The Pro Plays – Dancing On The Razor’s Edge

There are always lessons to learn from our betters, and Dan Barrett shares things he learned from players like Paul Rietzl, Tom Martell, and Matt Sperling, while observing them in their matches. Sometimes it’s the subtle things.


It’s game two of a Grand Prix Paris Draft match Paul is playing in between Pro Tour Top 8 matches, and both he and his opponent are playing G/B
mainly-infect decks. On his turn 2, Paul doesn’t have a two-drop but instead pops the Nihil Spellbomb he opened the game with to draw a card,
before playing the land he just drew off it.

“You needed the land, huh?” His opponent remarks.

Paul says nothing, and I see he already has at least one land in hand as he passes the turn.

This interesting line of play could be any combination of three things (that I can see): a) trying to appear land-light, b) super-efficient use of his
mana, having planned his next few turns out already, each one requiring him to tap out, c) very slightly increasing his chance of drawing a particular
card to play on his next turn.

If a), in my opinion, he played it perfectly by not overacting and responding to his opponent’s query about lands, but what possible edge is
gained here? It’s not like he has anything to deprive Paul of lands if he thinks Paul is mana-screwed, right? However, if he thinks Paul kept a
one-lander, who then peels his way out of it to win, this could possibly tilt him a little and lead him to make a bad play or keep in game 3.

If b), it’s worth noting a Necrotic Ooze was played by his opponent in the first game, so the graveyard-clearing ability of Nihil Spellbomb could
have had some relevance later in the game.

If c), what was he hoping to draw? Presumably Phyrexian Crusader, the best creature he’d played in game one. And by how much did he increase his
chance of playing it turn 3 by drawing a card with the Spellbomb turn 2? Assuming he was on the play and kept his seven with a 40-card deck, roughly
3%—not a massive increase.

It’s impossible to know why this line of play was chosen without hearing it from the man himself, and in comparison to many of the other plays he
made that weekend, it’s pretty insignificant and totally forgettable. But this level of extreme subtlety might be the key to winning at the
highest level of the game. Sure, at the FNM level, this kind of play wouldn’t even be noticed, and you can’t bluff something your opponent
isn’t looking for.

On the Pro Tour though, where opponents cannot be relied upon to make many mistakes and unforced errors, perhaps these
hair’s-breadth advantages are what is required to win. Today, I’ll be looking at some more of these fine edges and little tricks, from my
observations of a handful of players I could only hope to emulate.


Tom has just lost game one in the draft portion of Pro Tour Paris. He’s not particularly happy about that loss, but it’s time to sideboard
for game two. Watching over his shoulder, I see his entire sideboard is already sleeved. He takes his time in choosing five or so cards, shuffles them
into his deck, then flips through it, and removes five cards to put back in the deck box.

Why is this interesting? Well, Tom was playing a W/R aggro deck—and three of the cards he added, which were also three of those he later removed,
were terrible blue cards he never had any intention of playing.

You’ll have heard this idea before: “When sideboarding, just shuffle in all fifteen cards, then take fifteen out”—it’s
particularly useful when playing a deck that has the possibility of a transformative sideboard, when you don’t want to reveal whether
you’ve made the change or not. But why do this with just a few cards in a Limited game?

The point here, I think, is to not give away any information you don’t have to, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant that may be. Would
you tell your opponent what deck you were playing before a match or what cards you have in your hand? No? Then why let her know how many cards
you’re sideboarding? The same logic applies to using cards (particularly basic lands) with the same artwork or a mixture of
foils/non-foils—it might never come up, but it can result in giving away information you don’t have to; against a good player, they can use
that against you.


Or Melbourne Junkie, as you may know him on the forums, is thoroughly deserving of a deerstalker hat and an ounce of shag for this piece of
Holmes-esque deduction:

It’s the day before PT Paris, and Alex is wandering around the venue, mentally finalizing the U/B Control deck he and several Aussie teammates
will be playing tomorrow. He passes Patrick Chapin, who is showing his chosen deck to a friend, and before The Innovator can conceal his cards, Alex
catches a glimpse of one—Everflowing Chalice.

Now, seeing one card from the deck of one player in that event—who, out of several hundred, you are unlikely to be paired
against—doesn’t change anything, right?

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Seeing Everflowing Chalice, Alex deduced Chapin must be playing Tezzeret—none of the builds of U/B or U/W Control he’d seen featured it,
and he was confident his team hadn’t missed any other decks that might play it.

If Chapin was playing it, it was highly likely that he’d given the list as an option to teammates or that others had come to something similar
independently. The deck might be a bigger player than first thought.

As such, the maindeck removal split on Doom Blade / Go for the Throat was changed.

Then later that weekend, this change directly resulted in a match win for one of Alex’s teammates, who could destroy an artifact creature he
wouldn’t have been able to with the previous version of the deck.

As it turns out, every piece of information matters, a tiny weeny bit, somewhere down the line.


It’s a Vintage event, and Matt Sperling is playing a beautifully pimped Storm deck in one of the later rounds—black-bordered duals, foreign
cards, hell, he even has the Japanese Myr tokens to match his Myr Battlesphere (the deck’s Tinker target).

More interesting though is what he’s doing with his dice. He plays a cantrip—”storm count is one”—and purposefully sets a
die to the correct side. His opponent thinks for a second and then lets him resolve it. “Dark Ritual, storm count is two?” He casts the
card off the second of his two lands and reaches to turn the die.

