5 Point Plan: Magiconomics – Knowing the value of your resources
Hello, increasingly expert Planeswalkers!
It’s back to fundamentals this week, so I’m going to talk about Magiconomics. What do I mean by Magiconomics? Well, it sure ain’t the price of a booster pack.
1. The fundamental principle: “All the world’s a
stage trading post.”
In a previous article about early deckbuilding, I touched on the concept of the in-game economy by discussing card advantage, but it’s an important idea with a wider scope than that.
Magic can be viewed as a game of resource trading. Each turn, we trade mana for the ability to cast spells, or burn spells for our opponent’s creatures, or any one of a number of other options.
This being the case, in any given situation the important question is: what are you prepared to trade – and what do you want in return?
Over the course of this article, I’m going to cover some of the common resources you might be called upon to juggle – and give you a sense of how they are traded, how their value might fluctuate and when to pursue different kinds of trades.
The most frequently discussed and fundamental resource in the game, Cards are the ‘dollar’ in our theory of Magiconomics.
The primary things players will be called upon to trade their cards for are other cards. This process can take a range of forms, but whenever we exchange a number of cards we already have (in play or in hand) for a greater number of cards, we’re said to have gained card advantage.
Gaining card advantage doesn’t guarantee victory, but it does tend to tip the scales in the favour of the player who is pulling ahead. The reason for this is simple: a healthy slice of Magic is a war of attrition. Cards are the soldiers you use to fight that war… and if you run out of them before your opponent does, it doesn’t bode well.
As a general guideline, it’s good to make plays which are likely to pull you ahead on cards; it’s risky to make plays which give your opponent a window to gain card advantage; and it’s bad to make plays which will always leave you down on cards.
Valuing card advantage
We’ve established that, when opportunities to gain card advantage present themselves, it’s usually correct to take them. However, not all game situations are created equal – and sometimes, a line of play will require us to give up some prospective card advantage.
Let’s imagine you’re playing a game of Modern, with your sweet Grixis Control deck. You open a hand with only a Pyroclasm for early game interaction, but decide to keep against an unknown opponent because you have card draw, some artifact acceleration and a powerful late-game card.
On your second turn, you find yourself facing a dilemma.
While idea of catching two creatures with your Pyroclasm is nice – and, indeed, the usual plan – here it makes a lot of sense simply to trade one-for-one.
With so much uncertainty – and so many ways for things to go wrong – I would be quite happy giving up prospective card advantage just to achieve a strategically important goal: killing that blasted thing before it gets huge.
The lesson: don’t get greedy with card advantage… sometimes, you won’t have the luxury of pursuing it.
An often discussed but sometimes misunderstood resource, Mana is a concept akin to ‘Cash-flow’ in our theory of Magiconomics. It doesn’t matter how powerful your potential future plays are: if you don’t have the mana to impact the game in the present, you’re in danger of going bust.
Value for Mana
Most players, after a short while playing the game, are able to grasp the idea that some cards offer more power for less mana than others: put simply, they start to know a good deal when they see one.
There’s more to mana, however, than getting the best price.
Let’s look at two cards which both have a converted mana cost (CMC) of two.
One is a vanilla 3/3, the other a 3/3 with a powerful ability which can be activated later in the game. On that basis, if we only have room for one in our deck, we’ll be playing the more powerful Fleecemane Lion.
However, there is a cost to playing the Lion which isn’t immediately obvious: it makes your mana availability less consistent.
Let’s imagine that this is the line-up of two drops you want to play in your deck, with only the Tusker vs. Lion decision yet to be finalised:
It’s pretty clear that we’re an aggressive deck with a heavy commitment to green. We want to have double green available on turn 2 for our angry ghost… plus we also want plentiful green mana to fuel our Ooze. This being the case, can we really afford to include a creature in our curve which demands we have white mana available at the same time?
Dependent on the dual lands available in a format, the answer might still be yes – but it’s important to remember that you are trading power for consistency in these situations.
Maximising mana usage
There is a school of thought that views decks which use all of their mana, every turn, as having a distinct advantage over those which don’t.
The basis of the theory is as follows: some resources remain at your disposal as turns pass, such as a card which you keep in your hand, or a 0/1 creature token which you will eventually use to chump-block an attack.
However, one thing you can never get back is the mana you fail to spend each turn.
Let’s suppose that you’re playing M14 limited – and you have a choice of plays on your third turn:
Tusker is a better creature, certainly – but if you play it, you’ll only use 2 of your mana this turn, because you have no one-mana plays in your hand.
If you play the Advocate, you’ll have a creature with marginally weaker board presence, but you’ll use every drop of mana available to you.
Why is this important?
If you’ve played the Tusker this turn and need to use the Giant Growth in your attack step, you’ll have to choose between it and the Advocate as your play for the turn; you’ll be forced to give up either your chance to attack or waste another two mana, setting you back even further.
Play the Advocate instead… and everything changes.
