13

It seems to me that the player going first has a considerable advantage in the game.

How does the game balance that out for the player going second?

I'm new to the game, there might be something I'm missing.

  • 1
    Landless dredge decks for instance always want to be on the draw. They want to not play a land so that they can discard down to the maximum hand size turn one and start dredging on subsequent turns. The premise that the player going first is always at an advantage is not true at all. – Neil Meyer Feb 4 '18 at 17:20
24

The game balances first player advantage because the start player does not draw a card at the beginning of his first turn, but the second player does draw a card during his first turn.

The rule that says it is this one:

103.7a In a two-player game, the player who plays first skips the draw step (see rule 504, “Draw Step”) of his or her first turn.

While this does balance the game somewhat, this article by Florian Koch shows that the start player still has a small statistical advantage. Koch points out that other factors could influence the results, including the skill level of the players and the decks being played (including knowledge of what deck your opponent is playing).

In case you didn't know, if you win the coin toss (or dice roll) it doesn't mean you have to begin, it means you decide whether you want to begin. There are players who actually don't want to begin; some decks prefer the extra card instead of the turn advantage.

  • 1
    the beginning player does not draw a card at the beginning of his first turn and the second player does I did not know this. Now it makes sense. Thanks :) – rahmu Oct 21 '15 at 10:51
  • 3
    All these years I have been playing, I did not know the first turn skips the draw step for first player! – dmikester1 Oct 21 '15 at 16:11
  • 1
    I also didn't know about the 1st player skipping his draw turn 1 for a long time, but this is mostly due learning how to play in multiplayer games. In multiplayer games, the first player draws on his first turn. – Ghostship Oct 21 '15 at 18:43
  • 4
    re: last paragraph if you look at your hand before declaring to play first or second you then lost the choice and have to play first. – Affe Oct 21 '15 at 19:56
  • 3
    Re: The article; when Dominion players were trying to determine if there was a first player advantage, they came across the same issues mentioned in the article. The answer was to NOT look at what percentage of games ended with the first player winning. Rather it was to look at individual top players, and see what their win percentage was when going first vs their win percentage when going second. It would be nice to have that sort of data for MTG too. – GendoIkari Oct 21 '15 at 21:12
4

Going first usually provides a considerable advantage. The reason for this comes from multiple angles.

More attack steps: By going first you are the one on the board first, and the one threatening to attack. Let's say you're playing in an aggro mirror, and you win the game on turn 6. If you go first, that means you've had five attack steps to turn your creatures sideways with. If you go second, you've only had four. Maybe you'd have won the game if you got the chance to counterattack on turn 6, but since the game is over, you don't have that opportunity.

Even if you're the defensive deck, you still reach your key defensive plays (such as casting Wrath of God) sooner. If you go first, your opponent has had two attack steps before you can cast Wrath of God. If you go second, your opponent will have had three attack steps. This can easily be the difference between having 15 life and having 5 life. It's true that you aren't dead in either case, but you are at much greater risk of dying.

Snowball effect: today's Magic is filled with cards that get better if you get to untap with them. For example, Emmara, Soul of the Accord is at her best if she is able to attack. Imagine if two players, Alice and Bob, both have Emmara and play her on turn 2. Alice is on the play. On turn 3, she gets to attack and make a 1/1. If Bob blocks, Bob is now at a disadvantage because he's got nothing while Alice has a 1/1. If Bob doesn't block, he still might not be able to make a 1/1 because Alice can play a 3-drop that's bigger than Emmara, stopping Bob from attacking. Another example is Thief of Sanity. Say Alice plays Thief and Bob responds with his Thief. On her turn, Alice can now use a removal spell to kill Bob's Thief and connect with hers. Even if Bob also has a removal spell, he is still down a card. This is why it's usually preferable to kill the opponent's Thief before deploying your own.

This snowball effect is at its strongest with planeswalkers. Suppose a few turns later, Alice plays Ajani, Caller of the Pride and uses the +1 ability. Can't Bob play his own Ajani and be just as effective? No, because the turn after Alice will just use the +1 again and her creatures are going to be bigger than Bob's. They can now attack and kill Bob's Ajani. But if Bob removes Alice's Ajani instead (with, say, Conclave Tribunal), then he's still behind because Ajani has already generated value on coming into play.

