Resource Advantage in Magic Part 1: One-Shot Resources
Magic the Gathering is a game of resource management. While the quirks of particular cards will drive certain formats, the general principles of resource management will dictate how one should best address particular strategies. Using resource management as a lens through which to view Magic decks, archetypes, and even entire formats will allow players to make unprecedented connections and reach new levels of understanding.
The analysis of resource management in Magic must begin with the smallest unit over which deck builders and players can exert influence: the card. A single Magic card always requires resources to utilize. The resources might be as simple as a draw step or a part of the opening draw of 7 cards. More commonly, cards require additional visible or invisible resources.
Visible resources are those which are represented by a card or token, or which are tracked explicitly as a value in a pool. “Resources” in this context means each affordance, rule, object, ability, or numerical value (such as life points) which might conceivably provide an in-game effect but which is finite or conditional on player action. Shuko generates an infinite number of opportunities to target a creature, but this targeting is still considered a resource because it is conditional on moving Shuko from the library to the battlefield. Rules with an infinite, non-conditional scope are not resources. For example, the opportunity to examine any public zone, such as a graveyard, is not a resource. Graveyards may be observed infinitely and without condition. Similarly, the opportunity to examine Oracle text is not a resource, as it is an out-of-game effect. Cards or tokens may be resources in multiple different ways at once. In each zone, cards have a dual value as both a generic card in the given zone as well as being a card with their given characteristics. Brainstorm can be cast from the hand, but it can also perform a more generic function by being exiled to pay for Force of Will or discarded to a Wild Mongrel. In the graveyard, Brainstorm may be a generic resource simply by contributing to threshold for Nimble Mongoose, or the characteristics of the card may matter as a potential Snapcaster Mage target. Like cards, mana and life points are key visible resources. Each of these forms a pool of resources that players can draw on by casting spells, paying life to activate fetchlands, activating abilities which cost mana, and so on. Not all cards or decks will use all of these resources. Mono-colored decks will much more rarely draw on their life points as a resource, sometimes using life solely to absorb opposing creature attacks. In both Vintage and Legacy there are Dredge decks which can easily win without ever adding mana to their mana pool.
Invisible resources are those resources which are not represented by a card or token, and are not normally tracked explicitly as a value in a pool. Among the most important of these are resources which were created by the game rules in 1993, or those which were created by the initial batch of cards in Alpha. Land drops (the opportunity to play one land from hand each turn), draw steps (including the initial burst of 7 cards to start the game), spell resolutions (the opportunity for your spell to take effect unmolested by Counterspell, Power Sink, or their modern descendants), and unblocked attacks (the ability of creatures to generate damage or other effects every turn via combat) are the most critical. These date back to the release of Magic, and form the backbone of a “normal” game of Magic. In a stereotypical fair game, each player will draw land and spells, use land drops to play land, use land to generate mana, use mana to cast creature spells, resolve these spells, and finally attack with creatures until lethal damage has been dealt. Since the initial release of the game, many more resources have come into existence. Magic continues to find and highlight new invisible resources every year. The introduction of the Paris mulligan rule introduced mulligans as a potential resource, which generally cost 1 card to use. The Storm mechanic turns each spell played in a single turn into a resource, regardless of the spell’s normal effects. The Bloodthirst mechanic turns damage dealt in a single turn into a resource, separate from the normal conception of life points and damage as resources. In Theros, the Inspired mechanic highlights the importance of tapping/untapping creatures as a potential resource.
