This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Decksplanations

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Hello and welcome back to “Decksplanations.” Over the last couple of weeks we have been talking about how I approach increasing the power levels of my decks. So far we have covered the concepts of:


    • Solidarity – Focusing on what you do best and maximizing your chances of achieving it, removing elements that don’t advance your gameplan.
    • Durability – The ability to overcome the most common obstacles that would prevent your victory. Be difficult to stop.
    • Interactivity –  Capitalizing on interaction advantage. Be superior to your opponents in the ways that matter most and capitalize on their weaknesses.
    • Proactivity – Begin to pursue your game plan immediately and be able to punish opponents with slower draws and decks. Fill use disruption to preemptively disable key cards from your opponent and slow down their plan even further.


As always, the information that I’m presenting compliments and builds on what I’ve already discussed in the series. If you missed the previously posted articles I encourage you to go back and read them, if not start at the very beginning of “Decksplanations.” Today we are discussing the fourth of five parts of power: value. Let it begin!


Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” – Warren Buffet


Every person reading this article, regardless of your economic situation, career choice, or what life stage you are in, should know who Warren Buffet is. He is unanimously considered to be the most successful American investor in recent history and is one of the most respected economic and business intelligences on the planet. He is also a man of inscrutable ethical character, a magnanimous philanthropist, and a personal hero of mine. The business success is nice, but what I really like about him is he has an incredible eye for value. I’m all about that value.


Value Lust

I really saved the best for last here. You can ask anyone who knows me, there is nothing – NOTHING – I like more than getting value. I’ll try and get it anywhere I can and I don’t care what other people think about it. My constant pursuit of value borders on disorderly conduct. For the sake of this article, I’m going to try and restrict myself to talking about how to get value in Magic.


Value is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the world of Magic. Much like ‘tempo,’ it has a seemingly opaque definition that changes more as time goes on. Before I get too far along, let’s lay out exactly what I mean when I talk about value: Value is just an abstract aggregation of your total resources. Increasing your total resources could be thought of as increasing the value of your position in the game. When you are able to net extra resources over and above what you invested, you can think of that as profit. Let’s not forget, though, this isn’t a competition about who can amass the silliest Scrooge McDuck pile of resources; the point is to win the game. The goal of increasing your value is only relevant if you can net resources compared to your opponent(s). So this brings us back around to what I’m really talking about when I say I want to ‘get value.’ I want to profit on resource exchanges with my opponent, netting out more than I invest, and do so in a way that is strategically relevant. If the resources you are amassing are not relevant to the current game, their value is diminished.


In it’s simplest form, the game of Magic begins with two players that each have access to the same amount of resources. Throughout the course of play, resources are expended, expanded, exchanged, and often recycled. By the end of the game, that beautiful equality of resources that we saw in the beginning of the game is gone. As the game goes on, the amount of resources available to each player changes dramatically. Depending on the composition of each deck and the content of each player’s draw, these differences in resources could swing back and forth several times. These resources change dynamically, both in their amount and their value. Frequently, the player who is able to secure an advantage on the most relevant resources will end up winning the game. If we expand our focus to multiplayer games, the same logic applies, but the math is just harder to keep track of. I’ll discuss a bit about how to get value in multiplayer situations later on, but let’s start by looking at some key principles that govern resources in Magic.


Properties of a Resource

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive primer on resource advantage and how different advantage theories compare to each other; this is a series about deck building. My goal is to give you ideas about how to build decks that generate more value, but that topic crosses a lot of borders. To fully understand how to get value we have to build on a basic foundation: truly understanding the nature of our resources and what they can do within the game. For more on these other topics, I encourage you to search around on other Magic strategy sites, perhaps even take a look at an article that I penned on the subject over on “The General Zone”: Advantage Theories Part 1, Part 2.


All of the resources in Magic share at least the following qualities:

