In Magic, you’re limited by the number of cards you have, and one of the first things you learn is the concept of card advantage. When you can use one of your cards to deal with two cards from your opponent, you’re up a card. Do that enough times and you’ll be up many cards, and then probably win.
Most of the time, when you think of card advantage, you think of literal 2-for-1s—spells like Wrath of God, Divination, and Forked Bolt. There are, however, many ways to indirectly achieve card advantage where you’re not physically up cards, but you might as well be. We call this “virtual card advantage,” and it’s about as important for your game as actual card advantage. In today’s article, I’m going to go over some ways to get virtual card advantage.
1. Killing Your Opponent
Killing your opponent is like killing all their cards at once. More than that, it’s like killing every card they have and every card they will ever play. It’s a 60-for-1. Or 61-for-1, if you haven’t read my latest article.
This may seem like a joke, but it isn’t—one of the best ways to get virtual card advantage is to simply kill your opponent before they can make use of their cards. It’s for this reason that card advantage does not rule the MTG world, because there are several decks that can kill you while you still have 5 cards left in hand, at which point it’s like you never drew those cards to begin with.
The best way to take advantage of knowing that killing your opponent provides virtual card advantage is to avoid battles you cannot win. If you think your opponent is going to win the card advantage battle, then do not make the game about card advantage. Instead, fight a tempo battle, or a life battle. Make plays that are card disadvantage but that get some damage in, such as suicide-attacking with multiple creatures to get one through—it’s OK to be down cards because you’re not going to win this game anyway.
2. Making Their Cards Useless
Sometimes you don’t have to literally get rid of a card to generate card advantage—you can simply make it bad. Imagine a scenario where your opponent has three 2/2s in play, and you play a 3/3. Assuming you’re at a healthy life total, your opponent cannot attack with their 2/2s into your 3/3, and you cannot attack with your 3/3 because it’ll be double-blocked. In this spot, your 3/3 is effectively trading for their three 2/2s, at least for now. You’re getting a 3-for-1, even if you aren’t literally killing all 3 of their creatures with your card, because you’re making them useless.
A deck that uses this concept a lot is Modern Lantern, particularly with Ensnaring Bridge. If you have Ensnaring Bridge and an empty hand, then Ensnaring Bridge is effectively killing every creature from your opponent’s side—they’re still there, but they might as well not be. If they’re a creature-based deck, then every card that does not interact with Ensnaring Bridge is a blank—you reduce their deck to 3 or 4 relevant cards. With Lantern, you aim to create a position where your one card (Bridge) will trade with 56 of your opponent’s, and then you hope the rest of your deck (the Lantern/Mill Rocks) can trade with the other 4.
3. Breaking Their Synergies
At Pro Tour Kaladesh, Shota Yasooka was playing his Grixis Control deck against a Vehicles opponent. His opponent had a Smuggler’s Copter, and every turn of the game, he would play a creature, activate Smuggler’s Copter, and attack. Most people would simply kill the Smuggler’s Copter, but Shota would take the hit, and then kill the creature at the end of the turn. At the end of the game, his opponent was left with two Smuggler’s Copters in play and no creatures to crew them.
Was Shota right to do that? I don’t know (it’s dangerous because of the looting), but it’s interesting to think about what led him to do it this way. At some point in the game, he looked at his hand and decided that he would have to get rid of all of his opponent’s threats to win, so he might as well leave the Vehicles there. By using his removal spells and counterspells on all the creatures, Shota created virtual card advantage—he not only killed all the creatures but also nullified all the cards that needed creatures to work. Those two Smuggler’s Copters were still in play but they were not actually doing anything, and at the end of the exchange Shota was up two cards.
This is true for basically all synergistic decks. Take Affinity, for example—if you can deal with all the Platings, Steel Overseers, and Ravagers, then the Ornithopters and Memnites aren’t so threatening, and you can generate virtual card advantage by making your opponent’s cards useless or at least much worse than they normally would be. You can also kill all the creatures and make Cranial Plating useless. If you’re playing against the new Devoted Druid decks and you manage to kill the Devoted Druids, then you leave your opponent with cards like Vizier of Remedies, which are very low in power level. If you’re playing against a Lord-based deck, like Merfolk, and you can kill most of the Lords, then the remaining creatures will be worse than the average card. If you’re playing against Bogles and you Thoughtseize their one creature, then all the Auras are blanks. Those are all forms of virtual card advantage.
The key to plays like Shota’s is in making sure you can actually kill everything. If Shota makes the play he makes and then, 4 turns later, after taking 12, decides he’s going to kill the Smuggler’s Copters, that’s disastrous. If I try to kill all your Platings and just leave the creatures there but then have to end up killing all the creatures anyway, then I haven’t accomplished much.
4. Using a Worse Card to Deal with a Better Card
Card advantage theory considers every card to be of equal value, but we all know that in practice, this isn’t true. If I use Shivan Meteor to kill your Grizzly Bears, then technically we traded 1-for-1, but my card is likely much better at this stage of the game, so you’re effectively up on the exchange because I traded a real card for something that, at this point, is worth half a card or less.
