In a game of Magic, a player has three different resources at their disposal – Time, Life and Cards. I’ve written about each of those separately, and today I’m going to write about how they interact with each other and which one is more important in each match. First, though, a little bit about each of them:
Cards – Cards are the easiest resource to comprehend, because they are what come to mind when you say “resource”. The more cards you have, the more options you have, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that the more the merrier.
Time – Time (or tempo) is the resource you have to make sure that you can use your other resource (cards) to good use. It doesn’t matter that you have 7 Lightning Bolts which amount to 21 damage if you only have one Mountain and can only play one per turn, and they kill you on turn six. In many cases Time is just going to be Mana, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be – for example when they kill you turn 1 before you get your chance to play Chalice for zero or when you die before your Ancestral Visions resolves, that is time but has nothing to do with mana.
Life – Life is, I feel, the most misunderstood of the three resources, because people often don’t even understand that it is one. It is also the one that changes radically depending on the matchup – there will be occasions in which life is completely irrelevant until you get to zero, and occasions in which you will throw everything away to preserve your life total.
The goal of this article is, again, not to explain those but to talk about how they interact with each other, because they are all connected even if they don’t seem to be.
Sometimes it is obvious when you can trade one resource for the other – When you play Healing Salve, you are trading cards for life. When you play Dark Ritual, you are trading cards for time. When you play Divination, you are trading time for cards. When you play Necropotence, you are trading life for cards. Many times, though, this exchange happens and you are not even aware of it. When you chump block or counter a burn spell, you’re trading cards for life. When you mulligan for a hand with fast answers, you’re also trading cards for life. When you decline to play Wrath to kill a guy, you’re trading life for time or cards. When you Flashfreeze an Overgrown Battlement, you’re trading cards for time too.
The ideal would obviously be to have a lot of life, time and cards, but resources in Magic are like a short blanket – if you cover your head, you will uncover your feet. Think of it as one of those RPG sheets where you have a certain number of points and have to choose between Charisma, Intelligence and Strength – you could be very good in either one at the expense of the others.
The main difference is that, in the RPG sheet, you get stuck with your character forever – if you are strong but not charismatic and smart, you will kill the Goblins but then you’ll fail to convince the guard to let you in. In Magic, you can change at any time – you could be a very strong character when you’re killing the goblins, and then become a weak but very smart and charismatic when dealing with the guard. The difficulty lies in understanding when you want to be each, i.e., when each of the three resources is more important than the others, and worth sacrificing the others for. I will break it down in general matchups, though it’s important to note that not every deck assumes the same role in every match, and this is just a general guideline and not the absolute truth for every case.
Control versus Red with a lot of burn – Life
In control versus Red Aggro, the most important resource is generally life, because if you survive to a point where they can’t burn you out, then card advantage will come naturally, due to your deck being naturally more powerful and them having a lot of worse cards to draw in the late game. Because of that, you should not be afraid to spend all your other resources in simply trying to stay at a higher life total, since you often don’t really need anything else. You have to remember – dead people cannot cast spells, so it’s better to spend two cards to deal with one and gain a little bit of life so that you can play your third card than to die with the three of them in hand. Do you know when Lightning Bolt kills Emrakul? When the player who cast Emrakul is at 3 life.
This weekend I helped judging a PTQ (though I didn’t really do anything), and in the finals I witnessed a play that was interesting. Player one (mono red) started with Goblin Guide, and then player two (UWr Stoneforge) promptly played Plains and Path to Exile on his next attack. After the match, a lot of people said he should not have done that, because he was accelerating his opponent very early in the match, and he could be having mana problems, and now he could play two spells a turn, and so on.
Though all those points are valid, I feel like Pathing the Guide is definitely the correct play, because, in the end, the life is the core resource in the match. You see, it is not that the life in itself that is important, but in the end, that the life will translate into both time and cards, into more time and cards than you will even need, so it’s ok to spend those early on. It is easy to see that if you were at 100 life, you’d have a lot more time than if you were at 10 against a mono red burn deck, and it works just as well for 14 as for 100.
Imagine that he had not Pathed the Guide there. He would have taken another two damage, and then another two damage the following turn – that is already four. If you don’t Path, you don’t give him a Land (or you do it later, by the time it’s not going to matter), but you give him a free Flame Javelin instead!