Over time, cards have been printed which are able to generate many of the invisible resources that defined early Magic. This helps cement their place as resources proper rather than mere descriptors of game-state. Explore, Fastbond, and various other effects generate additional land drops. Cavern of Souls, Boseiju, Who Shelters All, Xantid Swarm, and Vexing Shusher all generate spell resolutions for other spells. Volcanic Fallout, Thrun, the Last Troll, and Abrupt Decay generate spell resolutions for themselves. Another class of cards mimics the ability to generate spell resolutions, either by bypassing the stack like Aether Vial and Hellspark Elemental, or by giving the player multiple chances to resolve the same spell like Life from the Loam or Yawgmoth’s Will. Additional draw steps may be generated by extending the game with creature removal or counterspells, or generated directly with Time Walk effects. Draw steps can be closely mimicked with a variety of spells, such as Preordain, Sensei’s Divining Top, Ancestral Recall, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Unblocked attacks can also be generated in a variety of ways. Creature removal and counterspells can prevent opposing creatures from blocking, or prevent opposing creature removal from functioning. Many creatures have evasion abilities, such as Insectile Aberration’s flying ability or Blightsteel Colossus‘ trample. Other creatures have protection or shroud abilities, such as True-Name Nemesis and Nimble Mongoose. Both sorts of abilities help the creature to generate unblocked attacks. As with many of the other resources identified here, a card has been printed which provides additional units of the “mulligan” resource. Serum Powder generates a free mulligan at the cost of exiling the current hand.
Similarly, many of these invisible resources have become positive pools which the player may deplete for value. Players may expend their land drops on spell-like lands such as Wasteland, Strip Mine, and Maze of Ith for an otherwise undercosted effect. Gush and Daze also provide advantages in exchange for reversing land drops. Nivmagus Elemental has recently made explicit the concept of giving up spell resolutions for a different positive effect. The Saviors of Kamigawa spells with the Epic mechanic, such as Enduring Ideal, provide a similar choice. By giving up the ability to resolve future spells, one has access to a powerful effect. Several powerful cards require the player to forego draw steps, such as Necropotence, Solitary Confinement, and Golgari Grave-Troll. Along the same lines, Ophidian and his descendant Ninja of the Deep Hours have made explicit the idea of achieving an unblocked attack, and relinquishing that attack’s value in damage in exchange for some other benefit.
Decks win by investing some of these myriad resources in individual cards such that those cards generate either a resource advantage, leading to a game win, or directly reach one of the few conditions which trigger a game victory. One can regard player damage, poison counters, cards removed from the library (and so on) as resource pools. Under this view, every successful deck works because it establishes an overwhelming resource advantage. Two decks competing for the same resources, and especially in the same zones, feel “fair” relative to each other. The decks are also much more likely to feel more “interactive.”
Some decks attempt to expend their initial resources (7 cards in hand) as quickly and effectively as possible. Burn and Belcher are examples of this. Burn expends its initial 7 cards (plus a few draw steps worth of cards) to quickly convert 7 cards in hand into 20+ damage. Belcher uses its initial cards to quickly convert 7 cards into a sizeable amount of mana, which is then used to cast a damage-dealing win condition. The exact resources used will determine which exact cards are best suited to fighting each of these decks. Critically, the pattern of resource usage will also be a major consideration, one that leads to similar conclusions about how to fight these two seemingly disparate decks.
|[Burn Spells] (24)|
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Chain Lightning
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
4 Flame Rift
4 Price of Progress
[/Burn Spells] (0)
[Secondary Business] (16)
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Goblin Guide
[/Secondary Business] (0)
[Mana Sources] (20)
2 Barbarian Ring
|[/Mana Sources][/Sideboard] (0)|
4 Goblin Charbelcher
4 Empty the Warrens
[Repeatable Mana Sources] (9)
4 Land Grant
4 Chrome Mox
[/Repeatable Mana Sources] (0)
[One-Shot Mana Sources] (43)
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Elvish Spirit Guide
4 Lotus Petal
4 Tinder Wall
4 Rite of Flame
4 Desperate Ritual
2 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Pyretic Ritual
1 Chancellor of the Tangle
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Seething Song
[/Repeatable Mana Sources] (0)
What does Burn actually do, in terms of resources? Most current Legacy Burn decks have 2 primary components. The first is land. Each land provides a potential mana each turn, which means that the benefit of playing land rather than single-use mana is compounded as the game goes on. The second major component is burn spells, the best of which is Lightning Bolt. These spells consume 1-2 of the potential mana presented by the lands already in play, move from the hand to the stack to the graveyard, and deal a chunk of damage. Finally, there is a small portion of the deck which complements the primary components. This portion includes cards which consume more resources, such as Fireblast, or which must move through a greater number of zones or phases to have a meaningful effect, such as Goblin Guide. The cards in this extra component are run because of their raw efficiency in contributing to Burn’s goals. The goal of the Burn deck is to exchange various resources for the “Damage” resource in a game-winning volume before the opponent is able to amass an overwhelming resource advantage of their own. This plan is jump-started by the initial 7 draws to begin the game, and expends these draws primarily on one-time-use burn spells. The visible resources used by Burn are cards in hand, mana, lands, and non-land permanents. Some Burn decks use the visible resource of cards in graveyard. The invisible resources used by Burn are draw steps, spell resolutions, land drops, and unblocked attacks.