You get to do things before the opponent can set up defenses. This gets more and more significant the higher the power level. For example if you're playing Vintage, you could go Mishra's Workshop into Trinisphere on the play, and your opponent might never cast a spell before he dies (Trinisphere locks out all Moxen e.g. Mox Pearl). If you're on the draw, this is way less powerful, because all the Moxen would already be on the board. If you're on the play, something like land, Mox, Mox, Windfall can instantly win you the game: you've effectively drawn four cards while potentially mana screwing the opponent. If you're on the draw, this is again much less powerful because the opponent will have already played some of his cards, not to mention a land, so you draw fewer cards.

This kind of effect is there in Legacy as well. If you're on the play, Ancient Tomb into Chalice of the Void for one can instantly lock the opponent out of the game. If you're on the draw, it matters much less because the opponent will have already played their one-drop. They are also able to cast spells such as Spell Pierce or Thoughtseize to stop you from resolving the Chalice. At the very least, you lock out one fewer card. If you're on the play, Ancient Tomb into Simian Spirit Guide into Blood Moon turns the opponent's fetchlands into Mountains, potentially color-screwing the opponent, while if you're on the draw, the opponent would be able to fetch for basic lands in response to Blood Moon.

Being on the draw does mean you are more likely to start with these hands, but as illustrated, these plays are also way less effective on the draw.

If you find all this unconvincing, look at what the pro players do. You would be really hard-pressed to find a Pro Tour top 8 match where one player chooses to draw. Instead you get articles like this one by Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, where I quote,

Basically everyone understands that the default in Magic is to play ... the great majority of the time you think you've found an exception, you're wrong.

It's not that exceptions don't exist. It's just that they are exceedingly rare. If you are unsure you should always choose to play.

If you still find this unconvincing, look no further than what Magic: Arena writes when you're asked to choose between play and draw. Wizards, with all their matchup data, still says something to the tune of "usually it is an advantage to play first, but some specific strategies prefer to play second".

1

Almost always there is a slight advantage to going first. It is only a slight advantage because the rules balance it out by taking away the draw from the first player, giving them the first chance to play cards but the opponent the first chance to draw a card (without casting a spell that draws like opt).

This skipped draw phase only applies to games where there are two sides, not just two players as some answers have stated. Two Headed Giant does not have a draw phase first turn, but multiplayer formats like EDH/Commander do, removing the downside of going first, making it even more an advantage to do so.

Consider a few deck archetypes:

  • Aggro - An aggressive deck usually has a lot of little creatures that hit for small amounts of damage meant to swarm. The deck is often at least partly red, and creatures in the deck often have haste. This means your first turn could include attacking with a creature first turn that your opponent has nothing to defend against, such as Raging Goblin
  • Control - A control deck needs to have mana on the opponent's turns, to cast its counter spells. Having that first turn to play a land, and have open mana opens options even on the first turn for control. A spell like Spell Pierce or annul isn't likely to be needed first turn, but there are some one drops that can be dangerous, countering that first turn Aether Vial may shift the entire game.

In general the player that goes first is one half turn ahead of their opponent, one land drop ahead of their opponent, and I believe wins 53% of the time, so a definite advantage, but a slight one.

There are exceptions, most notably any deck that makes use of the card Gemstone Caverns wants to go second, they get that land drop before the opponent, and a fairly famous deck build, Flash Hulk, made use of this to win on the first upkeep of the game. One of the parts of the deck is now banned/restricted, but it relied on having two mana on your opponent's upkeep to play Flash and use that to play and immediately sacrifice Protean Hulk The death effect of Protean hulk would search for all four copies of Disciple of the Vault and all X cost artifact creatures like Shifting Wall, X being 0 those artifact creatures would die, triggering the Disciples for 4 damage per artifact, killing the other player on their first upkeep.

  • 53% win rate might be appropriate in some formats, but it's misleading to be quoted as a general number, and is especially incorrect in high-powered formats. See e.g. starcitygames.com/magic/vintage/…, "We split 4-4 with the player who took the play winning every single game." A 100% win rate is too high as well, of course, but it indicates going first is much more polarized than 53% win rate. – Allure Jan 8 at 22:41
  • @Allure a single matchup is far from representative of magic as a whole. This 53% comes from a study that was done, yes of a specific format, standard, 5 years back. It does not apply as well to high powered formats like Vintage, however the average player isn't playing vintage, even tournament play has started to move away from these full game formats. – Andrew Jan 9 at 14:43
0

It is balanced out by the fact that the player who goes first skips his first draw step. There has been formats where going first basically won you the game.

The Urza block combo era of the late 90's was infamous for having an early game (The coin flip), a mid game the mulligan and a late game turn one but that was a more extreme example from MTG's past.

In the current standard where midrange decks reign supreme a player is playing multiple taplands in the first two turns meaning who goes first is not as important.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.