Unified Theory of Commander: Card Advantage

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We’ve already spilled quite a bit of digital ink discussing the first two elements of the Unified Theory of Commander: mana and draw. Over the last four articles in this series, we learned why to make mana production a priority during deck construction and how to utilize card draw to create options that help our decks succeed. Yet all these topics can get boiled down to one simple goal: acquire resources.

I should probably add a little something to that generalized goal for decks that actually want to win games of EDH. The goal is not just to acquire resources. The goal is to acquire them faster and better than your opponents. That’s why this article marks an excellent midpoint in our discussion in the Unified Theory. The concept of card advantage bridges the gap between acquiring resources and then actually putting those cards to use to execute a game plan.

Defining Card Advantage

Grasping the basic idea of card advantage is pretty easy. Simply put, it’s the action of gaining and using more cards than your opponents. If you cast an Ancestral Recall and get three cards into your hand at the expense of just one card, that’s card advantage. If you force an opponent to discard two cards from their hand using Mind Rot, that’s card advantage too. In two-player Magic, its relatively easy to count cards and get a general idea of whether you are ahead or behind.

Card Advantage, Pure and Simple

Card advantage, pure and simple.

Card advantage becomes quite a bit more treacherous to define when we start taking permanents on the board and life totals into account. In fact, it’s so treacherous that a number of competing theories have sprung up that attempt to mathematically “solve” card advantage for any situation. While these theories all have their merits, I’d argue that they are almost impossible to apply to a game of EDH without a degree in statistics. Trying to count fractional card advantage as multiple players take turns around the table will drive you insane long before it helps you understand how your deck is performing.

So the simple solution here is to throw away all the complicated theories. Frankly, you don’t need them. At no point during an EDH game are you going to score bonus points for being able to explain which player is one-third of a card ahead of the rest of the table. And even if you could, it doesn’t mean that player is actually “winning.” So don’t bother. We’re going to find a better, more simple solution to this problem for Commander.

Breaking the Rules…

For just a moment, let’s ignore specific cards, deck archetypes, themes, and flavor and just consider how Magic: The Gathering actually functions as a game. Magic is a game of rules. At the start of my turn, I get to untap my permanents once and draw one card. Next I get to play some spells, and after that, I get a single attack phase. We follow the rules for attacking and blocking. Then I get to play some more spells before passing the turn to my opponent. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but I want you to look all the way down to the bones of the game.

Vanilla Test? Pssshhh... Shriekmaw is too cool for school.

Vanilla test? Pssshhh… Shriekmaw is too cool for school.

Just about every card that we play in this “game of rules” actually modifies those rules somehow. Casting Divination modifies the “draw one card per turn” rule. I spend some resources and get to break that particular rule in exchange. Normally when I play a creature, the rules say I get a certain power and toughness for the mana I’ve spent and I can use that card to attack or defend. If I cast a Shriekmaw, I modify those basic rules. I not only get a body from my creature spell, but I also get an effect that kills a creature my opponent controls as well.

…And Getting Value

In addition to the basic rules that govern Magic, there are also basic values for cards and effects that have been defined over time through the design of the cards. For instance, we tend to get one power and one toughness for each point of mana invested into a creature. Creatures that either exceed or fail this “vanilla test” tend to do so because they are either breaking another rule or because they are saddled with some other drawback that changes their effectiveness.

Hungry? Have Two Slices of the Color Pie!

Hungry? Have two slices of the color pie!

Because of Magic’s “color pie” of game mechanics, some of these base values are tied to specific colors as well. So drawing a single card may generally cost just one blue mana, but could cost more mana in any other color. Cards that violate these color-specific restrictions tend to get played a lot because they cover weaknesses or gaps usually found in that color. Board wipes are supposed to be in white’s slice of the color pie, but Damnation is a four-mana version in black that sees play in every format it’s legal. So the value of a card can be inflated if it’s doing something its color isn’t usually supposed to be doing well.

Redefining Card Advantage

So now that we’ve looked at the bones, let’s try to piece together this card advantage animal for the purpose of building a deck for Commander. Since we can’t consider every possible table scenario while building our decks, we have to look at each card choice based on how well it helps us break the rules and create value.

