I was watching a match last year that has stuck with me for quite a while. It was game 1 the Five-Color Control mirror, and “Rich” was in the tank in the midgame. Rich had been on the draw; his opponent had evoked Mulldrifter on turn 3, and Rich had done the same. Rich’s hand was Broodmate Dragon, Cruel Ultimatum, Cruel Ultimatum, Cryptic Command, and lands. I forget how many cards the other guy had, but it was quite the grip. Both players had six lands in play.
Rich thought. And thought.
Finally, he shrugged. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked the peanut gallery while tapping for Broodmate Dragon.
Fair enough. After all, even if his opponent used Cryptic Command to counter the Dragon and draw and had his own Ultimatum on his next turn, Rich would be able to answer with his own Ultimatum, even returning the Dragon for value. That wouldn’t be so bad.
Unfortunately, that also wasn’t the worst that could happen. Rich’s opponent responded with “Cryptic bounce your Vivid Creek” and followed that up with Cruel Ultimatum. The bounced land kept Rich with six mana on his next turn, and by the time Rich could muster his own Ultimatum, his opponent had Cryptic Command waiting. Rich lost.
I see games like Rich’s occur all the time. People don’t heed the potential consequences of their actions, and just play their spells rather than execute a coherent strategy.
How do you plan to win your next game? Are you going to fight a war of attrition and go ultimate with Jace, the Mind Sculptor? Are you going to show the other guy a 20/20 and, if that doesn’t work out, give him infinite Thopters to play with? Are you going to run out Ad Nauseam on turn 1 and dare your opponent to have Force of Will?
Plans are important. They give you a framework for your decision making. If you know your Dark Confidant is key to the Dark Depths mirror, you’ll take Smother with Thoughtseize over outwardly saucier targets. Carlos Romao is a World Champion because he realized that, no matter how many Fact or Fictions resolved in the Psychatog mirror, the key to the matchup was resolving Dr. Teeth himself; he reserved all of his counters for Psychatog (and Upheaval) and earned a nice check for his efforts.
And, of course, if you know that the match revolves around Cruel Ultimatum, you won’t let the other guy tag you with it by tapping mana for something irrelevant.
Sometimes your plan is pretty obvious; if you are the guy with the Cruel Ultimatums and you are battling Cedric Philips, you just need to kill enough White creatures to survive until you can tap seven and crush him. Sometimes figuring out your plan can be trickier, though. One way to do it is to think about who has inevitability in a given matchup. If you have some gigantic Ultimatum-like effect, you probably just want to live long enough to cast it. In most aggressive mirrors, you want to control the last man standing.
The plan for a given matchup can evolve over time. At the beginning of the Honolulu PTQ season, the stock plan for the Faeries mirror was to stick Vedalken Shackles and win from there. After people moved to Ancient Grudge to fight Vedalken Shackles, Glen Elendra Archmage (and then Sower of Temptation) became key, and then Dan Hanson one-upped everybody by drawing a million cards with Future Sight.
Sometimes your plan changes mid-game. The Extended decks that have hybridized the Dark Depths/Vampire Hexmage combo with the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo routinely alter their strategy over the course of a game. If you’ve been setting up Marit Lage but see three copies of Path to Exile after a Thoughtseize, it’s better to start cranking out Thopters instead of freeing angry gods.
Once you figure out your plan, it’s all about tactics. Instead of playing cards just to spend mana, you want to actively be furthering your strategy.
For example, if you are Hypergenesis and your opponent plays Secluded Glen and shows you Spellstutter Sprite, you are usually in bad shape. But what if you manually suspend Hypergenesis, and then end step Violent Outburst with three mana untapped and one suspend counter on that Hypergenesis? Your opponent’s plan is to show you three counterspells, but if you can bottleneck his mana and blank a Mana Leak you stand a decent chance of resolving your namesake spell. It’s certainly a better plan than just cavalierly running out cascade spells hoping to get there.
