“Once you don’t mind losing…it’s hard to stay motivated.”
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
In the past five years, I’ve developed a professional life wholly separate from tournament Magic. Yet even now, sometimes a person will still ask what Magic cards are all about. I give them the same stock answer I’ve used for the last decade:
“Magic is a collectible strategy card game. It’s basically a cross between chess and poker, set in a fantasy realm. It’s extremely popular, published in ten languages and played by millions of people worldwide….
While a bit wooden, it’s a good logline for people who ask. If they want to know more, I can tell them.
Now just between you and me, while I fully believe Magic is a cross between chess and poker, I find the poker half much more engaging. Chess is a fine game and all, but me, I’m about people. Chess is a math puzzle. I like impulse and fear and greed â€” the fun human stuff.
My last non-Draft article for this site
scoured this human portion, asking why people play competitively (or not), and if they were so inclined, suggesting tactics to subvert the human element to an in-game edge. It’s a great article. You should read it again.
But while it’s fun to write about and play the people game, I cannot in good conscience ignore the mathematical, chess-like aspects of competitive Magic. Regardless of which half enthralls you, the fact is that technical play is far more relevant to winning than flashy psychological tricks. To put it in perspective, I’ve dramatically won a handful of games by doing the old “pick up the pen” trick and baiting an opponent into a trap. I’ve boringly won thousands of games by watching my opponent fail to adapt to a changing board. I’m a showoff, and I like winning in dramatic fashion. But I’m not greedy, and in a tournament setting a win remains a win. You should probably feel the same way.
So chess. The interesting thing to me about chess is how far in advanced turns are planned. Decision trees are mapped, once, because the board isn’t going to change (i.e., no one topdecks a bishop).
However Magic has hidden information nestled in the hand. This creates an
impossible to predict WhIRLWiND
experience, where every turn has you
gasping for breath
as you wonder where the
winds of fortune
will blow you next.
Well, we certainly hope not. Magic has hidden information true, but also an awful lot of revealed information. The strong player takes as much of this information as possible and extrapolates things into a cohesive plan for winning the game.
Every single turn
. It’s a lot of work. There’s no other way to do it.
I’ll get into examples in a bit â€”Â but the overarching point is about mindset. To consistently win in this game, you need an abiding belief in your ability to predict and control the game. And that translates into
In life, they say, you should have a goal. Every day, everything you do should be towards accomplishing that goal. This is easier said than done, but the premise in Magic is the same: every card you play or don’t play, every move you make, should be towards your purpose of winning the game. If you can’t come up with a reason to do something, don’t do it.
In Magic it’s not hard to rationalize a reason to cast something. Anyone reading this article is a de facto smart person. Smart people can rationalize anything. But within the framework of the game, you need to take a step back. Not play on autopilot, not do the same thing over and over because that’s what you’re used to. You need to actually think about your goals and what you’re trying to accomplish.
The analogy I like is that of a director, or conductor, or choreographer, or comedian. Each of those professions involves a person with resources (timing, instruments, ambiance, jokes, music, and so forth) who needs to manipulate those raw pieces into a cohesive whole. From notes to music to performance. Words to jokes to structure to a show. Pieces into art.
You, a capable sorcerer, have similar resources and similar goals. Between cards in hand, cards in deck, cards in play, life totals, reads, etc. there are resources at your disposal. You, oh capable one, are tasked to turn those raw resources into a winning game state. It’s your cards to do with as you will, as long as you know what the end result looks like.
The trick, if there is one, is the need to work backwards. One really does need to see that end game in order to adjust enough to achieve it. This is a subtle thing, and like the professions above, both art and science. Also like the professions above, it requires a lot of effort.
This article is broken into the portions of the game where being conscious matters (read: always). I discuss a mindset you should strive to adopt, and common barriers to putting your focus into play. Finally I end with a few scenarios that put theory into practice.
In the Beginning
Your purpose here is to figure out what your deck, as a whole, is going to do. This is far easier in constructed when you can test and tweak.
For Limited, your end game starts with draft pick #1. You don’t have to play your first pick, but you do have to consider it when you make pick #2. And consider picks #1 and #2 while making pick #3. And so on.
What does this mean? It means card valuations will change on the fly!
You need to look at what you’ve drafted so far and consider what
deck needs. Scars is remarkably suited for this, because there are both a lot of sub-archetypes and a lot of niche cards.
Metalcraft is an easy example. Once you’ve decided on metalcraft, you need to determine every single pack whether your deck needs another artifact (and if so, which one). The power of the artifact as compared to its casting cost, and all compared to the power of some colored spell. Infect or hybrid decksâ€”same deal.