A simple way to start evaluating a card is to ask yourself, “What value do I get for playing this?” EDH is a game of big spells, big creatures, and big plays, so a vanilla 2/2 probably isn’t going to get very far into your deck construction process if you start with this question. Compare that to something like Serra Ascendant, which enters the battlefield as a 6/6 creature with lifelink for just one white mana, and its easy to see why that card is a format staple. It gives you six times the normal value in power and toughness for the cost and it has an upside!

Sometimes simple math is all it takes to evaluate staple cards and see why they are so strong. Sol Ring lets you spend one mana to get two on the same turn. Wheel of Fortune draws seven cards for just three mana and possibly has the upside of disrupting an opponent’s game plan too. Tooth and Nail costs a whopping nine mana, but it searches for any two creatures and puts them directly into play, bypassing the usual rules for tutoring and the casting costs for associated with massive creatures. A Tooth and Nail that grabs Avacyn, Angel of Hope, and Archetype of Endurance creates an obscene advantage… and that’s one of the more “fair” uses for the card.

Don't be sad, Robot. You're a staple!

Don’t be sad, robot. You’re a staple!

Perhaps the best illustration of a value-producing card is Solemn Simulacrum. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a new player ask why this sad robot is so good in EDH. Just do the math, friends. It’s four colorless mana. It produces a 2/2 body, which accounts for two mana from its casting cost. Then it grabs a basic land from the deck and puts that card into play tapped. That action generally costs another two mana at least, but with the restriction of being in green. So four colorless mana for a 2/2 and a land is already ahead of the value curve by dodging a color restriction, and then it has the possibility of doing some damage, preventing some damage, and drawing another card when it dies. In just one card, we have mana, draw, a threat, and an answer. It’s almost all of the Unified Theory by itself. Now that’s value!

Card Advantage in Action

Picking a card based on its value above the standard is only the first half of card advantage. While building decks and theorizing about their power is fantastic, we actually have to play the game to prove that the cards actually behave as we expect. We also have to make good choices about how and when we play our cards to get maximum value.

So another good question to ask yourself is, “What value am I getting for this card if I cast it right now?” If you have a Wrath of God in hand and there is only one creature card on the table at the moment, you better have a really good reason to want that one creature dead. Otherwise the inherent value of casting a card that destroys all creatures is going to be wasted. You would usually prefer to cast that later in the game and hit an entire table’s worth of creatures, trading your one card for a dozen from your opponents. That’s a much better value proposition for your deck.

I bring this up because it’s quite easy to get too focused on your own deck’s strategy and put your blinders on, plowing ahead with each turn irrespective of your opponents. This drastically reduces the value of the cards in your deck and can result in some lousy games. You might even start blaming your opponents for disrupting your deck instead of accepting your own mistakes. So make sure to pause a moment before each play and make sure you are getting the best value possible from each spell.

Multiplayer-Enhanced Card Advantage

Most games of Commander are played with more than two players and with double the starting life of vanilla Magic, which causes certain types of card advantage to become more valuable than others. These format-specific adjustments are vitally important to remember when making value judgments for your cards.

Let’s use spot removal as an example to demonstrate how multiplayer adjusts our card valuations. Assume for a moment that your opponent played one of those pesky Serra Ascendants on the second turn of the game. You are holding a Go For the Throat in hand and have mana up to instantly kill it before it attacks someone. Should you?

A good rule to follow in both life and EDH: Only murder things when you absolutely have to.

A good rule to follow in both life and EDH: only murder things when you absolutely have to.

Well, let’s do some basic math here. Your opponent spent one mana and one card to get the Serra Ascendant online. If you spend two mana and a card to kill it, you are only down one mana. In a normal game of Magic, this kind of one-for-one trade seems fine, but in this case, there are two other players at the table who spend zero cards on this exchange. So two of you are now down one card each and the other two have developed a little card advantage. Unless you have some political reason to spend your card this way, you should probably hold your removal until the Serra Ascendant is pointed toward you. Someone else might spend the card instead and leave you ahead in card advantage.

