You Make The Play! 8 Tough In-Game Situations

Sometimes even the pros disagree on the toughest plays. World Champion PVDDR challenges you to make eight tricky judgment calls!

Play of the Game, illustrated by Jung Park

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A while ago, I asked Twitter for interesting game play scenarios for me to analyze. Today, I’m going to talk about the most interesting ones I got, as well as some that I saw at World Championship XXVI and thought were worth talking about. The way this works is I present you a scenario and then there’s a poll – you can vote for your preferred choice, compare it to your fellow voters, and then read my answer. Most of the situations will be keep-or-mulligan, but there are some gameplay scenarios.  

Situation 1

You’re playing Mono-Red Aggro in Theros Beyond Death Standard and you’re on the draw in Game 1 against the version of Azorius Control I used at World Championship XXVI. This is your opening hand:

Anax, Hardened in the Forge Anax, Hardened in the Forge Light Up the Stage Torbran, Thane of Red Fell

Mountain Mountain Castle Embereth

My Answer!
My answer: Mulligan.

This is a hand that Seth Manfield had against me during World Championship XXVI. It’s possible you already know what his decision was, but we can try to analyze the hand without being clouded by knowing what is going to happen.

This hand has a lot of potential for success – if you draw a one-drop or a two-drop, it can be quite good because the rest of your gameplan is already covered. Furthermore, if you draw a one-drop and a two-drop, this hand is excellent. It also has, however, a lot of potential for failure – if you don’t draw a one- or a two-drop early on, your first play on the draw is going to be on Turn 3 and this is a fail-case.

To know if you should keep or mulligan this hand, there are two important things that we have to consider. The first is how likely it is that this hand ends up being a success. This is relatively easy to calculate outside of the game, though you’re obviously not going to have the exact number inside the game. I believe Frank Karsten calculated the odds of Seth casting a creature by Turn 2 to be 62%.

The other important thing is figuring out how much you need a success versus how much you actively want to avoid a failure. As a general rule, the better your average chances are, the less you want to gamble on something like this, and vice versa. To illustrate, imagine you’re playing versus a combo deck and you have zero chance of winning Game 1 ever unless you draw your one copy of Rest in Peace and cast it on Turn 2. You’re on the play and you draw a hand with Rest in Peace but no white mana. In a deck with fourteen white sources, you’re 26% to succeed in casting Rest in Peace on Turn 2.

In this scenario, the odds are you will not succeed, but given that this is a scenario in which you need a specific thing to happen, you should probably keep this hand because it’s easier to just draw a white land than it is to mulligan into two lands and Rest in Peace. On the other hand, if you have a very good matchup against someone, you would never keep the nuts with one land, because you don’t need the nuts to win and there’s no reason to risk the game.

This isn’t a one-lander, but the concept is the same. If we believe Seth needs to cast, for example, a one- or two-drop into one or two copies of Anax, Hardened in the Forge to be able to win the game, I would keep this hand, because the 62% of successful scenarios it produces are higher than trying to mulligan into three lands, two-drop, and double Anax. However, the way my deck and his deck were constructed, I don’t think this was the case. 

I was playing a version of Azorius that was dedicated to beating the mirror and Temur Reclamation, at least in Game 1. My deck was clunky, with lots of counterspells including Mystical Dispute; slow card drawing like Thirst for Meaning and Narset, Parter of Veils; and expensive answers like Elspeth Conquers Death. If Seth had an average draw, even on a mulligan, I believe he’d be favored to win Game 1. This means that Seth didn’t need an incredible hand – all he needed was a normal hand, and he didn’t have one.

The Azorius Control versus Mono-Red Aggro matchup is not a war of attrition – I’m going to win that war the vast majority of the time because it’s what my deck is built to do. Instead, it’s a war of speed – can Seth pressure me enough so that my cards don’t work? If his hand is reasonable, it turns the game into “Shatter the Sky or bust” from my side, and even with Shatter the Sky I can easily lose to a follow up. If his hand is slow, however, then suddenly the rest of my cards all start working – Mystical Dispute becomes good; Teferi, Time Raveler is a Time Walk; Narset, Parter of Veils can get two activations before it dies; Elspeth Conquers Death can be cast and remove his only threat. From my perspective, it’s much harder to win a game in which Seth has early plays than it is to win a game in which he just casts Anax every turn of the game (which was what ultimately happened). 

