Getting Big: Defining And Adjusting Your Plan

This article is largely written for players who have a decent grip on the basics on Magic strategy and/or are fairly accomplished players. I’m guessing even a lot of awful players with a sound grip on logic can make some use of a few of the guidelines listed below, but if you are a complete novice or a true master of the game, you may not find it very useful. You have been warned.

Before we start

My last article spawned some forum posts, that brought up some issues that I, in retrospect, should have seen coming. While a lot of strategy writers will tell you that their deck is the best and so on, that was never my intention. What I wanted to communicate was “Here are two decks that while they’re not the best decks in the format, are probably better than what people give them credit for.” I even went so far as to claim you should play one of them only if winning in a cool way was more important to you than winning in general, but apparently I need to turn on caps lock more often to get the point across. Internet forums are kind of strange animals, and I’ll just leave it at that. The decks aren’t perfect and just play Tooth or whatever wins in your testing. Both of the decks have been doing fine for me, though.

Also note that if you are one of the few people that like to read my articles or tournament reports because of the literary style those are written in, you are in for a huge let down. I’ll try to cover your need for pretentious drama in my next article.

This article is largely written for players who have a decent grip on the basics on Magic strategy and/or are fairly accomplished players. I’m guessing even a lot of awful players with a sound grip on logic can make some use of a few of the guidelines listed below, but if you are a complete novice or a true master of the game, you may not find it very useful. You have been warned.

A few words on plans

Magic is, in all of its simplicity, a very complex game to theorize about. This is in part since it’s a relatively new game and not even “leading” theorists are sure why certain things work, but also because every game is so different from the next. Even when people go “See game 1” as their description of game 2, those games were rarely very much alike. Since every game is so vastly different, they become harder to categorize as following a certain strategic route or applying certain principles. Another flaw with concepts such as card advantage and tempo is that they are best used describing individual plays. While an Unsummon on a blocker might be described as both a loss of card advantage and a tempo win, neither of those concepts take into account what matters most: Winning. I’m not trying to say that they are bad tools for understanding the game on a deeper level, but I do believe that a lot of games are lost by players that don’t get past that level and stick to what is ultimately a recipe for failure. Was that hard to follow?

A note on plans before we start: The definition of a “plan” should be an easy concept to grasp. A plan is how you plan on winning. What your plan going into a game is often a decision you’ve made during deck construction. If you are playing Tooth and Nail, your plan is to resolve a Tooth and Nail. If you are playing Goblins, your plan is to attack for 20 points of damage really fast, and so on. Some decks have a clear plan, though at times it will be harder to pinpoint exactly. The Rock, for example, excels in playing vastly different games in which they win through quick damage, lots of discard or silver bullets. You could make a case that the deck’s plan is to attack the opposing deck on the level at which it is most vulnerable. It’s not as clear as “resolve Tooth”, but it’s still an acceptable plan.

A lot of times though, plans fail and you will have to change your plan accordingly in order to win the game. The games that ensue when a player’s main plan is foiled while he is still “in” the game are some of the more important games in Magic, and they are often quite complex to win. Knowing when to abandon a plan is a crucial step in becoming a better Magic player, and one that few truly master. With this article, my aim is to focus on some scenarios where abandoning your plan is undoubtedly or probably correct, and my hope is that you yourself can expand the concepts to fit your actual gameplay situations.

Also note that I usually don’t dabble around in hard-core theorizing and I don’t really want you to look at this article as an attempt at making a “classic strategy piece” or whatever. I’d rather you see it as a tool for getting better, okay? One more thing: Plan A is short for your initial plan, Plan B is the plan that follows. Theoretically there is a Plan C, a Plan D and so on after those. I know you already knew this, but you never know with these forum regulars.

Let’s say you are playing a deck designed around “the philosophy of fire” (by the way: can someone please come up with a better name for this? The fantasy art and the name “Magic” is one thing but do we really need to be playing Enter The Dragon and The Philosophy of Fire now? Plus, you’d think that someone as in love with fancy words as Flores could think of some better term), you have a bunch of small creatures and burn and your goal is to deal 20 damage to your opponent as quickly as possible, while throwing caution and card advantage to the wind. You start out playing three Kris Mages and a Jackal Pup. Your opponent is playing a Mind’s Desire deck that needs to Snap their Clouds of Faeries in order to generate spell count and mana. All of a sudden this plan becomes impossible for your opponent to accomplish, and you win by keeping the Mages untapped attacking ten times with a Jackal Pup.

