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Advantage Theory – Basic Principles


Magic is a lot like chess, so I'm going to ask for 11 extra minutes of your time. Watch the below video that discusses some basic chess principles. So how does this apply to Magic? Let's first examine these principles on the chess board, where they are easier to see. Danielsen talks about "time" and "space" in the video but "power" is also included in the title.

How do these principles apply to Magic? It's better to ask how they don't apply. These basic principles, which I will term "Advantage Theory," affects everything from in-game decision making to deck construction to set design. We'll look at this later, but let's examine these three principles in chess first. We'll begin with the two Danielsen talks about.


Time is development. It is a positional advantage that arises when your pieces are more active than your opponent's due to you having developed them off the 8th rank faster. This principle is why conventional wisdom says you should avoid moving a piece twice in the opening if possible. This is also the idea behind various gambits (Queen's Gambit, King's Gambit, etc.). The principle of these openings is to sacrifice material (power), for an advantage in development (time).

The most important thing to remember about time is that it is a transient advantage. If you don't make use of it, it will go away naturally. This is also frequently called tempo.


Space relates to the number of squares you control. This is important because it allows you to maneuver and position your pieces better for an attack. It also restricts your opponent's ability to do the same. The important thing to remember about space advantage is that it is permanent. You can win space now and use it later, as long as you make sure to simply keep your space advantage.


This is simply material, and is fairly self explanatory. Power is also a permanent advantage

So how do we relate these principles to Magic? Well, let's look. In essence, we have two types of advantages – transient and permanent. Time is a transient advantage whereas space and power and permanent advantages. It is important to realize that in many games of strategy (like in Magic and chess), there are these two types of advantages, transient and permanent. So what are these advantages in Magic?

Transient advantage – tempo

Permanent advantages – card advantage, board position

Let's take a look at these three things.


Tempo in Magic, like in chess, is a developmental advantage. It relates to how fast you are able to get relevant permanents, usually creatures, onto the table and doing their thing. Because of the one land per tern rule this means utilizing cheap spells or mana acceleration. Of course, this is a transient advantage since your opponent will eventually be able to play his spells as well and, seeing as they are generally more expensive (or more powerful) than yours, you will have lost your advantage.

Of course, it's not always this simple. Tempo advantages happen in all sorts of match-ups and learning how to use these temporary advantages and parley them into a win is important. For example, in control mirrors, knowing when to go for threats like Sun Titan or Frost Titan, or knowing when to try to create openings or sit back is often the difference between victory and defeat.

This brings us to one of the most critical elements of tempo – the land drop. The land drop is the fundamental way of advancing tempo. While tempo is gained through playing spells, the land drop is, in general, the restrictive element in tempo development. By interacting with the land drop a player can create swings in tempo to his advantage by denying his opponent land drops. This is why Tectonic Edge is so powerful. Not only does it blow up relevant non-basics, but it allows a control player to create temporary mana advantages in the mirror, which is exactly the type of small advantage you need to create a winning position.

This is why Wizards's design philosophy with regard to land destruction is erroneous. The thing is, there are very few ways of interacting with land drops in the Magic repertoire. Land destruction spells is one of the few ways to interact with the land drop. Because tempo is such a crucial element of Magic, being able to actively interact with it is important.

Four mana land destruction is simply too slow. Due to the way Wizards has designed spells in recent years, four has become the big break in terms of power level. Four has become the default for planeswalkers, powerful spells like Day of Judgment, and strong creatures like Molten-Tail Masticore. Four mana land destruction (which is in some ways what Tectonic Edge is), is too slow to interact win a proactive sense. Three mana land destruction is a necessity for Standard.

Card Advantage

Early Magic theory held that Card Advantage is king, and in many respects this is true. It is one of the easiest ways to develop a permanent advantage in the game. If you see more cards than your opponent you have more options, and much like having a space advantage in chess, more options frequently leads to an advantaged game. Of course, this is not the only consideration, but it is definitely an important one.

Card Advantage has become even more important in modern Magic because of the introduction of planeswalkers. Planeswalkers are natural card advantage engines, since they generate small effects every single turn. Leaving them on the table for an extended period of time naturally generates card advantage. However, they tend to have an immediate impact on the board so they are powerful tempo plays as well. In essence, planeswalkers make card advantage more important, due to the fact that they play out as natural card advantage engines.

This fact only makes it more imperative that Wizards print some way to interact on the tempo front, otherwise Magic, in particular Standard (Wizards's most popular format), will stagnate. The game will simply descend into being about card advantage and board position (permanent advantages), and utilizing the temporary advantage of tempo will become essentially a corner-case scenario.

Board Position

Board position is another form of semi-permanent advantage. I think this is fairly self-explanatory. This obviously relates to the permanents you have in play. It usually is pretty obvious if you are ahead, equal, or behind on the board. On-the-board play is a bit more important in limited than it is in constructed, but it's still an important skill to learn.