This creates a situation in which a failure to draw a one- or two-drop on his part is catastrophic. I believe that, once Seth bricked there, he was very unlikely to win that game. Given that you have a good matchup Game 1 and don’t need much to win (just speed), I think keeping a hand like this is a mistake – you don’t need to gamble if you’re the Mono-Red Aggro player against this version of Azorius Control. 

Situation 2

You’re playing Dimir Inverter in Pioneer against Lotus Breach. It’s Game 3 and you’re on the draw. Your hand is:

Fetid Pools Island Swamp Fabled Passage

Choked Estuary Drowned Catacomb Damping Sphere

My Answer!
My answer: Mulligan.

This is a bit similar to the previous Mono-Red Aggro example in that it’s important to know likely you are to win with an average hand. Is this a matchup in which you absolutely need your hate card or one in which you can win without it? Is it a matchup where if you cast your hate card you automatically win?

I think that, overall, Dimir Inverter has enough game versus Lotus Breach (especially after sideboard) that you don’t need to keep a hand like this because it has a trump. Obviously versions will differ, and some will be better or worse in the matchup, but overall there’s enough disruption (be it discard or counterspells) and enough digging in all Inverter lists that you can stall the game and then either flat-out win or find another Damping Sphere, rather than throwing all your eggs into this basket and hoping it’s enough.

Situation 3

You’re playing Azorius Control in Theros Beyond Death Standard versus Jeskai Fires. It’s Game 1 and you’re on the draw. Your opponent scryed twice with Sphinx of Foresight (keeping one card and then two cards), and this is your hand:

At the end of your Turn 2, they cast Stomp. Do you Dovin’s Veto it?

My Answer!
My answer: Yes. 

If you’ve watched the game, then you already know that I cast the Dovin’s Veto – you also know that Marcio follows it up with a Teferi, Time Raveler, which stays on the battlefield for the entirety of the game, and I end up losing. You might also know that this was a pretty controversial play – the commentators said something like “There’s no way he counters the Stomp here” and Twitch chat accused me of throwing the match. That said, I believe my decision to counter the Bonecrusher Giant is correct and I would do it again.

The reason I believe countering the Giant here makes sense is because of the contents of my hand and the known contents of his hand. Normally, I would not do it – in fact, in the previous match, the exact same play happens and I just let it resolve, because stopping Teferi from happening is paramount. However, the way my hand is set up, I just don’t have a good answer to the Bonecrusher Giant! If I don’t Veto it now, Marcio is just going to cast Bonecrusher Giant on Turn 3, and what do I do? Do I just pass the turn? If I do that, then he’s just going to cast Sphinx of Foresight on Turn 4 – he has two of them – and I also don’t have an answer to that. What do I do then?

It seems like holding up Dovin’s Veto forever in this spot would just lead to me dying horribly unless I draw a very specific sequence of cards. My hand is entirely sorcery-speed at this point, so holding up Veto means I can cast no other spells, and even if I eventually draw answers to the Giant or the Sphinx, I will have to tap out to cast them. By casting the Veto here, I of course risk Marcio resolving a Teferi, but I also free up every card in my hand and allow myself to actually play a game of Magic, and I can then eventually remove the Teferi later on (it’s not being a major problem right now). 

There is one caveat about this play, and it’s the fact that, in the end, it’s Marcio’s choice on whether I am able to Veto the Bonecrusher Giant or not. Given that Marcio was on the play, he could have just cast the Stomp on his main phase and I would never even have the option. Therefore, if he’s giving me the option, then he must want me to Veto it. The reason I think it’s still right to Veto even if he’s allowing me to do that on his own free will is twofold. First, Vetoing the Bonecrusher Giant is a very unintuitive play and he might not even have considered that I would want to do that, given that in most normal circumstances I would not do it (which is honestly what I believe happened – later on in the match he does cast Stomp main phase once he’s aware of my tendencies). Second, my hand is very atypical and he doesn’t know that, but I do – even if it’s a conscious decision on his part to let me Veto it, the disparity of information here could mean that it’s still correct for me to do it.

