We have a lot of talk about card advantage, symmetry, and synergy right now, but I think that a long-neglected term of the game is investment. Most people probably don't know what I am talking about.
Let me ask you a question:
How many Jayemdae Tomes have you seen in Type II lately?
Not many, I'd assume. With Browse gone, I would have thought that the Jayemdae Tome would make a big comeback, but it simply hasn't. The reason for this is that the decks that use Jayemdae Tome are usually blue-heavy; not always, but usually. Now decks that just *splash* blue can use Whispers of the Muse.
What makes Whispers of the Muse so good? Investment.
That is, the Whispers does not force you to invest a card.
Consider identical players at identical points in the game. They are in the same match, both have four cards in hand and six mana. The only difference is that one player has a Jayemdae Tome in his hand and the other has a Whispers of the Muse.
Player one has to tap four of his precious six mana on his own turn to cast Jayemdae Tome. Sure, he has two left for Counterspell or Memory Lapse if need be, but he still reduces his options by four mana. He starts the opponent's turn with only 3 cards left in his hand.
Now the Whispers player starts the opponent's turn with four cards in his hand. As blue Magic is often a bluffing game, this might actually be a factor. If he successfully Whispers, he will have six cards on his next draw, while the Jayemdae player will only have four. Furthermore, if he blows a Disk--as blue players often do--he won't destroy his Jayemdae Tome.
Now I'm not going to slam Jayemdae Tome, and I don't want you to think that is what I am trying to do, because the Tome is a fine card; I am just saying why it is not commonly played.
Were the game to end at this point, the Tome player would be effectively -2 in the card count when compared with the Whispers player. While the Tome player has +1 permanents in play and -2 cards in hand, and you want to say he is only -1 card behind, you would be wrong. At this point in the game, the Tome player has done nothing with the Tome... it could have been a Pegasus Refuge or some other useless card.
In most cases, if you look at good players, the cards that they put investment into, that is, the cards that they put into play, generally give instantaneous utility. Serrated Arrows... you put it down and it can do something immediately. It always pokes a pump knight after you side it in, and if they Disenchant it... you just got a Hymn to Tourach out of it.
Did you ever wonder why a lot of the better big blue decks had somewhere from 2-4 Soldevi Excavations in their decks, but no Browse? While Browse's effect is clearly more powerful in the long run, the 2-4 Soldevi Excavations could generally give immediate utility to the blue player: he does not even suffer -1 mana advantage due to the u1 produced by the Excavations over the u produced by an Island. Furthermore, the decks employing the Excavations usually used multiple Impulses, which were like an immediate Browse in their own way. Together, the Thawing Glaciers, Impulses (and whatever other cantrips), and Soldevi Excavations were able to simulate the card advantage of Browse without having to make the initial investment of -1 card from hand.
Now Browse is very powerful, but did you ever notice that many of the Big Blue decks after Mirage became legal used Ancestral Memories? The reason for this is very similar to the argument between Jayemdae Tome and Whispers of the Muse. Either you put down Browse and say"done," and you generally don't make back the -1 card investment for at least 2 turns, or you tap just one more mana for Ancestral Memories and get +1 card advantage instead of -1 card investment. When you could use 4 Thawing Glaciers and all you wanted out of your Ancestral was a Control Magic and a Force of Will, the one extra mana was not much to ask for basically 2 Timewalks on yourself.
About the only time that investment is unconditionally a good thing is when you either play a game-breaking card or you play a creature or land. For example, against most U/W control decks an Ankh of Mishra in the early game is a game-breaking card. They will try to destroy it with a Disenchant as soon as they can, and you will have both gone -1 card in hand to maintain symmetry. If you make them play a land or more first, all the better. If you play a Winter Orb on a tapped out opponent or a Necrodeck, you are breaking the game in a similar fashion because you are buying what amounts to multiple turns. You see.
Playing a creature or a land is automatic utility. Almost every creature in the game can block. Therefore, on the first turn it comes out, it can do something productive for you. If you are playing a deck with many small green creatures and some Lhurgoyfs, you will want to maintain creature symmetry by mutualing with the opposing Sligh deck as much as possible because it makes your long-term Lhurgoyf bigger. Land that does not come into play tapped also has instantaneous utility because it can make mana. Other lands often have a specific purpose that is useful to your strategy.
Now we have to talk about cards that require an investment but do not replace themselves in the long run.
