Feature Article from Zvi Mowshowitz

Advantage - VCA and Tempo

Zvi Mowshowitz


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Part two is all about tempo and past attempts to relate tempo and card advantage. It is important to be careful, because tempo can easily be misused. I'll only get around to defining it formally in part five. It's that slippery. Once it is established where tempo originally came from, that's enough tools to look at virtual card advantage and VCA is where theory starts to say useful things rather than obvious things.

Eric Taylor on Tempo

You can skip this one if you already know the classic meaning of tempo. Tempo theory has come a long way since the Mirage Block era, and this now looks far more elementary than it was at the time. Taylor draws a very logical line separating card advantage and tempo advantage, which are profitably thought of as different things. He does a very good job of showing how different decks go after one more than the other. One odd note is that while Memory Lapse clearly is a problematic card for Hammer's deck to play a modern player would probably put it in anyway, knowing that he can't afford the tempo loss involved in not doing so and illustrating the principle of a deck that has inevitability giving back the resource it has more of than it needs in order to not lose on tempo. Modern players have been forced to play cards that work against their deck's theme more often because their competitors are playing too efficient a game to grant them the advantage of using better cards.

One final note of historical interest: The deck thinning of Land Tax is more important than it looks because you're also giving yourself lands out of the deck, making drawing land pointless, so it's unfair to compare it to Ancestral Knowledge directly. I'll revisit this at the appropriate time.

Eric Taylor: Cards versus Time

These links contains four articles, all of which are of interest but whose points may seem obvious to those well versed in later theory, making them of only historical interest to advanced players. We've taken these lessons and incorporated them into our way of thinking about Magic. The Sideboard article was written last, but I'm putting it first because the writing there is easier to understand while what he's saying is more basic. Here he equates mana and tempo, rather than his otherwise more carefully worded and nuanced approach that reminds us they're closely related but not identical.

That's the nature of the two sites: The Dojo was about the free exchange of ideas, The Sideboard was and still is at least half presentation when it has something to present. A good rule of thumb might be that a net loss of mana or the loss of an opportunity to get ahead on the effective amount of mana spent should invite an evaluation of the game in terms of tempo, and any game thought of in terms of tempo requires a close look at all mana spent. The second helps flesh out the trade off between cards and time, the most basic of various such tradeoffs in the game. The third is a sort of basic assertion of Magic theory, distilled into this quote from Jon Finkel: "There's the right play, and then there's the mistake." No excuses, no whining. If I had a Magic university I would put that quote in bold letters above the entrance. The fourth once again reinforces the concept of time as a trade off against card advantage.

Chad Ellis on Tempo

He refers back to "Who's the Beatdown?" which I'll cover later, but you don't need it to understand what he has to say. Chad's point here is that tempo isn't just about mana and what's on the board. It's also about life totals. The result of tempo loss is typically life loss, or lack of an opponent's life loss, and life totals determine how concerned players should be about tempo. Again the comparison and trade off of different resources is prominent. Note however that tempo does not have to be about life. It can be, and the majority of the time it is, but in some matchups the 'beatdown' that one or both players seek to inflict takes a form other than life, and tempo remains important there. Tempo can be reflected in any of the game's other resources over time, depending on the cards involved; life is just the most popular choice.

Andrew Johnson: Two Kings, One Throne

Andrew overplays his hand, but does so intentionally and in a useful way. Also watch out for his jargon, because it even tripped me up until I had a discussion and realized I was misusing the term card quality that he uses when he should be using something like card impact, which is what I've chosen to call it. Start with the first article on card advantage, and skip down to the flow chart if you don't want to go off topic. It claims all that matters is card advantage: When we have gained card advantage, we have won. If you're careful enough with your definition of card advantage, which Andrew never tries to nail to the wall, and choose your definition with an eye towards this end his statement might even be true, but in that direction lies a technical mess of Herculean proportions. What he means isn't quite that strong anyway. All he's really saying is that if you get more value from your stuff than your opponent and use all your stuff without accidentally getting killed along the way then you'll win the game, and that can come from having more stuff, from having better stuff or making better use of your stuff than he does. He incorporates card impact into card advantage and calls it a combination of "getting your money's worth" and card selection, since card selection is about getting cards that get you your money's worth, and also makes it clear that he's talking about VCA at several points without using that term. Cards that remain unused are explicitly mentioned as not counting, which is the most important aspect of VCA. The entire game is card advantage.

