Making Up Your Mind

If you’ve been reading sites like this for a while, you may have noticed that there are a lot of articles out there regarding the ever-elusive concept of “getting better at Magic.” Me? I’m here to promote good play the best way I know how: bad play – more specifically, pointing out opportunities for bad play. You may recall reading somewhere that, for each gamestate, there is only one correct play and everything else is a mistake. Well, I’m personally quite familiar with everything else. I have, at some point, bungled a game in pretty much any way you can imagine. It’s not that I’m a particularly bad player – I like to think I’m actually fairly decent – but if you play long enough and aren’t careful, it’s inevitable.

If you’ve been reading sites like this for a while, you may have noticed that there are a lot of articles out there regarding the ever-elusive concept of “getting better at Magic.” There are a few reasons for this: one, everybody out there reading articles wants to be better at Magic,* so they keep reading them. Two, everybody out there writing is able to write one, since each writer knows at the very least how they personally got better at the game. I mean, it’s free material! Who could resist? (Certainly not me, as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this now.) Three, there are many different ways to improve your play, and so there are just as many different articles that can be written without causing massive overlap. You can do case studies of individual mistakes, concentrate specifically on improving in tournaments, or make lists of general tactics; each method has its own merits and each will reach different types of players.

Me? I’m here to promote good play the best way I know how: bad play – more specifically, pointing out opportunities for bad play. You may recall reading somewhere that, for each gamestate, there is only one correct play and everything else is a mistake. Well, I’m personally quite familiar with everything else. I have, at some point, bungled a game in pretty much any way you can imagine. It’s not that I’m a particularly bad player – I like to think I’m actually fairly decent – but if you play long enough and aren’t careful, it’s inevitable.

Whenever I find that I’ve botched a play, I try to learn from it. No doubt, there are probably numerous instances that I simply haven’t noticed, but the ones I’ve caught give me ample material to study. The fact is that the opportunity to screw up or make the right call presents itself every time you play a spell or pass priority. I’d like to show you some of the hundreds of choices you make every game, almost every one of which can be made incorrectly. Take note, though: this doesn’t mean you’ll automatically make the right decision – at least, it doesn’t for me – but being aware that you’re even making one at least gives you the chance.

These may seem overly simple for advanced tournament competitors, but even the best of us can sometimes gloss over what turns out to be a vital turning point. The highest caliber of player is better at making these decisions than the rest of the player base, but nobody is perfect. These are not only instructions, but also reminders for those that already know what to do, but do so only instinctively or often forget all their options. (An extension of this is that, even if you are better than another player, you are not automatically absolutely better. While your decision-making may be better overall, they may have a particularly firm grasp on a particular aspect of the game, whether it’s one I’ve listed below or not, and you may be able to learn from them just like you would from someone who is “better” overall than you.)

On the other hand, for those not experienced in tournament play or constant attempts to keep one’s game “tight,” this may seem a little overwhelming. Don’t sweat it too much – it seems like a lot when it’s all broken down, but during an actual game, this will all blend together seamlessly. The fact is, you’ve been doing all of these things for as long as you’ve been playing Magic. I’m just here trying to raise your awareness. This isn’t a list of things for you to start doing; it’s a list of things to start paying more attention to (and it’s a short one at that).

Decision the First: Picking Your Play

This is, shockingly enough, just what it sounds like, and I’m putting it first because it is, by far, the most common thing you do and can be the easiest to get wrong. Say you’ve hit your fourth mana in a draft and must choose between playing your Order of the Sacred Bell or a Soratami Mirror-Guard. Or perhaps you’re playing some Standard and your opponent played a turn 2 Samurai of the Pale Curtain and you must now choose between killing it with Echoing Decay or casting a Distress. What’s it gonna be?

Obviously, it depends. If your opponent has a Ninja of the Deep Hours on the board, the Order may serve you better, whereas a Kitsune Blademaster means the flyer is probably your best bet. For situations like this, the answer is apparent if you stop to think, but what if you traded men into an empty board? What influences your decision now? Your opponent’s colors, cards you’ve seen already and the rest of your hand all come into play. A player sporting Mountains is likely to have Frostlings or Glacial Rays that can cut down a valuable but vulnerable flyer – forcing him to spend them on a beefy ground-pounder means the opportunity to swing unhindered in the air later in the game.

