Today’s article is a little different from what you might be used to from me. Most of the time, I try to write things on the “advanced” level of things—articles for good players who want to become better. For PTQers who want to become PTers. This time, though, I’ll be a little more on the “basic” end of the spectrum. If you are already good, you probably already know most of those things. This is an experiment. It might be that those things are too obvious for anyone who is decent, and unable to reach those who would benefit from them. Still, I asked on Twitter and the feedback was mostly positive, so if you dislike the topic you should have complained then!
The Return to Ravnica prerelease happened last weekend. I went to the store on Saturday to watch, and I actually managed to get a spot to play on Sunday. Between playing and watching, I experienced plays that left me completely dizzy, and that I’m still trying to fully comprehend, which made me wonder: how do those people actually come up with those absurd sequences of plays?!
The answer, of course, is because they don’t know better. Most people who make severe mistakes do not make them out of stupidity or some lack of ability to understand, they make them because no one has told them that they shouldn’t. No one has explained the proper way to react in those situations. In today’s article, I will try to explain some basic concepts and why they are correct, and then hopefully you can extrapolate the reasoning for the future situations not covered here. The focus will be Limited but you should be able to apply most of those for Constructed.
Sometimes You Should Walk into Tricks
Often, whether or not we walk into a combat trick has psychological consequences for us—if we don’t block their 3/3 with our 2/4 and they do have a pump spell, then we feel like we outsmarted them. We knew what they were up to and prevented it. Likewise, if we do block and they do have the pump spell, we feel stupid. We walked right into what they wanted—no doubt they feel very smug. As a consequence, this leads to people bluffing more than they should (because the satisfaction of tricking the opponent is an incentive to do it), and to calling bluffs less often than they should (because we’re afraid to be thought of as idiots). Logically, it could also lead to walking more into bluffs, because calling their bluff should also make you feel better about yourself. But in my experience that’s not how it goes, the fear of making that decision and being wrong is dominant.
What you have to do is just forget all that—it is not important. You bluff when they have a real reason to play around something, and you “accept” it when you have a real reason to. If your 2/4 doesn’t block their 3/3, why are you playing a 2/4? What are you going to do, never block? Never attack? Most of the time, you should just go for it, and if they have the trick, well, make them use it. It’s not going away if you don’t run into it that exact moment.
Life Points Are Worth a Lot Less than You Think They Are
Overvaluing life points is a continuous problem for new players. If you attended the prerelease, I’m sure you saw plenty of people playing Heroes' Reunion or the new Azorius card that looks at their hand. As far as maindecking goes, those cards are widely unplayable. Life is a resource, it’s supposed to keep you alive so that you can cast your spells, and not the other way around! If you use every spell you have so you can keep your life total high, then what do you want to keep your life total high for? You’ve already played your spells! Granted, there are exceptions. Sometimes all you need to do is stay alive and then you’ll win even though you “wasted” the spell—but most of the time this is not the case, and in the dark you should never play those cards.
The real truth is that there are a lot of ways to win a game, and life total is not necessarily the most common. I’d say something akin to “card power” is. I am especially fond of the chess comparison. Your life total is your King—i.e., it doesn’t do much, but you can’t let it die. It’s vital that you preserve at least a sliver of it, because without it you are dead, but preserving it alone is not going to win you the game.
Imagine, for example, that you make a lot of moves to protect your King, and in the meanwhile your opponent is getting all your other pieces—eventually the king will fall, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. In Chess, many pro-games are over before checkmate, because people realize they can’t win, and in Magic it’s the same. Many games get to a point where they can’t be won, no matter if you’re at 2 life or 27. Using a card that gains seven life will prolong the game, but will make it easier for the opponent to get to the scenario where the seven life is actually not relevant at all.
The same can be applied to chump blocking. In one round of the prerelease, my opponent had a 2/4 flier and a 2/1, and I had the 2/4 flash vigilance guy. I thought there was no way on earth he would double-block, so I decided I’d attack—maybe he’d fear a trick and take 2 damage (the above situation), and the worst scenario I could imagine was him just blocking with his own 2/4. He thought for a minute and then threw the 2/1 in front of my guy! And that was it! It just went immediately to the graveyard and I passed the turn. Now, a 2/1 guy might not be worth a lot, especially since I had a 2/4, but it’s certainly worth a lot more than 2 life when you are at 20.
Start Looking at the Bad Scenario More than the Good
When we begin playing, it’s natural that we look at a card and think of the best thing we can do with it. For starters, we imagine that it’s in play—no thought is given to the fact that you might not even get to cast it. Then we imagine everything that could possibly go right going right, when that is rarely the case.
We look at a card that says “target creature can’t be the target of spells or abilities” and imagine how good it’d look on Avacyn. Except that, realistically, either you’ll be dead before you cast Avacyn, or Avacyn will be dead before you cast this, or you won’t need it because Avacyn alone will beat them—with or without the enchantment.
It’s because of this approach that cards like Cranial Extraction and Slaughter Games are so loved. We imagine playing against our friend and taking away the best card that they were just going to play next turn. In practice, those cards are not worth the effort, because most of the time they don’t do anything remotely close to being worth the four mana you have to spend at sorcery speed.
The punisher mechanic is also a favorite of beginners (and of some veterans too. Shrug). We call a card "punisher" when it gives the opponent a choice of two bad things—say, for example, Browbeat. You can look at Browbeat and think, “3 cards for 3 mana is very good. 5 damage for 3 mana is good. The card offers two possibilities, but since they’re both good, it’s at least a good card.” No, it really isn’t.
