Reflecting Ruel – Deducing Your Opponent’s Hand in Zendikar Limited

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, January 19th – Zendikar Limited is a fast format, and tricks are relatively thin on the ground. Happily, this means that they can be rather easy to spot. In today’s Reflecting Ruel, Oli talks us through the signs that should telegraph our opponent’s cards in hand. Such information is invaluable to anyone looking to improve their forty-card game…

In previous articles, I’ve discussed how to deduce the cards your opponent is holding in his hand. Today, I’m going to write about how to do this in regards to Zendikar Limited.


The main reason why it’s easier than usual to deduce exactly what your opponent is holding is one of the new mechanics in Zendikar: Landfall. With 26 of the 209 spells in the format benefitting from this ability, you can expect every deck to be running several such cards. It’s the main reason why players have little interest in playing “spare” lands when they don’t have a Landfall card on the board.

Let’s see how various board states impact your opponent’s decision to play lands:

– They have landfall cards in play which have an immediate impact on the game. In this scenario, they simply play every land they draw.
– They have landfall cards in play which don’t have an immediate impact on the game (ex: Steppe Lynx when you have Kraken Hatchling). In this scenario, they wait to draw more Landfall cards, or for the situation to improve, for before playing lands.
– They have no landfall cards (left) in the deck. In this scenario, they play regularly, and play lands whenever they wish.
– They have an expensive spell in hand, or several spells to cast in the same turn, and they need more lands in play to accomplish this. In this scenario, they play lands regardless of the Landfall abilities they have in play (or in their deck).

Starting from this point, you should often be able to figure how many lands your opponent is holding. Just as importantly, there are not so many expensive drops or tricks in the format. With six lands in play, you can play pretty much any spell in the format. So, how do you figure whether your opponent is holding spells or lands? There are several ways to find out.

At first, obviously, there are the Landfall spells in play. Next, there’s the opponent’s reaction, which depends essentially on how happy he seems about the game, and the speed of his decisions. Of course, some players can control such revealing tells, but most of the time, even against good players, you will at least have some sort of clue. For instance: you’re beating your opponent down and you are convinced he would play a removal spell if he had one. He has GGGBBB on the board and one card in hand. He draws a card and passes right away… The common/uncommon card you should be the most scared of here is Heartstabber Mosquito. However, if he passes the turn immediately after drawing a card, the options are now extremely few. 99% of the time, you’ll be facing one of the following situations:

– He has Mosquito or a “trick” spell (such as Feast of Blood, Vampire’s Bite, Needlebite Trap, Primal Below, Vines of Vastwood), and he drew another one.
– He has one of those tricks, but NOT a Mosquito, and he drew another.
– He had land in hand and drew another one.
– He had land in hand and drew one of the cards from the above trick spell shortlist.

If your opponent does have the Mosquito, or if he’s simply holding any spell able to turn a game around if he draws a land, you should be able to read the impatience on his face, and hopefully to adapt your play to it. When you pass, he will most likely look at his draw the way a poker player who’s down on the turn will pay attention to the river. Also, if it is game 1, keep the card you suspected in mind for the following games.

Tricks are extremely rare in the format, and the format is fast enough to make them very visible (I mean, who falls into Summoner’s Bane without seeing it coming?).

When you don’t know what your opponent is holding, you should sometimes make assumptions, and try to make plays based on such assumptions. Here is a little guide to some cards and tricks you should try to avoid falling for. In these examples, as in the whole article, I’ll focus on the commons and uncommon of the format, are they are much more likely to be seen than rares and mythics, and also because concentrating on the rarest cards too much is the best way to be playing around the wrong card.


They are extremely visible most of the time, as their trap activation is so tricky that they are usually hard-cast. Pay specific attention not to play an early irrelevant artifact when your opponent has two mana including Green in play, nor to attack with four guys into Arrow Volley Trap, and you should be fine. In the case of Needlebite Trap, even if the card is nearly unplayed, it doesn’t cost much to stay above five life when you have control over the game (the same applies to Unstable Footing).

Whiplash Trap could be troublesome, as you’ll not be sure if your opponent is passing with mana for Into the Roil, countermagic, or the double bounce. It turns out that 90% of players think about playing it during their main phase before they pass. If you have the feeling he has the Trap, just play guys in second main phase. In the worst case scenario, it will be countered and your opponent will get a 2/2, but you’ll keep your creatures.

Kicker Spells

Heartstabber Mosquito is the most obvious of these, but there are many more your opponent can have a good reason to be holding. At first, concerning the Mosquito: just keep a blocker if the situation dictates that your opponent killing a guy would be enough to finish you off. If you are holding a decisive card, and you’re pretty sure you’ll win with it but realize a Nekrataal on following turn would turn the tables, just hold it a little longer.

Gatekeeper of Malakir is not an easy card to play around. The scenario happens when your opponent can’t find a third Black early on when it can have an impact on the game, as it’s nearly impossible to play around it in the very early game. When you’re playing around it, the only time when it’s really annoying is when your only untapped guy is your worst creature the table, and they are attacking for the win if you don’t block. So if you have reasons to think he has this card in his deck (through facial expressions, or having passed the card during the draft), try not to attack with your strongest win condition and leave weaker blockers back if it’s not necessary.

Goblin Bushwhacker is not so hard to play around if, and only if, you think about it. The card should only be played in a Mono Red deck, and as your opponent will need to build up lands in order to kick it and play other guys on the same turn, he should both be playing his spell and his cards in hand. If it seems you’re winning easily, and if his eyes are not dead, ask yourself the kind of impact the Goblin could have on the game, and how you could prevent it. The same comment applies to Goblin War Paint and Mark of Mutiny.