Mana curve is likewise enormous, and Scars is no exception. I am always, always thinking of mana curve. I’ll pass a dragon if I need a Myr. And I’ll pass a Myr, even if I need a Myr, if my deck needs a dragon more. I maintain an idea in my head on what the board will look like on turn 3, turn 5, turn 8. Part of it is based on hope, but every card I draft is designed to make those hopes come true. I never ignore what I’ve drafted when I make a pick.
Card rankings are worthless. I mean, not for the writer, because they’re really easy and everyone seems to love them. (“This Lightning Bolt variant is a high pick for red drafters.”) But I really wish they weren’t so beloved, because they represent everything wrong with aspirant players. They want the shortcut â€”Â a static list where X is stronger than Y is stronger than Z.
It’s pointless. It’s not like Wizards makes a 2/2 for 1W and a 2/3 for 1W. After pick 1, everything goes subjective. Using a list of rankings is like sleeping on a painting of a bed rather than a mattress. It technically works, but you sure are missing out.
If Magic is a game of information (and it is), then your opening hand is the first glimpse of how that game plays out.
What’s interesting is that unlike the rest of the game you have absolute control. If you don’t like the story your hand is giving you, you can recycle it and try again.
Mulligan decisions are articles in themselves, so I’ll only touch on the strategy here. It fits with the theme, though: your opener should allow you to craft your method of winning. Since the game state is so raw, especially if you don’t know your opponent’s deck, there are a lot of correct answers here:
Use my removal to survive to the late game and drop my bomb.
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Instigate an early rush and finish with an army of tokens.
The autopilot “I keep all hands with two to five lands lands,” “No or seven lands are automatic tossies,” “I always keep when I draw my Dragon,” “I always keep when they mulligan to five.” And so on.
These automatic schemas are such a waste. It wastes your skills as an intelligent human being, and that means wasting opportunities. It’s not that any of those quotes are guaranteed to be wrong. Most of the time, you do exactly what you’d expect. But you
be on the lookout for the outlier hands â€”Â some convergence of factors that makes doing something non-intuitive correct.
You may go an entire tournament without seeing a tough mulligan choice. But you
have a choice. If you only do what you think you are “supposed” to do, you miss out.
We’ll get there in a minute
Construct a sideboard that is relevant to your opponents. Have enough experience with the format to know what can be added and what can be taken out.
Again, plenty of articles have been written about sideboarding (although not as many as mulliganing) so I’ll only touch on the fundamentals.
Those fundamentals are simple: why do you want certain cards in your sideboard? What are you trying to accomplish when you make your swaps?
The sideboard is a place to shore up a weakness of yours, or to exploit one of theirs. Determining whether your sideboard fulfills this purpose requires complete knowledge of your deck, and at least some intimacy with your opponent’s deck and the format.
There are no shortcuts here: you need to be familiar with expected results, and how to confound those expectations.
If you win, default changing nothing. This is an easy because your opponent will make their own changes. Ignoring their likely moves is a big mistake (more on that in a bit). In addition, did you win because of overwhelming card quality, or was your opponent mana screwed?
In short: how likely is it you’ll win the same way for game 2?
If you lost game 1, is it likely the same events will happen again? If you lost because your deck of X/1s faced a deck of pingers, it may just happen again. If it’s because you were missing your main color (the one with eleven lands COME ON DECK ONE TIME), then maybe you can chalk it up to a fluke and move forward.
….Or maybe you should be playing twelve lands! It’s always worth a thought.
Wizards recently amended their tournament policy to permit players to refer to lists of swaps between games. Considering my stance on autopilotry, it’s no surprise I consider this option a crutch and a detriment. While people may disagree, I say if you need to rely on a list to make your changes, you need more preparation.
The side stuff I just talked about represents edge. Over the course of a tournament, smart deckbuilding/sideboarding/mulliganing will raise your win percentage. But none of it is a substitute for purposed, intelligent, technical play.
But there’s a dichotomy in games: on the one hand, you want a plan to work towards, a goal to guide you on when to attack and when to hold back.
On the other hand, there’s another human being with their own goals sitting across from you. An awareness of what they are doing, and what they
be doing, is just as important as what your goals are. In fact, you can’t make a plan without recognizing your opponent’s part.
As such, your number one task is to evaluate the whole board â€”Â how things will move, where life totals will be in a couple turns, how you spend your mana in those turns. It’s not an exact science because, as I mentioned in the beginning, hidden information injects a lot of unknown. But it’s certainly possible to make some very educated guesses.
Do you attack here? There’s not enough information given to answer correctly. However, there are questions you can ask to figure things out.
Am I likely to achieve Metalcraft soon?
since your 2/2 will soon be able to beat Reaver in combat and/or allow you a “deal four, take three” scenario.
