Your Life Is A Pile Of Chips, And You Bet With It Each Round: Racing Effectively For The Win

As an editor, you know that you should probably take a serious look at a writer when Mike Flores calls you up at home and says, “You have got to hire this guy. He’s great.” You may not have heard his name before, but Michael Clair is the New York State Champion, a Regionals Top 8 finisher, a PTQ and PCQ finalist, a man with a 1920 Limited rating… And he’s also our latest Featured Writer. Today, Michael discusses racing and combat math, showing how to utilize your life totals for maximum gain.

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”

Sir Winston Churchill

“It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.”

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), Nichomachean Ethics

“There is no play but the right one.”

Jon Finkel

Magic is a game of errors. Each turn, the errors you make combine with the ones your opponent commits in order to create a variable game state. A perfectly-played game is as elusive as a perfect game in Baseball – but as I alluded to above, it is striving towards this goal that defines our play, not the end result.

I can’t begin to count the number of Magic strategy articles I’ve read over the years. I’ve struggled to understand the writings of EDT and other scholars as I was introduced to concepts such as tempo and card advantage, the “Who’s the Beatdown?” theory, and the difference between aggro and aggro/control and control. I wish I could tell you that I’ve distilled my years of reading, the literally hundreds of hours of studying Magic, into a comprehensible Method for becoming a successful Magic player. But just like you, what I am left with is a wealth of information and a flawed play style rife with mistakes, misplays, and failure at all levels of the game. I’m approaching the next level… But I’m not there yet.

I say all this not because I am ashamed of my failures, both past and current, but rather I embrace them. I included the quote by Sir Winston Churchill because he says something very important: He says, “Every step may be fruitful.” I want to emphasize this point, because it is so critical when we relate it to an analysis of our play. Let me propose that Churchill’s “step” is our mistakes. Each mistake we make is an opportunity – an opportunity not only to learn and grow as a player, but also to experience the game of Magic at its most elucidating. Most importantly, he says every step may be fruitful, for just as each step may further our understanding, so may each mistake. If we allow ourselves to make excuses and attribute our misplays to any number of external factors, then we are missing the point entirely. Each mistake’s anthropomorphic wish is to be learned from. To recognize a mistake is to eliminate a flawed piece of your play style and to grow as a player.

As I read many strategy articles, I feel like I am no longer the target audience. I am a PTQ player; one of the countless idiots who wake up earlier on a Saturday than they do Monday through Friday in order to play a game of cardboard. I sit in a room full of sweaty gamers, who have forgotten words like hygiene in a haze of Merfolk, Ronins, and Dragons, and I can’t get enough of these guys. I love the game of Magic almost as much as I enjoy hanging out with those who play it – and though I’ve met the occasional “villain” along the way, I must admit that I’ve met more good folks than bad.

So as I scour the Internet every day for a taste of daily Magic strategy, I am confused. Where are my articles? Where are the articles that make me a better player? I’m not really sure. Osyp still makes me laugh, Scott Wills still makes me furrow my brow as he hears from Pros that every card ranges from unplayably bad to an unbelievable bomb, and Flores still confuses me the moment he waxes theoretic. We’ve lost some of the greats. And as the third generation of Magic players inherits their Kingdom we are forced to wonder – what now?

It is my contention that the only way you can get better is by starting at the beginning – the very basics, if you will. As we learn from each other, we can best determine how to move forward to the realm of being “good.” What is a “good” attack? What does it mean to race? How do you win? These are all very valid questions, but before we face those we must ask ourselves a deceptively simple question – what is risk?

Magic is a game of imperfect knowledge. Unless you play with bad cards like Urza’s Glasses variants you will never know what your opponent is holding with 100% certainty. With that said, there is a whole lot of wiggle room when it comes to imperfection.

A master of reading people, Matthew Urban (a former New York Magic player), once showed me the power of reading people. We were playing a Mirrodin three-on-three team draft when I had just begun playing competitively. He was playing a white deck with guys that wanted equipment, and I was playing white with Soul Nova in my hand. So there I am, holding five cards in my hand and I lay my fifth land just to say… “Go.” Immediately, he looks at me and tells his teammates, “He’s got Soul Nova – watch out for it!”

At the time, it was a shocking revelation; I struggled to keep my face straight. To many of you, it might be patently obvious that the only card I could be holding that would make me say go with five cards in my hand and five lands in play is Soul Nova. However, for many out there – and this is the typical PTQ level player I’m talking about here – this is virgin territory. You see, Matt was perfectly aware that he was taking a risk by playing around Soul Nova; he could just be playing around five lands in my hand. But when you factor all the possibilities and accept the given that I’m playing to win, there are only a few cards that I could be holding that would force the decision to say “Go” on turn 5 with five lands open.

