Deep Analysis – Four Heartbreaking Punts… er, Bad Beats

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The Bad Beat story… as timeless as Magic itself. We’ve all been there: our opponent needs a ridiculous series of luck in order to turn our surefire win into a crushing defeat. Does he get there? You betcha. However, Richard believes that at the core of most Bad Beat stories lies a lurking evil, an insidious demon that tells us we could have played better. Today’s Deep Analysis looks at four Bad Beat stories, and translates them into lessons from which we can improve. Another winner from Mr. Feldman!

There are at least two sides to every story. In Magic, there are many, many, many sides to a bad beat story – no matter how convinced the teller is that “there was nothing I could have done.”

Here are four tales of woe presented from two different perspectives: the punt version, and the bad beat version. Both are accurate versions of the stories (as far as I can remember), but only the telling of the first version makes any of us a better player. Check it out.

Story #1: Kavu Predator, Bogardan Hellkite, and Spell Burst

It is game 1 of round 1 of a Time Spiral Block PTQ in Nashville, TN. I am playing Gerry Thompson Relic/Teachings/Blessing deck against G/W/R Kavu Predator piloted by a player who knows what he was doing. We’ve reached the midgame, I’m holding steady at around twelve life, and my opponent casts Kavu Predator with four mana untapped, including two Grove of the Burnwillows. He has three copies of Call of the Herd in his graveyard, and I have played no Damnations this game.

I have eight mana and am holding Bogardan Hellkite, Spell Burst, and Pact of Negation, so I can deal with the Kavu in a number of ways. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe he knew about the Hellkite and the Pact, but not the Spell Burst; let’s assume that was how it happened. Here was my thought process:

The Punt: Missing the Window of Opportunity

His Kavu Predator is on the stack. In selecting what play to make here, I have to think several turns ahead. Let’s say I Spell Burst the Kavu with Buyback, and he uses the rest of his mana to drop Mystic Enforcer. (He hasn’t played any this game, but I can assume he has them. Kavu with Calciderms did not yet exist at this PTQ.) I will have to Pact the Enforcer, meaning on the following turn I will tap five during my upkeep. On the turn after that, my opponent will have free reign to resolve whatever he wants. I will have to hope that the Hellkite in my hand can deal with whatever threat he has coming, which does not sound favorable.

If he doesn’t have an Enforcer, I know his post-Kavu play will be to flash back Call of the Herd. He’s got three in the graveyard, after all, so I can expect that if I let the Kavu resolve, I will still Spell Burst something this turn. Ideally, what I want to do is catch a Mystic Enforcer with the Burst.

So I let the Kavu resolve and Spell Burst the Call flashback – which is paid for, as expected, by two Grove activations. Predator is now 4/4.

I untap and draw nothing of consequence. Now I have some more choices. I can play the Hellkite now, killing the Predator – his only threat – and having Pact ready for any Enforcers he might try to drop on me. However, if I do this, I’m playing right into the situation I decided to avoid earlier, where I’m Pacting if he has Mystic Enforcer and will have no follow-up defense but the 5/5 flying blocker to contend with his play on the following turn. Thus, I decide to pass the turn back and continue to drop Spell Bursts on him.

He flashes back another Call, I Burst it, and he beats with Kavu Predator, now a 6/6.


So far, I have made at least three mistakes. Did you catch them?

First, I failed to evaluate the impact that letting the Kavu resolve would have on his play. I said I was hoping to catch a Mystic Enforcer with Spell Burst, but why would he drop an Enforcer instead of flashing Call once he has a Kavu on the table? I have not yet cast a Damnation, and Kavu backed up by two Groves and an Elephant is a big enough clock by itself; why upgrade from seven damage on the table (a two-turn clock) to ten damage on the table (also a two-turn clock) when losing an extra Big Threat is at stake?

Once I had let the Predator resolve, I should have clearly cast Hellkite in response to the Call of the Herd flashback. If I do this, then the board stands with my 5/5 Flying staring down his 3/3 Elephant that will not grow any larger – much unlike the Predator. Then I untap with Spell Burst mana and Pact in hand to defend the Kite from having a Fiery Justice forced through to remove it. Meantime, I either draw more lands and make my Spell Burst even deadlier, or I draw more business spells, and lessen the consequences of having my stable board position disrupted. Any of these are awesome outcomes, and I’m almost positive that this would have been the correct way to play that turn.