His opponent shuffles uncomfortably in his seat as Matt stares him down, leaning forward slightly, with a face void of emotion. The opponent makes his
decision, but he doesn’t like it. “No. Counter it with Force of Will,” and he pitches something good to do so, taking him down to
just a pair of cards in hand.

Matt shrugs and slumps back in his chair and flicks the die off to the side of the battlefield before passing the turn. Now I see his hand—it had
stone nothing for a combo that turn, and yet he managed to make his opponent burn two cards on a Dark Ritual that was going precisely nowhere.

As well as having a full mastery of the poker face, Matt showed that the use of his dice was all theatre. Sometimes, he’d combo off and start
using a die from the very first spell. Other times, he’d only get one out after the crucial spell had resolved, and it was just a case of going
through the routines without making any mistakes.

Throughout, it was clear that Matt knew exactly what he was doing and what the storm count was. The die was just a prop, a pure misdirection. And it


We’re back in our apartment playing some casual games and fighting over who gets to put their pizza in the oven first after day one of PT Paris.
Honorary Londoner Chifley Cole has just gone 7-1 on the first day of his first Pro Tour and is naturally feeling pretty pleased with himself. Looking
through our various piles of cards from drafts and such, he plucks out one card and drops it in front of me:

Viridian Emissary.

“Man, I love this guy—there’s so much you can do with him” He explains, with his Aussie twang making everything half-sound like
a question.

“What do you mean?”

“All right, say you’re playing against an average player, and you want them to block it with their X/2 and trade, what do you say to make
them do that?”

“Umm, I dunno?”

“Well, you say to them, ‘I love this guy; against bad players he’s might as well be unblockable.’—They don’t want
to look like a bad player now do they? So they block it, and you get that land you needed.”

I mull it over for a few seconds and see the logic in what he’s saying, “Yea, you naturally don’t want to block it unless you have to
because you’re giving your opponent a land on an otherwise even trade.”

“Ugh, don’t get me started on the concept of ‘gaining value’… Anyways, if you’re playing against someone who is a bit
better, and you want them to not block it—then you tell them about that first trick.”


“They don’t want to fall into that trap like a mere average player—they define themselves with their above-average ability
at Magic, and they need to show it off. So when you tell them someone they’d consider less than them would do X, they have to pick

“And if you’re playing someone who is actually really good?”

“Then you can’t make them do anything they haven’t already decided to do anyway.”


I’m in an Extended PTQ, with Adrian Sullivan Demigod Red
deck. It’s undoubtedly the best deck choice for the tournament, and I’m 3-0 in a seven-round event, despite having zero practice.

Along comes round 4, and I’m paired against an opponent that, given the choice, I would rather not play: Marco Orsini Jones. It’s not that
I’m afraid of playing better players than myself—I’ve already told myself I am capable of beating him if I play very well (the match
might as well be over if I couldn’t believe this)—but who wouldn’t take a softer opponent, if they could?

I know Marco and his (arguably) more famous brother, Matteo, reasonably well, so as we shuffle, we catch up a little, with Marco telling me about his
studies in France, and me telling the “same old” work stories. Then the match proper begins, and the mood becomes much more serious.

Studies show that we aren’t nearly as capable of focusing on and performing two tasks simultaneously as we think we are (if you don’t
believe me—why is using a cell phone while driving illegal?), and Marco knows this. He drops the idle chatter and devotes his full attention to
the game at hand.

When he Thoughtseizes me as his first play of the game, he doesn’t just pick the best card. He doesn’t just pick the best card and write
the other cards down, either—he actively works out my potential lines of play for the next few turns with each potential candidate removed and
makes a decision based on these.

Later in the game, we have a judge ruling, something about the champion ability of his Mistbind Clique and the timing of it in relation to my burn
spell. After we’re both content with the ruling, Marco looks at his watch and then asks the judge, “Can we have a couple minutes extra time
for that please?” The judge abides and marks it on our results slip. Many players, myself included, wouldn’t have even thought to ask for
extra time on anything but the most lengthy of calls and appeals or deck checks—but Marco knows what he is entitled to, and so asks for it.

It wasn’t likely those two minutes would matter, and they didn’t—despite playing reasonably and without any obvious errors, I lost
0-2 with plenty of time left in the round. However, they could have mattered, and that is the kind of edge the best players in the game will
seize at every opportunity.

For most of us though, concentrating on our technical play is where we will find the most ground to improve our game. Hands up if you’ve been
knocked out of a draft recently because you lost a game you should have won, by alpha-striking without doing the math on your opponent’s attack


*Puts hand up*



Dan Barrett





I’ve been reading up on Scrabble a fair bit recently, which has rekindled my love of anagrams and other forms of wordplay. Coincidentally, I was
also sent this excellent link for discovering your name’s best anagram recently—using my
full first name, I’m RATTLEBRAINED.

Can you work out who the following Magic-related people are? Don’t spoil it for others please; I’ll post the answers in the forums in a
couple days’ time. Enjoy!

Decisions to be made at WotC: FANTASY OR HERO? WEAKER OR SMART?


Which SCG grinder might find GERMS ON TROPHY?

This player ADDS STARDOM.

Old cards, NEW DRIVEL.

He’d hate to be considered A GRAND NERD.


Nostalgia gives a FEARSOME CHILL

His PT performances are far from a BLAND SNORE.