Hey everyone, it’s Jordan. This week, I’m taking over Eye of the Stack and trying something different with it; rather than the nitty-gritty rules breakdowns, I’m going to explain a strategic concept! Today I’ll be talking about the concept of attrition, and how to use it to your advantage.
The ways in which you can win a game of Magic: the Gathering are straightforward: reduce your opponent’s life total to 0, force them to draw on an empty library, or simply play a card that states that you win or they lose. Achieving these goals, however, is not so straightforward. The variety of strategies one can use to achieve these goals is seemingly endless, but they can be separated into a few categories. One of those categories is attrition.
In order to understand the concept of attrition, you need to understand a few concepts that are important when building a deck: mana curve, and card value. First, let’s discuss mana curve.
I’ve explained a mana curve before, but the idea behind it is simple; organize your deck by mana cost and ensure you can spend your mana effectively as the game progresses. What will you be playing on turn one? Does that line up well with the turn two and three plays that your deck has? Does it help your overall goal?
The key piece of that rough definition is that you’re making sure you can spend your mana effectively. That can mean leaving the right colors of mana open when paying for generic costs, but it can also mean something much more difficult to define.
Card evaluation is one of the first skills a Magic: the Gathering player should practice in order to amp up their deck building prowess. It’s a skill that is easy to learn and nearly impossible to master. The general idea behind evaluating a card is to determine how “objectively good” it is. For instance, Birds of Paradise is a one mana creature who has zero power and flying. Those two things seem odd together, but its activated ability makes it much more valuable than a 0/1 flying creature. An ability doesn’t inherently make a card good, but Birds of Paradise is a very good card because it accomplishes a lot for very little cost.
First, it provides mana ramp. Since we only get one land per turn, anything that can give us more mana is worth considering. Turn two we would have three mana instead of two, which is great! Second, it provides any color of mana. Having a lot of available mana is one thing, but being able to produce all the colors of mana you need is arguably more important. Birds of Paradise does both of these things, and it only costs one mana. That’s quite the value for such a cheap investment.
The creature also has flying, which is mostly irrelevant when it’s being used for mana, but the fact that it could block an attacking creature with flying which would otherwise kill you is bound to be relevant some time. With all that said, I think it’s safe to say that Birds of Paradise is an objectively “good” card. So what does that have to do with attrition?
Dies to Doom Blade
Often times when evaluating new cards you might hear or read someone saying “doesn’t matter, it dies to Doom Blade.” While this statement has become a meme in the Magic community, it’s important to understand what’s actually being said and implied by this statement, because it’s one of the key components of attrition.
If we think of Birds of Paradise as being a good investment, we can start to see the game in a different light. Every card we play is an investment; we’re spending our mana, spending the card itself, and spending the opportunity to cast something else instead. We do this spending with the confidence that that investment will bring us closer to our deck’s ultimate goal. Paying one mana for Birds of Paradise is a great investment in the early game, because it will help us pay for later investments, and without it it would take longer to achieve whatever it is we’re trying to achieve.
So where does attrition come in? Well, a player wins a War of Attrition by having their investments pay off more than their opponent’s. One way to measure this is by counting the total mana spent.
Let’s say you and I sit down to play a game of Magic. You take the first turn, play a Swamp, and pass to me. My first turn I play a Forest, tap it, and cast Birds of Paradise. On your next turn you play a second Swamp and cast Doom Blade, targeting my Birds of Paradise, ultimately killing it. If each card played during a game is an investment, who won that round of investing?
Let’s look at the mana costs involved: You destroyed my Birds of Paradise with Doom Blade, meaning you paid two mana to destroy something of mine that I only paid one mana for. That doesn’t mean you made a bad play, but it does mean I came out slightly ahead in the exchange. These small victories add up over the course of the game, and they are the essential power of attrition.
The “dies to Doom Blade” critique is fueled by this concept. After all, a powerful creature that costs six mana could look like a great investment, but losing that investment to a two-mana instant is a crippling blow in a war of attrition.
It’s hard to measure exactly how much value we get for each mana spent, but there’s another way to win a War of Attrition that’s easier to track: The number of cards spent to achieve something. Let’s say I’m going to play a two mana card, and my choice is between Raise the Alarm and Grizzly Bears. Both cards give me two power and two toughness on the battlefield, but Raise the Alarm is the more valuable card: For one card I get two distinct creatures, and it’s in instant.
To apply the Doom Blade argument to Grizzly Bears: Your investment of two mana and a single card (Doom Blade) will destroy my two mana, single card investment (Grizzly Bears). It took one card of yours to remove one of mine and the mana investments were 1:1.
Raise the Alarm is quite different. It creates two 1/1 creatures instead of a singular 2/2. Doom Blade on its own won’t take care of both of tokens, so you’d need to play some sort of multi-creature destruction spell like Wrath of God. Even if the mana investment is the same, casting two Lightning Bolts to remove my two tokens means that you lose a card compared to me.* You’d need something like Forked Bolt to break even with Raise the Alarm, but that spell is a bit conditional (more on that in a moment).
