As is often the case, I didn’t really have a clue what to write about. I thought about doing a prerelease report of sorts, but that didn’t look very interesting (one of my opponents was playing 60 cards; the other asked if he could mulligan to 7 since he had no lands; the other wanted to tap my guys in response to blocking and, when that failed, he wanted to tap my guys in response to me using activated abilities – etc. The fact that I had Skithiryx the Blight Dragon, Hoard-Smelter Dragon, and Kuldotha Phoenix probably helped, too). Besides, all my cards are in Portuguese, so it is probably not worth the trouble of me looking up the English names, which I haven‘t memorized yet. I also thought about writing on this set for Limited, but I didn’t think I had enough material for that just yet. So, I am left with another theory article, which are my favorite to write (and I think the most useful), but which are also, in my opinion, the most complicated ones (and the ones where you are most likely to just repeat yourself).
This is an article about nothing specific – it is basically things that I have thought to myself, general guidelines that I follow, and that I believe you should also. If you’ve followed my articles since I started writing, you can probably find mentions of most of those, but people keep messing them up, so I think it is useful to mention them again. At first they might seem completely unrelated, but that is because they, well, are.
Think in chunks, then act in chunks – do not alternate acting and thinking.
You should always think all you have to think, and then act accordingly to what you thought – you should NOT alternate between thinking and acting. This not only means you might lose your train of thought, but you also give them valuable information. Also, if you think and act and then think again and realize your previous thought was wrong, you cannot go back to it – you’ve already acted. For example:
When you or your opponent plays a card that requires you to choose multiple cards, choose all of them first, and then announce it to your opponent.
If they play Blightning, think of the two cards you are going to discard before you discard any card. Even if you already know what the first card is, do not discard it until you know what the second card is. The moment you to discard them, discard them together as a chunk. If your opponent has to look in your graveyard to see the first card you discarded, then you are doing it the optimal way. If you hastily discard one card, they will realize you don’t need it – it is an extra land, or a duplicate Legend, or a spare removal spell, etc. When you agonize over the second card, they will know it is important. Imagine that I play Blightning and you have four lands and four cards in hand. You immediately discard a land, and then, after some thought, discard another. At this point I know you very likely have a card that costs at least five in your hand.
If you play Brainstorm, think of the two cards you are putting back, and then the order, and then put both back. If you hastily put one back and then think on the other, he will know that you really don’t need one of the cards, but the other might be slightly important.
When you draw an opening hand, think about your first turn play as you are deciding to mulligan. This way, your opponent doesn’t know what you are thinking about, the mulligan or the play. You might also realize you don’t actually like your first sequence of plays, and then you can still mulligan the hand.
Say you are playing Doran in Extended, and you decide to keep your hand. Then you think for a while, play a sacland, sac it, search your deck, think for a while, and grab Murmuring Bosk. Then, you think for a while and play Treefolk Harbinger. Then you grab your deck, think for a while, and get a Doran, the Siege Tower. This shows your opponent that, for one, you have another land in your hand that is likely not the same one you just played (or you wouldn‘t have thought about it). Second, you likely have another turn one play. Third, getting the Doran is not obvious – you might have another Doran in your hand, or you might need a third land. The correct sequence is not to “think, keep, think, play land, think, play Harbinger, think, get Doran,” but “think, think, think, think, keep, play land, play Harbinger, get Doran.”
– Instants can be played in your opponent’s turn, but they don’t have to be. A lot of the time you should play instants on your turn, especially draw spells – I’ve seen many people pass with 7 lands and Jace’s Ingenuity only to draw a two-drop, or a land and a Cancel, and not be able to play it. You should also consider mainphasing instants when your opponent is tapped out and you think he might want to counter them – in a Mono-Red versus control match, for example, you should often just play your burn when you can sneak it, because they will be glad to trade their counterspells for some life in most situations. In the Faeries mirror it wasn’t uncommon for me to just mainphase Scion of Oona and even Mistbind Clique when they tapped out, for example.
It is also relevant to mainphase certain removal spells when you are playing against a limited deck that might have pump spells (green or white in general). If they play, say, a Juggernaut, you definitely want to Lightning Bolt it while they are tapped out so they don’t get to Giant Growth it in response to the Bolt. Even if they are not tapped out and you know you are Bolting the Juggernaut anyway, just do it on your turn – that way even if they Giant Growth it, it’s three less damage that you take because they had to play it on your turn.
