The MTG Community - Establishing the Baseline for Theory Discussion [Ty Thomason - Archmage, Level 46]
In the upcoming year of writing once a week, I may try to discuss some theoretical aspects of the game. Magic theory has always been of interest to me and I think taking a serious academic approach to some concepts can be beneficial to a player. Some of my favorite articles that I’ve read over the years have been theory articles.
My goal is not to develop a universal theory that relates everything because I think the best way to talk about theory is to keep it applicable. A good understanding of theory can help in three ways: 1) A better understanding of the game situation and what's important 2) A way to differentiate between possible decisions and outcomes 3) A way to evaluate cards from new sets for use in various formats.
In this article I want to define some of the basic concepts of theory so that in my future writing they can be used as a reference to understand exactly what I’m talking about. This list is not comprehensive or exhaustive. One day I may expand it and add references when necessary. But for the purposes of this site, brevity wins out. I'll assume you know most of the rules of the game and have a decent enough grasp on basic strategy. I shouldn't need to explain what chump blocking is, why it’s bad to do on turn three, or why other similarly awful things are bad.
Resources, Their Limiting Factors, and the Big Three Concepts
Magic is a game of resources, but it’s much more than a game of resource management. There are three major resources in the game: cards, mana, and life. Each of these resources is limited by one or more rules. You only draw one card a turn and can't have more than seven in hand at the end of a turn. You can only play one land a turn. You start with only twenty life points. These three resources and their limiting factors are integral to the big three theoretical concepts: Card Advantage, Philosophy of Fire, and Tempo. There are other limitations in the game, chiefly getting only one attack and untap step each turn. These will be discussed when appropriate. I define the big three concepts as the exchange of resources for an increase in a certain type of resource.
This is the exchange of resources (cards, mana, life) for cards.
If all cards are equal, the person with the most card advantage will win. The simplest illustration is two decks full of Memnites playing against each other. If a player is allowed to draw even one more card than the other, that card will be the deciding factor of the game*. The way I define a card for CA analysis includes creatures on the battlefield, including tokens even though they aren’t technically cards per the comprehensive rules. Permanents on the battlefield that can’t attack or block generally don't count as cards.
*This is actually only true if the player drawing the extra card is on the draw. The player on the play would be required to draw two additional cards to tip the scales in his or her favor, or the creatures would need haste. This is a good illustration for the difference between being on the play versus being on the draw.
Philosophy of Fire
The exchange of resources (cards, life, mana) for life (either yours or your opponents).
This concept was originally put forward by Michael Flores in his article by the same name. I don’t like the name, but I like the concept (the opposite will be true for tempo). I’ve expanded on the main points of his article to apply to more than just Burn decks. A good illustration is a deck full of Lightning Bolts and Mountains. Drawing seven Bolts is all that is needed to win the game. Any Bolt spent not killing your opponent is one more you need to draw down the road to finish him or her off. Some decks immediately start with a philosophy of fire mindset, trying to convert resources to damage right away. Others wait until the game is firmly in control before using the resource advantage to end the game. Using cards to gain life is also part of the philosophy of fire. For each Healing Salve your opponent plays, you'll need to draw an additional Lightning Bolt. Philosophy of fire also covers situations where you attack with a greater number of creatures than your opponent has as blockers. You lose one or more attackers in the process, but gain from the damage dealt by your unblocked creatures. You traded resources (cards / creatures in play) for life (damage to the opponent).
The exchange of resources (cards, life, mana) for mana.
This is perhaps an oversimplification of a very complex subject, but talking about tempo can be difficult at times. Some commonly held ideas about tempo can be described in terms of card advantage and philosophy of fire. Only by clearly defining those other two, can we see the negative space left as it’s own independent concept. Tempo is a great name. But historically, it has been poorly defined. I won’t try to convince you that my definition is correct, but it'll be the definition I use in future articles. My concept of tempo only works because the mana system works the way it does. Cards increase in power level as their mana cost increases, and you can only play one land a turn (lands being the primary source for mana). Note that playing a land is a tempo play: it costs a resource (card from hand) and since the land does not attack or block, it no longer counts as a card. The word tempo implies a time-dependent quality, usually described as a turn. Missing a land drop can cost tempo. Not making a play on a critical turn (failing to utilize mana you have available) is also negative tempo. Being behind one or more turns in a game can lead to a swift defeat. The other restrictions mentioned above (only one untap, only one attack) also apply to tempo in some situations.
