Aggro players often run into the question of whether or not they should play around a Wrath-of-God-style effect. On the one hand, you want to win the game as quickly as possible so as to not give your opponent a chance to exploit their powerful late-game cards or assemble their combos. On the other hand, you don’t want to risk everything to a sweeper.

An Example Game

Let’s start with an example from a high-profile match that I saw recently. Below, you can watch game 2 of the World Magic Cup quarterfinals between Greece’s Bill Chronopoulos (Dredge) and Ukraine’s Sergiy Sushalskyy (TitanBreach).

In this game, Chronopoulos was on the draw and had an amazing start with 2 Narcomoeba and 2 Bloodghast on turn 2. He then faced an interesting decision on turn 3: He had the option to return Narcomoeba and 2 complementary Prized Amalgam from his graveyard, or he could leave them there to play around Anger of the Gods.

The optional triggers of the Dredge deck may obfuscate things a little bit here, but the key decision was a familiar one: Do we commit an extra creature to the board, or do we hold back to play around a sweeper? In this article, I’ll describe a rule of thumb that has helped me navigate these kinds of decisions in the past.

The rule: If the “hold” versus “commit” difference is larger in a sweeper situation than in a no-sweeper situation, then hold back.

This gobbledygook doesn’t really mean anything yet without proper definitions and delineations, so let’s do that. First and foremost, this rule specifically pertains to a decision early in the game (turn 3-4) where you can choose to either add an extra creature to the battlefield or to hold it back, and where your opponent has 4 copies of a sweeper in their 60-card deck.

Under these assumptions, my approach is to estimate and compare two differences. I find it convenient and illuminating to think about them in terms of differences in win percentage, but ultimately the exact numbers don’t really matter—you can also simply go by a general feeling of whether one difference is larger than the other.

The first difference: For the situation where the opponent does have the sweeper, the additional win percentage gained by holding rather than playing the creature.

To estimate this number, imagine the opponent has an Anger of the Gods, Supreme Verdict, or other mass removal spell in hand. Next, visualize how much better the game would look if you had held the additional creature in hand compared to committing it to the battlefield. This difference, whether you mentally capture it as a difference in win percentage of just as a general feeling, is the first thing to estimate.

For the Dredge vs. TitanBreach example game, the presence of an Anger of the Gods would, in my view, yield a huge difference between committing and holding back. By keeping the Prized Amalgams in his graveyard, Chronopoulos could combine them with the rest of his graveyard (most notably Conflagrate, Bloodghast, and Scourge Devil) to still likely win on turn 5. He would be able to beat, say, a turn-4 Anger of the Gods, even if it was followed by Obstinate Baloth or Primeval Titan on turn 5.

If he had instead added his Prized Amalgams to the board, then Chronopoulos would have far less power remaining after an Anger of the Gods. A turn 5-6 kill would still be possible if Sushalskyy had nothing else, but Chronopoulos would have a lot of trouble beating any additional opposition or followup. All things considered, if Sushalskyy had Anger of the Gods, then you might be 70% to win by holding back and 20% to win by committing, for a difference (which is all that matters) of 50%.

The second difference: For the situation where the opponent does not have the sweeper, the additional win percentage gained by playing rather than holding the creature.

To estimate this number, imagine the opponent won’t play an Anger of the Gods, Supreme Verdict, or other mass removal spell. Then, like before, visualize how much better the game would look if you had committed the extra creature to the battlefield versus holding it in hand.

For the Dredge-TitanBreach example game, if Sushalskyy did not have Anger of the Gods, then in my estimation there wouldn’t be a huge difference between committing and holding back. If Chronopoulos kept the Prized Amalgams in his graveyard, then thanks to Scourge Devil he would threaten a turn-4 kill. If Sushalskyy had just lands, Through the Breach, and Primeval Titan in hand—which is not unlikely—then you beat him no matter whether you commit or hold.

