The Basics of Playing the Game: Paranoia is Good

This is a primer. It discusses some basic theory; the fact that bluffing is good, revealing your hand is bad, and the main reason you should never – well, almost never – play anything during your first main phase. If you know this theory – really know it – then it won’t be much more than a refresher course, but with decklists.

Note: This is a primer. It discusses some basic theory; the fact that bluffing is good, revealing your hand is bad, and the main reason you should never – well, almost never – play anything during your first main phase. If you know this theory – really know it – then it won’t be much more than a refresher course, but with decklists.

Here’s a bit of how this started: I was trying to convince myself to four Land Grants in my T1 Survival deck. Land Grant is a great way to fix colors.

Land Grant


Green Sorcery


If you have no land cards in hand, you may reveal your hand instead of paying Land Grant’s mana cost. Search your library for a forest card and put that card into your hand. Then shuffle your library.

Land Grant works very well with dual lands. Many dual lands are both a forest and another land type, so you can fetch a Taiga, for example, and get red mana with a Land Grant. Or you can fetch a Bayou and get black mana. And so forth – you get the idea. Generally, having mana is good.

However, Land Grant can be bad. Specifically, the”reveal your hand” part is bad. Before explaining that, though, I need to talk about another basic part of Magic – combat.

Combat is pretty simple. Attack, block, deal damage, right? If his creatures are bigger, I don’t attack. If mine are bigger, I attack. Simple enough.

Actually, attack, block, deal damage is Portal, since everything in Portal is a sorcery. Magic’s combat phase looks more like this:

  • Beginning of combat step

  • Opportunity to play instants and abilities

  • Declare attackers step

  • Opportunity to play instants

  • Declare blockers step

  • Opportunity to play instants

  • Damage assignment step

  • Opportunity to play instants

  • Damage resolves

  • End of combat step

For the specifics, see the Comprehensive Rules, section 306-310. I’d paste all that in, but I think the article is long enough already. Instead, here’s a link.

The opportunity to play instants is important – and it’s what makes combat interesting. Let’s try some examples. Assume I’m playing Sligh, testing for an Extended tourney. Here’s my decklist (okay, it’s a year or two old, but it works for the example):

4 Viashino Sandstalker

4 Jackal Pup

4 Mogg Fanatic

4 Ball Lightning

4 Fireblast

4 Incinerate

4 Seal of Fire

4 Shock

4 Cursed Scroll

20 Mountain

4 Wasteland

I won the roll and played a Mountain and Jackal Pup. My opponent opened with Forest, Fyndhorn Elf (think Llanowar Elf, but with a different name and better picture). I attacked with the Pup, played another Mountain and said go. He played a Forest and River Boa, keeping the elf untapped to provide regeneration mana, but I Incinerated the Boa at the end of his turn (Incinerate kills regenerators dead – kinda like Raid, but for annoying cardboard.)

Here’s the board position at the start of my third turn:

Me: Jackal Pup, 2 Mountains (all untapped)

Him: Fyndhorn Elf (untapped), 2 (tapped) Forests

The question is, do I attack? If I attack, he can block with the elf, and – if nothing else happens – both our creatures will die. I will also take one damage from the Jackal Pup’s ability (Jackal Pup disadvantage is that the controller takes the same amount of damage done to the Pup.) More worrying, he might have a Giant Growth, which could make the elf a 4/4: meaning it would live, the Pup would die, and I would take four damage.

So the question really becomes,”How likely is it that he has a Giant Growth?”

He is playing a green deck, probably Stompy or 9 Land Green. That deck typically runs four Bounty of the Hunt and maybe some other Giant Growth type spells. (From here on, I’m just going to use Giant Growth to mean Bounty, Growth or any other similar spell that makes a creature bigger.) However, there are other green decks – he could be playing Legion Land Loss (which uses Elves and land destruction, but no Giant Growth) or Secret Force (which uses large creatures, but no Giant Growth). If he’s playing Stompy, I might not want to attack, since we are in a damage race and taking four would hurt. If he’s playing one of the other decks, I want the Elf dead so he cannot cast more expensive spells or creatures. In that case, I definitely want to attack and I hope he will block, so I won’t have to waste a burn spell on the elf.