Another example of what is risk when it comes to Magic. The other day I was in another team draft (I do those a lot) and was playing with a long-time New York judge named Eric Smith. He’s a great guy and a very solid Magic player, and he’d drafted a powerful Green/X deck with Sosuke and some dorks. He was playing against his opponent, piloting a U/B deck with Devouring Greed and lots of spirits. So with Eric at a healthy fourteen life, he decides to attack with his dork, and leaving Sosuke back against a board of Villainous Ogre and Soratami Mirror-Guard. I was looking over at the time and couldn’t help but curse inwardly – “What a horrible attack!” I thought, and yet seconds later I caught myself. I’ve made far worse – and if you think about it that attack is not so much “horrible” as it is “simply wrong.”

Talking to Eric later I asked him about that attack and he confided in me that he was worried about Devouring Greed and taking six from the ensuing attack. Even though a lethal Devouring Greed would have required his opponent to play two more spirits and have the Devouring Greed, Eric figured that he was more likely to win the game by taking his opponent from eight to six and saying go, leaving his man back to block the Ogre. As it turned out, of course this was the one thing his opponent wanted – for he was playing U/B.

In Kamigawa, U/B comes from behind pretty poorly because most of its creatures can’t block effectively or at all. Over the next few turns, Eric opponent was able to stabilize at or around three life and win the game. As it turns out, Eric went on to win the match – but it was a perfect example of being too risk-averse, and suffering a game loss as a result.

Dan Paskins often speaks of “The Fear” when discussing deck building and match up analysis. What I’ve learned from the Fear articles is that giving too much respect to unknown cards (your opponent’s hand, the top of his deck, his morph, etc) is the same as giving your opponent the very cards you most fear. This is an important point to make – and it’s important to see the distinction between Eric game and Matt Urban’s.

Matt Urban effectively played around a removal spell by not equipping his equipment to his best creature, and thus negated my Soul Nova from wrecking his board. Instead of allowing me to sweep his two best cards, he chipped away at my life total slowly while losing nothing and having me sit on mana and not develop my board position.

But in Eric case, he allowed the fear of losing the game to a massive Devouring Greed to keep him from attacking his opponent down to three, turning any topdecked creature into a win as his opponent had multiple “This creature cannot block” men in play. In Eric case, he sacrificed a stronger chance of winning in order to play around a card that maybe didn’t even exist, while Matt Urban was able to continue winning the game inexorably without sacrificing anything.

I draft a lot and glean a lot of my play examples from that arena – but the next example is from a Sealed Deck, not a draft.

Two mistakes, same solution. Last year at a Team Sealed PTQ a friend of mine played a Duplicant, and stole an opponent’s Modular creature (an Arcbound Bruiser) instead of his flyer. Of course his Duplicant died, much to the chagrin of my friend, and he went on to lose the game. Just recently at a Team Sealed Grand Prix Trial, I attacked a Nezumi Ronin into a Kashi-Tribe Warriors. At the time it seemed like a fine trade, until my opponent threw my creature into the graveyard and pointed to his Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro, shaking his head all the while.

Before any further discussion of theory can be applied, before anyone can get better, they have to understand one thing: If you ever are surprised by an on-board trick, you deserve to lose the game. You are not allowed to lose to an on-board trick from this moment on if you’re looking to improve your game. This means reading every card on the board, and ensuring you know its interaction with both every other card on the table and every card in your hand.

Think it’s a lot of information to keep track of? Guess what? Sometimes it is. But if you can’t get this facet of the game down pat, don’t bother to understand the rest – stick to FNMs and 1-2 PTQs. You’re allowed to make mistakes, you’re allowed to mess up – but every time you lose to an on-board trick, you have to immediately own up, call yourself awful, and vow to never let it happen again.

All right; enough with the basics of play. Let’s talk a bit about a more interesting facet of Magic theory.

“Racing” is a term bandied about all the time. “We were racing but then he had the bounce spell and I lost,” or “I figured I could race him with my flyers but then he drew Gale Force off the top…What a lucksack!” To understand racing is to understand something very simple: Your life is not a number; it’s a pile of chips. You can bet your life, you can borrow against your life, you can put your life up as an alternate payment, and you can sacrifice life to improve your board position. Put simply, your life is not a measure of winning. A higher life total isn’t necessarily a good thing and keeping your life total above your opponent’s does not mean you are winning the game. Rather life, just like mana, is a resource, a currency you can spend to attain the ultimate goal – winning the game.

