Magic: a Game of Resource Management

You are a planeswalker. You have assembled on the battlefield to do battle with your adversaries. The other planeswalkers there are not allied with anyone else. The winner of the battle will not only live but have a significant advantage in having won the melee. There can be only one.  

This opening is a description for commander. It may describe the game well but it does not get down to the heart of commander and what Magic the Gathering really is at its core. Down at its essence Magic is a lot like Sid Meier’s game franchise Civilization. It may be hard to visualize at first but it’s there. Magic the Gathering is a turn-based strategy game that is based on resource management. When the game starts the resources are even  Everyone starts with forty life and seven cards. How you comprise your deck and manipulate your resources will determine the outcome of the game. 

Let us look at the inner resource mechanics closer so that we can better understand this aspect of the game and improve it. You might want to buckle in this is a long read with lots of information packed in it. It might be difficult to absorb it all in one sitting. Don’t be afraid to bookmark this article and refer to it from time to time. It’s good to occasionally review these concepts. 

A Most Basic Resource

You start the game with seven cards. Unless a card tells you otherwise you will draw one card a turn only. Most cards cost mana and are not free to play. Lands are free to play, however. They tap for mana mostly. Some lands like Maze of Ith have other effects that can be tapped to activate. Some abilities are free like High Market. Others are not like Alchemist’s Refuge. Your land package should include additional effects to increase the different abilities your deck can produce.

Often we do not think about how important lands are. We want the gas that will light our opponents on fire or get the value engine running. Without lands you would not be able to play your other cards and early on lands are important to have in your hand to assure this. Mana rocks are great and ramp you but what good is a GIlded Lotus if you do not have the five mana to cast it?

Three lands are optimal in your opening hand. Most decks have slightly less than a two to one ratio of other cards to lands. Three lands statistically will allow you to play a land on your first four turns. To get your deck running. These early lands will build the base of your resources. It is tempting to cut lands for more exciting cards. Without lands you can not cast them. When building a deck, 36 to 40 lands is the sweet spot. 

The Most Useable Resource  

There are cards that allow you to draw more cards. You need to play cards that draw more than one card. This increases your resources over your opponents. Otherwise, you are breaking even on resources. One and a half mana is the normal cost of drawing a card. That should be your baseline as to how efficient you are with card draw.

Divination is the baseline at three mana. It doesn’t see much play but you can base your card draw selections off of it. Stroke of Genius is efficient at what it does once you spend ten mana. Any less and you are paying more than the market rate for card draw. If you draw seven cards you get a volume discount for the card resource to use. You may not have ten mana floating around to draw seven but in a game of commander, it is possible. Rhystic Study starts as an inefficient card draw. As you do not draw any cards if your opponents pay one extra mana per spell. But once you draw two cards you break even in mana cost and three cards start generating an advantage.

Cards that give an effect and draw a card is a free effect. For example, Angelic Gift replaces itself and gives a creature flying. Allowing you to do more with your card resources. These cards are called cantrips. These cards can be used sparingly when they contain an ability that you want in your deck. Aura Blast is a little trickier. It draws a card replacing itself but it also destroys a card of your opponent. This is de facto card draw as it denies your opponent a use of a resource of theirs. 

While not card draw Hymn to Tourach also acts as de facto card draw. In commander, this defacto draw is not quite as good as actual card draw. These cards deny resources to one player only. Often you will be sitting at a table with multiple opponents. You may hurt one opponent but you have others at the table and you just used a resource. For this reason, resource denial, unless it hits multiple opponents or can destroy a very powerful threat is used sparingly.  

Cantrips that search for other cards or let you scry, while they do not add resources to you, increase your hand quality and have some use. Brainstorm replaces itself only and is a cantrip but being able to keep your best hand while not improving how many cards you have improves its quality. Opt on the other hand allows you to keep what is on top of your library if it helps you and if it does not you may gamble by drawing the next card which is unknown. 

Cantrips like Demonic Tutor are stronger as it targets a specific card you need at the time. Most cantrips are solid to use because it helps keep your hand full and allows you to dig through your deck faster to find the cards you need. Enlightened Tutor and Vampiric Tutor are not cantrips as they do not replace themselves. However, if your deck relies on a specific card, then the extra chance to acquire it faster is worth the one mana to go get the card and place it on the top of your library. While not a pure tutor, as it does not bring the card to your hand it is still very strong.