Do you have a post-combat play that favorably prevents Reaver from attacking, e.g. Ghalma’s Warden?
since Edgewright isn’t on blocking duty and your opponent may try to take advantage of a “take two, deal three” scenario.
Opponent desperately cares about their life total?
since your opponent does not want to race, and they may give you time to on Edgewright. (Is this bad playing from your opponent? Yes. Does it happen all the time? Definitely.)
Have you seen Instill Infection?
since you cannot comfortably block if they play their fourth land and attack.
Do you have a short-game plan, e.g., lots of Glint Hawks?
because your deck depends on early damage to make your smaller creatures more effective.
Do you have a late-game plan?
so you can protect your life total and give your powerful end-game time to get online. (“His job, therefore, was to kill me before I killed him” â€”Â Flores)
Opponent has a late-game you can’t deal with, e.g. Geth, Lord of the Vault?
since your odds of winning decrease if the game goes long.
And I’m sure you can think of plenty more.
The above scenario is about as simple as can be, but you can see the decision trees that can (and should!) flow from it. You can also see how valuable it is to have information on your opponent when making plans… but that’s an article for another time.
The main point is to stop and think: What do you want to happen, and what is the best move for making that happen? The active player has a lot of control over the state of the board, but they have to be an active participant.
Flores’ point is that you have interests, and your opponent has interests. Your plan has to integrate both of these conflicting interests. You need to determine how you are going to win with your opponent â€”Â either by racing, or killing all your stuff. How your opponent is planning to win with you breathing down his neck is something should be determined as well.
Consider this board:
3 cards in hand
What is your plan? This board is a mess. Everyone has cards in hand, and creatures in play, and plenty of life to work with.
see a board like this, my first thought is that someone screwed up. At least one player should not want the game to be a morass. At least one player should have tried a lot harder to avoid a stall like this one.
So what’s your plan? It has to be “wait and see,” because there’s nothing else to do. This is not a favorable spot.
Other StarCityGames.com writers put these ideas in practice:
“I managed to beat a G/W Hideaway deck by getting a little greedy about making him make the plays I wanted him to make. I used a Thoughtseize to see his hand, and I knew he had Summoning Trap and Baneslayer Angel. I had a Sower of Temptation in hand, and he had a Great Sable Stag in play. I didn’t kill his Noble Hierarch because it was his second white source, and I wanted him to cast Baneslayer, but it was also his sixth mana, and I might be in trouble if he went for an end-of-turn Trap instead. Fortunately, he played the Baneslayer Angel, probably thinking he wanted the Trap in case I countered, and I played Sower and won.”
Here’s the thought process of having a plan and executing it.
Opponent can’t handle Baneslayer Angel.
Opponent has Baneslayer Angel.
I have Sower of Temptation.
I need him to cast Baneslayer Angel.
Leave Noble Hierarch alone,
since he may cast Baneslayer because he thinks he’s safe with Summoning Trap backup.
What I like here is that Sam gets right inside his opponent’s thought process:
As Sam alludes to, there are thought processes by the opponent that would not have resulted in Sam’s successful play. But the opponent didn’t make those moves, and Sam’s insight into his opponent, and the end game, paid off.
…Funny how that works.
“Some would think of Lightning Bolting the Cobra and passing the turn, but my experience in the mirror made me think otherwise. Generally people will follow up a Cobra with a four-drop, one that I can Mana Leak, which lets me Lightning Bolt the Cobra and leave him tapped out and on the receiving end of a Jace beating. If I immediately Lightning Bolt it, he will likely do nothing on his turn, leaving the Jace I wish to play vulnerable to a Mana Leak into Jace, the exact line of play I wish to spring on him.”
Jacob’s Ladder â€”Â Worlds 2010: Blink
I need to resolve Jace.
If my opponent is tapped out, Jace will resolve.
If my opponent has three mana, he passes.
If my opponent has four mana, he casts something.
I need him to have four mana.
Do not Bolt Lotus Cobra
so that he has a way to cast a four-drop, which I can Mana Leak and cast my own Jace.
Again the opponent does what the better player expects:
Spells that cost four are good.
If I have four mana, I will cast something and hope it resolves.
The ideal position is to push your opponent into a corner, where they simply have no options. But that’s rarely possible, so you need to go higher level with bait, traps, and a general sense of how the games will develop. It becomes a chess game, in that you need to see the board rather than the pieces. And also anticipate how things will progress turns in advance. It’s not easy.
