Beginner’s Luck: Acquiring Advantages

Hello again.

So, last month we looked at the somewhat unfairly reviled practice of netdecking, and I tried to explain why I think some people find it so frustrating. This month, we’ll be looking at card advantage; what it is, why it’s so important, and how it can be acquired. Then, I’ll attempt to fuse the two topics together by looking at a recently publicized deck idea that has a lot to do with card advantage.

What is it?

Card advantage is gained when one of your cards is made to be worth more than one card (usually more than one of your opponent’s cards, but we’ll come to that later). Card advantage comes in a variety of flavors; some of them are quite hard to spot mid-game, and some of them can appear to be there when actually they are not. In exploring the different varieties thoroughly, hopefully I’ll be able to assist you in piercing these illusions. Once we’ve got our terms clear, we can go on to explain why card advantage is a really good thing.

Real Card Advantage

This is the easiest type to explain, and the basis for all the variants. When one of your cards is made to be worth more than one card, you gain real card advantage. This occurs most commonly when you use a removal spell or counter spell that deals with more than one of your opponent’s cards; for example, if you Doom Blade a Glory Seeker that’s enchanted with Lifelink, both the creature and the aura go to the graveyard. You have played a card from your hand to remove two cards from your opponent’s side of the board. Cards like Day of Judgment that destroy more than one permanent of the same type (usually known as ‘sweepers’) are great for generating card advantage.

Card drawing spells also fit into this category; a Divination in your hand is ‘worth’ two cards when you cast it. The trade-off with draw spells is that they slow you down; you have to pay mana to gain the card advantage, which slows you down. I’ll talk about tempo next month, since the two topics are closely related. Many cards, particularly older ones, offer you a moderate effect and a card draw at a reasonable price, instead of a more powerful effect. Compare Bandage with Healing Salve; Bandage offers you a weedier damage prevention effect, but it doesn’t reduce the number of cards in your hand to play it. These type of cards (often called ‘cantrips’, I think) gain you card advantage, but you have to be careful; they are essentially compromises between efficacy and cost, and quite often what you gain in terms of card advantage you lose in terms of tempo (again, more next month).

Virtual Card Advantage

When you make a card in your opponent’s hand redundant or unplayable, you gain virtual card advantage- so called because although it doesn’t change the number of cards that player really has in hand, it reduces the number he can actually use. Perhaps the simplest way of gaining virtual card advantage is by not playing creatures, or only creatures with shroud; this makes all of your opponent’s removal spells unplayable. Similarly, if he has a card like Naturalize but you have no artifacts or enchantments, that’s virtual card advantage to you. This is why, incidentally, very specialized cards like Naturalize tend to go in the sideboard rather than the main deck; because against an unknown deck, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t need them. Most players put them in the sideboard to avoid inflicting virtual card disadvantage on themselves. It also goes some way to explaining why versatile cards like Maelstrom Pulse are so good; whereas there are plenty of situations where you won’t be able to find a use for a naturalize, your Maelstrom Pulses will always find viable targets.

Getting the number of lands in your deck wrong leaves you very vulnerable to virtual card disadvantage; if you find yourself drawing lands later on in the game when you have more mana than you need, you’re experiencing virtual card disadvantage. This is because the land is worth virtually nothing to you; it adds nothing to your ability to beat your opponent. On the other hand, if you have so few lands that you find yourself regularly drawing high-cost spells when you don’t have enough mana to play them, you will inflict virtual card disadvantage on yourself by filling your hand with cards you cannot cast. For this reason you could also say that fast decks win against slow decks by means of virtual card disadvantage; if you have a handful of 3- and 4mana cards and are dead before your fourth turn, those cards might as well not have been there. Of course, you could also say that fast decks win against slow decks by, you know, winning faster, but that’s neither here nor there.

Negative Card Advantage

Talking about negative advantages is clumsy I know, but it’s a convenient way to phrase what cards like Mind Rot do for you, rather than against the enemy. When you cast Mind Rot, it costs you three mana and a card, and your opponent discards the two cards he feels he needs least; you get the most value out of the card when either he chooses wrongly, or has no choice (due to having only two cards in hand, let’s say). You are slightly worse off that you were, since you’re down a card an three mana, but your opponent could be in a much sorrier state if you’ve timed it right– which is why Mind Rot is fine in a duel but loses a lot of its value in a multiplayer game, where the main thing it will do is allow the other players, who don’t get any of the downsides, to benefit at your expense.