Never mind that a practical game is very improbable to go down like that, this is hypothesizing. It just did. The important question is: Did the philosophy of fire fail? The most logical answer is “yes”. While the deck may be built with the philosophy of fire in mind, you never actually applied it, because the option was clearly worse than winning the game by locking down a card your opponent was completely reliant upon.

The relationship between plans and deck construction

When building a successful tournament worthy deck, the first thing you need to do is to have a clear idea of what the aim of the deck is. This can be anything as narrow as “abuse some card” or as broad as “stop my opponent from doing anything important”. When a rough sketch of the deck is then made, the next step is to look at how you’re going to win. Let’s say you want to build a CounterWitness deck for your Nationals, and you’ve come up with an initial list of 24 Basic Lands 4 Eternal Witness and 32 different counters (I’m not even sure that’s possible in Standard, but it doesn’t really matter for this example).

This deck only has one way to win, and that’s clearly attacking ten times with Eternal Witnesses. What that means is that you’re very vulnerable to a lot of strategies, and you’re going to be in trouble if a Blue player resolves Vedalken Shackles or someone plays a turn 1 Aether Vial. If you somehow correct this flaw, you should go back again and look at what cards and/or likely scenarios are troublesome for the new version of the deck.

The important thing to realize is that even though your Plan should be powerful most of the time, some plans are going to trump yours. That’s how Magic works, so that’s fine, you are allowed some slack but you shouldn’t come completely unprepared for those games. Few decks truly work without a Plan B, and you should in general always have ways to work around the most played cards in the metagame. The rare times when you are able to cheat this principle are when the format is broken enough that your deck can beat the hate either through speed (Academy) or natural resilience (High Tide).

The other time it should be considered correct to not have a Plan B is when your options for a Plan B just aren’t good enough to even be considered a plan. In the early stages of Onslaught Block Constructed, there was both an Elf Deck and a Zombie Deck. The Zombie Deck was centered around Patriarch’s Bidding and, more importantly, Noxious Ghoul. Noxious Ghoul was, for those of you who weren’t around and unable to figure it out, impossible to beat with Elves. Every time it hit play, most of your guys would die. If it had a buddy to go along, it would take out everything. The absolutely worst games were when the Zombie player would resolve a Bidding that contained Noxious Ghoul to definitely wrath your side of the board, and then proceed to cast another Zombie on the following turn to clear your board again before attacking. What made the situation so miserable for the Elf player was the fact that in the entire format, there was no card that would help you defend against it. If you absolutely had to stop Bidding, your only option would have been to splash Blue for counters. Doing so would have taken up at least ten slots between maindeck and sideboard and would still have been rather sketchy. The Elf players would simply have to come to the matchup without a plan.

Elves was of course not a very good deck in a format where the best deck ran 8-12 Wraths and cantrip Shocks, but beating Slide was at least somewhat doable with a whole host of enchantment destruction and maybe Steely Resolve. Goblins were also going to be tough, and if you were expecting a lot of Goblins you would most likely look to splashing Red for some removal for Goblin Sharpshooter. Since there was no realistic plan for beating Zombie Bidding (which was also an atrocious deck) however, you simply could not play the deck at a tournament unless you could justify your horrible results in what was hopefully going to be zero games with impressive results in the others. If you decide to play a deck that autoloses or has a miserable record against even a somewhat popular archetype, be sure that the sacrifice is worth it.

For the upcoming Extended season, this is going to mean something along the lines of: Be sure you can beat a Meddling Mage or a Cranial Extraction. If you can beat two without straying too far away from your list, that’s great. If you can beat three, even better but don’t worry too much about it to make real sacrifices. How does your deck respond to the nut Affinity draw? What about a turn 2 Isochron Scepter with Orim’s Chant?

The same principle holds true in a slightly different way for beatdown decks. Make sure your deck can beat an Engineered Plague or a Worship, for example. If you can beat both, that’s even better. Are goblins any good and if so what’s your plan for beating Goblin Sharpshooter? And so on.