For the final portion today, I have some scenarios for the readers to play with. These all occurred in Scars
Limited, with the following post-sideboarded decklist:
A good deck. My opponent was U/W semi-metalcraft. I had seen Auriok Sunchaser, Trinket Mage, Origin Spellbomb, and other random artifact creatures. The first game was decisively won off a quick start with Plague Stinger, Grasp of Darkness, and Untamed Might.
Darkslick Drake in play
What to do?
This game is won by poison.
Darkslick Drake utterly shuts down my infect creatures.
I will have to deal with it before this game can be won
Grasp the Drake.
If I have to kill it anyway, it might as well be now. I get another poison in, where the Fallen may do nothing. I don’t like card disadvantage â€”Â but if it has to be done to win the game, that’s all there is to it.
This part is easy:
Kill is on the board. A 4/1 Stinger hitting twice equals game over.
Glint Hawk is in the way.
Cast Tumble Magnet, tap Hawk, attack with Stinger and pump to 4/1.
This will put him at six counters, and I can do the same thing next turn. He needs do
Kill is on the board.
Glint Hawk needs a tapping.
But he could have a trick.
But it gets a lot harder to win after Acolyte is online.
Same play as before; tap and pump and attack.
He literally needs Disperse or Soul Parry to survive. With a healer about to become active, we need to take our shot.
And wouldn’t you know â€”Â he
have the Disperse. Last card! I replayed the Stinger and passed. My opponent drew and cast something inconsequential to the board. I drew nothing relevant. Now
What to do?
I cannot win this turn
I can give him nine poison counters
To do this, I have to use up my Trigon and Magnet
Is there a reason to do this?
If I draw a removal spell I can end step tap the Acolyte, kill the Hawk, and swing for the kill. This suggests
But if he has another flier or Arrest on my Stinger, it will be harder to come through with my creatures.
Is nine poison and no active artifacts better than six poison with a counter on each?
Yes because I have two Ichor Rats.
Furthermore, I can anticipate my opponent will be more nervous with nine counters. He will not want to risk being aggressive if a single removal spell or Blackcleave Goblin will kill him. Thus, he may give me more time to draw those Rats.
I will use up my artifacts and put him to nine poison,
for the reasons above.
It happened exactly like that. Unfortunately, I never drew those Ichor Rats. He kept drawing creatures and spells â€”Â although, as I anticipated, his Glint Hawk and Acolyte stayed home. Turns later, the board looked like this.
Considering the decklist,
what is the play?
The easy question is whether to cycle the Defiance. But this leads to the bigger question of how we actually expect to win.
Do we want to use the Ichor Rats to win?
to get closer to the Rats before they draw Stoic Rebuttal or Leeches.
Is there another way to win?
Plague Stinger is still a kill if Acolyte and Hawk are taken care of.
Acolyte is defeated by Untamed Might.
Glint Hawk is defeated by a removal spell.
Any other problem?
Flight Spellbomb. If I kill Hawk and attack, my opponent will give something flying and block the Stinger. Solution?
Tel-Jilad Defiance on the creature targeted by Spellbomb.
Hold on to Defiance.
If I draw Ichor Rats, I win. Alternatively I can win by drawing Untamed Might and either Wing Puncture or the second Grasp, as long as I still have Defiance in hand.
So I held on to Defiance. My opponent kept drawing and playing cards, which I defended as best I could. The Fallen traded with a Glimmerpoint Stag, but a Razor Hippogriff threatened big damage. I had since drawn the Untamed Might, and at five life against the same board (plus a tapped Hippogriff), I drew Wing Puncture.
Might on Stinger, Punctured the Hawk, attack. The opponent made the Myr fly with the Spellbomb, I used Defiance, and that was the match.
Interestingly, if the opponent had been more liberal with Glint Hawk I would have lost (which isn’t to say he made the wrong play). Regardless, there was a plan and the draw steps cooperated. Not blindly cycling maximized the chance of winning. It’s nice when a plan comes together.
Purposeful play is the goal for high-level Magic. Are you always going to do decision trees like these and get to the right call? Of course not. But I promise the more you think about the moves you make before you make them, the more often you’ll make the better play.
This is where flavor gets it right. Your goal is destroy your opponent, not their cards. Your cards, their cards, it doesn’t matter; these are your
to construct the end result. Each card is part of the foundation to your castle of win; if you have a card that doesn’t fit into your structure, find another place for it, change your plans, or don’t play it at all. You need to have the picture of the finished project in your head at all times.
No card has the text “you must play this as soon as you draw it.” Magic’s strength comes from its interchangeable parts. The same card you cast as soon as you draw it can be delayed for turns and turns in a different game. Conscious choice over blind instinct, anticipation over reaction, purpose over hope.
This is how high-caliber Magic is played. It’s a lot of work.
It’s a lot of fun, too.
Thanks for reading,