Weak Among the Strong: Threats and Execution

The threat is stronger than the execution. I first read this strategic insight during a past life in which I played and studied Chess instead of Magic. Some Chess strategies simply don’t apply to Magic – Chess is a game of perfect information in which identical forces contest with all pieces beginning on the board. Magic involves imperfect information and each draw can radically change the balance of force available to each player. Nevertheless, many strategic truths apply as powerfully to Magic as to Chess… and this may be one of them.

Weak Among the Strong: Threats and Execution

Weak Among the Strong: Threats and Execution

The threat is stronger than the execution.

I first read this strategic insight during a past life in which I played and studied Chess instead of Magic. Some Chess strategies simply don’t apply to Magic – Chess is a game of perfect information in which identical forces contest with all pieces beginning on the board. Magic involves imperfect information and each draw can radically change the balance of force available to each player. Nevertheless, many strategic truths apply as powerfully to Magic as to Chess… and this may be one of them.

Suppose you’ve played your Bishop to g5 (or KN5, for those of you who still use descriptive notation) after your opponent has played his Knight to f6 (KB3) and advanced his King’s pawn one or two spaces. Your Bishop threatens to take his Knight. Actually executing this threat isn’t very good for you. Your opponent will recapture with his Queen – not only will you have lost tempo (before the exchange you each had one developed piece, whereas afterwards you have none and he has one) but in most games a Bishop is worth slightly more than a Knight.

If, however, you simply maintain the threat, you are much better off. The knight is pinned – it cannot move without exposing the Queen to capture. Nor can the Queen easily move because if she gives up her defense of the Knight you may be able to capture it when he can only recapture with a Pawn, shattering his Kingside pawn structure.

Your threat to capture the Knight is thus more powerful than actually doing so. The threat ties down enemy Knight and Queen with just your Bishop. Moreover, you may be able to add to it, e.g. by advancing your own pawn towards e5 or bringing other pieces to bear on the trapped Knight.

A clear example of this principle in Magic is Kabuto Moth in Limited play. An active Moth can dominate combat and yet it usually does so while never actually doing anything! Instead, the threat of giving any creature +1/+2 makes blocking difficult and counter-attacking nearly impossible.

Consider a board in which two Gray Ogres and a Moth face off against two Hill Giants, with life totals high enough on both sides that board position is paramount. One of the Ogres attacks, while the other sits back on defense. If the first player double-blocks, he trades a Giant for an Ogre – a poor trade. If he doesn’t block, he takes two and then finds that he can’t swing back without losing a Hill Giant for nothing.

Meanwhile, suppose the Moth player executed his threat by pumping his attacker either before or after (no) blocks are declared. He does an extra point of damage but now his defenses are open and his opponent can send back for six.

It’s not at all unusual for a Red mage to make an attack or block that forces the Moth player to execute his threat, enabling the first player to kill it with Glacial Ray or Yamabushi’s Flame. And if you’ve ever held Hideous Laughter while facing a Moth or two you know the foremost thing on your mind is how to get them to tap.

Going back in time to one of my first PTQ Top 8s (possibly my very first) offers up an interesting strategic puzzle. The format was Rochester Draft, and I’d put together a mediocre G/r deck that was dangerous for one reason and one reason only – in each and every booster I had opened Overrun.

Insert Chess to Magic Analogy Here

My first opponent was Chris Manning (now my teammate for PT: Atlanta!), running G/B with three copies of Respite. Now clearly Overrun loses to Respite in a fight – instead of smashing my opponent’s face, I’m tapped out and he gains life. So what is to be done?

The key to winning this match (or at least having a chance to win it) is to recognize that the threat is stronger (by far) than the execution. Suppose that Chris and I are both holding our respective spells. If I cast Overrun, I get wrecked.

But what if I don’t cast it?

The threat of Overrun is something Chris always has to be ready for. Once I have four or five creatures in play Chris must always keep 1G open on his turn or risk losing on the spot – at best he’ll be forced to give up some creatures and take a lot of damage. In the early turns he can tap out and late game it won’t matter, but there will be a window – if I put out enough threats – where Chris will be unable to use all of his mana.

