We are one week out from the official release of Oath of the Gatewatch, one day out from the prerelease, and time in the multiverse has never moved slower. Well, except for right before Battle for Zendikar came out. And before Magic Origins. And...well, you get the idea. Point is, the Magic world tends to slow to a crawl in the weeks before each new set is released. The same Standard that captured our attention for months now seems wholly lackluster as we think ahead to the unreleased riches soon to be ours. No matter how much Magic I play during this time, I always feel like nothing is happening, like Magic itself is in a holding pattern.
To celebrate the end of this holding pattern and the impending return of a vibrant post-release Magic world, today I want to talk about the kind of doing nothing I'm all about. Formally, that would be the points within a game of Magic where making no play whatsoever is the best available strategic option. Snippets of this concept have been included in a few of my past articles when relevant to the main topic, but they have never been anywhere near comprehensive. Today, by popular demand, we will dive deeper into the world of getting ahead by doing nothing at all.
The Classical Style
For a lot of people, the idea of doing nothing being the best play evokes mental images of the old Draw-Go control decks that used to consistently dominate Magic. These decks were built to be highly reactive and, as such, engineered to always pass their turn so as to have mana free on their opponent's turns to use the instant speed interaction that their deck is chock full of. This kind of strategy is, as far as I'm aware, the earliest consistent use of doing nothing to gain an advantage in Magic. By largely removing all of the sorcery speed style cards from these Draw-Go decks, the cost of doing nothing was removed from gameplay via deckbuilding, leaving only all of the advantages.
I refer to these decks in the past tense because we don't see that style of deck very often anymore. This is largely due to the fact that Magic in recent years has pumped a lot more power into its sorcery speed effects (creatures and Planeswalkers), making this style of deck far less viable than in previous years. I bring them up not to try and convince you to go out and build similar decks (you shouldn't) but to analyze what advantage they consistently got from doing nothing, and how we can apply that to our modern era Magic games. For these decks, doing nothing was necessary to allow flexibility. Their cards were all reactive, and as such flexibility was absolutely key in being able to use them effectively.
Draw-Go had it easy. Back then, doing nothing wasn't a question, it was the default. Of course they weren't going to tap-out in their mainphase -- they had nothing to tap out for, even if they wanted to. Nowadays, it's tougher. Reactive cards are still good and powerful and played (how many midrange decks exist that play no removal spells?), but now they are played alongside powerful sorcery speed effects. Now we have to choose between developing our board further or doing nothing and staying flexible to deal with whatever our opponent has up their sleeve. Draw-Go's success proves that staying flexible is a powerful strategic advantage, but in modern Magic you can't succeed without tapping out a good amount of the time. How do we know when to do nothing and when to do something?
Nothing Trumping Nothing
A brief anecdote: a couple of years ago, I was playing a testing match with trusty Monoblack Devotion against a fringe Young Pyromancer / Chord of Calling deck that had just emerged. I found myself behind on board in the midgame, and had the option of either tapping out for Desecration Demon or doing nothing to leave my Hero's Downfall up. I ended up doing nothing, passing, and in my end step my opponent went for Chord of Calling into Polukranos, World Eater. Had I played Desecration Demon, I would have died to this play, as it was, I got to Downfall and then go on to win the game handily.
But here's the thing: from a pure mechanics viewpoint, I made the wrong play. Once I elected to pass the turn, my opponent should have just untapped, swung, and passed the turn again. Next turn I would be in the exact same situation, down a few life points, without having done anything to get myself out of the hole that I am in. His creatures were just some leftover Young Pyromancer tokens and a Xenagos, the Reveler Satyr Token, nothing worth Hero's Downfalling in his end step, although I would likely feel priced in to doing so anyway at that point. In which case, I would promptly lose to Polukranos. Or maybe next turn I feel like now I have to cast the Desecration Demon -- in which case I lose to Polukranos. I won the game we played by doing nothing, staying flexible, and thus having the removal spell ready when he went for his bomb. If played optimally, my opponent would instead have countered my nothing with his own nothing, and gone on to win the game. Since I wasn't 100% sure he had a Chord of Calling, but I was 100% sure he could just take his untap step without doing anything, I ‘should' have played my Desecration Demon. Sometimes though, the only way to find a win is to induce a mistake.
The Who's-Ahead Litmus Test
The moral of this story is that my opponent could have trumped my nothing with his own. The reason his nothing was more powerful than mine is simple: he was ahead on board. When you get into a situation where whoever blinks first loses, the person who is currently ahead is going to find themselves further and further ahead the longer the stare-off lasts, as their board advantage makes significant inroads on the opponent's life total. The person who is ahead is the one who can afford to do nothing, to stare at you with an unblinking gaze. If you find yourself behind in a stare-off situation you need to blink right away and get it over with, the longer you wait the worse things will get for you. If you don't think it's possible to recover from blinking you can do like I did and refuse to blink while hoping your opponent doesn't understand the situation and makes a mistake, but I wouldn't count on it.
The exception to this rule is when you are close to being able to do two things in one turn. If I had been on six lands in the story above, I would have been right to just pass there, take my lumps from his next attack, and then next turn, with seven lands, be able to both play Desecration Demon and hold up Hero's Downfall. When you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure to figure out how much damage you would take while waiting for enough mana to make both plays in one turn and then decide if that is an acceptable amount of damage to take to not have to lose the stare-off.
Thanks for reading,
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