Understanding Size Advantage - Neon
This article was originally published in the summer of 2016.
You don’t need me to tell you this, but bigger is better. And biggerer is betterer, and the biggest is the best. But how much better is bigger? What lengths are you willing to go to get the biggest possible?
*End innuendo. *
Eternal asks the question of size mattering in a different way than I have ever seen in other card games. I have played a lot of Magic, and a bit of Hearthstone, and theorists in those games have understood that bigger is better, since it is pretty plain to see. My 4/4 can block your 3/3 or attack past your 3/3 in Magic. My 4/4 can attack down your 3/3 and still be left with 1 health in Hearthstone. It doesn’t take a lot to figure that out.
The question about size mattering becomes MUCH deeper and more complicated in Eternal. There are a number of cards that work to generate permanent bonuses to the size of both units and weapons, the loudest example obviously being the Warcry mechanic. The question I have been struggling is the following: how much is +1/+1 worth? I don’t promise I’ll figure out this question entirely here, but I hope to begin developing the concept of “size advantage”, so other people can build on it.
TYPES OF ADVANTAGE
In order to understand the role of size, lets visit the classic 3 types of advantage discussed in “Next Level Magic” by Patrick Chapin. Here is a quick explanation of each, although there is a much more detailed explanation in Chapin’s book. I am not saying anything particularly bright in my explanations of each, so feel free to skip them if you are familiar with the concepts.
Card advantage/card economy: We each start the game with 7 cards, and naturally draw 1 card each turn, meaning the players are at card parity. Whenever a card is used (through casting a spell or having a unit die) a player is “-1 card” in the total economy of the game. If two creatures trade in combat, or a removal spell is used to kill a creature, the total card economy is “net 0” as there is no difference card access between the two players. When a player is able to draw extra cards through spells like Wisdom of the Elders, they are net “+1 card”, as they require you spend 1 card to draw 2, and therefore have generated a “card advantage”. It is also possible to generate card advantage by forcing an opponent to spend 2 cards to trade with 1 of your own as well spells such as Harsh Rule or through double blocks.
Philosophy of fire: You and your opponent start the game with 25 health. Assuming there are no shenanigans afoot, the game is fundamentally about getting your opponent’s life total to 0 before they are able to do the same. Cards like detonate or Ticking Grenadin do not profitably interact on the axis of card advantage as they rarely “trade for a card”, but they aim at getting your opponent dead. Health gain is obviously the other side of this. Although this is simple enough to consider at it’s base level, there are some additional wrinkles to this. For example, each of your health points are not worth the same. Losing your 1st health point is almost irrelevant, your 24this worth a lot more, and your 25th is worth infinitely more than all the rest combined (and the 26th is worth nothing). This topic also bleeds into card advantage, as it is possible to trade card advantage for a life advantage in many circumstances (by either chump blocking or chump attacking), as well as tempo (by playing cards that use life loss as a cost such as Knifejack in Eternal or Thoughtseize in Magic).
Tempo: This has been frequently cited as the most difficult to explain concept of these three, but most players have a working knowledge of the concept despite the complexity of describing it. At its core, it is about generating “timing” advantages, often centered on power usage. The classic example in Eternal would be casting teleport on a unit with a higher power cost unit such as Sandstorm Titan. You are spending 2 power to force your opponent to spend 4 power next turn. Aside from bouncing your opponent’s creatures, a classic way to generate tempo is having more power than your opponent, allowing you to jump ahead of your opponent in “time”. A common example might be playing a Sandstorm Titan off a turn 1 Initiate of Sands. By being ahead of your opponent’s Titan by a turn you have generated tempo.
THE ADVANTAGE OF SIZE ADVANTAGE
So now my question is the following: where does “size advantage” fit in? If these are the fundamental ingredients in winning card games, we should be able to ascribe the advantage generated by sizing under some combination of these concepts. Let’s start at the top: does having a bigger unit create card advantage? The answer I feel is “sometimes”. For example – lets say we are in a match up where literally the only cards being played by both players are Snipe (1 power spell that deals 1 damage) and a new card called “Dude” which is a 1 power 1/1 with Warcry. Why we are playing such a terrible match up? Let’s ignore that. In this case I would argue that every warcry trigger is worth roughly a card, at least at the start of the game. If I am able to generate a 2/2 with my Warcry, you would need to use 2 Snipes, or 2 Dudes to trade with my new 2/2.