Changing your plan during a game

If you like the mental challenge of Magic, these are probably some of the more enjoyable games you’ll play. Plan A has been foiled or is no longer the best plan available and you need to realize it and react to it. I’ll go so far as to say that these situations are often won by the player who first realizes and adapts to the “new” state of the game, and I’ll illustrate by yet another example:

Arguably the most important matchup in pre-U.S. Nats Standard was Tooth versus Red Deck Wins. Both decks bring a tremendously speedy plan to the table and the game pretty much becomes a race. The Tooth player will try to set up their Urza lands and then find and/or cast Tooth and Nail, almost guaranteeing victory, while the Red Deck Wins player will do his best to destroy Urza-lands or deal 20 points of damage to the Tooth player before he is able to cast Tooth and Nail. If the Tooth player wins this race and successfully resolves Tooth and Nail, the Red mage has to shut down the land destruction/damage race immediately and reevaluate the game because your opponent will rarely care if you keep going after their lands at this point. Your new plan will depend some on what your opponent now has in play, but it will often include you topdecking burn. Either to kill Kiki-Jiki, Triskelion or your opponent. If you were on the other side of the game with a busted Plan A, it would probably mean that you need to realize you’re not going to assemble the Urza lands this or the next turn, or you can’t seem to find Tooth or Top, you now need to focus instead on keeping your opponents offense at bay. This will often mean focusing on having a healthy amount of Green mana available so that you can trade Eternal Witnesses, Sakura-Tribe Elders and Viridian Shamans for your opponents creatures while staying comfortably out of burn range. No matter what side of the game you are on, you should try to change your plan the very same turn your old plan becomes obsolete and not a single turn before (although people with a good eye for the game might see the change of pace coming, you would often be foolish to abandon a plan still coming together until it is actually busted).

The following situations are meant to describe certain situations where a plan should (barring extra information) be abandoned. Since Plan A can be out of the question in an infinite number of ways, you should think of them as guidelines for your own games instead of focusing too much on the examples provided.

When Plan A is completely out of the question:

You are playing Tooth and Nail, your plan A is clearly to resolve a Tooth and Nail and win from there. However, your opponent just resolved a Cranial Extraction naming Tooth. The game is by no means over since you still have creatures that can deal damage and a powerful card engine in Sensei’s Divining Top, but you’re going to have to work much harder to win from here and you’re not winning by casting Tooth and Nail any more. There really is no choice to be made here, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer, but it is easily argued that it is as urgent that you change your plan here as it is in the following examples and that’s something you need to understand.

When Plan A is extremely far fetched:

You are playing a standard Aluren list. Your opponent has an Arcane Laboratory and an Engineered Plague on beasts in play and a counter in hand. In order for you to combo your opponent out, you need to strip the counter from their hand and then Stern Proctor their Laboratory, return Proctor with a Cavern Harpy that will die immediately and finally replay Stern Proctor to bounce their Plague and only then will you be able to combo them out. This is assuming you already have Aluren in play, but you probably understand what I’m aiming for: This plan is probably only doable in theory, and you’d be better off just casting Living Wish for Meloku.

When Plan B is superior:

This is as per the example in the beginning of the article with the generic “philosophy of fire”-deck and the equally generic Mind’s Desire deck. This mostly happens in specific Constructed matchups where your Plan B just happens to trump your opponent’s Plan A in such a way that your own Plan A is a weaker option going in, but it can also happen during “normal” gameplay. If, for example, you are playing an Extended Affinity deck and your opponent plays an Energy Flux, you are most likely faced with a choice of trying to “beat” Energy Flux by sticking to a few creatures and non-artifact land and hope that they get to attack enough or just keep all your artifacts in hand until you have, say, two Disciples of the Vault in play and are able to just dump your hand and let everything die during upkeep. Whichever tactic is going to yield the best results will depend on the rest of the board, but it is crucial that you choose the best one immediately and stick to that plan until you win, lose or things change again.

When it’s clear that Plan A is going to lose in the long run:

Sometimes, while your plan is working you are still running out of gas and will most likely be faced with a decision at some point soon. This could happen if you are playing the Rats-list from U.S. Nationals versus the Mono-Blue list from U.S. Nationals. You managed to get down a few rats and work on your opponent’s hand and life total a bit, but your opponent just cast a Vedalken Shackles. You have neither Needle nor Shaman, and while you could still get more damage in and play some more guys in an attempt to overwhelm his Shackles, it is not certain that this is the right course of action. The other plausible plans in this situation would be to hold back the creatures in your hand until you are sure you have enough to overwhelm your opponent’s Shackles, or just wait until you’ve drawn either a Viridian Shaman or a Pithing Needle to ensure that you don’t just lose to your opponent taking complete control of the game with Shackles. Remember, I’m not saying any of these plans is the best at any given time but merely that these are situations you have to be alert and able to adjust the way you play the game to.

