Threat Value

Carsten Kotter explains what threat value is, how to use it, and how to counteract it, especially in the Legacy format. Take a look and leave some feedback.

Welcome back everybody! Let me start of by asking all of you a question. What is the most threatening common turn 1 play in Legacy? I don’t mean the most powerful or lethal play mind you—clearly that’s something along the lines of Lotus Petal, double Rite of Flame, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Goblin Charbelcher, kill you or some other variation on the theme of turn 1 kills—but the play that implies the most danger. My answer?  It’s a close call between Underground Sea, Ponder and Volcanic Island, Ponder.

Given that those are pretty tame openings compared to what most Legacy decks are capable of, calling them the most threatening opening play in Legacy might seem strange on first sight. However, once you realize that what the question deals with isn’t the immediate impact of the play itself but what it signals to the other player, my claim should make quite a bit more sense.

Think about what Volcanic Island, Ponder actually means. At this point there is a variety of different tempo decks we could be playing against—straight U/R, RUG, U/W/R, Four-Color, some form of Show and Tell deck, or even Storm or Miracles with a somewhat unusual mana draw. In short, Volcanic Island, Ponder threatens us with all of the following things.

We might get Dazed or Force of Willed this turn, and any creature we drop could eat Lightning Bolt as soon as our opponent gets the turn back. Wasteland and Stifle will potentially threaten our mana base at that point too, but we’re just as likely to face significant creature pressure. There’s also a very real chance we might just die next turn if our opponent is on a combo deck. All of those possibilities come up even if we look just at established top tier strategies.

In fact, Volcanic Island into Ponder means we might just get blown out this game independent of what we decide to do, from playing a land and casting a one-drop to Manaless Dredge’s game plan of drawing and discarding—there are just too many potential things our opponent could do! Plains into Aether Vial just isn’t the same even though it’s actually a more powerful play.

This type of advantage is rather hard to quantify and formulate rules for yet is what decides many a game of Magic. I like to name things, so I usually refer to this ability to threaten particular plays—or a multitude of different plays for that matter—as the "threat value" of a play or deck choice.

Threat Value Fundamentals

Threat value is one of the many things in Magic that is magnified because we play a game of imperfect information. We don’t know what our opponent can do, so we need to prepare as best we can against what we assume they could do. The power of what you threaten to do will often allow you to shape the whole game without ever investing any particular card at all. At its heart correctly using threat value is about forcing your opponent into making plays that in the abstract are marginally or wildly suboptimal as far as advancing their game plan is concerned.

An obvious and classic example of threat value at work is that of a match between traditional control and a swarm aggro deck. The optimal way for swarm aggro to advance its game plan is to use all its mana every turn to flood the board with threats and kill you as soon as possible. However, as most remotely experienced players know, this is a recipe for disaster against Wrath of God (or one of its many variants). If you dump your whole hand on the table by turn 3 only for them to untap and clear everything thanks to a single card, you can probably scoop ’em up right there.

The only way around this is to hold back some threats in your hand to redeploy once the opponent has pulled the trigger. As we can see, the control player has forced their opponent to play in a way that is extremely inefficient in the abstract simply by putting Wrath of God in their deck. That’s a pretty big payoff for something that doesn’t require even a single game action!

Another classic example of the importance of threat value is the old adage that you always Bolt the Elf*. How could that be the generally accepted correct play? Lightning Bolt is a powerful removal spell—you didn’t put that in your deck to kill a freaking 1/1, right? Once again, it’s about what the mana dork threatens. Your opponent put Llanowar Elves in their deck, so they likely have large things to accelerate out too. Your aggressive deck on the other hand isn’t particularly well equipped to deal with large things; your plan to get in below them. As such, it’s usually much better to slow down your own game for the single turn it takes you to cast Bolt instead of allowing them to hit all their higher drops a turn early.

The beauty of it all? Just because you’re playing control doesn’t mean you actually have the Wrath of God in hand any more than casting Llanowar Elves means there is actually anything to accelerate out for the green player. However, the impact of those plays if they happen is high enough to essentially force the opponent to work around them, thereby giving you a massive advantage if you don’t actually have them. That in no way makes it wrong for your opponent to play around the threat; however, it does open up an area for us to exploit to win more than we should simply by the merits of our comparative draws.