  • Quantity – That is to say, they can be measured quantifiably. These figures can be comparative, relative, or absolute. This isn’t to say that the only important things are quantifiable, but more so that if you can’t measure it in some way to compare it to other things, you can’t act effectively on that information (e.g., having a feeling that your opponent has a specific card isn’t a great basis for action, but knowing the exact probability of your opponent having said card is absolutely actionable information). The best example of quantity is life. It always has an easily identifiable number.
  • Instrumentality – It can be used to do something in the game. If it isn’t useful for something, it either isn’t a resource, e.g. unknown-unknown information (compared to known-unknown information or known information, thanks Rumsfeld). Or it isn’t in the game, like a diet Coke. The obvious example of instrumentality is cards. They usually have some text box that explains what you are meant to do with them.
  • Liquidity – Resources can be exchanged for one another, sometimes for free, sometimes not. Once you have sufficient mana, cards are often the most important resource, because the ability to exchange them easily for other resources increases markedly. Look at a card like Trading Post. Its sole function is to facilitate transfers between unlike resources. The ease with which you can readily convert resources between one another increases their relevance. Speaking of which…
  • Relevance – A resource has to be relevant to the current game state. The number of cards left in your library might matter more in some circumstances, but less in others. Note the difference here: cards in your library are always instrumental, because they can be drawn and played, but they may not be relevant unless you are nearly out of them. A key measure of relevance is whether or not you need it to win, or if your chances of winning are positively correlated with acquisition of the resource.


Here are some things that a resource might be, but doesn’t need to be.

  • Public Information – You might know that you can kill your opponent in two turns, but your opponent could be unaware. Thereby the systems with which you are quantifying the resource of time may be different. Sometimes neither player will know about the quantity or relevance of a resource. Consider your ability to topdeck a burn spell late in the game. You don’t know it is coming, neither do they, but that doesn’t stop you from winning with it. The resource of drawing a card every turn is ALMOST ALWAYS relevant, but how much so is more situational.
  • Concrete – Using the example from above, tempo is a very important resource in many games, but it isn’t something you can physically deploy. It is more of an abstract concept than the physical land cards that you have in play. Remember that we need to be able to quantify it (e.g., “I’m three turns away from dying”), but you don’t need to be able to touch it. It is also important to note that resources which aren’t concrete are often unequally distributed. Some decks have a lower fundamental turn and begin the game with a tempo advantage. Always be cognizant of resources that don’t begin at parity; they are easy to overlook and thus easy to lose to.
  • Think back on all the times you have seen someone get overrun by an Aggro deck and not be able to stabilize. They might have said something like, ‘Well, I would have won if I had drawn X card.” They are only thinking of the game in terms of one concrete resource: cards. But, in point of fact, cards were a less important resource than time. Because you can’t directly affect non-concrete resources, you often have to build your deck in a certain way to harness them. U/R Delver can utilize tempo much more effectively than U/W Control. This difference in deck construction decisions like strategizing and card selection can result in an imbalance. Delver can have more tempo advantage by having a lower fundamental turn and create additional tempo by pointing burn spells upstairs. U/W Control can produce an advantage on cards and life by casting Sphinx’s Revelation.
  • Finite – Sometimes quantities of resources can become arbitrarily large, making them difficult to evaluate. If you can produce infinite mana, you have more mana than your opponent. Your access to mana may be less relevant than their access to mana though. So this goes to show that having infinite resources doesn’t translate directly to an infinite win percentage. Converting an infinite but irrelevant resource into a relevant one is usually how people win when they ‘go off’.


There is more to be said here, but that is enough to start thinking about how to build more resource rich and resource efficient decks. We are looking to include cards in our deck that help us win the resource interaction game. Let’s lay out the goals for doing that.


1. Expand Early

In Commander, everyone starts in the same place most of the time. We have the same number of  cards in our decks, the same potential cards to make our decks out of, the same amount of life, and the lenient mulligan rules mean that we rarely begin with any kind of resource handicap. So from that starting point we need to begin separating ourselves early on. We must break parity to get ahead.


I like to start out by ramping up my mana, because mana is scarce in the early game and important for playing higher-impact spells. This transitions my less relevant resource (cards in hand) to a more relevant one (mana sources in play). That increases the total value of my resource position. However, attacking with a creature to lower your opponent’s life total can often serve the same purpose. You are lowering the total value of your opponent’s resource position. The key is to find out what is important,start acquiring the resource for yourself, and denying it to your opponents.


2. Make Favorable Resource Exchanges

Trade less relevant resources for more relevant ones. Trade fewer resources for more. Divination is a very straightforward way to increase the quantity of your cards. However, these actions can increase the value of our resource position without necessarily affecting the total quantity of resources we have. You might think of this as taking up more of the total pie, or changing the size of the pie all together.


Example one: A simple two-for-one. My resources went down by one and the opponent’s went down by two. I have profited from this exchange; I’m not better off in absolute terms, but relative to our opponent I’m ahead.


Example two: If you only have two lands in play, those lands are extremely important to your resource position. But if you had twenty lands in play, two lands will be less relevant. This draws on the concept of marginal utility, which you might remember from your college economics class (more on that here: Investopedia).


