Thinking It Through Vol. 2 – Bloodthirsty

Teddy Card Game returns with the second article in the excellent Thinking It Through series. With the help of some of the greatest Limited minds in the game today, Ted explores a number of common 40-card dilemmas. Today, they revolve around Bloodthirst. Have you got the courage to block? Read on to find out…

Greetings, and welcome back to your favorite Limited series*. I know that sounds arrogant, especially to start what is merely volume 2 of this series, but stick with me, kids… this one is even better than volume 1**.

Drafting with CMU is always a learning experience, whether they are officially past their primes (Buehler), a little over the drafting hill (Forsythe), or still plenty good enough to Top 8 Pro Tours (Turian), every time you sit down to do battle either with or against them, you learn something. I was fortunate to get a chance to draft with all of the names above and more in Hawaii (including a rare Brian Schneider appearance), and that experience was impetus for the first two scenarios you see today. The third one actually came from Pro Tour: London Top 8 member Johan Sadegphour, so thanks to him as well.

Back to the CMU guys; drafting with them may be more enlightening these days than ever in the past. In addition to observing all their salty dog tricks and plumbing their vast knowledge of the game, whenever we draft together, I inevitably end up peppering them with questions about the cards we are playing with, how they were designed, what they used to be before their current incarnations… in short, these drafts are the freaking best, because you get to be a fanboy and draft Magical cards at the same time. In Hawaii, Turian and Forsythe both kept drafting aggressive R/W/x (typically Blue) decks, replete with Sell-Sword Brutes and worse, but the early damage combined with late-game card advantage was a real problem to deal with if they hit their mana early. Boros is pretty easy to handle until Steamcore Weird, Ogre Savant, and actual card drawing is thrown into the mix… but should that happen, watch out!

Regardless, I did fairly well in the side drafts at Hawaii, but realized I was having a difficult time getting a read on whether I should be blocking Aaron’s and Mike’s men. I (and numerous others) have said in the past the Turian is a pain to read, and Forsythe is similarly tough. This is made all the worse when they mash you with a trick they knew you’d walk into, cackling with glee as Orzhov Euthanist kills your 5/5, or Guardian’s Magemark turned a trade into a rout. (Though to be fair, blisterguy was generally the one scooping up all the Magemarks…) I mean, getting bashed happens, but having your opponents giggle like the Pillsbury Doughboy as they totally wreck your board is a little embarrassing.

When I play frequently, I’m usually solid or better at reading my opponents, but after that experience, I decided to try and focus on a couple of aggressive scenarios this time around. These are situations where the early game could very well decide the late game, and you don’t have a read on what your opponent has, but a trick could wreck house. Big ups to me boys Mike Turian, Rich Hoaen, and Anton Jonsson for letting me pick their brains again and providing the meat to this most juicy of articles.

Here’s what the lads had to work with this time around:

Scenario 1

Scenario 1
It’s round 1, game 1 at a Rav/Rav/Guildpact Booster Draft Pro Tour, and you are playing an opponent you have never met before. Your opponent is on the draw and cast a Skarrgan Pit-Skulk (via a Forest) on his turn 1. You answered with a Selesnya Evangel (via Forest and Plains) on your turn.

Your hand is: Transluminant, Blind Hunter, Dimir House Guard, Golgari Rot Farm, Swamp. You have a Last Gasp, a Brainspoil, and a Faith’s Fetters for removal in your deck.

On his turn, your opponent draws and then sends his Pit-Skulk into the red zone. Thinking back to the draft, you know that you passed a Gather Courage in pack 1 and two Scab-Clan Maulers early in pack 3.

Do you block? Why or Why Not?

Turian’s Answer
I would block in this situation. If I take the damage and he then plays a Scab-Clan Mauler, I think the game would be reasonable, but I could easily lose. If he has the Gather Courage, then he has wasted his whole turn playing a combat trick. If he has a small removal spell (like Pyromatics), then you have gotten a two-for-one. If he is just bluffing, then you get a nice little surprise when you kill the Pit-Skulk and get to keep the Evangel.

So often people play around a combat trick, and then they play around a combat trick, and then they play around it some more. Just block! Maybe they have the trick and they get you with it, but at least they got you on your own terms. By procrastinating, you are setting yourself up to fall into a deteriorating position in which you will have no choice but to lose the game to the combat trick. Get the trick out of their hand and leave yourself in the best possible position.

