The Art of the Save

In one of the best submissions we’ve received all year, Mark covers a variety of methods and mindsets to help you turn a losing situation into a win. We’re sure you will judge this for yourself, but Gene Siskel returned from the dead to give this article a big fat thumbs up, so you should at least check it out.

When I started playing tournament chess in college, my teammates always told me, “never resign a game, no matter how hopelessly lost it is.” The reason is simple: your opponent still has to checkmate you, and even some easily won positions require a lot of moves before mate occurs. If your opponent should slip up in that time, all sorts of chance to get out of your jam will arise. I scoffed at this, but experience showed it to be true: I have since lost count of the number of lost games I held on to with stubborn defense, or won positions I blundered away to an intractable opponent.

I don’t play tournament chess much anymore; the peak of chess popularity has passed and tournaments are not so popular anymore (which will happen to poker five years from now, I think, but that’s an issue for another article). But the lesson of stubborn defense is even more applicable for Magic – the random nature of any card game means that you don’t even need any slips from your opponent to luck your way out of a busted board. You can do it with a single topdeck if needs be.

You hear it all the time, at every PTQ you walk into – a sob story about some hideous act of lucksackery committed against the story’s teller by someone who is obviously a bag of wasted flesh. I’d be lying if I said I never told such a story myself, or that I have never played the role of fleshbag in someone else’s story. But it’s never that simple. A few opponents are just the luckiest imbeciles ever to shuffle cards. But a lot more of them actually made the right decisions, put up the most intense defense possible, and maximized their chances to save the game.

Or, to put it another way, some lost games are turned around by topdecks. Many more are turned around by technique. I’m no master technician, but I’ve witnessed and executed enough of this kind of play to share a few pages of my thinking on it. Enjoy.

1. Sense the Danger

If you can’t spot the situations in which you’re behind, obviously you’re going to have a tough time making a save.

Bad positions are caused for all sorts of reasons. A land-flooded or land-screwed draw is pretty obviously bad. If your opponent gets, say, Kodama of the South Tree in play on turn 3 of a Limited game, then you don’t have to be Nick Eisel to recognize that you’re in rough shape. But, it’s also possible that your position has turned against you so subtly that you’re not sure it’s bad until it’s too late; perhaps you made an imperceptible mistake or you missed a sophisticated play. Whatever the reason, it is absolutely imperative that you recognize when your game has gone bad and adjust your mindset immediately.

Example: it’s a PTQ Top 8 over the past Labor Day weekend, the last one in my area using the Mirrodin Block Constructed format. In the quarterfinals of the top 8, my U/G Vedalken Shackles deck runs into a U/W Vedalken Shackles build. After a humiliating blunder in game 2 where I miscalculated what I thought was a lethal Rude Awakening, we move to game 3.

We spend the first few turns going “Land, go” until turn 4, where my opponent (on the play) taps out for a Leonin Abunas, explaining that “I better get it out of your hand,” apparently referring to my countermagic. As he predicts, I have Condescend for one, scrying into my fifth land. I play that land and an Eternal Witness on turn 5, returning Condescend with the Witness ability. Over the next couple of turns, my opponent casts Serum Visions and Thirst for Knowledge, laughing ruefully after seeing each draw; I read this to mean that they were all lands. Sure enough, he never misses a land drop for the rest of the game, but has no threats, while my Witness is soon joined by her twin sister. The two Witnesses go all the way and I’m on to the semifinals. My opponent fans open a hand with all Annuls and land, and complains bitterly about his mana flood.

So, at what point in that game should he have to start thinking with a “save” mentality? I imagine he didn’t think his game had gone bad until he had seen a bunch of lands in a row with his various draw spells. He might not have thought his game had gone bad even then; after the game he was talking as though topdecking a Pristine Angel in the late turns would have caused everything to turn out okay.

In reality, the game was virtually decided on turn 4. Playing the Abunas was a gigantic mistake; the U/W deck is clearly not the beatdown in this matchup, as it has way more countermagic and way fewer threats after sideboarding (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read your classics, people!). Losing a key creature to my countermagic and then allowing me to resolve a Witness means that the game has turned badly against him; between the Condescend that he knows I have and the counters I am likely to draw or scry into, it’s highly likely that he will not resolve another threat for the rest of the game – and in fact I had a Last Word and a third Witness in hand when he scooped.

So, while the mana flood was bad for him, even if he had drawn a Pristine Angel or a Vedalken Shackles in that time, it would have made no difference; the game was already lost. That’s how easily a game can turn; had he sensed the danger of his Abunas play on turn 4, the end might have been different.

2. Don’t Panic

Nothing says it better than the ol’ Hitchhiker’s Guide. Once a game turns against you, a natural reaction to is to fear the worst. If your opponent has Southside (Kodama of the South Tree) on turn 3 of a Sealed Deck match, and you don’t have Befoul in the near future, it’s only normal to be worried about all the Spirits and Arcane spells your opponent could have in hand.

