“Everybody stop and gather around.”Â
Lombardi knelt down and picked up the pigskin.
“Let’s start at the beginning. This is a football. These are the yard markers. I’m the coach. You are the players.”Â
He went on, in the most elementary of ways, to explain the fundamentals of football…
Developing a good system for the right order to do things in is important. It is a fundamental of Magic. You aren’t always going to be able to know when an extremely suboptimal play is going to cost you. To combat this, we develop shortcuts for the “right” way to do things.Â
New players tend to cast creatures first and then attack. The veteran generally does it the other way. How often does it matter? The majority of the time, it doesn’t matter; however, in game we often won’t always realize when it does matter and when it doesn’t. This is because usually, when you are aware of whether it will matter or not, you are aware of the right play to make. Whenever you would mess up, you aren’t aware that you are even playing the game of figuring out if it will matter or not. As a result, not seeing how doing it in the wrong order will hurt you doesn’t mean it is ok. When it isn’t ok, you aren’t going to see it then either.
Yes, this scenario takes into consideration you making a mistake, but this is Magic. People make mistakes all the time. There is more to it than that, however. If you use better shortcuts, you generally end up making fewer mistakes. For instance, if you just err on the side of playing your creature after combat, then you are likely to “accidentally” make the right play more often than not. Additionally, you are gaining more information to help you make the right play, while your opponent gets less.
I was in a draft at the Team SCG Black house today. I was at a low life total with a tapped Wildwood Geist bonded with a Wingcrafter and a 1/1 flier (from Geist Snatch), as well as Alchemist’s Refuge. My opponent with a couple of Mist Ravens decided to Into the Void my Wildwood Geist and the token and then attack. Now, all of my creatures were tapped, so it is not like this was punching through some damage. Rather, it was the first draft of the day and my opponent had not quite woken up. He knew he was going to attack and that he was going to bounce them both (and that I was a mana short of replaying it from the Refuge).
If he had realized it would matter, of course he would have done it in the other order,Â but that is the point. You won’t always know. Well, after bouncing my guys, I no longer had anyone bonded to my Wingcrafter. This meant when I flashed down another creature in my hand, I was able to eat a Mist Raven and turn the tides.
Obviously, Alchemist’s Refuge is pretty high on the list of cards that can cause playing your cards in the wrong order on your turn to backfire, but the point is that developing a good system to have as a default setting would have saved all this trouble, even if he had mentally forgotten to take into consideration what the Refuge would enable or how soulbond works with flash creatures.
It is not that we should always attack before casting spells (and not even just factoring in haste…),Â but rather that we should default to that sequence. Whenever we are considering deviating from that strategy, we need to have a reason. This forces us to actually think about it, which makes us far more likely to realize how it is a bad play (if it is a bad play).
It is easy, in Magic, to adhere to heuristics too slavishly, but there are some that are right so much of the time if we default to them “too often” we are generally going to do alright. When the rule of thumb is right 95%+ of the time, even doing it 100% of the time is going to be right more often than just doing it at random when we don’t see “how it matters.”
Another great example is with the proper tapping of land. In general, we can’t spend a ton of time thinking about which lands to tap for every single spell. That is just too much mental energy and takes too much time off the clock (and can lead to accusations of slow play). As a result, every single high-level tournament player has at least some sort of system of shortcuts about which lands to tap in what order. Generally, our goals are:
1) Tap enough lands and enough of the right color to actually cast the spell.
3) Deny our opponents options and information.
Number 2 is obviously the big one. The shortcut of tapping basics before duals is literally straight out of “Tapping Your Lands 101.” Additionally, if you have four Plains and three Islands, when you cast Day of Judgment you are going to want to leave a mixture of Islands and Plains untapped. Maybe your hand is all land, so why does it matter? Well, your opponent doesn’t know that! If you tap four Plains, leaving three Islands, this sends a signal that you don’t have Midnight Haunting or anything else. When you tap two Plains and two Islands, this means you don’t have Dissipate (or at the very least can’t play it this turn).
Does this information matter? After all, in the scenario, you don’t have anything anyway and your opponent’s board is about to get swept…
That’s the point! You aren’t always going to know when it will matter, but maybe your opponent tries to play around Midnight Haunting or Dissipate and makes a suboptimal play. If you don’t represent them, you might never see how it hurts you, but over time it will.
While most pro players have a pretty good understanding of which colors to tap, one mistake that seems to snare even some mid-level pros is failing to tap lands that leave your mana reliable.Â For instance, if you want to represent Cryptic Command in Modern, leaving Minamo untapped as one of your four lands is not as reliable as leaving an Island up. You probably won’t get punished, but it is possible that your opponent has a random Vesuva. Legendary lands are classic case studies in this area, particularly when one is popular enough to be reasonably likely to just appear randomly in an opponent’s deck despite being off-color. Shizo and Pendelhaven are the poster boys of this experience.
How were you supposed to know this White Weenie deck had a Pendelhaven in it? You weren’t, but if you didn’t have any creatures why did you need the Pendelhaven to be one of the four lands you kept up for Cryptic? There are a lot of facets of the game you don’t know about in a spot like this, but you do know that you have a Cryptic Command, so being more able to preserve that option has non-zero value.