Tutors can also come on creatures if you look out for them. You do not need to run a merfolk deck to run Forerunner of the Heralds. Being able to go get an Empress Galina (errata to be a merfolk)  or Prime Speaker Zegana can be very powerful for the effects they bring. Even if they are the only merfolk in your deck. You don’t need many of a card type to play them just one strong option that you would like to see in a game. Sometimes they will cost you a creature like Prime Speaker Vannifar or Birthing Pod. These abilities do not need to be avoided. They just need to be placed in an appropriate deck.

The Most Common Resource

-Unspent mana is wasted mana

Mana is your most common resource. It is often what people think of when we talk about resources in Magic. It is mana that you spend to play cards. Lands, artifacts and some creatures will tap for mana. This is strong as the more mana you have, you can cast more cards or more powerful cards. It is a simple paradigm that the more mana a card costs the more powerful the effect. Especially when the card in question is at the rare or mythic rarity level. The more mana you spend the better. If you can spend all your mana you have a resource advantage over your opponents that can not do the same. Unspent mana is wasted mana. 

Ramp

Cards that speed up your mana generation or ramp you are strong as it allows you to manage your resources better. The basic cost of mana ramp is that it will cost you two turns of generating mana from the ramped resources in order to pay for the ramp. For example, the signet series costs this much. A Dimir Signet costs two to cast and you play one mana to generate two mana. Over two turns you pay four mana to cast the artifact plus two activations (2 +1 + 1) and in return, you receive four mana out of the artifact. This means to receive a benefit from the artifact it needs to be activated three times. 

What makes ramp advantageous is if you can cast it early in the game or as an add on at the end of a turn later in the game. In these situations often a player will not have another use for the mana in question. In this case, you’re moving the mana spent to another turn. It will be more beneficial to you then. This is what makes Sol Ring so powerful and almost an auto-include in any deck. For one mana it can be tacked onto any turn. When you tap it for the first time you not only replace the mana you spent on it but gain additional colorless mana.  

If your deck is green, then land ramp is critical in managing your resources. This is because land destruction is not as commonly seen in commander as artifact or creature destruction. When you play extra land, it’s likely not to be removed. This creates value for the card played. Rampant Growth, Kodama’s Reach, Cultivate, and Skyshroud Claim all follow the two turns of mana production to pay for the spell. 

Hour of Promise

Hour of Promise is an example of a green ramp card that breaks the two turn rule at five mana. In most cases, you will not achieve five mana over two turns. The difference is this powerful card can go fetch any two lands. When your hand is over seven cards the ability to go fetch a Reliquary Tower can be priceless. It is worth the one mana premium to keep additional card resources. If you fetch an Ancient Tomb and/or Temple of the False God then Hour of Promise actually beats the two turn rule of thumb for mana generation. 

Hour of Promise excels in Golgari decks. In this scenario you can fetch both Cabal Coffers and Urborg Tomb of Yawgmoth. You already have at least five lands on the field. So the following turn when you will have seven lands on the board untapped minimum meaning with one tap you will generate 7 mana. You do have to pay two mana to activate this effect so you net five mana minimum per turn extra and therefore pay for Hour of Promise in one turn of mana generation. This does not include the mana that Urborg can tap itself for black mana.    

Reducing Costs

Cards that reduce the casting costs of your spells or increase the cost of your opponent’s spells are advantageous as well. These cards count towards managing your mana resources. Often these cards are cheap and you are hoping for them to be around long enough to pay off the mana you spend on them over time. Cards like Jet Medallion often are not the target of pinpoint removal and will pay for themselves.

Although cards that affect your opponents will be more likely to be removed. Cards like Rhystic Study and Grand Arbiter Augustin IV deny your opponents resources and will become targets. If you can delay an opponent for playing a card even one turn, then the payoff can be more than the mana spent to cast the cards. Propaganda, Ghostly Prison, and Sphere of Safety often will not see a mana effect on the board early that pays for itself. But the tax to attack you often is a solid investment as it encourages opponents to attack elsewhere keeping your life total healthy. This is valuable against Voltron decks or anyone who has a tendency to target one person and latch on until they’re dead. While not literally adjusting the mana cost of a card, they can be included in this category for increasing the costs of player actions. 

Copy Effects

Cards like Helm of the Host or Rite of Replication can copy creatures that are more expensive than the mana you pay for the spell normally and can provide a discount as well. They do not even have to be your creatures. If you Rite of Replication an opponent’s Avacyn Angel of Hope you saved 4 mana over your opponent. Blue steal creature spells can provide discounts as well. A five mana mind control saves you three mana in the Avacyn example and you deny your opponent a powerful card.

Let’s Cheat

Cards that let you cheat casting cards are a significantly advantageous use of resources. For example, Quicksilver Amulet costs four mana for an artifact where if you pay four mana and tap it you can put a creature on the battlefield. This has two advantages. First, wait until eight mana and play the amulet. Then put down an obscenely expensive creature and get a mana discount for it right away. There is a little more nuance to playing the card but that is a discussion for another day. 

The other advantage is it allows you to split the eight mana over two turns. It is a risk but if the amulet survives you can cast an eight mana Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger over two turns which frees up more mana to cast other spells. Finally, the Quicksilver Amulet is repeatable if you are able to activate it twice then there is an additional mana discount and can allow you to take over a game. As you drop more and more large creatures. 

Elvish Piper is the Quicksilver Amulet’s little cousin. It is cheaper to put a creature in play. Unfortunately, it can not tap right away. This makes it a risk when you play him and timing can be key in order to avoid removal. Aether Vial, As Foretold, Etali, Primal Storm, and Tooth and Nail entwined are all cards that cheat mana costs. The Leyline cycle of enchantments also cheats mana costs if they are in your opening hand. They are not for every deck but they can be very effective in some decks and if you are lucky they are free

Mana Sinks

Finally, there are mana sinks. These are cards that have repeatable abilities that cost mana. These abilities are used at instant speed. This allows you to hold up some mana to play instants if necessary and if you don’t have to cast them you can put your extra mana into the sink. Thrasios, Triton Hero is an excellent example of a mana sink. It costs four mana to activate the ability. It is expensive for what it does but it increases your resources by either adding more mana to your mana base or a drawing a card. Since it can be done at instant speed it often can be worth it to pay the premium for its effect. This is because before the start of your turn mana is use it or lose it forever.  

Because Mana Sinks can be used at instant speed, they become extra deadly with cards like Seedborn Muse or Wilderness Reclaimation which untaps lands. The Muse is mana ramp and allows you to untap permanents on your opponent’s turn. Without something to do during your opponents turns often this extra mana is unrealized. However, with the mana sink that is repeatable things can get out of hand quickly. Omnath, Locus of Mana stores unused mana and turns it into power for a creature that is often a commander. In this situation, each turn the Omnath player taps and stores his mana creating a very large commander. It is situations like this where the muse becomes a must answer threat. 

Threats Versus Answers

Threats versus answers are another point of mana advantage. Often threats in commander are expensive. For example, Vorinclex costs eight mana and a card. However, Swords to Plowshares costs one mana and a card. If I use my Swords on Vorinclex I have spent seven less mana and win the exchange as I am able to play another card. The same goes with Counterspell. A two-mana Counterspell countering a twelve mana Torment of Hailfire not only denies my opponent the victory but he has wasted twelve of his mana for my two mana allowing me to spend the difference elsewhere. 

The next time you play a board wipe not only count the number of creatures on the field but count the amount of mana each creature costs. Mana advantage is generated. Since you knew the board wipe was coming, you did not play into the board wipe.

Nev’s Disk

Nevinyrral’s Disk is an even sneakier play when it comes to mana advantage. Once the Disk is played, if someone doesn’t have artifact destruction often they will not play any cards. This wastes their mana. The visual threat of the disk often will affect gameplay. It impacts board development and buys you time and tempo.  

There’s another advantage of The Disk. You control the table once it’s untapped. Just leave one mana up and you can use it an any time and nothing short of a disallow will prevent you from wiping the board. You can let life go on as normal and let your opponent’s attack each other and pop the disk only when someone attacks you. The same idea applies to Oblivion Stone. It has all the resource advantages of the disk except it is a mana sink you can use before you start your turn to protect a permanent of yours. 

The Most Unrecognized Resource

People don’t think of creatures as a resource. In reality, when you cast them they become one. Creatures are a source of defense and life loss. They need to be managed as well. If you have too many creatures you are a threat and people will take you out or they will wipe the battlefield. Too few and you will be overrun.

How many cards you play and when is management. Each game is different and you will have to assess whether or not to build your board more and with what. There is also the question to attack or not to attack in this way you are managing your body as a resource compared to an opponent’s life loss. Edric Spymaster of Trest is an example of a commander that needs to manage creatures. You gain cards by dealing combat damage but you don’t want to play all the creatures you draw for when an opponent board wipes, you will be left with nothing.  

In commander, creatures are not normally vanilla. They have some sort of additional effect. When you play the effect and what it accomplishes is a manner of resource management. Playing an Eternal WItness when there is just a couple of cards in your graveyard and they are sorceries that mana ramp is not an optimal use of the Witness’s ability. Using the witness to bring back a Defense of the Heart or Quicksilver Amulet is a more effective use of your creature resource.    

