Feature Article from Craig Wescoe

Becoming a Better Magic Player: Seven Exercises

Craig Wescoe

4/19/2012 10:16:00 AM

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This week I was going to write about Avacyn Restored, but I figured I'll be doing plenty of that in the coming weeks. So instead I'd like to spend this week making you a better Magic player. How does that sound?

In order to accomplish this, I've carefully laid out seven scenarios, each involving an Innistrad Block Limited board state where I pose the question: what's the play and why? To get the most out of this article, I recommend pausing and examining closely the board state and coming up with your own answer. Then look at my analysis and try and make sense of it. Also consider how you might approach board states from your own games of Magic in a similar way. In any case, I hope these exercises are enjoyable and help you to become a better Magic player.

Planning Ahead

Consider scenario 1 - Booster Draft. The opponent is playing Red/Green Werewolves and you are playing Blue/White with half Spirits and half Humans, with a typical curve ranging from 1 to 5. You're up a game and on the draw. This is your first turn. What is the play and why?

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I chose this example because it requires multiple levels of thinking ahead. The first level of thought is: "I have the mana to cast Wolfhunter's Quiver, so why wouldn't I cast it?" The second level thought is: "You want to hold it so you can transform a werewolf back or keep one from transforming. You'll be able to cast it later on in plenty of time to get it active (i.e. before you hit 5 mana)." The correct play, however, requires a third level of thinking and a more in-depth consideration of the board state and what is likely to happen over the course of the next few turns:

"Regardless of what my opponent does on his second turn, I'm following it up with Cloistered Youth. Then the following turn I would want to either play Butcher's Cleaver or a creature if I have drawn a creature. Then on turn 4, assuming I've drawn a fourth land, I will need to have a Wolfhunter's Quiver on the board so that I can be ready to equip it as soon as I get to five mana. So what if I draw a creature that costs 4 mana on my fourth turn? Or what if it's a creature that costs 3 mana and the opponent had played something that I want to bounce with Silent Departure that same turn? Well, by playing the Quiver on the first turn, you give yourself all these extra options that you otherwise wouldn't have if you held onto the Quiver on the first turn. And at what opportunity cost? Not being able to use the Quiver to transform a werewolf back. But this is a comparatively small cost since we're going to be playing a spell each turn anyway, and if the opponent transforms their werewolf by skipping a turn of playing a spell, then we have Silent Departure to buy us that time back. So the scenario we are much more concerned about is the opponent curving out with creatures and us drawing a land and a 3 or 4 mana creature over the course of the next 3 turns. So to maximize our options in such a scenario, we want to play the Quiver on the first turn.”

The above scenario requires taking into account the range of possible and likely board states that can develop over the next few turns and basing our first turn play on what will maximize our options over the most possible board states.

Knowing when to go Offense or Defense

Consider scenario 2 - Sealed Deck. The opponent is playing Red/Black with some vampire synergies and you're playing Blue/White with half humans and half spirits and a 9/8 land split in favor of Islands. You're on the draw and this is your third turn, in your first main phase. What do you do this turn and why?

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This decision is quite a bit easier than the previous one, but it highlights an important lesson. The correct play is “Island, go” for multiple reasons. The first reason is that your 2/1 is less valuable than the opponent's 3/2 and so you want to induce the trade. By attacking, he is unlikely to block (since his creature is better than yours), so you would rather keep yours back to block in case he attacks. The second reason is that you want to induce the opponent to use a removal spell on your vanilla 2/1 creature. By keeping it back to block, you give the opponent a decision: “Either I kill his blocker and attack for 3, or I don't kill it but don't get to attack, or I can trade creatures.” Any of those three scenarios is much better for us than trading 2 damage for 3 damage. The last reason we don't want to attack is because our hand is full of action but requires us to draw lands, specifically Plains. So we want to buy ourselves as much time as possible by playing defense until we draw our lands and can start casting all our spells. So even if our deck is ordinarily better suited for racing, our draw is such that we're much better off playing defense for now.

Evaluating Card Quality in Context

Consider scenario 3 - Sealed Deck. The opponent is playing a Red/Black removal-heavy deck with a green splash for Elder of Laurels. You're the same Blue/White deck from the previous example. The opponent was on the play and it is his third turn. He is attacking with Hinterland Hermit. What is the play and why?

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Ordinarily Nibilis of the Urn is a higher quality card than Hinterland Hermit. When you're on the offense, it acts as a tapper without an activation cost that also deals a point of damage to the opponent (a higher quality card even than Avacyn's Priest when you're racing). Hinterland Hermit, on the other hand, is only slightly better than a grizzly bear. In a Red/Green werewolf deck his value improves a little, but even then he is quite a bit worse than Nibilis of the Urn is in a Blue/White deck. We would never trade our Avacyn's Priest for a Hinterland Hermit this early in the game, so the obvious decision is to take 2 and start racing, right?

