PV’s Playhouse – Making Decisions in Magic

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, February 4th – There are many factors that separate the weak player from the strong in our glorious game. One particular factor is the strength of our decision-making process. Today, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa takes a look at this process, and highlights some interesting examples that should help improve our base levels of play.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Sometime ago, a player wrote me a message in which he said, among other things, that I always started my articles with “Hello,” and that I should change that some day. So, today, I decided I would not start with “Hello.” Instead, I started with a quote from my favorite book series (though from my least favorite book in it).

That said… hello!

My article on today is going to be about that: choices. (Did you think I chose that quote for no reason?). As you are probably tired of reading, a game of Magic is a group of choices and decisions. From the outset, you choose what cards you are going to play. Then you proceed to choose to play or draw, to mulligan or keep, and every single turn you choose what you are going to do with each of your cards. The difference in those choices is what fundamentally differs a very good player from a very bad player. The good player will usually make the right choice (though no one always makes the right choices), whereas the bad player will, most of the time, not even realize that he has a choice to make.

Once we talk about Magic, it could be argued that Dumbledore is not really correct. He is right in the sense that our choices show what we truly are, but it is not far more than our abilities, because in Magic, our ability is exactly this: the ability to make choices. Therefore, one is not more important or descriptive than the other, since, in Magic, they are essentially the same thing.

To make the right choice as often as we can, there are a couple of requirements. First, as I’ve already stated, you must know that you have a choice to make. Since people told me they liked examples, here are some:

You are on the play, playing this deck, which I’ve borrowed from Olivier Ruel articles:

10 Plains
6 Island
1 Kabira Crossroads
1 Sejiri Refuge

1 Kor Aeronaut
2 Kor Outfitter
1 Kor Skyfisher
1 Kazandu Blademaster
2 Cliff Threader
1 Gomazoa
2 Kor Hookmaster
1 Windrider Eel
1 Living Tsunami
1 Pillarfield Ox
1 Sky Ruin Drake
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle

1 Adventuring Gear
1 Shieldmate’s Blessing
1 Brave the Elements
1 Bold Defense
1 Whiplash Trap
1 Arrow Volley Trap
1 Conqueror’s Pledge

Your opening hand is Plains, Plains, Island, Island, Island, Bold Defense, and Sky Ruin Drake. What is your first play?

A lot of people refuse to think on their first turn, and will just play any random land or card. You cannot do that. You have to think. For example, with this deck, it is clear that there is only one play you can make that makes any sense, and that is to say “mulligan” and draw a new hand of six cards. What? Have you not been paying any attention?

Now, your six carder is Plains, Plains, Island, Island, Kor Hookmaster, Living Tsunami. This is acceptable, and then you have a choice to make – Island or Plains? In this case, it’s also clear to see that you should play the Plains, because you have a lot of WW two-drops and no UU two-drops, so if you draw, say, Kor Aeronauts, you want to be able to play it on turn 2. This is something that can define how the rest of the game plays out, yet a lot of people simply don’t give this any thought – they don’t even know that what they are doing matters.

Let’s move to a somewhat more complicated example for your turn 1 play:

You are playing Legacy, running Nassif’s Grand Prix: Chicago winning list (Ugbw Counterbalance/Top with Bob, Goyf, Swords, Blue spells). Your opening hand, on the play, against an unknown opponent, is:

Underground Sea
Dark Confidant
Force of Will
Force of Will

What is your turn 1 play?

As an experiment, I asked a lot of people I know – some good, some bad – what they would play on turn 1. A lot of people answered “land, pass,” and that is clearly wrong – as in, it cannot possibly be right. A lot of people answered “land, Ponder,” and that is also clearly wrong – no matter what you want to do, the word “land” cannot ever be there – you have to choose one of the two.

Now, a lot of people will look at this hand and be troubled by the choice of spells, Ponder or Brainstorm, and completely ignore that you have another choice to make – the land you are playing. Then, what is the right play?