This, in turn, dictates how I build my deck and (assuming I see in advance how the match is going to play out) how I draft. It is absolutely vital that I not miss early drops so that when turn 5 comes around Chris is already facing four creatures on my side of the board. At that point I have to be able to capitalize on my virtual mana superiority (virtual because it comes from the fact that I can tap out but Chris often can’t) by adding meaty threats that can beat up whatever Chris can play for two mana less.

Ultimately, my Overruns should probably be my only non-creature spells, with cheap burn spells being the only other cards worth running – because I may be able to kill one of his guys while still playing a threat. I need a good curve, preferably starting at one mana, so that on turn 5 I’ll have four creatures in play, but I also need fatties that Chris can’t match without tapping out. The early creatures can be almost anything – Canopy Spider is just fine as a threat because it will still swing for four with Overrun. The later creatures need to be of higher quality, like Skyshroud Troll, Charging Rhino or Segmented Wurm – cards that have enough power to punish a deck that is only tapping three and four mana on turns 5 and 6.

The power of my threat also determines how I should play. Nothing could be worse than trading my creatures with Chris. (Of course, Mongrel Pack is a fine card if I’m lucky enough to get one, since I can actually attack with it and if it trades the tokens will threaten 16 points of damage with Overrun.) Even if I manage something "favorable" like trading my one- and two-drops for his two- and three-drops, the end result is that when turn 5 rolls around there are two fewer creatures in play on my side and Chris can continue tapping out without facing immediate death. (If I play a non-fatal Overrun I’m probably just losing, since I’ll have invested five mana without affecting the board and Chris will match that with a board-affecting spell while sitting back on Respite.)

Chris, meanwhile, wants to trade cards early on. He can remove fairly random creatures of mine with Diabolic Edict or Dark Banishing because doing so depowers my one trump. The long game favors him, both because his overall draft went better than mine and because his evasion and removal should ultimately prevail once we’ve both got spare mana so he can Respite at will.

I wish I could report that with this strategic insight into our matchup I was able to outmaneuver Chris and win our match. As it happens I didn’t even understand the strategy of our matchup until years later and beyond that I think I got pretty awful draws against Chris’s superior deck. Thankfully he didn’t just beat me – he went on to win the slot, defeating Peter Guevin’s strong R/G deck in the finals by racing… with Respite!

Threats are often stronger than the execution in Constructed as well. A classic example of this is the battle against permission decks. Years ago I learned a lot about Sligh vs. Draw-Go from a report by Jon Finkel of his match with Randy Buehler. Randy had played first, leading with "Island go" naturally, and Force Spiked Jon’s Jackal Pup, which put Jon in a strategically weak position. But it was his normal strategy (assuming the Pup resolved) that was a revelation to me at the time. His normal strategy vs. Draw-Go was to do nothing much on his turn besides attacking for two. If Randy used his mana during Jon’s EOT, he could burn him to keep the pressure on, but his strategic plan was to deny Randy the ability to use counters effectively. Meanwhile, he had the constant threat of Ball Lightning waiting should Randy ever try to play a Disk.

With a Pup in play, the threat of adding a second beater or casting Ball Lightning became stronger than actually casting one. A cursory look at the player’s decks would suggest otherwise: with Draw-Go having inevitability and Sligh in the roll of beatdown, the natural assumption is that Sligh should just keep powering out threats and try to goldfish as fast as possible. But with a Pup in play (and the ability to meet Impulse with one of many Bolts), Jon had momentum. Randy would be hard-pressed to wait until turn 6 to play a Disk (when he could counter a Ball Lightning) and would thus be forced to tap out an awkward moment.