Still, given that I did not make the correct play of casting Hellkite in response to Call, I further worsened my position by failing to play the Hellkite on my next turn to kill the Predator while it was still 4/4 and my opponent was tapped out. Waiting for another turn meant I had two poor choices to make: either let him tap both Groves, give me two life, and then respond to the second Kavu trigger by Hellkiting it while it was still just a 5/5 – setting myself up for a blowout if he has Temporal Isolation, Thrill of the Hunt, or Stonewood Invocation – or let it grow to 6/6 and trade my Hellkite for it later.

For no defensible reason, I let it grow to 6/6, and then had to trade the Hellkite for it later – after taking far more damage from the Kavu than I should have, to boot. The Flashed Calls then put me in a position where I had to blow my Pact on a generic threat, and I was eventually Disintegrated out.

The Bad Beat: He drew how many of those?

This guy drew three copies of Call of the Herd, and flashed them all back. How many Damnations did I draw? None. Seriously, not even one. I play four Damnations, he plays four Calls. He draws three, I draw zero. Nothing I can do about it. How am I supposed to beat that?

Story #2: Kagemaro, Exile into Darkness, and Umezawa’s Jitte

This happened two years ago at a Kamigawa Block PTQ. I was watching a well-known Gifts player (whose name I’ll leave off, ’cause he’s a good guy) face off against White Weenie. The White Weenie player had an Umezawa’s Jitte with no counters on it, and two 1/1 Flying dorks. The Gifts player was holding Kagemaro and a land, while his opponent had one card in hand. Naturally, the Gifts player returned Exile into Darkness from his graveyard to his hand on his upkeep. He then debated between two reasonable choices: cast the Exile to kill one of the two dorks, or summon and activate Kagemaro to clear the board.

The Punt: Underestimating a Threat

The Gifts player goes for the Exile. White Weenie sacrifices one of the Lantern Kamis, untaps, draws, equips Jitte to the survivor, and bashes, adding two counters to the Jitte. He then plays another dork and passes back.

The Gifts player again returns Exile, and thinks. Kagemaro is no longer an option here, as the Lantern Kami is effectively a 5/5 thanks to the Jitte, and Kagemaro now gives only -2/-2 to everything at this stage. The random new dork dies to Exile, and the turn is White Weenie’s again.

WW mashes for five with the Kami, and plays another dude. He passes back, and again the Gifts player removes the dork with Exile. Kagemaro now gives -3/-3 to everything, but that’s still not enough.

WW draws, plays yet another dork, and crushes with the Jitte-wielding menace. The Gifts player still cannot Kagemaro the threat, and dies to the next attack.

This is one of the most frustrating ways to lose a game of Magic. You see the opponent’s one card in hand, you know that the only way casting Exile will do anything but run him out of guys and put you way ahead on cards is if he topdecks a steady stream of creatures… and then he goes and topdecks a steady stream of creatures.

Still, let’s go back and evaluate the choice to go down that road.

Originally, the Gifts player could have either played Kagemaro to kill both creatures when there were no Jitte counters, or he could have played Exile. Suppose he goes for Kagemaro instead of Exile. What does the opponent do after Kage has cleared his board? If he just plays one creature to recover, Gifts Guy kills it right away with Exile at no significant expense, so that’s a poor option. If WW plays out two creatures, to buffer against Exile, it’s the same situation as it was the first time around – except now it’s going to be significantly harder (two consecutive creature topdecks’ worth, to be exact) for him to race Exiles with Jitte, because he’s already lost two creatures to Kagemaro; now he needs to have an even longer stream of miraculous topdecks to win the game.

As I hadn’t seen the rest of the match, I can’t say if the Gifts player had figured out whether the opponent was playing Hokori, Dust Drinker or not. If he might have been, though, committing to Exile is even worse. Forcing yourself into a position where you must tap out for a Sorcery each turn is a fantastic way to walk into a Hokori and an immediate loss.

Now, I understand the allure of the Exile chain – if it works, you get to keep your Kagemaro, and can play him as a beefy 5/5-ish finisher when the dust clears. But if you get to the point where you have run the opponent completely out of threats, he is in topdeck mode, you are up five cards, and have Exile recursion going… are you going to lose this game? Do you really need the Kagemaro right then to seal this deal? Or are you going to win anyway, because by the time he mounts an offense again through your Exile buffer, you will have drawn another Kagemaro, a Gifts Ungiven, more removal with which to put the game state back to an amazingly favorable position, or something else with which to kill him? It doesn’t seem like much of a tough call when you look at it that way.

The Bad Beat: Constant Topdecks!

