The Beautiful Struggle – Inside My Attack Step

Across the board sat a Merfolk Thaumaturgist, a Dream Stalker, and a recently played morph with UB open. My opponent had three cards in hand. It’s the start of the combat step, I’m at 10 from the Stalker / Thaumaturgist combo, and he’s at 17 from my Shaman attack last turn.

This article is all about the question: What’s the play for me?

I had spent all day Friday in Baltimore on business, the sort of business where I was on my feet giving presentations and trying to smile too much. I was still sore from dental surgery two days before, and the condition that had necessitated the surgery made sure that I hadn’t had solid food for eight days and counting. All I wanted to do was grab a beer, plop down into my desk chair, and draft Magic Online.

I had managed to reverse a recent bad streak in the 4322 queues, so I decided it was time to get back in the game and draft 84. I’m not trying to insult the people who draft 4322; I’m just trying to play the toughest competition possible, and everyone who’s ever drafted in both queues knows where that is.

Although they have changed these rules in real life, Magic Online still follows the old way: you always play the guy seated diagonally across the table from you. I was in the 4-seat, and I had indeed been rewarded with the toughest competition possible; the 8-seat was occupied by a Hall of Famer whom I will refer to with the letter X.

I opened Jaya Ballard, Task Mage and took it over Errant Ephemeron and Strangling Soot (a very tough pick, as I’ve rarely had Jaya do anything for me but die). I then took a second-pick Durkwood Baloth, because I’ve had pretty good results with aggressive R/G decks in TTP draft, and I figured Green would be underdrafted at a table full of 1800+ players. The very late Squall Line and Spike Tiller I picked up in pack two seemed to bear that conclusion out. I ended up with the following deck:

Hunting Wilds
Squall Line
Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
Spike Tiller
Orcish Cannonade
Ashcoat Bear
Durkwood Baloth
Nantuko Shaman
2 Evolution Charm
2 Dead / Gone
Jedit Ojanen of Efrava
Penumbra Spider
Sporesower Thallid
Thallid Shell-Dweller
Yavimaya Dryad
Spined Sliver
Blazing Blade Askari
Greater Gargadon
Mogg War Marshal
Skirk Shaman
9 Forest
8 Mountain

In game 1 of the round 1 match against X, I had Ashcoat Bear, Yavimaya Dryad, Nantuko Shaman, and a recently un-suspended Durkwood Baloth. I had seven mana up with three lands and an Evolution Charm in hand; I had not played a land yet this turn. Across the board was a Merfolk Thaumaturgist, a Dream Stalker, and a recently played morph with UB open and three cards in hand. It’s the start of the combat step, I’m at 10 from the Stalker / Thaumaturgist combo, and he’s at 17 from my Shaman attack last turn.

This article is all about the question: What’s the play for me?

Trick or Treat

Now, the first thing to keep in mind is also the most important thing: the identity of the player across the table should have much less influence over my decision than you might think. I should assume that a Magic Hall of Famer is probably not going to donk away his creatures or his life total. However, you should not develop some kind of unreasoning, “because he’s awesome he’ll always have it” fear. There are very few tricks in the format he can play here – Ovinize, Feebleness, and the possible unmorphs of Vesuvan Shapeshifter or Fathom Seer were the ones that came to my mind during the game – and simply because he is a Hall of Famer does not necessarily mean he has the trick that will crush me to the maximum.

I imagine the beginning player might think to either attack with the Baloth only, or not attack at all. We can eliminate that second option easily; even if X does have a trick to eliminate my Baloth without losing one of his own guys (Ovinize, say), I can use the Evolution Charm to get it back and replay it in the same turn, basically trading my Charm for his trick. Since I’m ahead on board, that’s a trade I should be happy to make.

So attacking with the Baloth alone might seem like the play. The Baloth gets in there, X blocks with the Stalker and uses the Thaumaturgist to force a trade, I get back the Baloth and re-cast it, thus essentially trading the Charm for his Dream Stalker. Again, since I’m ahead on board I should be overjoyed to get away with that trade.

