Let that word linger and simmer in the boiling pot of your mind for a second. Slowly stir it around. Consider what it means. Invoke its power.
In a game of Magic, “why?” is the most important question in your mental arsenal.
Each action made in a game of Magic has one simple principle behind it: in some way or another it serves to further its controller’s course of victory. Whenever your opponent does something during a game, he or she is taking that action because they believe it will ultimately help them achieve victory. Your opponent has a plan in their mind, and “all” you have to do is figure out what it is. By doing so, you can hopefully find a way to foil their scheme. To help yourself figure out the reasoning behind each action your opponent takes, one of the most important processes you can employ during a game is to ask yourself “why?” every time your opponent makes a play.
Because by asking yourself “why?” when your opponent makes a play, you can deduce what they might have in their hand or what they are trying to build up towards in the game. For example, if your opponent plays a turn 1 painland in Standard it tells you a lot of information about their hand from that single innocuous play.
Well, if they played a painland and passed the turn then they probably kept a land-light (or painland heavy!) hand. Consider what would drive them to play a painland on the first turn. Let’s use a typical B/W Tokens manabase as an example. Their manabase has Reflecting Pool, Windbrisk Heights, Arcane Sanctum, Caves of Koilos, Fetid Heath, Mutavault and a few basic lands. If they had one of their two different comes-into-play-tapped lands, they would have played one. Reflecting Pool is better than Caves of Koilos on the first turn because they can play Caves a turn later and have the same manabase set up as they would have previously. Additionally, if they lead on Reflecting Pool and draw a Fetid Heath, then Reflecting Pool becomes better than Caves of Koilos: they can produce WW, WB, or BB without any pain. If they draw a Windbrisk Heights on turn 2 and want to play it, they’re not going to mystically need the single Black mana they didn’t need on turn one. If they have a Plains, playing it is better than Caves of Koilos because they can still access WW on turn 2 in case they have a Knight of Meadowgrain.
Swamp and Mutavault are the two lands you could play on turn 1 over Caves of Koilos if you have a Knight of Meadowgrain in your hand and no non-painland White source – and even those two have their disadvantages to play first depending on your hand. There are few good reasons to play a turn 1 Caves of Koilos and pass if given the option of other lands, unless they feel like they need to keep mana up for Path to Exile. On the other hand, the information they provide completely changes when they play a spell off of their painland.
If they play a spell off a painland, it generally means their hand doesn’t have a basic land of that color. The exception comes in with spells which cost one mana of a certain color and then two mana of a different color. (Like Thoughtseize and Knight of Meadowgrain.) In those instances, they would start off with Caves of Koilos and then play a Plains on turn 2. While that scenario doesn’t tell you as much information as painland go, they probably don’t have a Reflecting Pool in their hand. Even information like this can still be important.
If they play a Reflecting Pool next turn it means they haven’t drawn some preferable two drop – namely Bitterblossom – and if they play a Tidehollow Sculler it gives you information about which they’re likely to play out first in future games. If they play the card you’re sure they didn’t have last turn, then either one of two things happened: they drew it or they value their card sequence in a different order than you do. Of course, this is just one example. There is all kinds of other information to be gleaned from the simplest of plays such as fetchlands, for instance.
The lands people search for with fetchlands can broadcast an entire strategy, but the free information they provide is often ignored. If your Five-Color Zoo opponent fetches for a Steam Vents on turn 1 and plays a Kird Ape, this quick action says a lot about their hand.