In my opinion, the right play is Tundra, Ponder. You don’t want to lead with Underground Sea, because you might get Wastelanded, and there are a couple of lands that you can draw that do not allow you to play Dark Confidant in that scenario. Basically, you don’t mind losing your Tundra but you do mind losing your Sea, so you lead with Tundra. As for Ponder or Brainstorm, I think Ponder is better on turn 1, because Ponder is always the same, but Brainstorm gets much better when you can immediately shuffle away what you don’t want. In this situation, you will probably not be able to shuffle anything away, and you might be stuck with cards you can’t even cast. So, to me, this is the strictly correct play, and any variation of it – be it simply Underground Sea, Ponder – is just incorrect. It could be argued that Brainstorm can hide your Bob from Thoughtseize, but, as far as my limited knowledge of the format goes, Thoughtseize is not that widely played, and you have Force of Will for it anyway.

Now, imagine you‘ve mulliganed to six, and you have the same hand but without the Ponder. Your choice changes to whether you want to play the Brainstorm or not. There are occasions in which you wouldn’t want to – it’s better to just save it for when you can shuffle some cards away – but in this situation, I think you want to play it (though in all honesty I might be wrong, and then the play changes again, but even if you disagree with it assume for a second that you will play the Brainstorm to decide which land to play on turn 1). In this case, the best turn 1 land is Underground Sea. Why Underground Sea this time? Because, as I’ve said, when you play Brainstorm you want the ability to shuffle unwanted cards away. Imagine the situation where you Brainstorm into a Fetchland… you will draw one card obligatorily, but you don’t have to draw the second that you put back if you hit a Fetch. However, if your first play was Tundra and you want to get rid of the card, you will need to fetch for another, redundant Underground Sea to play your Bob, wasting your opportunity to get a Tropical Island! If the Sea is already in play, then you are free to get any land you want and you will still be able to play Bob on turn 2. This is the same train of thought if you actually want to play the Brainstorm over Ponder on turn 1, and it is yet another reason why the TundraPonder play is better.

So, not that easy a turn 1, is it? Though it might seem simple, there are many choices you have here. Each land coupled with each spell you have is a different path, and even the choice of not playing any spell at all! (We are leaving out the choice of not playing any land). Also, remember that it is important that you think all that at the first opportunity you get – in this case, it is when you are deciding if you mulligan or not — as that way your opponent has no clue what you are actually thinking. And, especially, notice that you cannot think about plays as separate things. If you decide “I will play Tundra because of Wasteland,” and play Tundra, and then decide “I will play Brainstorm” for whatever reason, then you won’t be able to go back to “if I play Brainstorm, however, playing Sea is better.” It must be one train of thought, one decision, which encompasses everything you are doing.

Sometimes, people believe they don’t have a choice when they actually do. I’ve seen the following situation plenty of times…

“I kept these six cards and lost.”
“And why did you keep this awful hand?”
“Because I don’t mulligan to five.”

Don’t be radical. You DO have a choice of mulliganing to five, and even four. Know the modes on your cards. You do have three choices when you play Bant Charm or Jund Charm, and if you don’t know that, there will be a time where the choice of removing your opponent’s Bloodghast will be the correct one, but you will not think of it because, to you, there isn’t a choice to be made in that regard.

Other times people make mistakes when making choices are those where they know they have a choice to make, but they don’t know exactly the implications of their choices. One example I like was when I was playing in a Kamigawa Block PTQ, with Gifts Ungiven, against White Weenie. I have in play a 6/6 Kagemaro, First to Suffer, and three untapped lands, but only one of them produces Green mana. I have in hand a Rending Vines and a Forest that I can play, and then that gives me a choice to make – I can play the Forest, that I will never again need for the rest of the game, just to keep Rending Vines mana up in case my opponent manages to draw a Jitte, or I can keep the Forest in my hand, to grow my Kagemaro further. I decided that it would be better to play the Forest, since Jitte would be potentially problematic. Again, it is a simple decision, but you must understand that you have a decision to make when you want to play that Forest.