Discard spells like Duress, which allow you to pick cards out of your opponent’s hand, are rather different; they don’t generate any real card advantage (non-targeted discard spells like Mind Rot generate ‘real negative card advantage’) since you use one of your cards to take one of theirs. They can, however, gain you serious increases in tempo, and in terms of virtual card advantage, if you can make some of the cards in your opponent’s hand much less attractive plays by removing one key card. The only example I can think of at the moment is taking out a key piece in a combo deck like the Ideas Unbound in a storm player’s hand; if you take away that vital card, playing the rest of the cards in his hand becomes far less advantageous to him.

Card Quality

One last way to measure card advantage is in terms of quality; cards which allow you to search your library or pick cards out of your opponent’s hand buy you an increase in card quality in exchange for a loss of speed (Duress is the defensive equivalent of Demonic Tutor). Since this type of card is so bound up with tempo, I’ll leave off talking about them until next time.

Why is it important?

Another way of phrasing this question would be ‘why do we measure the value of cards in terms of how many cards they are worth?’ One answer is that the number of cards you have access to is the most easily depleted resource in the game, and probably the hardest to recover effectively. Your life total usually takes longer to chip away at than your hand (if this was not the case, then Sign in Blood would be suicidal) and is probably easier to replace (Rest for the Weary, for instance, depletes 14% of your starting hand but restores 40% of your life total); your library takes far longer to run down and generally has less impact on the game, although admittedly it’s tricky to get it back once it’s gone; board position can be recovered efficiently if your opponent slips up, and, of course, it costs him to damage it in the first place.

Another answer is that cards in hand are a way of measuring the passage of time in the game; every turn, the clock ticks, and you draw a card. If you manage to draw an extra card during your turn, you have pulled off just a little piece of a Time Walk against your opponent. If you force him to discard a card, you have pushed him a little way back in time. More on this next month, of course!

A third answer is that having card advantage makes it more likely that your deck will provide you with exactly that: an answer, or a way to finish the game. If you are being slowly suffocated to death by a press of Elves, then if you can draw into extra cards while stopping your opponent from doing the same, the chances of you finding a board sweeper before he can find a counter spell or a finisher increase exponentially. And of course the reverse is true; when your opponent is reeling in the face of your green spandex-clad fury, the greater card advantage you have, the greater your chances of pummeling him to death with your tiny pixie fists before he has chance to recover. In this sense, card advantage is only as good as your deck; if you just don’t have that Wrath of God, then no amount of Pondering is going to put it into your hand. A friend recently suggested to me that a good way to see if you are playing a dud deck is to put in two to four Senseis Divining Tops, on top of your 60. The Tops may well make your deck actually play worse, especially if it has a low curve, but that’s not the issue; if you are rarely pleased to see these behemoths of card quality advantage, it’s a strong indicator your deck needs a rethink. This is not an acid test by any means, but there’s some wisdom to it.

The Finale

It seems there’s been some excitement lately about the possibility of uniting Megrim and Lilianas Caress in a Standard deck for a brief months, before they pass like ships in the night. I really, really like discard (by which I mean negative real card advantage) as a strategy; and I like Hannu Vallin’s Megrims! (constantly reminds me of Sid Meier’s Pirates!), though not as much as I could. It’s more of a combo deck really, abusing the synergy between the Megrim effects and Burning Inquiry; you just have to note the shortage of discard spells to see that this isn’t a true discard deck. Jacob Van Lunen had a bash at a budget version of the deck, but it didn’t quite work out, and wasn’t received at all well in the forums.

Working on the assumption that Hannu’s and Van Lunen’s decks are not actually that similar, I’m going to look primarily at Jacob’s; there’s definitely something wrong with it, so let’s see if we can diagnose it and fix it…

(I’ve constructed the sideboard based on comments Jacob made about what he would have included, had he had time to test it).

In terms of card advantage, this deck looks in some ways great and in some ways awful; for example, there are quite a few spells that cause your opponent to discard cards, but none of them are very focused. Burning Inquiry does not generate card advantage, and Mind Rot and Blightning both allow your opponent to choose which cards to bin. There are some excellent card drawing spells, but they all cost you life points- a considerable and uncontrollable amount in the case of Dark Tutelage!