Okay, so he has one card in hand, two guys, and a Jitte. I’m fine on life. I Exile one of the guys. He draws, beats with Jitte dude, and plays another guy. Fine, right? He had another guy in reserve, no biggie. Next turn, I do it again. He topdecks another guy. Okay, that’s lucky – but there’s no way he’s going to keep doing it, right? Next turn, same deal. Same thing turn after that. He just rips creatures every single turn. If he even misses one creature topdeck, I win. But no, he just lucksacks me out, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Story #3: Urza’s Factory, Gaea’s Blessing, and Triskelavus

I am 3-1 at a GenCon PTQ, again with Relics and Blessings. Based on his early morphed Vesuvan Shapeshifter and Deserts, I initially believe him to be Pickles… but as the turns wear on, maindeck Aeon Chronicler shows up, and more and more Black mana appears, I begin to think he is actually some sort of U/B Control deck. Time ticks on, and it becomes increasingly apparent that whoever wins this game will take the match.

He has two Deserts that are blunting my Urza’s Factory, while I have Teachings going and a Pact of Negation in hand. I have already cast one of my two Gaea’s Blessings and want to save the Pact to make sure I can force through the second Blessing. If I can pull that off, I’ll eventually be able to shuffle Pact back in, fetch it out with Tolaria West, and protect the future Blessings as well.

I tutor up Haunting Hymn when the opponent has four cards in hand, and cast it on him. It is met with Cancel. Do I Pact the Cancel?

The Punt: Over-Committing to a Plan

I do not Pact the Cancel, saving it instead to protect Gaea’s Blessing as planned. After all, I think, clearing his hand out doesn’t let me start getting in with Urza’s Factory (through the two Deserts) any more than before. Instead, I start chaining Teachings into Careful Considerations, burning through my deck in search of Triskelavus or the second Blessing.

The turns wear on, the opponent gets a Factory as well, and I start amassing some tokens with my dual factories; these will help Triskelavus take him down when I finally draw it. Eventually I am down to two cards in my library. I still have not seen the second Blessing or Triskelavus, but I am quite sure of where they are.

I draw for my turn, and it is Triskelavus. I summon it, ready to break the Factory war in half, and pass the turn. Without hesitation, the opponent casts Take Possession on Academy Ruins. As he is still over 20 life, I cannot kill him next turn.

I draw the last card in my library, Gaea’s Blessing, and cast it. The opponent plays another of his Cancels. I Pact. He Cancels again, something I did not think he could muster after having gone through only half of his library. I lose.

Where did I go wrong?

Rewind to the part where I can try to force through Haunting Hymn or not. There were two things I was fearing at that point in the game: one, that moving all-in on the Factory would let him recover by giving him time to draw cards and then reset periodically with Damnation, until he found a Factory of his own. (That was a minor concern.) Two, since I did not yet know if he was Pickles or not, I was afraid that he was hoarding combo pieces and could drop Teferi and Brine Elemental on me in the long game if I threw my Pact away now.

What I failed to realize was that emptying my opponent’s hand would make the things I was afraid of moot points.

Two Deserts are no match for Urza’s Factory when I have emptied the opponent’s hand of removal, as I can just stockpile three turns’ worth of tokens, turn them sideways a few times, and take it home despite losing one token on each attack. Sure, maybe he topdecks one Damnation, but that’s only going to buy him another three turns or so. As long as I’ve emptied out his reserves, there’s no way he can stand up to my Factory without drawing one of his own, and I’m only a Careful or two away from hitting sixteen mana and two Factories anyway.

As for the Pickles lock, Hymning away his hand means I have no stockpiled combo pieces to worry about. He’s got only a few turns to draw into his combo before my Factory does him in, and that’s what matters here.

As it turned out, one of the three remaining cards in his hand – after the Cancel he played – was the Take Possession that did me in, and he did not have another counter in hand for my Pact. He also took quite a few turns to draw his Urza’s Factory, so I would have almost certainly gotten him had I abandoned my inevitability plan and just gotten behind the Hymn instead.

The Bad Beat: What Are The Odds?

Okay, so I’m setting up for the long game…I’ve got a Gaea’s Blessing and Triskelavus left in my deck, Academy Ruins on the table and Pact of Negation in my hand for backup. All I have to do is sit back and wait to draw one of them, right? So I’m sitting there, drawing, drawing…I get through my whole deck, and my opponent still has half of his left. I’m up a million cards. Turns out, second-to-last card is Triskelavus, last card is Blessing. I play Triskelavus, he plays maindeck Take Possession. Still okay, right? Last card is Blessing to get me out of this, he already used up a Cancel, has only seen half his library, and I have Pact backup. So I go to play Blessing. He Cancels it, I Pact it, and he Cancels again. Nothing I could do about it. Seriously, what are the odds my last two cards are Triskelavus and Blessing? Man!