Situation 4

You’re playing Mono-Red Aggro in Theros Beyond Death Standard versus Jeskai Fires. It’s Game 2 and you’re on the play. Your opening hand is:

Mountain Scorch Spitter Light Up the Stage Light Up the Stage

Embercleave Embercleave Chandra, Acolyte of Flame

My Answer!
My answer: Mulligan. 

I don’t think keeping this hand is entirely unreasonable, as you’re 75% to find a land to play on Turn 2. The main issue is that, other than that, the hand just isn’t very good. The Light Up the Stages are very awkward when you’re short on lands, and there’s a reasonable chance you will have to give up one (or even both) of the cards you find, so they aren’t exactly good cards here. The second Embercleave is mostly redundant, and even the first one isn’t great given the creatures you have on the battlefield. Overall, I think you’re better off with six cards.

I definitely think this is a close hand, though. Seth kept it in the tournament (and won the game even though he actually missed his second land drop), and I talked to both Martin Juza and Mike Sigrist and they said they’d keep (though Matt Nass said he’d mulligan as well). 

Situation 5

You’re playing Theros Beyond Death Sealed. This is your deck (apologies for the image quality but it’s just to give you an idea what you’re working with – it’s fine if not every card is clear):

You’re on the draw in Game 3 against an aggressive Rakdos deck. Your hand is:

Swamp Mire's Grasp Erebos's Intervention Ilysian Caryatid

Return to Nature Entrancing Lyre Shadowspear

Your deck has eight Forests and one Unknown Shores.

My Answer!
My answer: Mulligan.

Hands like these are always tricky, but I tend to mulligan them most of the time because I feel like they aren’t good enough when they work to justify when they don’t work (especially with the London Mulligan now). If you knew the top card of your deck was a Forest you’d certainly keep this, but it still wouldn’t be the best hand the world has ever seen – Shadowspear, Entrancing Lyre, and Erebos’s Intervention aren’t really maximized here, and you need to both draw more lands after this and also draw a creature. Then, if you add that to the fact that you could simply not draw a Forest (or a land) and just die, I think it’s not worth it.

You’re not always going to be able to do this math, but, in this particular case, the hand is only 43% to be able to cast Ilysian Caryatid on Turn 2. There’s a 30% chance you don’t play a second land at all, and then your prospects are really dire. This hand is just not good enough to justify it when it works to make up for the fact that a lot of the time you’ll just brick and die horribly, and I think you’re better off with a fresh six. 

Situation 6

You’re playing Jund Sacrifice in Theros Beyond Death Standard against Temur Reclamation. It’s Game 1 and you’re on the play. You mulligan to five, and this is your opening hand:

Witch's Oven Cauldron Familiar Mayhem Devil Agonizing Remorse

Overgrown Tomb Forest Stomping Ground

My Answer!
My answer: Option 2, Forest + Agonizing Remorse.

This is another scenario from World Championship XXVI – Piotr Glogowski versus Chris Kvartek. I think putting back Forest is pretty intuitive – your spells are good and mostly synergistic, so losing two of them would make the remaining ones worse and you’d just need to topdeck the right kind of spell, rather than any land. 

Then, the question is whether you want to keep Agonizing Remorse or a “combo piece.” Keeping Mayhem Devil without keeping Cat + Oven seems counterproductive to me, so the decision basically becomes Mayhem Devil versus Agonizing Remorse. I believe that, in general, Agonizing Remorse is a better card than Mayhem Devil against Temur Reclamation (especially on two lands), but in this specific hand you already have the two accompanying pieces to the Devil, and I feel like you need to clock them to be able to win. You mulliganed to five, so you’re not going to have a lot going on, and if you put back your biggest damage dealer then chances are they will just be able to recover from your discard spell. I think in this spot the best is to just try to kill them as quickly as possible, which means keeping the Mayhem Devil, the Cauldron Familiar, and the Witch’s Oven. This is also the line Piotr took in the match.