Now move on to his article on tempo and watch the world reverse itself. From the perspective of this article, tempo is all that matters in Magic. If you didn't know any better, you'd walk away thinking card advantage is all but irrelevant. Then go back and consider his article on card advantage: If we generate card advantage, we have won. His most important statement this time is: Whoever spends the most mana will almost always end up winning the game. That's quite a stretch, and I don't think the more realistic version of this one is true, but it is safe to point out that every point of mana spent efficiently generates an advantage for the player spending it, and every point not spent efficiently (or worse, not spent, or even worse early on not played at all) generates a disadvantage. The goal here is to spend all your mana every turn while generating a profitable board situation, but it is only one goal of many even in a discussion of tempo and Andrew points to several other aspects in the article. Card advantage is lurking in the back of this discussion because at some point the players threaten to run out of cards in hand, and whoever does that no longer has anything to do with his mana: Card advantage matters when a lack of useful cards starts to punish one player, or the threat of a future lack of cards punishes that player.

By looking at the entire game through two separate sets of eyes, each of which subdivides again, you gain the ability to choose the one that is most applicable to the current situation. It would be even more useful if this was more formalized than it is, but that wasn't his goal and the series was never finished.

GT on Virtual Card Advantage

His introduction is a defense of Cardboard Advantage, which you can safely skip. His examples in its defense are actually kind of scary, because it looks like he isn't excluding tokens to set a foundation: He actually wants them excluded outright, and uses the bad argument that they can't be one each. No one's actually suggesting that ten soldiers count as ten cards, or at least I hope they aren't. So just jump ahead to the article itself, and feel free to start skimming if you feel you already understand what he's saying in one section. The whole token issue is a minor issue, because anyone can factor them in manually when it's clear that you need to.

Keep in mind here that I'm not going in chronological order. Instead, I'm going in what I consider to be a more logical order, and this one logically should come next. What is going on here are two things. He's trying to provide a clear description of VCA, which is excellent, but he's also overreaching with his definition into things that have nothing to do with VCA, and that's problematic. His heart is in the right place, because he's trying to answer the more important question "How do I win this game?" but he's misusing the term by trying to stretch it to cover things it was never meant to include. I'm with him for the first four examples, but then he starts overreaching.

That overreach is about as big as they come, although I understand how it happened: He claims that "Every game is won with VCA." This isn't even remotely true. VCA is just a method of fleshing out simpler versions of card advantage to correctly assess more situations. It's very good at it, but Magic is not a game uniquely about card advantage. Magic's great charm is that, while two games are on occasion the same no matter what the marketing department says, what is important varies from game to game. Some games are about card advantage in simple form, others are about VCA in various ways, others are about tempo or a number of other things. I would correct his statement by taking out two words: Every game is won with Advantage. I would then go on to state that more often than not, but not always, the proper way to look at a situation ends up looking a lot like a form of VCA.

It sounds kind of silly to put it that way, but I think that's the most useful way of looking at these issues. If I won the game, there was a reason, and it could be anything from cards in my library to time left on your Magic Online clock. The alternative is to try and make everything else into card advantage, in this case VCA, by using a trick. That trick goes like this: If I've won the game, all your cards are useless. You've lost! Therefore, anything that wins me the game must grant me VCA equal to the number of cards you have available. For some reason my cards are still useful, even though I've already won so mine aren't doing much of anything either. What just happened was that some other aspect of the game made card advantage irrelevant. Some other kind of advantage just carried the day. The majority of games revolve around some kind of card advantage, so it seems like the logical place to unify things, but it leads to absurd statements.

A pair of Phyrexian Negators is a fine first turn play, but I don't think it is best to think of this as VCA. It is very useful to think of this as a tempo advantage, or even a clock advantage, that trumps any amount of CA or VCA. In this particular example calling the problem VCA is more helpful than you would expect because this is a good example of the opposing player dying because he never got a chance to cast his spells, which is the most common way for cards and tempo to trade off. It would be easy however to construct other situations where talking in terms of VCA only makes sense if you're forcing yourself to talk about every situation that way in an effort to unify all situations under one banner. A deck of forty-one Islands goes up against a deck of forty Plains. Look at a realistic version of that example, the battle between two W/U control decks at the Chicago where I played Fires. Because of the way these decks were built, neither would ever be able to damage the other, and players who realized that and let their opponents Fact or Fiction so they would have less cards in their deck ended up winning the match. Two decks with nothing but Phantom Warriors race for the finish line. Almost any game won by Millstone that wasn't already locked up by the control player - see Humpherys vs. Ziegner at Worlds 2002.

