Choose Your Own Adventure: The Beginning

Lots of matches are decided by a single turn – or even a single play! Most of the time, we are too lazy to look back and see where we could have played differently to achieve a better result. Things that seem so irrelevant in the progression of a duel could actually be the most important aspect in determining its eventual winner. Casting the wrong creature on a given turn can lead to a loss in a game that was otherwise impossible to lose. So what happens if we start analyzing the plays as closely as possible?

(Editor’s Note: Nick Eisel is currently suspended from playing in sanctioned tournaments. He has not been compensated for this article. The details of his writing arrangement can be found here.)

Ever finished a game of Magic where you were just completely obliterated despite all your efforts? Your opponent seemed to have the perfect trump for every card you played, and every attempt to get back in the game was easily crushed by his iron fist. You’d run off to blame it on manascrew or topdecks…

And you never once considered the possibility that you were just completely outplayed.

Granted, there is an element of luck in the game, and manascrew and simply being outdrawn do happen, but the majority of the games you will win will be based on how you play a given game. Or, more realistically, a single turn.

Lots of matches are decided by a single turn – or even a single play! Most of the time, we are too lazy to look back and see where we could have played differently to achieve a better result. Things that seem so irrelevant in the progression of a duel could actually be the most important aspect in determining its eventual winner. Casting the wrong creature on a given turn can lead to a loss in a game that was otherwise impossible to lose.

All of this is because a game of Magic is almost like a”Choose Your Own Adventure” storybook. Making any decision will lead to a different set of events that is finally culminated in the outcome of the game, just as choosing to go to Page 84 will lead to a different ending than if you went to Page 108. Another striking similarity is that you can look back on any given game to see where taking a different path would help you better your result. The same is true for a CYOA book, where you can reread it over and over to find the best possible path in terms of story line.

So why am I telling you all of this?

Since a single turn or play can decide the outcome of an entire game, I feel it is almost imperative that strategy articles be written dissecting various situations or even entire games and going into detail as to why it’s correct to play them one way over another.

The best situations to analyze are the ones that can go a number of ways and be supported by facts in each direction. You know, the ambiguous ones. The ideal skill level to be at is where you can weigh all of the information involved and make the correct decision 95% of the time. Not just a good play, but the correct play – and make no mistake, there is only one for each given set of circumstances. There are usually a number of good plays, but there is always only one play that is the correct play. Making that correct play a majority of the time will lead to a much higher winning percentage, and therefore more wins.

I first got the idea to write a series of”What Would You Do?” articles during a nightly chat with a friend I met through CMU affiliations, Dusty Bettendorf. The original idea may have been a bit too idealistic, however; I wanted to find a number of really tough situations that could come up in a game of Magic and dissect them. The plan was that through this process, I’d be able to give ample definition as to why you would make one decision over a number of others. These situations, however, are harder to come by than one may think.

So while I’d eventually like to get to the point where I have tons of people emailing me with tough situations where they didn’t know what the correct play was, I think for now we may have to improvise a bit and go with what I’ve got on hand. So I’ll use the last bunch of games I’ve played on MODO and some situations that remain in recent memory from real life drafts.

I’d like take a moment to address you all and offer up the opportunity for you to email me with good situations that can be analyzed in future articles, or even just email me to tell me whether you’d like to see more of these articles in the future. Remember to include all relevant information to the situation, such as both players board positions (including tapped and untapped land), cards in your hand, life totals, and any other relevant information about cards in your library. Send all of this to [email protected], as always.

I’d also like to point out that while I may use draft pick examples from time to time, I do not intend to”rip off” the Limited Information series that runs through Joe Crosby on Sideboard.com, as Joe is a great guy and I really enjoy the articles. Sometimes, however, I think we spend way too much time debating draft picks and not nearly enough time talking about the most important part: The actual playing.

Anyway, back to business.

Situations worth analyzing come up all the time and the hard part is really only being able to point them out and learn from them. My hope is that this article and future installments will be able to cover a broad range of Limited formats and topics and enhance your overall skills. It’s all about diversity.

Situation 1: What’s On Top?

The first situation I’d like to dive into occurred last Tuesday during one of our weekly drafts at CMU. The format is Onslaught Block booster draft and my deck is a rather weird concoction based firmly in Red and Green with a small splash for Rush of Knowledge and Mischievous Quanar.

