Back in the day, we used to have a rule among friends that if you had no permanents in play (including lands), you couldn’t talk. If you were losing that
badly, you didn’t deserve to be able to. Sadly, that rule never actually came up very often. In reality, most Magic games are won by razor thin margins
where a missed point of damage or a slightly too conservative attack makes all the difference.
If your opponent has two 1/1s and you’re at one life, how many creatures do you want to keep back? You could attack with everything except two creatures,
but then you’re dead to any haste creature or removal spell off the top. That seems like a totally reasonable play, but people seem to like justifying
their actions by saying they were playing around something, even if actually made their situation worse.
If you play scared and keep back an extra creature, that could end up being an extra draw step you give them, which might turn into a flier you can’t block
or burn spell you can’t stop. By “playing around something,” you are choosing to not play around something else entirely. Which one is correct depends on
the odds, but you might not have access to those numbers.
In general, killing them in three turns while being vulnerable to a topdecked haste creature, removal spell, or burn spell feels better to me than killing
them in five turns while being vulnerable to a flier or burn spell. Some of the things that might have killed you before, like a removal spell, might no
longer kill you, but they may cause the game to drag out longer which will give them more draw steps. Plus, there might be cards you haven’t seen, such as
Mastery of the Unseen, which could make killing them nearly impossible.
In general, I think it’s better to err on the side of aggression in these situations. You rarely, if ever, know the entire contents of your opponent’s
deck, nor can you be reasonably sure you’re playing around every single card in the format. Attacking them in those spots gives them less draw steps to
find something, so that’s the route I want to take.
The Fear Fallacy
“I was scared of him drawing a removal spell” is a common reason to hold an extra creature back, but because of Scenario #1, that argument doesn’t always
hold water. We don’t want to take risks and, above all else, we don’t want to be embarrassed, but those arguments don’t actually matter in the scope of
doing everything within your power to win games, matches, and tournaments.
For whatever reason, we’re fine holding that extra creature back every time, but there’s a huge stigma around attacking our 2/2 into their 3/3. It just
kind of blows my mind. If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this: It is much easier to make risky plays that are conservative because
the conservative plays never appear to be risky.
The fact is, the conservative play is almost always risky to some degree, but it’s very difficult to quantify it because you’re often dealing with unknown
information. Having your friend come up to you after your match and tell you how bad you are because you didn’t keep a creature back and your opponent drew
a removal spell to kill you is often a worse feeling than winning the match. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from making the best play you possibly can.
In a Magic Online Fate Reforged Prerelease, I was at eleven life facing down a lone 1/1 spirit token left over from Sandsteppe Outcast. My opponent was at
a healthy life total, but I finally had enough breathing room to start going to work with Mastery of the Unseen. My hand contained a Bathe in Dragonfire,
but it didn’t seem necessary to use it on the token. My life total was pretty high, and I would eventually manifest into some creatures in case my opponent
was holding a burn spell like Arrow Storm. Additionally, Bathe in Dragonfire meant I could clear out a blocker to put pressure on my opponent and close the
game before he drew anything substantial.
What actually happened was that my opponent drew Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury and used a War Flare to present exactly lethal damage. I still had a shot to
manifest a creature that I could turn face up in order to gain life off the Mastery of the Unseen, but failed.
Deciding what to use your removal on in Limited is incredibly difficult. How liberal you are with your removal may vary with how much or how little removal
you have in your deck, but for the most part, you should only be using removal on things that are
literally causing you to lose the game
This is not the old days. Games are almost never locked up and inevitability rarely exists. You are only ever a Kolaghan and War Flare away from dying.
There’s also Crater’s Claws, Mob Rule, and other crazy cards, several of which are creatures that you may want to save your removal for. Then again,
killing your opponent takes away their chances of drawing a busted card to beat you with, so using your removal more aggressively is probably correct.
Oddly enough, if I could do things over again, I’m not sure I would do anything differently. I wanted to be patient and save my removal spell for something
that was actually threatening, but that 1/1 token represented a potential threat. Granted, it had to come from two specific cards and I had to miss on
manifesting a creature, but what other ways was I going to lose the game? In those other scenarios, would Bathe in Dragonfire have even saved me?
I wasn’t scared of that lone token, but perhaps I should have been.
At Grand Prix Miami, I was facing down a Jeskai opponent on the draw with my Abzan Reanimator deck, but my hand was quite good. I was perfectly content to
cast Satyr Wayfinder and Murderous Cut on my third turn to kill his Mantis Rider, but then I drew an untapped land for my Siege Rhino. Now I had the
decision to play Turn 3 Siege Rhino into Turn 4 Siege Rhino and try to race, but that didn’t seem like a great plan considering the life I’d be gaining
would be offset by his Mantis Rider. If he removed either of my Rhinos and had any other threats, I might just lose the race.
