Good At Winning, Good At Magic

What are the things that happen behind the scenes that lead to wins? Seven-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Ari Lax talks about having a plan you can execute, mulligans, and more!

Back in the days of the RIW back room, I remember discussing various Magic personalities late at night with local ringers Josh Wludyka, DJ Kastner, and Kyle Boggemes. We started focusing on who was the best at what. Kenji Tsumura was the best technical player, Rich Hoaen was the Limited master, and so forth.

Someone who I don’t remember was brought up in the discussion. They were on an impressive tear of finishes, but no one could really pin down why.

The thing I do remember is the following phrase:

"They are better at winning than they are at Magic."

I didn’t really know what to think about that phrase at the time. Despite how much I joke about allocating variance, I don’t put any stock in superstition or things like the mind shaping the universe. At best there’s a secondary link between mental state and things like focus.

There had to be a tangible correlation here. How you can you be good at winning if it isn’t related to being good at Magic in some way?

It turns out the answer is that there are a lot of ways to be good at Magic. A good number of those are things that aren’t easy to see.

So for every time you hear about someone reading an opponent for a combat trick, breaking a format open with a new deck, or executing a flashy sequence of plays to set up a memorable game win, what are the things that happen behind the scenes that lead to wins?

Have a Plan . . . That You Can Execute

Having a plan is something that is consistently stated as a key to success in Magic. When you know what your goal in a game is, your decisions become much easier. Do I block and trade or race? Just this question raises a bunch of other conditional questions assuming known info. If your deck has a better late game and you know you just need to live to it, the decision becomes much easier.

The issue comes in something Brian DeMars pointed out in his excellent article last week:

"Every time I try to do what Ari would do, I promptly get punished for it. So I think it’s also important to choose somebody with a style that meshes with your own."

Making your decisions easier doesn’t matter if you still can’t make the appropriate lines. Making mistakes down the "correct" line will cost you more points in the long run than perfect play down a slightly worse line.

All things being equal, you should set yourself up to take lines that lead to game states you understand. If you are accustomed to racing, bias toward decks and plays that lead to downhill games. Make games occur where you avoid late game strings of poor draws by ending games with both players just barely running low on cards. If you’re good at lining up exchanges, try to get yourself into scenarios where you get to position trades in your favor. Set up game states where you end up with the last threat and close fast from there.

Obviously that isn’t to say you should always avoid taking lines you don’t understand or don’t prefer. There’s no way to learn other options besides exploring them. There are also scenarios where it’s obvious your preferred plan won’t cut it, so you have to at the least be familiar with the alternatives.

Still, when in doubt, play to your strengths.

Have a Plan That You Can Execute . . . Reliably

So you have to make the decision between your preferred line and another one. You choose your way, but it’s not the optimal line. You lose a few percentage points.

You end up in a similar situation a couple turns down the line due to a few unexpected plays. You make your line. Maybe it’s right. Maybe it’s wrong again, resulting in you losing some percentage.

Man, this whole making decisions thing sucks.

What if every time you had to make a decision, your deck was positioned to make it for you? Man, if only we could be so lucky.

Oh wait, that’s how it works when you get to make decisions about what you play.

Your deck should have a specific plan in each scenario. If you’re asked whether you want to be the beatdown or control and your response is "it wildly depends," things start being pushed out of your hands.

Most importantly, if you start making decisions about positioning that can change drastically based on future draws, you start opening yourself up to conditional probabilities. You can do those on the spot every time, but they are easy to mess up and easy to just guess wrong on. You draw the wrong string of cards in three turns, and oops you lost. This is also known as the SolForge Level Threes problem, where no matter how well you set up the early game, you can draw bricks and lose to your opponent having similarly powerful spells.

Your deck should have a default plan it plays to. It can vary by matchup. It can even vary based on having access to a specific card at a specific point (see: Stoneforge Mystic on turn 2 in Caw-Blade). Just know that starting from point A your best line is to move forward in a certain path. It should not waver drastically based on common yet random future factor.

I will say this is a rule that there are many exceptions to. Having a clear plan isn’t always possible based on the cards in the format. Sealed Deck in particular is prone to having to make do with the tools you have, and assessments are difficult to make given the more random nature of your opponents’ decks. Innistrad Block Constructed was also like this, but that was mostly because most of the cards were really bad.

There are also scenarios where all of your cards can play multiple roles, at which point you get to do whatever you want at every point. If the deck is good enough, you just have to accept changing roles all the time makes life difficult (see: Caw-Blade, Faeries, and all other instances of this archetype). There are scenarios where a specific card immediately changes your game plan but the card is so powerful that any loss of value from having to shift plans is negated as well. For example, Birthing Pod in Modern plays a fair grindy game until it casts the cast the card Birthing Pod, at which point it starts cheating.

