Choices are a recurring theme in my articles, because some of the most unappreciated strategic components in Magic are rooted in them. Most of the time, I focus on maximizing your choices—knowing when you have a choice, making the most informed choice, and so on. Today, I’m going to focus on taking the choice away from your opponent, particularly at a high level of play.
A while ago, in the old Standard, I read a thread on Reddit that asked whether one should bluff in this spot:
The question was: Given no spells in hand, should P1 attack with Soul-Scar Mage to bluff 1 point of damage? Take a moment to think on your answer.
The answers in the thread were pretty split. Some people said you should attack, because there’s no way they’d expose their Relentless Dead like this. After all, if you have any spell, it dies. Some people said you should not attack, because the chance that they block is not worth the 1 damage you get when they don’t block. Some people said you needed more information to decide, like the contents of your hand.
Of all the answers, I don’t feel like any was correct. Sure, some people stumbled upon the correct play by accident, but no one elaborated correctly on why it should be made.
In this spot, you must not attack regardless of what is in your hand, because the block is forced. Your opponent has to block 100% of the time. Even if you have Shock, they must block. Given that they must block, you can’t attack.
And why is that they must block? That’s what we’re going to talk about in this article.
Without further ado, let me present you the rule I’ve creatively and humbly named “PV’s rule (#1)”:
PV’s Rule #1
“At a high level of play, it is better to force a poor outcome than to give your opponent a choice that includes that outcome.”
In practical terms, it means that if your opponent has the option to make a play, and you can either force them to make it or present a set of choices among which the option you can force is included, you should force it as to not give them the choice. This is not intuitive, and it often feels bad to make a play that you know is bad for you, but it’s what you should do anyway, because the alternative is worse.
Let’s go back to our bluff example. If you look at the spells that were played in the format, you see Shock and Abrade. If you block, your opponent can Shock you, which means you take 2 and Relentless Dead dies. This is an outcome that you don’t want, and one you should, in theory, try to prevent. The problem here is that you cannot possibly prevent it. If you don’t block, you either take 1, or your opponent just Shocks the Relentless Dead, and you take the same 2 damage. So, your decision tree is as follows:
a) Spend 1 red mana and a Shock. Your Relentless Dead dies and you take 2.
b) Spend no mana and you take 1.
While it’s true that you do not want to lose Relentless Dead, the only scenario in which this does not happen is when your opponent doesn’t want it to. If they have Shock, they can always cast it. But if you don’t block, then suddenly they don’t have to. They can, for example, play a Kari Zev if it’s more convenient for them. They might have so much burn in hand that they think that it’s better to ignore Relentless Dead and Shock you to deal 4. They will not deviate from the standard play of killing Relentless Dead and dealing 2 unless they see a benefit for themselves, which means you should not give them the chance to.
If we’re going to quantify things, it looks like this:
Option 1 forces an outcome whose value for your opponent is 7.
Option 2 gives your opponent the choice of:
- An outcome of which the value for them is 3.
- An outcome of which the value for them is 7.
- An outcome of which the value for them is 8.
In this case, you should just accept that they’re getting the 7, because you’re not going to do better than that. The only way your opponent declines to take the 7 is when they think they can get an 8 instead. If their choice is only between 7 and 3, then obviously they’re taking the 7 anyway. So the fact that the 3 is possible should not factor into your considerations, because in practice it will never happen.
Here are other common scenarios where this happens:
Imagine that you’re playing a control deck and your hand is Lightning Bolt and Counterspell, both of which are known to your opponent. Your opponent is at a healthy life total and has no board, so Lightning Bolt isn’t very useful. Your opponent taps 1 mana and plays Duress. Should you use Counterspell on it?
This is a spot in which your Counterspell is much more valuable than your Lightning Bolt. Therefore, you really don’t want to spend it. Casting the Counterspell effectively forces your opponent to take the Counterspell away, leaving you with the semi-useless Lightning Bolt, which is the worst-case scenario for you. Because of this, you should not cast the Counterspell. Right? Right?
This is another example of “your opponent is only going to make the ‘bad’ choice if it’s actually even better for them.” If you let Duress resolve, they’re going to take Counterspell away 99% of the cases, and then in the 1% of the time where they don’t, you’ll wish they had! They’re not going to randomly take Lightning Bolt here, unless it strongly benefits them to do so. They might, for example, take away Lightning Bolt and then play a Great Sable Stag, which you cannot counter. There is theoretically a scenario that’s better for you than Duress trading for Counterspell (that’s Duress trading for Lightning Bolt), but in practice it does not exist because if this scenario ever comes to pass, it’ll turn out to be even worse for you.
Yet another example is killing the Selfless Spirit, the Siren Stormtamer, or the Cursecatcher. As a general rule, you should always target those creatures, rather than giving your opponent the choice on which to save, even if the other creature is better.