Now I know that there are some decks that play with cards like these, but I personally don't because of the investment factor. If you asked me why in person, I would probably tell you you were an idiot for asking such a stupid question, but here I will actually explain:
Ancestral Knowledge comes down, and is an immediate -1 card in hand, much like Jayemdae Tome. However, while Jayemdae Tome can wreck your opponent in the long run, Ancestral Knowledge cannot (unless you are playing some sort of combo deck and it sets up your combo. This article is taking standard, as opposed to combo, decks into consideration). Ancestral Knowledge just ends up being a -1 card advantage after you stop upkeeping it. Did it make you top-deck better? Sure. You cannot quantify the other player's ability to top-deck without taking additional cards into consideration.
Let's just say he is really good, and top-decks exactly as well as you do. In that case, you will remain more-or-less at relative parity, except he will be 1 card ahead of you. Guess who wins.
Even worse, if you employ the Ancestral Knowledge's ability to destroy any number of the top 10 cards of your library, you have also just given your opponent an additional road to victory. It might not come into fruition, but you just voluntarily gave him an additional way to win! Is that good?
Now compare Ancestral Knowledge to Portent. They both help you top-deck better, but Portent costs less mana, can be done to your opponent, and replaces itself. I don't think that Portent can really be counted as giving the opponent a road to victory the way Ancestral Knowledge can, because it is much more likely that you will win due to an additional card in hand than your opponent will win because of a one card deficit in your inactive resources. (However, the possibility, however slim, does exist).
Now compare Ancestral Knowledge to a Tutor of some sort (I won't go into specifics, but it would have to depend on the deck you were using, obviously). The Tutor also forces you to go -1 in the card count to top deck better, but it doesn't give your opponent an additional road to victory. Furthermore, it is an instant, it costs less mana, and it guarantees that you will see the card you want, while Ancestral Knowledge only increases the probability of seeing the card that you want.
How about Pegasus Refuge?
Pegasus Refuge is an investment of one card (-1 card in hand) for the ability to put 1/1 tokens into play. This is a sealed deck card AT BEST folks...
To assume that the Pegasus Refuge is viable is to say that every card in the opponent will draw is inferior to a 1/1 (quite a bold statement, wouldn't you say?) *and* that you can win with a -1 card advantage. Just think about that for a second.
Note that this is far different from Sacred Mesa, which puts a -1 card advantage in the short run, but has incredible long run utility against certain decks. The reason? While both require you to invest a card to start, Pegasus Refuge requires additional investment for its 1/1's while Sacred Mesa does not. You can tell the difference best when looking at draft. When someone puts down a Pegasus Refuge (assuming he has no Cursed Scroll) the other guy doesn't care; whe someone puts down a Sacred Mesa, the other concedes half the time.
Even better is Lab Rats, which requires no investment at all (while it is a different color, the logic follows as I'm sure you understand).
Then there are symmetrical cards like Howling Mine. Player A invests in a Howling Mine. If player B draws an additional card, then Shatters the Howling Mine, you can clearly see the +1 card advantage given to player B. But what if he doesn't Shatter it? At any given time (barring other factors, anyway), player B will be either at +1 or +2 card advantage depending on who's turn it is. Even after player A has gotten his draw back and gets 2 cards himself, *player B gets the exact same effect without having to invest in the Howling Mine*.
The only card that I can think of that breaks the investment rule is Stormbind. Stormbind is an automatic -1 investment, much like Pegasus Refuge, but it for some reason doesn't suck. You can only get card advantage from Stormbind from a goofy block (for example your opponent blocks Jolrael's Centaur with 2 Black Knights, and you Stormbind one) or if you can somehow kill a Frenetic Efreet, Tar Pit Warrior, or similar"fizzle" creature with it. Even then, a single instance would get you only to card parity (due to the investment of Stormbind). I am unsure of why the non-Howling Mine Stormbind decks can be competitive given this model... The only thing that I can think of is that with Pegasus Refuge, you will not likely overpower each additional card drawn by the opponent via 1/1 creatures and -1 card investment, but it is entirely possible that a deck where each additional nonessential card becomes a Guerilla Tactics-level card could overpower the opponent.
Oh wait, I lied. Sylvan Library is also a card that breaks the investment rule. While it has no immediate effect, it does generate immediate utility, much like a creature. A wise player will almost always destroy it immediately because it is so powerful, but if he doesn't, you are given a remarkable selection engine that can also give you long-term card advantage, much like a more expensive Necropotence.
In general, I would say that for you to play with cards that require investment, you need to have some way to get long-term card advantage with it. Examples of these cards are Disrupting Scepter and Goblin Bombardment.
On the other hand, cards that generate short-term utility but long-term card disadvantage, such as Mana Severance, should be avoided in non-combo decks.
Any more ideas?
Hahn, Kusumoto, Shuler, Taylor, and Wakefield for raising the intellectual bar on this newsgroup. Also anyone else I forgot.
altran, for reminding me that Sylvan Library is amazing.
Me, for writing long-ass articles.