If you have been around Magic: The Gathering long enough, you have probably heard such phrases as “card advantage” and “mana advantage.” They may seem like terms that get thrown around a lot and not everyone really knows what they mean, like the word ‘literally’ at times. Truth is, most players can’t define card advantage, even some of those in the pro tour have no idea what it really is. The funny part about that is that they do practice it even though they can’t define it. Put on your thinking caps and get out a pen and pencil to take notes because you’re about to learn what these two terms are and if you apply them correctly, it’s guaranteed to improve your game.
Their are two parts to card advantage. The first part deals with how many cards each player has in their respective hands. The player who has more cards is more likely to have better options for creatures, removal, lands, and any other spells that their deck relies on. A player who has fewer cards in their hand is bound to be more limited on what they can do. Let’s consider top decking as an extreme example of a player that has card disadvantage. If you are not familiar with the term top decking, it refers to when a player has no cards in their hand and they are relying on the top card of their library to continue playing the game. Sometimes it works in that players favor and they can stay in the game, but other times, probably most of the time, they’ll get something useless like their 7th land. Either way top decking is not where you want to be, but most aggro decks tend to find themselves there in the late game. Consider the next two rows of cards as two different hands.
Without even knowing the board state, it’s easy to see that the black player has the advantage with 5 cards in hand: two removal spells, two creatures, and a card to draw more cards. Looking at the red player’s hand, there is a damage based removal spell that can kill an X/3 creature or deal 3 damage to the opponent and a creature that sacrifices other creatures to generate more mana. The red player’s hand has no way to get around that Gurmag Angler. The Gurmag Angler can hold off the Skirk Prospector, they also have two removal spells that can easily deal with it, and a card that gets the black player more cards to keep putting pressure on the red player. This is only half of card advantage though.
The other half is more about trading resources or how many opposing cards can one card get rid of. When you go into combat and block an opposing 1/1 creature with one of your own 1/1 creatures, assuming neither have relevant combat abilities like first strike, you are trading resources at a 1:1 ratio. The same thing happens when a player casts a removal spell that gets rid of one thing on the board. Counter spells also trade 1 for 1. This ratio is worth paying attention to because there are some cards and/or combos that can get you a better ratio like 2 for 1. Ravenous Chupacabra and Mystic Snake, for example, can get rid of a card with their enter-the-battlefield triggers plus they have the ability to block and potentially kill an X/2 creature. Board wipe effects are the easiest way to get a better ratio. Since a board can have an infinite number of creatures, a card like Damnation can kill an infinite number of creatures trading X for 1. Although rarely used in constructed, discard effects like Mind Rot also generate card advantage by forcing the opponent to get rid of 2 cards for your 1. Card draw also uses this ratio, but instead of getting rid of your opponent’s cards, you are trading one resource for at least one other resource, or 2 for 1 with a card like Divination.
Some of the more experienced players out there may be thinking, “Mind Rot and Divination are not good cards” or “I’ve never seen them played in a competitive environment.” Well, you’re right, but that’s because of mana advantage, not card advantage. These two concepts are often confused but they are not the same thing. Mind Rot, a 3 mana spell, forces the opponent to discard two cards. Ignoring the “target player reveals their hand. You choose a nonland card from it… you lose 2 life” portions, Thoughtseize boils down to being a 1 mana spell that forces the opponent to discard a card. If you cast two copies of Thoughtseize, you basically spent 2 mana to get rid of two cards, that’s 1 mana cheaper than a single Mind Rot which is mana advantage.
These two concepts seem to play against each other and they often do when evaluating a new card or brewing a new deck. Let’s look at Chemister’s Insight from these two sides. Its a 4 mana spell that draws two cards, it also has jumpstart which means it can do it again by paying the same amount of mana and discarding a card, almost like you cast it from the hand again. From the card advantage standpoint, this is good. You are spending 1 card to get 2 cards, or with jumpstart you are spending 2 cards to get 4, probably not in the same turn, but over the course of the game. How does it stack up to other blue draw spells in standard right now? Opt has a ratio of 1 card for 1 card. Winged Words is 1 card for 2 cards. Radical Idea is 1 card for 1 card or 2 cards for 2 cards with jumpstart. So according to card advantage, Chemister’s Insight is a good card. Now look at it from a mana advantage standpoint. It costs 4 mana to draw two. How does that compare to the aforementioned spells. Opt draws 1 card for 1 mana, Winged Words draws 2 card for 3 mana, and Radical Idea draws 1 card for 2 mana. It would take two Opts to draw the same amount of cards, but for half the mana. Winged Words draws the same amount of cards but for 1, potentially 2, mana fewer. It would take two Radical Ideas to draw the same amount of cards which would cost the same amount of mana as a single Chemister’s Insight. So according to mana advantage, Chemister’s Insight is not a good card. Taking both of those into account, Opt is obviously one of the best card draw spells in standard right now, but so is Winged Words regardless if you can cast it at its discounted cost of controlling a flying creature. Although this is an out of game example, in game decisions are based on the same principle. Going back to the very first example with the cards in players hands, say you’re the black player and your opponent put out the Skrik Prospector last turn. Do you really want to waste a removal spell on a creature that small? Not when you have a Gurmag Angler in hand which can probably be played for 1 black mana at this point.
To recap, card advantage is about the number of cards you and your opponent have in hand and the ratio at which you are trading resources. Mana advantage can be defined as how much two or more other options cost to get the same or similar effect. Hopefully that clears it up for some of you out there. If you want more examples of these concepts, you can look through my deck analysis and try to see why certain decks run what they run in other formats. Leave me a comment and let me know if there is a topic pertaining to Magic: The Gathering that you would like to know more about.