Magic is without a doubt a game with elements of both luck and skill. I happen to believe that the skill aspect is much larger than the luck part. How else would you explain repeat champions such as legends Kai Budde or Jon Finkel? One can acquire additional skill by reading strategy articles, play testing, and various other means. However, no matter how much you practice, there’s always going to be someone with more innate skill than you. There will always be bad matchups. There will always be bad draws. At some point in your Magic career, you will be the huge underdog, and this guide is for you. I will detail methods you can use to win even when the odds are stacked against you.
Since this article is about what to do when you’re already supposed to lose, a lot of these suggestions go against common Magic knowledge. As means of explanation, consider the following scenario: You are playing a poker game against seven players that you know are much better than you. What is the best strategy? Mathematically, your best bet is to go”all in” (bet all your money) every single hand, regardless of what your cards are. While the chances of this strategy winning the tournament for you is low, if the cards come out right, you cannot lose. The theory is that you’d rather take the long shot instead of a sure loss to superior players.
Rule 1: Don’t Mulligan Potentially Good Hands
I can already hear Ken Krouner spinning in his cubicle. He wrote a terrific article about when to mulligan, and his cardinal rule was”When in doubt, throw it out.” Ken also pointed out that there is more to a mulligan than whether you have the right amount of land or not. I would go a step further and suggest that there is more involved than just the cards! When considering whether to mulligan, you must think about your matchup, whether you are up or down a game, your opponent’s skill level, and any number of other issues. So when you are the underdog, keep that questionable hand!
For example, consider the hand of 2 Frogmite, 2 Myr Enforcer, 2 Welding Jar, and Shrapnel Blast. Do you mulligan it? Of course you do, it has no land. Well, not quite. Drawing first, there’s still a chance you’ll pluck a land any go nuts. If you’re playing against a White control deck full of Wrath of God and Akroma’s Vengeance, peeling that land may be your best bet. After all, a hand any less aggressive will surely be a loss. This example is very extreme, but the point should be taken. When you are in dire straits, you should be more willing to keep a questionable hand, in order to maximize your chances of getting lucky. This does not mean keep terrible hands by any means.
Rule 2: Mulligan Playable Hands
Ken would certainly agree with this rule. Just because a hand is playable doesn’t mean you need to keep it. A hand of Seat of the Synod, Great Furnace, Glimmervoid, Frogmite, Thoughtcast, Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault is a keeper, right? Maybe. If you’re playing against a March of the Machines deck, you might want to consider sending back this semi-aggressive hand. When March hits, you will most likely lose unless you’ve had a lightning fast start, or you have a counter ready. So send back any hand that doesn’t have those elements. As another example, if the only way your Red deck is going to beat Tooth and Nail is by drawing Dwarven Blastminer, mulligan until you have one, even if it means going down to three cards! [I think this is bit extreme, but there’s a valid middle ground here that many intermediate players don’t recognize, partially because they don’t playtest matchups enough. – Knut]
Rule 3: Play a Swingy Deck
Remember how Mike Flores recently told you not to play a swingy deck, and to instead play the deck with the best expected value against the field? It turns out he was talking to good players. The whole expected value theory is based on the fact that you will play your deck perfectly (as will your opponents). Sure, a Wake deck would beat U/G Madness 80% of the time… if you really know what you’re doing. If I picked up Wake today against any decent player using Madness, I’m sure I’d get smashed nearly every time. Not because the matchup is bad, but because I am bad. On the other hand, if I picked up a dedicated land destruction deck with relatively few decisions to make, there’s a chance I’ll win this game. They might get the nuts and I don’t do a thing. But then again, I might kill all their land before they smash me. I like those odds better than my sure loss playing with the”superior” deck.
Rule 4: Get Lucky!
There may be situations where you know ahead of time that you are going to be consistently outplayed. This is likely the case if it is your first tournament ever, or your first Pro Tour. In these cases, I would not only recommend playing an accepted deck that is swingy, but I would take an even stronger gamble and take that deck and cut corners until it barely seems playable. Goblin Decks usually runs twenty-three lands, right? So run twenty-two and hope to draw enough. Chances are you will not draw enough land, but you were going to lose anyway, right? At least now if you do draw the land, you have extra threats to win with! [There is a reverse corollary to this idea that says that good to great players should minimize their possibility of bad draws. Kai has said on numerous occasions that he prefers to run his decks a little land-heavy in order to decrease his chances of manascrew and give him more chances to outplay his opponent. – Knut]
This concept is especially true in Limited formats. Go ahead and take every bomb you see, regardless of color. If you draw it and the proper mana, you might accidentally win. Also note that if you need to draw a particular bomb to win, play the game as if it is the next card in your deck. The key here is to really know your own skill level. If you can swim with the sharks, then draft well, and hope to win. If you know that constructed is your forte, then by all means maximize your mise factor.
Rule 5: Take Chances
Ken Krouner also wrote an article about when to bluff. However, he did not mention the increased value of bluffing, the worse your odds of winning become. As mentioned in my poker example, the winning strategy for a bad player is to bet everything every hand. Even though your opponent knows you are bluffing, he is still forced to call your bluff any time he wants to react. If he calls you bluff wrong even once, he loses the game. All you have to do is catch your opponent one or two times and you may just steal a game. So swing in with all of your creatures when it makes no sense. Mana burn when you’re not running Pulse. Superior players will analyze your actions and formulate a plan based on them. If your actions are erratic and illogical, you will force your opponent into bad choices as well.
Rule 6: Don’t Use Jedi Mind Tricks
This rule has been noted by many a pro player, but it bears repeating. Don’t try to psych out your opponent. Don’t try to use false tells, and don’t try to read a pro’s tells. Just remain as neutral as possible and play your game. When playing against a seasoned player, you’re at least as likely to make the wrong call based on their actions as the right one. Pat Chapin points out that no matter what he thinks Mike Long is planning, he always guesses wrong. So don’t guess at your opponent’s motives, and don’t second guess your own plans. In fact, pretend you are playing against a computer opponent and the player across from you is not even there. And it should go without saying, but never, ever, take advice from your opponent. [Especially if his name is Mike Long. – Knut]
Rule 7: Don’t Scoop
This is a lesson that even a few pros could stand to learn. There are very few circumstances when it is appropriate to concede a game. The most common reason would be that you need to end the game quickly in order to have time for the remaining games. Another reason would be that you do not want to reveal the contents of your deck. Otherwise you should force your opponent to kill you! A famous piece of Magic folklore tells about how Mike Long won a match without a win condition left in his deck. Similar tales are constantly retold. Learn from others’ mistakes, and make your opponent go through the motions of killing you. The worst case is you’re still dead, but now you’ve seen more of their deck. In the best case, they may not kill you at all. More commonly, an opponent may make a mistake that will cost him the game. You’ll only know if you play it out.
A corollary to this rule is”Don’t Tell Your Opponent How To Win.” So what if you are at six and they just Shrapnel Blasted you with a Disciple of the Vault in play? You haven’t lost the game until they force you to take that extra point of damage.
If you consistently use the rules above, I can guarantee that you will lose more games. They go against the grain of common Magic knowledge for a reason: in general, they don’t work! No amount of luck will ever compensate for tight play and testing in the long run. However, when you are almost assured a game loss already, the rules of the game need to change. When the skill factor of the game is not going to be in your favor, you need to do everything you possible you can to get lucky, and win on the long shot. But if you’re going to be taking a gamble, you might as well stack the odds in your favor.