To understand life as a resource, you have to understand the Magic Set you’re playing with. For instance in a Kamigawa draft, there are only so many forms of direct damage. For example, Devouring Greed, Devouring Rage, Hanabi Blast, Mindblaze, Glacial Ray, Yamabushi’s Flame and (I guess) Kokusho + a sac outlet like Blood Rites.

All right; so we’ve got a general idea of what type of damage can be done to us independent of the board position. Understand that point – it’s important. If we ignore the board position, those are the only spells that can deal with our life total directly. Notice something?

That’s right; the only colors listed up there are Black and Red. Sorry, Green, White and Blue – as far as we’re concerned, one life might as well be infinite. As long as we can block every one of your creatures, you won’t ever win. Of course, Blue has bounce, and White has “Removal” effects like Cage of Hands, while Green has pump spells so a non-lethal creature can suddenly grow quite large (thanks, Strength of Cedars!)… But you get the idea.

Knowing the limits of your opponent’s spells is very important; it lets you understand the game you’re forced to play.

So what does it actually mean if your opponent is playing U/W and you know he can’t damage you directly? Am I saying you should just allow yourself to go to one every game as long as you’re attacking? Of course not. You should never spend life if you don’t need to, and playing against a U/W deck doesn’t mean you can suddenly get cocky. However what it does mean is that you know much more about what is Acceptable Risk, and how to race. Playing against U/W, you have to assume that they’re going to race you with flyers – so that means if you can block something on the ground, do it, because at some point you’re not going to be able to block anymore, and each additional flyer will turn into lethal damage.

In the same vein, if you see a chance to attack your opponent down to two, but your opponent can attack you back to one… Obviously, you have to make the attack, if you’re holding two-drops while you each have the same number of creatures out. Why? The chances of him holding two more creatures in his hand is very small – and unless he’s holding a full grip, taking this “chance” is actually the right play.

This is what it means to race – you each trade blows like prizefighters and the one who remains standing at the end, even if it’s by the slimmest of threads, is the winner. This isn’t a war of attrition, which is instead a game of trades that ends with one creature surviving the bedlam and swinging for a few turns until he kills the opponent.

To understand racing, however, is to understand that you must be willing to sacrifice your life to stay in the race. If you refuse to attack because you feel you must keep your guys back to block and your opponent chips away at your life total with a fear guy or a flyer, then topdecks Shock for the win at the end of the game, you are not allowed to cry “Topdeck!” If you had played the game right, he would’ve been dead long before he drew his Glacial Ray.

Ironically, though fear guys (Nezumi Cutthroat, for instance) or flyers are very effective racers, their great strength (evasion) is tempered by their inability to block effectively. The Nezumi can’t block at all, while the blue fliers are all x/1s. If you can exploit this weakness by getting your opponent to a low life total, then every creature you play, no matter how bad it is, becomes a must-block for your opponent. All his evasion does nothing when you get to trade your Hearth Kami for his Soratami Savant. This means that in the early- to mid-game, it’s important to force through as much damage as possible, even if you take damage from his crack back.

And yes, this definitely includes swinging with Elves when you can.

All this said, however, the basics of a race must always be followed. It’s not an effective race if the total damage your opponent takes from your creatures is less than the total damage you take from him in return. Also, always seek effective trades, no matter what the situation. Don’t swing your two 1/2s into an opponent’s board of two 2/1s because he’ll just accept the two damage and swing back for four damage, effectively gaining a lead in the race. This is why it’s almost always the right play to trade a Matsu-Tribe Decoy for a Soratami Mirror-Guard. Even though it costs you six mana and two turns to do, trading a 1/3 for a 3/1 flyer is a great trade for you, because if those two creatures swung unmolested you would take three damage while only inflicting one.

I’ve picked a lot of these examples because they’re situations I’ve seen in my own gaming experience. If these examples are much too simplistic or too complicated for the average PTQer that’s looking to improve his game, please let me know and I’ll modify this article series to more effectively start at the “Average” level in order to help everyone improve as best I can.

Also, as I spoke about earlier, I find a lot of articles on the web don’t mesh with my own questions about Magic – especially when it comes to Limited. I personally love when Scott Wills creates mock drafts and goes over the pick orders, but that’s just me. (No it isn’t – The Ferrett, a big Scott Wills fan) What are you looking for? Pick orders? Color choices? Sealed Deck build analyses? A How-To article?

I’m curious; let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Till next time,

Michael L. Clair

[email protected]