These invisible resources merit extra discussion, as they are less obvious and less frequently discussed. The most familiar is land drops. Each turn presents a potential resource in the form of a rules allowance to play a single Land card. Playing a land typically requires an expenditure of cards in hand, but provides potential mana each turn going forward. Less obviously, each unblocked attack provides cumulative damage, which the opposing player could have prevented by playing a large, cheap creature. Tarmogoyf, for example, is an excellent blocker that helps to fight Burn by denying unblocked attacks: he simply blocks. Swords to Plowshares and Lightning Bolt can fill the same role by denying the ability to attack at all.
Burn also relies on spell resolutions to a greater degree than many other decks. A Zoo deck attacking with a variety of efficient creatures will often find that having dealt 17-19 points of damage, they still have creatures in play which threaten to generate the final damage without needing further cards, spell resolutions, or similar resources. Instead, a Zoo deck relies even more heavily on unblocked attacks as the avenue for its creatures to deal damage turn after turn. It follows that a Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top is unusually effective against Burn for two reasons. The first is mana efficiency – Burn must cast a greater number of spells early in the game. This means Burn typically runs a greater number of low-cost spells, leading to a greater chance of Counterbalance preventing any given spell’s effect once it becomes active. The second is that Burn relies more heavily than most decks on the resource of spell resolutions. Denying this resource hurts Burn more than the average deck. Compared to most decks, fewer of Burn’s initial investments of resources are likely to secure a game win if further spells do not resolve. Finally, the Burn deck relies on draw steps. This is closely related to cards in hand but should be considered a distinct resource. Mind Twist can potentially deny the resource of cards in hand while Fatigue can potentially deny the resource of draw steps. The distinction is important because a Burn player can be confident of drawing more Burn spells given sufficient draw steps, but can rarely be confident of winning with only the cards already present in hand.
To defeat Burn is simple: either establish an overwhelming resource advantage of your own more quickly than the Burn player can win the game, or out-compete them in one of the resources or zones that the Burn deck finds impactful. Batterskull is extremely effective against Burn because it out-races their draw steps. Each of the Burn player’s draw steps will typically provide 3-4 potential damage, while Batterskull will typically provide 4 potential life gain (anti-damage) every turn, making it a very strong tactic against the Burn player. If paired with a Howling Mine (in some sort of accelerated control shell), Batterskull becomes much less effective. It is still quite strong, but is no longer virtually guaranteed to out-compete the Burn player in their most important resource, damage. Instead, the Howling Mine provides the Burn player with cards (and thus potential damage) at a higher rate than their draw steps otherwise would. Counterbalance is also a major threat against Burn because it denies another key resource – spell resolutions. One related strategy is to allow Burn to resolve several spells and then counter the one necessary to deal lethal damage, leaving the Burn player exhausted of cards in hand and vulnerable. This is weak on two fronts. First, the Burn player may have an “uncounterable” spell which naturally generates a single spell resolution simply by virtue of being played. Secondly, this does not address the Burn player’s draw steps. Exhausting cards in hand is no guarantee of victory if the opponent can be reasonably certain of drawing additional cards to play. By design, Burn is always confident of drawing cards which are likely to contribute damage.
