Weak Among the Strong: One Turn

Good players play tighter, make fewer mistakes. Good players understand matchups better, or know the correct draft pick orders, or have a deeper understanding of archetypes. Good players have a strategic plan. All these things are true, but sometimes I think the best description of the difference between good players and bad players is that good players don’t give you extra turns and find ways to get extra turns for themselves.

Good players play tighter, make fewer mistakes. Good players understand matchups better, or know the correct draft pick orders, or have a deeper understanding of archetypes. Good players have a strategic plan.

All these things are true, but sometimes I think the best description of the difference between good players and bad players is that good players don’t give you extra turns and find ways to get extra turns for themselves.

Magic is often a game of one turn. You can kill your opponent next turn but that’s one turn too late. You have the game sown up until he topdecks the turn before dying. You’re ready with your combo next turn but you don’t get to untap.

One turn decides games. It decides matches. It decides who wins PTQ slots, and ultimately it decides who wins Pro Tours. If you want to be a better player there’s no better place to look than the situations in which you gained or lost an extra turn.

At a recent YMG Sealed Deck tourney I was handed a rather slow but powerful deck that curved up to Kokusho and Oyobi Who Split the Heavens. I was paired off against Simon, who led with Bile Urchin and Cruel Deceiver. On turn 3 he attacked and I had a decision to make – do I use Terashi’s Verdict on his Cruel Deceiver?

Sometimes the early decisions are the most important.

I’m at 19 life, facing two rather crappy creatures. My next two turns will be spent playing Kitsune Blademaster and Harsh Deceiver, either one of which is capable of keeping his X/1s home where they belong. Removal was also a scarce resource in my deck (as it is in most sealed decks), so I was loathe to use it on a cheap spirit when I might later find myself getting hit by a Nezumi Cutthroat or Gibbering Kami.

I tapped two and traded the Verdict for his Deceiver.

My logic was simple. His first two plays (particularly the Urchin) indicated an aggressive deck, one that was almost certainly much faster than mine and probably had a few ways to force through a bit of extra damage or life-loss. If I let the Deceiver hit, he would almost certainly play another creature with at least two power, and possibly three (e.g. Nezumi Ronin, Villainous Ogre or Takenuma Bleeder). That’s all well and good if my Blademaster sticks, but while 2/2 with first strike and Bushido is tough for most R/B creatures to beat in a fight, it’s not exactly something a R/B deck can’t remove.

Being greedy could easily mean that I take three points now, and then 5-6 points on Simon’s fourth turn, after he kills off my blocker. Add that to the point I took on turn 2 and the point he can do to me at will with the Urchin’s ability and I’m looking at the very real possibility of having lost half my life by turn 4 with nothing in play while my opponent has three creatures on the board. From that point on all it takes is another removal spell, an Unearthly Blizzard, or a Kami of Fire’s Roar to put me on the critical list. I might even die to something as mundane as him sending soulshift spirits to their deaths in order to drain away the last few points with Bile Urchin. Meanwhile, my deck is certainly stronger in the long game – provided I make it there alive.

The game played out as I’d feared. After the attack he played Villainous Ogre and on turn 4 he had removal for my Blademaster. Fortunately, I only went to 18 on turn 3 (instead of 16) and to 14 on turn 4 (instead of ten), and my Harsh Deceiver stuck. As expected, Simon had built his deck with a number of ways of forcing through damage (or life loss), and as my bombs took over the board he still nearly finished me off. When I killed him I was at two life.

That whole game came down to a decision on turn 2 – a decision some players would have spent only a second or two on, and which many players would have made incorrectly. By doing so, they would have lost a tight game (or been blown out of the water!) rather than winning… by one turn.

Of course, I’ve given away my share of turns before, too. In the finals of a PTQ some years ago, I continued a pattern I’d started in the quarters and maintained in the semi-finals – I forgot roughly 50% of my Kyren Sniper “snipes”. In this case it quite literally gave my opponent an extra turn to draw one of many outs that would let him turn around a game and quite probably win it. I was lucky – not every extra turn amounts to something – but in my tournament report I noted that despite some excellent plays during the Top 8 (both of my previous opponents had victory at hand but I managed to convince them otherwise), I didn’t deserve that Pro Tour slot.

Terry Soh recently provided an excellent example of the theft of extra turns (and more) in his article The Anatomy of “The Bluff”. While Terry and the world focused most of their attention on the final moment, when he Jedi mind-tricked Frank Karsten into tapping his Kabuto Moth, that situation only arose because Karsten didn’t squeak through an additional point of damage earlier on!

