“When you play out a match, you should have some idea within the first few turns of what you want the end of the game to look like. Then you need to do everything you can to ensure that the game ends up that way.”
– Matt Schmaltz
Now obviously this entire series of dailies consists of me barning my friends, but I want y’all to know that it’s not (entirely) intentional. I’ve just had some excellent conversations over the last few days, and figure I might as well take this time to explore them. I find this quote from Schmaltz particularly insightful because, in my mind, it’s what separates the good players from the great ones. MS is a great player, and most of us are not, because he thinks of these types of things. I want to figure out how to do that.
Lying at the core of this statement is an obvious string of questions – how, exactly, do you ensure that the game ends up a certain way? Clearly it involves, much like it does in chess, sequencing one’s actions several turns in advance.
A necessary consequence of this, which I find interesting, is that in one particular turn, absent all information except the board and the contents of your hand, there can be no objectively correct play. You have to factor in not only the contents of your deck, but the contents of your opponent’s hand and deck as well. You have to figure out how he plans on winning the game, how he wants the board situation to go, and from there how you will work to combat his plan.
This kind of decision-making means that Schmaltz can win games that I would simply have thrown right out the window. An example of this occurred — yes, you guessed it – this past weekend. His opponent, playing Gruul I believe, had at least three creatures with one toughness on the table. Schmaltz rips an Orzhov Pontiff – and doesn’t play it. Another man hits the table. Then another. The board stalls. A Plagued Rusalka hits. Then – Pontiff. Wreck your team. Another Pontiff. Pump mine. Haunt. Haunt. Twenty-four ya.
Perhaps such a sequence is obvious for people better at this game than I am. But to me, I see an opportunity for a three-for-zero with a substantial effect on the board, and I take it. Schmaltz, however, had discipline. He understood when it was likely he would die, and understood that there was no real need to take action until it was necessary. Thus he held the spell until it won him the game. If he’d taken my play, it would have looked really nice, I probably would have gotten excited, but wouldn’t have translated directly into a game win.
Similarly, my friend David’s explanation of how to play Niv against Heartbeat made absolutely no sense to me until I thought about it. The barebones outline of the plan is that, except for Mana Leak, don’t use counters on any of their spells until they begin to go off (for game 1 anyway).
This didn’t make sense to me at first, because I thought that once they started going off it was more likely that they’d be able to finish up. Certainly this is the case with most combo decks that rely on milking an engine until it finishes for them, drawing more and more cards and casting more and more spells. But Standard Heartbeat is different in that it relies on card selection more than anything else. Once I understood that, then the David plan fell into place. What is the best way to get value out of a Remand? Use it on a twenty-three mana spell! Because your hand is stocked with countermagic, and because you understand that you can win with Jushi Apprentice and nothing else, Heartbeat actually cannot beat you game 1. They can have access to a maximum of nine cards (seven, then the draw step, then a Top). Of these, at the bare minimum, two of them need to be Early Harvests, one needs to be a Heartbeat (to activate the rest of their hand), and one has to be a finisher. This means at best their hand could consist of four Muddle the Mixtures and a Remand, and that is *highly* unlikely. Even if you don’t have a Jushi in play, you still have seven cards to work with, and with twelve non-Mana Leak counterspells in the deck it’s not unreasonable for you to have drawn six by the time they’ve managed to assemble their nut hand. And this is the most extreme possible situation.
There, in essence, is your strategic advantage: you can wait for them to make the first move.
All of this means that it’s absolutely essential, if you want to get better, not to just play for a particularly good turn. Advantage isn’t advantage if it doesn’t translate into wins.
This is exactly why, for example, most of the “anti-Affinity” decks in Mirrodin Block that weren’t GFC Freshmaker could not actually beat Affinity. I am referring to the creations – you know them – which people would take to the local shop. They’d have Oxidize, Tel-Jilad Justice, Viridian Shaman, Deconstruct, Shatter, Detonate, and Electrostatic Bolt… and they’d still lose to Affinity! This is because no matter how nice it is to run two-and-three-mana Desert Twisters, you don’t win by one-for-oneing the eighteen-land deck that plays Thoughtcast. Every single card you’d cast would seem savage. But then Affinity would rip something, you’d start complaining, and eventually you’d storm off seething about how nothing at all could beat this deck. The truth is that Arc-Slogger was the single-best anti-Affinity card there was because it did more than sit and trade cards with its opponent. It presented a threat that the opponent necessarily had to deal with that also happened to kill all of your guys. Molder Slug was similarly vicious for this reason. But these cards guaranteed strategic superiority; they helped ensure that the game was played according to your rules, not Affinity’s, and thus they led to many a game win for many a sensible player.
The moral? Think before you act. Are you actively winning the game, or are you just slinging around a bunch of pretty spells that will provide some slick decorations around the “0” in your “W” column?