*For those that don’t know it, when you’re playing a red aggressive deck with Lightning Bolt and your opponent opens with land, Llanowar Elves, it’s generally correct to just kill the 1/1 right away instead of furthering your own game plan by dropping a threat.

Different decks capitalize on this facet of the game to very different degrees. Something like Jund might force the opponent to slightly change their play to hedge against a Hymn to Tourach, Liliana of the Veil, or Wasteland but by and large you can just freely try to put your strategy into action and see how their draw matches up against yours. If you opponent is on the play with Belcher, however, you better hope you can mulligan into a hand with Force of Will or there’s a solid chance you should just pack it in. I’ve mulliganed to and kept a four-card hand without lands against Belcher before and still consider it the right play in hindsight—that’s how much the threat value of their deck influences my plays.

Combo decks in general are the top dog as far as creating threat value is concerned simply because they generally carry the biggest gun—if you don’t answer them, you’re dead. That doesn’t mean they all abuse it equally well though. Belcher might force you to mulligan in an extreme way, sure. However, once the game is actually under way, it doesn’t get to dance much. Time is never on its side, and the only tricky thing it can do is cast Empty the Warrens, a threat that means you should usually try to disrupt their ritual chain before they can keep four mana around afterward but not much else. Storm on the other hand often lives and dies through correctly manipulating threat value throughout the game instead of actually doing anything (more on that later).

The second type of deck most adept at creating and abusing threat value are counterspell decks. The threat of countermagic forces the opponent to sequence their plays not only as a function of their own game plan but also as a function of expandability. Cards need to be sequenced thus that countermagic is least likely to hit actual key pieces yet have to at the same time further the game plan enough to beat whatever it is the counterspells are actually buying time for.

On the flip side, the kind of deck that reaps the least benefits from threat value is the most "traditional" type of deck: one full of vanilla creatures and lands. Because you operate fully at sorcery speed and all you do is deploy a new body (or a couple) per turn, your options as far as punishing your opponent for whatever it is they just did on their turn are all a function of what you played last turn and won’t have an impact until next turn. Put differently, they can do whatever they want and feel free to react to what you do a turn later.

Using Threat Value

Now that is all nice and dandy but if threat value is simply the result of choosing a particular kind of deck, how is that worth a complete article? I’m happy you asked, as threat value is not just a function of deck choice. There is a multitude of ways to create threat value throughout a game and to leverage it to advance your position in a game.

I assume everybody reading this is already familiar with the most fundamental play aimed at creating threat value, possibly without realizing: holding back a land in hand when you have all the mana you could ever need in play already. Because your opponent doesn’t know that card in your hand is a land, they suddenly have to consider what it could be—say a Giant Growth, allowing you to attack your 2/2 into their 3/3. And suddenly we’re already leveraging threat value. Because of the threat of Giant Growth, we were able to make a terrible play—chump attacking—and force our opponent to make an even worse play by not blocking our 2/2 with their 3/3.

As we can see, threat value is all about exploiting the information differential inherent in Magic. We know what we can do at any point in time—at least one would hope so—while our opponent simply has educated guesses to rely on. This shapes most of the Legacy experience.

Many plays we often consider automatic—cracking a fetch land for a basic land on turn 1 against RUG Delver instead of holding it back or getting a dual land for example—are the result of threat value evaluations that have become second nature to everyone involved in the format over time to a point of being essentially formalized.

So how do you maximize threat value? Clearly by making the information differential as large as possible and selling misinformation. Imagine the following board state. You’re playing RUG Delver and have two lands in play, one of which was tapped to play a Nimble Mongoose on your turn. Your opponent, who you know is playing a deck that will never present a target for Lightning Bolt other than the face, drops a Flooded Strand and passes the turn. You have a hand of two more lands, a Lightning Bolt, a Daze, and a Force of Will. What is the correct play here?