Absent any other knowledge, I assume he is playing Stompy, since Legion Land Loss and Secret Force don’t usually play River Boa. Therefore, I won’t attack unless I have tricks, too. Let’s see what tricks I have – here’s my hand:

Mountain, Viashino Sandstalker, Cursed Scroll, Shock, Fireblast.

Okay; I have tricks, too. If he plays Giant Growth, I can Shock the Elf in response. Remember how the stack works – my Shock is the top card, so Shock resolves first, killing the elf. Giant Growth would then resolve – but since the target was already in the graveyard, it would fizzle (technically, it would be countered on resolution since the target was gone). In the worst case scenario, he might have Giant Growths and Bounty of the Hunt (which is like Giant Growth, but he can cast it without mana), which would allow him to pump the Elf in response to the Shock. If he did, I would have to Fireblast in response to that, and the Elf would still die before damage is dealt. I would have to sacrifice all my Mountains to cast Fireblast, leaving me nothing but the Jackal Pup on the board. I would be hoping to draw lands and threats after that. That’s bad. Knowing my deck and what Stompy typically has, I know that he will probably kill me long before I can recover, even though I have a Mountain in my hand.

The short answer: If he is playing Stompy, I will probably not attack.

Another consideration: If he is running Stompy, he is certainly running Rancor, one of the best green cards ever.



Green Enchant Creature


Enchanted creature gains +2/+0 and trample. When Rancor is put into a graveyard from play, return Rancor to owner’s hand.

Hatred outlives the hateful.

The only way to get rid of a Rancor is to counter the it, either by using a real Counterspell or by getting rid of the creature in response to the Rancor being cast. Since I don’t have any counterspells in my all red deck, I may want to keep some burn spells available to kill creatures in response to Rancor.

I know he has five cards in hand. Based on that, and on what I have seen him play, I probably will not attack.

I could also play the Mountain, then the Viashino Sandstalker, attack with it and hope he trades (if he has Giant Growth). However, if he doesn’t, and Rancors the Elf, attacks, then plays Rogue Elephant next turn, I could be in trouble. I might be better off keeping at least one land untapped, so that I could hope to kill the Elf and elephant.

However, let’s assume he played Land Grant last turn to get the Forest, and I saw this in his hand:

Giant Growth, Giant Growth, Elvish Spirit Guide, Rogue Elephant,

Look how different this becomes, just because I know his hand! He has no more land. I know he has the Elephant… But since he has to sacrifice a forest to cast the Elephant, if I can kill the Elf he will be short of mana. I can play the mountain, cast the Sandstalker and attack with it alone, and one of three things will happen:

1) I will get four damage through.

2) He will chump with the elf, cast one Giant Growth, and trade.

3) He will block and cast both Giant Growths, using up the Spirit Guide to cast the second Growth.

(Okay, he could also just chump with the elf and do nothing else, but that’s dumb.)

If he takes it, that’s okay, I can work on the Elephant next turn. If he trades, he may well have mana problems and I can use Fireblast to kill the elephant, if necessary, and will have the Jackal Pup, a Mountain, a Shock and Cursed Scroll to his Forest once we are all done. If he chooses three, then he still has the Elephant – but nothing else except what he drew – and I can Shock the Elf and Fireblast the Elephant at my leisure.

Or suppose he revealed a different hand – something like this:

Spike Weaver, two Natural Selections, Masticore, Deranged Hermit

Then I would know two things: 1) he doesn’t have anything to pump the Elf with, and 2) he’s mana screwed. In that case, I Shock the Elf immediately, attack with the Jackal Pup, and then play my Mountain and Cursed Scroll. Of course I am going to kill the Elf – without it, he cannot play anything until he draws more land. And I want to do it first, so that he cannot trade with my Jackal Pup. A hand like that shows me he is playing Secret Force. My little burn spells cannot get rid of threats like Verdant Force, so I have to race and hope to keep him short of mana.

