removing land from your library slowly improves your draws. The spells:mana ratio increases, reducing the excess land you draw later on. Decks like Stompy and Grow took this further, playing extremely cheap spells and very little land, milking a little more CA just from the spells:mana ratio. Even Polluted Delta and Bloodstained Mire have a very small dose of this effect.

Yes, CA.

“Dead” cards and Rule 3 of T.H.E.F.U.C.C. give the precise explanation, and Justin Sexton already wrote about this specific application in”Harnessing the Power of Dirt.”

Meaning: Power level of card pool

Another Star City feature read:”The structure I’m referring is something that I’ll refer to as simply the Pack Two Gambit. The concept is very fundamental and doesn’t come into effect until you are drafting a full block – good cases in point being the past two blocks, Odyssey and Onslaught. The idea is that pack two is extremely favorable to one color (or possibly one color combo), and if you force the color and cut it hard enough in pack one, you should be able to reap the rewards of the higher card quality of that color in pack two.”

In another article, the same author wrote:”Usually, you want to be mono-Red if at all possible when drafting Goblins – but a small splash isn’t the worst thing in the world, and is sometimes necessary to push your card quality high enough that the deck will perform. Good cards to splash are removal and tricks that can keep the tempo up and let you swarm more effectively. Black and Blue are the most common splashes, providing the best in terms of the types of cards we are looking for.”

The more familiar term is”power level” and before Limited became popular, we used the term to refer to entire sets. For example, the”power level” of Arabian Nights or Beta is light years from Homelands and Eighth Edition.

In precise terms, you’re talking about more powerful trade-offs and more challenging shadow prices (as discussed in”Counting Shadow Prices”). For example, you have obviously undercosted cards from Serendib Efreet (3/4 flyer for three mana) to Library of Alexandria (draw one card a turn for one land drop).

In Sealed deck, you hope to open a group of cards with a high”power level” and pick colors that combine into the subpool with the highest”power level.” Thus, a splash can improve this, albeit at the cost of mana consistency. Forcing an underdrafted color early in draft has the same rough effect; you aim to give yourself a broader selection later that will include the higher powered cards.

Again, we see a capsulization of a very broad array of effects. Note, however, that things are slightly different in Limited where you don’t completely control the cards that go into your deck. In draft, for example, you have to get the best cards or best combinations of cards using a limited number of picks, hence the term”pick order.”

However, picks are arguably a resource in their own right, thus”pick order” is arguably a concrete term in its own right, not a synonym of”card quality.” In other words,”I traded my 8th pick for his first pick” has a distinct meaning with no equivalent in Constructed, because there’s another plane of resources involved.

So what does”card quality” mean?

From the above experiment (thanks, Google!), we have two possible conclusions:

First, card quality has no real meaning.

Or, second, card quality has so many possible meanings the term has become meaningless.


“Card quality” is just an acronym, an abbreviation for a broad array of more specific explanations. It’s the most common Magic euphemism, if you will.

However, all of the above quoted articles weren’t wrong. I’m just saying some were possibly vague.

Some, not all.

“Card quality” as a term has value for writers (so I exaggerated at the start of the article, bite me). If readers understand the context, it’s a term that saves paragraphs of more specific explanation. This is especially true for Limited, where a list of pick orders has far more value than a contextless Constructed argument over whether the best counter is Force of Will or Mana Drain.

However, you have to understand that it is just a euphemism. [A euphemism which will be properly defined as a useful term next week in the new volume of Magic University. – Knut]

If you can spell out the precise meaning without being awkward, you may as well. Otherwise, you say”good,””better”, and”stronger” too often, and then truly blacken your soul with”card quality advantage.”

Oh, how that grates on the ears.

“Card quality” is a mere descriptive term, but not an analytical one. When you go into theory and analysis, talk about the precise concepts and resources, or you get the baby food mush from”Counting Shadow Prices.”

Try counting”card quality” without de-abstracting it back into the actual, separate resource counts, and see where you end up.

And so we want this kind of conversation:

You: I’ve got a friend I know you’ll love. Want me to set you up?

Him: Who?

You: Well, you don’t know her. But she’s very witty, a great conversationalist.

Him: Oh?

You: Yeah. If she catches you on the phone, I guarantee, you’ll be laughing for hours before you notice it.

Him: Sounds fun.

You: Last time, we talked about Nicomachean ethics, the influence of Mozart on heavy metal, and the phallic symbols in”Top Gun.” She’s a wide reader.

Him: Smart chick.

You: Definitely. She has a 3.9 GPA, and wants to be a doctor. She volunteers at the hospital, and has a hell of a way with kids.

Him: Um… is she pretty?

You: Maybe not prom queen material, but she’s really cute. She smiles a lot and has the dimples for it, and she has eyes that somehow draw yours to them. And she looks great in a bathing suit, speaking from personal experience.

Him: Way out of my league. Dude, want to go to Friday Night Magic this weekend?

Okay, maybe not quite…

Postscript: The problem with”card quality” in theory

Some writers have attempted to integrate”card quality” into”card advantage.” Again, it’s apples to oranges, because a real CA theory limits itself to draw steps, not the entire package of resources. In other words, limits itself to a theory of how to most efficiently position Peons to chop lumber in Warcraft, without paying attention to the gold mine first.

Attempts at”card quality advantage” disregard the self-imposed limitations of CA theory, and force-feed mana and life in. Again, this results in the baby food mush I cautioned against in”Counting Shadow Prices.”