Except X may have thought that I am no fool. He might remember that we played a tough, close match on Magic Online once before. Even if he does not remember that, he might give me the benefit of the doubt anyway; one of the things that Mike Flores likes to say about his Hall of Famer friend Bob Maher is that even if he thinks you are just some random, he always shows maximum respect for the tricks and traps that you might have.

I had four cards in hand, and I had drawn two extra cards that game from Orcish Cannonade and the Nantuko Shaman. X cannot know or assume that three of my cards are land. If I am attacking my Baloth into a certain trade like that, he has to be wary of Brute Force, Strength in Numbers, Dead / Gone… there are a lot of common tricks that would completely blow out that block. In fact, the only move that would make him think I was land-flooded would be if I were to make no attacks at all!

This is the key of aggressive Limited play: it’s not always about who has the trick, it’s about who can take the risk. In this position I’m ahead on board and I have the Charm, so I can take the risk that X has Ovinize or some such instant. In fact, I must take that risk, because holding back on my best creature will practically be telling him that I don’t have a trick of my own. Conversely, X has been having some mana problems and his creatures in play have been unspectacular so far, so from where I was sitting it didn’t look like he could risk my having a trick.

Maximum Carnage

So, we’ve established that the Baloth should definitely get in there, and X may or may not even block it. However, once you’re thinking aggressively enough to attack with the Baloth, why shouldn’t we be attacking with everybody?

When you’re playing a good player, you absolutely cannot leave damage on the table. Of course you should get in the habit of never leaving damage on the table, but good players are more likely to punish you for it. That’s not to say you won’t have to play defense sometimes, but even in those cases you should first make sure that there is absolutely no stray damage to be missed.

In my game, if I wish to attack with everyone, then the only real tricks to worry about are unmorphing tricks. If the morph is a Fathom Seer, it can block my bear or Dryad and kill them; if the morph were a Vesuvan Shapeshifter, it could do the same with no loss of tempo and with a devastating counterattack next turn. In both cases I just lose a guy for nothing, which would cost me most of my board advantage.

However, let’s say I am sure the morph is a Fathom Seer. X is still faced with a tough choice. An obvious block is Seer-Bear and Stalker-Baloth with the intention of using the Thaumaturgist on the Stalker and unmorphing. In that case, I still have five points of damage on the table and he’s still losing his Dream Stalker. He could also put the Thaumaturgist on the Dryad prior to activating it, but that would still leave me with a 3/2 that his Seer can’t rumble with, and him with just three lands to my seven. Other blocks are similar, or in the case of those that have the Seer stepping in front of the Nantuko Shaman, much worse.

And what if he has a Shapeshifter, you ask? Isn’t that very bad for me? Well, yeah, obviously. It’s just something I’ll have to live with. You accept some risk when you shuffle up the cards, and if X has it I’ll just have to tip my hat to him and most likely move to game 2. I like to say in cases such as these, “you can’t worry about every little thing.” In practical cases, it means that a given rare is such a low-probability event that your opponent has to really telegraph it (or you have to have seen it in the draft) in order to think that he has it.

I attacked with everyone. I didn’t do this after a couple of minutes’ thought; more like a couple of seconds. With experience – and Magic Online has been immensely helpful for me in that area – you just recognize the attacks that you should be making. Or, more accurately, the attacks you should not be making: I attacked with everyone because it only took a couple of seconds to decide that holding anyone back seemed weaker. As it turned out, X blocked the Dryad with his Dream Stalker, and the morph blocked the Nantuko Shaman. We passed on combat damage, and the morph turned out to be a Slipstream Serpent.

So how did things work out against X? Well, if you read last week, you should already know that the result should not matter, as long as I played correctly. Plus, if I were to report a win, I would risk this entire article coming off as a claim of “just beat HOFer OMG im awesome!!1!!11!one!”, and I absolutely do not want to give that impression. So, I’m not going to tell you who won.

Just kidding. I won the match 2-0, mainly on the extremely sexy shoulders of Jaya Ballard, and later split in the finals of the draft.

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