The above are some of the obvious ways to attack Burn. Less obvious are attacking the other resources previously identified. Playing a large blocker early contributes to a win against Burn. Denying opposing mana can contribute to a win against Burn (as well as almost all decks in Vintage and Legacy). Denying the related resource of lands in play can contribute to a win against Burn by potentially prevent a final Fireblast or simply contributing to a mana-denial strategy. Similar reasoning applies to removing Burn’s few creatures or attacking Burn’s draw steps.
Stepping back to a broader theoretical level, we can see that each Burn spell is a one-time expenditure of Burn’s resources to try and reach an overwhelming resource advantage before the opponent. Each Burn spell adds damage at the cost of a host of inter-related resources. Burn can rely on the draw step to provide a consistent flow of many of these resources, which gives the deck a feeling of consistency. This is surprisingly similar to Belcher in many respects.
Goblin Charbelcher decks are designed to expend resources to generate an overwhelming mana advantage (rather than an overwhelming damage advantage, although that does happen later). The deck is designed to consistently use draw steps to generate more mana. Unfortunately, Belcher is not consistent at generating non-mana resources via draw steps. The exact resources used often differ from Burn. For example, Belcher may be only barely reliant on spell resolutions with certain Empty the Warrens hands. Another key difference is that Burn’s lands generate mana turn after turn, leading to a total greater amount of mana available as the game progresses. In contrast, Belcher has few permanents that will generate additional mana over time. Nonetheless, there are broad strategic similarities – the best cards against Belcher will typically deny their primary resource. Like Batterskull against Burn, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben has the potential to nullify Belcher’s primary resource and in some cases single-handedly defeat the deck. Force of Will and especially Mindbreak Trap can punish the Belcher player’s reliance on spell resolutions (such as it is) and contribute to a game win against the deck. Smaller effects like Spell Pierce, Cursecatcher, or a revealed opening-hand Chancellor of the Annex are much weaker because they attack Belcher’s primary resource in a way that draw steps are likely to overcome. Like a single Counterspell against Burn, these cards can contribute to a victory, but will often fail to achieve one alone.
The great speed of Belcher decks guides the cards that must be used against Belcher. Force of Will and Mindbreak Trap negate the mana advantage generated by Belcher: they can counter spells of any cost starting from the moment the game begins. In contrast, Rule of Law requires a substantial 3 mana, which is too costly to be a consistent answer to Belcher in most decks. Burn similarly relies on speed to win games. The ability to deal 20 damage before an opponent can execute their own plan is of tantamount importance. An experienced Burn player will often decline to play spells on a given turn, but always with the intention of defeating the opponent before a relevant defense or a lethal offense can be mounted.
Differences and Similarities
On the other hand, Burn is simply not as fast as Belcher. This allows anti-Burn answers which are substantially more costly and substantially slower. In this sense, Burn feels somewhat more “fair” than Belcher. However in an important sense, neither deck is very “fair”. Both decks seek to establish a huge advantage in a resource which the opponent is not prepared to contest (damage and mana, respectively) and primarily via zones with which the opponent is under-prepared to interact (most notably the Stack). Resource translation is a one-way trip for these decks. Damage or mana in generated from cards in hand, but these processes do not refill cards in hand. Most of the Burn and Belcher plays decrease the available stock of cards in hand as the game progresses. In both cases, surviving the initial burst of opening-hand resource usage is key. After the initial expenditure of resources, both decks are forced to rely on the draw step to generate additional chances for victory. This is slower and more tenuous than a draw engine or permanents which generate a steady stream of resources. As a result, both decks have a tendency to exhaust themselves early and arrive at either a game win or a weak top-decking situation.
In summary, Burn and Belcher have some key strategic similarities that must guide card choices made by opposing players. Both decks expend resources in one-shot effects with the aim of establishing overwhelming advantages in a given resource. Both decks have chosen a resource that opposing decks are not optimally prepared to contest. Both decks rely heavily on the draw step to provide a consistent flow of their favored resource, primarily via one-shot effects. In both cases, the key to victory is to either out-compete the deck in their favored resource or to attack the mechanisms for resource translation – most notably via spell resolutions.
Join me next time when we look at decks with “constant” access to key resources.