Card advantage is one of the key high-level concepts in Magic and modern card design seems to often be about giving players as many two-for-ones as possible. Currently, Standard is a format where some of the best cards are just card advantage spells: Hydroid Krasis, Light Up the Stage, and Risen Reef are all common sights in the format and all change the way the decks containing them can be played.

But card advantage isn’t all Divinations and Mind Rots. Sometimes, card advantage can be gained in ways you don’t always think about, both in-game and out. In games we sometimes end up creating sub-scenarios that cause a similar situation to card advantage while not actually making either player go up or down on cards, resulting in a form of practical (or virtual) card advantage.

While all of these ideas aren’t entirely relevant in every single game of Magic, these ideas do let us quantify how relevant some actions are in a game. A card that can gain a large amount of practical card advantage for a cheap rate is good, and so is a card than can remove a large amount of your opponent’s practical card advantage. So how does all of this come into play?


Imagine you are playing a match of Limited and you have a Fortress Crab staring down your opponent’s two copies of Goblin Piker. Assuming your life total isn’t being threatened, you are up one card in practical card advantage. Your opponent’s two cards can’t attack into your one card, and unless something changes that makes your opponent’s cards relevant, you have essentially created an artificial two-for-one.

Now, there are many ways to change this situation, for better or worse. The opponent may Murder your mighty crustacean defense, or pacify the humble beast so that it’s no longer an issue. In these cases the opponent is undoing the advantage you have gained.

Imagine that scenario again, but you also have access to a Shock and your opponent is tapped out. Your gut reaction could be to Shock the legal target. Shock is not a card that often has a target in Limited and wanting to get at least a one-for-one out of it makes sense.

That is, unless you aren’t really getting a trade out of it. Due to the nature of the situation you have found yourself in, Shocking that Piker actually puts you down a card with the current board state. The Fortress Crab is giving those Goblin Pikers an effective value of zero while the Shock retains its value in your hand. Although it feels intuitive to make this trade, what you are actually doing is reducing your advantage.

The other common way to gain of form of practical card advantage is by forcing your opponent to cast spells in an ineffective manner. This often occurs in matchups of aggro versus control, where the aggro player could never win the game if they allow the control player the opportunity to cast all of their spells. I have half jokingly referred to aggro decks as the best card advantage decks in Magic as killing your opponent before they cast their spells effectively diminishes all card advantage on their side of the battlefield.

Imagine a Burn mirror match in Modern. You are miraculously alive at six life with your opponent having four cards in hand. Your opponent is at two life and you draw your first creature of the game, a Goblin Guide. The immediate thought is to jam your threat and attack your opponent, but that is a reactionary action.

If you stop and think for a moment, you’ll realize that isn’t how the game has actually advanced thus far. Your opponent has four cards in hand and hasn’t killed you. It is very likely that at least one of those cards is a Searing Blaze which hasn’t had the capacity of being a real card this game. By choosing not to play your creature you are creating practical card advantage for yourself because you are denying your opponent the option to trade cards and be up a free spell in the three damage to you. Waiting and attempting to draw a single burn spell of your library is a much more likely way to win this game.

Outside of the Game

Negating the usefulness of your opponent’s cards can be done in the deck building stages, as well, and is often one of the most useful times to try and gain card advantage. When everyone in a format is playing one type of kill spell, such as Fatal Push, it is often time to play a deck that can dodge cards like that, such as Gurmag Angler.

Modern is a format where deck choice and building are often based on the idea of trying to minimize how good your opponent’s answers against you are, while gaining as much practical card advantage as possible. Currently, there is a dance among Hogaak players where they are deciding to either not board in or register any copies of the card Leyline of the Void despite its raw power level. With Hogaak players planning to board in multiple copies of cards such as Force of Vigor or Nature’s Claim, card advantage can be gained by not allowing those cards to be relevant.

Boarding out a card the opponent is expecting to beat works in Standard too. I have certainly boarded out copies of Experimental Frenzy while playing Mono-Red. This occurs when I know my opponent has too many answers to a threat that won’t work on my other cards, such as Despark.

Sometimes the opposite also occurs where a player can board in a card that isn’t answerable by the opponent’s deck and is able to circumvent their normal plan of action. Bringing in a card like Geist of Saint Traft in removal-heavy matchups can go a long way to rendering some of their cards ineffective.

Getting around giving your opponent practical card advantage can also be built into a deck. One of the biggest strengths of aggro decks is that often their cards don’t leave room for practical card advantage to be gained from their hand. Burn spells such as Lightning Strike are very rarely completely useless and creatures are very rarely left uncastable.

In Modern and Legacy, decks are able to play spells such as Faithless Looting or Brainstorm that help those decks play cards that can be liabilities. This type of filtering helps avoid the makeup of your hand giving you practical card disadvantage. Nearly every deck great falls into being the proactive deck or being a deck that has access to similar types of cards to those above. Thinking about practical advantage can go a long way in making sure you make wise deck building decisions.

Being able to think about these things in a vacuum can help build a greater understanding of how cards interact and what can lead to better decks. Don’t be afraid to wait to make plays to either increase your own practical card advantage or to stop your opponent from getting more. Make your decisions with purpose and it will lead you far.

I hope you enjoyed my first article here for Hipsters of the Coast. If you did then let me know by @ing me on Twitter. If you didn’t then let me know that, too. I’m always looking to improve in both my thought processes and my play!

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