Looking from a standpoint of pure efficiency, you should use your last mana to cast Lightning Bolt now. Not only does that allow you to use all of your mana, but it also starts filling the graveyard for the Mongoose. I’d still argue that’s the worst play you could possibly make here; you should just calmly untap and take your turn without hesitation. If you cast Lightning Bolt, you inform your opponent that you don’t have a Stifle for their fetch land so there is one card less for them to worry about in your hand in general, and they also know that they’re three points closer to being dead than they would otherwise have expected.

All of that information could have been leveraged into a sizable advantage at some later point in the game. For example, if your opponent feared Stifle, they might not have sacrificed their Flooded Strand only for you to actually draw into the Stifle you never had in the first place.

What the existence of threat value means is that in addition to having to think about your best play and your opponent’s possible answers, there suddenly is a complete second field of battle—that of managing what your opponent believes you can and cannot do. And it’s a powerful one. By using threat value you can turn an extra Dark Ritual into a Duress, effectively cast multiple copies of Unsummon completely free, or start the game with Sphere of Resistance in play at no cost at all. You can even get your opponent to throw away a game they have already locked up.

Creating threat value might mean making sure to keep up UU at all times and thinking about your opponent’s spells when you don’t have a counterspell to slow down their progress. Board out Daze after revealing it in game 1 to have your opponent effectively destroy one of their lands for the whole next game to play around it. Have Batterskull and a couple copies of Stoneforge Mystic in your Miracles sideboard to make cards that were dead game 1 into must haves.

It also works the other way around though. If you’re playing a control deck against a weenie deck, make sure to only play out a single white mana source before turn 4 to try to fool them into believing that you won’t be able to cast Wrath of God and overcommit. Pull a Luis Scott-Vargas and intentionally miss your third land drop in Limited to mask the fact that your hand is nearly nothing but lands. Copy a classic Jon Finkel move and discard your only Counterspell in a hand full of lands when playing Draw Go against High Tide and get them to scoop to your hand that is (obviously) filled with seven cards that are better than the Counterspell. (I think that was Finkel. It might have been Kai Budde—a play worthy of a master either way.)

An example that comes up frequently in various forms for me personally to illustrate:

You’re playing Storm, and your hand on turn 3 after a Ponder is triple Dark Ritual, Underground Sea, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Infernal Tutor. You have a tapped Island in play as well as an untapped Underground Sea, and you know thanks to Gitaxian Probe that your opponent has Spell Pierce, Force of Will, and no other blue cards in hand.

Objectively there is no way you should be able to win at this point. However, with correct sequencing I’d give you about 50:50 odds that this game ends this turn in Storm’s favor. All you need to do is to cast that Dark Ritual without playing a land first. Foolhardy? Well, let’s have a look at what this turn looks like from the opponent’s point of view.

Their Storm opponent with six cards in hand has just tapped out on turn 3 to cast Dark Ritual. You can either Spell Pierce or Force of Will this turn, and if you use Pierce and get to your next turn, you have a solid shot at drawing a blue card to have countermagic up once again. You now have two options—you can either counter the Ritual or let it resolve.

If you allow the Ritual, they might cast Duress and go off from there when otherwise they might have been stuck on no mana at all this turn. Even worse, once the Ritual resolves you will in all likelihood have to use Force of Will to counter whatever they follow up with since they can probably pay for Spell Pierce with Dark Ritual mana now, leaving you further exposed on future turns. These facts highly incentivize you to use Spell Pierce while the getting is good.

As we know, however, that’s exactly what the Storm player wants to happen, as that means they can just drop their other land, cast more Rituals, and go off with a hand that should never have beaten a single counterspell, successfully using threat value to push through your defenses. If that Dark Ritual resolved, they were probably just going to pass the turn!

The beauty of it is that there isn’t any straight forward correct answer to that game state; it all depends on the Storm player’s hand, giving them a huge amount of leverage.

