The overall aim of this series of articles is to explore connections between Magic and everyday life. I’m sure we’ve all heard our friends (or ourselves) make jokes like saying ‘sadness on the stack? resolves’ when something goes wrong, or describing a lucky turn of events as a ‘killer topdeck’ – this article tries to take a more systematic approach to the intuitive connections between Magic and our lives that we already make. In the process, hopefully we’ll learn a bit about Magic and a bit about life as well.
The first concept we’ll examine is card advantage. But what is card advantage after all? At a very basic level, a player has card advantage in a game of magic when they manage to draw more cards than their opponents. Casting a spell that draws two cards, for example, means that you used one card to draw two cards. If your opponent has not done anything to draw cards of their own, you’ve now seen more of your deck and have more cards than they do. You can also gain card advantage when you destroy one of your opponent’s cards without using a card of your own (perhaps through combat) or while drawing a card in the process (cards like Annihilate are examples of this). Cards that draw cards while also having other effects are said to ‘replace themselves’ in that even if they are destroyed you will not have gone down a card. To gain card advantage, you want to fill your deck with cards that allow you to draw more cards as well as cards that can trade for two of your opponent’s.
With that definition in place, I want to take a moment to make some key observations about how card advantage works in a game of Magic. First, gaining card advantage usually requires some investment of mana, or, in more abstract terms, a loss of tempo. If you cast Divination, for example, you may have traded one card for two, but you also spent three mana without affecting the board in any concrete way. This brings us to a second observation, which is that the best card advantage cards are those that gain the most cards for the least mana. This is why Ancestral Recall is better than Divination – the former draws 3 cards for 1 mana, and the latter draws 2 cards for 3 mana.
Third, and perhaps most crucially, card advantage doesn’t always matter. You can have your whole deck in your hands, but if you spent all your mana to get it there and now your opponent has a lethal attack you can’t stop… well you’re still losing. Card advantage is wonderful, but to maximize its relevance you have to avoid dying or falling too far behind on board. This is why decks that emphasize card advantage (usually control decks) usually play a lot of answers to the board and want the game to go long. Long games favor those with card advantage, since in long games the loss of the mana spent to draw cards is less relevant than the raw quantity of cards you see over the game.
At this point we’re ready to see how the concept of card advantage mirrors some features of our actual lives. To start with, we have to identify some real-world correlate to a Magic card in general, so that we can then see what having more cards might mean. I propose to think of a card as an opportunity, a possibility. Each card you have in your hand represents something you can do in the game of Magic. A land card represents a potential land drop, a creature spell represents a potential attacker, and so forth. Applying this to the idea of card advantage, we can see that the people with ‘card advantage’ in life are the people with more opportunities, more options, more things they can do.
Now, one nice thing about Magic is that at the beginning of the game we all start on equal footing: my seven cards to your seven. Real life, however, is more like a game of Vanguard (if anyone remembers that version of Magic), where your Vanguard cards are your parents, your biology, your culture, and a million other forces that are outside of your control. In other words, we don’t all start with the same opportunities, the same number of cards in our hands.
That being said, we can still think about how we can get more cards. Gaining card advantage in real life means gaining more opportunities. This is something everyone does in different ways – we go to school to gain skills that we can use, we network with peers in our chosen profession, and we exercise and train our bodies to open up our physical potential. It’s no surprise then that a lot of card advantage spells are flavored as learning. After all, learning and education are the primary methods by which we gain more opportunities, whether it be learning in a formal context, learning about our peers, or learning physical skills. Ancestral Recall is the one of the best card advantage spells because, well, gaining all the knowledge of your ancestors sure would give you a lot more opportunities in life.
So far I’ve been talking about real-life card advantage in a general sense, but we can also bring it closer to Magic by thinking of it in an adversarial context. In Magic, after all, we never just have card advantage, we have card advantage over our opponent. I don’t really want to promote thinking of other people as our opponents (though certainly in some contexts they can be), so let’s think of the opponent as more of a task we have to accomplish. It’s not hard to see that if you know more about a task, or if you give yourself more and different chances to overcome it, you will have a greater chance of success. That’s why one often begins tackling a challenge by studying it, and in a way each new attempt to solve a problem is a new card off the top of the deck, a new chance to get it right.
That being said, the time you take to study, the time you take to make these attempts, all requires a certain investment of resources. This brings us to the first of the observations made above: gaining card advantage costs mana. We all know people who just take their best guess and a wild swing at a problem instead of studying it methodically and taking precise steps. In magic terms, these people are valuing tempo over card advantage. Gaining opportunities, trying over and over to get something right, takes time and, in many cases, money. These are the Magic equivalents to turns and mana, ie., tempo. The person who went to grad school may come out way behind on board (no job, student loans, etc.) but their plan must have been to use the opportunities they gained from grad school to get ahead in the late-game of life. As in our second observation, they must have evaluated the opportunities gained and balanced them against the tempo lost. Hopefully for them, their education is more like an Ancestral Recall than a Divination.
And that ties in nicely to our third key observation. Just as in Magic card advantage doesn’t always matter, in life having more opportunities doesn’t always matter. If there is a problem that requires an immediate solution, it doesn’t matter how many things you know, how many different ways you could come at it. You need the right way right now, and all that matters if whether you have it. In those cases, a wild guess might be better than any ancestral visions. Correspondingly, decks with more card advantage don’t always pull ahead early in the game of life, but their end game is often stronger. In real life, the commonly-cited fact that college graduates make more than those without degrees is an example of this. More generally, it’s easy for those without much opportunity or investment in their own skills to have a good run of luck and do well for a bit, but in the long term that approach is much more likely to falter. Said in Magic terms, aggro decks are much more liable to flood and fizzle out than control decks.
There are any number of other connections one could make between card advantage and our lives – how should we think of cycling, for example? And we haven’t even touched on the closely related concepts of library manipulation or card quality, as embodied in cards like Serum Visions and Ponder. Still, I hope this was enough to get the thoughts flowing so that next time a lucky chance comes by you’ll be able to wonder: was it just a killer topdeck, or have you been casting ancestral recall all your life?