Card advantage has become a core concept in the way that we talk and think about Magic: the Gathering, but the concept itself is a partial red herring, since it is one step removed from what truly matters. You know, actually beating your opponent.
Magic: the Gathering is a race; there is nothing more essential than this fact. You win, if and only if, you meet a certain set of victory conditions before your opponent. From this premise, it becomes easier to explain why card advantage isn’t as important as many magic players believe. Take for example, a seven land hand. From the perspective of pure card advantage, this is just better than a six card hand, but nevertheless most players would mulligan this hand at least 99.9% of the time. So why do we make this choice? Because, simply put, the hand doesn’t do anything.
This example shows very clearly that what matters is being able to do something about winning and that the number of cards has no intrinsic relationship to your chances of winning. There may be a relationship, but this relationship is highly variable depending on the game-state and the text on all of the relevant cards. Infernal Tutor, Cursed Scroll and Ensnaring Bridge, for example, are iconic cards that encourage players to lower the number of cards they have in hand. Who has card advantage when the Zoo player has three creatures on the table and the Storm Combo player has an Infernal Tutor">Infernal Tutor on the stack and four mana floating? In my view, this isn’t even a meaningful question unless the Zoo player has a way of interacting with the Storm Combo player, since the representation of resources in the form of cards is completely irrelevant besides the fact that you can only fetch one card with the Infernal Tutor">Infernal Tutor.
Force of Will">Force of Will is a massively important card in eternal formats which costs two cards rather than one in most of the situations in which it is used. It is possible to explain the value of Force of Will">Force of Will using the explanation of card advantage, but again this is heading down the wrong path if we are seeking a universal understanding of what works in a game of Magic. You might argue that Force of Will">Force of Will is useful because it is most often used to stop storm combo decks which use a great deal of resources in order to kill you. If they spend 7 cards and you spend 2, then you have generated a card advantage, but this isn’t ultimately what matters. If it was, then you wouldn’t choose to pay 1 life and exile a blue card from your hand to cast Force of Will">Force of Will targeting a Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt. Trust me, when you have three life left, the play is not a hard one to make. This is why it is sometimes correct to Force of Will">Force of Will a Tarmogoyf">Tarmogoyf, or to use Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt in conjuction with Burst Lightning">Burst Lightning to kill a Baneslayer Angel">Baneslayer Angel. If we return to what truly matters in Magic, this loss of card advantage isn’t as important as winning the race.
So far, the examples I have been using have been fairly clear ones, but the decisions we have to make in a game are often much fuzzier. Do I Force of Will">Force of Will a Tombstalker">Tombstalker on turn 3? Do I fetch Sword of War and Peace">Sword of War and Peace or Sword of Feast and Famine">Sword of Feast and Famine with my Stoneforge Mystic">Stoneforge Mystic? What I am suggesting is that rather than thinking about these desicions in terms of card advantage we should think about them in terms of what actually helps us to win the game. Again, you could think about Sword of War and Peace">Sword of War and Peace as casting free Lava Spike">Lava Spikes or Lava Axe">Lava Axes on your opponent as a way of arguing that it wins the card advantage battle. You could equally argue that giving your attacking creatures protection from white creates “virtual” card advantage by making opposing white creatures unable to block. In reality, this is mistaken thinking, because you are equating something essential to the something unessential as a means of arguing its value. In reality, Sword of War and Peace">Sword of War and Peace is better than Sword of Feast and Famine">Sword of Feast and Famine in those situations when it helps you to win the game before your opponent: this is what matters.
Another way of showing how the value of cards is very much determined by the game state is by demonstrating that Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt and Shock">Shock sometimes have the exact same value. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but if your opponent has two life left, then the extra point of damage is irrelevant. Indeed, even though Sudden Shock">Sudden Shock costs one mana more and does one damage less it is much, much better in this situation than Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt because it prevents your opponent from being able to stop you winning the game, regardless of whether they have no cards in hand or ten. If cards do not have the same value at all times, gaining an advantage in terms of card advantage is not the same as winning – it only becomes relevant because of the cards available and the game state.
Spectral Procession">Spectral Procession is another powerful card that is commended for its ability to generate card advantage. One spell creates three token creatures. The reason it is good has nothing to do with this fact, but more because of the fact that it is more difficult to deal with three creatures represented across three different cards than one with the majority of answers available. Spectral Procession">Spectral Procession loses to another so-called card advantage powerhouse in Day of Judgment">Day of Judgment, but in reality if one player spends a Day of Judgment">Day of Judgment to kill three 1/1 flying spirit tokens, card parity has been maintained, or more importantly, you were able to deal with the three tokens with your resources available. Another card which is perhaps more powerful as an answer to Spectral Procession">Spectral Procession is Baneslayer Angel">Baneslayer Angel. Although this card only represents one creature on the battlefield, it actually trumps Spectral Procession">Spectral Procession in a vacuum. It is only because of cards such as Doom Blade">Doom Blade which specifically interact with individual cards that it is better to sometimes have three bodies rather than one – Spectral Procession">Spectral Procession is much better than Baneslayer Angel">Baneslayer Angel when the opponent only has Doom Blade">Doom Blade as an answer.
So why does card advantage matter at all? I am not arguing that card advantage is not important, only that it is less important than actually winning. Drawing or making an opponent discard multiple cards works because it affects the ability of you or your opponent to take steps towards meeting one of the victory conditions of the game. Sword of Feast and Famine">Sword of Feast and Famine is good, but ironically this seems to be more because of the untap effect than the discard effect. Making an opponent discard a card of their choice when they have multiple cards in hand isn’t a particularly effective way of hurting their ability to change the race, actively generating a mana advantage which you use to cast multiple powerful spells in one turn is way more relevant, providing you have the spells to cast. It is a matter of serious debate, but there is a reason that most professional players think that Black Lotus">Black Lotus is better than Ancestral Recall">Ancestral Recall. Fast mana is way more powerful than card advantage because it much more directly affects the speed at which you win a game of Magic.
As a final note, I wanted to include a brief nod towards probablity, which adds another layer of complexity to decision making in a duel. Magic is a curious game in which the best play is not always the correct play. How can this be? Imagine that you have no creatures and one Lighting Bolt">Lighting Bolt in hand, with an opponent at six life. You have four life and are being attacked by an opponent’s Savannah Lions">Savannah Lions. Do you kill the creature or dome your opponent? If you have only one card in your library and you know it’s a Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt, then the play is obvious. Imagine however, that you have 30 cards in your library and 3 copies Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt left in it – which happens to be your only way of killing your opponent or stopping their attacking creature in this instance. Provided that you have cards in your library that become relevant if you have a chance to live, do you kill the Savannah Lions">Savannah Lions or dome your opponent? All else being equal, the correct play here is probably to kill the Savannah Lions">Savannah Lions, but if you draw a Lightning Bolt">Lightning Bolt on your next turn it would not have been the best play, because you would have almost certainly won if you had domed your opponent. This is one of the intricacies which helps to make Magic both a beautiful and a frustrating game all at the same time.
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