Too many players take the power of a snowball for granted—when one player has a notable edge due to curve (land and creature drops), cards in hand (mulligans), or vastly different power levels between decks. Of course, when playing a game of Magic, each side is inherently uneven. There are a ton of factors, from the bare basics of selecting different cards in deck construction, to the randomization of decks before drawing an opening hand.
If a snowball effect is too powerful, it means that the first player to make any sort of significant error will lose. In the worst cases, the real victor is then decided and the rest of the game is essentially for show. Recently, this was often the complaint about decks like Mardu Vehicles and Aetherworks Marvel where you had a very small window of opportunity to make real plays depending on your deck and draws.
But there are ways to leverage your skill to exploit the phenomenon. When you have a clear advantage from the opener*, focus on how to maximize the gap in resources. This means that while there are typical opening plays for a given deck/hand, there are times where opening with a “standard” play is better or worse due to this type of disparity. Taking the time to analyze when this could be the case is a good step toward winning more games.
*A card disparity due to mulligans, someone missing a land drop in the first few turns, one side curves out, etc.
When you have a clear advantage then you should be keenly aware of what your opponent can do to get back into the game with their limited resources. A common example for the past year has been watching people jam alpha strikes into a turn-4 Settle the Wreckage to end the game faster under the assumption that the opponent is less likely to have it due to a mulligan. In games where you are more likely to win by pacing yourself, the average Magic player tends to see a free win and fall into a common trap.
Similarly, if you can realistically lose to a specific 3- or 4-mana threat, have an answer, and are confident you won’t lose to other on-board threats, then you should consider saving it. Buying tempo or trading up doesn’t matter if you end up spending it and the advantage you gained is quickly squandered. This routinely happens in matches for all formats, my favorite example always being the single piece of removal vs. Goblin Rabblemaster.
For Standard, if you’re playing a slower red deck and you have the choice between casting your only Lava Coil on a 2-drop or saving it for Rekindling Phoenix, then it’s worth taking the time to stop and think. Is Rekindling Phoenix a significant threat to your hand? If they don’t cast it on turn 4 are you still going to hold it? What if the opponent mulliganed and you’re significantly up in cards—are you more willing to spend the removal to conserve your life total, with the strategy being to simply run them out of resources?
Another example in the opposite direction is having a single Drake in hand and jamming it on turn 3/4 to present a threat even if the rest of the cards in your hand are removal or support cards. There’s no need to rush in a given game under those constraints and unless you realize early on that your only way to win is to shove a turn-3 Drake and have it live (racing an opponent with no removal), there’s often no reason to force the Drake.
As a general rule you shouldn’t read too heavily into plays the fewer cards your opponent is holding. This is especially true with mulligans, as a keep on five can be anything remotely passable as many players have very high bars for a mulligan or refuse to go to four altogether. These are the types of games where you should take a minute to consider if playing more cautiously is actually a relevant concern.
In red aggro mirrors, when mulligans are involved, often there’s one player with an opener where the only way for them to win is to deploy a board presence as quickly as possible. Their hand makes it impossible to play a slower strategy. Yet you’ll watch many players play back at this same tempo instead of taking marginal trades or spending removal on early drops.
Being aware of what threats and answers your opponent might have in any given match, as well as your own capabilities, can give you wins against under prepared opponents. It allows you to judge each hand in the context of what the opponent could or could not stop you with. Gavin Verhey once wrote, “If you could resolve any one card in a control mirror match, then let your opponent have free reign next turn, what would it be? “ And that to me has always struck me as a good way to judge the value of your haymaker cards in a control mirror.
In Standard the perfect example of this is Niv-Mizzet, Parun. It allows one player to effectively run away with the game if it isn’t dealt with. Your options are either to include narrower answers to destroy, or to steal it before it gains a million resources. Niv-Mizzet in particular means that playing a longer game against a resource strapped opponent is a potentially dangerous decision. Even if you have an answer, the Niv player can potentially gain enough resources to swing it back to an even state. And if you don’t have an answer? Well, you may have just lost to a player who did nothing except play lands and resolve a 6-drop.
In another part of the metagame, Golgari Midrange is the best example of a deck that can snowball early, but is perfectly content to play a longer game and grind. That’s the power of playing a bunch of explore creatures and the versatility of cards like Find // Finality. Meanwhile you have mono-red, which only cares about snowballing as hard as possible in the early game and trying to eke out wins if the opponent can stop it.
In Golgari Midrange mirrors a common mistake is to misevaluate in-hand resources vs. board presence. The more board presence available, the more it impacts how relevant hand resources are to begin with. Assuming a neutral board state for both players, then having higher amounts is great. But many players incorrectly value these great late game cards over board presence. You don’t want to side out a significant number of creatures and end up trading down with Assassin’s Trophy or Vraska’s Contempt to try and make up for this imbalance.
Planeswalkers were often thought to be the best cards in the mirror and having board control allows you to deal with them while saving the catch-all removal. It also works in reverse: a superior board can protect your own and force a risky response from the opponent. It also allows you to better leverage cards like Find // Finality and Midnight Reaper. Now we’re starting to see far more of these recursion cards become the key elements as the matchup has evolved over time, from original cards like Izoni to quad Find // Finality, and more Viviens and Vraskas.
For more experienced Magic players, this should be almost second nature, but I see too many new players stick to the script even when the scene has changed. My main takeaway for you would be this: You will gain percentage points if you realize you have an advantage, take a breath, and then focus entirely on maximizing it and minimizing the fail points. If nothing else, you’ll gain a better understanding of why people drop games that look impossible to lose.