The Sukenik Special – The Early Game

The first couple turns are vital to success in each game of Magic. Jonathan Sukenik shows you some neat tricks and examples of how the first four turns of a game can determine the winner.

Ah yes, the early game. Those first few turns and hardly any decisions to make; it is great right? Well no, it’s not great! Fooled you!

The first couple turns are actually very vital to your success in a game of Magic. I see players going lightning fast during their first couple turns. However, the obvious play isn’t always the right play. It is important to sculpt both your deck and your plays to recognize the importance of the first couple of turns (in this case, most of my examples will discuss the first four turns).

Let’s just jump right in with analyzing how each of the current big decks go about the early game.

At Worlds, Team ChannelFireball decided to run Tempered Steel, a good ol’ Scars of Mirrodin Block Constructed favorite. Why is this deck even good?

The answer lies in its early game. Just the ability to unload your hand of Vault Skirges and Memnites and then follow up with a turn-three Tempered Steel really puts your opponent on the back foot. So, it is that easy: play your threats, play your unfair pump enchantment, and then the game is over right? Wrong!

The follow is a list of cards that you might see in someone’s maindeck that are particularly good against Tempered Steel:

However, once again, Block Constructed taught Tempered Steel players indirectly how to deal with the first three cards on that list. In that format, the only board wipe card besides Slagstorm was Black Sun’s Zenith. The Tempered Steel players were able to adapt to this potential 3-for-1. They chose to only play cards like Origin Spellbomb, Glint Hawk Idol, and Chimeric Mass until they were able to land a Tempered Steel. Then, it would be really hard for the Black Sun’s Zenith player to take advantage of the situation.

Playing around Gut Shot, Geistflame, and Arc Trail is very similar to playing around Black Sun’s Zenith. You don’t want your opponent to be able to take advantage of the fact that all of your guys have little toughness, so all you have to do is not play them until later on (perhaps after you have Tempered Steel in play).

But wait… isn’t Tempered Steel an aggressive deck? Well yes, it is. However, we have to know how to maneuver through the few cards that actually affect us because if you don’t, your opponent will just be able to deal with your cards and win with their better late-game cards. Once you realize how to play around Gut Shot, Geistflame, and Arc Trail, you need to be aware of how to deal with board wipers.

What is the goal of Slagstorm and Day of Judgment? Your opponent wants to kill as many creatures as possible and essentially Time Walk you (or Fog you, since he won’t be taking damage presumably). However, we can’t just play cards like Origin Spellbomb and Glint Hawk Idol, or else your opponent will never die. You need to find that threshold where your opponent will play Slagstorm or Day of Judgment, and you will be completely fine with it. An example of a board that your opponent will probably play one of those on is a board that has Glint Hawk, Vault Skirge, Vault Skirge, and Tempered Steel. However, how surprised will they be when you follow up with your two Signal Pests, Memnite, and another Vault Skirge?

It is a very fine line to walk and where most of the skill in playing decks like this comes from. Being able to envision how you want the board to look both pre- and post-wipe is a hard one. Both of those cards are reasons why cards like Shrine of Loyal Legions and Hero of Bladehold are in the sideboard. They allow you to recover from Wrath of God effects with ease. However, there is no sense in walking into the obvious tricks in the first game.

Let’s compare this to the situation on the other side of the table. You are the player slinging cards like Slagstorm and Day of Judgment against a deck like Tempered Steel or Illusions. You know that you have to have your deck be capable of preventing death before your fifth or sixth land drop. This is why Wolf Run Ramp players have been looking at cards like Devil’s Play, Slagstorm, Arc Trail, and even Galvanic Blast. However, why would you want to play your Devil’s Play or Galvanic Blast in the early turns if you are just going to wipe the board with Slagstorm?

The first reason could be the obvious one. You don’t want to take damage. If your opponent plays a first-turn Stromkirk Noble, you don’t want him to deal a ton of damage to you before you get to play your Slagstorm. If your Red Deck Wins opponent is on the play and has Volt Charge, he can even make his Stromkirk Noble a 4/4 before you can Slagstorm. But of course you would have Galvanic Blasted a Stromkirk Noble… What am I thinking…

How about if your opponent leads on an Avacyn’s Pilgrim? That sure is a tricky one. I know that there used to be a philosophy that you should always shoot the “Birds of Paradise.” However, there are a lot of different factors right now. If you think your opponent will just be fearless, like Taylor Swift’s album, he might just go for the curve of Pilgrim into Blade Splicer. That seems like a good place to have Slagstorm. But, what if instead he is able to land an early Garruk Relentless or Hero of Bladehold. Sure wish I just Galvanic Blasted the Pilgrim instead of trying to get greedy…

Do you see how complicated the early game really is? There are just so many things that can occur, and it all starts from turn zero (mulliganing).

Last week, Todd Anderson wrote about Illusions. (Surprise surprise! I’m jealous. I wish I could write about the same thing multiple times. Just kidding, those articles are terrific, and I highly recommend all of them to anyone who even cares about doing well at Standard.) In it, he referred to how he knew that he could overextend his board against a Wolf Run Ramp opponent because he played a Green Sun’s Zenith for a Birds of Paradise. Todd was able to understand what this said about his opponent’s hand (perhaps by asking questions to himself?). It meant that he didn’t have Slagstorm because he would have just looked for Viridian Emissary if he did have a Slagstorm. On the other hand, what if a highly respectable player like LSV did it to bluff that he didn’t have Slagstorm when he in fact did? This is a line of play I have considered and even done a few times. It is important to be able to swallow your pride and make what can appear to be a misplay if you are convinced you can win the game because of this gamble.