Enter the battlefield effects are not all that needs to be managed. Many creatures have tap effects or allow you to tap another creature for an effect. When and how you use them is a form of resource management. Azami Lady of Scrolls is an excellent example of this. When you tap a wizard to draw a card, you are giving up the opportunity to attack or block with that card. The same goes for Empress Galina when you steal a legendary creature you give up that right to attack or defend for a turn. You also give up the right to try and steal a better creature until it is your turn again. The same goes for Rubinia Soulsinger. Galecaster Colossus has you managing not only your wizards but what resources you will deny to your opponents and when. 

Many effects in black are activated by sacrificing the creature. This is a very straightforward use of creatures as a resource.  Not only does the number of creatures matter for these effects, but also what creatures there are to sacrifice. This can affect what creature you play and when. When sacrificing creatures to a Diabolic Intent or a Razaketh the Foul Blooded, they need to be inconsequential. Sacrificing a good creature to search for a stud card nets little in value when you have to pay for the card. 

This is what makes a Shadowborn Apostles EDH deck devastating. While it will cost you six apostles and seven mana to search your deck for a demon the card itself holds little value and you can pack a ton of your deck as Apostles making them excellent fodder. For that matter, any deck that can generate tokens can sacrifice them for various effects and not worry too much about the cost. Tokens are often vanilla by themselves and not very different from one token to another.   

The Darkest of Resources

Finally, there is the graveyard. Just because a card has been played and placed in the graveyard does not mean it’s usefulness is over. These are cards you can select to increase the efficiency of your deck. Think of them similar to a Reliquary Tower. These cards expand your hand to the graveyard so that you can use them again. 

Meren of Clan Nel Toth builds around managing this resource. The same goes for Gisa and Geralf. The Eternal Witness mentioned above brings cards back from the graveyard for reuse. The dredge mechanic may find some use sparingly for a deck that wants to utilize its graveyard. Muldrotha, the Gravetide is another commander that looks to play cards out of the graveyard to increase value. Some cards like Gutterbones or Reassembling Skeleton recur themselves from the graveyard.

For instant and sorcery players, cards with flashback or jumpstart allow you to play cards again from your graveyard. Charmbreaker Devils also brings these cards back to your hand to cast again and again. Snapcaster Mage is a strong card for a reason and it is not for his 2/1 body. 

There are also cards that will allow you to exile cards from a graveyard for an effect. Deathrite Shaman not only affects your graveyard but it can be used on all graveyards. In zombie decks there are plenty of cards like Cemetary Reaper which will let you exile a creature from your graveyard to make a 2/2 zombie token. Even if you can not recur the creature card itself the token has its use.

In the Amonkhet block, there is a mechanic called eternalize that lets you exile a card to create a zombie that is a copy of the original card but has a 4/4 power and toughness. It also has the mechanic Embalm which makes a copy of the creature as a token. While most of these cards will not see play in most commander decks there are a few worth looking at like Glyph Keeper. These cards are mana sinks that are in the graveyard that can be used when you have the mana. The Scarab God can eternalize any creature and is powerful as well.

Black often thinks about using the graveyard as a resource but other colors have cards that do so as well and they should be considered. Even if you decide not to utilize the graveyard as a resource, then you need to consider adding some resources to shut it down for your opponent. A Bojuka Bog can destroy the Meran player or greatly hamper him. There are other cards that do similar are Grafdigger’s Cage and Tormod’s Crypt. You don’t need a lot of graveyard hate. Just a little and when you pair it with some card search resources from above you can find it more consistently. Remember managing resources is not only managing your resources but denying resources from your opponent.   

Conclusion

In the end, commander and all of Magic the Gathering is a game about reducing your opponent’s life down to zero. The main mechanic of the game is resource management. So when you build your deck, think about the resources that your deck will need and make sure you supply it with the tools to achieve them. Look for efficient ways to generate these resources. As it will create an advantage for you long term.

Value decks incrementally build these resources to win while the big mana or combo win still builds it’s board incrementally to get to the overwhelming board state or to find the pieces of the combo to win. While you do not need to solely think about resource management in the game at all times. It should be there especially in the early game as you develop them and mid to late game. How you order using your resources and how you deploy them can have a large effect on if you win a game or survive to the next turn.  

If you wish to continue this discussion or have a question, please feel free to email me at commanderclinicmtg@gmail.com and I will get back to you as quickly as possible.

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