By giving him a land, sure enough you let him play more spells in the same turn, but that is not what concerns you – if he has spells, he will play them whether you give him an extra land or not, it’s not like he is accelerating into Inferno Titan. By not taking early damage, you are giving yourself more time – now, instead of giving him that Flame Javelin, he has to actually draw it. This, in turn, gives you more cards to work with, because you have more draw steps, cards that are likely better than the ones he plays, and more time to find the cards that kill him.
It is the same deal with playing Force of Will on their one-drop – you very quickly gain back the card lost in the form of more burn that they have to draw. When you are at 9 life, drawing 3 Lava Spikes kills you, but if you’re at 10 it’s like they were 3 blanks if you kill them that turn.
Bitterblossom is another card that is very good to exemplify that point – once you have Bitterblossom, life becomes both turns and cards. When you chump block a 3/3, that gives you three more turns worth of tokens, which are three more turns worth of attacking and drawing cards.
Aggro versus Red with a lot of burn – Life
In here, the point is the exact same – you want to live to play your spells, and in the long run life will translate into both time and cards. This is less intuitive than in the control versus Red scenario, because this is not the role the aggro deck generally assumes.
The most famous example of this is perhaps the “Conley Woods” story, that happened I believe in the first round of day 3 at Worlds 2009. I don’t actually know how much of it is true exactly (though I know it’s close to this), but that is completely irrelevant to the explanation (and the concept is still valid even if the sequence was not exactly this one).
Conley was playing Zoo against a Burn opponent, and his opponent mulliganed to three. Conley then played Fetch into Dual (17) Kird Ape. His opponent played Mountain, go (3 cards still). Then he played Fetch into Dual (14), Goyf. His opponent played Great Furnace, go (3 cards). Then Conley played Fetch into Dual (11), Molten Rain your Great Furnace, and the opponent threw it at him with Shrapnel Blast (6, 2 cards). Then on his third turn the guy drew, played Mountain, Bolt, Bolt, killing Conley. Rumor also says that Conley yelled “CONLEY WOODS” every time he cracked a fetch.
According to Conley, he didn’t want to give his opponent time to draw more burn – he wanted to kill him as soon as possible. It is easy to see, however, that had Conley simply delayed his entire game by a turn – that is, turn 1 tapped land, turn 2 tapped land, Ape, turn 3 tapped land, Goyf, turn 4 Molten Rain – he would have given his opponent one more card at the expense of six life. There is no 6 damage card that his opponent can draw, at least not one he can cast at that moment, and even if there was, it’d still be worth it because they’d have to draw exactly that card in the one extra draw you give them. In this situation, time is not nearly as important as life, and that life will translate into more time and more cards for the Zoo player.
Control versus most non-burn Aggro – Time (and maybe Cards)
I differentiate here because your opponent not having the ability to burn you off from a high life total completely changes the dynamics of the match. It should not be a surprise to you by now that I dislike those aggro decks (WW, Stompy, GW), but people insist in playing them, so I included them here.
In Control against Aggro without much burn, life is suddenly not as important, because if you achieve control you’re not simply going to lose it to a bunch of burn spells. This means that you will actually get to use your cards if you get to the point where you can, well, use them, and they will be good. If you get to 6 mana to play Wurmcoil Engine, it will rule the board if you’re at 4 or if you’re at 20, so you want to maximize your chances to get to play Wurmcoil.
This effectively means that you no longer need to use all your resources to protect your life total. If you’re at 8 facing Goblin Guide against a burn deck with four cards in hand, you will usually play Day of Judgment. If you are at 8 facing Goldmeadow Stalwart (hi Cedric!), you do not have to use the Day of Judgment – you actually appreciate the time given to you by your opponent having to hold his guys in hand, and 8, 6 and 4 life are almost the same when it comes to facing just creatures.
So, basically, against those decks that do not have a lot of reach you want your life total to work for you; you want to spend it as a resource to fuel your other two resources – the complete opposite of the Red aggro matchup.
What both aggro matches have in common is that you, as a control player, should mulligan more aggressively, because time and life are usually more important than cards. If you have a slow hand, mulligan – you will be down a card, but if you mulligan into a hand with answers then those answers will give you time to play your more powerful spells, which translates into more cards back at you. When you keep a seven carder and die before you can cast three of your spells, it’s like you only had four cards to begin with – much better to keep six and have time to use all six.
Some Control versus Aggro matches are actually an hybrid between Time and Cards, depending on the stage of the game. In the beginning, they will battle for time, but as the game goes on the aggro deck sometimes has the ability to just grind the aggro deck, which will make cards the most important resource. That introduces a new element, because now the control deck doesn’t only have to deal with the early rush to get to the late game but it also has to be advantaged in that late game, which means the player can no longer turn all his resources into time. The same happens with the aggro deck, whose pilot now has to consider the long game and also cannot throw away everything for time.