Path 1: If you Doom Blade the Selfless Spirit, you kill the Selfless Spirit
Path 2: If you Doom Blade the 5/5, your opponent has the choice of:
a) Trading Doom Blade for Selfless Spirit.
b) Trading Doom Blade for the 5/5.
Since the scenario you can force is contained in the choices your opponent has, you should force it, even if it’s probably worse for you, because there’s a chance that based on information your opponent knows and you don’t, it’s even worse for you if the Selfless Spirit survives. Maybe the 5/5 is legendary, and they have other copies in hand, maybe they are going to play Wrath of God soon. Maybe they have another creature in hand that they want to protect more than they want to protect the 5/5. Maybe they have an Archangel Avacyn that they want to flip. Whatever it is, the only way that Selfless Spirit is not dying is if they don’t want it to, at which point you’d rather have killed it.
I also see this situation a lot with vigilance creatures. Imagine that your opponent has a 3/2 vigilance and you have a 3/3, and no combat tricks are going to be involved. They attack, and you don’t block. Then on your turn, you attack. Unless you have a great plan, this is a pretty bad play, because they can always trade if they want to. In this spot, you had the chance of forcing the trade, and you declined. Instead, your opponent has the choice of trading or not. You ended up leaving them the choice, and inside the choice is contained an outcome you could have forced. If you’re going to attack, then you must always block.
The Next Level
If I’m playing against a very good player and they give me a choice when they didn’t need to, I’m going to be wary of it. Imagine the following scenario:
This is the reverse of what we were talking about. Your opponent, who is good, could have forced a certain play. They could have guaranteed that Bolt is trading for Selfless Spirit. Instead, they gave you a choice. You can trade for either Thalia or Selfless Spirit. The only way they give you the choice here is if the alternative is even better for them, so you should not do it.
So, that brings us to:
PV’s Rule #2
“If your opponent could have forced a certain outcome and didn’t, that’s because this is not the best outcome for them. Therefore, if you have the option of selecting that outcome, you should.”
There are two exceptions.
The first exception is when you believe that, for whatever reason, they’re not going to make the right choice. Either they are inexperienced, or you have information that they don’t have that is crucial to the decision.
If I’m playing in a GP, a PT, or against an opponent I know is experienced, I’m always going to kill the Selfless Spirit. But if I’m at the prerelease, I might kill the 5/5, because there’s a realistic chance that my opponent will forget to use the Selfless Spirit, or won’t be able to properly evaluate when it is the more valuable creature. The more skilled your opponent is, the more PV’s rules apply.
Sometimes, you have information that your opponent doesn’t, which turns their “better play” into a bad play. Using the numbers analogy from before, if your opponent’s perceived 8 is actually a 6, then they might go for it and you’ll end up ahead.
Imagine that you have Selfless Spirit and Thalia, Heretic Cathar in play. Your opponent Bolts your Thalia. Your hand is two more copies of Thalia, Heretic Cathar that you were unable to cast because it’s legendary.
In this spot, you have to weigh the information and judge who you think knows more, and whose knowledge is more relevant to the situation. Your opponent could have Bolted the Selfless Spirit, and they didn’t. This means that they believe that killing Thalia is better for them. But they know that you’re only going to allow that if you think it’s better for you, so they must think they know even more than you do. Even factoring in the fact that you’ll only let it happen if you think it’s good for you, they’re still willing to give you the choice.
Looking at your hand, you would strongly prefer if they killed Thalia since you have two other copies in hand. But you also know that they must think killing Thalia is better by enough that, even if you actively want Thalia to be the target, they still want to kill it. One of you is wrong, but who? You have to figure out the potential outcomes.
Your opponent could, for example, play a land or a creature that must enter the battlefield untapped, at which point you might lose if you let Thalia die. Or their creature could perhaps not influence the game that much, and you win because you got to cast an extra Thalia. If you believe your information is more valuable, then let it die. If their information is more valuable, sacrifice the Selfless Spirit.
Keep in mind that only information that your opponent doesn’t know should be factored in here. If your opponent has knowledge of your two extra Thalias (say, via a previous discard spell), then you should sacrifice the Selfless Spirit 100% of the time.
The other exception is when there’s literally nothing that could happen to you that is worse than the choice you can force.
For example, imagine your opponent is attacking you with a 3/3 and a Selfless Spirit. You have a Lightning Bolt and you’re at 3. Here, the “correct” technical play is to Bolt the Selfless Spirit, as to not give your opponent the choice, but given that this ends up with you dead, it doesn’t really work. Here, you have to give the opponent the choice because it’s your only hope to win, and it makes no sense to force a play that kills you.
This is the gist of it. Basically, don’t give your opponent choices. If you can lock an outcome, do so, even if it’s not the best for you, unless it’s the absolute worst for you. It’s a bit counterintuitive sometimes, but it’s often correct.