It’s important to remember that you can make exchanges across many different resources at the same time. Using a removal spell to kill a blocker and get in extra damage trades mana and one card in hand for damage, tempo, and one card in play.


Sidenote: With regards to exchanges in tempo, it is sometimes easier to look at things in terms of mana spent to remain at parity. Because you can’t always accurately predict when each player will win, you may not know who has the tempo advantage by examining only that information. We can say definitively though, that using a two mana spell to kill a ten mana creature creates an inequality of mana spent. We also know that mana is a resource and that spending more of it is correlated with winning (if you need more information about mana sum theory click, here to read Travis Woo’s article on the subject). So, if I spend less mana to achieve the same result of parity, I must have gained something somewhere. That thing is tempo, but keep in mind that resources still have differing relevances. If tempo is of low relevance in the current game state, gaining some tempo is unlikely to affect the outcome of the game to a large degree. The same can be said of mana spent.


3. End Up With More Of What Matters

This is my primary path to victory in most games. Every time I say, “the person who draws more cards wins,” this is what I’m talking about. Cards are frequently the most important resource in a Commander game. Like a zen master, I try to focus only on what is important and forget about everything else. Be patient and tolerant. This lines up well with the prototypical Control philosophy: Focus on the most important resource (cards) and don’t worry about the other resources unless you are about to run out of them. I’m not usually bothered by taking damage, but as I lose life points they become marginally more relevant. Life is plentiful at the beginning of games and damage is cheap. They are easy to get when no one is trying to stop you. Many times though, the only point of damage that matter is the last one – and it can be hard to get.


Here is the one point that I wanted to make about multiplayer: In single player, having a higher resource value is definitely correlated with winning, but in multiplayer having the highest resource value does not translate into wins quite as directly. Having more than everyone else might not be enough. Having more than everyone else combined will be sufficient. By definition if your total resource value is higher than all other opponents combined you can’t lose, because you will always kill them before they could collectively kill you. Remember: tempo is quantifiable, even if you aren’t sure what the quantity is. The tricky bit is that players can often rally to stop you from achieving that resource dominance. If a subset of your opponents feel threatened by your suspicious resource expansion or overt aggression against their resource bases, then they could convince uninterested players to ‘gang up’ on you for political reasons. Navigating the landscape of 1v1 is simpler because the adversarial relationship between players is explicit. There are only two of us and only one can win…you must be my enemy. In multiplayer, that relationship is only implied and it can change over time. I may imply that you and I can be friends by removing creatures which are attacking you, but you then I may counter a key spell to stop you from winning. Tricky indeed.


4. Assert Your Advantage

This is the final stop on my quest for value. With a resource advantage firmly in hand, you can now press that advantage to drive your opponent into an unwinnable position. Have you ever noticed that Control decks are often happy to trade cards one-for-one, but an aggressive deck is much less happy about trading one creature for one removal spell?


The Aggro deck begins with a slight resource advantage in speed, but hastily discharges other resources in order to win quickly. The Control deck has the potential to create a large resource advantage later in the game, so they are happy to trade one-for-one early on and then refill when the Opportunity presents itself. Do you see how I got value out of that sentence by creating a humor advantage?! PUNZ :3


One way that Aggro decks can assert their advantage and lock up the game is Armageddon. On turn four, you have spent more mana, built a bigger board presence, and dealt more damage – advantage: you. If you remove all lands from play now, you set yourself up to press this advantage over the coming turns. You can continue to attack, drawing down your opponent’s life total, while they can do little to interact with you. Also, your Aggro deck is primed to recover faster because it contains more cheap (mana) plays that can be deployed on just one or two lands, whereas your Control opponent needs to find four or more lands to do anything intelligent. At this point, the Control player’s sadness resource is at an all time high.


The list of methods and cards that you can use to create value within a game is nearly infinite. One could make the argument that any Magic card can create value. Rather than closing with a list of cards like I usually do, I will instead pose a question. Writing top level strategy content is strange work and I want to make sure that my efforts are translating to the audience. So leave your responses in the comments to let me know where you are at.


Can you give an example of favorably exchanging an information advantage (knowing something others don’t) for:


  • Cards.
  • Life.
  • Tempo



Decksplanations is all about sharing my deckbuilding philosophy. If you want to change how you behave, you must change how you think. The same is true of your decks. My goal is you give you the foundation to analyze and improve your decks. In each article I will share one idea that shapes how I approach creating a new deck.

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