Aside: This point is one of the big issues with decks that are midrange in the traditional Rock definition. When you play threats that aren’t necessarily dominating alongside removal that doesn’t create a huge advantage, you end up in scenarios where attacking now is great if you draw another threat the next turn but waiting is better if you brick. Then the next turn your opponent does something, and you’re forced into the same scenario. You never do anything that definitively makes you want to push the game forward or gives you inevitability, and it ends with you awkwardly speculating about unknown future events.

Understand Plan Fundamentals Or Don’t Deviate

There are plenty of scenarios where the plans you execute are just told work. You want to play a deck that is performing well, but without the time to test, you read an article and copy some sideboard plans. Your friend is responsible for testing a deck. Your group decides it’s great, and they’re responsible for telling everyone what they learned.

If you’re entrusted with a plan to follow, you should really trust it. If you don’t, why are you following it in the first place? Unless you understand what you’re fiddling with, you can really mess things up by deviating from a plan someone else has crafted.

If you do understand what you are doing, go right ahead and make changes. Sometimes even just a good explanation from the person responsible is good enough to get the necessary background.

But if you aren’t sure what you are doing, don’t just go around pressing buttons.

Sideboarding Is Easy, People Make It Hard

The number of games that are lost with poor sideboarding is absurdly high, yet people very rarely see it happen.

The easiest one is overboarding. People get really excited about setting up sweet blowouts or having answers to things. It feels really good to get someone with a sweet sideboard card they didn’t expect.

The alternative scenario isn’t really considered. You draw your conditional answer and play it in the non-ideal scenario. It does something, but it isn’t worth the card. Or you board in your answer, get to use it, and end up playing the wrong game plan and lose as a result.

A good example of this is Thoughtseize in the Standard G/B Dredge sideboard. You can board it in against Mono-Black Devotion and maybe hit a removal spell or Pack Rat or Desecration Demon, but then you’re playing into their attrition game plan and diluting your linear one. What are you boarding out for that Thoughtseize? An enabler, making all your other cards worse? A threat that would trade for their card or trump it? Does it really replace something that is worse?

Another good example came up while watching the SCG Open Series in Milwaukee this past weekend. An Affinity player sideboarded in Surgical Extraction against a Life from the Loam deck, and I was puzzled. Of all the cards in the format, this is the one you chose? Surgical Extraction is the lowest impact hate card available, typically only used when you have your own graveyard interactions preventing the use of symmetric effects (Snapcaster Mage) and when you need to turn off specific engines that are strong against one shot hate (Life from the Loam). Is Affinity really a deck that should be playing small ball on its graveyard hate? Does adding that effect to your deck against most graveyard decks really buy you more time than the extra card gains?

On the flip side, there are a lot of times where a card that is "just okay" in the maindeck is something you don’t have to accept. Just because the card does something doesn’t mean it does enough, and you can dig deep into your sideboard options to replace it.

The classic example in my mind dates back to Bloodbraid Elf Standard, where Cascade Jund was often paired against Mythic, a mana creature-based threat-heavy aggressive deck. Most of Mythic’s threats were enough to end a game in a single turn, and Jund struggled to race while stymieing Mythic’s early ramp and quick threat deployment. The board plan that ended up fixing everything was taking out Sprouting Thrinax, a solid creature that didn’t really fight anything very well in the matchup. Without it you always cascaded into something that traded for a threat, and the matchup became a joke. All of their cards died on the spot, and you beat them to death with whatever threats you did draw.

In current Standard, G/B Dredge sideboards out Sylvan Caryatid and Nemesis of Mortals against Esper Control, two cards that do things but aren’t good against Esper’s removal suite of Supreme Verdict and Doom Blade.


People are very bad at mulligans. There are a lot of heuristics people are taught about mulliganing that are loose guidelines at best and some that are just wrong. If this wasn’t true, how else would Gerard Fabiano be a two-time Grand Prix winner despite keeping traditionally terrible hands all the time?

Like anything else, mulligans are format, deck, and matchup dependent in a lot of ways. Every deck has its own important factors to value, and mulligans are based on those.

Do you keep a one-lander or a hand that is missing colors? How much does time matter to your deck? If tempo is very important to your deck and you can’t function on the same level with a land, you probably ship it. Examples are old Standard Faeries and Pyreheart Wolf Mono-Red Aggro from last year, where establishing specific sequences on time is how your deck wins. If your deck is full of cheap answers and doesn’t require hitting a bunch of land drops to win, you can probably risk it if the hand has all the other pieces you need.

Similarly, do you mulligan an unexciting hand? If the format is focused on trading and playing higher-cost cards, you probably just keep so that you have enough cards to hit your land drops and keep up in the exchanges that are bound to happen. On the other extreme, if you’re missing your crucial card to interact in a matchup that requires it, you better go down to six.

There are many other small things that occur on a game-by-game basis that push one player toward a win over a loss, and few of them are related to traditionally masterful play. So the next time you can’t figure out how someone wins based on their technical play, look a little closer. You might find something really interesting.