In the Samurai scenario, you must assess whether the Samurai constitutes an immediate and dangerous threat that must be neutralized immediately or if you have the time to disrupt your opponent’s game plan with selective discard. You can probably guess at what the rest of their deck is like – more small white creatures and some equipment. If you suspect one of those equipment cards to be, say, a Sword of Fire and Ice you have no way to deal with, Distressing it before they can cast it seems like a fine call. On the other hand, if you need your life points to be able to cast cards like Night’s Whisper, Phyrexian Arena and Death Cloud later in the game, offing the attacker with the Echoing Decay becomes more attractive.

I should mention that there’s sometimes the chance that the right play is no play at all. Now that isn’t the case in these instances – I’m making it easy on you, you lucky ducks – but it’s worth noting that sometimes it’s correct to hold back your removal spell or fourth creature or what have you. Just like any other “play,” there are benefits and drawbacks to doing nothing – it just so happens that, in these cases, the drawbacks of not developing your board or disrupting your opponent are so immense that the possibility hardly enters one’s mind.

Alright, so let’s flesh out one of these scenarios a little more and give you something thicker to chew on. In your Limited game, suppose your opponent is playing Black and Red. Your Loam Dweller has already traded with his Skullsnatcher and he followed your turn 3 Counsel of the Soratami by making a Brutal Deceiver. In addition to your two four-drops, your hand includes a Moss Kami, a Petals of Insight and a land. Now that you have more information, what would you do? Why?

Of course, once you’ve weighed your options and made a decision, you run right into…

Decision the Second: Choosing Your Spot

So you know what you’re going to play. But when? Obviously a creature can only be cast during your main phase, and in the scenario above you don’t have any creatures still alive, so it doesn’t matter much whether you pass through an empty combat step first. In the Samurai scenario, the same principle holds if you decide to play Distress; it’s not like you’ll be playing anything else that turn. If, however, you consider the situation and choose to cast Echoing Decay, the fact that it’s an instant means you must also choose when to play it.

In different circumstances, you may have as few as one choice (like some of the situations above), but other times, you may have several. That Echoing Decay could be played (for simplicity’s sake) at any of three different times: on your turn, during your opponent’s attack step or at the end of your opponent’s turn. Each has its advantages and its disadvantages that you must weigh when deciding what to do.

If you play the spell on your own turn, you are guaranteed to make a simple one-for-one trade. You give up any chance to gain additional advantage, but nothing can really go wrong. If you wait until your opponent attacks, you allow them the chance to possibly play and equip a Bonesplitter, in which case your Echoing Decay nets you not only their creature, but almost their entire third turn’s mana. However, you could also run into an unexpected Blessed Breath or other protective spell that will cancel your removal and still leave you taking damage. If you suck it up and wait all the way until your opponent finishes their turn, you’ll obviously be stuck taking the two points of damage, but you might also luck out when they play a second Samurai of the Pale Curtain (giving you a two-for-one) or a more threatening card to take down, like Eight-and-a-Half-Tails.

On the surface, you’ve got a one-in-three chance of making the right choice. But then you stop and think about it. Hey, you think, this is Standard! Land of the vile colorless artifact men! Who in their right mind would be playing Blessed Breath? Probably nobody, that’s who.** Right there, you’ve eliminated the one benefit playing Decay on your own turn had. Sadly, there’s nothing quite that simple that can help you decide between the other two choices – sure, if they do drop that ‘Splitter, your choice becomes easy, but it won’t always be the case.

So, once again, let’s color in the white space. Your deck is a mono-Black Death Cloud deck that uses Kokusho to help set up a lethal Cloud or uses removal and Phyrexian Arena to pull out a long grind. Your opponent played a Savannah Lions on his first turn, but you knocked it off it with Lose Hope (you stuck two Swamps on the bottom of your library), and he has now played the Samurai off a Plains and an Eiganjo Castle. After you play your second Swamp, your hand is Echoing Decay, Distress, Eradicate, Death Cloud, a third Swamp and Stalking Stones. Take a minute and think out the pros and cons. Distress or Echoing Decay? If the Decay, when?

After you’ve figured out answers to these questions, you’ve gotten past the big dilemmas, but you’re not necessarily done. There’s still one more thing you may have to think about:

Decision the Third: Paying Costs

Good news about this one: compared to the others, it’s a cake walk, especially in scenarios like the ones I’ve been giving you, in which you’re tapping out for whatever you choose to play anyway. Sadly, it’s not always this easy. As games go on, you often must consider what resources (most often mana, but occasionally other things) to spend for your spells or abilities and which to leave available.