In the above scenario Warcry looks like pure card advantage, but there are several wrinkles. First, lets imagine a matchup where instead of all Snipes and Dudes, it was Snipes and Oni Ronins. Snipes are still exactly 1-for-1 value against unbuffed Ronin’s, and an additional copy of Snipe must be used for every Warcry bonus, same as before. A subtle difference is that an unbuffed Oni Ronin can trade 1-for-1 with a 3/2 Oni Ronin. Similarly, a Ronin with 2 buffs can still trade with a Ronin with 1 buff, but would require a 2-for-1 against unbuffed Ronin.
We can imagine more complex scenarios where there is a mix of different units, and introduce spells like torch (or more powerful burn spells), and we could evaluate when a given combination actually represents card advantage, and exactly how much advantage it is worth. Trying to create a general rule is difficult as a result of these complexities, but the moral of the story is that increased size represents potential card advantage. The specific number of triggers required to generate card advantage varies dramatically given board states and match-ups, but there is at least an opportunity to generate some sort of virtual card advantage. The simplest summary may be the following:
“Size bonuses represent a form of card advantage when viewed in the context of damage based removal and combat. The number of buffs required to be worth a card depends on the composition of the board and the spell damage available.”
What I find interesting is that there are cases where any number of buffs does not equal a card. What I am talking about – of course – is hard removal, like annihilate, Deathstrike, or Scorpion Wasp. No amount of Warcry bonuses will ever make the scorpion less Deadly, or a Harsh Rule less harsh. So we can add this to our understanding of size advantage.
“Size advantage is not a form of card advantage against hard removal.”
(Note: It may be possible to spin something about how buffs related to spells like suffocate and vanquish, but that is obviously beside the point. There are some games where NOT getting a Warcry might be worth a card by invalidating an opponent’s removal, but it is best to avoid these corner cases for the purposes of this discussion.)
Now lets look at the Philosophy of Fire. Here the role of bigger units becomes is very clear. Bigger bodies hit harder. An unbuffed Dude must hit an opponent 25 times to kill them, while a single buff brings that number to 13, and the second buff brings it to 9. Clearly there is an advantage here. More buffs means more damage. Pretty straight forward. So it is possible to leverage size advantage into health advantage. So let’s add to the theory:
“Size advantage allows you to kill your opponent faster.”
Finally, lets look at tempo. This is perhaps the most interesting of the three to consider. Let’s go back to that horrible game I was discussing of the “Dudes and Snipes mirror”, but for this scenario I am going to add a weapon called “Pants”, which is a 1/1 with Warcry 1. I’m on the play.
Turn 1 (Me): Sigil, Dude, pass.
Turn 1 (You): Sigil, Dude, pass.
Turn 2 (Me): Sigil, Pants on my Dude, Pants on my Dude, attack (no block), pass.
Turn 2 (You): Sigil, attack (no block), Dude, Dude, pass.
Turn 3 (Me): Play 1/1 Dude and 4/4 Dude.
Turn 3 (You): Play 1/1 Dude and 2/2 Dude.
Ok, so what happened, and how does it relate to tempo? On my turn 3 I was able to play roughly 5 power worth of cards, while you only played 3. It is not just that I have generated a lot of card advantage in this game, I have also generated a ton of power by finding a way to jump up the curve and play a larger unit for the same cost. Therefore, by stacking Warcry triggers it is BOTH a form of card advantage and power advantage (tempo), as the +1/+1 bonuses does not cost me power.
If we wanted to convert all of this into a card count, we can introduce a new card into this game: Black Lotus. In the scenario you could argue that the 4/4 Dude I have drawn is not worth 4 cards, but 5, with the 5th being Black Lotus. Although clearly most of the cards in my example game are not great, Black Lotus is one of the most busted cards every printed on either real or virtual cardboard.
What is interesting is how these plays actually manifest in a game of ranked. Instead of using the bizarre example of fake cards, I will describe the opening turns of a game of Rakano versus a Time based deck.
Turn 1 (Me): Power, Oni Ronin, pass.
Turn 1 (You): Power, Initiate of Sands, pass.
Turn 2 (Me): Power, Oni Ronin, attach Warhelm to Oni Ronin, attack with both, pass.
Turn 2 (You): Power, Secret Pages, pass.
Turn 3 (Me): Power, 6/6 Crownwatch Deserter, pass.
Turn 3 (You): Power, Sandstorm Titan, pass.
Sandstorm Titan is the biggest thing you can do on 4 power in the game, and I just played a unit that was even bigger! The initiate in you deck is there to get you ahead in tempo, but it seems like I am still ahead as a result of my Warcrys. You have probably played games that have a similar play-pattern from each side. Stacking a ton of Warcrys on 1 unit can seem like cheating. A 6/6 for 5 power sounds pretty balanced, and I just played one on turn 3 without even having to invest multiple cards! So let’s finish writing up our theory:
“Size bonuses represent a form of card advantage when viewed in the context of damage based removal and combat. The number of buffs required to be worth a card depends on the composition of the board and the spell damage available. Size advantage is not a form of card advantage against hard removal. It allows you to kill your opponent faster. Size advantage also represents a form of tempo advantage, as it is possible to jump ahead of your opponent on curve by playing oversized cards.”
All this talk trying to quantify the benefit of “size advantage” has in a game, relative to card advantage, the Philosophy of Fire, and tempo are interesting, but I feel there is something missing in all of this, which is the concept of “invalidation”. Lets take the following example: we are in a draft game where you and I have traded resources such that we both have no cards in play or in hand at the end of my turn.
You: draw a 4/4 on your turn and play it.
Me: draw a Mithril Mace (unbuffed). I complain to myself and pass the turn.
You: attack for 4, play a Sigil and pass.
Me: I draw a Tinker’s Apprentice. I play Tinker’s Apprentice, buff my weapon, and attack down the 4/4, while keeping a 4/1 weapon around.
This scenario is bizarre when thinking about things in terms of card advantage. When I draw my weapon it is functionally not worth a card given the context of the board. The 3/4 weapon is “invalidated” by the 4/4 body across the table. I then draw an irrelevant 1/1, which turns my “invalidated” weapon into a card that essentially “invalidates” your 4/4. Weird huh? Obviously the 3/4 weapon is not truly a dead card, as all you need to do is play a 3/3 and it magically becomes a card again, but that +1/+1 makes all the difference on the board as it is currently constructed.
There are some interesting implications of this. For example, it is occasionally correct to stage a mass suicide of small Warcry units. Imagine you are in a board state where you have a number of small Warcry units, but you are behind and struggling to close out the game. If you generate a mass chump attack with Warcry units you have the potential to draw a unit or weapon that is so large it invalidates an opponent’s board. Generating multiple +1/+1 on a single card is often worth more than bonuses being spread out over multiple cards, as it gives you the chance to get something that “invalidates” your opponent’s creatures. By this same token, in the event of your opponent is chump attacking it is often best to kill the Warcry units as it gives your opponent less chances in the future to get bonuses.
Following a similar line of thinking, bigger is not that much better in some contexts. For example: assuming our opponent is at 25 health, what is the difference between a 25/25 vs. a 26/26? Both creatures (probably) totally invalidate your opponent’s board. Both kill in one hit. Both are totally unkillable by damage-based means, so we could say they are functionally equivalent. Similarly, a 13/13 is pretty close to a 14/14 as both probably invalidate your opponent’s board, and both kill in 2 hits. Obviously you can construct board states where a there is a difference between 13/13 and 14/14 (or even 25/25 vs. 26/26) but that is rare. This concept of invalidation is something I am still chewing on, so I am not going to try and sum this up with a pretty little bow. I plan to revisit it at some point, but if someone else wants to take a crack at it they are welcome.
That is all for today folks! Hope there was some coherent thoughts in there. I really do feel like Eternal asks us to think about “size advantage” in a different way, so I welcome you to add your take on the conversation! Cheers!
Note on Stock Mana Theory: some of the concepts that I am describing here overlap in some respects with “stock mana” that some people are familiar with, especially the elements surrounding tempo. Although I see it as a useful tool, I have some issues with stock mana theory, and I don’t want to draw those into this discussion. For example: when I annihilate a 2/1 Oni Ronin, is the “Stock Mana” value of that play the same casting that spell on a 10/9 Oni Ronin? I am tempted to say they are not, and that complicates the theory tremendously. It also assumes that mana (or power) scales in a linear way, which is does not. The difference between 4 and 5 power is not the same as between 5 and 6 power, since hitting your 5th power on turn 5 is a lot easier than hitting your 6th power on turn 6. There is also the difficulty of assigning arbitrary power values to all sorts of effects and interactions. I am not trying to argue that the theory is totally useless, but rather that it has some limitations that complicate this discussion.