The most incisive theory comments on the Star City forums came from the hard sciences people: mathematics majors, engineers, and computer programmers. Others want to abstract Magic into a single resource, which treats it like a philosophy instead of a mathematical construct.

I’m not ready to shave my head and start chanting that cards and mana are in complete harmony… Om…

Turning”cards” into this”uber-resource” feels good on a fuzzy philosophical level, but has little practical value.

Some individuals have detailed articles that call cards the only resource in Magic. Thus, they call CA theory flawed, because it doesn’t consider cards and mana (which every CA article emphasizes, since CA is a simplification of that particular aspect of the game). There’s an implication that a resource like”card” can’t be counted consistently, since it will always have a floating, potential value. But that’s problematic since you can objectively count resources like draw steps, mana, and life.

What you can’t count objectively is the interactions and trade-offs, since the value of resources against each other (as opposed to against the same resource) fluctuates (see”Counting Shadow Prices”) as in a real economy. But again, counting the individual resources separately has a lot of value.

You don’t want to lose this value in the muddle of”potential.”

Moreover, the”potential” becomes less abstract once you examine the separate resources, anyway.

For example, if you have two Phyrexian Negators on Turn 1 and your opponent cannot deal with it, have you made his entire hand dead following Rule 3 of T.H.E.F.U.C.C. (see”The Ten-Second Card Advantage Solution“)?

Defensible, but extreme.

You may conclude this play is better when your opponent has less cards in hand. That is, if he has a full hand, you make it dead (+7 CA for you). But if he has no hand, would that be only +0 CA? (Moreover, you wouldn’t know for sure if he had no way of dealing with your incredible play, would you?)

There’s a sense of apples and oranges and baby food mush.

Moreover, Justin Sexton’s”Harnessing the Power of Dirt” talked about Rule 3 and excess mana. However, if you take the extreme position that cards are generally dead until you play the land to power them, then you conclude a land can equal Ancestral Recall. You also conclude it’s better to cast Chrome Mox when your hand is full.

Finally,”The Backyard Brawl and your Ten-Second Answers” featured Jesse Desmond’s Armageddon problem. Latching mana to CA theory makes you conclude Armageddon is better cast when your opponent has a full hand.

Baby food mush.

Problem with premise.

If I go land-Chrome MoxIsochron Scepter (Imprinting Counterspell), I’d rather say that I killed my opponent’s early tempo by forcing him to wait to play more mana than say I made his entire hand dead.

Counting CA helps. Counting mana helps. Counting trade-offs of CA and mana helps (see”Counting Tempo, Part I“). But counting cards and mana together as some mythical uber-unit has no analytical value.

I hope future writers will carefully consider which of these four premises they’re writing about. The academic side of law, medicine, economics, and engineering has a lot to do about identifying and analyzing premises, and faulty premises open a Pandora’s Box of confusion.

I’m a practical person, and not ready for”The Metaphysics of Magic: the Gathering.”

Till next week!

Oscar Tan (e-mail: Rakso at StarCityGames.com)

rakso on #BDChat on EFNet

Paragon of Vintage

University of the Philippines, College of Law

Forum Administrator, Star City Games

Featured Writer, Star City Games

Author of the Control Player’s Bible

Maintainer, Beyond Dominia (R.I.P.)

Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance

Postscript: Will Rieffer

In making the above point, my editor cautioned me about”having a feud” with Mr. Rieffer.

In case anyone agrees, well, I’ve never met him in my life, live twelve time zones away, and my only interaction with him in this lifetime was limited to a handful of e-group replies. I understand that he’s made countless personal attacks against me in places from TeamAcademy.com to the Star City forums.

That’s okay; I’m not obliged to reply, and I never have. I’m sure George Bush doesn’t lose sleep over what Osama bin-Laden is saying about him now.

Thus, I hope you take the point in that postscript in the objective sense it was meant. Too bad it wasn’t JP Meyer who used the premise I wanted to criticize, then we’d have more fun, right?

And to be completely clear, I understand Richard Grace called me out by name in”What’s so Horribly Wrong with the Web.” I’m absolutely okay with it and am not about to write a rebuttal article telling him he’s full of what makes the grass grow green. (I did, however, make a short forum post asking him to concretize exactly what he was complaining about, since it was fuzzy.)

I also called out Geordie Tait in”The Backyard Brawl and your Ten-Second Answers” but I don’t hate his guts, either. I merely feel that his proposed CA theory is inconsistent, and what vehemently disappointed me is how he attacked the”old school” while doing it, and failed to give credit where it was due, particularly to Eric“Danger” Taylor. Then I said he never addressed any of this criticism, beyond”I think I’m right, I think you’re wrong.”

If you mistook either point for a personal attack or – heaven help me, a”feud” – check whether I said his Mom looks like a taxi when wearing a yellow raincoat.

Critics can be a source of healthy entertainment, and having written on theory these past weeks, the reply I always wait for is from Richard Melvin a.k.a. Soru, an engineer from Cardiff. This is one person on the forums who’s impossible to please, but you can always trace the logic in the guy’s arguments, and you can spot where to agree or agree to disagree. Oh, you also learn something new about your own arguments.

It’s really funny when people see lawyers in court, arguing as though they could strangle each other, then get the shock of their lives when they see the same pair patting each other on the back and asking about the wife and kids.

Since I don’t reply to Mr. Rieffer’s public statements about me, I’ll just leave you with these Misetings articles for your entertainment:

Tan wins Writer’s War

Team Academy Exposes Rivalry in Star City Family“

I can laugh at myself, too, you know.

No, I have no”feud” against Misetings, either.