So how do we use these principles? They are applicable both in-game and outside of games. You can use them to make determinations as to the correct line of play, but also to analyze formats and build decks. Let's take a look at all three applications.

First, we look at in-game determination. The rule of thumb that most players are taught is that ceteris peribus, card advantage is key. Thus, in equal or roughly equal situations, playing for more cards is generally a good approach, but this not the only consideration. Tempo is also important to games in constructed, in more than the typical aggro vs. control match-up.

Consider the following situation in UW vs. UB. You are playing the list of UW I posted last week, and this is the situation:

It's the end of your opponent's turn. Both players have 20 life. Your opponent has 8 cards in hand and has discarded a Doom Blade and played some Preordains. What do you do?

His board (all untapped): Darkslick Shores, Drowned Catacomb, Swamp, Island x2

Your board (all untapped): Tectonic Edge, Celestial Colonnade, Seachrome Coast, Glacial Fortress, Island x3.

Your hand – Mana Leak, Jace Beleren, Marsh Flats, Jace's Ingenuity, Sun Titan, Deprive.

You have the opportunity here to use Tectonic Edge aggressively to force play. Even though you are in a control mirror, tempo is the key front at the moment, and you can force play simply by playing Jace's Ingenuity at the end of your opponent's turn. Your opponent then is in the tough situation of having to let it resolve or tap precious mana to attempt to counter it.

Because card advantage is key in the control mirror is important your opponent has to think long and hard about how to respond to this draw spell. Consider his options:

1) Allow Jace's Ingenuity to resolve, leaving you with 8 cards in and 9 cards after you draw for your turn.

2) Attempt to counter Jace's Ingenuity

You have a number of options in this situation. If your opponent chooses to allow Jace's Ingenuity to resolve you can use Tectonic Edge at the end of his turn taking him down to 4 lands, then untap and play Jace Beleren. Your opponent has no good plays at that point, since you have 4 mana up. Your Jace Beleren will resolve and leave you with a Jace on the table, a critical advantage in the control mirror.

So what if your opponent counters? You could easily just make the same play, as if he didn't, using Tectonic Edge to reduce your opponent's available mana, then play Jace and have the ability to defend him with a counterspell. This seems like an amazing situation for you.

Of course, you could also just as easily counter back, forcing your opponent to use another counterspell, effectively tapping him out and resolving your Sun Titan, further ramping your mana advantage either by using Tectonic Edge on your turn or returning Marsh Flats to play. You could also just play Jace and have mana to defend him. Your tempo advantage in this situation creates a whole lot of options. Needless to say you are in a winning position.

Thus you can see how Card Advantage and Tempo interact in this situation, and how you have to balance the two in determining what the correct line of play. The UB player is in a particularly tough situation, as the UW player is pressing a tempo advantage and trying to turn it into a permanent advantage (more cards).

So how do these principles come into play outside the game? The answer is simple – deck design. By affecting ideas behind deck construction they help you look at formats and determine the best way to attack them.

All decks have weaknesses, and frequently decks will have strengths and weaknesses that correspond to these principles. For example, mono-red is a deck that has strong tempo and early game position, but if this assault is blunted it has very little recourse in advancing a mid-to-late game board position. It also has very limited ways of generating card advantage.

This is why Koth and Spikeshot Elder are so crucial to the red deck. They are cards that allow the red deck to play on the board. They also provide the deck with crucial card advantage engines, something red decks typically lack.

When you are looking at decks, holes always emerge. When you look at a number of decks in a format you will often see a pattern. If many decks in a format have the same weakness then you have a hole in the format, a strategic weakness that you can attack with a rogue deck. This is one of the primary factors which drives the success of rogue archetypes.

From a design standpoint, this is exactly why spells like Stone Rain are so important to having a Standard format that is diverse. Three mana land destruction will make for healthy formats. Counterspells, to a lesser extent, also serve this function, since they are very good at maintaining tempo parity because they stop just about everything.

Of course, these ideas also have larger, theoretical implications. A while back I presented my "theory of everything" which I called Marginal Mana. This system succeeds where others fail because it presents a way of tracking both transient and permanent advantages, which no other system does. While Marginal Mana doesn't solve everything, it is, I feel, a good start. Any Grand Unified Theory of Magic will have to take both transient and permanent advantages into account and have a way of tracking them.

This principle of transient and permanet advantages seen in chess is also highly applicable to Magic in a variety of situations, both in-game and out-of-game. It has a pervasive impact on Magic, touching the game in pretty much every facet. Undersatnding these basic principles of transient and permanent advantages will help you better determine not only how to act in various in-game situations, but also improve your deck construction through improved card selection and better strategic implementation.

As in every sport, every game, fundamentals are important, and this form of advantage theory is one of the most fundamental aspects of Magic: The Gathering.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO


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