As you might have ascertained from previous installments of Level One, card advantage in general is the backbone of Magic strategy. Although card advantage is not the be-all and end-all of how you should play any game of Magic, its persistent position at the top of the theoretical pyramid was earned, and is earned, year after year and day after day, by its useful applicability to in-game situations.
One of the ways a beginning player can aspire to operate more like a pro is to identify situations in game where he or she can angle for a card advantage opportunity. Some of those opportunities are blatantly obvious, as in the case of a two-for-one. Others are more nuanced.
Divination is an unambiguous two-for-one, and a clear route to card advantage.
Nessian Asp's card advantage is driven by context.
Here in "Virtual Card Advantage," we will examine some not-obvious routes to card advantage, largely based on player behavior. Surely you will have seen situations like these already, so hopefully you will be able to use them, or use them more mindfully, in your own games.
Luis has four Elvish Mystics in hand. One, two, three, four...he plays them all!
Patrick plays an Izzet Staticaster and that is that for the Elvish Mystics.
Nothing special to see here. Just card advantage.
Luis has four Elvish Mystics in hand. As he develops, he plays out one, then the next one, still with two in hand.
At the end of Luis's turn, Patrick plays an Izzet Staticaster. He guns down the hapless Elvish Mystics on the battlefield.
Luis looks forlornly at his remaining two Elvish Mystics, and never plays them the rest of the game.
In this scenario, Patrick's Izzet Staticaster got some very real—shall we say, regular—card advantage. Patrick's Izzet Staticaster gunned down two Elvish Mystics on the first pass; we might be tempted to call that a two-for-one, but that would imply a card was used. Instead it is more like a two-for-none!
In this scenario, Patrick's Izzet Staticaster also got what we call virtual card advantage. Luis didn't play his next two Elvish Mystics. They would have just been killed! But I think you will notice that those Elvish Mystics are more or less neutralized anyway. They aren't attacking or blocking or tapping for mana. They are technically still cards Luis has access to—they're his cards in hand—but they have almost no utility in this game, for fear of the Izzet Staticaster.
Luis has gotten a slow draw; slog, slog, slog.
For his part, Patrick has still drawn his Izzet Staticaster by turn three. For the sake of saving some mana, he plays it.
Now Luis starts drawing his Elvish Mystics. Mystic, Mystic, Mystic... and Mystic. Luis completes the whole frustrating game with four Elvish Mystics in his hand.
In this variation, there is no legitimate card advantage. Here the Izzet Staticaster simply prevents any of the Mystics being played, or offering any utility.
Stop me, won't you; if you've heard this one before?
Luis, again with the slow-poke draw, doesn't draw any of his accelerators until after Patrick has already played his Izzet Staticaster. You know how this is going to work....
Or do you?
Luis is slowed down, as he was in the first couple of scenarios; then he rips a Lightning Strike, takes out the offending Izzet Staticaster, and goes about his business (which includes playing Elvish Mystics).
Here, we see the ephemeral nature of virtual card advantage showcased. Because the "card advantage" of the previous two scenarios (Luis holding back his Elvish Mystics) was entirely based on Luis's choice to keep them in hand and was not actually an exchange in resources, he never lost them. Had he actually lost them (as he did in Scenario One, and as he lost at least a couple in Scenario Two), he would not have been able to follow up on the Lightning Strike so easily.
You'll probably note that the key difference between Scenario Three and Scenario Four is that, in the former, because Patrick is never said to lose the Izzet Staticaster, Luis never loses his Elvish Mystics, but he also never uses them; there isn't a real exchange but there might as well have been. In Scenario Four, he actually gets to use them—gets them all "back" (they were never technically gone).
Luis has three Cavalry Pegasus (Pegasuses?) (Pegasi?).
Patrick has that aforementioned Nessian Asp.
Move on, carry on, nothing to see here...everybody stays home.
"A single creature holding off an army" might actually be the most common incarnation of virtual card advantage, especially in Limited play.
Here we see a situation akin to when Luis held back his Elvish Mystics for fear of Patrick's Izzet Staticaster, but with different zones.