If you’ve ever played the old Sligh vs. Draw-Go matchup, you know that a resolved Ball Lightning was usually too much damage to recover from. From that point on if the Draw-Go player ever tapped mana, he ran the risk of being burned out. Even a handful of permission couldn’t save you, because the Sligh player would overwhelm your mana, i.e. the counters you could cast rather than the ones you have. (Alternately, he would simply draw up to a hand of 8 burn spells and overload you that way, depending on the situation.) The threat of Ball Lightning thus put the Draw-Go player into an impossible position such that he usually had to tap out and cross his fingers that no hasty beatdown was on the way.

Of course, there’s no need to look to the past for examples – I just do that because I’m old. At a recent PTQ I faced off with Goblins against a gentleman running his own Sutured Ghoul combo deck – one that used cards so rare I can’t even remember them by name. Suffice it to say, one of them was a guy who could tap to untap itself while the other one was an artifact that caused any player who untaps a permanent to mill himself for a card. With both in play the guy can keep tapping himself until my opponent’s whole deck is in the graveyard.

Strategic Dilemma?

My opponent got both of these permanents in play, leading with the guy, but did not execute his combo when the artifact resolved. Why? He knew I had sideboarded in Overloads and that I could respond to him tapping his guy by blowing up his artifact. Of course, if I tried to Overload his artifact before he tapped his guy, he could combo me out in response.

Both of our threats were stronger than the execution – whoever blinked first would come off worse. Thus, the game would continue until he found a duplicate combo piece or I found either a second Overload or a way to kill his guy. I’m not sure which of us has the advantage in the stalemate – he has tutors, but I could win by drawing a second Overload or an Gempalm Incinerator or a Goblin Matron – but meanwhile I was forced to keep R open which was surprisingly annoying. Sadly, he was the victor in that race and that game (and match).

Aether Vial creates similar situations all the time. A Life or Breakfast player throws out an en-Kor with a Vial set at two. If you try to kill the en-Kor, you probably lose in response. Thus the threat of Vialing out a creature is much stronger than actually doing so. In many situations, that threat will force you to keep mana open indefinitely while the combo player continues to play lands, cast tutors, and otherwise either dig for the redundancy he needs or else find a Cabal Therapy to strip away your answers. Combo decks that reach a point where they are threatening to win can often force their opponents to keep mana open and thus continue to develop their board – and when they reach such situations they should often exploit them rather than continuing on as though they were in goldfish land.

The most important match of my Magic career was the final round of swiss play at Pro Tour: Barcelona. A win would mean Top 16 (as it turned out, I squeaked in at 8th place) and would put me on the gravy train for a year; a loss would mean I was qualified for the next PT but would still need several points to make the train.

My opponent’s deck had two significant advantages over mine – better spells and better mana. To some extent the better spells is debatable – I did have Rith and a very solid cardpool overall – but I was a five-color special without enough mana fixing while he was UWb with card drawing – for Invasion, that’s the mana equivalent of being mono-colored in most blocks! I had managed to win game one by playing my butt off and bluffing the win when I didn’t have it; in game two I had come out fast and he’d obliterated me with an EoT Rout followed by (IIRC) Probe with kicker to empty out my hand.

In game three he cast Reviving Vapors, putting him above 20 life and putting Rout into his hand. Frowning on the stack? Frowning resolves.

That Rout would be a strategic advantage for him as long as I let it sit in his hand. At any point he might Rout during my EoT and then untap and Probe me out of the tournament. It made it almost impossible for me to build momentum or give him awkward choices. The Rout itself wasn’t so bad – the problem was his ability to Rout at any point that suited him.

My strategic challenge, therefore, was to get that Rout out of his hand, even if that meant walking into it by "overcommitting" on the board. I first used Hypnotic Cloud with kicker to put him behind on cards (yes, another strategy would have been to hope that he went down to three cards voluntarily and dealing with the Rout that way) and then put out some of my big guns, including Rith. Eventually he Routed and we were back on level strategic ground. Despite a rather famous and awful "cool play" by me that could easily have cost me the game, I drew out of the post-Rout situation better than he did and went on to win the match.