Story #4: Triskelavus, Tarmogoyf, and Thrill of the Hunt

The matchup was G/W aggro against Relic Teachings; I came in when there were about twenty minutes left in the round. The Teachings player had just dropped Triskelavus, with Academy Ruins and at least ten mana on the table, against a board of Tarmogoyf and five lands. The life totals are 12-18, in G/W’s favor, and the Relic player is holding one card – an irrelevant maindeck bullet – to the G/W player’s three. Say you’re the Relic guy and G/W brings with Tarmogoyf. What should you do?

The Punt: Misassignment of Role = Game Loss

The Relic player makes some tokens, chumps the Goyf with Triskelavus, and asks, “Done?” Not quite. G/W plays Call of the Herd and another Tarmogoyf and passes. Triskelavus gets put back on top, and comes out to play again next turn. The flyers crash in and bring the life totals to 12-15, still in G/W’s favor, and Big Daddy Trisk sits back to do some blocking.

Next turn, the Goyfs and the Elephant come across, and again they are chumped – this time by Trisk and two tokens – and the Elephant is finished off by winged Mogg Fanatic pings… or so it appears. G/W plays Thrill of the Hunt before combat damage resolves, saving the token and swinging the tempo in his favor. This time there are four flying tokens left over, though, so Relic is still coming out ahead. G/W flashes the Call of the Herd and ships it back.

Several turns and several topdecked G/W monsters later, the Ruins player decides he cannot win the on-table race he committed to earlier. He elects to block a Tarmogoyf with Triskelavus, with plans to finish it off, and is stunned by a second Thrill of the Hunt that puts him even further behind. More topdecked juice from the top of the G/W player’s library puts the Relic guy completely on his heels, and eventually he succumbs.

Could this have been avoided? Absolutely.

Why race the beatdown deck right now with Triskelavus when you could kill all his guys and then start racing at your leisure? If he beats with Tarmogoyf, just block! Get that Goyf out of there, and keep getting all his future guys out of there – every one he sends into the red zone – until you’re ready to start working on his life total with impunity. With only twenty minutes left in the round, chances are not good that you will be able to win game 2 if you lose game 1, but if you win game 1, all you have to do is hang on for dear life until time runs out in the second game to take the match.

So why race the Goyf? Even if he has Thrill of the Hunt (which he didn’t, yet), that just means you trade your Trisk and all its tokens for his Thrill of the Hunt plus flashback. That’s a terrible deal in terms of mana efficiency, but you know he’s got two Thrills, tops, in his deck, and you’re still fine on life because you haven’t been trying to race him. Just keep doing exactly that until he runs out of creatures, and you’ll be fine. If he declines to attack, then you get your draw step back. As soon as you draw a Damnation or a Teachings, his decision to not attack you will come back and bite him, big time. You’ll just start smashing with Triskelavus and making up all the counterattack damage by clearing his board and/or hitting him with Tendrils. It’s a monstrously safer position.

We Magic players can be an impatient bunch at times, and all too often we overvalue winning quickly, when the real priority is just winning in the first place. It might seem like there’s no way he can topdeck his way into winning a race against your recurring fleet of Triskelavites, but, well, what if he topdecks? If the only way you can lose this game is if you play for the fast win and he topdecks, then why give him that option? Why not put him in a situation where there is no way he can win this game, topdecks be damned?

The Bad Beat: Perfect Draws!

I have him locked with recurring Triskelavus. I start racing, and he just starts jamming out guys. Two Tarmogoyfs, a Call of the Herd – oh, and it looks like I’m still fine to race, until he also has a perfectly-timed Thrill of the Hunt. I get rid of the Thrill, keep bashing, and he just plays more and more guys. Never drew another land, just all spells. Nothing I could do about it – seriously perfect draws.

The Moral of the Stories

If you learned anything from the recounting of any of these stories, consider how you might approach your next bad beat story. Have you ever been in the situation where you feel the game slipping away because the opponent topdecked, and are mentally preparing your bad beat story? Don’t do it. Instead, think about what you could have done differently.

Sure, it’s more dramatic if you focus on how lucky the other guy got, and bad beat stories are a timeless tradition in competitive Magic, but they don’t make you better. You might not get as much sympathy from your friends if you focus on what you could have done differently instead of the opponent’s good fortune, but I’m damn sure you’ll learn more from the experience.

Often, the other guy doesn’t get lucky, and you never have the chance to punt in the first place. It’s the times when he does, though, that separate the men from the boys. It’s when only the smallest of margins can tear victory from your grasp that you are forced to choose between asking Fate to deliver you a match win, and reaching out and taking that damn thing, no matter how lucky the other guy might get.

Think about it.

Until next time,

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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