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I’ve talked about the concept of “forced plays” before, but I’ve never explored the idea in depth. Today I’m going to go talk about what a forced play is, how to identify one, and why it’s important to do so.

So, what is a “forced play”? A forced play is a play that, strategically speaking, is strictly superior to all other plays and therefore has to be made. It’s a play that offers all upsides and no downsides, which means that if you want to play optimally, you have to make it. For example, if you’re on 3 life and your opponent casts Lightning Bolt on you, then casting your Counterspell is a forced play—you don’t have a choice.

Identifying your own forced play is important (because you have to make it), but identifying when your opponent has a forced play is also very relevant, and that’s what I want to focus on today. I think it’s important to do so for three main reasons:

1) If your opponent’s play was forced, then you cannot take any inferences from it

Every time your opponent makes one choice over another, this gives you information. They chose A over B for a reason, and if you can figure out what those reasons are, you gain valuable information about their hand and their game plan. The thing is that, if their play was forced, they didn’t really have a choice. Therefore, you can infer no information from it.

For example, imagine that your opponent plays a turn-2 Diligent Excavator off a Swamp and an Island. On your turn 2, you play Sporecrown Thallid. On turn 3, they attack.

Now, that was a choice—they didn’t have to attack. Therefore, the fact that they attacked means something. They could have Fungal Infection or, less likely, Blessing of Belzenlok. Or, they could just have nothing. But if they do have nothing, that probably means they have a 3-drop they believe can block your Thallid anyway (after all, they’re taking 2 and you’re taking 1, and 0 if you block). Imagine that you don’t block, you take 1, and they pass the turn with no play. In a spot like this, they don’t have a 3-drop, so their attack wasn’t free, which probably means that they had something and were hoping you would block—I would put them on Fungal Infection. You can do this because they chose to make a play over a different play, and that gives you information.

Now, imagine that their 2-drop is a Voltaic Servant instead. Now, things are different—Voltaic Servant gets to untap itself at the end of the turn, so there’s no reason not to attack. Regardless of what else you have, attacking is good. Either the opponent blocks and nothing happens, or they take 1. In this case, attacking with the Voltaic Servant is a forced play, because strategically speaking, it’s strictly superior to any other play and therefore you must do it since it doesn’t cost you anything and you can only gain from it. When creatures with vigilance or creatures that can’t block are involved, attacking with them is commonly a forced play.

Since attacking with the Servant is a forced play, the fact that they attacked with it tells you absolutely nothing. It doesn’t mean they can’t have anything—they just don’t need to have anything to make this play. They could have Fungal Infection, or they could not have it, and the fact that they attacked does not inform you in any way, even 1% more or 1% less (whereas them attacking does inform you a little in the other scenario).

For this reason, it’s important to identify when a play is a choice from your opponent—because then you can figure out why they chose it—versus when it’s a forced play. If it’s a forced play, then it’s not giving you information.

One of the most famous examples of players drawing inferences from forced plays is the Antoine Ruel/Kenji Tsumura Psychatog play. For those who are unaware, this was the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, and the sequence went as follows:

Kenji: Turn 1 land.
Antoine: Turn 1 tapped Watery Grave.
Kenji: Turn 2 land.
Antoine: Turn 2 land, Duress. Kenji Mana Leaks.
Kenji: Turn 3 land, Psychatog. Antoine Force Spikes it.

This is often cited as a great bluff from Antoine, who, according to many people, sold Kenji on not having Force Spike due to playing a turn-1 tapped Watery Grave over an untapped land. If Antoine did have the Force Spike, they said, then he would have played a turn-1 untapped blue source or taken 2 to be able to use it, and the fact that he played Watery Grave was an indication that he didn’t have Force Spike.

The problem with this train of thought is that there were no 2-mana spells in Kenji’s entire deck that could be Force Spiked—a fact known by everybody since this was the Top 8. Antoine knew with absolute certainty that the Force Spike could not be cast on turn 2, and, therefore, playing the tapped Watery Grave was a forced play. It doesn’t matter whether Antoine has Force Spike or not—the strategically correct play is to always play the tapped land, which means that the fact that Antoine played it tapped didn’t communicate anything to Kenji because he’s always going to play it tapped.

Now, the second part of the play is more telling. Kenji could reasonably think, “if Antoine had Force Spike, he’d have forced through his Duress.” In this regard, Antoine deceived him. Or, perhaps, Antoine just valued not exposing himself to Psychatog more than resolving Duress. But the first part of the exchange—the tapped Watery Grave—means absolutely nothing because it’s a forced play, and anyone who highlighted that as one of the reasons Antoine “fooled” Kenji didn’t pay attention to that.

2) Don’t force a play that beats you

Two weeks ago, during the coverage of GP Fort Worth, Shuhei Nakamura ran into a rather interesting scenario in the feature match. There were about 10 ground creatures on each side, but if Shuhei’s opponent attacked with everything, Shuhei would be dead. Shuhei’s opponent was on 5 life and Shuhei had a 3/4 flyer to his opponent’s 4/4 flyer.