What if Rich were playing a modern Blue-White Control deck against Jund? Blue-White is looking to keep the board stable long enough to win with Jace or fliers, but it has a lot of internal tension; Cancel and Oblivion Ring are not exactly the best of friends. Still, Rich’s natural inclination when faced with Sprouting Thrinax is to cast Oblivion Ring. Three mana for three mana is fine, and Rich denies his opponent some Saprolings. Still, it’s pretty hard to win games where this is his best play. If his opponent has basically any permanent on his next turn, Rich won’t be able to counter it, and Rich just spent his removal. Hopefully he doesn’t have to face Garruk Wildspeaker…
It can be frustrating to sit there and take a ton of damage while you are forced to hold up permission every turn instead of killing some pesky creature, but it is often vital. Once you start tapping out on your turn, you blank all of your permission, and if you play Day of Judgment without mana up to Flashfreeze their Broodmate Dragon, it is going to be hard to win.
(As an aside, I see people being too eager to pull the trigger on Treasure Hunt as well. I get that sometimes you have to play it blind or be forced to wait several turns… but honestly, if you aren’t routinely surveying the Halimar Depths before Hunting, you are probably doing it wrong. Have discipline. Wait to Hunt until you can be assured of value.)
Similar principles apply in Limited. Most people are at least vaguely aware of a desire to conserve their removal for their opponent’s biggest threats, but whenever I see someone peel Hideous End in the midgame, they immediately look for a reason to play it. Now, yes, if you are staring down Baloth Woodcrasher, it probably needs to die, but if the board is just some random animals staring at each other, don’t just immediately pull the trigger because you hate having cards in your hand. It seems to me that people have some sort of deep-seated need to immediately play the cards they draw, but if your plan is to hold the ground and get damage in through the air, and the ground is stable, you can hold your kill spell until your opponent deploys something that actively hinders your plan.
You can also augment your plan via sideboarding. A lot of people finish their draft, take their best twenty-two or twenty-three cards, add some lands and never look back. Maybe they’ll board in a Disenchant effect against something like Obelisk of Alara, but rarely do folks actively alter their deck once they are aware of their opponent’s strategy. In Shards of Alara drafts, there were a lot of fairly aggressive Red-based decks that featured a ton of one-toughness creatures such as Hissing Iguanar, Goblin Deathraiders, and Dregscape Zombies. Tukatongue Thallid tended to bring those decks to a screeching halt, but it usually stayed on the bench; few people seemed to recognize that when your opponent is all about being aggressive, lowering your curve a little and forcing trades into the midgame is an extremely powerful strategy.
Watching a player that doesn’t have a coherent strategy can be pretty frustrating, particularly they exacerbate that frustration by trading off huge on-board advantages for the sake of raw card advantage. A fair amount of Limited games are determined by whoever controls more large animals, so if you have like a Territorial Baloth squaring off against a few random bears, you are usually ahead; your Baloth can either hang out and prevent those bears from attacking, or you can attack with your other creatures relatively unmolested. If your opponent starts trading off smaller creatures with you, eventually the board will be your Baloth against one of his smaller creatures.
A lot of players choose, instead, to send in their Baloth and happily trade it for two of their opponent’s smaller creatures. Okay, sure, now you are ahead on pieces of cardboard, but winning with that Baloth was a much better plan than fighting a war of attrition. The nature of M10 Limited led to a lot of these situations. If your opponent’s Runeclaw Bears and Silvercoat Lion don’t have anything productive to do in the face of your Trained Armodon, don’t let them redeem themselves by trading with your Craw Wurm. “I have a Jungle Weaver, and I am going to kill you with it,” is a totally legitimate plan, but it requires, you know, not trading off the Jungle Weaver.
You need a plan. Without one, you end up spinning your wheels, playing cards and hoping to get there rather than having a coherent strategy guiding your decisions. Don’t just blindly cast your spells.
I was talking to Alex West later in the season and mentioned Rich’s story. He grinned. “Actually, I win a lot of game 1s by tricking my opponent into hitting me with Cruel Ultimatum. Usually, the last two cards in my hand are my own Ultimatum and Identity Crisis.”
Now that is a plan I can get behind.
max dot mccall at gmail dot com