Losing the Selesnya Evangel would hurt, but your hand is pretty good. If the quality of the hand was worse, I would be less inclined to block, but as is I think slowing down your opponent and keeping their Scab-Clan Maulers off of the table is the best play.

Jonsson’s Answer
First of all, I would like to know why I played the Evangel on turn 2 and not the Transluminant. The initial play seems incorrect to me. Faced with a deck that is obviously trying to "bring the beats," I would rather play the creature that I don’t mind walking into a trick. This is especially true, since there is a good chance I want to play the Rot Farm the next turn, meaning I won’t have mana to activate the Evangel anyway. That being said, I will try to answer this question.

There are a lot of things to consider here. First of all, why is he playing the Pit-Skulk? Apparently we are at a Pro Tour, and our opponent has a use for the Pit-Skulk in his deck. Of course, he might just be awful, but he’s probably not that bad. So the only other explanation is that he has Scab-Clan Maulers in his deck.

If he does have a Mauler in his hand, he should attack in this situation even without a trick (unless the rest of his hand is really strong). Of course, he also attacks if he has Gather Courage. The next step is to figure out which situation is better for us, our Evangel dying to Gather Courage or us facing down a 3/3 trampler. The important thing here is tempo. If our assumption is right (that he is playing a very aggressive Red/Green deck), then his late game is probably lacking. Blocking with the Evangel keeps him from playing a two-drop this turn (assuming he has Gather Courage), and next turn we can keep him from Bloodthirsting by dropping the Transluminant. For me this seems like the scenario where we are less likely to get overwhelmed, which should be the most likely way we lose. The decision is close, but in the end I would decide to block.

Like I said in the beginning though, the real problem here is when you make your decision. The decision of blocking or not should be made in your turn 2. If you don’t want to risk the Evangel, then play Transluminant.

Knut’s Comments
Leave it to Anton to find a play mistake in the scenario setup. He’s exactly right, the best play is to run the Tranny out there on turn 2, that way you protect your Evangel from situations exactly like this. The problem was that I wanted another two-drop in the mix for the follow-up (with the Rot Farm), and basically any two-drop I added (including Courier Hawk, which was my other choice) should have been cast on turn 2 instead of the Evangel, leaving me in a quandary. The Swede caught me, and you can see it in his answer.

Regarding the scenario itself, there are a couple of things I should mention. First of all Jim (of the Ferraiolo Jims) and I argued about this one for probably half an hour after I finished it and sent it to him for review. He thought the entire setup was pretty obvious, while I thought that it not only was not obvious – even to good players – but that it teaches important lessons about tempo and board evaluation. I practically did a backflip when Turian’s answer ended up in my e-mail, because both Potato and Anton agree with what I was thinking when I laid it out. If you think your opponent is Gruul (and that’s likely because he’s playing a little pooper like Pit Skulk, meaning he’s either bloodthirsty or he’s bad), then there’s a decent chance you should be blocking in this situation. Gruul decks often need to get rolling early or they don’t get rolling at all, unless they somehow got a bunch of Streetbreaker Wurms to fill out their curve. (The scenario intentionally doesn’t mention Streetsweepers because of that, and the Wurm presumably isn’t hitting the board for three more turns anyway. Think about the future, but focus on the now.) Hence I’d likely block in that spot, though it’s admittedly a pretty close call all around. Your hand in this spot is quite good, so I’d be more focused on not getting run over right away than on keeping the Evangel around for later use.

As for why I chose Evangel, there are two reasons. 1) People love Evangel almost too much these days, and are less likely to risk him as a blocker than say something like the Tranny or a Courier Hawk. 2) There’s no freaking way I could have put Selesnya Guildmage on the board and gotten anyone to block with him. Boros Guildmage maybe, Selesnya nyet. (And to be honest, I wouldn’t either. The One Man Gang wins games and matches by himself, thus I had to run the elf shaman out there instead.)

Scenario 2
It’s round 1, game 1 at a Rav/Rav/Guildpact Booster Draft Pro Tour, and you are playing an opponent you have never met before. You are on the draw and cast a Skarrgan Pit-Skulk (via a Forest) on turn 1. Your opponent answered with a Selesnya Evangel (via Forest and Plains) on his turn.

