How To Push

If you have ever seen a long volley, then you may have seen pushing. Watch as one tennis player keeps knocking the ball further and further left until – BAM! A line drive down the right side. But you are hardly playing against reflexes, speed, or power; just intellect. Which means that pushing means more.

Back when I was a freshman, some friends and I starting playing ping-pong on the dorm tables in the rec room. We started playing so seriously that we refused to call it anything other than "table tennis." We would reserve a table for hours.

Since there were only two tables available, and our gang often had one of them, other people would sometimes not look kindly upon us. We would play for around an hour each – daily. After just a few months, we were good enough that playing anybody else outside of our group wouldn’t benefit us much, because we were so much better than random table tennis scrubs.

Each of us had a specialty: Chris could pound a ball like there was nothing going; he liked power. Jake was really good at accuracy; he could send a ball and hit spots on the table that would make you question physics. Xiang, who played with us sometimes, could put the worst spins on a ball by merely tapping it. And me? I was good at speed. I could get to practically any ball and hit it back, making some spectacular saves, and putting a few dents in the water fountain. And although I was not as accurate, strong, or dexterous, I had one thing over these guys – I was instinctual.

All of us were smart players – we were honors program geeks. We all had great grades and we could translate book smarts to table smarts. But, if I had an edge, other than being able to return one of Chris’s overhand nightmares, it was my intuition. I could hit a ball to a place that would force my opponent to set me up. I could do it much more subtlety, too. I called it "pushing," because I was pushing my opponent to make a certain move.

I didn’t really get into sports until later, after we put away our paddles. Since then, I’ve seen tennis players make the same plays. If you have ever seen a long volley, then you may have seen pushing. Watch as one tennis player keeps knocking the ball further and further left until – BAM! A line drive down the right side. Except in tennis, as opposed to table tennis, there is more time to react, less emphasis on position, and a greater chance for bursts of speed to succeed in rallying. That playing of the ball, in order to force your opponent to hit the ball where you want – that’s pushing.

Now Magic is different than hitting a ball with a stick. You are hardly playing against reflexes, speed, or power; just intellect. However, that does not mean that the theory of pushing does not apply to Magic – quite the opposite.

It applies more.

Let me give you a classic example from my own play earlier this week. I had drafted a B/U deck in a local store in Odyssey Block. I had seen a fair amount of land destruction, but I had not grabbed any of it. My opponent in the first round was a local guy I knew vaguely who had sat opposite to me. I knew from previous experience that he liked to play red, often going with LD. This is my only knowledge going into the first game.

My opening hand is two Islands, three Swamps, Cephalid Looter, and Innocent Blood. A decent opening hand – but not great. Now, what should I lay down first, hmm?

I lay down the Island. I have nothing in my deck that costs UU or BB, so there is no reason to suppose that I need a certain land. Plus, my opponent likes LD.

He lays a Swamp and tells me to go. Interesting.

I draw a Swamp. I now have an Island, four Swamps, Looter, and Blood in my hand. I lay the Swamp. I have out one of each of my basic lands.

My opponent plays a Mountain and a Barbarian Outcast.

I draw a Soul Scourge. Now, what land should I play?

Let me tell you that my colors in my deck are about even, although the cards in my hand are fairly black. However, my blue cards are more important than my black cards. I have some black kill, some black creatures – but in blue, I have a Windreader, Skywing, the Looter, Compulsion, Treetop Sentinel, and so forth. My best creatures are blue, and many of them have double blue in their cost. I need that second Island.

So I play it.

And I Innocent Blood away his Outcast. In R/B, he’ll have kill for my 2/1 Looter, which is the most important card in my hand, so I want to wait to play it. Plus, an Outcast may very well be his best creature, unless he happened to draw a bomb critter – R/B doesn’t usually get many good creatures.

He untaps, draws, plays a Swamp, and casts Rancid Earth. Target?

Well, what would you choose? Two Islands and a tapped Swamp? Just played a black spell as if it could be your last chance to use it for a while? He pops my Swamp.

And I inwardly smile. Because I pushed him to blowing up my Swamp.

I am now warning you – philosophical terms await. Prepare for obfuscate-speak.

Now for pushing to be effective, we must assume that our opponent is a rational actor; otherwise, there is no predicting what will happen, and therefore no ability to push. So it becomes more difficult to push, say, Evelyn, the hypothetical new player who only started last week down at the local card shop.

But, assuming rationality, prognostication becomes much simpler. And that is where pushing begins.

I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let me start over.