The amount of cards you see in a game.
If card advantage is important when all cards are equal, velocity is important for finding a specific card that is much better than the rest. Cards like Preordain, Ponder, and Serum Visions create velocity without a loss of card advantage. Traditionally, a card that sees more cards but doesn’t replace itself (i.e. Index) wouldn’t count as Velocity since it doesn’t quantitatively get you further into your deck. I think Index should still count, but understand that velocity is not generally worth a card. Note that card-drawing spells like Divination create both card advantage and velocity. A card that creates only card advantage would be something like Entreat the Angels.
The amount of relevant cards left in your deck.
Velocity explored the idea that not all cards are equal. Threat density takes this further by acknowledging that in the later stages of the game, many cards are no longer useful. Lands are almost always useless after a certain point. When this point is reached, having more spells than lands left in your deck than your opponent means you'll be less likely to experience mana flooding. Threat density is very important for aggressive decks, and one of the biggest reasons to play aggressive decks is their low land count.
Virtual Card Advantage
Card advantage “created” by neutralizing your opponents cards without actually destroying or discarding them.
Don't confuse virtual card advantage with threat density. Sometimes people use the term to refer to creation of tokens, but this is confusing and I think my system allows for tokens to be pure card advantage in a way that works. Virtual card advantage can be created by cards like Chalice of the Void, or Moat, or Rest in Peace against a deck with Tarmogoyfs. Usually they're permanent-based.
Some Good Articles to Read
Stages describe what part of the game you are in.
This is a great concept from Mike Flores. I quote his explanations because they really are great.
Stage 1 - “In Stage I you are basically mana screwed.”
Stage 3 - “In Stage III one player is both 1) dictating the field of battle and 2) playing in such a way that only a subset of the opponent's cards (if any) are live any more.”
Stage 2 - “Stage II is...everything else.”
If you want to know more, click on the link to the article. It’s a very good concept that hasn’t really entered into common theory discussion, and I don’t see a need to put it in my own words.
This describes the roll you take in a matchup.
Yet another Mike Flores creation. It can’t be overstated how much great stuff Flores has contributed to Magic theory over the years. In my opinion, he's the best writer of all time, but I’m kind of a geek for the theory stuff.
Focus on what matters. Enough said.
Strategy, Tactics, and Operations
Flores put forth these three terms here, but the definitions have shifted over the years. Thus, my definitions are presented here.
These are the choices you make in a single turn to maximize the effectiveness of the turn. Tactics can occasionally be expanded to beyond a single turn, but it's the nuts and bolts of solid Magic play. You can be very successful in Magic just by using good tactics. I won my first PTQ in Limited by relying on tactics and some good instinct, but really not on any in depth strategy (I also got pretty lucky).
This is broader than tactics. It's knowing what's important in a match-up, as well has how to sideboard. Deck construction can also be considered a part of strategy.
This is stuff outside the game that you use, some parts of it more impactful than others. Playing all matching basic lands in your deck is part of operations. Scouting in the late rounds of a tournament is operations. Shuffling the card you draw into your hand is part of operations. Some of it can border on the fringes of ethical and legal play, so be careful! My favorite Magic quote has to deal with operations: “Your ability to succeed at the top levels of Magic is directly related to your ability to control your tells.” - Gary Wise (I promise I won’t quote this every article!)
Hopefully this gives you enough foundation and background that I can communicate effectively going forward. I know I’m working on something to dive more in depth to my ideas about tempo. In the meantime, I’ve been drafting Mirrodin on Magic Online. Follow me on Twitter to find out when I’m streaming!
A Little Bit about Ty
He's been playing Magic since Ice Age; competitively since Onslaught. Ty's a veteran of 6 Pro Tours and has over a dozen money finishes at Grand Prix tournaments. His favorite formats are Sealed Deck and Legacy, but he'll play anything as long as it’s Magic!