Last week, I covered gathering information and making specific reads about what your opponent might have in their hand. More importantly, I discussed acting on those reads, and the way your level of certainty intersects with the in-game strategy of the situation.
It’s a fairly intuitive concept that when you’re losing, you may need to take some chances and make big plays in order to come back. Similarly, when you’re ahead, you have more flexibility to choose a safe line and make sure that nothing goes wrong. What’s most difficult is the middle ground, where the game is close (or even if you’re a little ahead) and you have access to a risky play where the outcome is uncertain.
Imagine that your opponent has a creature of moderate value, like a Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. If you have your way, your opponent won’t be untapping with that Siphoner. You can answer it directly with a Vraska’s Contempt, or you can try to kill it in a much more profitable way by casting a Glorybringer and exerting. The only catch is that your opponent has open mana and cards in hand, and therefore might be able to kill the Glorybringer, which would result in a major tempo setback. What should you do?
There’s a type of player who will always make the optimistic play of casting Glorybringer. This type of player tends to cast their spells in the obvious way, and loves that visceral feeling of making a blow-out play. There’s another type of player—even more common among strong tournament competitors—who will never risk the Glorybringer dying and always play it safe. Today, I’ll improve your game by teaching you how to have both play styles in your repertoire, and knowing when to choose between them based on the circumstances.
For many years, I was the second type of player. I lived by the mantra of “always plan for the worst.” I valued consistency and protecting myself from blowouts above everything else. I would always give my opponent credit for “having it,” and I would play around everything.
It wasn’t entirely coincidence that caused me to develop this play style. I played Magic for fifteen years before I ever qualified for the Pro Tour, and I was a somewhat dedicated PTQ and Magic Online grinder for at least four or five of those years.
What this means is that for most of my experience with Magic, I was noticeably more serious, more experienced, and better than my opponents. Under these circumstances, it’s natural to develop a very safe play style. When nothing went wrong, I would usually win. If I played a long, close game, I would make better plays in the long run and come out on top.
At long last, I got on the Pro Tour, and I was in for a rude awakening. For one thing, I bricked my first five PTs. For another, I recall that I went 1-11 in my first twelve Draft matches in the Pantheon house. What gives? I was outperforming many of my peers on the Grand Prix and MOCS circuits, but I couldn’t buy a win at the highest levels of competition.
The problem was, what had been an effective play style for a strong PTQ player was terrible for an average PT player. I was playing toward long, close games, but instead of usually winning them, I was usually losing them. I lacked the ability to score easy wins, and I wasn’t pressing advantages when I had them. I didn’t know how to smell blood.
Example: Search for Azcanta
Imagine that I’m playing a Standard control mirror against William Jensen, and that we have roughly equal skill in the matchup. (In my articles and in my wildest dreams are the only places where this is true.) I’m on the draw, and on turn 2 I find myself with a pretty strong hand. I have a good mix of lands and spells, I have a permission spell, and I have a Search for Azcanta.
Given my strong hand, I know that I can develop properly and estimate that I have a 55% chance to win if the game goes long. (Remember, it’s even chances on even footing, but there’s the possibility that he misses a land drop or otherwise has a poor hand.)
But if I stick an early Search for Azcanta, then my chances of winning go up quite a lot, to something like 75%.
William has 2 mana open, and I know that his deck has three Syncopates. If I cast the Search and he Syncopates, he gets a profitable exchange, and I lose the opportunity to find a safer spot to resolve Search later on. Now I’m back to 50/50.
According to my old playstyle of planning for the worst, I wouldn’t cast my Search for Azcanta—I would give my opponent credit for having the Syncopate. This play might make sense if you have a deck advantage, or if you’re a much stronger player, or for whatever reason feel very confident in your ability to win a long game.
But given an equal opponent and the numbers I’ve laid out, it’s clear that the best play is to cast Search for Azcanta. Sure, under the bad-case scenario, you get an unfavorable exchange and reduce your chances of winning. But you give yourself a chance of scoring an easy win, which is a precious way of breaking the 50/50 holding pattern of a close matchup against an equal opponent.
Now say that William and I play 1,000 games of this control mirror, and the baseline result should be that we each win 500 games. But imagine that every time I face this situation, I make the conservative play and pass my turn with mana open. Every time William faces this situation, he goes for it—sometimes I have Syncopate and sometimes I don’t.
