A is for Aggressive

In the first of what will be a regular column, BDM investigates the way people play Magic. By analysing plays on various turns of a given game, he highlights how seemingly inconsequential choices can impact on the game state as a whole. A fine read, and an excellent start to what promises to be a fantastic series. Brian, it’s great to have you back.

This is my first column in a new series I will be writing about the way people play Magic. The inspiration for this column came about while I was hanging out at a Prague Pro Tour Qualifier in Neutral Ground. Steve Sadin, Igor Frayman, and Scott McCord had all drawn in the final round — I had slept in and not played, despite my New Year’s resolution — and the group of us huddled around Eric Phillipps match as he had to play for the Top 8 in that final round.

Eric opponent had a pretty good hand — like you will when the grip only features two lands. After drawing for his second turn he still only had two lands and had the choice of two plays. He could either play a Transluminant — ostensibly to get his beats in — or he could play Lurking Informant. He opted for the former.

Igor, who witnessed the play, could scarcely believe it. He shook his head ruefully at Eric good fortune.

Of course the player in question missed his next land drop only to find that elusive land one turn later. Had he played the Informant he would have been able to lurk himself during his upkeep, seen that he wasn’t drawing a land, discarded that card, and then would have drawn land number three — and, as it turns out, lands number four and five over the next two turns.

He would not have missed his four-drop, which was probably a Greater Mossdog or something — who cares? It was something that does what four-drops do; block, attack, keep the game at parity. As a result, he was unable to keep the game at parity. Eric was always out ahead of him. He was not only able to drop guys, but was also able to back them up with tricks.

We were talking after the match, and Igor was still stunned — flabbergasted, even. “What was that guy thinking?” he sputtered. “What was he thinking?”

That is pretty much the genesis of this column. There is always talk about the right play or wrong play. Rather than simply delving into the “correctness” of a play, I also wanted to look at “Why that Play?” Why did this person take this particular path? I play a ton of Magic, and I watch even more. I mix with a range of players, from the Friday Night Magic crowd to the high-stakes drafts at Jonny Magic’s place. I get to see a wide range of plays, and I am going to bring you that full spectrum.

This isn’t going to be “let’s all kick a guy who made a mistake”. There is as much to be gained from examining a subtly good play as there is from a broadly comedic error, and we will be looking at both. The goal here is to understand what the decision-making process is when people make plays. I want to grow to better understand how I play Magic as a result, and hopefully develop some new ways to think about my game moving forward.

Enough preamble… let’s get into the first example.

I spent the past Wednesday drafting at Neutral Ground, hanging out with some friends, and watching some people playing in another Draft. The spectator Draft was two-on-two – a very different animal from an eight-person Draft — so there is little to be gained from discussing the Draft itself. Instead, I watched some games behind someone who will be henceforth referred to as “Player A.”

The players in this draft are all Friday Night Magic regulars and occasional Pro Tour Qualifier participants — good for a Top 8 every round of qualifiers or so out of the group — with a range of experience from less than a year going back to at least Invasion block. Player A has put in three or four years at the game. He certainly has good card valuations while drafting, and he knows which Constructed decks to play. On the other hand, his in-game execution is often sub-optimal. Fortunately, he is willing to discuss his plays and strives to continue to improve his game. It seemed like the perfect fodder for my opening column.

The first game I started watching was in mid-swing when I came over. Player A’s opponent — we’ll call him “Opponent Z” – had just tapped out to play Cerulean Sphinx, which was keeping company with a Viashino Fangtail on that side of the table. Player A had a board of Carrion Howler, Petrahydrox, and a Stasis Celled Torch Drake. The relevant cards in his hand were Douse in Gloom, Disembowel, and Izzet Boilerworks.

There were six lands in play and he had played a basic land the previous turn instead of playing the Karoo — he would have access to eight mana in a turn, but only had six to work with at this particular moment. He could have had the seven needed to kill the Sphinx, but now he needed to draw a seventh on this turn if he wanted to be able to do so without having it shuffled back into the deck.

“I was holding the Boilerworks. The turn before I played a Swamp. I was thinking about having as much mana open for Disembowel. I was on edge, and thinking about my life total and what my opponent might play.”

Instead of a land, he drew Necromancer’s Magemark. Making the best of a bad situation he Marked the Howler and attacked with both of his guys. Opponent Z bounced the ‘Hydrox with his pinger, and chose not to block the Howler. Player A paid one life to pump his Howler, and Opponent Z fell from fourteen to nine. Had he paid one more life, he could have dropped Opponent Z to seven — or taken a full half of his life in one fell swoop.