Now, imagine this scenario:

I have a 6/6 Kagemaro, and my untapped Lands are Forest, Forest, Swamp, Swamp, and Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers. I attack with my Kagemaro and my opponent blocks with his Lantern Kami, and plays Shining Shoal with X = 5, to kill my Kagemaro, which ends up not happening because I simply use Okina to pump it – my opponent had missed that. Then, the previous situation happens – I have to choose between keeping the Vines mana or not. Same decision, right?


This time, the choice is the same – Land or No, Vines or No – but the consequences are radically different. In one example, I am merely choosing between growing my Kagemaro to 6/6 or preventing a potential Umezawa’s Jitte from getting counters. In the second example, I am choosing between preventing the Jitte from getting counters and keeping my Kagemaro alive! If you pay attention, you’ll notice that my 7/7 Kagemaro took 6 damage. During my game in the PTQ, I presented myself the choice of playing Forest or not, but in my mind I was making the choice of scenario one, not the choice of scenario two – if I had realized my Kagemaro dying was also a consequence of my choice, I’d certainly have not played the Forest. In this situation, I knew I had a choice to make, but I failed to understand exactly which choice I was making, so I could not make the proper one. As a result, my 6/6 Kagemaro had 6 damage on it, and I lost the game and the match (which thankfully did not matter). There is no use having an excellent decision making power if you don’t really know what you are deciding upon!

Since choices are really important, we should always aim for two things – having as many choices as possible, and having as much information as we can when making those choices. This usually means you wait until the last moment to make your definitive choice, because the more you know, the better you can decide. I’ve seen tournament caliber players go “turn 4 play a land, play Ponder” – why would you ever do that? What if you draw into a better land to play? What if you draw into a card that can only be played the next turn if you happened to play a specific land this turn, one that was not the land you played? Why would you tell your opponent you already had that land before you Ponder? When you draw your hand, you always look at the seven cards to see what you are going to play… you don’t draw four, select your first turn land, and then draw the remaining three cards hoping they match your decision, do you? This is the same thing! Before you make a choice, give yourself as much information as you can.

Sometimes people will play spells at the end of someone’s turn simply because they have that in their minds that they should, but they don’t need to. Imagine that I am playing Jund, and I have eight lands in play and a Terminate in hand, and my opponent plays Baneslayer Angel. I could Terminate it at the end of his turn – I mean, I am certainly not going to let the Angel live, so I might as well just play it, right? No! What are those two mana going to do for me in my turn? Nothing! There is no reason to play the Terminate at all! What if you draw Bloodbraid Elf, and then hit a Terminate on that? Aren’t you going to feel like an idiot? Wait until you actually have to make that choice… there is no point in hurrying it. It gets even worse with cards that are free to use – Seal of Fire, for example. Why would you ever sacrifice it at the end of your opponent’s turn? Why not get to see an extra card to see if you really want to do it?

By the same token, do not give your opponent more choices! Of course, this does not apply to completely stupid individuals. Some guys just look like they’ve been Mindslavered every turn, and to those you don’t mind giving a lot of choices because you know they will make the wrong ones, but you shouldn’t need any help beating those. If you are paired against a good player, do not give him choices!

I remember reading in more than one place that Loam Lion was better than Kird Ape – that, all things considered, the fact that it died to Deathmark was not relevant, because if your opponent wanted to spend that Deathmark on your Lion he wouldn’t have one to kill your Goyf, Nacatl, Baneslayer, Reliquary, etc. This is simply not correct. Your opponent does not have to Deathmark this guy just because he can! With Kird Ape, your opponent cannot cast Deathmark, but with this guy he has the option to either do it or not, and this can only be good for him! If he is going to die to any of the previously mentioned cards, he is simply not going to hit this guy, and he will be just like a Kird Ape. If he is dying to this guy, though, then he is much worse! What if your opponent’s hand is four Deathmarks? What if he just needs some time to kill you and so doesn’t care about the big guys? What if he is on two life and this is your only guy? It is hoping too much that your opponent will misplay and hit this guy when he shouldn’t – it is much better to hope that, from time to time, he is going to actively want to kill your guy, but then won’t be able to because his spell can‘t target it.