Why is it so tempting to convert these wins into VCA even in those situations where something else is going on? Magic is a battle of cards, and everything is done by those cards and a few tokens those cards created. When you lose, those cards didn't do their job because their job is to win you the game. Bad cards! Dead cards! That leads to blaming tempo losses on non-tempo cards being dead, life point losses to cards that don't gain you life being dead, and repeat for other causes like a Millstone or even poison counters. You could do a lot worse, as long as you keep in mind where the battle is and what you have to do - in other words, as long as you don't try to get any use out of this system in those places it doesn't belong.

Cause and Effect
Tait's second article, continued.

Only use card advantage in situations where card advantage (in some form) matters, or might matter in the future. When the battle isn't about cards, choose another unit of measurement (see that section below). An attempt to get rid of tempo by saying that "all you're doing is trying to stop your opponent from having the time to play his spells, which is just VCA" is laughable to me. Tempo is a lot more than just stopping your opponent from playing his spells; games are won all the time with tempo despite both players casting all their spells. Once that argument is discarded and the more interesting theory at the core of this idea is examined, it must be taken seriously, but I would respond in two ways. The first is that this is still an attempt to force one type of advantage under the banner of another, although in the majority of situations you can figure out with logic what one is worth in terms of the other and combine them if you find that useful. The second is that this unification is largely a confusion of cause and effect.

Watch out for confusing cause and effect, especially with VCA. One major line of argument for every game being won by VCA is more dangerous than I first gave it credit for, but I E-mailed Tait to ask him about it and his defense became clear. When I'm about to lose, all my cards are useless because they won't stop me from losing. That means that in any game I lose I'm at a severe VCA disadvantage, so every game is won by VCA. Whether the bulk of this argument is strictly true on its face depends on how you choose to apply VCA to situations where one player is about to win the game. You could argue that any pass into the end zone to win the game outright constitutes an end run around card advantage, virtual or otherwise, and renders it irrelevant because something else like tempo has taken over, or you can say that it's still out there but cards that don't get in the way of whichever kill is going to happen first are now dead. You could also say there are two levels of VCA going on at once, the one about the kill and the one about what happens afterwards if the kill is stopped. The key thing to keep in mind here is that lost VCA is not causing you to lose the game. Losing the game is causing you to lose VCA, and rather directly.

Definition: Blanking

A card is blank if it has become functionally a blank card, either because of the game state or because of the contents of the two decks. Blanking is the act of making a card blank, or effectively useless. The question now becomes what counts as useless and what does not. I answer that question like this: A card is blank if and only if given full knowledge of both decks and hands you would physically be willing to exchange it for a blank card or you would be willing to put it in the bottom half of your deck and put a blank card into your hand to take its place. A card that you don't have time for isn't blank unless there is no way for it to cause you to win the game at some point in the future. Even if I have to draw ten perfect cards in a row to get out of this mess, as long as this card will end up winning me games I would otherwise lose it is not blank. This will often come down to an issue of Inevitability, since any deck with enough of it no longer has any use for any long term cards it draws.

Virtual Card Advantage: Uncastable Cards

When is a card that is currently uncastable blank? The answer that all cards you don't have the mana available to cast are blank and therefore don't count towards VCA is not acceptable, because it ignores natural mana development and other things that will happen in the future. Technically it might work, but the answers you get will often be highly misleading. A better answer will need to be flexible, and in some ways forces you to hold contradictory things in your head at once: This card is currently dead, but it counts because in the future it won't be dead, but at the same time cards that bring it to life still add value despite the fact that in some ways you were counting that value anyway, but if you need such cards to make the card live then that makes the card less valuable. That was a mouthful, but all it is trying to say is: A card in your hand is valuable to the extent that having it in your hand increases your probability of winning.

That takes things into the realm of planning. Without considering the course of the entire game, it is impossible to evaluate what cards are worth, which is something that I haven't even attempted at this point. To get farther, the entire course of the game must be considered and cards will have to start being thought of in terms of the impact they have rather than either counting or not counting. In a way, this is where the classical ends and the modern begins.

- Zvi

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