Most of the time, Magic decks have certain cards that are good in the early game, cards that are good in the midgame, and cards that are good in the late game. When you play cards like 1/1s for 1 or 2/2s for 2 (or lands!), you are accepting that there will be a point in the game where they will be mostly useless. If I can turn them into useful cards in the late game, and force you to play a late-game card to answer what was supposed to be an early-game card of mine, then you’ll be out of answers for my late-game cards in the future.
For me to do this, I have to be able to put them in a situation where my bad card, for whatever reason, is threatening to do something better than it usually does at this stage of the game. One of the best ways to do this is to make their life total low enough that any creature is a threat.
Imagine a scenario in which I have a 2/2, you have five 0/3s and are at 25 life. In this spot, my 2/2 is worth basically nothing. Now imagine you’re at 2 life and I kill all your blockers. At this point, you have to spend your premium removal on my 2/2, and on every subsequent 2/2, or you’re going to die. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter that they’re only 2/2s because they’re lethal anyway—I managed to create a situation in which my cards that are supposed to be almost useless at this stage of the game are actually good, by virtue of you being low on life.
Another way to make bad cards good is by having an equipment. Imagine I have Sword of Fire and Ice in play, and I equip it to my 1/1 that was otherwise not doing anything. Now you have to answer it. At this point, we are still trading 1-for-1—you used your answer, but I “used” my Sword. If I can find another useless creature to equip, however, then you’ll need another answer, and at this point I’m up 2-for-1. If you kill 5 of my otherwise-useless creatures, either in combat or with removal spells, then by the end of the game that Sword of Fire and Ice will have been a 5-for-1 for me, even though I never connected with it and, if we’re counting physical cards, I’m actually down a card in the whole exchange.
The easiest way to trade a bad card for a good one is by looting it away. You’re still not up any cards (you’re discarding one and drawing one, after all), but you’re trading something bad for something good (or at least for something that could be good), so in the end you have virtual card advantage.
Looting and similar effects (like scrying) are important in formats without mana sinks, or formats that tend to stall, because in those formats there will invariably be a point where early drops and lands are useless. If I discard my 7th land that is literally doing nothing and draw a new card, then, for all intents and purposes, I just drew an extra card.
It’s for this reason that I valued Seeker of Insight so much in Amonkhet drafting—I realized that the way to beat the aggro decks was to answer their early threats and then let them flood out in the late game, while I had cards like Seeker to turn my extra lands into spells.
6. Having Mana Sinks
This is similar to the previous point. In the late game, both players are going to draw lands that they don’t need. If, at that point in time, a player has a way to use those lands and the other player doesn’t, then that player gains virtual card advantage.
Imagine a spot in which we both have 7 lands in play, but I have an Oketra, the True in play. You draw your 8th land, and it’s effectively a blank. I draw my 8th land, and it now lets me make another 1/1 creature, so it’s like I drew a 1/1 creature at least (potentially more). In this spot, my land does something while your land does nothing—we still have the same number of cards, but I can use mine better, so that’s virtual card advantage.
7. Attacking Their Mana
When you attack your opponent’s mana, you often take away their ability to cast multiple cards. If your hand hass five 2-drops, I Wasteland your second land and you never draw it for the rest of the game, then my Wasteland effectively traded for 5 of your cards.
Most of the time, mana loses value as the game progresses, and you don’t want to spend premium resources dealing with it, especially in Limited. It’s OK to Shock a mana creature, but you’re rarely going to, say, Arrest a Myr, or cast Doom Blade on something similar to a Naga Vitalist. The exception to this is when you believe that the game will come down to card advantage, and you believe you will not win this card advantage battle even if you still have your Doom Blade. In this spot, it’s OK to use it as a hail mary—you don’t think that a 1-for-1 is going to be enough, so you hope you can turn it into a 5-for-1 by making them unable to play their best cards.
8. Playing a Deck that Ignores a Certain Type of Card
In current Magic, control decks gain advantages in two ways: First, they play their share of 2- and 3-for-1s—sweepers, card drawing, and cards like Torrential Gearhulk. They need to do this because they have a ton of 1-for-1s and more lands than anyone else, so that’s their way of pulling ahead.
Second, they blank a lot of the opposing cards. If I’m playing a deck where Torrential Gearhulk is my only creature, then every Fatal Push that my opponent draws is effectively card advantage for me. Cards like Grasp of Darkness and Magma Spray can be useful, but they aren’t nearly as good as they would otherwise have been—they’re half-cards, so to speak.
This is a spot where, because of rational deckbuilding, you end up getting virtual card advantage inside the game. Now if you were to randomly play a card like Dragonmaster Outcast in your deck, you’d make your opponent’s Fatal Pushes good, which is why those decks usually don’t play this type of card. Once they side those cards out, then the Outcasts and Thing in the Ice can come in.
These are only some of the ways to acquire virtual card advantage—there are many more, specific to different situations. They won’t always come up, but when they do come up, you should know to look for them. We focus so much on literally being up cards that we don’t look for ways to virtually be up cards, when there are often more ways to achieve it, and the end result is likely to be the same.