Ideas Unbound – “Why Are We Showing Him A Counterspell?”

Friday, January 21st – Revealing the Bitterblossom we’re going to play on turn 2 wasn’t giving up much information. So James played Secluded Glen untapped…And showed Cedric his Spellstutter Sprite. “Wait – what?” I asked.

I’m not sure if Cedric Phillips is an addict or just a glutton for punishment. Based on these text messages and conversations over the last two weeks,
you decide:

“I quit.”

“Hey, can you come pick me up for that Legacy tournament next week?”

“Actually, I’m staying with Steven Birklid tonight so that I don’t have to go back home after this online PTQ that I’m playing in Friday
night, so you can grab both of us at the same time.”

“Do you think the store owner minds me playing the top eight of Saturday’s online PTQ at the same time I play in the Legacy tournament?”

(Yes, this is two PTQs in thirty-six hours, plus a Legacy tournament. The store owner laughed, but allowed Cedric to bring his laptop to the table.
Cedric’s opponents, struck by the novelty of someone double-queuing live, had no objections either.)

(Cedric lost in the finals of the PTQ)


(Actually, he just shrugged and said that he should have mulliganed in game three — but story value, people, story value.)

You see, shortly after quitting Magic, Cedric got bored one night and ported the Standard Mythic deck into Extended, where he started “beating the hell
out of everyone in comical fashion.” After Worlds, most people were either playing Four-Color Control, which was a good matchup for Mythic, or
poorly-tuned brews of their own design. Mythic was strong against all of these, and Cedric more or less cruised his way to the finals of the PTQ, where
he was quickly dismantled by Faeries.

Cedric, Steven, and I all thought that Mythic was still an excellent deck despite Cedric’s loss. After all, Cedric had beaten another Faeries player in
the quarterfinals, and he’d beaten Faeries in the Swiss as well. We were all confident that we just needed to grind out a bunch of games to figure out
the right plan for the matchup.

A few days later, Steven and I got together to do some battling. I played Faeries. Steven played Mythic.

I beat him convincingly, winning eight of ten games. Steven was running bad and had missed on a few opportunities to peel on me, but it still felt to
both of us that Faeries was a solid favorite. Worse, we had no real idea what to do about it; Mythic is a deck that operates at sorcery speed, and
Faeries is designed to prey on sorcery-speed decks. Jund has Bloodbraid Elf, along with access to potent Faeries hosers Volcanic Fallout and Great
Sable Stag to overcome being “all sorceries, all the time.” Mythic can play Stag, sure — but Stag is just Trained Armodon if Mythic doesn’t have
anything else going on. Steven and I just sort of shrugged and started tuning Faeries lists. I called Cedric and let him know what happened, and we
agreed to test at Cedric’s soon.

I got to Cedric’s house early. James Nguyen, another partner in crime, was slated to arrive later, but Cedric and I battled for a while until James
appeared. Again, I played Faeries against Cedric’s Mythic.

The games went… poorly. I wasn’t getting demolished or anything; I think I was only down one game after playing for a little over an hour. But I was
totally lost, and I knew it. I didn’t have a handle on which cards were important, and how those cards changed over the course of the game or based on
what’s in my hand.

In some games, Cedric’s Lotus Cobras were huge, must-counter threats; in others, they were blanks. Frustratingly, I couldn’t tell the difference until
a turn or two after I’d made a wrong decision — and even with the knowledge that I’d punted, it was difficult to pin down a specific reason why his
Cobra was a threat this time when all it had done was trade with a Bitterblossom token last game.

There were other, less subtle mistakes. There were some games that I didn’t recognize would come down to races; I lost a game because I didn’t attack
with Mutavault on turn 3. I gave Cedric a window to hit me for an extra eleven damage for no real reason other than I forgot to play around Sovereigns
of Lost Alara, and he took it. Typical punts.

Finally, James arrived.

Cedric offered us to play against him in the style of a Two-Headed Giant, where James and I could discuss tricky lines of play. I’ve found, though,
that I learn better by watching people play Magic and asking questions rather than by sitting and spinning my wheels for a while.

Now, it’s very useful to play a lot of games and make a lot of mistakes when you can go back and analyze what you’re doing wrong. I was definitely
losing some games to Cedric because I was making simple tactical errors. However, those tactical errors were occurring because I had no idea
how I should approach the matchup strategically. I could recognize some of the mistakes I was making, but I was losing games I felt I should win.

I just didn’t see where my mistakes were. And you can’t fix mistakes until you find them.

So I sat down to watch James pilot Faeries.

No two people play the same game of Magic the same way. With so many branching decision paths over so many turns in each game, it’s inevitable that
those two people will eventually make different plays. My experience is that plays start to branch around turn 3 or 4; this is when players start
having the most options available to them. There’s not usually much debate over whether or which one-drop you should play, and picking which land to
play is rarely a controversial decision.

…So it was awkward when James fanned open a hand of Secluded Glen, Disfigure, Bitterblossom, Spellstutter Sprite, and some other cards I don’t
recall. Seemed simple: if Cedric has a one-drop, we want to kill it with Disfigure. To do that, we need to play Glen untapped. Play Glen, show him
Blossom, go. Revealing the Bitterblossom we’re going to play on turn 2 isn’t giving up much information. James played Secluded Glen untapped…

Then James showed Cedric his Spellstutter Sprite.

