Say that Rutger is playing a standard Necropotence deck and is drawing lots of cards, while Virginia is using a red/white defensive deck. Rutger's deck is based around card advantage, employing cards like Hymn to Tourach, Hypnotic Specter, Nevinyrral's Disk, and Necropotence. Virginia's deck, on the other hand, is filled with direct damage, creatures, Swords to Plowshares, and Disenchants.
The early game seems fairly balanced. Rutger plays several creature and artifact threats, and Virginia destroys them. Both players' hands gradually shrink in size as they increase their mana bases and play out their spells. Then, suddenly, Rutger casts his key spell, Necropotence. In one turn, the Necro player draws six extra cards, the equivalent of six extra turns, and quickly overruns Virginia's depleted defenses with the three creatures he has drawn.
Unless Virginia is aided by a similarly powerful card like Jayemdae Tome or Land Tax, she has virtually no way to combat the advantage that Rutger has gained and will almost surely lose. Time and time again, card drawing has proven to be a solid, almost risk-free path to victory, so much so that many players live by the statement "If you draw more cards than your opponent, you will just win."
—Brian Weissman, "Taking Card Advantage"
The first major step that almost any player who is serious about getting good at Magic distinguishes him- or herself with is an understanding of this concept of card advantage. It is one of the most common two-word phrases you will read in almost any Magic: The Gathering article, and even in this (introductory) one, I've used it multiple times already. If you don't have a real concept of card advantage down yet, I hope you soon will! Ideally, after reading this article—and the many follow ups that Level One will present in subsequent weeks—players at all different levels will be able to better use (or even just start using) card advantage in a practical sense during games.
What is card advantage?
What makes card advantage so important?
Card advantage is any process by which a player obtains effectively more cards than his or her opponent.
The classic example of card advantage—way back from Magic's first set, Alpha—is Ancestral Recall.
This effect is powerful because it allows you to trade a single card for three cards; many effects that do this in Magic can be powerful. Ancestral Recall is so iconic because it offers this very desirable effect for just one mana, and at instant speed!
Now look at a more recent update to what Ancestral Recall did twenty years ago:
Divination is commonly played in today's Standard Esper Control decks, and is probably more familiar to newer players. Like Ancestral Recall, Divination can also help you to obtain card advantage. You trade one card—the Divination—for two cards off the top of your deck. Notice how the 2014 analogue both costs three times as much mana yet nets you only half as many cards as Ancestral Recall.
Card advantage is not limited to just drawing cards. Consider Divination's opposite number from the Magic 2014 Core Set: Mind Rot.
Mind Rot provides a process that allows you to exchange a single card in your hand for two cards in the opponent's hand. Now, unlike Mind Rot's big brother, Blightning, neither Mind Rot nor Divination actually deal any damage... so it might not be obvious why what they do can be so desirable for an emerging and hopefully improving Magic player.
Let's take an imaginary player, Calvin.
Calvin has just played his fourth land, and passes the turn to you with two cards in hand. You don't know it yet, but Calvin's hand consists of a fifth land and a really powerful creature, a Thundermaw Hellkite. You've probably already noticed that Thundermaw Hellkite costs exactly five mana.
You look at your hand and see a Mind Rot. When you Mind Rot Calvin in this position he will be forced to discard both the land and his Thundermaw Hellkite. Calvin loses tremendous flexibility in this exchange.
A moment ago, no matter what Calvin drew, he would have had the opportunity to play his land and cast a really powerful creature (and probably attack you for 5!). Now, he can't do either.
What if Calvin just draws another Thundermaw Hellkite? He will not have the fifth land necessary to cast it.
Poor, stranded, Thundermaw Hellkite.
What if Calvin draws another land? As opposed to a moment ago, Calvin will have nothing to do with that fifth land! He will just pass another boring, do-nothing, turn.
Drawing extra cards with spells like Ancestral Recall or Divination similarly increase a player's flexibility. Let's change up the situation a little bit, and Calvin actually gets to play his fifth land and Thundermaw Hellkite. He is roaring in with his Thundermaw Hellkite...
Wouldn't you really like to Murder that Dragon?
Playing cards that allow you to see more cards, like Ancestral Recall, Divination, and other card-drawing card-advantage spells, helps you find more Murders, Doom Blades, and other such answers, more often! Instead of relying on your next draw step to provide a Murder, Divination might draw you into two Murders! Or a Murder and another Divination (that will keep your deck chugging along).
Let's say you and Calvin both have two cards in hand. When you play a card like Mind Rot, you can clear his hand—leaving him with nothing—but will have a card of your own held back that can answer his next threat... or might be a threat of your own he has to deal with.
When you play a card like Divination, it is no longer two-on-two but three-on-two.
Imagine your cards are your crew. All things held equal two vs. two is a fair fight. But card advantage helps to make it an unfair fight. Imagine one crew has more bodies than the other; unless the smaller force is King Leonidas and another Spartan, it's likely that the bigger force will have the, ahem, advantage in that fight.
Less fair fight.
Card advantage is any process that a player can use to effectively obtain more cards than the opponent. It is not limited to just trading a card in hand for more cards in hand. So what if you do have a fighter like Leonidas on your crew? Or a card like Intrepid Hero?
See the lowly and little Intrepid Hero here?
