The Secret Lair – Choices, and Having a Plan B

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Monday, November 9th – I’m still in my new set card accumulation phase, so I thought I’d indulge my spikier (okay, semi-spikier) side and go through a couple of draft games that threw up some interesting choices. It’s a slight gear change from the usual goofy decks side of things, so bear with me.

I’m still in my new set card accumulation phase, so I thought I’d indulge my spikier (okay, semi-spikier) side and go through a couple of draft games that threw up some interesting choices. It’s a slight gear change from the usual goofy decks side of things, so bear with me.

For me it doesn’t matter if you’re playing casual or seriously, good play decisions are still important. The only exception to this is if you’re playing casual and there is an opportunity to inflict Massive Overkill, because Massive Overkill trumps everything.

Remember that rule kiddies.

Massive Overkill trumps everything.

MTGO draft is not a place to mess around with Massive Overkill though, unless you’re really good, which I’m not.

So anyway, the draft deck I’m using for these examples is very heavy Black. It’s solid but a little fat in the four-drop department with three Hagra Crocodiles. It’s also lacking the quality targeted removal of either Hideous End or Disfigure, but it makes up for this with a pair of Malakir Gatekeeper and tops out with Mind Sludge to really ruin someone’s day.

The initial second color is Red for Bladetusk Boar, Magma Rift, and Goblin Shortcutter.

To confuse matters you’ll see plains in the examples. This was because against red decks I switched out the red cards for two mountain-walking Cliff Threaders and a Kor Hookmaster. Always nice to have a backup sideboard plan when drafting.

In the first example game (from the first round) it’s a typical straight to the throat Zendikar race. I hold a slight advantage as I managed to nobble their unkicked Gatekeeper with mine and take one of their crocs out of the race with a Giant Scorpion. They do have a semi dragon in the form of a Geyser Glider with Goblin War Paint though. After slapping me around the face with it, the board looks like this:

And hopefully the mini-screenshot will not be hopeless garbled and it’s vaguely clear what’s going on.

They’ve just War Painted up their Glider, slapped me down to 9 and followed up with Guul Draz Specter. The good news is they have no cards in hand and if nothing else happens I can kill them in two hits with what’s on the board while they’re currently only threatening 8 damage back from the counter-strike. If I draw a land it’s gravy, but I still have plenty of dudes coming if I don’t.

I don’t draw the land and instead find a Vampire Lacerator. After attacking them down to seven I now have an interesting choice:

I can make the Heartstabber Mosquito or I can commit more threats to the board.

I chose to go with the latter, summoning both the Stonework Puma and the Lacerator. With the hasty Crypt Ripper in hand I’m threatening a lethal alpha-strike next turn even if both of their creatures are held back on defense.


Oh noes!

Piranha Marsh to the face plus eight points of unblockable flying damage equals my life total. Exactly.

Man. I thought I was supposed to be the king of topdecks.

Waa, waa. @&$%ing topdecker. Waa, waa. So lucky. Waa, waa. The world hates me and conspires actively to destroy me at every possibility. Waa, waa. Etcetera, etcetera.

This is the point where you cool down from all the whining, look back and think, ‘I’m so stupid. I should have cast the Mosquito instead.’


This is a clear example of hindsight bias, and it’s a very easy trap to fall into. With hindsight, the Mosquito is obviously the right play, as it means you don’t lose right there and then. Hindsight makes everything seem obvious after the fact, but it’s worse than useless as it relies on you knowing information that’s not available at the time. Obviously, if I could see into the future and knew the Piranha Marsh was coming, then obviously I’d cast the Mosquito instead. But if I could see into the future with that level of accuracy, I probably wouldn’t be wasting my time on Magic. I’d be off getting stinking rich so I could hang out on a nice sunny Caribbean island surrounded by sexy Colombian señoritas (erm… wait a minute…).

Let’s go back to that choice again.

By making both the Puma and Lacerator, with the Crypt Ripper lurking in hand, I’m most likely reducing the number of draw steps they have to find a way back into the game down to one or maybe two providing their first card is okay. However ,I am giving them possible outs. Piranha Marsh was the one they got. The only other realistic one I can think of is Teetering Peaks (I’m going to ignore bombs like Marsh Casualties because that’s going to bend me over and sodomize me savagely no matter which choice I make).

