Hello!

In my “What Makes a Great Player Great” article, many of the top players I talked to pointed out that having a plan was the one quality that set them apart from other players. Today I’m going to write about how to find your plan.

What Is a Plan?

In abstract terms, a plan is a direction: an idea of what you want to accomplish in a particular game, and then the construction of a scenario in which you can accomplish that. Once you have a plan, everything you do in the game will be trying to lead to that particular scenario—it’s a guideline for all your other actions in the game.

In a Mono-Red versus Rally match, the plan can be to simply overrun the board early on and attack with Atarka’s Command, or it can be to buy time to draw Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense. In a Twin mirror match, the plan can be to never tap out and play undercosted threats, while not exposing yourself to the combo. In a Tron versus Scapeshift match, the plan can be to Karn away their lands before they get to 7. In a Jund versus Infect match, the plan can be to kill all opposing creatures or to kill the opponent before they can draw more pump spells. In an Affinity versus Twin match, the plan can be just hoping they don’t draw Twin. All of those are scenarios we imagine that lead us to winning the game.

Why Do I Need a Plan?

A plan does not necessarily tell you exactly which path to take, but it will narrow the universe of possible paths. When you’re in doubt as to which play to make, you can choose the one that takes you closer to your established goal. If your goal is to survive, make the most defensive play—if your goal is to not die to a specific spell, save a counterspell and don’t tap out, and so on.

In the Mono-Red versus Rally matchup, knowing how you’re going to win the game (going wide with Atarka’s Command or combo’ing with TBR/Become Immense) dictates a lot of what you should be doing with your creatures. If you’re going with the first plan, then that incentivizes you to not trade creatures because you need them alive for when you play Command. The second plan would lead to more trading, because you want to buy time to draw the two cards and you want to fill your graveyard. Whether you are capable of winning with plan A or B should give you the general directions for how to behave in the matchup, and for whether you block their Catacomb Sifter with Abbot plus Swiftspear, or whether you just take 2 damage. Even if you don’t have any of the cards in hand, you have to try to figure out what you could topdeck that can win you the game —if Command does it, try to play for it, but if it does not do it, then your plan is just topdecking TBR and Become Immense, so you play for that.

It’s possible to make sequences of individually good plays even if you don’t have a plan, but that is normally not enough to win the game at a high level —your plays must make sense in the context of your plan. If you ask me “should I trade my 3/2 for their 2/2?” I’m going to say no—that is not an individually good play. But it might be necessary for your plan, in which case you should do it. A plan provides context, in a game where decisions must be made in context. If you do not have context, then you’re making random decisions and hoping that they’re correct.

Let me give you a real life example: let’s say you have $50. I offer you to flip for it —if I win, you give me your $50, and if I lose I give you another $50. Should you accept that?

In a vacuum, it doesn’t make much difference—your EV is neutral and you’re as likely to end up with $50 more or $50 less. Now let’s say you need to buy medicine that costs $50 right now, without which you will die. In this spot, it’s crazy to flip for it, since the upside (another $50) is not worth nearly as much as the downside (you dying). Even if I gave you 10:1 odds, you still wouldn’t do it.

Now imagine you have to buy the same medicine instead, but it costs $100. In this case, you’re clearly flipping, because the upside (you living) is much higher than the downside (ending up with $0, when you’re dead anyway).

What’s the difference between those two examples? Context. The decision is the same: you’re flipping for $50—but the only way to know how much that $50 is actually worth it is to be informed of the context in which you’re making a decision, to know what you’re trying to accomplish. In this case the plan can be to buy medicine that costs $50, or to buy medicine that costs $100, and if you don’t know what the plan is, you can’t properly evaluate how much the money is worth to you—in one spot, $50 is worth everything, in the other spot the same $50 is worth nothing.

It’s the same in Magic, except that instead of $50 dollar bills we have 2/2s. Should I trade my creature for yours? Should I trade 2 damage? In a vacuum it’s all the same, but situations almost never happen in a vacuum. You look at that 2/2 and you see a 2/2, just like some might look at $50 and only see $50. Instead you should see that 2/2 for what it really is: a way to put your opponent at a low enough life total so that you can burn them out, a creature to double-block their 4/4 with next turn, a creature to protect your Ojutai from Foul-Tongue Invocation, a card in your graveyard for delve, a way to threaten their planeswalker in 2 turns to make sure they have to use the plus ability instead of minusing. Only when you know everything that a 2/2 represents, for you and for your opponent, can you make an informed decision on which one is worth more. The way to know everything is to realize what you want to accomplish in that particular game.

How Do I Know What My Plan Should Be?