Speaking of Wolf Run Ramp, I decided to take the World Champ’s build for a spin on Magic Online. I had a very interesting early game development against Patrick Chapin Grixis Control deck.

My opening hand on the play was: Mountain, Forest, double Rootbound Crag, double Sphere of the Suns, Slagstorm. Please ignore the fact that this is probably a mulligan for the sake of the example. I am almost like Gerard Fabiano when it comes to mulliganing.

Anyhow, I casually ran out Rootbound Crag on turn one. People tend to play those hands when they have the M10/11/12/Innistrad land and a basic land incorrectly. Unless there is a specific reason to play the basic land untapped (e.g. to represent Galvanic Blast), you should be leading on Rootbound Crag (unless you have Copperline Gorges or something). So, why is it right to play the M12 land first?

There are two reasons. First, you don’t lose anything. If you are not going to use the mana or bluff anything, playing either does not influence having two lands untapped on turn two. Second, it always seems to give the illusion of a mana-light hand. People like to have their lands come into play untapped!

Back to the story, he played a Drowned Catacombs. I’m glad he thinks the same way I do. On my turn, I drew and cast Rampant Growth off of my Rootbound Crag and Mountain and searched for another Mountain. He went for a Blackcleave Cliffs and passes back. On my third turn, I drew another Forest. I only see one line of play here. I played Sphere of the Suns before playing my land for the turn (my hand was double Forest, Rootbound Crag, the other Sphere of the Suns, and Slagstorm). It appeared that my sign of weakness by playing turn one Rootbound Crag worked because he Mana Leaked the Sphere of the Suns. Then, I passed the turn. He played another Blackcleave Cliffs and passed back to me.

Do you see what happened there? Go ahead and read it again because something weird happened.

Did you find it?

Yeah, that is right; I skipped my turn-three land drop, with a whopping three lands in my hand!! Sukenik is a crazy man I tell you… a crazy man!! However, there is a method to my madness.

On turn four, I drew Rampant Growth. I casually played my second Sphere of the Suns, which he Mana Leaked. People always want to try to take the easy way out and just win the game via mana screw. I laughed at how this plan worked out and then played my Forest and Rampant Growth. I was not surprised when he did not have a counter for my Titan a turn or two later with five cards in his hand.

Would you have had the guts to do that? At least now that you have read about bluffing mana screw, maybe you can consider it in the early game. I’m not telling you that it is the right play here or anywhere. However, it is a line of play. It is an option. And it is nice to be able to consider every little option before proceeding.

There is actually a situation that came up two Worlds ago that is the exact opposite of the one I just stated here.

Jonathan Randle was playing U/W Control against Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa (man I hope I spelt that right) playing U/B Control. They both kept their seven I believe, and Paulo led with a Darkslick Shores and passed. Randle went for a Glacial Fortress and passed the turn. Paulo went Island, go. Randle played Preordain before dropping his land for the turn. After thinking for a bit, Paulo Mana Leaked the Preordain. Randle passed the turn missing his second land drop after he kept a one-land hand.

So what? Randle kept a loose hand; Paulo countered the Preordain. Maybe Paulo read Randle; maybe he just wanted to not let Randle see more cards. What’s the big deal?

I recall reading an article by Jonathan Randle with regards to his Worlds Top 8 that year, and he described how even though the keep was loose, he could have done things differently starting with turn one. He said that he messed up the early game.

The idea that Randle had in mind was to grab a different card in his hand, act like he was going to drop it into play (either tapped or untapped is irrelevant), and then put it back. Then, he would pick out the Glacial Fortress from a different part of his hand and then play it and pass the turn. Surely Paulo would think that the other card in his hand was perhaps another land, and maybe Paulo wouldn’t have countered Preordain for that reason.

Man… there was a lot of bluffing and thinking involved in the first couple of turns! Perhaps these concepts can give you tools to use in your matches or help with certain card decisions. Here is a quick list of cards or decisions to consider when constructing your deck:

  • Geistflame vs. Gut Shot: One could be a two for one, but one doesn’t cost any mana.
  • Gitaxian Probe: It is a lot easier to overextend without fear (didn’t wanna make the same fearless joke twice in one article) when you know what is in their hand.
  • Dismember: This card is just always on curve, and with the early game mattering so much these days, we may see this colorless Hero of Bladehold Slayer back in action.
  • Vapor Snag: Oh man, tempo and the ability to “burn” someone out when combined with Snapcaster Mage? Sign me up!

From this short list, you can see that Illusions has a pretty solid early game, since it plays all of these cards. This list also reminds me of how unfair Phyrexia mana is… but oh well! I play Magic with the cards I am given.

Before I sign off until Thursday, I wanted to apologize for the lack of decklists lately; it has been really hard to break the formats I’ve been looking at online (and I just finished a bunch of exams in college). No promises, but I will be working on some stuff for the Invitational coming up. If anyone wants to run decklists by me on Magic Online, you know how to contact everyone’s favorite Watchwolf!

Thanks for reading,

Jonathan “Watchwolf92” Sukenik