When you’re on the wrong end of an ongoing (but non-fatal) threat, you should often be looking for ways to force the execution of the threat. If your opponent has a Giant Growth spell in Limited, you’re often better off making a "bad" block and trading a decent creature for it, rather than facing turn after turn of awkward blocks or inability to attack. If you’re playing beatdown against Rock and they’ve got out a Pernicious Deed with mana open, you’re better off putting enough resources onto the board that they have to blow it rather than holding them in your hand for turn after turn until they start abusing one of their recursion engines. And if you’re playing control and know you’re going to have to tap out before you’re prepared to counter their threat you’re probably better off tapping out immediately, rather than giving them another turn or two to draw the threat (since they may not actually have it) or being at lower life when you finally blink.

The next time you’re thinking about your threats and how they affect a matchup, remember that the potential of a threat is often your most powerful weapon – that however counter-intuitive it may seem, the threat is often stronger than the execution.

A final thought: the threat that never was

In the spirit of my last article on bluffing (and on Terry’s excellent run-through of a major bluff he managed in a key match), you should also be aware of the power of threats you aren’t even able to execute as well as threats your opponent doesn’t realize you have.

Although rare, the possibility of exploiting the threat of a card you already have if your opponent doesn’t know about it can be extremely powerful. At Worlds I faced off with Nether-Go against a Rebel deck who tried to wreck my world with Armageddon, tapping out to do so. I had five lands in play and a good hand containing Force Spike, at least one "real" counter and Fact or Fiction. The "autopilot" play here would be to Force Spike his Armageddon and then cast Fact or Fiction once he declared that his turn was over, gaining massive tempo and card advantage.

Instead I responded with Fact or Fiction, which turned over Island, Force Spike and three other spells. Even if I hadn’t flipped a Force Spike my opponent might have concluded that his Armageddon was resolving and given me a favorable split by undervaluing expensive bombs like Tsabo’s Decree. With the Force Spike showing up, he is almost forced to misplay unless he reads me as already having a Spike in my hand. He put Force Spike with the Island, leaving the other three spells in a pile. Naturally I took the three spells and countered his Armageddon with the Force Spike that was already in my hand. By holding off on casting Force Spike I created a situation where the threat of Force Spike caused him to make a FoF split that (given perfect information) was quite horribly unbalanced.

Speaking of Fact or Fiction, Dave Humpherys once told me a story about the best Fact or Fiction split an opponent ever played against him. Dave tapped out for an EOTFoFULose, and revealed five instants. His opponent thought for a second and then put all of them into one pile! The implication was obvious – this was a sideboarded game and Dave was about to be hit by Blood Oath. If I recall correctly, Dave took the empty "pile" and still received a fair bit of damage. But if you were in a tough situation where a fair split meant you would probably lose, it could easily be worth making a 5-0 split against a sufficiently canny opponent, exploiting a threat you don’t happen to have.

Force Spike also comes up as a threat when it isn’t around. I often sideboarded out some or all of my Spikes after wrecking someone with them in game one if the matchup is one in which they can reasonably afford to play around them in game two. The threat of Force Spike is often enough to make them forego a mana a turn, while an actual Force Spike wouldn’t accomplish anything more.

There are a lot of threats whose strategic power you can use even if you don’t have them in hand (or even in your deck), provided your opponent doesn’t know that! If you’re playing Standard with a R/G deck against mono-U after boarding, your opponent has to wonder whether you’re running Boil. Before you just cast your spells based on what you know about your hand (e.g. no Boil), think about the strategic position your opponent might be in if you pass the turn with four mana up. Can he afford to cast Thirst for Knowledge or Inspiration? Can he afford to tap out for Wrath of God or Vedalken Shackles? In many cases the correct play will be for you to play "normally," but in some instances you may be able to prevent your opponent from taking actions that are more powerful than what you can muster by giving them reason to think there’s a threat lying over their heads.

And once you’ve got someone playing around threats you don’t even have, you’re a big step closer to winning.

Hugs ’til next time,