A plan is based on many things—which type of deck you’re playing, which type of deck they’re playing, what’s in your opening hand, what’s in your deck, how the game has progressed so far, and how they play their cards. The best way to figure out what your plan is going to be is to imagine what has to happen in the game for you to win. Once you have that picture in your head, then you think about what you can do to make this scenario come true. If it sounds viable, you do it. This is one of the questions I ask people the most when I watch them play—they make a play I don’t understand and I ask “If you do this, how do you win the game? What has to happen for you to win?” and they’ll stare at me blankly as if they hadn’t really thought of that until that point. How to win the game should be on your mind at all times, it should be the driving force behind all your decisions.

Sometimes your plan is based entirely on the matchup. With Amulet versus Infect, for example, the only way you win is by being faster than the opponent—there can be no other plan, because your deck is not capable of anything else that beats their deck—you can’t kill all their creatures, you can’t discard their pump spells, and you can’t heal poison. If a hand does not look like it’d be able to execute this plan, then the hand should be mulliganed.

In other spots, your plan changes depending on what resources you have access to. Let’s take, for example, an Esper versus Eldrazi Standard matchup. As the Eldrazi player, you only really have one plan that works: you’re going to ramp and cast several big spells and hope they win you the game. If I ask you to imagine what a winning game looks like, it’ll have Ulamog destroying their lands or Dragons and eventually killing them. As the Esper player, however, you have two possible plans that win you the game: you either stall their development (hitting the ramp) and try to kill them before they can recover and get to 10 mana (this is the better plan), or you try to deal with all their threats. In this matchup, your ability to cast a quick Dragonlord Ojutai is the defining factor for what your plan should be.

Knowing which of those plans you’re following will help answer the hardest question in this matchup: which is whether you go for the ramp or for the threats. If plan #1 is feasible, fight the ramp. If play #1 is not feasible, then you have to go for plan #2, and for that plan you need all your counterspells for the threats, so you can’t counter the ramp (nor would it be that useful since you’re giving them more time to play lands).

Imagine that your hand is Dragonlord Ojutai, Silumgar’s Scorn and 3 lands. You have 4 lands in play. Your opponent plays their fifth land (one is a Shrine of the Forsaken Gods) and casts Map the Wastes with 3 cards in hand. Do you counter it?

In this spot, you have to think about how you’re going to win the game. What’s your plan? Your best plan seems to be just cast Ojutai and kill them with it. For that plan to work, you have to stop them from casting Ugin immediately after you cast Ojutai, and then you have to hope to draw or Ojutai into another counterspell, a Duress, or something that can get you one of those (say, a Dig). If you don’t counter the Map the Wastes, they can play Ugin next turn and you can’t win anymore.

Now, imagine that your hand is Scatter the Winds, Dig Through Time, and lands instead. In this spot, the plan of “kill them with Ojutai before they can recover” doesn’t work, because you don’t have Ojutai. So, what’s your plan here? How do you win? You win by nullifying all their threats, because that’s the only way you can win. If you counter the Map the Wastes, your next turn is just going to be “go,” and they’re just going to play another land or another ramp spell. For you to win this game, you can’t counter the acceleration, you have to counter the Ugin or even the Ulamog. You’re not going to tempo them out—you’re going to “card quality” them out, and you do not do that by trading one of your best cards for one of their lands.

This type of scenario also happens in Limited, when you often have the choice between killing a mana creature or letting it live, or when you play a card like Wrecking Ball. To know if you should try to stifle their mana development, you have to ask yourself how you’re winning the game. If the scenario that pops into your head is the opponent not being able to cast any spells, then by all means kill his mana guy or his land. If it’s not, however, then don’t do it.

Imagine you’re playing a 5-color control deck in Modern Masters, and your hand is Wrecking Ball, Arrest, Burst Lightning, Artisan of Kozilek, and lands. Your opponent passes turn 3 without a play and then on turn 4 she misses her fourth land drop and passes the turn again. In this spot, you know if you Wrecking Ball her land, you’re going to buy a lot of time—she’s going to brick for at least another turn for sure, potentially many more, but is that how you win this game? Eventually she’s just going to draw more lands, you’re not applying any pressure, and you’ll miss the powerful resource that is an unconditional removal spell in what is almost guaranteed to be an attrition game. When you look at this hand and you think on how you win, it’s not by your opponent having mana problems. If you’re playing a BR bloodthirst deck, however, then destroying that land sounds a lot more appealing, because you can conceivably win the game before she recovers.

Here’s an example that I’ve used before but that I think illustrates this concept quite well, so I’m going to use it again. It’s a game being played by Tomoharo Saito in which Saito is being very aggressive, and his opponent suddenly attacks with a small guy into a bigger guy. Saito has untapped mana and a removal spell in his hand. Almost everyone would have blocked in that spot, because you have removal that’s going to prevent a blowout —if they have a pump spell, then you can 2-for-1 them and be ahead. Saito took the damage. When asked about it, he said he was being the aggressor, and using a removal defensively, even on a 2-for-1, wasn’t in line with his plans for that game. He would much rather use that removal to stop a blocker, which would allow him to keep getting through, as the damage to himself wasn’t that relevant. 2-for-1s are good, but that was not what that game was about, and getting rid of his opponent’s small creature plus pump spell wasn’t necessary for how he envisioned the game to play out.