If Luis attacks with a single Cavalry Pegasus we know what will probably happen—Patrick will block and his big creature will eat Luis's little creature in an act of practical card advantage (one-for-zero). If he attacks with two or more, Luis will get in a point or two of Cavalry Pegasus combat damage, but again lose one of those small white fliers, zero-for-one.
Here it is preferable (presumably) for Luis to give up a virtual 3 in lieu of a real one card (this might not be true were Patrick at 3 life, where Luis would expect to put him to 1 on the attack with the expectation of getting in the last point on the next attack, again losing a Pegasus).
The three-card standoff is common—until there is a breaker. If Luis draws removal for the Nessian Asp, it will be like he has a mini-Ancestral Recall, turning his three little guys back on.
Bonus Scenario Six—Dead Cards
Naya (red-green-white) mage Luis has a full grip of seven cards.
Yay for Luis!
Unfortunately, they are a combination of different Disenchant variations...two copies of Deicide, two copies of Wear & Tear, two copies of Sundering Growth, and an Unravel the Æther for good measure.
For his part, Patrick has been trucking with a lone Fleecemane Lion for several turns.
Most of the previous examples we've had for virtual card advantage have had to do with in-game player behavior, but some mages like to group "dead" card advantage under the virtual card advantage umbrella, and I do think it is worth mentioning here.
Dead cards might be the Constructed opposite number to "one creature holding off an army" for Constructed deck. Basically, when you have cards in your deck that don't do anything in a matchup, it doesn't matter if and when you've drawn them. Like poor seven-card-grip Luis in this scenario, you can have a full hand but no action.
Running main-deck Disenchant variants when the opponent has no artifacts or enchantments is fairly common, but a contender for first place is having main-deck creature removal versus a creatureless (or at least creature-poor) deck.
From our example here, the minute Patrick plays a Courser of Kruphix (which is an enchantment in addition to a 2/4 creature), Luis's hand goes live and he suddenly has some decisions to make. At the very least, he will no longer have seven stranded cards and—should he choose—will be able to go with the one-for-one of his choice.
When one player has four copies of Supreme Verdict (and probably other removal or sweep spells) and the opponent's only creature (in the deck) is a lone Ætherling, those Supreme Verdicts are probably all dead draws. Unlike an Azorius Charm, it is debatable that you can even get a meaningful "I force you into making your Ætherling disappear" moment out of all slow removal.
Bonus Scenario Seven—Token Generation
In 2014, many players will count token generation as "real" cards even though they aren't actually on cardboard (unless you count token cards). But when Eric Taylor first wrote about virtual cards, he listed token generation as one of his examples, so we are tipping our hats to Eric here. Perhaps he'll take a bite.
Consider a card like Fated Intervention:
How do you think about Fated Intervention straight up? I think of it as a two-for-one. You use one actual piece of cardboard (the Fated Intervention) and you get two 3/3 creatures. A 3/3 creature can be a real thing that someone wants to play, and the fact that these are token creatures ("virtual cards") instead of "real" (cardboard) ones generally matters only when the opponent has something along the lines of a Voyage's End (bounce spells kill tokens dead).
This gets even more interesting (or at least complicated from a counting perspective) when someone attacks into a mage with open.
Luis attacks with a Soldier of the Pantheon.
Patrick plays Fated Intervention mid-combat and blocks Soldier of the Pantheon. Splat.
Here, Patrick plays his Fated Intervention (a real card goes to the graveyard), gets two Centaurs (I'd call that a two-for-one) and turns a Soldier of the Pantheon into plaza pizza.
Luis attacks with two Witchstalkers.
Patrick plays Fated Intervention mid-combat and blocks both Witchstalkers.
Witchstalkers are tricky to kill with spells, but here, Patrick is able to use a single spell to trade with two of them! Good job, Patrick!
This is a much more straightforward one-Fated Intervention-for-two-Witchstalkers scenario. Or is it?
Luis attacks with two Gladecover Scouts.
Patrick plays Fated Intervention mid-combat and blocks both Gladecover Scouts. Splat. Splat. Gross.
Here, Patrick has lived the full-on dream. His virtual token-generating Fated Intervention starts off as a two-for-one (one piece of cardboard for two pieces of cardboard) and he gets to keep two 3/3 creatures.
Can we call this a four-for-one?
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."