THE END of Virtual Card Advantage
Michael Flores

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who wrote in with feedback on our two articles from last week, Strategy, Tactics, and Operations: The Basis and Developing the Plan. Most of the feedback was very positive (not the least of which was Zvi himself doing a related follow-up article), but there were some questions posed as well.

In particular, many Brainburst Premium users seemed to disagree with my analysis of the situation described here:


Player 1 is playing an Extended Psychatog deck. Player 2 is playing Draco-Explosion. Both decks have powerful reactive spells, tons of deck manipulation, and the ability to set up a lethal kill - seemingly out of nowhere - in the span of just one or two turns. At the end of Player 2's turn, Player 1 casts Accumulated Knowledge; there is already one Accumulated Knowledge in Player 1's graveyard. He draws two cards.

On its face, we would say that this is a 2-for-1, a net gain of one card on the part of Player 1. But what if Player 1 drew a pair of Smothers off his Accumulated Knowledge? In classical terms, he did increase hand size by one card, but in terms of relevance, Player 1 did not generate any advantage whatsoever: there are literally no Smother targets in his opponent's deck.

By far, the most common response was that card advantage was, in fact, generated in this exchange. The Psychatog player would have to draw those two accursed Smothers his next two draw steps anyway, wouldn't he? Didn't the Accumulated Knowledge prevent two future dead draws?

The answer is maybe.

One of the topics we tried to highlight with last week's articles is that all notions of card advantage, most strategy, and exchanges in Magic in general, take place in the context of time. You are not allowed to make the comment that the Psychatog player would draw Smothers for the next two turns; not necessarily, anyway. What if the two Smothers were all the Psychatog player had? He had no clock in play, certainly no resistance to an opposing combination setup. Can we really say that the Psychatog player can successfully fight a Draco-Explosion deck with just a pair of Smothers? Can we say that he gets to have his next two draw steps to pick them up in the first place?

Sure, many times the Psychatog player will prevent himself from two future dead draws with the Accumulated Knowledge in our example, but the fact that he trades one potentially relevant Accumulated Knowledge for two Smothers that are irrelevant in the short term does not in any way say that card advantage has been established in the casting of that particular Accumulated Knowledge.

Remember, we are looking at the Accumulated Knowledge as a snapshot. Using this kind of model, we do not look at cards over the long term, because in actuality, huge swings in cards can be made with seemingly simple, single, exchanges.

Say a player draws five extra cards with Jayemdae Tome, and then his opponent casts a Mind Sludge for his entire hand. How many cards did the Jayemdae Tome effectively draw? How is it useful to know? What if the second player would have cast Mind Sludge whether or not the first player drew those five extra cards? Didn't the first player simply allow his opponent to wreck him worse with a card like Mind Sludge? Is it even interesting to know any of this information? Isn't it more interesting to know what each player has left over after the Mind Sludge resolves?


...Say a player draws five extra cards with Jayemdae Tome, and then his opponent casts a Mind Sludge for his entire hand. How many cards did the Jayemdae Tome effectively draw? How is it useful to know?..




THE END

Eisner Award-winning Writer/Artist David Lapham claims:

"A happy ending is knowing where to put these words: THE END. If you keep going, all stories end tragically. They end in death - usually preceded by some horrible painful ailment - so if you want some smiles, you'd better THE END your way out while the gettin[g']s good."

If we say THE END at the point of the successful Mind Sludge, the mighty black player has just generated five-for-one card advantage or so. He is our card advantage hero.

If we say THE END just a turn earlier, the Jayemdae Tome player is our hero. He's got a grip full of cards, and cards in hand is good.

If we say THE END the turn after the Mind Sludge, maybe the Jayemdae Tome will pull its controller way ahead, or draw him into the cards he needs to win.