I think there are essentially three problems here; as Jacob pointed out, it’s not great that the deck wants to cast the enchantments first and the discard spells later, since negative card advantage is most powerful early in the game. The second, related, problem is that it’s not interactive enough; it offers your opponent too much time to set up his board unmolested. Lastly, notice that there are plenty of cards that use your life total as a resource and not enough that replenish it.

The first thing I noticed about this deck is that there’s no Duress or Inquisition of Kozilek present at all; this seems like a bad idea to me, since they are both excellent cards, albeit more useful in some situations than others. They are excellent early on for pulling cards out of your opponent’s hand that he might have used to prevent you from winning, or to end the game himself before you can get going. Given that control seems to be quite a popular archetype at the moment, using your first turn to take away your opponent’s cheapest counter spell to clear the way for a Turn 2 Lilianas Caress seems like a good strategy. Later in the game when your enchantments are in play, they are admittedly less efficient at dealing damage than Burning Inquiry, but look at it like this; Burning Inquiry does virtually nothing in the early game, then 6 damage per enchantment. Duress and Inquisition, by contrast, do something extremely important in the early game, and deal two damage per enchantment later on. I think swapping at least two of the Inquiries for Duress or Inquisition is a viable move, but it does mean the total points of damage the deck can do is lowered, so we’ll need to make them up elsewhere.

I should also point out that the Inquiry messes up your hand as well as your opponent’s; the implication is that because your deck is focused on achieving one thing and one thing only, your are more likely to draw into useful cards than they are. I don’t think this is actually true; when you cast Burning Inquiry, at a rough estimate you’ll usually draw one discard spell at best, one land, and an enchantment or a second land. I really don’t think it merits four slots; Blightning does nearly as much damage with two enchantments on the board, so is nearly as good a finisher, and is useful even without them.

Speaking of damage: running Dark Tutelage and Sign in Blood in a deck that can only possibly gain 4 life through the course of the game seems like a bad idea to me. Sign in Blood is perfect in mono-Black decks, because those decks can make more effective use of the cards that demand a heavy commitment to black, like Tendrils of Corruption and Consume Spirit. This feeling is borne out by the fact that Jacob killed himself with a second Dark Tutelage in one of his test games (perhaps deliberately? I’m not sure). Dark Tutelage is potentially a great card, but I really feel this isn’t the deck for it; Sign in Blood, by contrast, is absolutely essential. Let’s earmark two Dark Tutelage slots for Duress and two for Blood Tithe; an excellent substitute for Tendrils of Corruption that featured in Hannu Vallen’s sideboard. Here we’ve made up for some of the ability to deal damage we gave away by removing Burning Inquiry, and increased the total life we can gain by 150%!

In Conclusion

To summarize: I think we can solve the three problems with Jacob’s deck by including cheaper discard spells, including targeted discard spells, and including some way to gain life. The things we should cut are those which are no good if the enchantments are not in play. Having made my comments, I’m going to pull a fast one and not suggest a deck list. This is first and foremost because, I sincerely regret, I will not have time to playtest it properly before this article reaches your retinae. I have three or four possible ideas about how to finish this deck off, that I will include next month. For now, here’s three cards I think would be delicious and delectable, by way of a tantalizing teaser:

So anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this obscenely long article; I don’t claim originality for much of this analysis of card advantage, but I do claim it is (mostly) correct. The lesson to take home for this month is essentially this: be aware of the different ways you can gain and lose card advantage, and try to keep track of it during games. It’s a crucial element in ensuring victory.

Until next time,


  1. I think the article is very nice and detailed, and am looking forward to you going deeper on certain subjects.

    In regards to the megrim deck, like you said it is essentially a combo deck, and burning inquiry is one of the most efficient kill cards. I don’t think cutting them in a deck with no search is a goodidea. The weak point of discard is traditionally that it has no effect once your opponent has no more cards in hand and has enough lands to play anything they draw off the top, but inquiry bypasses that which is huge. I agree dark tutelage should be cut to a 1-2 of for the 1 mana discards instead.

  2. Great article as per usual, Pete. Yr humble insights are ever appreciated by yours truly.