One of the most excitement-inducing cards in Mirrodin Besieged is the Consecrated Sphinx. A 4/6 flyer for 4UU that lets you draw two cards whenever an opponent draws a card has people wetting themselves with excitement. This guy is such clear card advantage it is hard not to be excited. You can draw a ton of cards and protect the Sphinx while it flies in and eventually ends the game with you holding a full hand of cards at all times.
The only downside was the cost of the card. At six mana it would take some time to be able to play the card. This will limit the amount of card advantage you get since by that point, there will be fewer opportunities for your opponent to draw cards than there would be if this was cast on turn two.
Then multiplayer Magic players got a look at the card and absolutely freaked out. With three (or more) opponents in the game, this thing is bonkers! I’ll draw six extra cards every round! In multiplayer, where card advantage is somewhere between difficult and impossible when dealing with so many opponents, with Consecrated Sphinx in play I draw seven cards per round, while my opponents draw three. I won’t have to rely on anyone else to do anything for me. If I don’t like what any opponent does, I’ll stop it. As the game progresses I’ll eventually be able to do anything I want and no one will be able to stop me because of the card advantage I’ll be getting!
Okay, now take a deep breath and keep reading before you rush out to buy four copies of this card because of the hoopla. The main assumption being made here is that with card advantage, I’ll outdraw my opponents, and if I outdraw my opponents, I will win the game. This is mostly true for one-on-one games, but that sort of belief in multiplayer is going to leave you sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the game to end, wondering why all the cards you drew did not win you the game.
Before I try to explain why card advantage is not nearly as powerful in multiplayer as it is in one on one, I should define card advantage. Card advantage is a play (or series of plays) that involve your opponents using more cards than you. This is best explained with examples. I love me some examples!
Example 1: I play Leonin Skyhunter. On my next turn I hum and haw a while, then decide to attack Aaron. Aaron targets the Skyhunter with Go For The Throat and kills it. This leaves neither of us with card advantage since we each lost one card. This is crappy for both of us: I lost a creature and he wasted a kill spell on a Leonin Skyhunter.
Example 2: I play Leonin Skyhunter. On my next turn I hum and haw a while (I hum and haw a lot), then decide to attack Aaron. If figure I’m going to be particularly mean to Aaron and play Tainted Strike. I can be a jerk that way. Aaron decides that while playing Go For the Throat on the Skyhunter in the first example probably wasn’t the best play, doing it now is a better play. This is crappy for me: I lost two cards and Aaron lost only one. He gained card advantage.
There are actually two kinds of card advantage: actual and virtual. The above example shows actual card advantage. I lost two cards, Aaron lost one. Virtual card advantage happens when people are prevented from playing their cards due to something in the game. Let’s use another example.
John plays Aven Mindcensor. He must have read my article on good early plays! I have a Demonic Tutor, a Mystical Tutor, and a Planar Portal in my hand. John’s Mindcensor limits the usefulness of all of these cards to just the top four card in my library. I am not going to play any of those cards as long as Aven Mindcensor is in play. John’s card is providing virtual card advantage. He played one card to prevent me from playing three cards.
In this case it is difficult for John to determine if he is getting card advantage, since he doesn’t know what I have in my hand or how he has changed my plan, but the card advantage is still there.
The theory seems to make sense to this point. If you are getting card advantage on your opponent (actual, virtual or both), then all things being equal, you should win more games. Now let’s take the above examples and apply them to a multiplayer game.
Example 1: Aaron and I are in a multiplayer game with John and Eric. I play Leonin Skyhunter. On my next turn I hum and haw a while, then decide to attack Aaron. Aaron targets the Skyhunter with Go For The Throat and kills it. Who gets the card advantage in this scenario? John and Eric are the winners here. They used zero cards while Aaron and I each lost one card.
Example 2: I play Leonin Skyhunter. On my next turn I hum and haw a while (I hum and haw a lot), then decide to attack Aaron. If figure I’m going to be particularly mean to Aaron and play Tainted Strike. Aaron targets the Skyhunter with Go For The Throat and kills it. Who gets the card advantage here? No, not Aaron. Not anymore. John and Eric spent no cards, Aaron spent one and I spent two. John and Eric are the winners here, while Aaron and I (especially me) were the losers.