These types of scenarios are pretty easy to spot, and it’s quite likely most of you would “change plans” even without considering what you are doing or what the new plan was because the plays were so clear. That’s what makes them great examples, though. Next I’ll go over some pointers on how to spot if and how your plan has failed.

You’re not getting any more combat damage through:

This happens frequently in Limited games, when you play power-to-mana-effective creatures such as Grizzly Bears and Trained Armodons and have been the beatdown player during the early game while your opponent has done nothing but casting small utility creatures such as Split-Tali Miko and Moonlit Strider. You are still punching through damage until your opponent plays something huge like a Moss Kami with a White mana up and you are bound to start losing creatures if you stick to your guns and try to rush him. It may nevertheless be the correct strategy to just play more dorks and attack, but you still need to take into account what options you have. Can you wait for a trick or removal? Do you have a Shinen of Life’s Roar in your deck? How about fliers? Suffice to say, you need to make a choice on the course of your game this turn, and it’s going to be very bad if you choose the wrong one just because that’s how you have played the game so far.

Your opponent is on the verge of establishing control:

In another game of limited, your opponent has just played a Kabuto Moth and it will threaten to take over the board once it loses summoning sickness. You have tapped all your mana every turn to accomplish a pretty nice board, but you are now faced with the decision of tapping out again for another big creature or tapping two mana, cast Glacial Ray on the Moth and play your big guy next turn. Arguments for either side will obviously depend on what your “big guys” are and what else your opponent has in play, and one of the key points of what the correct plan is, will probably be whether or not your opponent will be forced to tap his Moth next turn and how likely it is that he has a way of saving his Moth if you Ray it in response to tapping, but that’s neither here nor there. Just be conscious of what route you’re following and why.

Your opponent just dropped a bomb you have no immediate answer to:

In yet another game of Limited, your opponent just dropped a bomb and you really have no way of dealing with it. Luckily, all bombs aren’t Visara or Jitte and most bombs won’t just autowin. In these scenarios you have to look at what needs to happen in order for you to win the game and try to stick as close as you can to that plan. Don’t just throw your hands up and scoop your cards up (unless time is a factor, of course). Even when your plan is far fetched, it’s always better to play it out and see if it comes true. If your opponent just played Eight-And-A-Half-Tails, there might be some way to commit your opponent into having to tap all his mana every turn so that you’ll eventually overwhelm you, and all you really need to beat Jitte is a flier, a dork and a Blinding Powder. At least in the best of worlds.

Your opponent has control of the game but is at the moment unable to kill you:

Your R/G draft deck is playing against a very slow B/W deck. His slow cards have eventually taken over the game and you haven’t attacked for a few turns when you draw a burn spell. You know your opponent will have to rely on fliers in order to start dealing damage, but he has slightly fewer cards in his deck. You can either try to burn an opposing blocker out of the way and get some additional damage through, or save it to kill his first flier. This might give you time to draw another burn spell for his next flier and maybe win through decking your opponent.

Final words

First of all, let me repeat something because it is quite vital that you understand this: Don’t get caught up in the actual examples. I find examples a very good way of learning and understanding small nuances of the game, and I realize I maybe went a bit over the top with the number of unrealistic scenarios, but I hope that it’s not what you take away from this article. My hope is that the illustrations of scenarios provided are something you’ll be able to grasp on a higher level and understand how the situations are in fact quite similar to a lot of situations that’ll come up both at your kitchen table and at the next PTQ. Still don’t get it? Maybe you should play for another year or something and then come back and read the article. This article taught you nothing? Congratulations! But I can’t help but wonder why you kept reading after my initial warning.

A final, largely irrelevant rant: In poker, there is a term called “switching gears”. It basically means that you are adjusting your style of play to fit the game. It doesn’t work in exactly the same way as it does in Magic, but they both affect the choices you make in a game much the same way. You will notice how I’ve written the entire article without once using the phrase and it may even seem odd to you, but let me explain:

For years and years, I didn’t really mind that much, but lately I’ve been getting a huge rash every time I see someone talking about how they “didn’t care about the match cuz I win much more on poker lol” or how they “kept a hand that was all-in pf lol”. Yes, poker is nice and yes you win money off of it. That’s nice too. Well, so does everyone else and you don’t see them bragging about it, do you? Just be aware that it’s another scene, and there are plenty of sites that might be interested in poker related writing, but people reading Magic theory sites probably know where to turn if they want to hear about your bad beats or how much you win or whatever.

Thanks for your time,