Sequencing is tough, and it’s the main indicator between different levels of skill. A bad player jams cards in the wrong order with shoddy reasoning, and doesn’t understand why he wins or loses.
A good player generally plays his turns correctly while gleaning information from his opponent’s sequencing. We do things for a reason, and it takes competence to infer why.
A great player has tight play, reads the game like a subtitled kung fu movie (because who reads books anymore), and feeds his opponent false information to alter his play in a meaningful way.
This article is a light foray into proper sequencing and inferred information, and it has something for each of the three levels.
Knowing vs. Mimicking
Whether you realize it or not, most inspiration is constructed from past knowledge. That’s why the phrase “is inspired from” is so popular. Painters spend years studying the masters, boat builders apprentice themselves, and tailors start by following the plans of others.
It makes sense that in order to make strong plays, you need to study the fundamentals. This could mean playing better players, watching high-level Magic, reading the right articles, or all of the above. If you’re looking for viewing material, I recommend Maher vs Davis 1999, Kenji vs Antoine 2005, and Watanabe vs Musial 2011, all of which I YouTubed up when writing this article (I love my job).
If we understand why the usual play is so usual, we’ll know when to deviate. Instead of parroting, we’ll be actively making decisions. Here are some examples of typical lines and reasons to stray from them.
The Upkeep Top
Sometimes it’s correct to keep one-landers. Maybe you mulliganed low, or perhaps you have a cantrip to help you hit more land drops. On the draw, a one-land Sensei’s Divining Top hand is usually fine.
With a one-land Top hand, the standard play is to spin on upkeep in order to hit land. Miracles needs to cast cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Entreat the Angels. Land drops matter. You don’t want to have to tap Top to hit your land drop, as that requires you to recast Top next turn and then you’re locked into a cycle of tapping it every turn. No, the upkeep spin is standard for a reason.
Consider the following hand against a Storm opponent:
This is a strong hand against Storm, but it can still lose, especially if you brick on that second land drop. However, I don’t recommend spinning on the upkeep.
The reason is that this hand doesn’t need a second land as much as it needs two mana for Counterbalance. By upkeep spinning, we’re down a mana and there’s no chance we’ll achieve the soft lock on turn two. If we draw naturally, we have a chance of ripping the land and basically winning on the spot. If we brick, we’re one card deeper toward finding a land. Not spinning is never worse, and it’s strictly better if the land is the first or fourth card down.
It seems simple, but I’ve seen countless players mess this up. If you plan ahead, you’ll know how to allot your resources. If you don’t, you’ll screw it up. It’s that simple.
Note that this exception is both hand and matchup dependant. If you replaced one of those blue cards with a one-mana interactive spell, say a Flusterstorm or Spell Pierce, hitting the land drop while passing the turn with one mana up becomes a whole lot more attractive.
In some matchups, Counterbalance isn’t nearly as important, and running out Jace sooner means the difference between winning and losing. In that case, spinning on upkeep has a much higher chance of hitting Jace on time.
Ponder into Fetch
You’re playing Reanimator against a Storm deck. On turn two, you haven’t played a land yet and your hand is:
Sitting at 20 life with an Underground Sea in play.
How do you sequence this turn? There are a lot of considerations, some relevant and some not. Let’s go over as many as we can and distill the important factors from the chatter.
For starters, there are many situations where it’s important to play your land before your spell, say if you were fearing a Daze. Of course, Storm doesn’t play Daze and even if they did you’d love to bait it with Ponder anyway.
As an aside, that’s an example of how sequencing can feed your opponent information. If you play a Ponder or Brainstorm before playing your land, it shows that you’re trying to find a land, you’re baiting a Daze, or you’re just playing sloppy. When you’re on the other side of the table holding the Daze, those are the considerations that should be going through your head. At that point, it’s a matter of figuring out which situation is more likely and the risk/reward for Dazing in each.
Getting back on topic, is it possible we Ponder into a better land drop? We could find a dual or a basic. The life point from Delta, combined with a Force of Will pitch, could reduce the storm count for a lethal Tendrils, but that’s unlikely.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the shuffle. The typical Ponder sequencing goes cast Ponder, draw the best of the three cards, and shuffle away the others with a fetch. The problem is, the standard line doesn’t take into account our hand, the matchup, and what we’re trying to do with this Ponder.
If you examine our hand, we already have a turn three fatty with Force of Will backup. Given the matchup, our best hit is more disruption, in our case a Daze or discard spell. If we hit Daze, the sequencing doesn’t really matter, as we can Entomb and then untap and Animate Dead whatever we tutored up. If we hit a discard spell, things get trickier. If we draw the discard spell and then shuffle with Polluted Delta to find a black source, we’ll have unknowns on the top of our deck, leaving us with no way of knowing if we’ll draw the third land to cast Entomb + Animate Dead on time. We’d have to decide between Duressing or Entombing.
If we fetch first, a Ponder that sees Duress + land lets us have our cake and eat it too. And what good is cake if we don’t get to eat it?
Brainstorm into Fetch
While I give a lot of different reasons for casting Brainstorm in various situations, using it before cracking a fetch to shuffle away the chaff is the industry standard for a reason. It brings Brainstorm further away from a normal cantrip and closer to an Ancestral Recall.
The problem is when, through overvaluing the shuffle or autopiloting, we end up playing for the fetch even when it isn’t correct. Consider the following situation which, confusingly enough, doesn’t involve Brainstorm at all.