“Wait, what?” I asked. “Why are we showing him a counterspell?”

James shrugged. “I want to see how he plays knowing that we’re holding a counter.”

After the game, I still didn’t understand. After all, isn’t the fact that your opponent never knows whether or not you have it one of the best things
about playing with permission?

“No,” James explained to me. “If he knows that I have a counterspell, he’s not going to just run out his best threat into it. So when he still had a
couple of cards left, and he played Jace, the Mind Sculptor into my Sprite, I knew that he still had more ammunition back, probably Sovereigns of Lost

James also pointed out some other benefits he could get by revealing a counterspell. “If my hand is a little slow or whatever and it needs some time to
develop, I can show him a counterspell and force him to put the brakes on a little bit.”


I never thought of that.

You always hear about the importance of inference in games of hidden information like Magic. You don’t know exactly what the other guy has in his hand,
but you know that he played this and not that on turn 2; how do you use that to figure out what else he has in his hand? Your Jund
opponent used Lightning Bolt to kill your creature on turn 2 and did nothing on turn 3? Sounds like he has Bloodbraid Elf. With enough practice, this
starts becoming second nature.

The obvious corollary to the importance of inferring information is that it’s important to conceal as much information as possible. This is why you mix
the card you draw in with the rest of your hand before you do so much as play a land for the turn; you don’t want your opponent to know if you’re
drawing a land or a spell every turn.

And, of course, you don’t want to show your opponent your Spellstutter Sprite when you could just show him Bitterblossom.


Finally, Cedric told me what I was doing wrong. “You’re taking your turns too quickly. You need to just sit there and think about everything that might
happen on every turn.”

James was doing that. James knew that if he played Secluded Glen and showed Cedric a Spellstutter, Cedric would likely play in a way that would give
James some extra information.

Cedric was doing that. Cedric was tanking on every turn, weighing the pros and cons of all of his options, working hard to avoid getting blown out by
untimely Mistbind Cliques and Cryptic Commands.

I wasn’t doing that. I was viewing each turn individually, trying to get value on individual interactions assuming that if I was ahead by enough cards
or mana, my advantage would snowball into a win automatically. That’s not how Magic works.

When Cedric starts his turns, he starts out by figuring out the worst thing that could happen to him on that turn. Then he takes steps to ensure that
the worst doesn’t happen. For example, it’s quite the beating when Faeries uses Mistbind Clique in combat to Mana Short you and kill an attacker. So
Cedric casts a lot of spells in his first main phase if Faeries has Mistbind mana up. Sometimes, yeah, Cryptic Command counters Cedric’s spell and taps
his team — but unless Cedric is actively racing, losing one attack step isn’t the end of the world. Losing his entire turn and a creature, however, is
lights out.

What I needed to be doing was analyzing my hand and figuring out what the worst thing Cedric could do to me was. For example, once Cedric gets to six
mana, he’s going to be able to threaten Sovereigns of Lost Alara; I need to play in such a way that when Cedric gets to six mana, I’m able to withstand
Sovereigns. And, by extension, I need to ensure that when Cedric is at eight mana, I can handle Sovereigns plus a Mana Leak.

Sovereigns of Lost Alara is not Mythic’s only threat. You have to iterate this decision making process every turn. “If I counter his Dauntless Escort
with this Mana Leak, what am I going to do if he plays Jace on his next turn? But if I Doom Blade it, what if he waits a turn and plays Knight of the
Reliquary with enough mana to pay for Mana Leak? Can I afford to take some hits from Escort? If I do, how will I race it?”

Or, if you have Cryptic Command: “Should I Dismiss here? Am I going to need to bounce Celestial Colonnade or some other threat later? Are we going to
get into a race that I’m going to need to steal a turn to win?”

As it turns out, Faeries vs. Mythic is just a very close matchup. The player who has the tightest technical play is the favorite — but tight play in
the matchup requires understanding the implications of every potential play you can make. The matchup is not a matchup where you can just
“have a plan.” Sure, Mythic’s basic strategy is “resolve large animals and attack with them,” but you have to understand which creatures you want to
resolve, and how to force your Faeries opponent to trade his removal and counterspells for the creatures you don’t value highly while still presenting
a serious clock. Focus on what matters.

The tricky thing is, “what matters” changes, significantly, from game to game. In some games, Mythic will be racing Bitterblossom and Vendilion Clique,
with Creeping Tar Pit lurking in the background. Those games aren’t attrition fights, so Jace isn’t a powerful threat for Mythic; indeed, Jace matters
very little in such games. In other games, Faeries has no Bitterblossom, no Vendilion, and is all one-for-one removal and counterspells. In those
games, Jace is huge, and Mythic should take extra steps to ensure it resolves.

You come to understand what matters by understanding the ramifications of every possible action you and your opponent can take. You just need to be
willing to consider all of your options.

Max McCall

max dot mccall at gmail dot com