Now I’m not here to debate the validity of splashing Quanar, as most of the time it is not feasible – but the deck in question had two copies of Searing Flesh, and loads of mana acceleration in Explosive Vegetation, Wirewood Channeler, and Birchlore Rangers, with additional fixing in the form of Sprouting Vines. There were also plenty of other good targets for copies, such as Shock, Solar Blast, Rush, and a few others. Needless to say, copying a Flesh was not only funny, but also pretty damn good.

Anyway, I’m playing against a Green Black deck that is piloted by fellow StarCityGames writer Andy Clautice. His deck doesn’t seem very impressive from what I’ve seen of other matches, since it’s already the third round of the draft. I win game one and we are firmly entrenched in game two before the situation in question arises.

The early game is pretty average for the format, as Andy and I trade morphs and I eventually lay a Titanic Bulvox face-down. The crucial juncture comes on Andy’s turn 6.

His Board: Two Morphs, four Swamps, two Forests, three cards in hand, sixteen life.

My Board: Face-down Bulvox, three Forests, Island, two Mountains, eighteen life.

My Hand: Temple of the False God, Forest, Decree of Annihilation, Rush of Knowledge

The problem comes when Andy swings with both morphs and I declare no blockers. The original plan was to bash back and unmorph Bulvox, definitely winning the race with all of the burn in my deck combined with a Rush for eight two turns from now.

However, that is all thwarted when he morphs up Haunted Cadaver after damage. Now it all becomes a matter of the top of my deck.

First let’s clear out the obvious so we can get down to the real question of what to discard. Decree of Annihilation has got to go for certain. (It probably shouldn’t have even made the cut to my deck, but that’s beside the point.) The next discard is equally easy, as Temple is vastly superior to a fourth Forest for a number of reasons. I already have the triple-green required to unmorph Bulvox, and my deck contains many high casting cost spells, like the aforementioned Searing Fleshes and even a Dragon Tyrant.

So we know for sure we’re pitching Decree and Forest – what’s the third card?

I sat and thought for quite some time weighing my options on this one. His deck has a Skinthinner somewhere in there, but I’m almost 100% sure it’s not the morph because he wouldn’t attack like he did if it was. The basic question is: Is there a land on top of my deck? Since I already have the Island, it’s almost certain that I’d win if I kept the Rush and topdecked the seventh land to unmorph the beast. However, it’s so incredibly bad if I don’t draw the land, as I can’t really do anything but cast whatever I draw, and my Rush is probably far too slow to get back in the game – assuming he plays a guy after combat, of course (which is more than likely).

The next bit of information to consider is the rest of my deck. I’ve already mentioned the Fleshes a number of times, along with a couple other cards that I’d be unable to cast if I kept the Rush and not the land. As you can see, it’s difficult to weigh the facts and come up with the best decision.

After much thought, I decide to discard the Rush and play it safe as I could still potentially win with just the Bulvox and possibly the help of some burn. I go on to lose this game, as I draw an irrelevant Birchlore Ranger followed by land and my Bulvox is eventually eaten by some pump spell when it has to hold back on defense.

I’m still unsure of the correct decision here, though Eugene Harvey and I talked about it for a little bit and he’s pretty sure that I should’ve just ran it and kept the Rush, hoping hoped to draw a land. The problem is that if I don’t draw the land on that exact turn, I probably just lose outright unless I draw something like Treespring Lorian. The other factor was that most of the non-land cards I could draw would either cost more than six mana or be of little help to my situation. I played it the way I did because I was hoping to see a Flesh in the next couple turns, or something that could make keeping the land worthwhile. As it was, I didn’t draw the land until two turns after I was Cadavered, so I’m not sure if I would’ve lasted long enough to flip up Bulvox, Rush, and still be in the game – but that one play certainly left a sour taste in my mouth afterwards.

I don’t think I gave the defensive plan enough thought, which is to hopefully draw the land in the next two draws and just keep the Bulvox back on defense until I could Rush and follow it up with more guys. This most likely would have resulted in me winning the game since I only would have missed the seventh land for a single turn. It’s hard to call, though, when the top of your library is involved along with some land factor as it’s near indeterminate.

Looking back I wish I would have played it the other way because he didn’t put on as much pressure as I was assuming he would. However, I’m satisfied that I at least acted with thought towards both directions in mind and I was aware of all of the potential outcomes.

Oh – and yeah, I went on to win the match.

