The Real Card Value Concept (Part I)

April 9, 2014

I have been playing Magic for many years now and have often thought about the way in which we determine the real value of a card. I finally decided it was time to sit down and write an article about my ideas.

Have you been playing MTG for a while now? If so, you probably know almost by heart when it’s better to cast your spells, block or declare attackers. You also know the importance of your life total, your cards and also when one should take the initiative in a certain turn.

This is not done randomly but as a result of calculating the real value of every play.

The real value of your cards
What is the real value of a card in a game? You may rationalize that every card has a very specific value (card X is always better than Y) but your gut is probably telling you something else. And you know what? Both of them are partially correct; it’s just that the worth of each card can change in the course of a game. And to be honest, it can change a lot after every play.

Let’s explain it with an example:
You have Doom Blade in hand and you are at 20 life. Your opponent has a lone Elite Vanguard on board. So far, your Doom Blade has obviously a much higher value than Elite Vanguard so you would never throw it then, right? It would be better to wait until something better makes its appearance before killing it…

But what if your life is 10? What if it is 2? This simple life shift can seriously multiply the real card value of Elite Vanguard. In fact, it will get so high with this shift that you will have no choice but to kill it.

Have you actually seen how the value of the card shifts? By definition it depends on the resources available and that are most important at that point of the game, and how connected they are to the winning or losing play. This is why we can enter the concepts of scarcity or surplus of a certain resource (life, cards, creatures, lands, etc.)

Let’s imagine you have not one, but up to 5 removal spells in hand. In this situation, the excess of them makes them worth less and the curve of utility decreases the more you keep drawing onto more removal. This is why sometimes building decks with too much removal might end up meaning you will need to throw those spells at almost any creature that hits the board. In this case, the surplus of removal makes its value decrease compared to its value in a normal game, thus making any similar effect quite trivial.

Here’s another illustration:

You have 5 Doom Blades in hand and your opponent has 1 Elite Vanguard. We said you wouldn’t normally kill it on that spot if your life was at 20, right? Well, in this case I’m pretty sure you would (and you should). The surplus of killing effects means you will need to use them and there’s a good chance you won’t get the opportunity to kill five other creatures before you are killed by that first Elite Vanguard.

But scarcity and surplus are not the only things that can effect the real value of the cards in a game. Other factors can totally trump the game with their static effects: Leyline of Sanctity will make Lava Spike‘s real value go from X down to 0, while Glistener Elf could double the value of Might of Old Krosa because of its infect ability.

How does it all work when you enter hidden information?
All these examples might look pretty obvious and easy to calculate but… are you sure you see all those changes in every game? I hardly doubt it. Until now, you weren’t thinking about all the cards your opponent might be holding, but it becomes more of a challenge to read the exact value of each card when you insert hidden information into the equation.

Will my opponent have an excess of creatures in hand? How many win conditions might he have left? How important is that creature to him? Will he block if I attack?

These are questions that every player asks himself in almost every game and that’s what makes this game so hard. If it was chess, the queen would always be better than a pawn and nothing could change that value comparison. However, in MTG, interacting with so many different resources, as well as with cards that your opponent may be holding, makes it even harder in terms of play evaluation.

Still, the concept is pretty much the same: values change, and you will need to know (and in reality guess) how important every card is in order to read the game correctly. That being said, real card values are not only hidden most of the time in a normal game but they can be perceived in a totally different way by different players! Since you and your opponent are holding different cards, your view of the situation is somewhat different. Thus, diverse perceptions of value may lead to alternate realities in the same game.

And that’s exactly why you need to figure out the virtual value of each creature on board in order to decide your attacks(this is especially true in formats like limited). Every turn you will see reality in a certain way while your opponent will most likely see it differently. What you consider to be the best creature on the board might just be some random creature to him; a creature he’s ready to trade readily.

What’s so important about this then? The point is that you will need to figure out both the real card value from your perspective and the real card value for your opponent – every time!

Consider this basic scenario:
Your opponent has Deadly Recluse. You have Grizzly Bears. Now, Deadly Recluse will usually have a much better value, so you will always happily trade your Bears with that pesky Spider. Right?

However, your opponent untaps and attacks into your Grizzly Bears unafraid… What’s going on here?

Now, if we were robots, our line of thought would be:[Grizzly Bears < Deadly Recluse] so we should always block. But you shouldn’t just live with that thought in mind. There’s always a reason to do things, bluffing aside, and you should always: 1) suspect that something might be going on 2) assume your opponent isn’t stupid.

In this case, if you apply both rules it is pretty clear he must have a card in hand that makes Deadly Recluse more valuable dead than alive (no pun intended). Isn’t it obvious? If you insert a virtual Gravedigger into his hand, everything suddenly starts making sense. What should you do then? Probably not block.

That was another example of “magic” happening: although one card had a much better value in theory, the correct play was not to trade it. As you can see, cards will affect other card values dramatically. Always keep that in mind.

Closing up the theory
What have we learnt about the real card value concept?

1) Cards have their own value.

2) Different players read different values.

3) Every action leads to a value exchange.

4) Hidden information alters value interpretation.

5) Cards effect other cards’ real value.

It won’t be the last time I discuss this topic as I find it very interesting, and hope my introduction to it was a good read for you.

May the real value be with you!

Joel Calafell

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