None of these THE ENDs tells us anything about the outcome of the game (If we say THE END later in the turn of that fateful successful Mind Sludge, we may find the black player has just "played it safe" in clearing his opponent's hand, and then followed up with a lethal Corrupt); nor do they tell us whether the right play has been made in any case. Don't make the mistake of saying that an exchange yields card advantage because it happens to be the right play; by the same token, the right play very often concedes card advantage in the short term. No one ever said the Psychatog player in our original example didn't do the right thing by casting his Accumulated Knowledge; no one said he wasn't probably forwarding his long-term plan or goal… The controversy is whether or not the Accumulated Knowledge itself generated card advantage.

The interesting thing about the Psychatog / Draco-Explosion / Accumulated Knowledge / Smother hypothetical is that it calls for a fairly sophisticated understanding of card relevance to begin with. It asks you to understand that a Smother in hand doesn't do very much against a deck without creature-based threats of mana cost less than 4.

Let's look at a similar situation that might come up more commonly right now.

You are playing a R/W Onslaught / Onslaught / Legions draft deck against your opponent's also R/W deck. He curved out with a Goblin Sledder on turn one, started beating you down on the second turn, and followed up with the mighty Sparksmith. You curse going second, staring at the Glory Seeker in your hand, as well as a collection of morphs of varying ability.

The cards in your deck capable of killing a Sparksmith are one Shock, one Erratic Explosion, a Gempalm Incinerator, and a Sparksmith of your own. Unfortunately, given the current board position, the only spells in your deck that are relevant at all are any toughness 3+ creatures you might play, the Shock, and the Erratic Explosion. If you play the Glory Seeker, one of the morphs, or any other x/2 creatures, your opponent with 20 life will just pick it off with his Sparksmith; if you play your own Sparksmith, it will be just as dead. If you cycle your Gempalm Incinerator, targeting the Sparksmith, the opponent can sacrifice the Goblin Sledder to make his Sparksmith 2/2, leaving the board with only one Goblin, meaning the now 2/2 Sparksmith will withstand the awesome power of this Gempalm creature (on the other hand, subsequent to this cycle, you should be able play guys with a toughness less than 3).

In the meantime, all of your x/2 creatures are going to be fairly useless. Before turn 5 or so, they will be Shocks to your opponent's head at best; on or around turn 5, when you may be able to cast more than one in any given turn, the opponent will then at least have to decide which creature to kill. Now there may be some reason you want to Shock your opponent with every card you draw (maybe you are trying to get him to 7 or fewer life for a Searing Flesh), but for the most part, you have a lot of dead draws coming. A 2/2 in play? He's as good as dead. A 2/2 in hand? Corpse-in-waiting. Easy, right?

We could say, even if the Sparksmith didn't kill a single one of your creatures, that it generates tons of card advantage. EDT called this "Virtual Card Advantage." The Sparksmith isn't stopping you from drawing cards every turn. He isn't even stopping you from playing creatures if you want to… he's just making you look foolish for every non-Shock, non-Erratic Explosion that you draw.

THE END

There's that pesky THE END again. Why do we bother to distinguish Virtual Card Advantage from true card advantage? While all card advantage can be fluid (look at our Jayemdae Tome player above, who thought he out-drew his opponent by four, only to be Mind Sludged for his hand), Virtual Card Advantage is particularly tenuous. The minute you successfully Shock the Sparksmith, you don't just get a 1-for-1 exchange against your opponent's best common, you enable the relevance of all the x/2 creatures that you drew. You might just 5-for-1 your opponent with that Shock.

Then again, the extra four cards would never have lost relevance but for that Sparksmith.

Then again, maybe the turns the Sparksmith stole, allowing your opponent to get his game going on the board, will be too great an advantage, even though you just caught him with a 5-for-1.

Then again, maybe he's so far ahead, or has such big creatures at this point, that the x/2 creatures in your hand don't mean very much after all.

Which, if any, of these scenarios is the right one depends on the specific temporal position of the game.