The question then is whether I need to give them any outs at all. I have a bunch of critters in hand. If I make the Mosquito I won’t be able to kill them right away, but they need to hit a succession of good cards to keep up with the other four threats I have waiting in hand. If I’m probably going to win anyway, why give them that chance to steal that game from me, as remote as it might be?

What other possibilities could there be waiting on top of their library, and how would those scenarios play out?

What if it’s a plain old Swamp or Mountain? Well, that doesn’t help them a great deal. The Glider gains flying, but an alpha strike with both isn’t enough to kill me, and because of that they can’t attack with both as my return attack kills them. If they attack with just one, most likely the Glider, then the Ripper overwhelms them regardless of which choice was made. The first real difference is if they hold both back to block. The Puma plus Lacerator option means they’re dead next turn, while the Mosquito option gives them another draw step, but it’ll need to be something special as they’re most likely on one life and facing down three or four creatures with just a Geyser Glider. If their top card is a basic land, I think they’re probably most likely dead regardless which choice was made, unless they play very conservatively and the next card happens to be something along the lines of Marsh Casualties.

It gets more interesting if that top card isn’t a land. What if it remains a mystery, and they swing with both creatures? In that scenario, I’m probably forced to block the Glider, as a number of different cards (Vampire’s Bite, Slaughter Cry, Burst Lightning, Unstable Footing) kill me if the Glider gets through. If I do that, then it potentially gets tricky if they follow up with a removal spell or a creature, especially if it’s big enough to survive blocking. It also depends on whether they also attacked with the Specter. If they did, then the Puma plus Lacerator option is still going to be fatal while they’ll get another draw step with the Mosquito option (and I’ll have lost a reinforcement from hand to the Specter). That draw step will still need to be fairly good.

Things get really interesting if that top card is a removal spell, especially if it also comes with a creature attached, such as Torch Slinger. Then the Mosquito option becomes a lot more fragile as they bash that out of the way and get a free hit in with their Glider. Now it’s scary, as they’re the ones threatening the lethal alpha-strike, while we can’t muster enough damage to kill them in one hit (assuming they leave the Specter behind if the removal spell isn’t Torch Slinger). Their second draw doesn’t even need to be that exciting at this point. A land will probably do the job.

Weighing up the outcomes is interesting here. One option leaves us wide open to a Teetering Peaks or Piranha Marsh that ends the game right there. The other opens up a greater range of topdecks, as well as potentially giving the opponent an extra draw step, but those top decks won’t end the game right away. The opponent will still need a little more help from the top of their deck, and we also have extra draw steps. To confuse matters, quite a few of the topdecks that hurt the Mosquito plan can also make things awkward for the two guys plan, assuming the opponent plays correctly.

In this case, I think the Puma + Lacerator is probably still correct. The Mosquito choice is better versus Piranha Pool or Teetering Peaks, whereas this is much better against any-kind-of-removal followed by land or another good card. It is also more likely to deny your opponent draw steps, and denying your opponent draw steps reduces the number of topdecks they can make to turn a game around. Be aware these probabilities vary depending on what information you have on their deck. If you’ve seen either or both of Peaks or Pool in the first game and none of the removal, then the choice might change.

Sometimes you make the right choice and it doesn’t come off. These things happen.

Although I lost that game, I won the decider and then went through to the second round, where another interesting little choice was thrown up in one of the games. Actually, this is more of a case when my own frustration blinded me to an option that could have turned a game around.

You don’t need to see much of game 1 of the second match, other than my opening hand was Mind Sludge, Bladetusk Boar, Hagra Crocodile, Blazing Torch, Swamp, Swamp, Mountain, and I clicked ‘No’ when MTGO helpfully asked me if I wanted to mulligan to six cards. In a fast format, it isn’t good enough to look at an opening hand, see spells and lands, and think that’s probably alright. This hand is slow, and in a fast format slow equals dead.

