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The Essence of Magic – Resource Interaction

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I've said before that Magic is a game about resources. Fundamentally, it is a game about resource interaction. In a lot of respects, it is like both a strategic and tactical-level war game at the same time. What do I mean? Well, there is a distinction between strategy and tactics, one that some people don't understand. For those of you who don't understand, I'll explain it quickly. Strategy is effectively the use of various resources to secure victory through long-range planning. Tactics deals with actual troop usage and deployment. A major branch of Magic is actually strategic—or, rather, logistical.

If you have studied military history, you'll understand the importance of logistics. Most battles are won and lost before the engagement happens, due to logistics. Normally, one army is able to get more men and material to a given location, giving them a decided advantage in the battle. Sure, tactical reversals do happen (some of the greatest battles in history, like Cannae, are examples of them), but as a whole, it's logistics that win battles and wars, not tactics.

So, how does logistics win battles in the real world? It wins with overwhelming resource advantage, either locally or globally. We see this all the time in history, and the same principle applies to Magic as well. Every Magic game boils down to a resource battle, either locally or globally. Local resource disadvantages can be turned around. Global ones cannot. Let's look at the three fundamental resources of Magic (as I see them):

  1. Life
  2. Cards
  3. Mana

The first step is to determine whether you have a local or global advantage. A resource advantage that is extremely unlikely to be reversed can be considered global—for example, cards in the mono-Red-aggro-versus-U/W-control matchup. Cards are the most common "global" advantage, although mana can be as well. Life is almost never a global advantage, as creatures are prevalent in most matchups.

However, like life, cards and mana are normally local advantages as well. The most basic flow of a Magic game dictates this. When you play your first land, you have a temporary resource advantage over your opponent in mana. This advantage will likely disappear very soon, and if you want to exploit it, you have to do so quickly. This is just a small example of a local resource advantage.

So, how do you exploit a local resource advantage? The answer is simple: by attacking your opponent's resources. Magic has a myriad of ways of attacking your opponent, even starting on turn one. You can attack cards with things like Duress, you can attack mana with things like Dark Ritual or Stifle, and you can attack life with creatures like Wild Nacatl and Goblin Guide. Resource interaction—in actuality resource denial—is the fundamental crux on which Magic turns.

Any attack on resources is aimed to one of two ends: exhaustion or restriction. Exhaustion is generally more difficult to achieve, but has lasting permanence, frequently generating a global resource advantage. Restriction generates a temporary advantage that must be capitalized on before your opponent's restricted resources undo themselves. This is the strategic core of Magic: The Gathering.

Let's take a look at this fact in more detail. Remember, what I discuss below is strictly principle, and is obviously not applicable in every case (every individual matchup). It is, however, generally true and will be applicable to the vast majority of cases.

Aggro vs. Control – All Three

In the aggro-versus-control matchup, the aggro deck is attacking mana, exploiting early restricted mana by the control deck. Now, this might seem strange to you, but the resource where the aggro deck is advantaged is not actually life; it's mana. The plan is to convert the early mana advantage into an attack on your opponent's life total, but the core of the strategy is mana, not life.

But mana is a transient advantage. The control deck can expect to level that resource advantage without any work, so it focuses its resources on defending life. Because the Red deck's fundamental strategy is to use a mana advantage to generate an attack on life, the control deck can take care of both resources simply by defending life; a strong advantage indeed!

The control deck, on the other hand, is attacking cards, aiming to exhaust the aggro deck's resources through defensive cards that have superior efficiency. Note how the aggro deck is attempting to exploit a transient, local advantage—mana. This means that it has a very specific window in which to win. The control deck will only have restricted mana for so long, as eventually they will reach a certain point where their mana is no longer restrictive, allowing them to go on the offensive.

Aggro vs. Aggro – Varies, but Often Life

Aggro mirrors can be about all three strategies, but frequently it comes down to life. Both decks are designed to make efficient use of early mana, so protecting one's own life total is generally a good default strategy. Cards can come into play as well, which is Why Dave Price Goes Second. Even so, aggro generally mirrors boil down to life advantages, as the player who has more life often retains the aggressive position, since he is better able to evaluate when he should take hits—information quickly becomes perfect, or near-perfect.

Aggro vs. Combo – Mana

This is where we have a "race" situation. Most combo decks operate by generating a mana advantage of some sort, either through fast mana/mana acceleration (Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, Rampant Growth), or by abusing static effects or triggers to generate "free" spells, effectively translating to more mana/cards (Bridge from Below, Narcomoeba, Aluren, Pyromancer Ascension).

Thus, both decks are trying to win while their mana is "advantaged." Of course, since combo decks have often had fast mana, accelerating them past the point of typical creature efficiency, they have historically often had good aggro matchups. This shows why. If both decks are concerned almost strictly about exploiting an early mana advantage, the deck that better generates a mana advantage will typically win. Aggro decks rely on their curve to generate this advantage, whereas combo decks are frequently actively designed to generate mana. Between a passive strategy and an active one, the active one will be far more successful.

Combo vs. Control – Mana and Cards

Once again, the combo deck is generally operating on "mana." Following the same principle as the aggro matchup, the combo deck is attempting to push an early mana advantage into a winning sequence of cards.

The control deck, on the other hand, is typically attacking cards. The strategy is to find the linchpin in the sequence, and to try to stop that single card. This is because control decks usually cannot halt the mana development of a combo deck, and so focusing on cards becomes the next best option. Because combo decks frequently focus so actively on generating mana, they require quite a few cards to "go off." They need their mana and their engine, which is to the control deck's advantage. By attacking cards, they can slow the combo deck down and develop into a position where they are able to answer the key engine present in the opposing deck.

Combo vs. Combo – Mana

This is often literally a flat-out race with minimal disruption. If one deck's mana engine leads into a highly disruptive spell for the other deck, that can often be game. Otherwise, combo versus combo often devolves into a flat-out goldfish race.

Control vs. Control – Cards

This should come as a surprise to no one. Because control decks are so focused on the long game, control mirrors generally revolve around a war of attrition regarding cards. However, it is important to note that within the course of a control mirror, local advantages often come up. Whether a player is able to press them is a different story, but these small advantages in mana or life can sometimes be exploited to great effect.

An excellent example of this is Tectonic Edge. While primarily a defensive tool to deal with man lands, there are situations where control decks can use it as a sword, specifically when one player is in a land-light situation. Using Tectonic Edge to generate a temporary mana advantage is akin to a move an aggro deck might make, except the control deck doesn't usually use the opportunity to attack life (even if it is an option). The general case is to use this opportunity to generate card advantage via a spell like Jace's Ingenuity or to resolve a card-advantage engine like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Thus, we see how a small, localized advantage can feed into the primary battle.

This resource battle is at the core of every game of Magic, and it's also at the core of Legacy's recent resurgence as a format. Competitive players all over love Legacy, and the reason is because Legacy allows players to interact the most. Every resource can and will be attacked early, but every resource can also be defended. Cards like Stifle, Wasteland, Thoughtseize, Hymn to Tourach, Tarmogoyf, and Lightning Bolt all see play. All of them are extremely efficient attack vectors on one of the three resources; however, all are also defensible. Thus, Legacy places the onus on the player to come up with a strategy and tactical blueprint, and then execute it.

This type of resource interaction is the essence of Magic, just as it is the essence of war. Most games of Magic will be won or lost on this level, and not the tactical level, just as far more battles are won by strategy and logistics than by actual tactics.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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