A Plan That Is Unlikely to Work Is Still Better than No Plan

When you only have one possible plan, you have to follow it even if it’s unlikely to work, and not recognizing that it has to be your plan can be disastrous. I was watching the World Magic Cup finals, Red versus Temur—the Red player had a good start, but eventually hit a clump of lands and the Temur player started recovering. At some point the Red player attacked and cast Titan’s Strength to deal an extra 3 damage and to scry, looking for business. This is a common play with the Red deck, since you want to keep applying pressure, but the moment he cast that card he lost the game on the spot, because his new plan had to be to draw Temur Battle Rage. It was clear that the game had progressed to a spot where “business” wouldn’t do it—even if he scryed a creature on top, or a good spell, that wouldn’t have been enough. What he needed was to draw Battle Rage, and then to have a pump spell to go with it to try to push through lethal damage. That had to be his plan, it was his only plan, the only scenario in which he would win. And then he cast the pump spell, and suddenly he couldn’t win anymore. In this spot, the player just didn’t stop and think to himself “if I cast this, how can I win?” otherwise they would have realized they couldn’t.

Another example of that can be found in the famous Craig Jones versus Oliver Ruel match at PT Honolulu 2006, Olivier attacked with a bunch of creatures and one commentator suggested that Craig should cast Char on an attacker to save some life. Craig, however, didn’t see how that would win him the game—while normally not a bad play, it couldn’t create a scenario in which he won. So, instead, he cast Char on his opponent, bringing him to 3 life. Then, on his turn, he topdecked Lightning Helix and won the game. He could only do this because he came up with the plan of burning his opponent out, and, compared to controlling the board it seemed possible (though unlikely). Craig asked himself the question “If I kill his guy, how do I win?” and found the answer to be “I don’t.” Then he asked himself the question “If I target him, how do I win?” and came up with “I topdeck Lightning Helix.” That’s better than “I don’t,” so he went with that.

Switching Plans

The only thing worse than having no plan at all is having the wrong plan. To avoid this, you must understand what caused you to make that plan to begin with, and then you have to adapt when that factor changes (or when a better plan has presented itself). If your plan was to kill all their creatures but you’ve already Thoughtseized them and seen 3 more creatures, then clearly that can’t be your plan and perhaps you should try racing them instead. If your plan was to Karn their lands so they wouldn’t Scapeshift but they already have 8 lands in play, then perhaps a better plan is to try to ultimate Karn. If your plan was to kill them with Tarmogoyf but they gained infinite life, then your plan has to change to decking. Your plan is based largely on what cards you and your opponent have access to, and as those change during the game, so must your plan.

Imagine you’re playing Twin in pre-ban Modern against a random opponent with a weird deck. They have a 4/3 in play, and you’re at 15 life. You have a Lightning Bolt. Normally, your plan is to just Twin them out of the game, because that’s what your deck does, so you Bolt the 4/3, because it makes you live longer and you can more easily assemble your combo.

Now, imagine a spot in which your opponent has taken so much damage from his lands that they are at 5 life. In this scenario, it makes more sense to hold the Bolt, because any more damage that you draw or that they deal themselves can win you the game. You had a plan when you came to the matchup, but there’s now a better plan, so you follow that one and you don’t Bolt the 4/3.

Then, the following turn, your opponent plays and uses Elixir of Immortality, going back to 10 life. Now the plan of burning them out of the game seems much worse—you need to draw at least 2 more Lightning Bolts or Snapcasters and you’re still short one. You must revert back to the Twin plan, and it’s now better to kill the 4/3 to buy more time to draw your combo.

Sometimes your plan can change because your opponents play in a certain way. I remember an Extended tournament, years ago, in which we had agreed to side out Jace, the Mind Sculptor against Zoo (and I’ve also used this example before, so apologies if you’ve seen it, it’s one of my favorites). The reason we did that was because it often just died too quickly, and you couldn’t afford to pay 4 mana for a Brainstorm. Then Gabe Walls played against a Zoo opponent who refused to attack his Jace in game 1, and Gabe used it to great effect. When it came time to sideboard, Gabe actually added more Jaces to his deck instead of siding them out, because the factor that made them bad—too easily attacked—no longer applied, since his opponent wasn’t attacking it. So, instead of following the established plan of removing Jaces, he actually made Jaces his plan, just because of the way his opponent played game 1.

TL;DR

  • A plan is a direction that guides all your decisions in a match.
  • A plan depends mostly on the matchup and what resources each player has access to in a particular game.
  • To find a plan, think of what the game looks like when you win it, and then try to get to that scenario.
  • If the only way to win is by following a plan that is unlikely to work, then you should do that.
  • A plan is based on factors that will change during the game, so make sure you adapt your plan as well.

I hope this was useful, and see you next week!