If you have two Plains, a Mountain, and four spells that all have one colored mana symbol and cost three or more, which land do you play on turn 1? Everything else being equal, the optimal shortcut is the Plains so that you still have the option to play Plains or Mountain next turn. This is a very clear “correct” play when you have double white creatures, like White Knight, in your deck. Still, you aren’t always going to remember when it applies to you. Additionally, your opponent doesn’t know you don’t have White Knight (or whatever other double color creature is applicable).
Now, this is not to say that you should play whichever land you have multiples of in your opener. In fact, so many people are so slave to this you can generally glean a very non-zero amount of information about your opponent’s hand by watching their first two lands. In general, the one they played first is more likely to have a duplicate copy still in their hand. This can be applicable in a variety of places, such as deciding what land to destroy when facing Tron or which land to Spreading Seas.
Having a good system of shortcuts includes having a shortcut for when to diverge from the default shortcut. For instance, while you generally tap basics first, leaving dual lands untapped; in Legacy Wasteland is so common and important for these types of situations, we want to cultivate a habit of tapping our lands in a way that does not get blown out by Wasteland. This means we have to evaluate the value of representing more possible cards versus how devastating it would be if we were Wasted.
For instance, if we are casting Tarmogoyf and have a Tropical Island, a Volcanic Island, and two Islands, do we tap an Island or a Volcanic? The default is to tap the Island (representing Pyroblast or Lightning Bolt), however if we want to represent Counterspell, we have to decide if having the ability to cast Counterspell even in the face of Wasteland is worth straying from the default tapping convention.
It is not just a matter of principle. Once we tap the Volcanic Island instead of the Island, we are sending a very loud message to the opponent that we don’t have Pyroblast or Lightning Bolt and that we do have Counterspell. It is still totally reasonable to pursue this line if we assess the value of making sure we can counter whatever they do, even if they have a Wasteland, as being worth the information. Additionally, we can use this to our advantage. Let’s say we have a fist full of land. If we tap this way we are telegraphing Counterspell, which could cause our opponent who has a Force of Will and a Meloku to pass the turn. After all, if they draw a blue card they can protect their game-winning Meloku, and why would we tap that way unless we had a Counterspell?
Them hesitating for a turn can give a turn to draw another Counterspell, a Jace, or anything else. If nothing else, we might get an extra hit in from the Goyf, making the three Bolts we draw straight lethal instead of a couple short. Are we likely to draw three Bolts in a row and have it be relevant? No. Is our opponent likely to have a Meloku and not play it out of fear? No. You aren’t always going to see the exact circumstances that make plays like this be good; however, when you have a shortcut of making plays that hide information or trick opponents that are relying on too basic of shortcuts, you get paid in little ways from time to time that you might never expect.
Let’s go back to that example but imagine that we have a Tundra instead of the second Island. Now, if our desire is to play around Wasteland, we still might as well tap the Island, leaving Volcanic and Tundra untapped. If we left Island and a dual land, we would still have our Counterspell shut down by Wasteland, and we don’t play around things we can’t. However, what if your hand has a Swords to Plowshares and a Counterspell and you suspect your opponent is going to Wasteland you to force through a spell?
Most players would leave the Tundra untapped in case they want to Plow something during their opponent’s turn. If you believe your opponent will force their spell through by Wasting your Tundra, the right play could be tapping your Tundra and Tropical, leaving Volcanic and Island. This means when your opponent “gets” you with Wasteland, he isn’t shutting off the card in your hand on top of that.
A good shortcut for making sure you are using the right shortcuts for tapping your land is mentally asking yourself what your opponent can do to interfere with your mana. If they can do anything to your mana, ask yourself what this means you should do to mitigate this risk. We already discussed Wasteland, but what about Back to Basics? If you are facing Mono-Blue Control in Legacy, it can be a useful shortcut to always tap as many basics as possible.
In fact, this is a subset of a larger shortcut, which is asking ourselves, “What can my opponent do to interact with my cards?” We should have a shortcut figured out for how to play against opponents with counterspells, discard, direct damage, sweepers, land destruction, and more. All of these shortcuts are only effective if we use them at the right times, so it is crucial to also have the shortcut of mentally updating our checklist of ways our opponents can interact with us.
Every tournament player already has a number of shortcuts, regardless of whether or not they are aware of them. Becoming aware of the shortcuts we use can aid us in understanding our own game as well as finding holes in it. Sometimes assumptions so basic, we don’t even think about them on a conscious level; this can cause us to secretly lose a little percentage here and there. Simply becoming aware of the basic assumptions we operate under, the shortcuts we use, can be very educational.
Call it an experiment, call it homework, but considering making a list of the shortcuts you use and then trade lists with someone else that you play with that has done the same (and also wants to improve their game). I’m not talking just jotting down a few examples. I am talking spending literal 15-20 minutes writing out as many as you can think of. You don’t have to get into extreme detail, just enough to get the point across of what it is you are talking about.
Then, once you both trade with each other, ask yourself if you actually secretly use some of the shortcuts the other person thought of that you didn’t list. Any shortcut you don’t use, consider if you should. Do you disagree with any of the shortcuts they listed, thinking that there is a “better way to do things?” If you both take the task seriously and form exhaustive lists, then have a good discussion about the lists afterwards; it has the potential to improve your game a helluva lot more than spending half an hour playing another game or two.
I realize the fundamentals aren’t always exciting, they aren’t always fun, and they aren’t always as appealing to work on. However, winning is pretty sweet. Do you like winning enough to work on the fundamentals?
I gotta get back to breaking Block. See you next week! Oh, by the way, here’s what I’d play if I had a Standard tournament tomorrow: