1800 or Bust!: Risk Assessment

What are acceptable gains and losses when trying to gain your goals… And how can you determine them?

Well another new set has hit the shelves and we have a whole month to try and work out what cards will effect the existing archetypes and which ones might spawn news ones. I haven’t had much of a look yet but it did seem that there were some real corkers from the cards I saw at the pre-release. One of the cards I really like the look of is Fleetfoot Panther. It fits nicely into the deck that my teammate Tarik won the Bath Invitational in December with. Here’s the new deck:

PhatBeats Green/White

Creatures (25):
4x Birds of Paradise
4x Blastoderm
4x Fleetfoot Panther
3x Vine Trellis
4x Chimeric Idol
3x Noble Panther
2x Thornscape Apprentice
1x Kavu Chameleon

Other Spells (12):
3x Armageddon
4x Parallax Wave
4x Wax/Wane
1x Wrath of God

Land (23):
4x Brushland
3x Elfhame Palace
6x Plains
8x Forest
2x Dust Bowl

The deck relies on applying early pressure and sealing the victory with a timely Armageddon, Wrath, or Wave. The Trellises help against any deck with small beatdown creatures and can happily block Idols all day. The deck does need a sideboard tailored to your local metagame, but I’d suggest Aura Mutations, Blinding Angels, another Wrath and a fourth Armageddon might be a good place to start.

The addition of the Panther gives you another three-power creature (replacing River Boa), but also gives you a way to confound creature removal and control. The only thing I’d suggest is that maybe the Noble Panthers should come out for the Fleetfoots, not the Boas. I’ve also tweaked the land a little to add another white source of mana and a second Dust Bowl, as well as dropping a Charging Troll for a third maindecked Armageddon. I may play this when Planeshift becomes legal to try out the Fleetfoot Panthers.

We’re also considering Darigaaz’s Charm for Good Spells, but I’ll have to work on the black mana a little more and try to decide what to take out for it (probably Assault/Battery, as the Charm can do damage and can act as another creature by returning one from the graveyard).

Anyway, the title of this week’s article is Risk Assessment, so I’ll get on to that.

Risk assessment is the science of determining what is, and is not, an acceptable risk. In the military it could be used to determine the likelihood that a given operation will achieve its goal with acceptable losses. In the medical field it is generally used to describe the process whereby a doctor decides if a lifesaving operation will actually save the life or a patient or kill them in the process.

What is risk assessment in Magic?

Well, you can look at Magic in military terms. You have a set of troops and a strategy to achieve that goal. What are acceptable gains and losses when trying to gain that goal and how can you determine them? I’ll give you a quick example:

You are playing rebels and your opponent is playing blue/white control. If you play too slowly, your opponent will get enough creature control and counter spells to own the game and you’ll probably lose, so you need to apply pressure. But if you overcommit in an attempt to finish the game too quickly, you make yourself vulnerable to a Wrath of God or Rout with no way of replacing your troops – again, conceding a possible winning position to your foe.

You need to determine the risk of playing two rebels, three rebels, four rebels and then losing them to a Wrath – but how do you know what to do? How can you judge? In the example above, you might have two Steadfast Guards on the table. You know that your opponent has five turns to deal with them. Unless they’re going to play a Fact or Fiction to get a Nether Spirit in the graveyard or a Blinding Angel to slow the assault, they must cast Wrath at some point or they will lose. Given that they have to deal with them, you don’t need to play any more threats unless something changes or you find a way to seal the match. If you play another threat and they get lucky, you won’t be able to put the pressure back on the very next turn. Two Guards on the table at the same time is an acceptable risk if you have replacement creatures in hand because it will win you the game.

From the paragraph above comes the first important aspect of risk assessment: Knowing your opponent’s deck. In a perfect world, you would know all the cards in their deck and know the exact chances of any given card being drawn. This, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not even close to a perfect world. Your ally against this is the net deck. If you can determine which deck your opponent is playing, you’ll probably know 90% of the cards they’re playing. If they play a Rishadan Airship you have to try to work out if they’re playing their own version of Blue Skies, a net version you’ve seen, or an aggro-Waters variant. If you can work it out you’ll probably be able to tell how many foils or Thwarts they have.

