Strictly Better (or not)

by MTGViolet

Often when comparing two cards people will use the term “strictly better,” as in, “Lightning Bolt is strictly better than Shock.” To understand what players mean by this, we need to make a brief excursion into the field of mathematics known as “Game theory”

Game theory is a field of mathematics that deals with strategic decision making, something that Magic players do all the time. In game theory, a lot of the discussion revolves around so-called “dominating strategies.” A strategy is said to “dominate” another strategy, if said strategy will always lead to a better outcome.

The concept of “strictly better” stems from this idea. A card is said to be “strictly better” than another card if in every possible circumstance having that card will lead to a better outcome than having the second card. In the example above, Lightning Bolt could be considered “strictly better” than Shock because they have the same mana cost and speed, but while Lightning Bolt deals 3 damage to a creature or player, Shock only deals 2.

In almost every situation, you will prefer to deal three damage, even if two would be enough to kill the creature in question, if you’re paying the exact same amount of mana either way.

But here is where Magic is tricky. With over 12,000 unique cards, and a near (but not actually) infinite variety of play situations, saying that having a given card will always be better than another is almost always doomed to failure.

Say, for example, you have a Chandra, the Firebrand with six loyalty counters on it, so that you can activate her ultimate ability to deal six damage to your opponent, and you know your opponent, who is at 8 life, has a Faith’s Shield in hand. If you have a Lightning Bolt in your hand, casting it will bring your opponent down to 5 life, which will then allow him to casts Faith’s Shield and use the Fateful Hour ability, preventing you from being able to kill him or her with Chandra this turn. If you have Shock instead, casting it will bring your opponent to six life, meaning you can activate Chandra’s ultimate to finish him or her off.

Or your opponent uses Mindslaver and casts it on yourself. Pretty much any card’s “strictly better”-ness can be disproved with Mindslaver, honestly. Which is why, in Magic, the term has grown to near-uselessness. Instead, a different definition has to be used, one that focuses on the attributes of the card itself, rather than the theoretical background of the phrase.

A card can instead be said to be “strictly better” than another, if each attribute of the card – speed, (mana) cost, power, toughness, abilities, etc. – is better than the other. 

A list of examples can be found here.

As I said, this isn’t strictly better in a mathematical sense, but it is in a way that is more useful for Magic players.

Exercises:

  1. Find more examples of cards that are “strictly better” in the Magic sense.
  2. Find situations where the examples you discovered, and the ones mentioned on the wiki, actually turn out to be worse than the alternative. For purposes of this exercise, ignore effects like Mindslaver and Sorin Markov’s ultimate ability.
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