Owen’s a Win – Is It Free?

This week I’m going to write about a thing I like to call “free attacks.” I regret to say that this took me a very long time to fully understand and use to my benefit, but since then I have noticed a great improvement in my game. When I refer to something as a free attack, I mean that when you have the option to attack and there is no reasonable or conceivable downside, swing away! I even believe this is one of the main factors that separates good players from great players.

Free Attacks

Step one to learning what the free attack is and how to use it is understanding exactly when attacks are free, or knowing when it’s close enough where it probably doesn’t matter. Let’s say we’re playing a Theros draft and I cast a turn two [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd] on the draw, while my opponent spent their third turn casting an [ccProd]Opaline Unicorn[/ccProd]. On my third turn, before I play any spell, you’d had better believe I’ll be attacking with that [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd] as long as I have a combination of lands that can represent any trick.

Controlling Island and Swamp can mean [ccProd]Viper’s Kiss[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Boon of Erebos[/ccProd].
Controlling a Mountain can mean [ccProd]Titan’s Strength[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Coordinated Assault[/ccProd].
Controlling a Forest can mean [ccProd]Savage Surge[/ccProd] or the total blowout that is [ccProd]Feral Invocation[/ccProd].
Controlling a Plains can mean [ccProd]Battlewise Valor[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Dauntless Onslaught[/ccProd].

The point here is that when someone puts [ccProd]Opaline Unicorn[/ccProd] in their deck, they use it to make mana and they won’t be making any mana if they lose it in combat to an [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd]. Honestly, if I controlled two Islands, as long as I had a followup creature I would attack with the [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd] anyway, because with a creature I know I will be fine in the absolute worst case scenario, where he chooses to block and wants to attack me back for 1—and, there’s always a chance that he will take the 1 fearing something I’ve forgotten.

You have to remember that even though you think he will block, it’s impossible to predict what the opponent will do in a game of Magic and if he chooses not to block even 1% of the time, then you’re getting a free point of damage every 100 games for no cost whatsoever.

Now I admit I started off with a bit of a softball here, most of you are doing your due diligence attacking your [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd]s into [ccProd]Opaline Unicorn[/ccProd]s, because often it can be too risky for the opponent to lose that particular creature in combat. Let’s look at a more simple example.

My board is Swamp, Swamp, Swamp, and [ccProd]Fellhide Minotaur[/ccProd]. My hand is 4 Swamps and a [ccProd]Fellhide Minotaur[/ccProd].

My opponent controls 3 tapped Swamps and a [ccProd]Fellhide Minotaur[/ccProd].

I attack. I always attack. I would never for even one minute consider not attacking. You will be shocked to learn how often my opponent chooses to take 2 damage here and I’ve increased my chances of winning the game (even slightly) with a bad draw. In this instance he has to consider [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] as well, which would otherwise do nothing. Plus, the cost of taking 2 damage is low, and the upside of being able to untap with all this new information is high.

If you take one thing away from this article it’s that people don’t block as often as you think they do and that the single most likely outcome is that the opponent thinks he has discovered a card you might have and plays around it. They get to feel smart that they didn’t let you use your combat trick, meanwhile you have a hand of all lands. Sometimes they block, but in the described scenarios it doesn’t cost you anything and you showed them that you’re here to play.

Recently, at the last Standard tournament I played, I noticed a person sitting next to me playing Mono-Black Devotion against RG Monsters, and the player to my left had a [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] on turn two against a [ccProd]Sylvan Caryatid[/ccProd]. He kind of laughed and shrugged and said “attack?” the player with the Caryatid blocked and they both chuckled and moved on with life. This player was doing something right by attacking, it’s certainly a better play than not attacking—but to expose all that information is a bit silly to me. In fact, I had this exact situation come up later.

I controlled a Swamp, a [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd], and a [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd].

My opponent had just cast a [ccProd]Sylvan Caryatid[/ccProd] off a [ccProd]Temple of Abandon[/ccProd] and a Forest.

I was going to miss my third land drop and my best play was a second [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd], but this didn’t matter since I thought for a brief moment and attacked.

I said nothing and waited. My opponent took 1.

My opponent made a mistake here, since there is no conceivable card I could have to make his block a bad idea, but he err’ed on the side of caution and didn’t want to lose his creature. I will admit that it can be a correct play to be conservative if you think your opponent may have a trick you’ve forgotten about. At the end of the day the player I watched with the [ccProd]Pack Rat[/ccProd] dealt 0 damage, and I dealt 1.

Not Free

Step two is learning when attacks are not free. When you have a free attack, by all means take it, but be aware of what could happen if things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes by being cute and attacking, you could allow your opponent to use his trick, which otherwise would do nothing or that he was too afraid to cast into open mana. I have seen people get punished before by trying to get too cute, let’s say I attack with a [ccProd]Fellhide Minotaur[/ccProd] and you block with your [ccProd]Fellhide Minotaur[/ccProd], I finish up my turn with an [ccProd]Ill-Tempered Cyclops[/ccProd] which dies to an end of turn [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd]. You attack me with your [ccProd]Fellhide Minotaur[/ccProd] and cast your own [ccProd]Ill-Tempered Cyclops[/ccProd]. Now I admit this situation isn’t going well for me anyway, but it appears that I just attacked for no reason, tapping my blocker, allowing my opponent to attack me for 2. I shouldn’t have attacked. There are many other good examples of this and I could write a whole article about them.

