Flores Rewards Friday - The Second-Worst Card

Feature Article from Michael Flores
Michael Flores
4/11/2014 9:58:00 AM
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This is where we left Turn Five on Make the Play Monday.

How do we play Turn Five?

There are only two realistic lines of play from our current position.

There are more than two possible lines, but most of them leak substantial value; for example any play involving our freshly-drawn Watery Grave will cost us either life or mana availability, or both. We really want to tap all five of our potentially available lands; and probably all before our opponent gets his untap for the turn.

With one or more copies of Staff of the Death Magus on the battlefield we want to maximize our ability to score on life gain triggers, especially down to only six life. Basically that means we want to play our spells very aggressively (our opponent has already shown us Skullcrack so we don't want to give him the option to respond to us, stealing our life gain), and we want to play lands every turn, as playing lands actually translates into a kind of anti-The Philosophy of Fire card advantage by trading off with opposing burn cards.

In other circumstances we might want to hold back lands, either to mislead our opponent about the quality of our hand or to sandbag resources for Pack Rat... but with Staff of the Death Magus down and substantial pressure on our life total… If we draw a land, we are likely playing that land! Right now! Especially from our current low life total and precarious battlefield position, there is just too much incentive to play lands (specifically Swamps) to hold back.

A lowly basic basically undoes a Shock if we have that second Staff of the Death Magus on the battlefield, and we get substantially more upside from almost any black spell. For example, any point removal card can inherit the life buffering bonus of a Pharika's Cure… Without our being forced to invest in that generally narrow kind of removal. A Bile Blight can shoot down bigger creatures than Pharika's Cure (or more than one, especially on a board like this one) and Hero's Downfall can shoot down basically everything (though it costs three), again with a two point bonus.

We clearly get a big bonus for having that second Staff of the Death Magus on the battlefield.

The question is whether we can afford the time to invest in that Staff of the Death Magus on this turn.

At this point in the game we only have six life and there is eight power in play. With his Lightning Strike, we know the opponent can deal at least 11 points of damage unopposed. That means that at the bare minimum we need to gain six life or prevent six damage (or some combination of the two) just to live through the next turn.

One line is this:

  • Play Swamp (gain 1 and go to 7).
  • Play Lifebane Zombie (gain 1 and go to 8).
  • Bile Blight Burning-Tree Emissary or Rakdos Cackler (gain 1 and go to 9).
  • The attractive thing about this line is that at nine life we can likely live through the turn. The opponent will be left with four points of power on the battlefield, but even if we let that in, his Lightning Strike won't kill us.

    Our goal with this line, of course, is to avoid taking four on an attack. We want Lifebane Zombie back to block. The opponent has already shown a willingness to trade a creature rather than a Lightning Strike for a Lifebane Zombie. There are very strong reasons he might use the Lightning Strike to preserve the life of his Firedrinker Satyr (not the least of which is saving three points of damage on his own life total), but he let us trade with a Lifebane Zombie instead.

    If he lets us block we will go down to 7 life; if he spends the Lightning Strike on our Lifebane Zombie we still have 5 life. Life.

    Of the two kinds of available two-for-ones, Burning-Tree Emissary is of course the better card to kill. Both Burning-Tree Emissary and Rakdos Cackler are 2/2 on the battlefield but one can block and the other can't. Further, if he has Fanatic of Mogis, Burning-Tree Emissary is much more dangerous than Rakdos Cackler. Simple enough.

    There are good things about this line and I tanked a long time before rejecting it.

    There are some uncertainties about the line; like maybe he lets us block and maybe he doesn't. Our best-case is a bit worse as well.

    We go up to 9. Presumably we can play Staff of the Death Magus and Watery Grave (going to 11) but we could very well be done at that point. What if we draw Temple of Deceit? Or worse yet, Island? Glied's lonely Island is the worst card in the deck with two copies of Staff of the Death Magus, but strangely, the usually vaunted Temple of Deceit becomes the second-worst card to draw!

    The other line is this:

    1. Play Staff of the Death Magus.

    2. Play Swamp (go to 8).

    3. Play Bile Blight on Burning-Tree Emissary (go to 10).

    Again, it's better to kill the block-capable Burning-Tree Emissary pair to the unleashed Rakdos Cackler pair, but the difference there is relatively small. What is more important is to play 1) all these cards, and 2) in the correct order. If you play the Swamp prior to the Staff of the Death Magus you will waste a point of life. It is almost comical to imagine the reverse order of Bile Blight → Swamp → Staff of the Death Magus (which would put you to 8 life only), which is amazing given the identical choice of cards to play. I do think it is important to bust the Bile Blight right now -- and certainly before the opponent draws -- not just because of the possibility he pulls another Skullcrack, but because you don't want him killing one of his own creatures in response to Bile Blight to save the other half of the pair. I know that doesn't sound like a bad deal (you still get two-for-one), but we don't 100% know the opponent's deck and we generally don't want a competent opponent in charge of decisions like these. Better to eliminate the variable when we know he definitely has a live spell.

    The Staff of the Death Magus over Lifebane Zombie this turn line looks superior this turn because it gives you 10 life instead of just 9… But he is coming in for four damage, putting us to 6, for sure. That said, you have better potential for next turn. You can run out Lifebane Zombie and Watery Grave for four more life!

    Our life total might feel a little scary, but we can live through what would probably be his scariest topdeck (another Toil // Trouble)... Though we would probably have to get something going in a hurry to keep on living.

    1. Play Staff of the Death Magus

    2. Play Swamp

    3. Bile Blight Burning-Tree Emissary

    What Actually Happened?

    I made the above play, bought a little life… Spent a Hero's Downfall on one of the remaining Rakdos Cacklers (not exciting), and kept myself alive with a string of Swamps.

    Eventually I drew back-to-back Desecration Demons to lock up the table. But unfortunately playing all my lands every turn made an eventual Pack Rat weak.

    But yeah, got there.

    You know… Because double Desecration Demon.

    I was a bit surprised at how similar opinions on this hypothetical were this week. I very nearly made the Lifebane Zombie play in the real game.

    But Celebrity Guest Brian David-Marshall snap-answered the same as almost everyone else:

    “I am assuming the play is to cast Staff of the Death Magus, play Swamp and gain two; Bile Blight the Emissaries, gain two; take four from Rakdos Cacklers; play Watery Grave, gain 2 and cast Lifebane Zombie, gain 2; block a Cackler and hope for some help from top of the top of the deck. Even if he kills the Lifebane Zombie with the Lightning Strike we have over the course of two turns whittled down his board and hand and stayed at parity with the ability to start pulling away at two life a turn.

    “I thought it was a trick question. Is there any other line you can consider taking?”

    I guess not!

    Brian David-Marshall's play:

    1. Play Staff of the Death Magus

    2. Play Swamp

    3. Bile Blight Burning-Tree Emissary

    Hundreds of TCGPlayer.com readers agreed with both myself and Brian; but alas, there can only be two winners.




    For agreeing with YT, Drew Iafrate topdecks $25.

    For agreeing with Brian David-Marshall, John Goodman topdecks $25.

    Congrats to Drew Iafrate and John Goodman!

    Brian David-Marshall is a sometimes Pro player, sometimes tournament organizer, but always the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Historian. He has been a regular contributor to the various Wizards of the Coast offical web properties as a columnist and coverage reporter for over a decade. Brian has been the co-host of the Top 8 Magic podcast [http://manadeprived.com/listen/podcasts/top-8-magic/] with YT since 2005. If you aren't already following him on Twitter at @top8games you should really take a moment to evaluate these horrible choices you call a life.


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