The Art Of The Attack

“There are no wrong threats.” You may ask what made me dig this all too famous quote out of mothballs? Well, at Grand Prix: Atlanta I was talking with Joe Crosby. Joe had brought a Goblin deck to the tournament. This was fairly new ground for Joe. Joe had a quote that I feel is equally memorable as Dave’s, but perhaps sells the beatdown concept to a control player a little better:”I never realized how badly people play when you put them under pressure.”

Perhaps the most famous Quote by the King of Beatdown, Dave Price, is, "There are no wrong threats." I think we all know what this means, but I will break it down a little.

In Magic, there are four basic types of cards: Threats, Answers, Card Drawing and Mana. Every card ever printed fits into one or more of these molds.

Multi-Purpose Cards: Turnabout (mana, answer), Llanowar Elf (mana, threat), Hammer of Bogardan (answer, threat), Zap (card drawing, answer, threat), Frantic Search (card drawing, mana)

The King of Beatdown asserted that if you provide the threats, then it lays the onus on your opponent to provide the correct answer. For instance, if you play a Millstone, that threat cannot be nullified by the Terror your opponent has in his hand. You have a threat, which your opponent has to deal with, and your opponent has an answer – just not to the threat you’re posing.

Dave used this quote to explain why he always played beatdown decks. This quote is both true, and misleading. Any threat you play your opponent either has to deal with, race, or die to. With the Terror example above, if you continue to draw the wrong answers, you eventually lose to that threat. What this simple, yet insightful quote fails to address is the nature of answers and the card advantage and speed of combos. While it is possible for the control deck to not draw the correct answer, it is also very possible that they draw one answer that answers several threats. If the beatdown player has four creatures out and the control player has Wrath of God, all of the sudden the beatdown player is down four cards to the control player’s one. It is normally a downward spiral from there.

I am not trying to refute these words of wisdom from the most famous beatdown player of all time. The King of Beatdown was merely telling us why he chose to play beatdown decks, for the most part. He wasn’t married to them; he was well aware of the power of control. At Nationals 2001, he played Blue/White control in the Standard portion. He merely leaned toward control for two reasons: First, he really really liked it. Second, he felt sort of an obligation to his fans, which is respectable if nothing else.

This quote really points to more of a philosophy. This philosophy spans both Limited and Constructed. You may ask what made me dig this all-too-famous quote out of mothballs? Well, at Grand Prix: Atlanta I was talking with one of my closest friends, and consummate control player, Joe Crosby. Joe, testing with CMU-TOGIT, had brought a Goblin deck to the tournament. This was fairly new ground for Joe, although I did get him to put three Phyrexian Negators in the sideboard of his Oath of Druids deck and he Living Wished for it every time. Joe had a quote that I feel is equally memorable as Dave’s but perhaps sells the beatdown concept to a control player a little better: "I never realized how badly people play when you put them under pressure." This quote also went a long way to inspiring this article.

While this is once again a fairly straightforward quote, I will again break it down just to make sure the message is clear. There is a psychological edge that comes from putting your opponent on the defensive. This fear of dying in two turns or less can cause panic. This panic inevitably leads to play mistakes. While I agreed with this quote, I am surprised that Joe didn’t know this from Limited play.

In fact one of the main points I am trying to assert with this article is the passive nature of players in Limited. When the pressure is put on a player, they get this fear – the fear that they must stay defensive. So much so I have seen players not attack with creatures that either can’t block, or can’t block to a good outcome. I have survived several turns against a horde of 3/4s or bigger with my three 2/2s. It makes no sense to me – but by all means, keep it up when you play me.

As I am writing this article, I am talking with Mike Turian on Instant Messenger and he just gave me a new quote. "The best beatdown players in the world don’t think – they just attack." While this is clearly not the case, it does appear that way. The reason it appears this way is that the best beatdown players in the world would rather go down swinging than go down being passive. If you lose when you attack, at least you’ll know you have done every point you can. If you lose by not attacking, you should regret it. This is not to say it is always correct to attack, much like it is not always correct to mulligan… But people, by in large, err on the aside of being passive. In ambiguous board situations, go ahead and attack!