It’s turn 9. Terry’s board is Akki Avalancher, Cruel Deceiver, Brutal Deceiver, Villainous Ogre, Thief of Hope, Frostwielder and Hearth Kami, and he is visibly stalled on four lands. On his last turn he passed, leaving his mana untapped, clearly telegraphing a land at the top of his library.

Frank’s board is one creature less but still rather more powerful: Kabuto Moth, Harsh Deceiver, Moss Kami, Burr Grafter, Kami of Old Stone and Kitsune Blademaster, which he just cast. The life totals stand at 14-11 in Frank’s favor.

Strategically the situation is very interesting. Frank looks to be on top. He has a 5/5 trampler that Terry can only reasonably deal with by a gang-block that will leave him helpless or by keeping two mana open and always having a land on top of his library. Terry, meanwhile, can’t really attack at all against Frank’s all-star team of blockers.

In a straight race, Moss Kami defeats ping plus drain for one (assuming Terry can cast a spirit each turn), and Frank is already ahead in the race. However, as in my example above, he must be aware of how easily things can go wrong if he doesn’t play carefully. Suppose he sends in a couple of guys to knock Terry down into single digits. Terry might take the beats, shoot Frank down to 13 during EoT and unleash an Unearthly Blizzard on three of Frank’s four remaining blockers, draining Frank to 12 and enabling a fatal counter-attack.

When you look at Frank’s creatures, the only ones that really want to attack are Moss Kami (which doesn’t want to attack this turn) and Kitsune Blademaster (which can’t). Burr Grafter could swing, but trading it for Cruel Deceiver isn’t very exciting, especially given the way the Moth currently dominates combat – you want the option of Soulshifting it back. The only remaining candidates for attack are the men with big butts and tiny fists – Harsh Deceiver and Kami of Old Stone.

As noted above, sending both of these guys could result in a lethal counterattack; all that is necessary is that Terry be playing a common that fits very nicely into the archetype he drafted. That’s hardly sexy. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if on instinct alone Frank never really considered swinging with either of them once he’d checked that his top card wasn’t a land (if it was, swinging with Harsh Deceiver makes a lot of sense).

It’s probably wrong to assume there’s a perfect play to be made here unless we assume that Frank has perfect memory of what Terry drafted. But it may well be that what he should have done is attack with just one of his big butts.

The first point is that sending just one creature doesn’t allow for a lethal counter-attack unless something truly happens – a spell like Dance of Shadows that Frank can’t really play around, or some other trick that will still nail him once he starts sending with Moss Kami. If Frank sends with just one creature an Unearthly Blizzard still allows Terry to make a lethal alpha-strike, but in this case it would be lethal to Terry.

The second point is that there are no blocks Terry can make that are really bad for Frank. If he blocks with one guy (presumably something with toughness of two), Frank can trade tapping his Moth for one of Terry’s men, maintaining board control – or he can simply let the block stand while still having plenty of defenders back and nothing lost by the attempt. If Terry trades Cruel Deceiver for the attacker Frank has gotten rid of the one thing that could stand up to Moss Kami and removed two points of counter-attacking power. If Terry gang-blocks, Frank still kills at least one of Terry’s guys.

Finally, Frank knows the board will probably shift in Terry’s favor, rather than Frank’s. Even though it’s safe to infer from the game description that Frank knows his top card is Konda’s Hatamoto Frank is basically in topdeck mode at this point, while Terry still has multiple cards in hand and is, presumably, about to draw a land. Since each spell Terry casts has the potentil to drain for one in addition to improving his board position, Frank knows the game could pull away from him – if he gives Terry extra turns.

Frank’s “correct” play can be debated indefinitely. It could be that in most situations it was best to maintain his defenses and that it is only in hindsight (e.g. knowing that Terry had the particular spells in his hand rather than Lava Spike and Blizzard) that we conclude that he should have attacked. The main point I want to get across is that most of us (myself included) would probably never even have considered attacking with the 1/Xs – after all, that isn’t even their job, and we’ve already got our victory paths – Moss Kami and Kitsune Blademaster – on the table.

Don't Give These Away

I actually had a very similar situation at GP: Chicago. My U/W deck was facing a tricky mirror match in which my opponent had the edge in both Tellers and Kabuto Moths. I was getting in two points of damage a turn courtesy of Isamaru, Hound of Konda with a bunch of Bushido counters on it while my opponent and I held each other’s ground forces at bay with 1/Xs and such. I have no idea how many turns I settled for two points of damage rather than trying to create another big Bushido threat. There was a method to my madness, as I suspected (correctly, as it happens) that my opponent didn’t realize that Hankyu could go to the dome and thus wasn’t worried about the damage he was taking. I wanted to maintain the illusion that I was losing the race with a meaningless two per turn while my Hankyu was invalidated by his Soratami Rainshaper.