This is actually a form of hindsight bias I’m very prone to. Unless I’m at the top of my game, I don’t mulligan as much as I should. This comes from plenty of experiences back in the past — in key games just so it sticks more — where I mulliganed a borderline hand only to see an unplayable six, followed by a five-card hand that proved not good enough. I think of it almost like a law. If I mulligan the sort-of-okay-but-probably-a-bit-iffy hand, it’s inevitable I’ll end up with the unplayable six and then a mulligan to oblivion. Really, it’s just a case of dwelling too much on the times that happened and forgetting about the times when the six-card hand was much better and probably made the difference between winning and losing.

So I’m 1-0 down, but the second game is going much better:

I had a fast draw and gained an edge with Malakir Gatekeeper. They’ve bashed me a couple of times with Tuktuk Grunts and dealt with my first Hagra Crocodile with Journey to Nowhere. I still currently have two more Crocodiles and a Stonework Puma, and I’m threatening a lethal attack with a Crypt Ripper ready to spring from my hand.

Of course, if I could draw a damn land (there is 18 in this deck) I’d really be kicking ass, but I’m still in a strong position.

They make a second Tuktuk, but neither Tuktuk can attack here and all I need to do is draw a land and he’s dead right there to my alpha-strike. Potentially that untapped Mountain could indicate Burst Lightning, but I think it would have been cast already if they had it.

I deserve that land. I have eighteen in the deck. And I’ve failed to draw a fifth land for something like the last three turns. I must be due one now. It has to be the next card.

Well f*** you too, MTGO.

No matter. I’ll make that Surrakar Marauder and pass the turn. I’m bound to draw a land next turn.


That’s a Windborne Charge to give both Tuktuks flying and pump them enough to allow them to fly over for 11 points of damage, one more than our current life total.


You might have to wait a bit while he calms down.

F*** you, MTGO. F*** you, you piece of silicon sh**!

Oof. If you like puppies, you might want to look away about now.

Waa, waa. A land. Just one land. Waa, waa. Couldn’t you have given me one f***ing land. Waa, waa. Why does the world hate me? Waa, waa. I’m so unlucky. Etcetera, etcetera.

Actually, I’m just bad.

I was so focused on drawing that land and how much I was ‘owed’ it after going so many turns without drawing it, I failed to think of a contingency plan. While I didn’t know they had Windborne Charge in hand, I knew they had it in their deck, as I’d seen it in game 1 after it was discarded to Mind Sludge. I should have considered it as a possibility.

In this case, the Plan B is obvious. Rather than make the Marauder, I should have summoned the Crypt Ripper and swung with the team. They’re forced to block both Crocs, and although one of the Tuktuks survives, they’re still down to one life and facing down two creatures, one of which is a Crypt Ripper that can potentially grow to 6/6. Victory is not certain by any means (and if they do have that unlikely Burst Lightning I’m probably blown out right there), but I’m in a much stronger position and don’t lose to something cheeky like the Charge.

In both examples I was a little unlucky, but in the second I allowed dwelling on my bad luck to blind me to an alternate plan. It’s easily done, but also easily avoided. Don’t do it!

As a final tidbit, I thought I’d throw up a deck I actually did manage to win a draft with. Just to prove that I can, sometimes, rarely. I’m almost embarrassed putting up the list, as it’s a little ridiculous.

1 Inferno Trap
1 Disfigure
1 Blood Seeker
10 Swamp
1 Blade of the Bloodchief
2 Vampire Lacerator
1 Hagra Crocodile
7 Mountain
1 Geyser Glider
3 Surrakar Marauder
1 Guul Draz Vampire
1 Quest for the Gravelord
1 Hideous End
1 Torch Slinger
1 Akoum Refuge
2 Heartstabber Mosquito
1 Punishing Fire
1 Gatekeeper of Malakir
1 Trusty Machete
2 Marsh Casualties

Yeah, that is two Marsh Casualties. They’re quite strong, or so I’ve heard.

The draft was funny, as my first booster had two World Queller (one foil) and at least two other really good White cards. I dutifully took the only decent Black card, Quest for the Gravelord, shipped the pack and waited for the carnage to start. Unsurprisingly I got the payoff in the second booster with a solid stream of good Black and Red cards, including the second Marsh Casualties fourth or fifth pick (I opened the first in the second booster). This is one of the reasons why you shouldn’t think signals are automatically the be all and end all of drafting.

Thanks for reading…