I am not telling you to run your 2/2 into a 4/4 without a trick, but just don’t be as afraid. Go ahead and bluff once in a while. Mark LePine never drafted Symbiosis – he didn’t need to! He just attacked like he had it every time.

Now I know what you are thinking: "Ken, how do we become better attackers?" Well I’ll be honest, it isn’t as easy as just attacking more. Though if you have ever lost to a ten-year old you will know that a bad player attacking is way more dangerous than a bad player not attacking. Here are some tips to start attacking better:

Tip 1: Don’t Worry About Evasion Creatures Your Opponent Has

Now these cards are dangerous. I am not saying”Don’t worry about them ever” – just don’t worry about them for purposes of attacking. These creatures are going to hit you whether you attack or not, so don’t get obsessed with them. Let them slide until you have an answer. Their evasion creatures will usually not be as potent as your creatures of the same cost anyway, so just race them – sometimes it is the only way to beat them.

Tip 2: Consider ALL Blocking Possibilities

You need to consider both yours and your opponent’s blocking possibilities. This is a bit more complex, but once you start doing it a lot certain situations become second nature. When your life total is high enough, one blocker can hold off a hoard of attacking creatures. Assume you are at fourteen, and your opponent has two 2/1s and a 1/1, you just played a 3/3. Go ahead and attack with your 3/3. There is no favorable block for him, and there is little or nothing to fear on the attack back. This situation seems simplistic, but I have seen people screw up situations like this more times than I can count.

Tip 3: Bluff

There comes a time in every creature’s life when he becomes useless. For some creatures, it is after they have killed your opponent – for others, it is turn 4. So your Grizzly Bear got in two attacks and your opponent goes and drops a Giant Spider. You have two choices here:

1. You can sit back and hope for something to come down the pip and let the bear sit there to be used as a red herring or a chump blocker.

2. You can accept him as worthless to himself and those around him and send him to the slaughter.

I usually opt for choice 2. It sends your opponent into this cost/benefit analysis state where he convinces himself you must have a trick. I’d say they take it over half the time. If they block, you lost an irrelevant 2/2. Sure, your board position is slightly worse, but that is a risk I am often willing to take.

Tip 4: Act Confident

Nothing makes someone not want to attack more than an opponent who acts like the game is his. I’ll admit it; I get affected by this attitude. In fact, I think the major thing that keeps me from being a great player is that I wear my emotions on my sleeve and I am easily duped by my opponents. If they act like they have the answer, I often believe it, and I want you to join me on this quest to get rid of this.

This reminds me of another quote: Ben Stark once said to me that "The key to Magic is, if the only way you can win a game is if you have Smother, then you play as though you have the Smother." This serves two purposes. First, the point Ben was trying to get across is that if you play like you already have it, you will have the best possible board situation if you are to draw it. The secondary purpose is that you make your opponent think you have it.

Tip 5: Do Your Own Cost/Benefit Analysis

Try and think about what the attack costs you and what you gain from it. Analyze the life totals. Analyze the attack back – make sure you aren’t trading a little damage for a lot at an inopportune time. You really have to play both sides of the table in order to attack properly. You need to know what all possible attacks are, the best attack, and the probable attack (they are not always the same which is the point of this article).

Knowing when to be the aggressor is important in Limited and Constructed. Mike Flores wrote one of the greatest theory articles ever about this very topic. However, this decision often comes before the tournament actually begins. In Limited, you need to analyze the cards you have and try to see all the aggro and all the control elements in your deck so you know when you are playing which roll. In Constructed, you need to anticipate the metagame and bring the proper deck, be it aggro, or control, or aggro control.

This will be my last fundamentals article for a while. With the release of Mirrodin, I am going to the CMU well one more time to fish out a partner in crime to revive the dilemma series. First Nick, then Paul – and now Mike Turian. I hope you are all looking forward to the return of this series, and don’t worry! We have a lot of good stuff brewing.


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