To Win First or To Win After in cEDH?

Harvey McGuinness • February 16, 2024

As more and more value engines, a la The One Ring, begin to creep their way into cEDH, the format as a whole has started to morph into a midrange hell. Revel in it or despise it, the truth is the same either way: cEDH has shifted away from being a race and towards a balancing act. 

Turbo lists now contain packages designed to help them pivot and recover in the late game. Midrange decks dominate finals tables. Stax has all but disappeared, having been replaced with simply more control-oriented midrange. While plenty of worthwhile questions about how to retool decks for this new meta abound, I think that we first need to look at an even bigger question, a debate long since lingering over cEDH tables, but recently shaken up by the meta shift: is it smarter to win first, or win after?

Now, I'm not going to bury the lede any further: I don't think this debate has a settled answer one way or another. There exist equally viable "fast" and "slow" decks for a reason. However, I think that the arguments supporting winning first have actually become strengthened in this slower format, despite such a sentiment feeling rather contrarian. After all, if players gain more recourses over time, wouldn't it make more sense to wait for my opponents to exhaust themselves in a fight first before I jump into the fray? Well, there's a bit more to it than just that, so let's get into it.

Timing a Win

One of the biggest hurdles in evaluating any deck is the transition from goldfishing wins to actually playing and timing them. Your deck may be stronger or weaker as the game goes on based off of an isolated set of information that is the cards that you're responsible for (your hand, battlefield, etc.), but the second you shift from golfishing wins and out into the wilds you will be faced with the uncomfortable fact that other decks can get stronger, turn after turn, than yours will.

Entertain me for a moment, but I like to think about comparative win rates like a physics problem. As I sit and play a game of Magic, I'm not just asking what are my odds of winning. Instead, I'm trying to figure out what my odds of winning are relative to my position last turn in comparison to the same period's worth of change for each opponent. It's a lot more information to keep track of, but if you can keep it all in your head it can be a worthwhile training exercise. Essentially, what I'm trying to figure out is the difference between the derivatives of my winrate as a function of the game turn and my opponents'. (This gets a little bit trickier when you have to keep track of the fact that win rates are a zero-sum game, but I'm going to leave that for a separate article.)

Technically speaking, once you've identified this difference confidently then you should be able to figure out if rushing in for a win or waiting and winning after is a better decision. If you find yourself in a situation where the difference is decreasing away from your favor, then you should go for it and win if you can, and vice versa. But what does all of this nonsense actually look like in practice?

Resource Accrual and Attrition 

The best way to keep track of this difference is in the dual rates of resource accrual and attrition. In short, how many cards are players drawing each turn, and how many are they spending? This is where our hallmark midrange value engine cards come in, because chances are they are going to be the number one thing you need to keep track of here. Not all Rhystic Studys are equal: the one controlled by the storm player is probably going to be drawing fewer cards than those controlled by their opponents, after all. These kinds of player-behaviour-based differences lead to significant changes in the resource distribution over the course of the game, so keep an eye out. 

Going strictly by card count, our earlier argument about win rates would mean that the player drawing the cards the fastest should wait for any of the other three to win first, and then capitalize on the resource exhaustion once the distribution of cards becomes lopsided. The other players, however, would see the deteriorating win rates and seize an opportunity as soon as one is presented.

This situation often plays out, using the logic above, when a player with relative card advantage is in danger of being eclipsed by another player. The pressure of someone, oftentimes multiple someones, catching up is a real threat in cEDH, so taking the instantaneous opportunity to seal the game can be the right move to take. Seen through shifts in relative card advantage, the comparison between your card resource allowance and each individual opponents', winning first can actually be the safer route to take.

Going back to my earlier mentions of value engines, we can see pretty clearly that any opponent controlling something like Mystic Remora or The One Ring instantaneously makes the math of the game far less favourable in the long run. The more you wait, the more resources your opponents will accrue, the faster your win rate depreciates, the faster your derivative disparity increases. Flipping the situation on its head, if you control any of these value engines, then you are much more incentivized to sit back and let the game proceed.

This makes sense intuitively, but it isn't without flaw on either end. Our cold hard logic has inadvertently encoded emotion into it - Player A (the one drawing cards) can effectively be said to have "cold feet." For all we know, they may have an assured win in hand, but wait to capitalize on it because of trepidation that it get's countered, causing a surefire win to disappear. As for Players B, C, and D, they are all panicking under this situation - rushing to a win, shields down, with reckless abandon. So what do we do now?

The Draw Step and Value Engines

At the end of the day, value engines still don't often make up for one key thing players often overlook while calculating their win turn - the normal draw-for-turn of each opponent. If Player A casts The One Ring, it will still take two full turns before tapping it to draw cards puts you ahead of the natural resource accrual done by the rest of the players simply via their draw step. Now, I'm not saying that The One Ring is any less than stellar, but what I am saying is that, like all value engines, it isn't an immediate change in the game state to the tune of burst draw like Ad Nauseam. You still have to actually get the opportunity to draw the cards. Couple this with the psychological pressure you've now placed your opponents under by facing them with something which is a known threat, and suddenly the play dynamics change beyond that of simple resource calculation.

The pressure you're now facing is one that I think is crucial to consider when going for a win, and can be the weight which pushes a "win-after" into a "win-first." Rather than exhaust value engines, these are cards which can be played as accelerants, pushing you faster towards that first win attempt, not just supporting you through your opponents. Conversely, if you are resource strained due to not having a value engine, then I'd argue you're wise to wait for your opponents to exhaust each other, then come out from underneath. If you can't eclipse their value-engine wealth, then wait for them to spend it.

Wrap Up

The more cEDH I play, the more I start to think that winning first and winning after aren't opposite sets of logic, but rather they're out-of-phase compliments of one another. Win first in the early turns, snatch a victory from your opponents who haven't set up yet, and get on with game two. Alternatively, win after in the middle turns, having successfully waited for your opponents to exhaust each other in a counterstorm. Or, if all else fails and the game grinds to a halt, be that first player with a Rhystic Study to properly time their Silence and just go for it. Games are going longer and feeling longer, but that doesn't mean that winning first is a subpar strategy, even for those clutching tight to our value engines. It's all about comparative analysis. Good luck in your games, and here's to drawing cards.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.