Let’s take for example the BW versus 5cc match from the Kyoto finals. The BW deck, though in my view an aggro deck, was not an “all-in” deck, and it had the characteristic that it could save resources while still presenting threats, which meant it could actually fight the 5cc in the long game. For this reason, the goal of the 5cc deck was not merely to bring the game to the late stage, but to actually win the late stage if it came to that, for which it needed cards – it couldn’t count on simply playing a turn 4 Wrath or a turn 6 Broodmate to win. That meant you had to carefully balance your resources, and if you compromised too much of what you had simply to stop a rush (i.e. you exchanged all your cards for time), then you’d lose in the “cards” department. At the same time, the BW player had to balance its own resources, and it could not spend everything presenting a fast clock because if that was dealt and cards became the new resource then it’d just lose.
Combo versus Aggro – Time
In most sorts of Combo versus Aggro matchups, you will be battling for time. Your life total is not nearly as important, because you aren’t going to need 5 turns to kill them, 5 turns in which they can draw Bolt to kill you if you’re at 3. With Control, they will have all the time they want to use all the resources they have, but with combo you simply aim to kill them before they can kill you. By using your resources for time (say mana acceleration), you shorten the number of cards they have to kill you with – when you spend a card to play Chrome Mox and kill them when they have two Lightning Bolts left in their hand that they couldn’t cast, you’re actually up a card because of that Mox, and all your investment in time is reverted back to you.
If the combo deck is not a N-pieces-combo (say Aluren) but something like Storm, then they will generally wait for as long as they can to combo you out, because their chances of success increase exponentially with each turn, since they get to draw another card and to play another land. I remember the UG Desire deck, with Moment’s Peace – it would generally just take a lot of damage to as low as one life, then Peace, then flashback Peace, and then combo. If they were not playing Red, you didn’t care much about going to 1 – all you wanted was the extra turn that would give you, even if you took 19 damage in the process.
If they were playing Red, though, you usually had to figure out the odds of you winning if you spent the Moment’s Peace, and the odds of them having enough burn to kill you if you took it, and then act accordingly. For that, you should generally know the burn in the format, and try to stay at certain thresholds – for example, in a Lightning Bolt format, playing Moment’s Peace to prevent 1 damage when you’re at 6 or 3 makes no difference, but playing it when you’re at 4 or 7 might give you another turn entirely. Do you know when Lightning Bolt counters Tendrilsfor 20? When the guy who cast Tendrils is at 3 life.
If you’re the aggro player and playing versus combo, pretty much the same applies – if they combo you it’s not going to matter how many cards you saved or how much life you’re at, so you just want to attack their time.
Some combo versus combo – Time
There are some combo matches that are not interactive at all, and in this case it’s just going to be a race. I remember when I played the Enduring Ideal mirror match at Nationals – it was impossible to beat a resolved Ideal game 1, and the deck had no way to stop it from resolving saving a Counterbalance for 7, so it was simply a race to 7 mana and Ideal. I was on the play and had Coldsteel Heart game 1, so I thought I couldn’t lose, but then he played Confiscate on my land and got to 7 before I did, and I lost because time was pretty much the only thing that mattered.
Control versus Control – Cards
In most Control mirrors, both life totals and time are not really relevant, and it is all about cards. The reason for that is that no one is in a rush, everyone will get to play all their cards, and life total is generally irrelevant unless you get yourself so low that you will actually die to the Bolts and Fallouts that they play to kill creatures. Or at least that is how things used to be, before they started printing Planeswalkers.
The advent of Planeswalkers does not mean cards is no longer the most important scenario, simply that it is not as important as it was before. The thing with Planeswalkers is that they now add time to the equation, because time with a Planeswalker will always translate into more cards, directly or indirectly. If you manage to land a turn four Jace and untap, you will likely win any sort of control mirror, whereas a turn 15 Jace will not necessarily do that because the opponent will have the resources to overpower it (or kill you) before it gives you too much of an edge.
At Worlds 2010, I was playing a 5cc mirror against Wafo-Tapa, and at some point he Cryptic Commanded my Land back to my hand, which ended up not being good for him, because he traded cards (Cryptic is a card that is worth more than one card, and he simply cycled it) for time (bouncing back my land) when we were already at a point in the game where time was pretty much irrelevant.