Example 3: John and I are in a multiplayer game with Eric and Aaron. John plays Aven Mindcensor. I have a Demonic Tutor, a Mystical Tutor, and a Planar Portal in my hand. Who are the winners here? Eric and Aaron. They played no cards and have no tutors in hand, so John’s Aven Mindcensor gives him no virtual card advantage on them. John played out one card, and I have three cards in my hand I can’t play.
I suspect you can see where this is going. It appears that never playing any cards is the best way to gain card advantage. In theory, this is true, but that brings card advantage theory to a level of absurdity. We all know that you must play some number of cards from your hand or you will eventually lose for lack of a defense.
Another thing to consider when looking at card advantage in multiplayer is whether the other players in the game are actually your opponents. At different points in different games, some players are working towards a common goal. Let’s run another example.
Example 4: Eric has Supreme Exemplar, Primeval Titan, and three 3/1 Elemental Shaman tokens in play. Great cards and really good start! I have a Mother of Runes, John has a Dream Fighter (he really liked that article!), and Aaron has a Soul Warden. Eric has a board position that puts him as the clear leader in the game. If Aaron uses his Go For The Throat to kill Eric’s Primeval Titan, who gets card advantage?
According to the Example 1 above, John and I get card advantage. However, since the three of us are likely working together to take down Eric, the three of us could be viewed as a single entity, so the tradeoff was even and there was no card advantage. In fact the 1 for 1 trade works in our favour, since we are drawing three cards per turn and Eric is drawing only one. If we can continue to trade one of one, after not very long, Eric will no longer be the threat. This is another area where playing with multiple players adds another layer to the strategy that Magic offers.
So way back at the start of the article, I said that card advantage will not win you games in multiplayer, but so far, all I’ve shown you are examples were card advantage was a good thing. Let’s look at Consecrated Sphinx.
Think about a multiplayer game where one player plays the Consecrated Sphinx. Let’s assume no one immediately kills it. I know, at a four or five player table, that is a big assumption, but if the big creatures always died before they did stuff, why would anyone ever play the big creatures? After two rounds in a four-player game you have drawn 14 cards, while your opponents have drawn 6. Who is the biggest threat in the game at this point? Unless someone has such a dominant board position that they are likely to win the game in the next round or two, you are likely to be the target. Not a problem though, you are outdrawing your opponents by more than two to one. With that kind of card advantage, you can probably take on everyone and still win, right?
How many of those cards can you play? You only have so much mana and you don’t want to tap out and leave your Sphinx unprotected.
How many attack phases do you get? More importantly, how many times can you stop an attack and still present some offense to actually win the game? Your opponents each get an attack phase, so you’ll have to be able to defend against each of them.
How many opponents are actively gunning for you? You painted that big target on your head, so you are now going to have to deal with everyone at the table. Your opponents will only have to deal with you. Before you had the big target, there was no clear leader in the game, so everyone had to be prepared for anyone to attack them. Now all your opponents only have to be aware of you. They aren’t going to attack each other, just you.
Card advantage, particularly the significant card advantage offered by Consecrated Sphinx, is the reason why there are three red glowing dots over your heart. If you are drawing that many cards, you will be the primary target for the group. If you are already in a position to win, but need one or more cards, then the Sphinx is a great card, but if you desperately need the kind of card advantage the Consecrated Sphinx offers, then you will be the target for the rest of the board, and even having more cards than the rest of the players in the game put together, won’t help you when it is three times the mana versus your mana, and three times the attack phases versus your attack phase, and when it is three untap phases versus your one untap phase.
Multiplayer Magic has so many more variables to even the playing field, that something like Consecrated Sphinx, and the card advantage it offers, just makes you the target.
This is not a long-winded, round about way to say “don’t play with Consecrated Sphinx.” I would. I do play with Rhystic Study and that card can provide amazing card advantage if left unchecked. However, I do recommend that you play it carefully. Don’t brag about your card drawing. Be prepared to be reckless with the Sphinx during the attack phase.
This is not an article telling you that you should keep your head down all the time, and never play the big home run cards. That is another article for another day.
What I am saying is that card advantage, like most everything, plays a more limited role in multiplayer. Adding more opponents demands that everything else plays a more limited role since another element is added to the mix.
Card advantage is important. If you have no card advantage, you will not win games. However, you can’t possibly match every opponent card for card. Your other resources will burn out. The key is knowing when to conserve card advantage and when to use up that advantage to step forward and win the game.
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