Rhythmik Study: Card for Card

Writer’s Note: In the last Rhythmik Study, I covered the concept of resource management. This installment is the second part of the series; if you have not read Part o\One, I strongly suggest clicking here if only to get up to speed on the references I will be making in this portion of the article.

Cards are arguably the most important resource in Magic; without them, it is impossible to protect other resources. However, unlike other resources, this resource cannot be measured in a vacuum and must be measured compared to the resources of your opponent. This is what is called the concept of card advantage. Typically, the player with the most cards is the one with the most options available to him, and is the most likely to win the match. Using the concept of card advantage, though, cards in a players hand aren’t the only cards that are counted – it also counts cards that a player has in play and anything that can be used to gain an advantage against an opponent by taking cards from their hand or destroying permanents in play.

What’s in a card?

A “card” is really an abstract way of looking at cards in hand and permanents in play as resources meant to be used to attack your opponent’s resources. What constitutes a card? While many peoples’ opinions differ on what constitutes a card, my theory is that a “card” is any spell or permanent with the potential to either destroy a permanent, discard two or more cards from an opponent’s hand (or one card from a revealed hand), or deal 2 or more damage to a creature or player. So, while Dragon Fodder creates two 1/1 Goblin tokens, the tokens combined can only deal two damage, so this would only count as one card on the battlefield (except in rare circumstances where the 1/1 creatures may trade for 2/1 or 3/1 creatures). On the other hand, Siege-Gang Commander is a 2/2 creature that creates three 1/1 Goblin tokens. Not only does 5 mana and one card put 5 power worth of creatures on the table, but with an additional mana investment, each 1/1 token has the ability to deal 2 damage to a creature or player. If the opponent had four 2/2 creatures in play at the time you untapped with Siege-Gang Commander, an extra investment of mana would trade one card used from your hand for up to four cards your opponent invested from his hand in previous turns. Since cards are a finite resource – under normal circumstances, you draw one card each turn – this trade of four of his cards for one of yours (referred to simply as a four-for-one) has set your opponent back four turns worth of drawn cards – and cleared the way for any creature you still have in play to attack an opponent’s life.

Many newer players don’t understand that mana is not the only resource, and that each spell you play actually does cost a card to play. This is why cards like Shield Sphere, Ornithopter and Kobolds of Kher Keep are not good – they all cost a resource without offering any return. This is also why Divination is only a +1 as opposed to a +2 even though you are actually drawing two cards.

One of the downsides, however, to drawing cards is that the cards you draw may be worth less than a card – especially lands. After a certain point in the game, lands become worth less and less until they are eventually worth zero cards. At that point, no matter how many lands you draw, they will be worth stone cold nothing in regards to progressing your game plan.

Virtual Card Advantage

While each card in a player’s hand is a resource waiting to be used, these resources mean nothing if they cannot be used. Though the most common example is simply a player who misses land drops and cannot cast the spells in his or her hand, this applies to any situation where any or all of the cards in a player’s hand won’t be castable. For example, the Mythic Conscription deck is a deck that focuses on playing cards like Noble Hierarch, Birds of Paradise and Lotus Cobra to accelerate mana so the player can cast threats like Sovereigns of Lost Alara and Baneslayer Angel. Against a deck like this, landing an early Cunning Sparkmage can not only render the mana accelerants in the players hand useless (since they will die to the Sparkmage before the Mythic player can untap), but also leaves completely uncastable high-end threats in the player’s hand.

Entire decks are built around this principle. For example, the recent development of the Pyromancers Ascension deck is just another in a long line of decks designed to leave uncastable creature removal in the opponent’s hand. This strategy essentially amounts to forcing the opponent to start with 6 or even 5 cards in hand, as Terminates, Path to Exiles and Day of Judgements will never find targets, and forcing an opponent to start at this deficit can buy enough time for the creatureless decks to assemble their game plan and win. While this strategy almost always wins Game 1, after sideboarding, players tend to sideboard out all creature removal to mitigate the potential card disadvantage.

Cantrips and Card Disadvantage

As I mentioned previously, some cards have effects that are significantly underpowered for their mana cost, but draw a card in addition to their effect. These cards are called cantrips. Have you ever wondered why Kraken Hatchling and Convincing Mirage were bad, but Wall of Omens and Spreading Seas are not only good, but Standard staples? It’s because they do exactly what you need them to do, without costing you a card in hand. Cards like Wall of Omens can even force players to overcommit resources to the board, allowing huge amounts of card advantage to gained from a Day of Judgement – especially since the Wall of Omens doesn’t really cost a card. If played correctly, cantrips can even be used to cost the opponent a card (e.g. Cryptic Command, countering a spell and drawing a card) allowing more potential gains for card advantage.

Putting yourself at a position for card disadvantage is not always a bad thing. If a Baneslayer is looming overhead in the way of an opponent who is at relatively low life, using two Lightning Bolts on it is perfectly acceptable. If an all-in attack will cost you three creatures and only cost your opponent two creatures, but will put your opponent at 1 life (or within range of topdecked burn), losing some advantage to force an opponent to make risky plays can absolutely be the best call. While managing your own resources, it’s also good to force an opponent to juggle their resources. Remember that even though maintaining card advantage is the best way to stay in control in the mid-game, the ultimate goal is still to reduce your opponent’s life to zero before they can do the same to you.

Topdecking for Tomorrow

That’s going to be it for this week. I’ve just barely scratched the surface of card advantage, but hopefully these basics are enough to help your win your next FNM or local tournament! As always, you can follow @Rhythmik on Twitter, or send me a friend request on Facebook! And be sure to check back in two weeks for the next edition of Rhythmik Study. I have a lot of testing to do for the Pro Tour next month, but I’ll be glad to talk to anyone willing to listen to my ramblings! Until next time, play tight, and I’ll see you in Amsterdam!

Jeph “Rhythmik” Foster.