Situation 7

You’re playing the same matchup (Jund Sacrifice versus Temur Reclamation). This is the situation you find yourself in:

You’ve already attacked and need to decide what to do this turn. Keep in mind your opponent has Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath in the graveyard, and more than five cards, so they can cast it next turn.

My Answer!
My answer: Option 3 – Cauldron Familiar + Make a Food. 

Your opponent is going to go up to seven life next turn, so even if you cast Cauldron Familiar + Murderous Rider and find a removal spell (and they don’t have anything else), you’re not killing them next turn; as such, I think it’s more important to be able to make a Food (that you can then use for mana, to return a Cat or to dig for something the following turn) than to cast both your creatures. I also think that you do want to cast one card, since you want to add a little to the battlefield and you can just sacrifice the Food next turn to either the Goose or to return the Cauldron Familiars – you don’t actually want to gain three life.

It might be intuitive to cast Murderous Rider here, since it uses your mana better and presents a more powerful creature (and that is the line that Kanister went with), but my inclination is that it’s incorrect. The reasoning here is that your opponent will definitely play Uro next turn, and the Murderous Rider is likely not even going to attack, because it’s just going to get blocked for free. Instead, all the Cauldron Familiars will attack – these will just come back. If you have two Cauldron Familiars, then only two creatures will attack; if you have three, all three will attack. So, even though the Murderous Rider adds two power to the battlefield, it effectively adds zero power to the battlefield – it’s not attacking – whereas the Cat adds one. Because of that, I think casting the Cauldron Familiar is better.

Of course it’s worse if you draw a removal spell, but there are not very many removal spells in your deck, so chances are you’re not going to draw one, and I think you can win this game without drawing removal immediately so you don’t necessarily have to play for that (though if they were at one less life then I would cast the Murderous Rider).

As you can see, this is what happened in the following turn: the Murderous Rider didn’t attack.

Situation 8

You’re playing Jeskai Fires in Throne of Eldraine Standard versus Azorius Control. It’s Game 2 and you’re on the play. Your opening hand is:

Castle Vantress Island Teferi, Time Raveler Elspeth Conquers Death

Legion Warboss Fires of Invention Fires of Invention

My Answer!
My answer: Mulligan.

This was Marcio’s last hand of the finals against me, and his keep generated a lot of controversy. While ultimately I would mulligan the hand, I believe it’s actually a close decision, and the people who said he was crazy and tilt-kept this are a bit out of line. 

This hand is very appealing if he hits, and he can hit either a red or a white source to begin with, which means basically any land in the deck (there are only two strictly blue sources remaining). Only hitting once, however, isn’t likely to be enough unless he hits specifically a Boros land (or two red lands in a row to be able to cast Fires).

The main issue with it is that a lot of the lands you have that would work enter the battlefield tapped. Hitting a Temple or a Fabled Passage immediately works, but drawing them on Turn 3 with your second draw step will set you back a turn, which is problematic. I think Jeskai Fires was favored in that matchup when it was on the play, but it wasn’t favored on the draw (specifically because of how the three-drops work), and if you cannot cast your three-drop on Turn 3, then you’re effectively on the draw at that point.

Granted, this hand already has two of the three-drops that are good, and only needs one land to get going, but mulliganing into a three-drop is remarkably easy – between seven new cards, Sphinx of Foresight, and all the Temples, you’re very likely to find one to cast. Because of this, I don’t think this hand is exceptional enough to risk the potential to get wrecked, so I would mulligan, but I think it’s closer than it appears and I don’t fault Marcio for keeping. 

Trust The Process

In the end, there’s no guarantee that I’m right – this is merely what I would do and my reasoning for doing it, but several of the best players in the world have diverging opinions on these plays, so ultimately the thought process behind the decision is a lot more important than the correct answer. Hopefully, even if I haven’t managed to convince you of my line, analyzing the thought process in these situations was still useful. 

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