However, while I had a plan that justified my lack of additional pressure – and while thinking too much might have alerted him to the danger and even caused him to read Hankyu – it may still be that I gave away a turn or two by not trying to add to my pressure. And there were definitely turns where I played on autopilot, hitting for two and saying, “Go,” instead of working out the consequences of adding a threat or tapping a blocker and extra mana to build up two Hankyu counters. Even if I was worried about giving away my thinking I could have done my pondering on one of his attacks where he’d be more likely to think that I was working out how to play around active Teller.

It’s easy to nail down visible mistakes – but the most important mistakes are those where, often without knowing it, we give someone an extra turn…and the return the favor by killing us with it. Those extra turns are out there. We’re losing them and having them handed to us every tournament. Better players (and us, when we’re on our best game) are stealing them and denying them. That meaningless point of damage you force through when your opponent is at 14 can become the difference between winning and losing when he’s at either 3 or 4 and you’ve got Lava Spike in hand.

The Flip Side – Playing Control

Understanding the power of giving away a single turn can have a transforming effect on how you play the game. When you get to the end of a tournament and realize that over the course of the day you found ways to deal six points of damage that you might previously have missed, you know that you are on the path to winning many of those close games you used to lose.

But sometimes you are playing the control role to such an extent that the game isn’t about your opponent’s extra turns – each turn your position is improving! How does the extra turns philosophy play out then?

First, it may be that you’re simply in a situation in which you are the one seeking out extra turns. That is, it may well be that every turn truly does benefit you to the extent that you shouldn’t worry about the meaningless turns your opponent is getting. This is fairly common for control decks in constructed formats – you may be gaining life every turn while using the equivalent of Gaea’s Blessing to keep your hand perfect. If your opponent is playing with Mountains and spells that top out at three and you’re casting Gerrard’s Wisdom every turn while capable of countering three spells, you’re not really giving much away. But when you get into these situations in matchups that are less clear, ask yourself the following questions:

Does my opponent have any outs?

Those three permission spells won’t stop Obliterate. That may not matter – if you’re holding on to some land and are at 68 life you can almost certainly recover anyway – but you should be aware of potential outs your opponent may have. If there are some problem cards that he might credibly draw and cast that may argue for seeking a speedy conclusion to the game.

Am I giving my opponent outs if I shift into beatdown mode?

In the Soh-Karsten example above, Frank lost the game in part because he gave Terry an extra turn but primarily because he chose the wrong moment not to give Terry an extra turn. As it happens, Terry couldn’t win if Frank kept his Kabuto Moth untapped and by tapping it to try to win the game immediately Frank gave Terry a way to win. Regardless of the extent to which Terry’s bluff influenced him, Frank forgot that Terry had Soulless Revival, which gave him the point of life he needed to survive Frank’s attack as well as the extra punch he needed to make his counter-attack lethal.

At PT: Atlanta, my oddest deck on day one could have been named, “Legend or No?” I had a fair amount of mana ramping building up to three powerful legends: Seshiro, Uyo and Tomorrow. My spells were few: Commune with Nature, Time of Need and Enshrined Memories, along with a Kodama’s Reach.

Against an aggressive R/W deck I ramped up to Seshiro but remained in control mode, adding creatures to my board and keeping back more blockers than I probably needed. What I was trying to avoid was a situation in which Unearthly Blizzard would let him attack, especially in a way that might force me to block with Seshiro. I concluded that he had no outs if I remained in control mode – the closest I could come up with was Blood Rites, but he would have had to tap out to play it and would still not have been in a position to go lethal. I would thus be able to send in my big Snake Ophidians and replace my blockers afterwards so he would still be in no position to win.

Is it beneficial to me for this duel to continue?

If you’re the control deck and it’s game one, you may be better off making sure there’s enough time for you to win the match, even if doing so means playing more aggressively than is strictly optimal. Your opponent may know he’s out of this game but figure (correctly, in some matchups) that if he wins after boarding it will be a fairly quick affair. Thus, if game one ends with fifteen minutes left in the match he may still have all his chances to win the match while you could be unable to win game three if game two goes his way. If this is already game two, you definitely have to consider time management and whether you can afford a draw.

The bottom line to this is that it’s okay to give your opponent necessary turns – just not extra turns, i.e. turns you don’t have to give him in order to play your game plan. Finding the balance is a question of judgment and experience, but the first step is asking two basic questions:

“Am I missing out on damage or doing anything else that gives my opponent a free turn?”

“Is there a way I can prevent my opponent from damaging me so that I get one more turn to win the game?”

Hugs ’til next time,