The problem is that, while in a vacuum those two possibilities are not bad, when you actually want one, you will not get it. The correct way to look at this card is “2R: deals 5 damage to an opponent. If he wants to avoid that, he can have you draw 3 cards.” This card is a lot worse than a card that just reads “2R: deals 5 damage to an opponent,” because, if they want to, they can stop that effect. If, for example, they’re at 5. Almost every card like this is a trap and should be avoided.
To be clear, I’m not saying you should not look at the “best scenario." Of course you should, that’s how you see if a card is potentially good or not. But you should also look at the bad scenario, and then decide if it’s worth playing anyway. Let’s take, for example, the new big guy, Worldspine Wurm. If he is in play, he is obviously awesome, but the bad scenario is that he can’t be cast—at eleven mana that is by far the most realistic of the two—so don’t play him.
Play 40 Cards
When you introduce the game to someone, it’s common for them to ask, “what’s the maximum number of cards?” rather than the minimum. Then we tell them they should play 40, and they either believe us or they don’t. Well, you really should just play 40, and the reason is simple—you play the best 40 cards you have. If you want to add a 41st card, logically it is worse than the 40 you already have.
If it were better, then it’d be one of the 40 best, not the 41st best, and, on average, whenever you draw it’s probably going to be a little worse than whatever else you could be drawing. Just imagine you’re playing poker, and you can build your own deck—would you rather have 4 Aces, 4 Kings, 4 Queens; or 4 Aces, 4 Kings, 4 Queens and a 6?
Utilize the Moments that Will Give Your Opponents the Least Information
As a general rule, you want to:
• Play a land before combat. The more lands you have, the more things you can possibly have. If you attack with a Forest up, they know you might have Giant Growth, and they can block accordingly. If you play Plains first, though, then you can have Giant Growth or Selesnya Charm! It doesn’t matter if you have it or not, they have no way of knowing.
• Play other permanents after combat. This is basically the same reason—the less they know, the better. Playing your creatures after combat serves two purposes: it increases the number of things you can have (i.e. Giant Growth), and it makes them have to guess at what you do have. Say you have a 3/3 attacking, and they have an Auger Spree. Now, if you haven’t done anything, they might take it, because maybe you play a 4/4 next and then they will wish they held their removal spell. If you play a 2/2 pre-combat, they know they have no better targets coming, so they will kill it immediately and not take 3 damage.
• Play instants and abilities at the end of your opponent’s turn. If you do things this way, you’ll have your mana untapped throughout all of your turn and all of theirs, and they’ll never know what you have. One of my opponents was playing blue/red and had a Doorkeeper in play. If he had just passed the turn, I’d be wary of a counterspell or a removal spell (which are plentiful in this color combination), but he just activated the Doorkeeper on his turn for absolutely no reason, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to play anything.
At the same time, you want to give yourself the most information. If you’re going to play a spell that draws you more cards, then you don’t want to do anything before that, don’t even play a land—maybe you draw into something better.
There’s More to an Opening Hand Than Lands and Spells
Most of the time we’ll mulligan hands that have no lands or hands that have no spells, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep every hand that does have those two components.
Colors, for example, are a big problem. If you’re playing black/red and your hand contains four black cards and three Mountains, you probably want to ship that because you’re just not doing anything. Likewise, a hand with five lands and two 5-drops is not good, because you’ll probably be dead before they make a difference.
Learn the Rules
Pro Tour players have a reputation for “doing anything it takes to win,” but that is not really true for most of us. In my experience, there are two types of real cutthroat players: the PTQ players who think they’re better than the competition and therefore deserve to win, but keep coming short and never actually play the big events; and some of the guys who have just begun and don’t know the rules.
At the prerelease, I saw two guys playing and one mentioned that if you ever drew a card without untapping something, that was too late and the thing should stay tapped—that’s a common mentality. If you attack without drawing, well, you can’t draw. A guy complained to me that his opponent had tried to Izzet Charm a creature as it was being cast, and he should be forced to deal two damage to it instead (when the correct ruling is that Izzet Charm can only counter non-creature spells, so it’s not a legal target and goes back to hand).
Trying to Terror my black guy? Well, too bad, you have to kill yours; etc., etc. In a normal tournament, this will not go unnoticed, because chances are the opponent knows how things work and will tell you. But in a prerelease, when two beginners play against each other, it’s very common to see those rules stand, because this is how a lot of beginners play. Taking a while to familiarize yourself with the basic rules is usually worth it before you play any tournament.
Think Before You Play!
Honestly, about half the beginner mistakes people make are caused by a severe lack of awareness. I’m not saying you should second-guess your instincts every time, but some things are clearly so off the wall that it’s obvious that the player hasn’t even considered the implications of what they’re about to do. Unleash, for example, felt like a mental coin-flip every time I watched it being played, to the point where people would play the creature, their opponents would ask, “so, unleash?” and they’d pause for a second and reply with, “yeah, I guess.” One guy was facing a 5/2, then he played a 2/2 first strike unleash and immediately added a counter to it. Two turns later he died. How do you come up with something like that?
In this case, it’s very easy to see that if you unleash your guy, you won’t be able to block his guy. You have to understand that you’re making a decision with consequences—you don’t add a counter because “bigger creatures are better” or “Rakdos is aggressive” or “For the Horde!” you add a counter because you think the benefits of having +1/+1 outweigh the fact that you can’t block with it. And how do you make that decision? By looking at the board!
Sure, on a higher level you’ll have to consider what they could possibly have, what the magical number in the format is, etc., but right now I just want you to look at the creatures they have and see if there is something you want to block, see if there is something you want to attack through, look at your life total and look at their life total—are you killing them or are they killing you? This will generally dictate if you want to attack or if you want to block.
Well, this is about it. I hope you’ve learned something new, and see you next week!