In the end, I decided that taking a turn off to Cut the Rider was likely a better scenario, but one of my Rhinos died to a Stoke the Flames after he
blocked, and a Soulfire Grand Master eventually started rebuying another Stoke the Flames. I could blame the loss on the string of lands I drew towards the
end or the fact that my opponent was five land and all spells for a while, but in reality, I had all the tools needed to win that game.
If I could go back and play that game over again, I would definitely jam the Rhinos and look to use my removal spell offensively to clear a path. Yes, the
Mantis Rider took away some of the value I would have gotten from the Siege Rhinos, but the lifegain was giving me exactly what I needed, which was a way
to actually win that race.
By taking the turn off to kill the Mantis Rider, I gave him more time to establish things like Goblin Rabblemaster, which otherwise wouldn’t have done
anything against my Siege Rhinos. My life total is a resource, and I should have been willing to expend some of that in order to develop my board. Instead,
I wasn’t willing to use those life points and tried to horde them, thinking that I’d win the long game. My end game didn’t come together and his did, which
is somewhat unfortunate, but is definitely something that could happen.
Winning by Inches
In an ideal scenario, you’ll have the perfect answer for everything your opponent does, and you’ll have them covered on every street. I certainly played
enough games where I played a Turn 1 Delver of Secrets and countered every relevant spell my opponent played, but those games are few and far between.
On top of that, those games just aren’t interesting!
One of the biggest things I love about Magic is navigating an intricate gamestate and winning (or even losing) by a thread. The vast majority of the time,
I’ll have to rethink every seemingly miniscule decision I made to determine whether or not it was correct given the information I had, such as in Scenario
You shouldn’t make riskier plays just to do it; it needs to be calculated. There is generally not a “safer” play, meaning the play with calculated risk is
not a risk at all — It’s just your best play. The “safe” play might mean you definitely don’t lose to a topdecked removal spell on a specific turn, but it
doesn’t mean you’re actually making the best play.
Winning by inches isn’t necessarily as satisfying as dominating your opponent on every street, but you also don’t need to play fast and loose just because
you can. There is a clear advantage to playing in the middle, which basically boils down to “tight aggressive.”
The True Threats
We live in fear of what our opponents might have or what they might do to us, and rare is the person that thrives on making their opponents feel that
fear. There are people who play midrange as if they were true control decks, focusing on keeping their life total high and only trying to kill you at their
leisure, and then there are the people who mulligan aggressively and almost seem to be in a race with themselves to see how quickly they can take you to
zero. They don’t miss points of damage and find creative lines in order to deal you damage that you wouldn’t have to take against an average player.
Those are the people I’m the most scared of.
How to Not be Exploited
Against those highly aggressive players, it can be very easy to let them push you around. It’s important not to let them. Occasionally you’re going to have
to make a hero call to keep them honest, but you need to choose your spots wisely. Make it clear that you’re willing to play around things to an extent,
but you’re not going to get pushed around. Overall, it will force them to play more at face value.
I didn’t make Day 2 of Grand Prix Vancouver, so I decided to play in the Super Sunday Series. In the Top 4, I sat down across from Gavin Bennett, who
reminds me of a young Cedric Phillips [CEDitor’s Note: Gavin is a deeeeeeeelight]. In the few Modern tournaments we’ve both been at, he was
playing Zoo and doing particularly well. In the swiss portion of the Super Sunday Series, his Sealed deck was R/B Aggro with Gurmag Swiftwing.
The kid knows how to attack.
On Turn 3, I played a Jeskai Infiltrator, clearly a very good card. On his turn, he immediately turned his Ainok Bond-Kin sideways. Obviously I could just
take it, hit him with the Infiltrator, and be in a good position, but I knew this was exactly the type of situation where he would try to bluff two points
of damage. My hand was good, so I thought I could take the risk of blocking. After all, it wasn’t like there was much that would save his creature and kill
mine outside of Feat of Resistance. Clearly that’s a card within his range, but I thought it was worth it.
He had a Defiant Strike, we traded, and I got to eat his entire turn. On my turn, I deployed Mantis Rider and started the race. Many turns later, Gavin was
flooding out and turned his 2/2 Aven Surveyor sideways into my Mantis Rider, and I blocked again. This time, he binned his creature and passed the turn
I’d like to say that I was making a stand and teaching Gavin a valuable lesson in playing the player, but that might not actually be the case. Perhaps it’s
as simple as you can’t bluff a calling station.
You have a right to be scared. After all, there’s plenty to be scared about in a game with hidden information and powerful, swingy cards. What you need to
be concerned about is being scared for the wrong reasons. For example, the fear of being embarrassed for making a bad play is something you shouldn’t be
afraid of. If you play long enough, it’s going to happen eventually, so you might as well suck it up the few times it happens if it means doing better in
the long term.
The other thing to be aware of is the fear of taking risks. Realize that some of the things you might consider risks are actually just correct and, by
trying to not take a risky line, you’re taking a potentially even bigger risk.