However, there’s a difference between awareness and panic. Returning to the Limited example, let’s say that your opponent leaves GGGUU up and attacks with some guys on turn 6, including his Southside, even though you have an Order of the Sacred Bell and some other blockers in play. It certainly appears that the game has turned against you: if you block he can wreck your board with a Consuming Vortex or Kodama’s Might, and if you don’t block a Strength of Cedars could end the game right then and there. You have to be aware of those possibilities. But if you’re prone to panic in this situation, wise opponents will be able to bluff you repeatedly with phantom threats.

In a way, the Don’t Panic rule is the opposite of the Mamet Rule I discussed in my last article (click the link then do a CTRL-F on “Mamet”). The Mamet Rule says that you should always plan as though your opponent has the card that will wreck you, but the very definition of panic is to let the fear of that card overtake your thinking. When a game is turning against you, the key is to find a happy medium: make a plan as if your opponent has the card that could wreck you, but at the same time weigh it against other plans in which he does not.

So, to finish the example, you might decide that there’s a way to win if you don’t lose any of your men and suck up the Southside damage, so you don’t block. Or, you may decide that if you don’t take a stand against Southside now, you just lose, so you do block. The Don’t Panic guideline simply says that to make a hurried, emotional decision along either of those paths is not going to help you save the game.

3. Draw the Line

“You can ball my wife, if she wants you to. You can lounge around on her sofa, in her ex-husband’s dead-tech, post-modernistic bulls*** house. But, you do not get to watch My F***Ing Television Set!”


I also used to teach people to play chess. One of the things I loved to teach about was outplaying the opponent: the key, I would say, is to make him do something he doesn’t want to do, or give up something he doesn’t want to give up. When he has to do that, he’s been outplayed.

In Magic, it’s a little more complex. Sometimes, as soon as you’re forced to block with your best creature, or let your best enchantment be destroyed, you might as well scoop on the spot. But there are other times when making those kind of strategic sacrifices is the best way to go, or in fact the only way to prolong the game and increase your chances of that miracle topdeck. Some games you’ll want to pick up that TV and take it with you as you walk out, and in others you’ll just want to kick the set right out of the car.

As the game turns against you, it’s important to determine what your position can stand and what it can’t. Let’s say you’re playing Tooth and Nail and a Red/Green opponent hits two of your Cloudposts/Urzatron lands with Plow Under. You have a Solemn Simulacrum in hand. If your opponent has an Arc-Slogger out, you may need to play the sad robot and shuffle away those lands, just to get a blocker and potential card-drawer into play. On the other hand, if all he has is a Sakura-Tribe Elder, or if you would be able to resolve a Tooth and Nail as soon as you got those lands back into play, you could probably give up your next couple draw steps.

This rule is most importantly applied to chump-blocking. The number one way to spot someone who is not very experienced at Limited is that they start chumping the opponent’s creatures far too soon. In the early game it is virtually pointless to give up your defensive creatures just to keep damage off of your face; after all, those guys are going to be your only threats too.

If the game turns against you in this case, “drawing the line” will mean deciding how long you can take the beats before you start chumping; once you start chumping, you’ll them have to Draw the Line by deciding which guys to keep alive.

4. Know Your Outs

News flash: if no card in your deck can remove the lock you’ve been put under, you’re going to have a hard time making the save. You have to have a card which can handle your opponent’s threats, and no matter how long the odds are of ripping that card, as long as it keeps your odds of winning greater than zero, it can still help you.

Do not be intimidated by the fact that you may draw your lone out at odds of 1 in 40 or even 50. Don’t think that the win you may get is somehow tainted by your needing a topdeck. Hey, there’s a big random element to the game. There’s no shame in trying to use that randomness to your advantage, and while a topdecked win may not be as satisfying as one in which you simply outplay the opponent, a win is a win, right?

Example: teammate Rick is playing game 3 of the Green/Blue Tooth and Nail mirror match in a Mirrodin Block PTQ. His opponent manages to get a Bringer of the White Dawn into play with a Mindslaver in the graveyard and one card left in hand. Rick’s hand is empty; he makes the savage topdeck of Rude Awakening and casts it, hoping to win that turn. The opponent flips over Vex – and they shake hands and pack in the cards.

I go berserk. “You could at least draw the Vex card!” I cried. “Who knows what it might be?” So, with the match slip already signed, Rick flipped over the top card of his library and … okay, it was a land. But the point of my story is that it could have been Oblivion Stone.

An important corollary here is: know when to scoop, because scooping involves admitting your outs – to BOTH players. Let’s say that you’re playing Osyp Lebedowicz Vial Affinity deck from GP: Orlando, and a Tooth and Nail opponent puts Platinum Angel and Leonin Abunas into play. Osyp’s deck has no method in the main to remove that lock, so you could scoop and save time.