They wouldn’t have searched for a Steam Vents unless they had a reason why. They weren’t worried about not having the right colors, so they probably have two other lands in their hand which are going to fix their mana. Why wouldn’t they play a different Red source first? They fetched their off color for Tribal Flames and Might of Alara (Blue) and the color they needed (Red) which is a signal that the other two lands in their hand are dual lands which produce GBW. So the rest of their lands currently in hand are a combination of Overgrown Tomb, Temple Garden, and Godless Shrine. Lastly, a turn 1 Steam Vents prevents a turn 2 Tidehollow Sculler or Gaddock Teeg which means they’re unlikely to have either of those cards in their hand. This doesn’t mean they’re devoid of two-drops, you still want to leave Spell Snare up for a possible Tarmogoyf or Dark Confidant, but you can worry less about cards getting shut off or plucked out of your hand. In addition to hinting at what’s in your opponent’s hand, fetchlands and dual lands can also give you a sneak peak at your opponent’s sideboard plan.
Let’s use the Faeries mirror as the example this time. As a hardened student of Faeries mirror matches, I watched a mirror match take place the other day to see how other players were playing the matchup. Afterwards, the losing player came up to me and bemoaned about losing with Engineered Explosives stuck in his hand. “My opponent told me afterward he didn’t have Bitterblossom in his deck, but I couldn’t take out Explosives in case he did,” he began. “If only my Explosives were some of the cards I had sideboarded out!”
Had he been paying attention, he would have noticed on turn 6 of the previous game that his opponent, who had nary a River of Tears or Secluded Glen in sight, did not have a Watery Grave in his deck to cast the dreaded enchantment. On that turn his opponent had Steam Vents and Breeding Pool in play, and cracked a Flooded Strand at the end of his opponent’s turn finding… an Island. Why would he only find an Island? If there was a Watery Grave in his deck, he would have fetched for it there to prevent drawing it later. If it was in his hand, he would have either played it sometime before this turn or within the next two turns. He did neither. Of course, this situation also works the other way. If you see a Watery Grave game 1, you should expect them to have access to Bitterblossom game 2. Speaking of the Blue mirror, it’s especially important you ask “why?” to each spell they play on your turn.
The key to Blue mirrors is to trick your opponent into resolving the spell you want to resolve. To illustrate the importance of asking “why?” there’s a story from a Time Spiral Block playtesting session where Paul Cheon lets a tapped-out Luis Scott-Vargas untap and casts Pull from Eternity on Luis’ Ancestral Vision with the trigger to remove its last counter on the stack. Luis thinks for a second, realizes the only reason Paul would let him untap instead of Paul casting it on his turn would be so that Luis would counter the Pull and leave him open to Paul’s Imp’s Mischief. Luis realized why Paul would play the way he did and promptly let the Pull resolve.
In current Extended, if your opponent in the Faeries mirror casts an end step Thirst for Knowledge on your turn 4 going into their turn 5, the immediate reaction is to reach for the countermagic for their draw three. Hold up! They’re playing this on your turn 4. Why? They either drew it last turn or wanted to play it on turn 4 instead of turn 3. The first situation is possible, but it’s more likely they held it. Why would they want to play it on your turn 4? They either wanted to keep mana up for Spell Snare or trick you into reaching for a counterspell so they could resolve what they really wanted to resolve.
There’s a good chance they have Spell Snare backup, but could they really want to resolve that’s better than Thirst for Knowledge? Vedalken Shackles? Glen Elendra Archmage? Future Sight?!? This is the part where you have to figure out if it’s worth countering based on your hand. Where is the poison? If you think the worst they can do is Glen Elendra Archmage and you have a Sower in your hand, then by all means try to counter it and “open yourself up” to their Archmage. If you think they still have Shackles and your hand is two Mana Leaks, you might just want to shrug and allow the Thirst to resolve. This situation is already starting to become much more complex than the previous examples, and you’ll find that over the course of the game these kind of situations become even more complex.
As the game goes on, there is naturally more and more to remember. Each decision your opponent makes is important, and you have to try and remember all of them while still playing in a timely manner. I’m going to end this article by providing five complex examples which occur over the first few turns of the game, each with a lot to analyze. I think you’ll find that your opponent gives away a lot more information in seemingly-simple plays than you may have originally thought possible.