* This is one of the reasons I absolutely love token strategies.
To really drive home this point, let’s look at the Jund Em’ Out™ all-star Bloodbraid Elf. A 3/2 with haste is not bad, but those stats are a bit underwhelming considering she costs four mana. What makes Bloodbraid Elf shine is her ability to cascade. If your arsenal of investments costs less to cast than Bloodbraid Elf, you’re guaranteed to be casting something useful alongside her for free.
For the cost of four mana and one card, you’ve gained the value of two. You didn’t pay the mana cost of the second card, and you didn’t cast it from your hand, so it didn’t cost you anything. Casting Bloodbraid Elf and cascading into something like Doom Blade can put you way ahead in the War of Attrition.
It’s My Life! It’s Now or Never!
While value-for-mana and number-of-cards-invested are behind a lot of good decisions, those still aren’t the only place where the War of Attrition can be seen in action. Many players don’t realize it at first, but your life total is a resource, and any resource can be subject to attrition.
Newer Magic players might see a card like Blood Crypt and immediately think it’s bad, due to the fact that giving up two life gets you closer to death and therefore should be avoided at all costs. Thinking like this causes players to over-spend resources just to preserve their life total, even though a victory at one life is just as good as a victory at twenty.
In the War of Attrition, choosing to lose life is often worthwhile when it means preserving other resources. There are plenty of times when an opponent is attacking you for a small amount of damage and your only creature is one that you absolutely don’t want to lose (like Birds of Paradise). It’s best to take the damage now and preserve your creature-investment so that it can pay off later. By choosing not to block, you’ve spent life to keep your creature alive.
Thoughtseize is another example of a card that seems questionable to inexperienced players. My opponent and I both lose a card, but I spend mana and lose life? It doesn’t seem good at all! What is good is knowing what your opponent has in hand, and being able to get rid of their biggest threat to your success. Thoughtseize achieves both of these things for us. Casting this on turn one allows us to plan our turns according to what our opponent is playing, and it lets us remove something that could threaten our strategy, like a removal spell or an early threat. There’s a reason this card is a pillar of the Modern format: It’s a high-value card.
Under the Right Conditions
With all of this talk about using mana effectively, it’s important to understand what your investments could get you. For example, if we’re to compare Birds of Paradise and Utopia Tree, which investment is better? The Birds have one less toughness and have flying, but the only detail in this comparison that really matters is that the Birds cost one less mana, meaning you can cast them one turn earlier. The other differences are negligible, since neither will be attacking and the one point of toughness rarely matters.
Simple analyses like this allow us to build decks with efficiency in mind. By forcing ourselves toward cheaper spells we can, ideally, make our play tighter and more efficient. Cheaper isn’t always better, however: the cheaper the mana cost, the more restrictive cards get.
Spell Snare is a great example of a cheap but restrictive spell. For one mana, we can counter any spell that costs two mana. While this card would be near-useless in a format like Commander, in Modern this card is great! Modern is a fast format, with most decks in full swing by turn three or four. With Spell Snare, we can interrupt the flow of our opponent’s game plan for the cost of one single blue mana. This means that we win one of the many investment wars that will occur in the game, and we will also deny the opponent a crucial piece of their strategy.
In Commander, Swan Song plays a similar role. It allows us to counter an instant, sorcery, or enchantment of any size for a single mana. It gives our opponent a 2/2 bird in its place, but that bird is practically a joke since a lonely 2/2 in a game of Commander is not threatening by any stretch of the imagination.
Swan Song and Spell Snare are both restrictive, one mana counterspells. Yes you get the ability to counter a spell, but only if it is the right spell. For two blue mana you could just run Counterspell and not be restricted, but that means you have to keep two mana open, reducing your options for the rest of your mana. It’s a mild difference, but it’s one you should be aware of. This concept applies across every type of card and each color in Magic. If you’re playing a green and black deck, do you play Doom Blade, Assassin’s Trophy, or Beast Within? All three have valid arguments for and against, and it can often be a question without a truly correct answer. It’s up to you to determine the best pick for your deck, and for the metagame you anticipate playing in.
Grinding It Out
Winning the War of Attrition comes from effectively using your resources. Magic is a complex game, and within it are many complex interactions and decisions to be made. It helps to have a grasp on the idea of trading investments with your opponent, as it can help you determine if a splashy six mana creature is truly worth its space in the deck. Combining all of these ideas will make your strategy and deck building better, which is worth striving for in each game we play. I hope I was able to teach you something new today, and I hope you apply this knowledge the next time you sit down to build a deck! Join me next time, when I break down when to cast Very Cryptic Command and which modes to choose for every possible situation.