On the other hand, your opponent may not know exactly what your decklist is. If you were to play on a little bit, it might suggest to him that you have Electrostatic Bolt or Shrapnel Blast, which could in turn affect his play in the subsequent games. By not scooping in this way, you might actually be giving yourself additional outs later on. However, if the match ends in a draw because you extended a lost game for 20 minutes, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. Pounce on Mistakes

In the same way that your misplays can put you in a bad way, so can your opponent’s misplays get you right back in it. How very obvious, right? And yet, as with everything else in this article I have an example where someone didn’t pick up in it.

After he piloted Mono-Blue Ophidian to the Top 8 at the GenCon Type 1 Championships, Stephen Menendian wrote this of his quarterfinals loss, during which he opted not to crack a fetchland: “I should have used the fetchland – because this happens to me all the time. If you don’t break the fetchland, you will draw junk – not because of statistics, but because you made the wrong play. You have to break fetchlands ASAP.”

There is no better description of why a misplay is bad. A wrong play is a wrong play precisely because it increases the chances of a poor draw, or increases the number of your opponent’s outs against your advantage, because it leaves that one-in-a-million opening that your opponent is more than happy to jump through. Just because that opening requires some incredible luck doesn’t make your misplay any less terrible.

So, coming back to my point, you need to be watchful for these kinds of errors on your opponent’s part. Of course, one should always be on the lookout for blunders across the table, but it’s even more important when you’re looking to make a save, because sometimes it’s the most subtle of errors that you’ll have to pounce on. I mean, let’s face it, if you’re playing someone who can top 8 a PTQ, the chances are low that he’ll just vomit all over himself and leave you an obvious opening (says the guy who has that weird Leonin Abunas story from a PTQ top 8). You’ll need to watch for the slightest slips.

Here is where we get to the heart of the topdeck issue. I’m not saying that there aren’t any savagely lucky people out there. But every time I have an opponent make a necessary topdeck to beat me, I always try to completely reconstruct the game in my mind. I need to be sure that I didn’t make even the tinest mistake, that I didn’t leave him the smallest opening that I could have kept closed. The more you do this, the more you’ll realize that you might have been making mistakes you weren’t even aware of.

6. Bringing It All Together

The scene is round 6 of Grand Prix: Columbus last spring. I have started 4-1 with no byes, thanks to a very hot Blue/White deck featuring double Spire Golem, Leonin Battlemage, Leonin Bola, Looming Hoverguard, and other assorted awesome guys, while splashing Red for Dismantle and Electrostatic Bolt. I am facing Baltimore player Rich “Cartman” Herbert, who has since gone on to make a name for himself in Star City’s “Power Nine” Type 1 events.

After exchanging the obligatory “if we were gonna come all this way to take each other’s rolls, we coulda stayed home” jokes, we exchange mana-screws in games 1 and 2. On the play in game 3, Cartman has turn 3 Loxodon Warhammer and turn 4 Leonin Abunas.

So this is a little bad for me, derf (1). From what I’ve seen in prior games, my men are much better than his on the whole, so I decide not lose them in chump-blocks (3) unless he foolishly sends the Abunas, in which case I will probably try to block with the whole team and kill it (5). Of course, Cartman is a good player, so he doesn’t do that; he just swings with other men and forces me to look for my Leonin Bola (4).

I have to force myself not to waste guys blocking, as the life totals swing in his favor and I still can’t draw Bola. I have Looming Hoverguard and mana to cast it, but I would have to send back one of my own artifacts since I can’t target his, so I wait on Big Looms for as long as possible so as to not waste it (2). Finally, I draw Aether Spellbomb. I take another swing from a Hammered guy, making the life totals 31-3, and Spellbomb the Abunas in his endstep. On my turn I then Hoverguard the Warhammer, buying me a draw step to topdeck my Leonin Bola (or Blinding Beam for a further stall – 4) because he does not have the mana to go “Abunas, Hammer, equip” in one turn.

But then he plays the Warhammer first and equips it to one of his smaller men, who cannot attack for the kill. He left Abunas in his hand! I now have the extra possibility of Dismantle (4), which I savagely mise on my turn to destroy the Warhammer (5 – remember, topdecking is “pouncing,” too). Now I have fliers and an active Battlemage, and the game completely swings in my favor; as I realize this, my hands begin to shake with the adrenaline (violating (2) as well as making me look like a total n00b). He plays some more men, but my fliers whittle him down until I play Blinding Beam and end the game with one massive Battlemage-powered alpha strike.

Until next time, here’s hoping that you don’t lose three rounds in a row when you only need to go 1-1-1 to make Day Two (which is what happened to me after I beat Cartman).

This article written while listening to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Don’t Know How To Party”.

mm underscore young at yahoo dot com