On the following turn, Opponent Z chose to attack with the Sphinx and the Fangtail to drop Player A to eight, and summoned Tidewater Minion to watch the gates. Had Player A paid the one extra point of life the turn before, he would now be able to kill his opponent by Disemboweling the defender and double-activating the Howler. Opponent Z might not have chosen to attack with both guys had he been at seven, but even then Player A could still use the Disembowel on the Minion and force him to trade the Fangtail for the Necromancer’s Magemark.

“At the time, I was thinking that if went slow and steady instead of all out I would be better off. I was wary that he might have something to kill the Howler, and I didn’t want it to die.”

Don't go into the cellar!

The card he was specifically concerned with was Darkblast, but Opponent Z had no Black mana available. It’s almost as if he was worried about his creature dying the same way someone is scared of going down a dark basement. He was scared of the idea of spending his life and leaving his Howler so exposed. Sometimes you have to take your chances and push your advantage. Especially when you are staring down a dragon.

Mostly due the influence of the very Orange Jon Becker, I have been watching the basketball tourney and following the success of Syracuse who played tight game after tight game — I think the point differential between all four games they played this past week was eight, and four of those points came in the finals. That four-point lead was crucial, the announcers pointed out, because it represented a two-possession lead. Had any of the Orangemen missed a crucial free throw, the Panthers would have been able to tie the game with one shot from beyond the arc. As long as they continued to keep the Panthers at a two-score distance, they could simply defend the Panthers and force them to eat up precious clock or take bad shots.

By not doing those two points of damage a turn earlier, Player A had not created a one-possession game. His unwillingness to part with one point of life had cost him either the opportunity to win on his next turn, or had cost him two or three points of life in the form of the Fangtail attack — depending on whether or not the Fangtail shot him. With the Sphinx taking up 25% of his starting life total with each crash into the Red Zone, Player A could not afford to give away any turns.

Ironically, he was actually sending the game into extra turns by not using his life as a more aggressive resource. Had he spent his life more readily, he would have either taken less damage on the following turn, or simply won the game. In fact, by being “nervous about (his) life total,” Player A had inadvertently cost himself extra points of the resource he was so eager to protect.

With his opponent at nine, and not seven, Player A chose not to Disembowel the Minion. Instead, he crashed his Howler headfirst into the defender and paid one life to kill it. The Howler returned to his hand, along with the Douse, Disembowel, and Petrahydrox — playing the skittish 3/3 post-combat.

As it turned out, Opponent Z was gasping for Black mana and did not offer much else in the way of threats. Player A had options on his next turn – he had fallen to three from last attack from the Sphinx. Player A could either Disembowel the flier and risk going down as low as one from two activations of the Fangtail — one at end of turn, and one main — or he could cast Psychic Drain for six. He chose the latter – even though it was only a net gain of one life, due to an attack for five in the air – and Disemboweled the Sphinx on the next turn.

“I thought that if I killed the dragon he would have dealt damage with the Fangtail, and I would have lost the game. I decided to play the Psychic Drain and extend the game a bit. I was nervous about my life total,” Player A would explain later. “I wanted to make sure I would have enough turns to win.”

Again, Player A stated that he was concerned about his life total, and this led him to play the game in that manner. The funny thing about the game is that Player A went on to win the game. With the flier safely tucked away in Opponent Z’s deck, a Sell-Sword Brute taking a Douse in Gloom squarely on the chin, and an attacking Tidewater Minion, Player A was able to extract a win.

It seems like these are the crucial games that we need to look at in order to improve. It was a long, fairly complicated game, and Player A made a lot of decisions — and quite possibly a lot of wrong decisions. Yet he still won the game, and might not ever question his game play. On the surface he had been given a dire set of circumstances, and a shaky set of tools to extricate himself with. I’m pretty sure that he was feeling like MacGuyver, until I asked him about not pressing more aggressively with the Howler.

“The deciding factor was a little hard for me in that turn. The velocity of the board — especially his Sphinx – made me want to play cautiously. I just kept looking at the Sphinx and wanting to survive enough turns to find a way out.”

The word he used that struck me was “velocity.” He actually increased the speed with which Opponent Z could attack by not pressing on. He liberated the Fangtail from his slow and steady ping detail, and let him race in for three points of damage. By leaving that damage on the table, you give your opponent more and more options to find their cards, smooth their mana, and attack with their Fangtails.

Almost universally when a player misses a point of damage by not using a pinger at end of turn, you hear the same thing. “Oooh,” they cringe. “If I lose this game by one point….”

You would be better off losing that game in the long run — I have conceded in that position, actually — than winning despite yourself. Without the negative reinforcement, you are less likely to develop systems to remember to do these things.

Every little helps

Winning is no excuse for leaving points of damage lying around willy-nilly.

Until next time,
Brian David-Marshall