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MTG Fundamentals: Card Quality and Card Advantage

"Battle of Wits" from MTG

"Battle of Wits" from MTG

Resources in MTG

Magic: The Gathering, like many other games, is a game based on resource management. What are these resources? There are many options, but the most common examples are the life points (a common saying is that all life points are expendable—except, of course, the last one) and the amount of lands that we can use in each turn to cast our own spells. Few players realize that even the cards that make up the deck are a resource, as well as the cards in our hands.

Minimum and Maximum Card Quantities

Speaking mainly of the cards in our deck, each deck has a fixed minimum quantity of cards that can be inserted into the mainboard or the sideboard. In this article, we will mainly deal with 60-card decks with 15 additional cards in the sideboard, but the same principle applies to all formats.

This quantity is usually defined as the minimum quantity to be able to access a tournament, and there are normally no restrictions on the maximum number (except for problems of deck randomization due to the difficulty of mixing too-large decks). In fact, cards have also been created that allow you to win the game if a player has more than 200 cards left in his deck during the upkeep!

Card Quality

Barring these humorous variations, a player should never exceed the minimum number of cards allowed by even a single unit. Why?

The main reason why you shouldn't put more than 60 cards in a deck (or 40 in limited) is for statistical purposes, as each additional card beyond the standard decreases the likelihood of getting the best cards in the deck in the starting hand or drawing them in the course of the game. This is especially the case for those cards that are only in 1–2 copies.

Every Card Slot Must Be Filled With a Quality Card

This effect is even more visible in limited decks consisting of 40 cards, where most of the cards are mono-copy or, in any case, limited in number. What chance will you have of drawing the rare card bomb in a 40-card deck in your starting hand? And with 45 cards? And with 50? (Hint: Respectively, the chance is 17.5%, 15.5%, and 14% on the play, and 20%, 17.7%, and 16% on the draw.)

The only exception to the rule that is more commonly accepted is in those decks that can be defined as toolbox decks (like the old Birthing Pod deck) or with the ability to tutor consistently for specific cards. In this case, the advantage of having an additional tool is greater than the statistical damage.

So, if the standard number of cards in the deck cannot be exceeded, every single slot must be chosen with due attention so that it is of high quality. It also must be suitable for the functioning of the deck and focused on gameplay optimization.

The Drawbacks of Zero-Cost Cards

This is why, very often, 0-cost cards are not used equally in all possible decks. Yet it seems counterintuitive: Why wouldn't we want to have an advantage for free?

Well, the explanation is that although we don't pay a mana cost to cast that card, we still pay a cost by wasting a slot in our deck and diluting the consistency of the deck. In these cases, the real cost is losing the opportunity to play a better card (even at the cost of having to pay its mana cost).

The only exception to this rule is when all these "0" cost cards are part of a combo deck that uses these elements to implement its gameplay (such as the old Modern Cheerios/Second Sunrise/Eggs decks).

The same also happens when, in the same pool of cards, we have access to both 2/2 at cost 2 and at cost 3. Why should I choose the worst card? Why not just play the best and call it a day?

"Birthing Pod" from MTG

"Birthing Pod" from MTG

Card Advantage

Card quality is only one side of the coin; card advantage is the second side.
Both elements must work together to maximize the beneficial effect for the functioning of the deck.

If both players draw seven starting cards and draw a card in turn, they will have access to essentially the same amount of resources—therefore, the player who can access the best-quality cards and use them in the best possible way will easily win.
Similarly, if both players have cards of similar quality and similar skills, but only one has access to more cards, the latter will have an advantage over their opponent.

Focus on the quality of the cards first and then on the card advantage immediately afterward.

Forms and Sources of Advantage

Card advantage can come in many forms.

  • Playing Cards Intelligently: The most common form of card advantage is the intelligent use of the cards at one's disposal. For example, players gain card advantage by using their resources efficiently. If one of our creatures manages to destroy more creatures during the game (for example, a 3/3 against 2/2 and 1/1 creatures), then one of our good-quality cards has very easily allowed us to gain card advantage over the opponent. Consequently, it has helped us win the game.
  • Using Multi-Target Cards: Another possible way to gain card advantage is to use cards that can hit multiple targets, such as the classic Fireball or Wrath of God.
  • Exploiting Weaknesses: You can gain an advantage by playing cards that exploit the weak points of the opponent's plays, such as using a single card to destroy a creature empowered by aura cards or combat tricks.
"Wrath of God" from MTG

"Wrath of God" from MTG

  • Building up Marginal Advantages: Another way to obtain card advantage is to use cards that offer marginal advantages that add up over time. This method is mainly related to color combinations, such as green-black or red-black, where a creature can be sacrificed for an additional effect in response to removal. In these cases, a trade is made (one-to-one exchange of cards), but one of the two players obtains a minor advantage. Alone, it's not worth a card, but when added to other small advantages, it becomes considerable.
  • Using Mana Sinks: Similar to the previous case, there can also be cards called mana sinks where the excess mana can be used for additional effects.
  • Gaining More Draws: The last source of card advantage is the use of cards that allow you to draw more than one card or to discard more than one card. (These mechanics are mainly visible in blue and black cards.) You can also use "drawing engines" that create a repeatable source of card advantage, such as by sacrificing life or other resources.

© 2021 Christian Allasia