Once you have a good idea of the cards in an opponent’s deck you should try to stay aware of how many of them have been played and try to keep an idea of how many are in the graveyard, in your opponent’s hand and how many are left in their deck.

It may seem obvious, but if an opponent has two blue mana untapped, they don’t always have a Counterspell in hand. Try to remember when an opponent tutors for a card and whether they use it. If your opponent Tutors for a Seal of Cleansing and gets rid of your Chimeric Idol, try to remember if they cast and used the Seal or if they used a Disenchant. When your opponent casts Fact or Fiction, make a note of how many cards they have in hand and remember which pile they pick up.

I’d like to just note at this point that you can’t make notes on paper during a game other than life changes and the reasons for those changes. I don’t want a whole host of people getting warnings, I really don’t.

If your opponent has three land (in current Type II) and doesn’t lay a land on their turn, maybe they don’t have one or maybe they’re keeping an Island back for a Foil. In a recent game an opponent of mine, playing Fires, played a land and a BoP, followed by an Elf. It was clear he had no more land in his hand, and so killing his mana-producing creatures would help me. He obviously thought it was a reasonable risk against me to take a one-land, two mana-producing creature hand, hoping to draw into a second land to play his 4cc creatures. In his second game he mulliganed, knowing that I was playing burn and that it simply wasn’t a good risk to take.

A classic example of knowing your opponent’s deck happened in the last tourney before Invasion became Type II legal. My teammate Andy played a merfolk deck, and successfully used a Rootwater Thief to take a card out of a Replenish player’s deck. After going through the deck and counting cards in the graveyard, Andy successfully identified which variant of Replenish the player was using (one that was a month or so behind current tech) and told the player exactly what cards he had in his hand.

The next most important thing is to know your opponent. If you go to tourneys on a regular basis, you probably end up playing against the same people week after week. Do you look at them when they draw a card? Do you look at them when you cast a spell? If the answer is no, you should start, and here’s why.

I’ve been trying to watch my opponents for a while now, and I’ve found that people often betray the cards they have in their hand. In one game against a Nether-Go player I cast a Blastoderm (he didn’t have a Nether Spirit in his graveyard), and he frowned a little and it did ten damage to him before he could get rid of it. In another game he looked on passively as I did so and cast Wash Out the next turn, countering the Blastoderm on its way back on to the table. Now I look carefully when I cast spells. If a frown happens, I know that the risk of my creatures getting Washed Out is a little lower and I may be able to cast that extra creature to get the kill.

Another player I know starts to flush red when he thinks he’s going to lose a game. It’s not easy to fake without straining, and it means that I can often pile on the pressure to force a few mistakes from him in his desperation to try to pull back from the brink of defeat.

Watching players will help you against the players you play a lot, but may help you against people you’ve not played before too – try it.

Chatting to your opponents helps too, especially (oddly enough) after you lose. Winners are often happy to go through their decks and show you the tweaks and changes they’ve made, especially if you say, "You really spanked me there – I’m thinking of playing that deck next tourney." If they do show you the deck, you can often see if it’s a creation of their own or if they’re started with a net deck and changed a few cards. Quite often the cards they change are for favourites. I know some players that don’t like Foil and so only play two when a net deck plays four, and other players that don’t like gold spells or can’t afford rares and so replace them with commons. Noticing traits like this in players will help you know their decks better. The other thing to remember is that players have favourite decks and will play them one tourney after another, so looking through their deck might help you next time you play them, too!

Once you start to have a better idea of the cards in someone’s deck and how they play, you can start to make risk assessment really work. You should ask a simple question each time you cast a spell:

"If I cast this spell, what will my opponent do?"

Once you think you have the answer worked out, you should ask the second question.

"Is that acceptable?"

