Essential Magic Articles

Card Advantage: The Most Understood Concept in Magic

by Jeff Fullmer

    I have found card advantage to be grossly misunderstood by both competitive players and nubes alike, and I will be honest and admit that I misunderstood the concept when I first started playing Magic.  I have found that beginners generally underestimate the impact card advantage has on the game and expert players usually overestimate the impact of one type of card advantage (simple card advantage), which I will discuss later.

    When one thinks of card advantage the simple Counsel of the Soratami (and its variants) usually comes to mind.  To be fair, Counsel of the Soratami does result in card advantage, you use one card to draw two.  However, this is only one type of card advantage, and I will discuss three types of card advantage: simple card advantage, virtual card advantage, and card selection advantage.

    Simple card advantage is exactly what the name suggests, it provides card advantage in the simplest way: by drawing cards.  Cards like Counsel of the Soratami, Tidings, and Harmonize are what fit the bill here.  I once heard a player say that because he ran four Harmonize in his deck that he should no longer worry about card advantage, but nothing could be further from the truth!  Simple card advantage has two distinct drawbacks: 1) It sets you back in tempo 2) It does not guarantee you will draw the cards you need.  The first drawback is obvious, you are using mana and a play to draw into cards, which means the mana you could have used to put something on the board is used to draw cards instead, which gives your opponent greater opportunity to outrace you.  The second concept is more difficult for players (even pros) to grasp.  But a simple illustration will do the trick.  Let’s say that the rules of Magic have changed and players are now allowed to run any number of copies of cards in their decks.  Let’s take this hypothetical one step further and say that a player plays a deck with 24 Land, 32 Grizzly Bears, and 4 Harmonize.  By some people’s logic, the 4 Harmonize should provide ample card advantage because it allows you to draw 3 additional cards.  But it’s easy to see how if 56 of the cards in your deck are either lands or grizzly bears that this deck would not be competitive.  Why? Because even though the deck can draw cards, the caliber of spells in the deck is really low, and likely will not win you the game.  Granted, this is merely a hypothetical, but there are a lot of common decks that fall to the same weakness: a lack of deck access and/or a low caliber of spells.  Take a GR fast mana deck, although it has powerful cards, it has terrible deck access because most of its cards do nothing other than produce mana.  These decks typically ran 24 land and 10 mana accelerators.  Their creature suite was actually rather powerful and usually consisted of something like 4 Tarmogoyf, 4 Chameleon Colossus, 4 Cloudthresher, and 4 Ohran Viper.  The spells they ran usually included Sulfurous Blast, Incinerate, and Harmonize.  Given 8 powerful card drawing spells (4 Ohran Viper and 4 Harmonize), many pros considered this to be sufficient card advantage to be able to keep up with most decks.  The problem is that the deck ran 24 Land and 10 mana accelerators, meaning over half the deck were mana sources and could do nothing to affect the board.  These decks often lost to other control decks with less card drawing.  This is because although the spells it did run were powerful, most of the deck was either land or other mana sources, so roughly 60% of its cards could do nothing to effect the board.  Where is the card advantage in that?

    This leads me to the second type of card advantage, virtual card advantage.  Virtual card advantage occurs when one spell is more powerful than another.  Thus, even though both players are using only one card, one player has card advantage because his card is more powerful than the other’s.  Take Lightning Angel, for example.  When playing against Gruul Beats with my Angelfire deck, I managed to resolve a 3rd turn Angelfire off of a Boros Signet.  My opponent had a Kird Ape and 3 Call of the Herd (which is a powerful card in its own right).  My opponent did not draw burn the whole game.  Meanwhile, I swung for 3 each turn, and because of the vigilance was able to block anything he threw at me.  My one card took care of 4 of his cards!  That is the power of virtual card advantage.  Cards like Shriekmaw and Wrath of God have a great deal of virtual card advantage, although they don’t actually allow you to draw cards.  You can also increase virtual card advantage by increasing your deck access.  By this I mean increasing the probability of drawing the powerful cards you need without using any mana or cards to produce card advantage.  You can do this by playing a deck that requires fewer lands (and thus more spells) or with cards that let you sift through your library without much disadvantage like Flagstones of Trokair.

Last edited 3/23/2009 12:37:05 PM Page 1 of 2  Prev  Next  Go to page:

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