Counteracting Threat Value

The best way to counteract threat value is information. Because exploiting threat value relies on feeding your opponent exactly the information you want them to have while keeping a key piece of the puzzle to yourself, the best way to fight it is to actually know what they can do. That’s the reason why Gitaxian Probe is such an incredible card in Legacy. For the low price of two life, there suddenly is no uncertainty anymore. You know if they have that Duress, Show and Tell, or Stifle, and no amount of gamesmanship or sequencing will lead you into their trap. That’s also why I love Vendilion Clique so much in Miracles. Once Clique has resolved, you know what you’re up against and if you can safely slam down Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

However, just telling you to play with cards that allow you to gather information while good advice feels like a cop out. Not every deck can support these types of cards, so are they just screwed when the opponent knows how to correctly exploit threat value? That doesn’t seem very reasonable, does it?

Luckily most decks that can’t run what could be called scouting tools can use their other spells to check for cards. Just give your opponent what looks like a prime opportunity to use the card you’re afraid of and chances are they’re going to take it. You can tap out for one of your three copies of Counterbalance against a Delver of Secrets deck before playing your land to see if they have a Daze. If they have it, well, you have to more copies of Counterbalance to try again, and if they don’t, you now know.

If you plan on setting up a miracled Terminus courtesy of Brainstorm, try to bait a Stifle by cracking a fetch land during their end step or upkeep—that’s what they usually use that card against, after all, so they might here too. There are far too many little scouting maneuvers for me to mention them all, but I think you understand where this is going.

However, even then you can’t check for all threats, especially against combo. If you give them one opening to have it and they do, well, congratulations—you now know that you’re dead if you give them that opening. Let’s see how much good that’ll do you.

There is another way to gauge how much of a threat your opponent is, however, which is to analyze the information they’re feeding you. Remember that they are (or at least should be) aware of what it is they are representing and are probably trying to lead you astray in some way.

Imagine your Storm opponent in the example above leads on Lion’s Eye Diamond instead of Dark Ritual. If that happens, you need to think hard. They know you have Spell Pierce and Force of Will, so casting Lion’s Eye Diamond isn’t incidental. They’re doing it for a particular reason. That leaves only two options. The first is that the LED is vital to their plans this turn and if you counter it they’ll have to just try again later. In that case they play it to know if it resolves before risking any other cards. The second is that they used LED first because it’s one of the most powerful cards in the deck, one players really like to counter, which means they don’t need it and want to draw out your Force of Will. Two equal options, right?

Not really. To successfully go off from that position, the Storm deck still needs to get through your counterspells, and Lion’s Eye Diamond doesn’t help with that whatsoever. If the LED resolves, they still need black mana and a Duress effect to be able to beat the Force of Will. If they have the Duress, they could just have waited until after they cast that to deploy LED without ever risking it being countered. As such, you suddenly not only know that the LED is bait, but you also know that they need to bait. That means that once the Dark Ritual play comes up again, I’d be significantly more inclined to just let it resolve.

While this isn’t a hundred percent play—they might simply not have another black mana source and be baiting to get the Ritual to resolve so that they can actually cast both Duress and whatever spell chain they’re planning to use this turn—I would generally assume there’s a higher chance that they just don’t have a discard spell and are trying to pull a fast one exactly because they were baiting so strongly to start of their sequence of plays.

And thus we enter the sweet territory of bluffing and double bluffing where both sides are fighting to create the strongest representation of the exact threats they don’t have while masking what they can actually do. After all, given that that’s what I would generally conclude from the Lion’s Eye Diamond sequence, playing LED first suddenly becomes the perfect play if the Underground Sea in that Storm hand was a Duress instead, as leading on LED incentivizes me to let the Ritual resolve to my demise.

Enough Threats?

So how do we know what to do? Luckily for all of us, there’s no hard and fast answer to that question out there. All we can do is milk what information our opponent has to give us for all that it’s worth, analyze it as well as possible, and gamble that we’re making the correct read while trying to throw them off as far as we possibly can. I hope what I’ve had to say today helps you do that in the future. Let me know below if you learned something from this piece or if there are things or techniques I’ve missed. No threats though—let’s keep those in the game.

Enough talk for today. It’s time to get out there and look threatening!