For a long time, I wondered how to write this article. I wrote some outlines, but they never seemed good. They were usually too simplistic, or obvious, and I’d have a lot of information without any true structure. This is a new attempt, based on examples — I think that makes it easier to understand, and it doesn’t look like I’m just throwing information in there. These stories are usually exaggerations of the point I want to make, but the point is valid for all games of Magic. Some of those stories I’ve eye-witnessed myself, and the others are all true (to the best of my knowledge). They (mostly) occurred at relatively large and important events, such as Nationals Qualifiers, PTQs, and large pre-releases. I hope you can get something out of them.
Player A: What life are you on?
Player B: Eight.
Player A: Eight… wanna gain two life?
Player B: Hmm… sure.
Player A: Thanks! Hidetsugu’s Second Rite, targeting you.
Moral of the story: your opponent is not your friend. Everything he does, he does for a reason… and the reason is to beat you.
There is actually another moral to be drawn from this — know every card in the format. Still, even if the card “Hidetsugu’s Second Rite” didn’t exist, there is no reason for you to actually say yes to his request, since obviously nothing good can come out of it. The important point here is that your opponent’s ultimate goal is to win the game, and all of his actions will reflect that. Generally, I’m not a “poker player” type of Magic player. Some people can tell which card you drew by your expression, but I don’t have that ability. I wish I had. Instead, I’m more of a “technical player.” I infer the cards you have based on the way you play, not the face you make. Something like “I know you don’t have a Lightning Bolt in hand, because, if you had, you would have played this way, instead of the way you played” instead of “I know he doesn’t have a Lightning Bolt in hand, because, if he had, he would be smiling in a certain way.”
You can draw a lot of conclusions based on what your opponents are doing, if you know that their goal is to kill you and not to help you in any way. In the example I gave, assuming seriousness (of course, no one would ask that in a Pro Tour), you have to start asking yourself why he wants you to gain two life. It could be the Rite, it could be Magus of the Mirror; it could be anything, but he has a reason. I remember one of my most rewarding playtesting sessions ever, at David Ochoa’s house, with David, Paul Cheon, and Luis Scott-Vargas. There was a game in which Paul had an Ancestral Visions suspended with one counter left, and Luis passed the turn when Paul was tapped out. He then attempted to Pull From Eternity the Ancestral Visions into Paul’s open mana, to which Paul started thinking out loud: “Why would you that? Why would you not have played that last turn, when I was tapped out? Why do you want to give me the opportunity to counter it? You probably have Imp’s Mischief… nice play Luis… against worse players, you might get away with it!”
So Paul binned his Ancestral Visions, and it turned out Luis did have Imp’s Mischief. The reason Paul was able to infer that was that he knows Luis is a good player, and since Luis wants to win the game, there has to be a reason why he made that “mistake” — he is certainly not helping Paul by giving him an opportunity to counter the Pull. I learned a lesson that day (in fact, I learned many lessons, which culminated in three of us making Top 8 with near exact lists).
Player A: Play Life From the Loam (on turn 2, with no targets)
Played B: Spell Snare it!
Moral of the story: In order to play your cards correctly, you need more than the opportunity to play them, you need the reason.
Sometimes, people seem to forget that they don’t have to play their cards. People are so caught up in the “maximize your mana” thing that they want to play their spells whenever they are able, but that’s not always true. I play against some people who make it look like all my spells have Provoke, because, given the opportunity, they’ll counter or kill anything. What, attempting to play Llanowar Elves turn 15? No sir, Cryptic Command! You have a Spellstutter Sprite? I’ll Wrath of God that, thank you!
You have to be aware that Magic is a game of decisions, and every choice of playing a card has to be conscious. You can’t play a card just because it’s there. The most common example is playing a Cunning Wish or a Tutor and then spending infinite time thinking of what you want to get. If you didn’t know what you wanted, why did you play the spell in the first place? Those spells might as well read “name a card and go get it” instead of “look through your library/sideboard and then decide.” You have to know what you want before you cast the spell; you don’t just cast Cunning Wish because you happened to have three mana left this turn. When you are going to cast a Profane Command, you shouldn’t think “I’ll —x/-x your guy and… hmmmmm.” You have to know why you are playing the spells you are playing.
Player A (at 2 life): Activate Blinkmoth Nexus, attack. Then play Pyroclasm.
Player B: Okay, kill your Nexus.
Player A: Oooh, can I take that back? Just Pyroclasm then attack?
Player B: No, sorry.
Player A: Okay. (Bins his Nexus)
Player B then draws Molten Rain… but now that Nexus is dead, there are no non-basics in play. Player A proceeds to draw a bunch of useful spells and wins the game because his opponent never had a target for his game-winning Molten Rain.
Moral of the story: Bad plays will, sometimes, win the game.