So what did all this discussion teach us?* The answer I was aiming for is that it is a lot easier to play if you know what your opponent has than if you do not. That’s why Land Grant’s disadvantage is a real disadvantage.

Another thing to consider is what my opponent is thinking: Let’s assume I’m playing a Sealed deck and have a 3/3 creature in play. My opponent has two Grizzly Bears (generic 2/2s). If I attack, he double blocks and I have traded my 3/3 for a 2/2. That’s bad. Now, however, assume I have a couple mana available. Now he has to think about whether I have something that can kill one of his 2/2s at instant speed. If so, and he blocks, I kill one 2/2 before damage gets assigned, my 3/3 will kill his other 2/2, and my 3/3 will stick around. So he has to guess whether I have the removal spell, or an instant-speed creature pumper. That uncertainty is what makes combat interesting.

So why did I attack first, then play the Cursed Scroll in the Sligh example? I want to give my opponent as little information as possible. There was no reason to cast it until after the attack, so I did not. I know he could not have done anything – I just saw his hand – but I don’t want to develop bad habits.

Generally, I tend to play lands before I attack if I need the mana, otherwise I will hold lands in my hand to make it look like I have something to cast – just to make the opponent think. Ingrid, my wife, is even better at that than I am – she holds lands even when I think she is slowing her development. Of course, I never know for sure when she is holding a Bolt, a Terror or a Counterspell, or when she is bluffing. Which is the whole point, anyway.

Okay – a pop quiz: Why is Goblin Spy a bad card?

Goblin Spy, 1/1 creature for R. Play with the top card of your library revealed.

That should be easy enough: Because, after a couple turns, a smart opponent will know every threatening card you have, since they have seen you draw them. If you doubt that people can remember those cards, just try playing with some pros – see if they can’t. Even I can remember most of the good stuff I see in an eight-man draft, and I play with people who can remember damn near everything, including the chaff, in order, by pack. An eight-player draft has 360 cards being picked. You don’t see them all, but each player sees around 300. Memorizing those is a lot harder than the last ten cards you drew, and which of those have been cast. And even if they don’t memorize the cards, they can write them all down. The unified tournament rules let you take notes during a match.

Pop Quiz #2: Why is Duress amazing and Telepathy bad?



Sorcery, look at opponent’s hand, choose a non-land, non-creature card and make them discard it.




Opponents play with their hands revealed.

The simple answer is that Duress is amazing against many, many decks, since it can get rid of so many cards that can cause problems. The ability to see their hand is a bonus – a big one, but just a bonus. Telepathy, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything besides let you see their hand. That is valuable, but which would you rather have – a Telepathy on the table or a Counterspell in hand? The simple fact is that there are almost always better cards than Telepathy available.

Telepathy is only useful if you can exploit that knowledge. I have tried Telepathy with Scrying Glass (tap, guess how many cards of a particular color an opponent is holding; if you guess right, draw a card.) Having Telepathy around makes Scrying Glass a cheaper Jaydemae Tome, which is good. However, making the J-Tome into a two-card combo (Telepathy and Scrying Glass) is not good, so the combo only gets used in certain specialized fun decks – and then because only they are also using Word of Command and spells like that.

Okay, on to another side to paranoia – making it contagious. You really want your opponent to think you have answers to anything they cast. This is very important if you are playing control – since any turn the opponent just sits and does nothing is a step towards winning for the control deck – but it even works if you are playing burn, or bounce spells, or Terrors. Or even threatening to play them. It’s called bluffing.

I should let Ingrid write this part – she’s a better bluffer than I am. Nonetheless, I did stop an opponent from casting – for eight turns – the Urza’s Rage with kicker that would have won the game. I did that by carefully counting out double Undermine mana, then pounding my deck and sighing when I”didn’t draw land.” Double Undermine would have killed him. He had just Repulsed my Flametongue Kavu and I had seven lands in play. My hand at the time – a couple Islands and the Flametongue. But what was in my hand didn’t matter – it was the double Undermine he thought I had that won the game.