Now, if your top card is a Giant Growth, you can attack fearlessly into a creature as large as a Maurauding Maulhorn – confident that you’ll not only be able to take that monster out, but advance your board position by playing a 3/3 straight afterward.
If that still leaves you scratching your head a little, think about this: if you play a 3/3 for two mana, but one of your mana remains untapped for the whole turn… you really paid 3 mana for that creature.
You may not have tapped the forest and used up one green, but you sacrificed the chance to use it on something else which was also productive, so it’s gone all the same – you might as well have played that Trained Armodon from our example at the top of the section.
Valuing your mana
Sometimes, we get so caught up in chasing linear goals that we fail to notice when their importance has diminished. A good example is the way I perennially misused Mind Stone.
I played this useful little mana rock in various control decks back around Tenth Edition, because it could accelerate my mana or turn into a new card if I needed one. Great, eh?
The problem was, I frequently waited too long to cash in my Mind Stones for cards. I swithered over the decisions, because a little voice kept telling me that we’re supposed to have more mana each turn, not less!
As a result, I over-valued the colourless mana Mind Stone could bring me; I lost sight of the fact that, in a lot of match-ups, I had reached the point where I didn’t really need the extra mana, while I could probably use the card.
Likewise, there comes a time in many games when it’s more important to hold your lands rather than play them, so you can discard them to a Merfolk Looter or insulate your removal spells against a Mind Rot.
Try to recognise these times!
Ask yourself: how much advantage will I get by playing this land? Is it more or less than the advantage I’ll get from discarding it to pump my Wild Mongrel? Is it more important to bluff my opponent that I have drawn a spell?
With practice, you’ll get better at this – and you’ll sharpen your insight as to which are the right plays to make, like cracking that damned Mind Stone before it’s too late.
If Magic is an economy – and your games are like a business, trading in that economy – life is like the premises you trade from. You can’t be in the game without it, but sometimes it’s OK to let the office get a little bit run-down as long as you’re still making a profit.
When most players start the game, they have a difficulty in perceiving life points as a resource or commodity which is tradable.
Perhaps it’s the label that makes it so difficult – after all, we’re taught from an early age that life is precious! New players tend to defend every point, as if their life total was their castle; they feel that the opponent should be made to fight for every inch, that life should never be given away cheaply. There’s a grain of truth in that idea, because we never want to hit zero, but a grain is all it is.
Valuing your life
In a game of Magic, we don’t need 20 life: we only need enough.
What counts as enough will vary between match-ups and formats, but by playing, you’ll begin to develop a sense of where the boundaries are. For instance, let’s imagine that I’m playing Standard with a sweet Grixis Control deck (the observant amongst you may notice a theme); what life totals do I feel comfortable with against different opponents?
Realising that your life points fluctuate in value is an important step toward knowing when you can afford to lose life – and how much you can afford to lose.
As players, we are frequently choosing to trade our life points away for various things, even if we don’t realise it.
At the simplest level, when we choose not to block our opponent’s 2/2 with our 3/2 because we plan to attack next turn, we are opting to trade two life (the damage they’ll do to us) for three damage (which our attack will do to them).
Provided you both started at parity, that’s a good trade to make.
We also have opportunities to overtly trade life for other commodities.
Each of these cards offers extra power to a player willing to part with some life points.
In decks built to take advantage of them, both Channel and Necropotence are exceptionally powerful effects, providing incredible mana acceleration or a glut of cards. Sacred Foundry is much less explosive, but easier to understand if you haven’t seen these older cards in action: pay the life, get a first class dual land… don’t pay life, get a Guildgate.
Whenever you see a card which offers you the choice to pay life and obtain an effect, or pay life as an extra cost, think hard about how much extra power you’re getting and how much you’re really giving up. The trade will be worth it more often than you may first think.
5. Which trade would you make?
We’ve run through the three most commonly traded commodities in Magic; now it’s time to see how you fare out there in the Marketplace.
I’ve put together a little scenario below, which finds you sitting down for the first game of a Standard match against an unknown opponent. Naturally, you are rocking your sweet Grixis Control deck (I’m not ready to admit that I have a problem yet).
Some ancillary facts about your deck: you play a full set of Think Twice, two Vampire Nighthawks, an Aetherling and a Nicol Bolas. You also run a total of 26 lands, with fantastic access to your colours from the (sadly soon to be dimished by rotation) Shock/Buddy lands combination.
If you’re an experienced player, this might seem elementary – but that’s fine. It’s designed to challenge newer players to make some value judgements related to the principles we’ve already discussed.
If you want to play along, tell me your play and your reasoning in the comment thread below.
Comments are welcomed from everyone, ranging from those who are just learning the basics to real veterans – in fact, explaining your reasoning if you’re an old-timer might be really helpful for our beginners!
Over and out
That’s it for this week, folks. The economy of the game is a complex thing – and we’ve only scratched the surface in this article. If there are particular elements you’d like to know more about, be sure to let me know.
Until next time, bear in mind that everything in Magic has a cost… and be sure you’re getting the best value you can from your decisions.
Oh – and have fun at your Theros prereleases!