– When in doubt, just play your lands, especially if you have card drawing in your deck. A lot of the time, people want to hold lands for bluffing purposes and then draw into draw spell plus a spell they can’t play, or something with an activated ability such as a shade or a Raging Ravine and then on the following turn a card that they can’t cast. I honestly think that it is more likely that you lose because you held a land than because you played one (though, of course, if you actually know there is nothing you can draw that will punish you for not playing a land, or if you think it is more important to protect something from Mind Rot, feel free to hold them).
– In Limited, only use removal when you absolutely have to. If you are in doubt, just don’t – many limited games are lost because scarce resources (in this case, removal) are not spent wisely. At the prerelease ,I watched a game in which one person had a Myr token, then played Arrest on his opponent’s Blackcleave Goblin so he could continue applying the beats. After attacking and putting his opponent to a dangerously low 15 life, his opponent untapped and played Geth, Lord of the Vault. Then he died. But at least he got his opponent to 15!
– Always give yourself the maximum amount of information before making a decision. I’ve written about this time and again, and I still see people doing it wrong in important tournaments. If you are going to play a Ponder, or use Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or draw a card in some way, do that before you make any other decisions for the turn, including playing a land – there is no reason not to and it is most of the time strictly better, since you might want to play another land instead (or not play a land at all).
Another relevant point is about fetching for something, either tutoring or just sacrificing a fetchland. Sometimes, when you are missing two cards, you should wait until you draw one, and then you can fetch the other. If you draw Vampiric Tutor and are missing both the Vampire Hexmage and the Dark Depths, then just wait to draw one, and then search for the other, so that you don’t risk drawing the one you already have. By the same token, if you lack both green and red mana, then you might not want to use your Terramorphic Expanse – if you do, you might fetch a Forest and then draw another. If you wait, you can see whether you are drawing a Forest or a Mountain, and then fetch the one you are missing, effectively doubling your odds of having both pieces at once.
At the same time, try to give your opponent the least amount of information you can. If you are going to do two things, and one of them gives your opponent a choice, make them choose first. For example, if you have Liliana’s Specter and Doom Blade in your hand, and you know you are going to play both, then play the Specter first – this way they have to discard without knowing you are going to kill their guys, and it might change the way they play. If they play a spell and you have a counter and a Fact or Fiction, play the Fact or Fiction first. They will split the cards differently if they don’t know you already have a Counterspell.
– Generally, in the early game before you attack, you want to play a land. This might seem like giving your opponent information (that card is not a spell in your hand), but most of the time it is not – when you have only two Forests and attack with Garruk’s Companion, you are giving your opponent the information that you are not going to play Diminish, Mighty Leap or Thunder Strike this turn. Basically, if you want them to block, you will want to attack without playing a land, so that they will only fear Giant Growth and will be more likely to block. If you don’t want them to block, you will want to play your Plains first – this way they will also worry about Safe Passage and Mighty Leap, and will be less likely to block.
– A lot of puzzles in Magic are more easily solvable if you put yourself in your opponent’s position and figure out what you would do if you were him, or what kind of card you would need to have (both in your deck and in your hand) to play in a certain way. For example:
You play a turn two creature – lets say a Runeclaw Bear that you fourth-picked over Mana Leak 😉 . Your opponent passes with UR up. You attack, and he plays Lightning Bolt before combat. Does he have a Mana Leak? Probably not. If you had a Mana Leak in hand, wouldn’t you wait to see if you want to counter your opponent’s three drop? I would – barring a very specific circumstances, the chance of countering a decent turn three play seems to be worth more than two damage to me (not to mention a better target for your Bolt showing up), and there is no reason to think it is not so for most opponents (incidentally, a scenario almost like this one happened in my second draft video).
In the same scenario from above, what else can we conclude from our opponent’s play, assuming he is a competent player? Put yourself on his shoes, and try to think about why you would kill the Runeclaw Bear. If you had a three drop that blocks him, would you? Definitely not, so your opponent very likely does not have a three drop that blocks Runeclaw Bear. Even if you had a four drop, you still likely wouldn’t kill it. If you were planning on racing your opponent, you would also probably leave the removal to kill a blocker or a more powerful attacker. So, when would you kill the Bear?