You have drawn your card for the turn and your hand contains the following cards: two Mountain, Scab-Clan Mauler, Wildsize, Burning-Tree Bloodscale, Elvish Skysweeper, Golgari Brownscale. The removal in your deck consists of one Pyromatics and one Galvanic Arc.

What play do you make?

Hoaen’s Answer
I would attack with the Skulk, since it isn’t going to do much this game. Even if you set the chances of him blocking at 75%, it is still a good attack in the long run. Most people are overly afraid of fighting with their Evangels.

From there, if he blocks I play the Skysweeper, otherwise, the Mauler is obviously coming down.

Turian’s Answer
It is funny that I answered scenario 1 without reading scenario 2. I’m quite glad I waited so that the situation wouldn’t be confused. I would play a Mountain, make an Elvish Skysweeper and then pass the turn. The bluff here is just too painful if it doesn’t pay off. At the Pro Tour I have to give my opponent some credit, and if they read StarCityGames.com, then they will know to block. Seriously though, if they block, the game is in bad shape. If I don’t attack, then the game is still wide open. If my opponent doesn’t play a creature or even plays a three-mana guy and his Evangel doesn’t come online, then the game is still very winnable.

Follow-Up: Your opponent lays a Swamp on his turn and casts a Transluminant with a Plains open. The card you draw on your turn is a Forest. What play do you make now?

The following turn I play the Golgari Brownscale. With the Transluminant out and him having the ability to make a guy, I don’t have anywhere to go but saying done. I don’t accomplish enough with Wildsize, and getting out my Scab-Clan Mauler once again just costs me to many resources.

Knut’s Comments
I flipped this one around slightly and made your hand heavily reliant on bloodthirst, just to see whether or not that changes the play people would make. What Turian was worried about in the first scenario – that your opponent would get rolling and the board would quickly become almost unmanageable – is a real possibility with this hand, provided you can activate the bloodthirst. If you can’t, you end up with some overcosted guys and some tricks, but aren’t done for – you still have decent spells and decent plays in hand. Welcome to the world of drafting Gruul-heavy decks.

When creating this scenario, I found myself in Hoaen’s camp. People tend to overvalue Evangels a bit (he’s very good, but still just a man. Remember not to fall in love with your creatures, regardless of how good they are) and shy away from losing a guy to a combat trick more than they should, so I’d toss the Skulk in there and see what happens. He’s not particularly special, and if you get a pumped Mauler on the table, you increase your chances of winning by a good bit. If you lose him, you lost a one-drop… not the worst thing in the world. If I knew (translation: had a read) my opponent was going to block, Turian’s thoughts start to make a good deal more sense – just wait it out and make your move when you have to. Since I tend to think an unknown opponent won’t block with Evangel most of the time, I go for aggression and send the little man to bring the noise.

On a further note, this would be an area where you vary your play when facing the same opponent(s) with frequency. Just like in poker, it’s important not to be completely predictable in how you play your cards (this is more true in Limited than Constructed), and if you really want to make this "threat" worthwhile you’ll need to be able to show your opponent the trick more times than not, should they decide to call your bluff.

Scenario 3

Scenario 3
You are locked into a Ninth Edition draft with b0bbyX, who has an 1800 rating in Limited on Magic Online. It’s game 1 and you are playing a U/W deck with tons of fliers – one that you’d describe as very good for the format. You are playing against a R/G deck that has been manaflooding and has only a Grizzly Bear on the board holding a Loxodon Warhammer, along with five Mountains and five Forests.

In play on your side of the board are: six Islands, one Plains, Aven Windreader, Angel of Mercy, Master of Decoy, and Azure Drake.

In your hand are Boomerang and Wind Drake. You are able to attack your opponent down to three before passing the turn, but using your Windreader, you know his next card is Flowstone Slide, which will clear the board. After your opponent draws, you use your Windreader again to see that he has Kavu Climber on top of his deck. Your opponent casts his Flowstone Slide and you are now faced with a decision…

You are at eighteen life. What creature do you use the Boomerang on, or do you save it? Explain what you are thinking.

Instead of being at eighteen life, you are at six. Now what play do you make, and why?