Some simple rules: If you don’t need all your mana, leave the mana that would let you cast something dangerous untapped. For example, always leave two blue mana available if you are playing, or might be playing, Counterspell. When they cast something, reach for the two untapped islands, freeze, think for a bit – and then let it resolve. Don’t overdo it, and don’t bother bluffing the counterspell if you are about to die, but don’t give the opponents any freebies either.

Sometimes bluffing can work. One classic story comes from Pro Tour” Rome. Someone – maybe Pat Chapin – was playing High Tide, and all his kill cards had been removed from the game. Nonetheless, he kept building mana and casting Time Spiral in that slow, ponderous way Tide had of building up for the kill, pretending he was going off. His opponent conceded.

Or another example: When his opponent Tinkered for a big Phyrexian Processor, Dave Price cast Demonic Consultation naming Null Rod (which shuts down all artifacts) in response. His opponent immediately scooped… Only to find out later that Dave didn’t have Null Rod in his deck.

One final piece of advice, and this is one that took me a long time to learn: Don’t talk about your deck unless you have to. I cannot tell you how often I have had people show me the horrible card that would have wrecked me, if they had just drawn one more land or had one more turn. I’ve been guilty of that myself… But I learned. Don’t tell your opponent what you are playing. Not ever. (Yes, I write articles about my decks. People sometimes know what I play because of those articles. That’s one reason I didn’t qualify last season. Another reason could be because I don’t playtest enough and make too many mistakes, but we will ignore that.)

A classic example of why not to tell: I was playing U/W/B against a R/G/B deck running Lay of the Land. I barely won game one and started sideboarding. Then my opponent groused,”If I had drawn Destructive Flow at all that game, I would have had you.” I hadn’t seen Destructive Flow, or any other enchantments at all, and I was not going to sideboard in my Aura Blasts – until he said he had Destructive Flow. He played the Flow turn 3, but I had a Blast in hand. If he had just kept quiet, Destructive Flow would have destroyed my control deck, since it had almost no basic lands. Since he spoke up, I had a Blast waiting and won the game.

That sort of thing is bad enough in constructed play, where everyone has usually done enough playtesting to know what to expect. It is even more important in sealed, where you never know what your opponent might have opened.

I cannot count the number of times that my opponents have told me about their bombs during the first game, which allowed me to sideboard against them. I have been”guilty” of that myself. I have told my opponent, after a loss:”I needed just on more mana to have enough for Iridescent Angel. Could you have dealt with that? I don’t think so.” Then they sideboard in Sandstone Deadfall and carefully preserve it all game, waiting for the Angel. Which would have been bad for me if I had attacked with the Angel.

Not that I had an Iridescent Angel in that deck.

I like to bluff, remember? I didn’t say I had an Angel – just that if I had one more mana I would have had enough mana to cast it. That was a true statement; I just didn’t mention the additional fact that I didn’t have one.

I think I spend too much time with attorneys.

One more thing about not showing anyone your deck unless you have to. That includes not casting your bombs if you are winning anyway. Last week, in a draft, I had a strong creature advantage and would win the game in three turns. I had Kamahl, Pit Fighter in hand. I had not cast him yet that day. If I cast him, I could win in two turns. I left him in my hand. I still had a couple rounds left, and I hal first-picked Kamahl. No one else knew I had him, so I kept him hidden. In a later round, my opponent sideboarded out his Afflict in the second game, since all my creatures to that point had been large. Would he have known about Kamahl if I had played it in the earlier game? Probably; my opponent in that earlier round was his brother.

That’s about it. I have a few more important things to say, but I’m keeping them secret.


[email protected]

* – If I missed something in the above, the answer is obviously”I suck.” If so, sorry, but it’s harder to write this than it is to play it out.