You are on the draw in the second game of an Extended Faeries mirror. Your opening hand is Spellstutter Sprite, Spell Snare, Glen Elendra Archmage, Island, Riptide Laboratory, Flooded Strand, Flooded Strand. Your opponent plays River of Tears into a Thoughtseize and chooses Spellstutter Sprite. What can this tell you about your opponent’s hand and their plan this game?
You are playing Bant Aggro in Extended. You are on the play in the first game and your opening hand is Island, Forest, Mystic Gate, Tarmogoyf, Umezawa’s Jitte, Ethersworn Canonist, Mana Leak. You play an Island and say go, and your opponent plays a Flooded Strand and says go. On your second turn you draw a Trygon Predator and play Forest, Tarmogoyf. At the end of your turn your opponent sacrifices Flooded Strand for Steam Vents, then untaps, plays a Riptide Laboratory, and says go. You draw an Oblivion Ring and play Trygon Predator. At the end of your turn your opponent flashes in a Spellstutter Sprite and then untaps, plays an Island, and ships the turn back to you. At this point, what can you tell about your opponent’s hand and their plan this game?
You are playing Extended RGW Zoo on the draw in game 1 and keep a hand of Stomping Ground, Wooded Foothills, Mogg Fanatic, Keldon Maruaders, Wild Nacatl, Seal of Fire, Lightning Helix. Your opponent plays a forest and you draw a Seal of Fire and lead off with a Wooded Foothills into Temple Garden into Wild Nacatl. Your opponent cycles a Tranquil Thicket at the end of your turn, then plays a Bloodstained Mire fetching a Swamp and casts a Sakura-Tribe Elder. You draw a Mountain and play it, then attack into his Elder (which he blocks and sacrifices for a swamp), and play a Maruaders. He plays Life from the Loam on both of his lands and plays a tapped Overgrown Tomb. You untap and draw a Fanatic, attack for 6, then put Stomping Ground into play untapped and play both Fanatics along with a Seal of Fire. He cycles his Thicket at the end of your turn. He untaps, plays Bloodstained Mire, and says go. At this point, what can you tell about your opponent’s hand and their plan this game?
You are playing Five-Color Control in Standard. On the draw you keep Vivid Creek ,Vivid Grove, Reflecting Pool, Reflecting Pool, Esper Charm, Volcanic Fallout, Cryptic Command. Your opponent plays a Vivid Creek, and you draw an Exotic Orchard for the turn and play your own Vivid Creek. Your opponent plays a Cascade Bluffs and passes back to you, and then you draw a Cruel Ultimatum and play a Reflecting Pool. Your opponent plays a Sunken Ruins and you draw a Volcanic Fallout then play Exotic Orchard. At the end of your turn, your opponent flashes in Plumeveil. At this point, what can you tell about your opponent’s hand and their plan this game?
It’s a Shards/Shards/Conflux booster draft and you are playing an aggressive G/W deck. You are on the play and your opening hand is Plains, Forest, Forest, Akrasan Squire, Aven Squire, Knight of the Reliquary, Mosstodon. You play Plains, Akrasan Squire and your opponent plays a Mountain and says go. You draw a Forest and play it along with your Aven Squire and attack while your opponent draws, plays a Forest, then Magma Sprays your Aven Squire and plays a Wild Nacatl. On your turn you draw an Elvish Visionary and play your Knight of the Reliquary, then attack with your Akrasan Squire which your opponent declines to block. On his turn he plays a Forest and attacks with his 2/2 Nacatl. At this point, what can you tell about your opponent’s hand and their plan this game?
Talk about these game states in the forums, and I’ll make sure to watch and jump into the discussion. I’m very interested to see what everybody notices in these examples. There are several unique facets of each to look at, and I’m curious what everybody sees. On another note, if you’re at Grand Prix: Chicago this weekend I’ll see you there. Although I still have no idea which deck to play, I’m excited to go and it should be a lot of fun. Feel free to say “hi” if you want to chat.
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else