The answer is you would kill the Bear when your hand is either absurdly slow and his first play is going to be something like turn four Foresee or turn five Mind Control, or his hand is full of removal. In fact, if at any point your opponent Lightning Bolts your Bear, you can be reasonably sure he’s got more removal spells – he would definitely save his Bolt for a better target if that was the only one he had. So, by merely Bolting your Bear before combat, you can already put your opponent on a bunch of cards that he probably has, and a bunch of cards that he very likely doesn’t have, just by trying to figure out why you would have played that way if you were him (of course if your opponent is terrible, then this whole train of thought fails).
Also put yourself in your opponent’s position regarding the hands they kept. If they kept a hand that seems to be pretty terrible, then there is probably something to it, like a Day of Judgment or a bomb (again, assuming they are not awful themselves). In the Top 8 of GP Portland against Martin Juza, I kept a hand that was 5 land, Azure Drake and Mind Control. I drew lands for the first three turns, so my first play was the Drake. Then Martin played Conundrum Sphinx, and I stole it. After the match, he said he should have just held the Sphinx because he should have known that I had the Mind Control. His reasoning was (correctly) that I would not have kept such a slow and do-nothing hand unless it had a very powerful card, and a card that allows me to make up for the loss of tempo that I have by not playing anything early on. He knew that was true for me because he knew that is what he would think, and Mind Control was the card that would make him keep that hand and he knows we think very similarly regarding mulligans.
Blocks and no blocks can also tell you a lot about the contents of your opponent’s hand or deck. Does your opponent trade a lot? He probably has a powerful late game, like a bomb or a lot of card drawing. Does your opponent never trade? He probably has a way to get more value out of his creatures or something to tip the race in his favor, like [card]Sleep[/card], [card]Overwhelming Stampede[/card] or [card]Lava Axe[/card]. Is he blocking with his artifact creatures? He probably does not have a lot of metalcraft. Does he never block with his artifacts? They are probably very important to his strategy.
– Cards being better or worse is very relative. A lot of the time, a situation turns a bad card into something we have to deal with, and we might be reluctant to spend our better cards Sometimes we just have to [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] that Runeclaw Bear.
I remember watching a team draft match. one guy was playing UR super aggro, and the other was playing a white deck, also aggro. The UR deck had multiple Arc Runners and Lava Axes, and clearly just wanted to kill you as fast as possible. At some point the UR deck attacked with a bad creature – lets say a Goblin Piker – and the white player (who was on my team) refused to block with his Wild Griffin, because his guy was better. Then the UR deck played another bad guy. The white deck attacked and played Assault Griffin and again did not block, as I watched in dismay because of the “no interfere” rule that Americans seem to apply to their team drafts (which puzzles me, by the way, since it is team draft after all). Some turns later, the red guy played some tricks and burn spells and killed the white guy, as predicted. At the end of the game, the white guy still did not understand what he had done wrong, because, in his view, his guys were better and trading was unfavorable.
The main point is, trading was not unfavorable (or, even if it is, it is necessary anyway, as it is the lesser of two evils – when the other alternative is dying, ANYTHING else is the lesser evil). By blocking the Goblin Piker, you make every other card in their deck – especially Arc Runners and Lava Axes – a lot worse. If you are at five life, Lava Axe kills you. If you are at six, it doesn’t do anything. This is much worse! By trading with the early guys, you make sure many of his cards are no longer a threat to you, and he doesn’t have the opportunity to profitably use cards like Act of Treason and Unsummon, whereas if you just take the damage and try to race the deck that is clearly superior at that than yours, then those cards will become game-winners. In this match, it is not even relevant that the Griffins fly, since your opponent doesn’t want to block anyway, so they are actually not even that much “better.”
So, remember when I said those things were completely unrelated? Well, they are not thaaat unrelated. They are somewhat unrelated as strategy tips, but they all come down to two basic things – first, that Magic is a game of information, and everything you do sends information to your opponent, just like everything he does sends information to you. Second, that you always need reasons for playing the way you play – the worst thing you can do is “just play” the cards. Anyone can play the cards – you have to do better, you have to play the game, and for that you need to know the big picture behind all your moves.
Well, that’s pretty much what I’ve gotten for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and see you next week with another article and another draft video!