So in a game where I have Search for Azcanta, we still play a long, close game where I win half the time, or very slightly more than half the time. In a game where William has Search for Azcanta, I either have the Syncopate and we play a long, close game, or I don’t have the Syncopate and he gives himself a great chance for an easy win. The end result is that he’s going to win more than his fair share of the games. We’ll split the ones that go long and are close, but he’ll get some freebies on top of that.
I started the example by proposing that William Jensen and myself were equally skilled in the matchup. We’re equally good at strategizing, knowing what’s important, and setting up late-game counter wars. But we’re not really equal, because I’m employing an inferior strategy, and I’m not capitalizing on the games where my deck delivers something special.
When I first got on the Pro Tour, I was employing exactly this type of inferior strategy, and I was losing more than half of my games against skilled opponents.
I went back to the drawing board, and I leveled up my game by learning how to smell blood. Smelling blood means pressing an advantage, and capitalize as much as possible on the situations where you’re ahead. Just as a wild animal might go after something that’s wounded or weakened, you want to recognize when your opponent doesn’t have what they need to defend themself.
To do it effectively, you should consider four questions.
First, what are the chances that my opponent has it? This is where the skill of thinking probabilistically comes in. What information do I have about my opponent’s hand? If they had the card they need, would they have used it already? If the card in question is a removal spell, and you’re ahead on the board, the chances often are that they don’t have it. If they did, they wouldn’t have let themselves fall behind. So either your opponent just drew it, or they’re being cagey, or you’ve misjudged the situation, or they don’t have it.
Remember, according to the strategy of thinking probabilistically, you’re never completely sure one way or another. But you factor in all of the information to make the best judgment you can.
Second, what happens if you take the risk and it works? Often, it means winning the game or gaining an advantage that spirals out of control. Your opponent might have Counterspell, but if you’re ahead on board and go for the Armageddon, then you’re going to win the games where it resolves.
Third, what happens if you take the risk and it doesn’t work? So your Armageddon gets Counterspelled. It’s annoying, and you let your opponent use their mana, but it’s still a 1-for-1 trade where you stay ahead on the board. But in other circumstances the costs might be higher, like if you go for a lethal attack and your opponent has Haze of Pollen, ready to kill you on the backswing. It’s all about risk and reward, and when you’re ahead in the game, the “risk” part should be your biggest concern.
Finally, what happens if you take the conservative play? You decide to wait on the Armageddon. That’s fine. Maybe you just win the game a little more slowly. But maybe your opponent topdecks Wrath of God and erases your board advantage. Now casting Armageddon might not even be profitable, and you have to go back to fighting a close, even game.
As I hinted at earlier, if you have a sizable skill or matchup advantage, then taking a conservative line will tend to look better. But as the level of competition increases, the more important it becomes to give yourself every chance to spike an advantage.
With that in mind, let’s return to my original example. Your opponent has Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and you’re choosing whether to kill it with Vraska’s Contempt, or whether to try for the much more profitable play of casting and attacking with Glorybringer.
First, how likely is it that the opponent has removal? Which removal spells can kill a Glorybringer at instant speed? For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that they’re playing mono-black and don’t have 4 mana, so you’re really only worried about Cast Down. Still, if you haven’t cast a creature all game, it could be likely that they’re holding it. But if you’ve had your own Glint-Sleeve Siphoner running roughshod all game, then it might stand to reason that they’re defenseless.
What’s the risk and reward? The reward seems pretty great, as you get to connect with a giant creature and kill the Siphoner effectively for free. They’ll still need to draw an answer for the Glorybringer, and you’ll be holding Contempt for their next threat. But the risk is also large, since failing to kill the Siphoner means giving the opponent an extra card, which could determine the outcome of a close game.
If you play it safe, how likely are you to win? Maybe you’re ahead on board, or maybe you have a matchup advantage against mono-black. But what makes me the most nervous is that the conservative line requires spending your Vraska’s Contempt, which could leave you vulnerable to something truly scary down the road.
So should you play Contempt or Glorybringer the next time you face the choice? I can’t really answer that question because it depends so much on the fine details of the situation. But if you take two things away from this article, the first should be the general thought process to use when facing decisions like this. The second should be the idea that you must be willing to make plays like the Glorybringer play.
You have to be willing to take risks in a game of Magic. And this is true not only when you’re behind and mounting a comeback, but also when the game is close, and sometimes when you’re ahead. You’ll win more in the long run when you’re keeping your eyes open for easy wins opportunities for advantage.