As a side note, I do think Loam Lion is probably better than Kird Ape, but not because of this reason. It is better because of the mana, and because there are more anti-Red cards than anti-White cards (Burrenton, Kor Firewalker, COP:Red).

One interesting situation that I’ve always thought about is this: opponent goes Mountain, Mogg Fanatic. You go Forest, Llanowar Elves. He draws and attacks. Assuming you are playing under the old rules, which is the period of time I’ve spent hours thinking about this (that is, with damage on the stack), do you block?

Now, in the overwhelming majority of the situations, it’s going to be the same – you take one and your Elf is dead. Then why does it matter? Because, if you block, you don’t give him a choice. Do you want to give him a choice? It might be that this Elf is really important to you, and maybe if you give him a choice he isn’t going to know how important it is, so won’t kill it. It might be that, by not blocking, you show him how important that Elf is, so he will not only kill him but every subsequent Mana Elf that you have. It might be that, just as he doesn’t know how important the Elf is to you, you don’t know how important the Mogg is to him – what if his hand is 3 Lava Spike and 3 Lightning Bolt? That is 18 damage, and if you don’t block, you will be giving him the choice between killing your Elf or dealing you the last point of damage. What if his hand is three Goblin Kings? Then he is not going to sacrifice it, and you’ve wasted your opportunity to get rid of his soon to be 4/4 Mogg. The possibilities of things he could have are many, and you don’t know which, so unless he is terrible, I think you should not give him the choice – you should always block here, because it is more likely that he knows something that you don’t than that he will make a mistake and let your guy live when he shouldn’t. Basically, if he is in doubt, he will kill the Elf – that is the standard, automatic play. If he does not, it is for a very good reason. Unless you think you actually know better for some reason, do not give him choices.

Of course, nowadays you always block, since there is no damage on the stack, but why is your opponent playing Mogg Fanatic nowadays?

The only situation in which I think it is valid to give your opponent a choice is when you “know better.” For example, when I was playing Flash Hulk, I would often actively run my fetchlands into their Stifles – normally, with another deck, I would not give them the choice of using it or not, but there is no situation in which using it can be right for them – even if they have four Stifles, I’d have to go through all of them to combo anyway. So, in this case, giving them the choice is harmless – it is a win/zero situation, not a win/lose. You don’t have to count on them making a mistake, because, if they don’t, you lose nothing. It might be that they have two Stifles in hand and do not know what you are playing; then they will probably Stifle your Fetch, which is good for you, so you want to give them the option instead of trying to sneak the activation when they tap out, as usual. This is a very rare situation, though. Most of the time, you do not want to do this.

This is, incidentally, why cards that give your opponents choices are bad. Browbeat, for example, is a card that people who are starting to play generally like – 2R for 3 cards or 2R for 5 damage are sweet deals, right? Well, except your opponent gets to choose which one, and suddenly it’s not so sweet anymore, since you will get the one you didn‘t need. Need to recover from a Wrath of God? They are going to take five. Need to topdeck that burn spell to win? Better hope it’s in the top three cards and you have mana to play it after Browbeat. You know Covenant of Minds? Some people think it’s great, because you have the chance to draw FIVE cards for five mana, but in reality it’s just worse than 4U draw 3 – you cannot count on them making the wrong play. If they make you ditch the three cards, it is certainly because those 3 cards are too problematic for them, and you would rather have them instead of random 5. Some cards are exceptions to this, like Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction, but in reality it is you who makes the choices for those cards, not your opponent. They get better if your opponent is bad, but you don’t need them to be bad for those cards to be good.

To sum it up, Magic is a game of choices. To play Magic well, you must know when to make a choice, what exactly you are choosing, and you must give yourself the biggest amount of choices with the biggest amount of information. Your opponent wants to do the same, so do not give him choices and do not give him information. There is a reason most good players prefer to play control, and that is partially because it gives them more choices. Do not make their life any easier, as it will likely not pay off for you.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. See you next week!