Another card advantage adjustment to make for Commander is to remember that recurring card advantage is significantly more potent than one-time effects. We touched on this a bit in the article on draw. Divination is a fine card in a draft but it doesn’t do much work in EDH. Rhystic Study has a recurring card draw effect that has the added bonus of potentially slowing down your opponents or at least eating some enchantment removal. Doing something multiple times is a lot better than just doing it once.

"Your turn? I think you mean OUR turn..."

“Your turn? I think you mean OUR turn…”

Also make sure to consider when the recurring effect happens to help measure how strong the card might be. Consecrated Sphinx is one of the most potent cards in the format specifically because it’s a multiplayer game. If no one is holding an answer in a four-player pod, its controller can gain six cards just off the draw phases of her opponents. Prophet of Kruphix untaps lands and creatures at the start of every upkeep, effectively giving a player multiple extra turns. These effects are significantly more potent because they occur during each other player’s turn, producing card advantage at hyperspeed.

Finally, remember that symmetric effects are significantly more powerful than single target effects. Not only do they get around defensive cards such as Witchbane Orb, but they also set all opponents behind instead of just one at a time. Compare Bloodchief Ascension to Purphoros, God of the Forge for a solid example here. Purphoros hits everyone at the table for two life at a time, whereas Bloodchief Ascension is only hitting one. The extra lifegain just doesn’t make up for the lack of symmetry.

Synergy-Enhanced Card Advantage

Remember, the Unified Theory of Commander ends with the element synergy, so it’s something we also have to take into consideration as we build card advantage into our lists. One of the great joys of playing this format is finding otherwise unplayable cards and turning them into valuable parts of our decks. Even the most oddball cards can find a home and produce some card advantage in a deck built to abuse them.

The King of Janky Synergy

The King of Janky Synergy

Norin the Wary is a really fun example of this kind of synergy in action. He’s not really much of a threat on his own. Neither is Confusion in the Ranks. Put them together, though, and you have a potent combo that steals everyone’s creatures and keeps sending Norin back to his controller for maximum annoyance. Throw a potent card like Purphoros, God of the Forge, into the mix and suddenly Norin becomes a clock for the entire table.

We’ll deal more with these kinds of synergies as we move into the second half of our discussions on the Unified Theory of Commander, but for now it’s sufficient to remember that the more pieces of your deck that interact with a card favorably, the more card advantage it’s likely to produce. Remember that the most important elements of any EDH deck are the things that produce resources (mana) and open up options (draw), so if a synergistic piece doesn’t satisfy those elements, spend a little extra time asking yourself why it’s going into the deck.

Conclusion

Don’t get bogged down by complicated definitions of card advantage. A few simple rules built on top of a simple definition can help any Commander deck achieve its goals for resources and keep up with the table. Use cards that help you break the rules and generate as much value as possible. Play cards when they best benefit you and produce the biggest losses for your opponents. Use recurring and symmetric effects whenever possible. Understanding card advantage in EDH doesn’t require a calculator or an advanced degree in mathematics—just keep these rules in mind.

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Jason Rice

Jason is a creative director in the video game industry. When his crippling Commander addiction isn't consuming his thoughts, money, and free time, Jason can be found hiking the beaches, hills, and forests of California or climbing mountains in Utah. If you'd like to contract him as a writer or designer, he accepts payment in the form of EDH staples. He can also be followed on Twitter at @jasonthinks.
Jason Rice

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3 comments

    • Nate on July 23, 2014 at 2:37 pm
    • Reply

    We’ll put sir!

    • Ben Mohr on July 28, 2014 at 11:09 pm
    • Reply

    One of the things that really bothers me about Commander is that board sweepers are so effective. I get that, in two player formats, they keep weenie rush strategies in check. In a four-player game, however, I can usually gain an advantage with a wrath effect. It makes the games take forever!

    • Thomas Mclean on April 25, 2017 at 6:58 pm
    • Reply

    So I’m trying to compose a list of considerable engines in Edh, engines not just including card draw, but Cards like birthing pod, sunforger, aluren, even cards like wild pair and lurking predators. Even as janky add some of those cards are, I have found and made potential use of these cards. Cards that push the “card advantage” envelop. That can make decks consistent and successful. I’m also composing this list as way for new players in Edh or maybe even other formats to have at there dispoal. To help further there game! So any suggestions in any colors would be helpful and appreciated.

    Thank you!

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