The last thing about that deck that was pretty funny was in the first round, I played against a guy who also had a ton of elves – except unlike me, he had the good ones: Wellwisher and Timberwatch. In game one he went turn 3 Timberwatch and then Cloned it. Wellwisher followed and I was pretty sure the match was gonna be a blowout. Game two, I was manaflooded for quite some time before I drew Fierce Empath and fetched up Dragon Tyrant, who was more than able to outrace a late Wellwisher. The funny part was in game three though, as my opening hand contained Channeler and Tyrant. He started with elves and the obligatory turn 3 Timberwatch, and I busted out Channeler. This led to Dragon Tyrant on turn 5 which killed him in short order.

Situation 2: Who’s Your Ogre?

Since even the smallest decisions can win games, I thought it’d be helpful in proving my point to use a recent instance from a MODO draft where I lost a game (and the match) by casting the wrong creature on turn three. The format is 8th edition Booster draft.

Lets begin before the actual mistake and start where we should – at the beginning of the match. The actual draft servers had been down for some time and since I was incredibly bored and eager to draft, I joined a casual eight-man draft for tix. My deck was an absolute monstrosity, containing Plague Wind, double Pyrotechnics, double Dark Banishing, and a number of burn spells including Lightning Blast, Volcanic Hammer, Vicious Hunger, and Shock. The creatures were also solid, but not anything to write home about, and the only problem was that I’d come up a few cards short; this was solved with an easy and painless splash for White, which gave Angel of Mercy, Razorfoot Griffin, and Pacifism.

I’d easily bashed my way to the finals on the back of superior card quality and more than a few excellent uses of Pyrotechnics. My opponent in the finals was tarquinn, who was feeding me during the draft. I was sure before we began that he was Blue/White and had at least two Master Decoys and a Pacifism (and he would’ve had another Pacifism, along with Angel of Mercy and Razorfoot, if I hadn’t grabbed them up), which I passed to him before finally getting sick of the insane White that was coming in pack two and grabbed it up for myself.

However, his deck was by no means unprepared. Game one is a true tale of frustration and disappointment. The game drags on long and we constantly trade removal and jockey for board position. For a good six turns in the late game, I am sitting with Plague Wind in hand and only seven lands on the board as I continue to topdeck mediocre creatures instead of the necessary two lands. This is all fine and good, though, as the board is stabilized with me at eleven and him at fourteen (though if I ever get to nine land, one swing will with all of my guys do way more than fourteen damage). So even though I’m not drawing the lands to end the game right then and there, I’m content with seeing more of his deck, as I’m pretty sure I can’t lose before I can get to nine – as long as he doesn’t have (or draw) Rewind or Mana Leak.

This all changes rather quickly when he draws his 8th land and casts Tidal Kraken. My deck now has an ultimatum: Produce two lands in two draws, a Dark Banishing in either draw, or lose on the spot. I take my turn and try to draw my eighth land – but it is not to be, as Giant Cockroach is waiting for me on top on the next turn and the Kraken finishes me. What an annoying way to lose, drawing only one land in eight draw steps (which is usually you complain about in a late game battle).

I shake it off, though, and move to game two. I start with two Swamps and a Mountain while he lays two straight Islands. The error comes on my turn 3.

His Board: Island, Island

My Board: Swamp, Swamp, Mountain

My Hand: Mountain, Scathe Zombies, Deepwood Ghoul, Hill Giant, Giant Cockroach, Primeval Shambler

I start thinking a lot about the potential Remove Soul he could have, since I saw at least three in the draft. Mana Leak is also a possibility, but I saw none, so I was definitely more keyed in on Remove Soul at that point. This leads me to conclude that I need to keep my Deepwood Ghoul for later in the game, when it will be effective against his multitude of Glory Seekers from game one.

Let’s forget for a moment that this logic is inherently flawed and look at some of the issues that the potential counter presents:

If he has Remove Soul in hand, he is almost certain to counter any creature I play on turn 3 just to get a jump on tempo or at least keep up. This was my entire reasoning for my mistake: Playing Scathe Zombies instead of Deepwood Ghoul. I was basically assuming that he had to have it, and that my only play was the Scathe, as the Ghoul would be more effective in the later game. The only way my play is even close to correct is if I’m lucky and he actually has the card I’m banking for, or he casts something like Crossbow Infantry within the next couple turns. Every other time, the play is just terrible.

What I didn’t come to grips with at the time was actually taking a moment and looking at my hand. Upon this review you will notice that the next time it will be opportune for me to cast a three-drop will be somewhere around turn 7. Since my curve is so tight and I have plenty of more expensive spells to be casting, playing the correct creature on turn 3 is more important than anything else I can do. What I misevaluated was that Scathe Zombie is almost as good as Deepwood Ghoul in the late game, and I would need the Ghoul for far more situations since it is more flexible and can attack without real fear into anything. I also forgot for that moment that this game was going to be a race (since he has fliers and I don’t), and I needed to be attacking as much as possible.