Another really good example of Virtual Card Advantage is Moat. In fact, in terms of high-level Magic analysis, it might all come back to Moat. Here is a deck that propelled possibly more discussion than any other:

The Deck - Brian Weissman (circa April 1996)

1 Black Lotus
2 Disrupting Scepter
1 Jayemdae Tome
1 Mirror Universe
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sol Ring

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Amnesia
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Braingeyser
2 Counterspell
4 Mana Drain
1 Recall
1 Timetwister
1 Time Walk

1 Regrowth

2 Red Elemental Blast

4 Disenchant
2 Moat
2 Serra Angel
4 Swords to Plowshares

4 City of Brass
4 Islands
1 Library of Alexandria
3 Plains
3 Strip Mine
4 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island

Sideboard:
1 Disrupting Scepter
1 Ivory Tower
1 Feldon's Cane
1 Jayemdae Tome
1 Tormod's Crypt
2 Blood Moon
1 Fireball
2 Red Elemental Blast
2 Circle of Protection: Red
2 Divine Offering
1 Moat

Most of you probably know that this deck represents the archetype, popularized by Brian Weissman, that got Robert Hahn to start working on the seminal Schools of Magic. Hahn went on to tell the world about Weissman's ideas of card advantage, begat Frank Kusumoto, who even before The Dojo facilitated such occurrences as Pat Chapin's Top 8 in the Dallas Pro Tour Junior division, which, in turn, eventually turned mild-mannered Cornellian vegetarian Dave Price into the Fire God (at least temporarily). Lots of other stuff came of this deck on "the Internet" as well.

For our purposes, The Deck functions as a defensive deck (THE defensive deck, really). The central goal of this deck is to get paired against a creature-based deck, and play down the Moat. That Moat will hold off all non-flying creatures, giving The Deck some breathing room. Meanwhile, The Deck will try to clear the opponent's hand with Amnesia and Disrupting Scepter. Once this soft-lock has been established - hopefully after a Counterspell or Mana Drain has been drawn - Serra Angel comes down. Miss Angel, besides being able to block potential flyers as well as attack, is a tidy little five-turn clock.

If you are the guy playing the opposing deck, you have a limited number of useful cards once The Deck's machinery is in play. Your ground-based creatures are going to be of minimal offensive effectiveness. From the your deck vs. his Moat standpoint, all you are looking to draw is a Disenchant (or some similar card). The Moat is generating x-for-1 Virtual Card Advantage, but a Disenchant can easily reverse all of that. Then again, almost every non-Disenchant card is irrelevant (though the pundits might say that drawing these irrelevant cards gets the opponent a card closer to his goal of drawing Disenchant).

...the right analysis depends on the specific temporal position of the game...

THE END

There's that THE END again. A successful Disenchant is THE END of that Moat. This 1-for-1 is THE END of that x-for-1, and might as well be 1-for-(x+1), and might just be THE END of the game… unless Old Man Weissman has one of those Counterspells or Mana Drains, that is.

What about Moat backed up by a Disrupting Scepter? Disrupting Scepter basically does two things in this deck. One of them is that it generally forces the opponent to put whatever he draws into play. When the opponent holds back an extraneous land or just another ground-pounder, using the Disrupting Scepter doesn't do much but tap three mana on Weissman's own turn. These cards are not particularly relevant, but in order to smooth the progress of the continued facilitation of its machinery, the Weissman deck has to keep the opponent at zero cards in hand. In the long term, it robs the opponent of his permission, meaning that if and when he draws Disenchant, he can't cover it (Disrupting Scepter also contains answer cards in general; The Deck is few on kill cards, and can't really afford for the opponent to kill its Serra Angel, so it won't generally play one out until the opponent is out of cards).

Now what if that pretty Angel is in play with the rest of the Weissman materials? The weenie-playing opponent has the same basic plan - he still has to destroy The Moat if he plans to get his massing, possibly lethal, forces across The Red Zone - but now he has to do so in a specific temporal context. He had better top-deck Disenchant and have enough creatures to send past the Serra Angel within the next five or so turns or it's going to be THE END of the creature deck.