As long as he sticks around, no Thragtusk or Thundermaw Hellkite is safe! You can think of Mind Rot as a "two-for-one" (two of your opponent's cards for one of yours)... well what about Intrepid Hero? The first time he whacks a Thundermaw Hellkite that is a one-for-none. If it comes up again, the little guy might be a two-for-none. There is no upper limit to how much card advantage Intrepid Hero can possibly generate but the tolerance your opponent has in throwing big monsters into the range of its hungry sword.
Then again, if your opponent never commits a large creature to the table, he or she will never give your Intrepid Hero the opportunity to start it's career in mass-monster-murder.
Card advantage goes both ways of course.
What about former Wizards of the Coast R&D member Zac Hill's secret Planeswalker girlfriend, Liliana of the Dark Realms?
You play Liliana of the Dark Realms for four mana, and if you activate her +1 ability, she immediately rewards you with a Swamp.
Liliana can search up an extra Swamp turn after turn after turn, generating additional card advantage with every activation. Just grabbing a Swamp might not seem that exciting to you in the abstract, but remember—you are really only supposed to draw one card per turn. Liliana of the Dark Realms effectively doubles your draws, for as long as your opponent chooses to let Liliana of the Dark Realms live.
Obviously, some cards like Ancestral Recall, Divination, Mind Rot, or Liliana of the Dark Realms come prepackaged with the opportunity to generate card advantage. Now that you know what card advantage is, identifying these kinds of cards should be easy...
...but just identifying the cards that make for obvious routes to card advantage is not what differentiates good Magic players.
What about this card? Does this look like a sure route to card advantage to you?
We'll get to this one in a little bit.
How about this one?
Giant Growth and Planar Cleansing are two cards that can—from one standpoint or another—give players opportunities to generate (or lose) card advantage, depending on how they are played.
Unlike Divination and Mind Rot, which both exchange one card for two, these cards don't necessarily specify particular amounts of card advantage that will be exchanged; rather, they allow players to succeed and fail in much less specific circumstances. Have you ever heard the phrase "don't play the cards—play the man?" Utilizing cards like Giant Growth and Planar Cleansing as routes to card advantage largely depend on the specific behaviors of the opponent in unstable circumstances.
Here are some examples with Giant Growth:
1. Giant Growth as a vector to card advantage...
Andrew attacks with a lone Predatory Sliver (effectively 2/2).
Randy blocks with a Merfolk Spy (1/1) and a Seacoast Drake (1/3).
Taken together, the Merfolk Spy and Seacoast Drake should add up to 2 power and 4 toughness. Randy's plan is probably to trade the 1/1 Merfolk Spy for the more expensive (and bigger) (and more expensive) Predatory Sliver one-for-one. His Seacoast Drake, with 3 toughness, should be safe from the mere 2 power of the Predator Sliver.
After blocks but prior to damage being exchanged, Andrew casts Giant Growth on his 2/2 Predatory Sliver.
Now 5/5, the Predator Sliver is big enough to deal 1 damage to the Merfolk Spy and 4 balance to the Seacoast Drake.
Andrew has effectively traded a Giant Growth (one card) for two of Randy's creatures. Card advantage!
2. Giant Growth as a loss of card advantage...
The early game seemed to be in Mark's hands. His aggressive green deck came out and hit hard in the first few turns. But then Trick fought back, trading over and over in a veritable orgy of card-on-card violence.
From his initial forces, Mark has only the Predatory Sliver. Trick has no bodies on defense and only 5 life. Mark rumbles in. Trick, with no blockers, declares no blocks.
It's now or never, thinks Mark.
"Giant Growth!" he presents.
"Giant Growth is on the stack," retorts Trick. "Shock your Predatory Sliver in response."
Trick has traded the one card—Shock—for both the attacking Predatory Sliver and the offending Giant Growth. By proffering the buff spell and giving Trick the opportunity, Giant Growth made available a two-for-one via Shock.
Most of the card—and card advantageous—exchanges described in this article reference what some players call cardboard advantage. Regardless of the in-game or contextual realities, they can be reduced to one piece of cardboard (like an Ancestral Recall or Divination) for the next two or three pieces of cardboard; or one Mind Rot for a Mountain and a Thundermaw Hellkite; or a Shock for a Predatory Sliver and a Giant Growth.
Giant Growth | Art by Matt Cavotta
Taking actions that promote the acquisition of card advantage tend to produce better results... which is why card advantage is such an important strategic principle in Magic. But it is not the be-all and end-all of Magic strategy. Remember, what we ultimately want to do is successfully conclude the game before the opponent does, not just have access to the most physical pieces of cardboard.
There are other, similar, phenomena that lead to card advantage, or card advantage-like processes. We will talk about virtual card advantage in future installments of Level One, as well as common opportunities for card advantage, like two-for-ones, the utilization of life points, and (at least sometimes)... symmetry.
Planar Cleansing is a symmetrical card that can sometimes produce card advantage.
...but for next week we will put the first three lessons of Level One together in a study of the first great deck in the history of Magic: THE Deck!
- The definition, "Card advantage is any process by which a player obtains effectively more cards than his opponent," was coined by Grand Prix Champion Eric Taylor in the formative years of Magic theory.
Some more Further Reading:
Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."