This goes back to following point: “you shouldn’t be results-oriented.” To me, this is the prime example that winning doesn’t mean you made the right play. Much has been said about this in past articles, so I’m not going to dwell on it… instead, I’ll try to apply it in a different situation. Many times, when we mulligan, we look at the top of our decks to see what we would’ve drawn. “Man, I should have kept that hand!” Then we draw a similar hand next game, keep, and never get there. This is being results-oriented; you should not do it. Some people never look. I always look, but I like to think I have enough self-control not to let it influence my future decisions. Sure, if you looked at the top of your deck a thousand times, and found out that 78% of the time you would have gotten there, you have some reason to believe you’ll “get there” again, but it’s probably easier to just do the math than rely on getting there (and who does that a thousand times with similar hands and the same deck?).
Another example of this is when you have chosen your deck for a tournament, and you spent the whole month before playing the deck. You drew a handful of conclusions. Then, one day before the tournament, you play against your friend Jack… and he beats you with the deck you thought you should beat. This turns your world upside down, and you go and change everything in your deck, or even change decks, because you can’t really accept losing to Jack. If you are going to do that, why did you play for a whole month? You already knew you beat Jack’s deck, because you played 100 games against it. Now you lose three matches, and suddenly those matches take precedence over a whole month of testing? That doesn’t make sense. You should be results-oriented in this situation, but be results-oriented during a whole month and not during a single day. I’m sure that, had your losses to Jack been your first three, you would not have cared about them. Since they were the last, they were stuck on your mind. In the end, the result is still 70-33 no matter the order they were played.
Player A: How many cards do you have in hand?
Played B: Three.
Player A: What are they?
Played B: These. (reveals his hand)
Moral of the story: Don’t give your opponent information you don’t have to.
Information is precious in a game of Magic. The more information you have, the more you minimize luck, which should be a goal at the top level. There is no reason to give your opponent more information than he is due.
Say, for instance, your opponent is taking a mulligan. Let him finish it! Even if your hand is zero lands and you aren’t keeping it no matter how far he goes, there is no reason to let him know you are taking a mulligan too. He might end up keeping a hand he wouldn’t keep otherwise because you are also on six (or less). I know some people who like mulliganing in conjunction to save time. I am of the opinion that if you have to give away that bit of information because those two extra minutes are going to be very precious in every single game, you should probably change the deck you are playing; you are going to get draws regardless.
On the same level, if you have a spell that costs five to play after attack, there is no reason to play a fifth land before attacking — all that will do is make him consider that spell when he is going to block.
This can be more subtle. Imagine you are playing Zoo. Then you draw, keep, play Wooded Foothills, get Stomping Ground, and pause. That tells your opponent you have more than one spell to play with Stomping Ground, but you can’t decide between them. Now imagine you draw, keep, use Wooded Foothills, and then pause to think. This tells your opponent that you have more than one spell to play with the land you are getting, or that you have multiple options in the land you can fetch. Now imagine you draw your hand and think! You could either be thinking about which land to get, which spell to play with that land, whether you are mulliganing your hand or not, or something different altogether (like your plan for the game), and he has no way of knowing which.
When you think, think about everything. If you think about things as they are happening, you give your opponent a lot of information just by telling him that you have something to think about. Sometimes, of course, it can’t be helped — your opponent just played Covenant of Minds and you have to decide between letting them have the three cards or not. If you even think about it, he’ll know those cards are important, but you have to think about it – you couldn’t have thought previously “so, if he played Covenant of Minds and revealed those three specific cards, what would I do?” Most of the time, however, the decision you are making could already have been made, in a moment where your opponent would not have drawn any conclusions from it.
On the same level, since information is so important to your opponent, it’s very important to you too, and there is no reason to deny yourself every bit of it. Why play a land before you play Ponder? Why attack before you play Harmonize? The cards you see might change your decisions, and you’ll see those cards anyway, so you might as well see them before you make those decisions. Or you might think that it’s better to attack without telling them you are going to play a card drawing spell so that it doesn’t change the way they are blocking — this could happen, but it has to be a conscious decision either way.
An important card nowadays to work that with is Windbrisk Heights. Usually you have the option of playing it before or after attacking. Sometimes it’s correct to play it before attacking, so you know what you have in it and can plan your attack with information from the next turn already. Sometimes, you won’t even attack if it’s a good card, whereas you’ll attack if it’s a bad card because you don’t mind losing your guys. There are moments, however, that playing it before attacking will help your opponent more than it’ll help you — it might be that he now blocks in a way he wouldn’t block before, just to prevent you from having three creatures. In those situations, you have to be able to analyze which information is more important, to have and to give, but you have to make sure you know why you are playing it before or after your attack.
I’d like to point out under this that you should also be careful when you shuffle your deck, as not to give away what you are playing. This can be precious information, and it might win the game for your opponent — do not, absolutely do not let him look at your cards while you are shuffling.
Player A: Hidetgusu’s Second Rite, targeting you.
Played B (obviously at 10 life): Hmm…. (thinks for minutes)… Okay, I’ve got it. In response, I’ll play Lightning Helix targeting myself!”
Moral of the story: Overthinking is dangerous. You don’t need the flashy play; you only need to win the game.
This story embarrassingly reminds me of my own Lightning Helix play in Berlin. What can be learned from it is that sometimes you think too much because you want to make the awesome play, but the right play is just in front of you.