You may want to learn about pushing. Actually, you already know how; you just may not have ever thought about it that way. You learned by playing multiplayer. If you play multiplayer for a while, you learn that you have to not appear to be too weak, nor too strong. Playing a Rising Waters will get you killed now – and so will playing Ancestral Recall and Timetwister. Multiplayer can often be won or lost by pushing your opponents away from you, maybe by a wall, or Staunch Defenders, or a Seal of Fire, or whatever. The best multiplayers are those who grasp this element and use it wisely. You must push, to win consistently.

However, eliminate the player element from multiplayer for a second. What you are really doing is simply trying to make a particular choice appear more or less attractive to your opponent. Assuming a rational choice is made, the player will take the most attractive path. Your only goal, then, is to add or delete information. Adding a Seal of Fire, for example, pushes Evelyn’s Kamahl away from attacking you, into someone else. Much more so than holding a Shock would do. You have added information.

Therefore, the only real difference from multiplayer pushing and duel pushing is that in a duel, the choices your opponent can make are more limited, thereby making it harder for you to push.

You see, in multiplayer, where there are more options, all you have to do is make one path slightly harder – or slightly easier – and that is the route traveled. It’s a path-of-least-resistance sort of thing. However, with fewer paths, more prompting is in order.

But remember that we are assuming that your opponent is a rational actor (or, in simpler terms, is a good player). Therefore, it becomes easier to predict the future. Of course, you cannot always do so, because your opponent has information that you do not, namely the contents of his hand and deck. And even if you have cast Telepathy and Extract, your opponent is still a free-willed being, capable of acting irrationally.

But odds are, circumstances can be such that you push a player to make a particular action. Let me give you another example from a recent 7th draft online.

I am with W/B. (It was a bad draft, don’t ask.) My opponent is with B/U. He has out a Glacial Wall and a Grapeshot Catapult. He also has fifteen or so life. I have out a Heavy Ballista, and a Longbow Archer, and Glorious Anthem, and am around thirteen. Now, my opponent has out six lands, and he just cast Raise Dead on the Dakmor Lancer in his graveyard, so he has two cards in hand – one is that Lancer. I have three cards in hand; two lands and a Fear. I know that he will cast the Lancer next turn, and take out that Ballista… But the Archer, a 3/3 first striker that can block flyers, can still keep his horde at bay, temporarily at least.

However, knowing my deck, I need the Ballista more. I have seen my opponent cast Phantom Warrior and Razortooth Rats, when I have few black creatures. Plus, he has many more flyers.

So to me, the Ballista is more powerful. How, then, can I push him towards the Archer?

I slap that Fear on it. Now I have a 3/3 first striker that cannot be blocked by his Wall. I even attack to push the point home. He untaps, and kills my Archer (gaining significant card advantage, I might add).

But it doesn’t matter; I kept my best card in play, and I won that match a little later with my secret tech – Phyrexian Colossus. And a foil Jandor’s Saddlebags. I was able to stall with the Ballista and Saddlebags long enough to set up a Colossus victory.

Did my opponent act rationally? I think so. At twelve life, facing thirteen, had he knocked out my Ballista and swung for two, I could draw any one of many defense cards in my deck. He had seen my deck, with its Healers, Healing Salve, Soul Feast, two Corrupts, and Staunch Defenders. He knew I could race him if I drew correctly.

So yes, I think he acted rationally. And yet he didn’t – because he had no way of knowing that I had a card in my deck that would sail to victory, plus a foil Jandor’s Saddlebags to untap it and serve again without losing life. A two-card rare combo in limited is hard to guess. Had he known, he might have gone for the Ballista after all… But it doesn’t really matter what I think. It matters that he thought he acted rationally. That is the ultimate point.

There are other examples, of course. The time in a draft when my opponent knew I had a Pyroclasm in my deck, and he had out two creatures with a toughness of two or less, when I had out a 1/1 for one. I had about four cards in hand and he had four or so as well. I had the Pyroclasm, so I wanted to bait him, but I knew he would be skittish with it, so I cast a Grizzly Bears to help "block" his creatures. He then felt safer, and tossed down a 2/1 and a 2/2 over the course of the next three turns. Then I cast the Pyroclasm and it was all over.

After all, why play the Bears if I intended to ‘Clasm?

And so forth. I could keep mentioning stories. But, the problem is that it is hard to tell people how to push. I think some part of it has to be intuition. It comes with practice. Learning what the typical good Magic player would do is what you have to assume your opponent is, unless you know better. But psychology does have a place at the Magic table – we all know that.

Until later,

Abe Sargent