Even more interesting card interactions come up when somebody copies Brian's strategy. When he started out with The Deck - back in 1995 or so - there weren't a lot of defensive decks across the table. Brian played four Swords to Plowshares and multiple Moats and fully expected those cards to be relevant. Eventually, though, copycats with polychromatic control decks built for the long haul started to spring up. For these opponents, Weissman came up with the idea of the Blood Moon switch.

This sideboarding strategy takes the idea of Virtual Card Advantage to possibly its most extreme level. In the original Weissman example, where The Deck is fighting against the opponent's entire offensive force with a single Moat, we are basically looking at a situation where, if the opponent is going to win by creature damage, he is going to have to find Disenchant first. Once The Deck plays against a non-creature deck, he switches the Moat for Blood Moon to see what the other guy can muster.

The Blood Moon sideboard also asks for Disenchant. The difference is that against those many decks without basic lands, it asks for so much more. A resolved Blood Moon facilitates the Weissman lock. It makes the permission of 1996 notoriously difficult to cast. It forces the opponent to get Mox Pearl or Black Lotus in order to cast Disenchant if indeed he finds it. Disrupting Scepter can generate tons of card advantage, it can clear potential permission spells, but in many cases will not generate a lot of card advantage over Blood Moon… it's not as though the opponent can cast many of his spells under Blood Moon, even if the potentially relevant spells have been drawn. At the same time, Blood Moon and Disrupting Scepter working in tandem don't just ask for Disenchant, they ask for Disenchants. The opponent has to Disenchant Disrupting Scepter if he hopes to accumulate the cards necessary to fight the Weissman fortress. He has to Disenchant Blood Moon if he hopes to cast these necessary cards.

Blood Moon generates tons of card advantage if the opponent is stuck under nothing but non-basics, but that card advantage is virtual. The opponent can "get back" the lost cards by destroying Blood Moon. He still has to contend with Disrupting Scepter. The card advantage of Disrupting Scepter is real, but Blood Moon makes sure The Deck has the time to generate that card advantage. Unlike a creature deck that can top-deck (and hope to resolve) an anti-Moat spell and try to ignore Disrupting Scepter's long-term damage, a control deck that answers Blood Moon will still have to face the consequences of a Disrupting Scepter, or vice-versa.

Many of today's best Standard decks play a game of Virtual Card Advantage descended directly from Weissman, that come up even more commonly than a super lucky opponent who starts off with Goblin Sledder and follows up with Sparksmith. The most common way for their Virtual Card Advantage to arise is the so-called "dead" card advantage that comes from playing or failing to play a certain kind of permanent.

A mono-black control deck that uses the Torment cards is an example of a deck that generates Virtual Card Advantage by playing with no creatures. That it has no creatures main deck makes every Chainer's Edict and Smother drawn by an opposing Psychatog deck quite useless (except for incidental purposes, such as being discarded to some blue permanent or other). When playing against a U/G deck with no Aether Bursts, though, this type of Virtual Card Advantage is not present.

The card Squirrel Nest is another interesting card from this standpoint. On the one hand, Squirrel Nest generates real card advantage. Those 1/1 Squirrels are very pesky, potentially very dangerous, and potentially tiny little Icy Manipulators, even if they aren't made from actual WotC cardboard. The real card advantage of Squirrel Nest comes up when a deck with squirrels in play faces off against our friend the mono-black control deck. The mono-black control deck, usually quite content with its ability to Innocent Blood and Chainer's Edict away all manner of green animals, finds itself hard-pressed against this card. Cast my Chainer's Edict to kill your silly 1/1 token creature? I think I'll hold it back until I first find a Mutilate. In this sense, the Squirrel Nest also offers Virtual Card Advantage. Smother can have some relevance as a creature kill spell, Mutilate will of course go as x-for-1 as the board will allow, but because every Innocent Blood and Chainer's Edict will be essentially countered by a simple land tap, the mono-black control player may simply never cast them unless he is forced to do so. In the short term, they might as well be anywhere but in hand.

Yes, you may want to look over the Masters Series winning deck before adopting one of the many available mono-black control builds available on the Internet.

Next Up: Symmetry

- Mike Flores


- Justin Polin