Jonsson’s Answer
If we Boomerang either the Angel or the Windreader (Angel seems more optimal because of the three life), then he has one draw to hit either something that blocks a 3/3 flier or kills it. This seems pretty good. Lets look at the other options:

1) Boomeranging the Azure Drake. The Drake is just worse so we can dismiss this one right away.

2) Save the Boomerang. Next turn we play a Wind Drake. Assuming we draw nothing, this gives him two turns to draw an answer for the Wind Drake while we have to Boomerang the Kavu Climber or the Warhammer. It seems strictly worse than the first play.

3) Boomerang the Master Decoy. Play Wind Drake. He has two draws where he can either first draw something that deals with the Wind Drake, or first a creature and then something that kills the Wind Drake. One difference here is that something like Giant Spider isn’t a solution, which it would be in the first case (because of the Decoy). The other difference is of course that we have more game if he does kill the Wind Drake (since we can keep him from gaining life with the Warhammer). Also, any additional creature we draw will have a bigger impact, especially if he doesn’t draw the removal for Wind Drake on the first draw, which is the one situation where this play could be worse than the first one.

For these reasons, the correct play for me is to Boomerang the Decoy.

Instead of being at eighteen life, you are at six. Now what play do you make, and why?

I would still make the same play. His outs over the first two turns don’t really change, not counting cards like Blaze. Changing our play to something worse to play around single cards (especially uncommons and rares) is not a winning strategy.

Hoaen’s Answer
I would Boomerang my Master Decoy, in the hopes that he never gets to attack with an equipped Kavu Climber before the Wind Drake kills him. This way he has two draws to find a removal spell for the Drake that is going to kill him, and you still have Decoy to shut down his offence. Nothing changes if I’m at six life.

The first time I read through this situation, though, the play that immediately came to mind was to let the Flowstone Slide resolve, and race his Warhammer and Kavu Climber with my Wind Drake by using my Boomerang on his Warhammer when he equips it and attacks. I had to think about it for a minute to find a better play, but I knew there was one because Ted wouldn’t send me a problem this simple. After some consideration, I realized that the Master Decoy can handle the Warhammered Climber more effectively than the one-shot use of Boomerang, and gives me another threat to win with in case he draws removal for the Wind Drake.

Knut’s Comments
My thought when I first looked at this scenario was that you want to control the Warhammer, and the most efficient way of doing that is to keep the Decoy in play, so that’s when I decided to bounce boy target.

This is Johan’s scenario, and he ended up losing this game by making a play that Anton mentions. Instead of bouncing the Decoy, Johan popped the Windreader into his hand and decided to race, but ended up losing when his opponent drew Giant Spider off the Kavu Climber, effectively locking down the board with a hefty blocker and lifegain to boot. In a way, it’s nice to see a player of Johan’s caliber (meaning Pro Tour Top 8 in Limited) "miss" this play (it’s really a judgment call), because it shows that how thin the margin for error can be, even for one of the best Euro drafters out there. Magic is hard, and everyone goes through awful streaks – keep your chin up and keep searching for the best play, and you are bound to do better eventually.

The Wrap-up
I hope you have enjoyed this article as much (or more) than the first one in the series. Instead of pure puzzles like last time, this installment attempts to capture some judgment calls in the game and then pick the brains of some of the finest Limited players around to see what they are thinking when they have to choose among options like those listed above. This is exactly what I was originally hoping we could accomplish with this, and something I hope to continue doing in the future, though I expect the scenarios to be a mix of puzzles and judgments for the foreseeable future.

I also wanted to take a brief moment to thank everyone who commented on Volume 1, both via the forums and through e-mail. I don’t often have time to answer things as I should these days, but your thoughts and input are valuable to this and all the writing I do. If you have a good scenario that you think we should take a look at, please send it along and I’ll consider it for next time. Even if you don’t have specifics, any sort of theory or concepts you would like to see investigated would be useful.

That’s it for this edition of Thinking It Through. Maybe next time we can get some Dissension cards in the mix. In the meantime, work on outsmarting your opponents without outsmarting yourself in the process.

Teddy Card Game
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* Alright fine, maybe your new favorite is BDM’s series instead…
** And every bit of its success is due to the guys answering the questions. Give Anton, Mike, and Richie all the love in the forums – without them this article wouldn’t exist.