Committing Prized Amalgams to the battlefield is only better if Sushalskyy had Obstinate Baloth on turn 4 followed by Through the Breach for Primeval Titan on turn 5. But that is a fairly specific hand. Against the whole range of no-Anger hands that Sushalskyy could have, I would estimate the difference in win percentage between holding and committing to be around 30%, which is less than 50%.

The comparison: If the first number is larger than the second, hold back. Otherwise, commit the additional creature to the board.

Given my estimations in the Dredge-TitanBreach example game, I would have held back there. This is what Chronopoulos did as well. It didn’t end well for him, as he lost to Obstinate Baloth, Through the Breach, and Primeval Titan, but if my estimations of the differences are accurate—I profess I’m not a Dredge expert—then he still made the right decision.

The Derivation

My rule of thumb is just that, but there is some math behind it. The most important thing is that the probability that your 60-card opponent has drawn a 4-of sweeper in their top 10 cards (i.e., by turn 3-4) is approximately 50%. To be more precise, it’s 52.7%, but for timely decision making in real games of Magic, 50% is close enough. This really helps simplify things.

If there were no time limit and Magic tournaments supplied everyone with calculators, then the proper way to decide whether to hold or to commit would be to estimate 5, not 2, numbers:

  • P(sweep): The probability that your opponent has at least one sweeper in hand.
  • W(commit, sweep): The probability that you still win the game if you commit an extra creature to the battlefield and your opponent does have the sweeper.
  • W(commit, no sweeper): The probability that you win the game if you commit an extra creature to the battlefield and your opponent does not have the sweeper.
  • W(hold, sweeper): The probability that you win the game if you hold the creature in hand and your opponent does have the sweeper.
  • W(hold, no sweeper): The probability that you still win the game if you hold the creature in hand and your opponent does not have the sweeper.

Given these 5 numbers, logic dictates that you should hold the creature in hand if the probability of winning the game when you hold back:

W(hold, sweep) * P(sweep) + W(hold, no sweeper) * [ 1 – P(sweep)]

—is larger than the probability of winning the game if you commit:

W(commit, sweep) * P(sweep) + W(commit, no sweeper) * [ 1 – P(sweep)]

By the approximation that both P(sweep) and 1 – P(sweep) are equal to 50% and after some rearranging, the above inequality comes down to saying that you should hold back if:

W(hold, sweep) – W(commit, sweep) > W(commit, no sweeper) – W(hold, no sweeper)

Which is exactly the rule that I presented.

You’re not always 50% to face a sweeper on turn 3-4.

A key assumption underlying my rule is that the probability of facing a sweeper is approximately 50%. If you forget everything else from this article, then just remember that the likelihood of facing a certain 4-of from your 60-card opponent in their 10 cards is approximately 50%. But this is just the a priori likelihood—sometimes you have more information, and you should update your beliefs accordingly.

An obvious example is when we saw our opponent’s hand with Duress, but for a less obvious example, let’s return to the Dredge-TitanBreach game. If Sushalskyy had kept a 7-card hand without Search for Tomorrow, Farseek, or Sakura-Tribe Elder, then I would estimate the likelihood of facing Anger of the Gods to be close to 100%. It seems extremely unlikely that Sushalskyy would keep a 7-card hand without a mana accelerant or Anger of the Gods in that matchup, so if I would have been in Chronopoulos’ seat in that situation, then I would have been extremely suspicious.

As it was, in the actual game Sushalskyy had taken a mulligan down to 6, and then you can’t give them too much credit for not having an early play. The bounds on what to keep simply go down considerably for 6-card hands. There might still have been a slightly elevated chance of facing Anger of the Gods, but that would just push you further toward holding back.

Hopefully, the approach outlined in this article can help you next time you play against a deck with sweepers. A lot of it is based on visualizing the game state several turns ahead assuming that something specific happens, which need not be easy, but it’s always a useful skill to cultivate.