Aggro versus Aggro – Cards
When both aggro decks are creature-based and not burn based, the resource you should pursue is cards. The reason for that is that a guy that is left unchecked will finish them off whether they’re at 10 or 13, so it doesn’t matter much if you got them to 10 or 13 before you had that guy. Of course, the life difference might mean that they have one extra turn to draw an answer, but it is almost never worth it to throw away cards for that one turn – with the card that you did not throw away for those three damage, you can likely either kill their answer or present another threat.
How fast you are also doesn’t make a difference if everyone gets to play all their spells – you will play a guy and it will die just the same on turn 3 or 5, so your goal is to have more cards or powerful cards, cards like Kitchen Finks, Ranger of Eos, Elspeth, Baneslayer, Siege-Gang Commander; basically something that lets you have the last man standing.
Red aggro versus Red aggro – Cards
In this match it will also generally come down to cards, though sometimes it will be time if someone has a particularly burn heavy hand. Most burn decks run some creatures, and the red decks can always kill them, which makes it hard to deal the full 20 very fast just off burn spells. For this reason, it generally becomes a fight of who can find 20 in burn spells faster, not who can cast them – this means cards are the most important thing.
Things you can do to help you in this situation are choosing to draw in some burn mirrors (everyone will have time to play everything they want, so it’s good that you have one more card), adding cards that give you some sort of continual damage but can’t be burned out very easily (Siege-Gang, Demigod), and siding out cards like Goblin Guide because giving them extra cards only to have them burned before they can do any damage is not worth it (or at least not attacking with them when they can be burned).
Control versus combo – Cards and sometimes Time
In traditional Control versus combo, cards are the most important resource because most control decks pack enough disruption to make sure you can’t just kill them very quickly. One big characteristic of this match is that one player will usually care only about cards, and the other will care about cards AND time, and usually the one that cares about time is the one that ends up losing.
Most of the time, Combo will care about cards and Control will care about both, because in the long game, Combo is usually advantaged by sculpting a perfect hand. They have more relevant cards, their spells are cheaper, they’re under no pressure and they can tap out at will (combo can play threat after threat and never be punished, whereas control can’t simply tap out for Jace because then they die). To fix that with control, you generally need either very cheap answers (like Negate, Celestial Purge, Naturalize), proactive answers (like Thoughtseize, Runed Halo) or a cheap threat that you can play that will make them care about time instead of you, such as Vendilion Clique, Dark Confidant or Jace Beleren.
This is pretty much what we (and a lot of Japanese players) did with UW when we added Stoneforge and Swords – whenever we would draw those, the Valakut deck would have to start worrying about time instead of us, and then they’d generally lose. If you have an early Stoneforge that survives, then cards is the most important thing for you – you no longer have to Mana Leak that Overgrown Battlement because you have pressure, you will never have to tap out again and you’d rather just save your counters for their important cards, which they can no longer slowroll because of Sword.
Now, if instead of Sword you have the Jace game, then time becomes the most important factor for you – you want to make sure they do not out-tempo you by getting to six mana the turn after you tap out for Jace. In this case, it is worth it to spend a card like Flashfreeze on a Battlement, because the time you gain will translate into many more cards with that Jace.
Some combo versus combo – Cards
When both combos have a lot of ways to disrupt the other person’s combo, then it becomes a battle of attrition, just like Control versus Combo – you can’t really combo fast because there is so much disruption, so you play for the long game. The Ad Nauseam mirror in which a player boards in Dark Confidant is such an example.
Well, this is pretty much it with the article. Again, remember that none of this is absolute, and understanding why a resource is the most important is much more relevant than simply knowing which one is supposedly the most important – for example, if your mono red opponent starts with Guide, Geopede, Guide, Searing Blaze in the mirror, suddenly the core resource might be your life total and not cards, and so on.
Before I go, I’d like to talk a little bit about my article next week; I often have no clue what I should write about, and then I ask for suggestions on multiple networks. Most of the suggestions I get, though, are not really enough for an article – for example I can’t really write pages and pages about Magic in Brazil, what my favorite format is, how I manage school with playing, Invitational cards, etc. So I thought about doing a Questions and Answers article next week, for all the topics that might be interesting to talk about but that couldn’t really make a full article by themselves. So, if you have anything you’d like to ask, be that related to me or to Magic, send it to me by Facebook, Twitter, or simply post it here in the comments, and then if I get enough questions I’ll pick the ones I think are the most interesting to the general public and answer those.
I hope you’ve liked this, and see you next week!