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There comes a time in a Magic player’s life when they realize the difference in value between Mulldrifter and Air Elemental. The Air Elemental might hit for more damage, and be a bigger threat, but Mulldrifter will replace itself while giving you another card. In a duel, generating card advantage is often the most solid path to victory. If you can eliminate more than one of your opponent’s cards using only one of yours, it’s highly likely you’ll come out ahead. Today I’m going to talk about the different kinds of card advantage inherent in Magic, and how you best exploit them in Commander.
Getting the Most Out of Your Cards
There are two basic kinds of card advantage. The first is when you get a net increase in cards. Getting additional cards is quite powerful, for obvious reasons. More cards let you do more things, whether that be stopping your opponent’s threats or producing your own. Blue is much-beloved by constructed players for this reason. Out of all the colors it has the easiest-to-obtain card advantage methods: cards that let you spend mana to draw extra cards. Spending a single card to draw two or more cards is almost always very powerful, assuming you have a strong enough board position to spend a turn’s worth of mana to draw cards.
In multiplayer, the odds that you can afford to spend a turn building card advantage is actually noticeably higher, unless you’ve managed to get yourself identified as the threat. Each player has to worry about multiple other opponents. When you can attack Player B, who has no blockers, but have to worry about Player C sneaking in to pound you because you turned your guys sideways, it’s a lot less appealing to do so.
Mulldrifter is an example of a good card advantage card. It gives you two new cards, whether you evoke it or pay full value. If you pay full value, you get even more out of the card because you get a 2/2 body with evasion on top of your two new cards. This type of card advantage stays constant regardless of the number of players currently in the game, so it’s very relevant for multiplayer. There are a lot of different variations on this, but they work around the basic concept of getting more out of a single card than a replacement card.
This type of card advantage isn’t limited to blue, though it has the best by leaps and bounds. Artifacts also get this ability somewhat frequently, and many of the better ones are Commander staples. Mind's Eye is one of those cards that can quickly put you way ahead just by breaking the normal card cycle. Jayemdae Tome is another example, though that card is pretty terrible 90% of the time.
Black has numerous cards that draw additional cards, some of which are actually cheaper mana-wise than blue, but they also require a life payment. In Commander, these are in some cases better than their blue counterparts because of the difference in starting life total. Phyrexian Arena is almost an auto-include in black Commander decks, and many of the non-repeatable effects are still quite solid.
Getting multiple cards out of a single card can actually take many forms beyond the standard “draw” effects. Green gets saboteur creatures (creatures that have a trigger based on dealing damage) that draw cards and a few other different ways of generating card advantage purely based on your own board position, but not on the scale of blue and black. Instead, green gets its card advantage primarily through finding lands (usually of the basic variety). Kodama's Reach and Cultivate are very solid cards in multiplayer because they give you a bonus land on the battlefield and another land drop for that turn or the next turn. Explosive Vegetation and its ilk are similarly powerful.
Getting the Most Out of Ruining Your Opponent’s Plans
The second kind of card advantage is using one of your cards to answer more of your opponent’s cards than you expended. Realistically, the getting-multiple-cards-for-yourself version of card advantage is the more reliably powerful version of card advantage in both multiplayer and dueling, but there are other ways to get card advantage.
Mind Rot is a simple example of this type of card advantage. You spend a single card to force an opponent to discard two of their cards. This particular example doesn’t scale well to multiplayer, however, since you are playing against two or more opponents. To maintain card parity, you have to eliminate at least one card per opponent remaining in the game. Cards like Mind Rot aren’t going to net you card advantage in multiplayer, so you have to get a bit more creative.
(A Quick Aside: This is also why two of the more powerful dueling strategies – discard and countermagic – are much weaker in multiplayer games. Instead of maintaining card parity by using either discard or countermagic to proactively answer your opponent’s threats, you end up at a card disadvantage. This makes these strategies significantly less powerful in multiplayer, and much more likely to run out answers.)
You might have noticed that I didn’t mention red or white in the card drawing section of card advantage. That’s because they really don’t have the ability to do it for the most part. Both colors have a variety of cantrips that can help you keep a reasonable number of resources, but very few of those cards produce effects that are worth playing in a multiplayer game. Instead, red and white tend to generate card advantage based on what their opponents are doing.
The most standard version of this effect is the common board sweeper. White has more of these than red, but both colors have access to destroying multiple permanents for a single card. Wrath of God is a good basic example on the creature spectrum. If you lose fewer creatures than your opponents (plus the sweeper card itself) you generate card advantage. Red and white are the kings of sweepers, and this is how they generate their card advantage. Black dips into creature sweeping as well with numerous global -X/-X effects, but doesn’t really have the same variety of sweepers that red and white get.
Fortunately for red and white, the power of sweepers only goes up in multiplayer. When you have to deal with more than one opponent, being able to affect all of them equally is very handy. Why kill one creature when you can kill all of them? Why destroy one enchantment when you can get rid all of them?
Since Commander is all about the creatures, creature sweepers are most frequently going to be the most useful card advantage engines for cards that can use them. Unlike normal constructed Magic, you can play decks focused more around the card advantage of red and white and have it work out well in multiplayer. Just remember to diversify your sweepers to hit permanents other than creatures. You’ll be surprised to see just how many artifacts you can destroy with a simple Shatterstorm for example. Sweepers require a little more thought and planning to use effectively, but can be just as rewarding as card drawing, if not moreso.
Virtual Card Advantage
“Virtual card advantage” is a concept that gets tossed around a lot. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different definition. Personally, I define virtual card advantage as "anything that requires someone to spend one of their sources of card advantage to answer," which is really just another version of card advantage. By forcing your opponent to use card advantage to answer your single card, you deny them the card advantage from that card.
Token generating cards are one of the main ways to generate virtual card advantage. The tokens often require a sweeper to be dealt with effectively. Spending a single card to generate 3+ tokens will typically require a sweeper to deal with them, or to have a significantly larger creature that can block them. Token generation can be an entire strategy in Commander. Decks focused on generating tokens can simply run opponents out of answers when every threat you resolve require a sweeper to answer effectively. I’ve played multiple token decks before, and I’ll break down token generation as a strategy in Commander in a future article.
Permanents with Built-In Protection
Regenerating creatures. Indestructible creatures. Creatures with shroud, hexproof, or protection from something. All of these are different kinds of virtual card advantage. Because they often can’t just be removed with a simple removal spell, or in some cases even in combat, your opponents end up spending additional cards to deal with them. Otherwise they end up having dead cards in their hand that don’t actually help them against the strategy you’re using to win. Blanking some of your opponents’ removal can go a long way toward getting damage in and getting ahead in the game.
Finding the True Value
Ultimately, every color has ways to generate card advantage. One of my favorite aspects of multiplayer play, and Commander in particular, is that red and white card advantage is both viable and effective. In some cases, it's even better than the blue and black counterparts. Green’s card advantage helps you pump out the huge haymaker cards the format is known for.
I feel this brings Commander much closer to an even power level across all the colors, as compared to other Magic formats where blue is dominant (with black typically coming in second). Red is still a bit underpowered because so many of the spells have specific numbers tied to them, and the starting life total is so high. That said, you can build a controlling red deck that is quite effective still and have fun with it.
As long as that balanced is maintained, I will love this format. Tune in soon where I’ll break down one of my decks that builds card advantage the hard way, and has fun doing it.
Until next time, may you have the answer you need when you need it.