On his turn, Shuhei attacked with his 3/4 flyer. His opponent blocked, and he played Gift of Growth to kill it. When we looked at Shuhei’s hand, we also saw Jousting Lance, which he didn’t play even though he had ample mana. Then, the following turn, his opponent attacked with everything and he died.

Why didn’t Shuhei play that Jousting Lance instead of using the Growth? That would have been enough to force a block and win combat, but there were actually three good reasons to not play it, and two involve forced plays.

  1. If you play the Jousting Lance, then blocking becomes a forced play. They no longer have a choice—they must block to survive. Therefore, if you do this, you’re locking yourself into an outcome you don’t want. If you don’t play it, they’ll very likely block anyway, but they might not, and then you just win on the spot—you give them a chance to mess up rather than forcing the correct play from them. 1% is better than 0%, and you don’t lose anything by doing it because the Growth isn’t important to what is happening in the game.
  2. Not playing the Lance means that the opponent isn’t necessarily dead next turn. This is what I think is the most interesting part of the play, and the one I want to specifically highlight. If Shuhei plays Jousting Lance, then the opponent knows that there is a 5-power flyer next turn—it’s very “in your face”—which means that the opponent knows that if they don’t win the game right now, they are dead. As a result, the alpha-strike becomes a forced play, and Shuhei knows it will succeed. By exposing the Jousting Lance, then Shuhei forces the opponent to make a play that he can’t beat.

If Shuhei uses the Growth and keeps the Jousting Lance in hand, however, then he’s only representing three power for the next turn. The opponent might attack anyway (as they did), but they don’t necessarily have to—they think they have an extra turn to live if Shuhei doesn’t have another pump spell. This gives them the opportunity to mess up and not attack. By not playing the Jousting Lance, Shuhei opens up another possible play for the opponent, and one he can actually beat.

In this last scenario, the presence of the Growth makes things a bit easier, but the exact same situation can also happen without it. For example, imagine a scenario in which the opponent has a 2/2 flyer and not a 4/4 flyer. If Shuhei plays the Lance and attacks, he will force a block, and then he will force an attack, and he’ll lose the game. If Shuhei does not play the Lance, then there’s a decent chance the opponent will chump-block anyway because they don’t want to lose the game to a pump spell. If they don’t chump block, they win on the spot, but hey, they were about to win anyway, so this isn’t much of a cost.

In this spot, it’s important to identify that, if you play your Equipment, you’re forcing a sequence of plays that results in you losing the game, so it’s better to leave their options open by presenting them a different route, even if it’s unlikely they will take it. You have to fake weakness in a spot like this because representing strength will make your opponent panic and do the only thing they can do to try to win, and you know that if they do this they will succeed.

(Savvy readers might point out that I wrote an article a while ago saying you shouldn’t give your opponent a choice when you could force an outcome that they could also choose, which would seem to contradict what I am saying now. But I also pointed out in that article that there were exceptions, and one of them was when nothing your opponent could choose would be worse than the outcome you could force. This is one of the exceptions.)

There is another reason for not casting the Growth. Doing it this way makes attacking less appealing for the opponent because Shuhei has an extra untapped blocker (Gift of Growth untaps the flyer). This is a spot in which Shuhei doesn’t want the opponent to attack, so he has to make it look as dangerous as possible for the opponent to do so. If Shuhei has an extra untapped blocker, then he needs to have fewer things to stop an alpha strike. If that flyer is tapped, then that’s an extra card Shuhei needs to have. This has nothing to do with forced plays, but is one of the reasons why Shuhei did that.

3) Don’t bluff an opponent that has a forced play

Bluffs are plays that combine probability with, sometimes, psychology. You want to sell your opponent a different reality, either because that’s the most likely reality or because something you did makes them think that’s reality, and then you want them to react in a certain way to this belief. But successfully bluffing someone requires that they are able to make a choice. If they have a forced play, then it doesn’t matter what reality you manage to sell them because they’ll still make the play that they have to make.

For example, imagine you’re playing Dominaria Sealed and your opponent is on 5 life. They have a 5/5 creature, and you have a 3/3. You attack.

In this spot, you could have a number of things, but the block is forced because whatever you have that kills the blocker will also kill them. If you have Run Amok, Indomitable Will, or Gift of Growth, then they have to block because they’re at 5. If you have Vicious Offering, then you can sacrifice the creature anyway, so this trade is always bound to happen. Because of this, bluffing someone in this spot doesn’t make any sense. Even if they believe you, which they probably will, they are forced to block.

If you’re trying to bluff your opponent, then you have to present them at least two paths so that they can choose the one you want. If they don’t have a choice at all, then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you shouldn’t try to bluff them.