You’re playing Esper Blade against RUG. It’s deep into game one, and you’ve been sculpting the game around resolving Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Your board state is two Islands, a Swamp, and a Plains. Your hand is a Jace and a Flooded Strand.
Your opponent has a Tropical Island, a Volcanic Island, a Misty Rainforest and a Wasteland in play with two cards in hand. Since he drew and passed the previous turn, we can guess his hand doesn’t have any cantrips or threats, and since he ran out a redundant fetch and Waste we can assume he’s holding at least one land for a potential Brainstorm.
Since we can drop Flooded Strand to pay for Daze, and Spell Pierce is probably worth risking, we can just run out Jace and start taking over the game. We can fateseal for the first activation, and then untap with a shuffle effect already in play.
This would be fine, except that we aren’t actually playing around Daze. If the opponent has it, they can Wasteland our Flooded Strand and then Daze us when we go to crack it. In order to play around Daze, we have to find the somewhat counterintuitive line of fetching out the fifth land before playing our card that benefits from shuffle effects.
All Magic players give away information. I don’t mean facial tells, though as a group we’re less aware of that sort of thing than poker players. I mean that the simple act of casting our spells gives stuff away. Since Magic is a game of pattern recognition, messing with the pattern can give false reads to the opponent, hiding your hand and possibly edging them into a misplay.
Most people do this at some level, like holding an extra land to represent a spell. However, since this line is so common, it has lost its meaning. Everyone knows that when the opponent is flooded, that last card in hand is probably another land. So I switch it up sometimes, playing out every land I draw in a long, flooded game one. Then, when I hold a land in game three the bluff has more credibility, especially when combined with a tasteful tank or a play that represents a specific spell. In a deck with split cards, that could be as direct as turning a land sideways to read it.
How long should I read this thing? How much text does Turn // Burn even have? Is he even paying attention?
As with most things in Magic, hiding information has different levels. Another action that’s pretty common is shuffling a freshly-drawn card into the hand to hide its position. If we play a card off the top, it tends to be in the mid- to late game where the information no longer matters. If we haven’t hit a land for several turns, it’s not like shuffling it around in our hand is going to mask the fact that we suddenly drew that mana source we needed.
The best way to hide your hand is to feed false information into the loop. If we play a land off the top of our deck, it’s like we’re saying “man I really needed this land,” especially if we cantrip into it. In some matchups this could induce a Wasteland, slowing the opponent’s development while giving us more draw steps.
As another example, say we untap on turn two with a hand of Ponder, Thoughtseize, and Underground Sea. Now, on this turn we’re definitely casting both Ponder and Thoughtseize and we’re running out the Sea because it’s the best land possible, no matter what the Ponder finds. That lets us play our land first and then Ponder. If we find another discard spell, we can play it off the top of the deck, hiding our hand. When the opponent is planning out his turn, that makes all the difference in the world. Ponder into a card off the top says, “oh man, glad I hit this much-needed spell.” Thoughtseizing and then cantripping says, “here’s this spell I had, and now this cantrip is probably finding me another good card. It could even be another Thoughtseize.”
It’s important not to get too cute. If it’s a matchup where we wouldn’t want a second Thoughtseize, this is a terrible play because we should’ve shuffled with Ponder.
Distraction should also factor into sequencing. Because of how human attention works, whatever you do at the end of your turn is more likely to be on your opponent’s mind when they take their own turn. Perhaps it’s because of how we plan things out. If you think in a linear way, it makes sense to play land when you need it. Since you don’t need to play an instant until your opponent’s turn, the land to cast it is a natural last play before passing.
If you play an untapped land and pass the turn, you’re representing a one-mana spell. If you happen to end the turn with an extra land up, either from opening the turn with a land or after not playing a land at all, it seems far more coincidental, and the opponent is less likely to play around cards like Spell Pierce.
The Hidden Shock
The story happened on Day Two of a Standard Grand Prix. Player A was down a game with Junk Reanimator against Player B with mono-red aggro. Player B had won game one off of the back of Pyreheart Wolf, and that knowledge weighed on Player A’s mind as he stared down at his hand.
To win the game, he needed to trade off a token from Selesnya Charm in case his opponent had Pyreheart Wolf to prevent future blocks. Unfortunately, his only lands were shocklands. If he just shocked himself and passed the turn, his opponent would have to respect the Selesnya Charm as the only possible holding and keep his guy back. If he had the Wolf, he could easily win from there.
Player A shocked himself, clearly confirmed the change in life totals, looked over the opponent’s board state, then tapped his two mana.
Only, he didn’t have a Farseek, and he untapped his lands and frowned. Finally, he spoke.
“Nevermind, I’m not shocking myself, I’m just going to pass the turn,” he said, tapping his shockland and moving back to his pen.
“Uh, no, it’s way too late. You already paid the life.”
“Really? It’s like that?”
“Yes, this isn’t FNM, we’re playing on Day Two of a Grand Prix.”
And so the land stayed untapped. On his own turn, Player B paused before attacking. He knew that two untapped mana, a green and a white, represented Selesnya Charm. He also knew bluffing was within his opponent’s range. Still, the argument had made Player A’s hand an unknown variable. Since any extra damage could mean the game, he eventually attacked, trading with a 2/2 Knight before playing Pyreheart Wolf on his second main.
Player A won that game at a very low life total.