I attack with [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd], you block with [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd]. You attack me with [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd], I take 4 damage. Ouch, that seems like it could have been prevented.

Free Blocks

There is also such a thing as a free block. They are slightly less common, but they exist, and I also don’t see people take them as often as they should. For instance, look at the card [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd]. It’s an interesting card because it is good despite its drawback, and people play with it very often both in decks that do and do not have black mana. So if my opponent casts [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd] on turn two and I cast [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd] on my turn two, I will block. The thing to understand here is that the [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd] is forced to attack, so now you know that 100% of the time he attacks with [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd] and he does not have a profitable combat trick 100% of the time. This means that some unknown % of the time he just takes his creature and puts it directly into the graveyard.

Now there are situations in which I would not block. Let’s say the opponent casts the Raider off a Mountain and a Plains. This means that he deliberately put the Raider in his deck knowing that at some point he would need to save it in combat with a trick or lose it to a bigger creature. I would still block here most of the time, but there are situations in which I would not. Let’s say I cast the [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd] off one Swamp and one Island and my hand contains a second Island and [ccProd]Dissolve[/ccProd]. Simply by waiting one turn I get to profitably block his creature and have Dissolve up to ensure that nothing back can happen to my 3/3. I risk 2 damage, but I will ultimately be able to guarantee a 2-for-1 next turn. I would make a similar play if I had no good 3-drop in my hand but I did have [ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd], which works nearly as well at stopping a combat trick.

In all honesty I block there 90%+ of the time.

One thing to consider is whether our opponent chose to cast the [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd] into my already existing 3/3? If I was playing against a good player and I cast turn two [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd] on the play and my opponent spent his second turn casting [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd], serious warning bells would go off. This block became much less free, and depending on my hand and my opponents lands, I would need to think hard about the correct play. This is a situation in which blocking is much less obvious. I think if my opponent was a black/red deck I would block way more often than if he was any other color combination. Simply because he may have cast the Raider there hoping that I wouldn’t block and if I did he could just regenerate.

There are many reasons why waiting can be good, if I need the extra devotion for either [ccProd]Disciple of Phenax[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd], or if I just want to wait until I have five lands in play to respond to a trick with [ccProd]Lash of the Whip[/ccProd]. One thing that’s nice about a situation like this is when you do actually wait to have a trick and you leave your mana open representing it, even if the opponent catches on he has no choice but to attack into it.

Lastly, I want to go over an aspect of this that is pretty rare but important to know. If you play against a player who attacks in a way that can’t really hurt him but could hurt you: pay attention to the outcome. Knowing the exact outcome is very easy once you block, you just look and see what they do, but often if you choose not to block it can be more difficult to play the game and pay attention to everything that matters and remember to look for what they had.

I have been in spots where I am attacked, choose not to block, then at the end of the game you see that the player had multiple tricks and it’s clear exactly what they were thinking the whole time. This can even happen where the trick gets cast next turn. Sometimes, though, you’re very surprised by exactly what they had, and learning how your opponent plays can help you play perfectly against them in games two and three. Lets say I have an [ccProd]Ill-Tempered Cyclops[/ccProd] and I get attacked by an [ccProd]Opaline Unicorn[/ccProd] and I choose to take it. Maybe I suspect a [ccProd]Boon of Erebos[/ccProd] or a [ccProd]Savage Surge[/ccProd]. At the end of the game I notice that on this particular turn my opponent missed a land drop and the only card he had in his hand that could have done anything that turn was a [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd]. This tells me that because my opponent makes a peculiar attack it doesn’t mean he always has the best possible trick and it always tells me that he places a high value on [ccProd]Ill-Tempered Cyclops[/ccProd].

Lastly, I have learned this through watching some pretty amazing players and one thing they all have in common is they are fearless and know when to take chances. When I watch Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, or William Jensen play a game of Magic, they know that when they are in a desperate situation they need to do everything they can to give themselves the best chance of winning. If they are at 8 and the opponent casts a [ccProd]Air Elemental[/ccProd] and they have a handful of lands, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I saw them attack with two [ccProd]Hill Giant[/ccProd]s. Plays like these scare the opponent and can also allow you to topdeck certain certain cards to win a race that would otherwise be useless. Sometimes your opponent will do things you could never anticipate, like just take all the damage or stop attacking you altogether. If they block? Oh well, it was highly likely you were going to lose that game anyway, so at least you gave yourself a solid chance to win. Great players are fearless and they do not experience shame when they make a bold play that doesn’t work out.

Owen Turtenwald
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OwenTweetenwald on twitter

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