This type of decision generally hinges on two factors. The first and by far most important, is whether you plan to play any other spells or abilities later in the turn (or even if you just want to have the option available), but this isn’t extremely difficult. After all, the other card and its mana cost (or ability cost) are sitting right there in your hand (or on the board) to remind you what mana you need to leave untapped. Still, awareness is the key; you can’t think about the mana you’ll need to play your Horobi’s Whisper if you aren’t thinking about the fact that you have it and we’ve all experienced the type of brain fart that makes a card in our hand or a permanent’s ability disappear for just long enough to screw the pooch.

Likewise, you should take similar care when paying non-mana costs for various spells or abilities. These costs can be things like imprinting a card on a Chrome Mox or sacrificing an artifact for a Shrapnel Blast. The type of consideration here is a little different: unlike mana, these resources won’t be given back to you for free on your next turn. The choices made for most non-mana costs affect the entire rest of the game, so you will be required to think ahead. If a Blast is “lethal,” that’s still not a free pass to carelessly choose the first artifact you can put a hand on, especially with Shining or Disrupting Shoals running around. Even something as innocuous as the cards removed to pay for using a Grim Lavamancer can be important; if you leave your Mogg Fanatic lying around, you may suddenly find that your struggling opponent has borrowed it with a Reanimate.

The second factor to consider is the spell you may want to represent. So maybe you don’t have a Kodoma’s Might in your hand – as long as you make a point of keeping Green mana available, you’re opponent will be kept guessing. The mana you don’t use can be just as important as the mana you do. This is less of a “mistake” and more of a psychological tactic, but once you’ve committed to bluffing a certain card, it’s important to keep doing it. Every cost you pay should be paid with the bluff in mind. That Green mana you were using to show a Might? If you carelessly use all your Forests on the next turn when you have other options, you’ve given away the advantage you were trying to cultivate.

You get through all that safely? Congratulations, you’ve successfully cast a spell. Each of these decisions factor into the playing of every single spell or ability, and although the game state sometimes decides some of it for you (like when you only have enough mana to cast your spell), there are plenty of chances for you to drop the ball. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to get into things like attacking and blocking, which can be just as complicated if not more so, but what we’ve got so far is probably plenty to think about at one time.

So what’s right? Beats me. I’ve presented a few scenarios for discussion, so make your own choices known in the forums. Sure, you don’t have all the information you might want, but that’s the way Magic is sometimes. For these simple, incomplete scenarios, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong – the important thing is that you recognize that it is a choice and make a conscious decision based on your own assessments. When you’re actually playing (which, believe it or not, really does help), you’ll get to see first-hand the results your decisions have; here, it’s all theoretical.

One final note: try to avoid the bane of my existence – the type of mistake I make incredibly often – tunnel vision. When you fall into tunnel vision – maybe if you saw that Taco Bell in your opening hand, decided to play it turn 4 and never noticed that you drew the Mirror-Guard – you make a play without thinking about it and you deny yourself the chance to a) make the right choice, and to b) learn from it. Even if you make the “wrong” decision, you have the chance to learn why the factors you considered didn’t lead where you thought, and gives you a better chance to be correct next time. When something doesn’t work out, talk to your friends about it and figure out why, prepare yourself for the next time you see that situation. Even at tournaments, don’t be afraid to talk to your opponent (once the match is over, of course) as they may have particularly valuable insights to share.

The essence of everything I’m getting at is this: Think about it. Have a reason. Always ask yourself, Why is what I’m doing better than anything else I could do? Whenever you make one of these decisions, know why you’re doing what you’re doing. When a friend asks you what you were thinking when you made some ridiculous blunder, have more than a shrug for a response. Even if your justification is laughable (and I’ve been there, trust me), it’s better than nothing. When you can only say “I don’t know why,” you gain nothing. When you have a reason, even if it’s wrong, you at least let yourself learn why that little fox was a bigger threat than he seemed. Every mistake really is a chance to learn – don’t miss your chances.

Signing off,

Andy Clautice

clauticea at kenyon dot edu

* — Well, everybody probably wants to be better at everything, but after all, this is a Magic website and I don’t know the first thing about stunt driving.

** — Yeah, yeah, nobody plays White Weenie either. So sue me. It’s a good example.