That’s the real trick: Knowing what is acceptable. Take the rebel vs. Nether-Go example above. If I cast a third Guard, what will my opponent do? Cast Counterspell? Cast Massacre next turn? Maybe they’ll cast Wash Out. Are these acceptable? If you have more creatures in hand to apply the pressure afterwards, then the answer is probably yes – so you cast it. If you only have a Sergeant or Disenchant in hand, the answer is no, and you shouldn’t cast it.

As a rule of thumb, I ask the question: If this all goes wrong, will I be sitting here at my opponent’s mercy or will I be able to recover? If I can recover, almost anything is acceptable; if I’m going to be sitting there trying to draw into an answer, I probably won’t make the play (although there are some times you just have to).

Once you have this attitude, you’ll find you can think ahead a little more. I try to think of each of the spells in my deck as a threat and rank them against one another. A BoP is not as much of a threat as a Blastoderm. A Ramosian Sergeant is more of a threat to a control player than a Fresh Volunteers. When playing cards, I try to balance the risk I perceive to a card against the effect it will have. If I have an Armageddon and a Blastoderm in hand against a control player, they are both reasonable threats – but they can’t cope if an Armageddon is successfully cast, and they can often deal with a Blastoderm. Let’s take a quick look at that example in more detail:

Here’s the situation: I have three lands and a BoP in play, and a Blastoderm and Armageddon in hand and some other spells. My opponent has two islands untapped and seven cards in hand. Which do I cast?

If I cast the Armageddon and it’s successful, I wipe away two of my opponent’s lands, leaving me with a BoP and no land. My opponent has seven cards in hand and so will probably have more land. If the Armageddon is countered I still have a threat in hand, and I’ve used up a Counterspell, so my Blastoderm is more likely to happen. Is this an acceptable risk? Is the loss of the Armageddon something my deck can cope with?

If I cast the Blastoderm and it’s successful, it’s probably going to do at least five damage, maybe ten or even fifteen… And will mean that if my opponent taps out to try to control it, I’ll have an easier time casting Armageddon in the future. If the Blastoderm is countered, I’ll still have the Armageddon, and my opponent will more than likely lay another land – meaning that the Armageddon has more chance of happening and will have a greater effect on the game. Is this an acceptable risk? What will happen if I don’t see another Blastoderm?

In the case of the green/white deck at the top of article, there are only three Armageddons, so you want to make them count, whereas there are piles of tough creatures. The loss of an early Blastoderm won’t effect the deck too much whilst the effect of casting the Armageddon isn’t that great and the potential loss of it as a mid- or late-game threat is. I’d try to cast the Blastoderm.

Notice that I didn’t consider not playing one of them. I want my opponent to use up counters as soon as possible because I know that I’ll have more threats than they have counters – but that’s just me.

Playing threats to act as some sort of a lightning rod is very effective, as it reduces the risk to your threats later on. If you have six 1cc and 2cc searchers in your deck and your opponent only has four burn spells, after two of your searchers have been killed the remaining four are much safer and the risk of playing them is much lower – again, you’re using the knowledge of your opponent’s deck against them. Mind you, if you only have one searcher in hand you shouldn’t use it as a lightning rod – what are you protecting?

That’s that I’m afraid, a simple set of things to consider: Know your opponents’ decks, watch your opponents, and try to use the threats in your deck in such a way that you lose the least board position if they’re wiped out. You’ve probably thought of most of this before, but I see people not taking one aspect of this into account at every tourney I go to, so then again you may not.

Good Spells is coming along nicely. I’m working on sideboarding plans against the major deck archetypes: Rebels, Fires, Counter-Rebel, Nether-Go and U/W control. I’m also keeping R/B control, Aggro-red (as Dave Price has built a deck on the Sideboard and people always like to play red), and Mercenaries – because they are not beating me again.

I’m also looking at working on my Limited skills with the team; we’re taking all of the decks we got at the prerelease and swapping them around, each building a deck out of everyone else’s cards. When we’re done, we’re going to play them against one another and critique the decks. Should be fun.

Hope you all enjoyed the prereleases and I hope you like you shiny cards.

Until next week.

Cheers, Jim.
Team PhatBeats.