What ended up happening was that one turn I had to swing with everyone to keep the pressure on and my Scathe died to a Coastal Hornclaw where my Ghoul would have survived. The other relevant factors that made this mistake cost me the game were that his only attacker was an Air Elemental, which attacks in multiples of fours, so regenerating the Ghoul one time would have still allowed me to survive the same number of attacks. The most relevant point, however, is that he was at two life at the end of the game – and besides his Air Elemental, our creatures were dead even. A Ghoul still on the board would have forced him to hold back on at least one turn, in which he attacked with the Elemental. To add insult to injury, I drew Pacifism in the midgame and he gave me at least three chances to draw either a Plains or any removal spell to kill his blocker and finish him off, and it never happened. That’s the price of mistakes though; they really are a wake-up call.

The point is, my thinking was flawed to begin with as Ghoul wouldn’t be much better than Scathe on turn 7 or whenever I finally got to cast him. I failed to play the odds and lost because of it. By that I mean the times he will have the counter to actually make my play respectable are so much fewer than the times I will lose because of it. This obviously changes if you’ve seen multiple counterspells, but as it was, I was playing around something I wasn’t even sure he had.

Lesson to learn? Stop and look at your hand before you act, it will usually give at least some indicator of how the game is going to play out.

Situation 3: So What About Morphs?

Recently, as you all know now, I’ve been attempting a number of unorthodox drafting strategies in Onslaught block, my favorite of these being Goblins. When I’m playing that deck, a dilemma always seems to come up that most people would shrug off – but no matter how much I try to think my way out of it, I always seem to get screwed whenever I have to make the decision. That decision would be whether to cast Goblin Brigand or Skirk Drill Sergeant on turn 2. Most of the time I’d like to think the Drill Sergeant is correct – but every time I go and do that someone plays a friggin’ 1/1 like Fierce Empath or something of the like that halts my attack. If I play the Brigand, they are ready with Elvish Warrior or White Knight. The situation seems hit or miss and the only information you usually have is one land type if it’s game one. Anyway, just something to think about.

None of the situations I’ve mentioned have even hit on the huge anonymity and potential for disaster in otherwise solid play that the Morph mechanic presents. This section isn’t an actual set of circumstances, but rather an address to the mechanic as a whole in regard to these articles.

The fact of the matter seems to be that in most cases, as long as you are acting with all possible potential Morph creatures in mind for the given situation, you can still lose out on what seemed to be a favorable position without actually making a”mistake.”

The simple truth is that you can’t play around everything, and sometimes you just make what we like to call a Bad Judgment Call. Remember, though: As long as you are aware of all of the possibilities for a face-down guy and play against the majority (or against the one that will really wreck you in the given situation), that’s all you can really do.

Take, for instance, the year-old example of the Red/White deck. It’s turn four and he has two Mountains, two Plains, and a Morph creature attacking into your Morph while you’re tapped out. The only time you will be punished for not blocking is Skirk Commando while the number of times he will have a guy that lives after the fight is phenomenal. Without further knowledge, you can’t block here.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to send in some situations for me to take a look at, if they involve morphs, please make sure they are still interesting enough to analyze. Times when you have advance knowledge of your opponent’s deck from earlier games or otherwise are far better than”My opponent has three Mountains, two Forest, and two Plains open and a Morph – do I attack?” Complete anonymity leaves too much room for question for any real critical thinking, so try to be specific. I can’t predict the future, nor can I see through a face-down creature, so keep it interesting.

Unfortunately, this is all I could find or remember in terms of situations of my own at this point. I watched all of the games that are still in my MODO history, looking for examples as well as using things from real life, and this was all I could find for the time being. I wanted to do at least four, but hopefully this whets your appetite. I want you to send me in some of your own experiences to combine with mine and have a lot more for next time.

There are such a wide variety of interesting situations to analyze that I’d love to see this type of article catch on, and possibly even make it a weekly or bi-weekly series. The best positions to analyze in my opinion would have to be situations where knowing your entire deck is a factor in the decision; something to the effect of a turn where you make an otherwise completely incorrect attack because you have realized your only way to win once your opponent stabilizes is to get him low enough that you can topdeck a certain card or cards (usually a burn spell) to finish him off before he can take you out. It’s situations where you can”set yourself up” for the topdeck and then have it actually happen that make this game so enjoyable.

Nick Eisel

[email protected]

Soooooo and ThatsGameBoys on MODO