Marsh Casualties is one of the strongest cards in the set, as it’s able to win games on its own, costing a maximum of five mana. Just don’t over-extend if not necessary, and when you have to choose between two guys, pick the three-or-more toughness choice over the two-or-less (Molten Ravager over Hellfire Hound, Merfolk Seastalkers over Kor Cartographer, etc).

Bold Defense is a card you can easily see coming, as White doesn’t have that many tricks. If he attacks you with six lands or less when there is good chance he has it (such as attacking with a 2/2 into a 2/3 when you’re tapped out), your only goal will be to make the card useless by turn he reaches seven mana. Either because you provoked a one-for-one trade with a creature you had no high expectations for, or because you provoked enough trades to diminish the impact of the card later down the line. Even if it’s less visible, Brave the Elements in another card which you should try and get your opponent to play as soon as possible.

– Finally, Into the Roil is not really a card you should be focusing on, as your opponent will always cast it when he has a window for it. Just don’t play an Aura or equip one of your most expensive guys when your opponent has a couple of Blue untapped.

Ally Creatures

Against a deck using many allies (which is rather hard to figure in game 1), if they are not facing too much pressure, they will often keep a guy or two in hand and wait for one of their big brothers (Murasa Pyromancer, or all the pump guys) to show up until they release them.

Combat Tricks

Pure combat tricks are extremely rare in this format, rare enough to be detected rather easily. Also, in this very smart format that is Zendikar Limited, they almost never end up as two-for-ones, meaning they are not so bad to fall into. Let’s still have a look at them…

Shieldmate’s Blessing

If you have a Red removal spell and a guy you must absolutely kill, maybe would it be wiser to wait for your opponent to be tapped out before you play it. If you don’t have the feeling he is any likely to tap out, just play it anyway. In the case of an attack phase against a Mono White deck attacking with a 2/2 into a selection 2/2s, just gang block in order to kill his guy no matter whether he has Bold Defense or Shieldmate’s Blessing, or neither. However – and this applies to most tricks you could fall into – if you think their impact is quite low at the moment they’re played (just like in this example), maybe is it actually wiser to push him into playing them before they get better.

Slaughter Cry / Primal Bellow / Vines of Vastwood

When there are many guys on the board, or more simply when the big dudes are on your side, it is not so hard to see these cards coming, as your opponent will attack you with one guy only when he’s “afraid” you would block two of yours. When you suspect Slaughter Cry, you can either take the damage if you’re on a high life total (or if you care about your possible blocker), double block the attacker if it’s enough to pick up a one-for-two (such as blocking a 2/2 with two 3/3s), or simply block with your guy. Indeed, the trade may seem fair (one-for-one), as you still made a good deal as far as tempo is concerned, and he didn’t hurt you during the attack; often, he won’t have enough mana left to play a spell in second main phase.

When you fear your opponent has either of the pump spells, try and play removal any time they are tapped out. However, if you’re able to kill their guy in combat, wait for them to play a trick in order to play a removal in response, and thus you’ll make card advantage.

More generally, in any format, when you think your opponent has a trick spell, compile a shortlist inside your head of such tricks he could have, and ask yourself (when considering his previous plays in the game) how likely it is he has any of them at this moment, and also whether he had a chance to play them earlier on.

Narrow Escape

This rarely has a big enough impact for you to pay excessive attention to it. Just make sure you don’t kick Heartstabber Mosquito or cast Journey to Nowhere when he has mana open and the only guy in play.

Other Cards

Feast of Blood

Just like a combat trick or a Trap, this belongs to the shortlist of spells your opponent can be holding when you don’t think he has a land in hand and you’re having a hard time finding out what spell he could have. If you suspect your opponent has it, try and push any vampire to trading. His answer should enlighten you quite quickly, as if he has Feast of Blood in hand, a single Vampire in play, and a decent life total, he will not even consider the trade.

Vampire’s Bite

It is a trick and it has kicker, but it still belongs in another category: those rare fine spells you never see coming. A Black trick is just not intuitive to play around, as it almost doesn’t exist. Playing around it is not so hard, as long as you keep in mind it is actually playable and your opponent could be holding it.

Summoner’s Bane / Cancel

When your opponent passes with five mana, including two Blue, untapped, you should play around bounce spells (as we’ve seen earlier), and be concerned about counterspells. To make it simple, you have little interest in passing without playing a spell, as you won’t be able to stop a bounce spell from happening anyway. Just play your second best guy, or a spell over a guy of the same level, and you should do fine. If you are winning soon, but Summoner’s Bane would actually kill you, DO NOT play a guy.

Mind Sludge

If you suspect the big discard is gonna happen, just try and play your best guys as quickly as you can. Feel free to bring in land destruction if the Sludge is too strong in your opponent’s deck, but only do so if you’re on the play, or if it’s Demolish and your opponent is running at least one artifact. Otherwise, it would be too out of tempo in the early game, and useless later on.

Spire Barrage

Against a Mono Red deck, bear in mind he’s most likely playing at least one of these, and probably two. Don’t try to race them at any price, or the Barrage could punish you right away.

Taking Notes

Anytime your opponent plays a relevant spell, write it down so you will remember it more easily later, and thus you’ll be able to adjust to most of his trick plays.

Have a great week!