I have a friend who says that when you think too much you end up making the wrong decision. This is not always true, but he has a point. Sometimes you have to think of far too many things, and you end up forgetting the very first thing you thought, or you take it for granted when you shouldn’t. You don’t need to impress anyone, no matter how many people are watching your game. You should never think “what will those people watching my game think of me if I do this play?” They are irrelevant, it’s you playing, not them. The simple play is sometimes the best, and by doing it you are not admitting you didn’t see the most complicated play, just that, even though you knew what the most complicated play was, you decided the simple play was better.
This is turn four of the extra turns. Player A has this turn, and player B has one last turn. Both players are at 6 life. Player B has 5 power in play, so he absolutely cannot kill player A in time.
Player A: Tap City of Brass, take 1, go to 5, Shrapnel Blast you to 1, go.
Player B: Attack for 5, kill you.
The match is over
Player B: Why did you cast that Shrapnel Blast? You didn’t kill me, and I killed you because you took one damage!
Player B: I’m playing a Red deck, I have to be aggressive.
Moral of the story: Magic is a sequenced game. It’s not a game of moments. You can’t analyze each play as an individual thing. Your choices must all be made with the whole game in mind.
I know, I know, this is not a good example of that — this is one occasion in which you have to consider the play in isolation — but I like the example because of how much the idea was stuck in that person’s mind, to the point where they ignored everything else, even the fact that your goal is to win the game. If I had to say what differs between a good player and bad player, it would be this — the notion that you are playing a whole game, and not a bunch of turns.
A lot of times, people don’t seem to consider the consequences of what they are doing for the whole game, only for that particular moment. Playing an untapped dual land so you can play your Mogg Fanatic seems like a good thing, but there are some matchups in which it’s better to just play your tapped dual and pass because your life total is the most important resource.
Sometimes, when people look at their opening hands, they simply think “good/not good” when deciding to mulligan or not. What you have to do is consider if that hand is good enough to let you win that particular game. It doesn’t matter if it’s good in abstract if it doesn’t have the tools to let you win that particular matchup — in Zoo versus Elves, for example, a hand of two Wild Nacatl, Kird Ape, Dark Confidant, three lands is not keepable, because it doesn’t contribute to the whole game. If you look at this hand in a vacuum, it’s very good, but for this game it doesn’t meet the expectations.
Another very good example of that is my Charleston finals match, against Saito himself. They knew, from the beginning, what their game plan had to be — to burn me out. They had a bad matchup and found a solution for it, and they got rewarded for it. Some players would just have played it “as it went”, but they had a plan from the beginning and they stuck to it. Each turn was played with that particular goal in mind, with the whole picture in mind. Certainly the right play is not to Char your opponent on their end step when he is at 20 — but, in that game, it was.
You must also look at the overall picture when sideboarding. Each card is going to be part of your deck — that the card is good or bad versus a certain deck is not enough. It’s not uncommon to have a card in the first version of your sideboard and then, during playtesting, finding out that you don’t really want that card — that’s because the card was there as a solo player, and the overall picture had not being taken into account.
Player A (with Solitary Confinement and Mikokoro, Center of the Sea in play): Pass.
Player B (playing Goblins, with no outs in his entire deck): Pass.
Player A: (Draws a card for his turn)… oops.
Player B: Judge!
Judge: Yeah, that’s a game loss.
(Player B ended up going 9-0 on Day 2 and winning the entire Grand Prix).
Moral of the Story: until the result slip is signed, there is always a way for you to lose the game.
A lot of players play super-tight when they are losing and relaxed when they are winning. I have to admit I’m one of them — a little less so now, because I’m forcing myself to change, but I still do it more than I’d like to. The games you are winning are the most dangerous ones. Some time ago, someone wrote that there were four types of games in Magic — the ones you should win and do, the ones your opponent should win and does, the ones he should win but you manage to snatch, and the ones you should win but let slip away. If you win, you win. Sometimes, he wins and you can’t do anything about it. What you can’t do is let slip away the games you should win. You have all the control over those games — it depends entirely on you.
When you are in a very good position, you have to start thinking what sequence of draws or plays he could have that would make him win the game. You have to think exactly what he is thinking in this situation — that is, the way he has to play to win if he draws the perfect sequence of cards.
Many times I catch myself thinking “oh, what if he draws this, and this, and then this? Then my play is bad… well, he is not going to draw all those cards in a row…” and I make the play anyway. Of course, sometimes they do draw the cards they need, and I get punished for my sloppy play — I lose the game because I don’t want to spend another ten seconds considering it. It’s like the Japan versus Netherlands finals in Paris — the Japanese had the game firmly in control, and then played sloppily and let Robert draw a sequence of three perfect cards to take the game back.
When you are almost winning, stop and think for a moment of what will have to happen for you to lose the game, and act to prevent that. If it doesn’t happen, you’ve lost only 30 seconds of your life. If it does happen, you’ve gotten yourself an extra game.
I guess that sums up all the points I wanted to make — there is nothing much to conclude that I haven’t concluded already. I hope I made myself clear, not being overly complicated for the beginners or overly obvious for the more experienced. If everything goes well (i.e. I don’t crash and burn), I’ll be back to my usual self with a Worlds report… wish me luck!
Thanks for reading.