Well, wrong. Even though Nibilis is, in most scenarios, a higher quality card than Hinterland Hermit, this particular scenario does not happen to be one of them, and here's why:

If we take 2, the opponent will likely play another creature and pass the turn. Then on our turn, unless we draw one of our, say, 5 three-drop creatures (which is a 5 in 32 chance - 16%), we are going to have to attack for 1 and pass the turn, causing his Hinterland Hermit to transform. This means, assuming the creature he plays is at least a Grey Ogre, he will be ahead 19 to 13 in the damage race, and our next play is a mere 2/2 flier that will have to trade with his 3/2 transformed Hinterland Hermit - and this is a hopeful scenario for us since it assumes he doesn't have a removal spell to clear out our blocker and put us in an even worse position.

So if we trade our Nibilis of the Urn now with the Hinterland Hermit, we keep the damage race close and give us time to resolve our Tower Geist and start sculpting a hand that will get us to a winning board position. And even if he has a combat trick, say, Spidery Grasp or Wild Hunger, that's fine because it means he isn't adding another creature to the board this turn. In many more scenarios than not, blocking is the correct play, even though you're trading an abstractly more powerful card for his abstractly less powerful one.

When in a game of Magic, you should always evaluate card quality relative to the actual board state and the range of potential board states the current one can develop into.

Thinking Nonlinearly

Consider scenario 4 - Booster Draft. The opponent is Red/Green Werewolves splashing white for Burning Oil (as far as we've seen so far). You've been stuck on a single Plains and a bunch of white cards all game, but your fliers have been putting the opponent on a clock. The opponent just played Butcher's Cleaver and passed the turn. It's our turn and we just drew another Forest. What's the play and why?

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One option is to keep the fliers back to play defense since they both have first strike. So play the Midnight Guard and pass is one option. This keeps him from being able to swing the damage race with his Butcher's Cleaver.

Another option is to attack him down to 4 life with the fliers, play the Midnight Guard (or Gather the Townsfolk), and pass. He'll then equip his Wolfbitten Captive with Butcher's Cleaver, pump it to 6/3 lifelink and attack. We then have the option of trading a human token and our Villagers of Estwald for the Captive or taking 6. In either case, he will go back up to 10 life. Unless we draw something, our options don't look to be getting significantly better since he will just equip his other creature with the Cleaver next turn and force us again to trade our creatures for his. And he'll likely then continue adding humans to the board since he is a werewolf deck (and all werewolves are also humans).

So what is the best play here?

The answer: Attack for 4 in the air. Play Forest. Go.

Wait, what? Why in the world would we pass the turn instead of playing one of the two white cards we can cast? We're already clogged with white cards and can only play one per turn. Why would we choose to play zero, especially now that the opponent has finally put us in a tight spot?

Well, both his creatures are werewolves, and when werewolves transform, they cease being humans. This means that he will be unable to gain life from his Butcher's Cleaver and will thus have to come up with some other way of dealing with our on-board-lethal pair of fliers on his next turn. And even if he does manage to kill one of our fliers, we can then play Gather the Townsfolk and start chump blocking to buy us time to finish him off with the other flyer. In any event, the key play is transforming his humans into non-human werewolves to turn off the lifelink capacity of the Butcher's Cleaver.

Sometimes the optimal play requires considering whether “improving” the opponent's creatures will actually make them contextually worse. In this case, it does.

Ignoring Variance

Consider scenario 5 - Booster Draft. It's the Blue/White mirror where both of you are half humans and half spirits. As you can see, the game has not exactly gone according to plan. Your starting hand of three Islands, Stormbound Geist, Nephalia's Seaskite, Avacyn's Priest, and Moment of Heroism has turned into four more Islands and three more white cards. You've managed to trade your Surprise Bird for his Moon Heron and your Stormbound Geist for his Burden of Guilt. It's the opponent's end step. What are you thinking about and why?

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There are multiple correct answers to this question, all of which involve thinking about what combinations of cards you could draw to dig yourself out of the situation (which obviously you wouldn't be able to do in this exercise since I haven't told you your deck list). Plains is the obvious card. If you draw two Plains in a row, what's your game plan?

What's more important for this example is to consider what the wrong answers are: anything having to do with being color screwed and unlucky and how the shuffler on MTGO is unrealistic and what unsportsmanlike thing you are going to say to your opponent in the chat box before closing modo to make him or her wait around for ten minutes before getting the win for a disconnected opponent failing to return.

Variance happens to everyone. As you can see from this example, even I experience negative variance, just like you do, just like every player does. Complaining when it happens to you accomplishes absolutely nothing. It's like getting angry because the Boomerang you threw is about to come back and hit you. But why are you complaining? There's still time to catch it before it hits you!

Focus on what is within your control. Some of the greatest games of Magic I can remember playing involve getting hit hard by variance but making a series of acrobatic plays that allow me to walk the tightrope just long enough to set up a winning line. This game is a perfect example. Draw a Plains, play the Voiceless Spirit. Then draw another Plains, play the Thraben Sentry and the Avacyn's Priest. Then Play Cloistered Youth, start tapping creatures, and set up a board where you can transform Thraben Sentry and then cast Moment of Heroism on it to gain 7 life and put you back in the driver's seat in the damage race. Sure, the game started out very poorly, but you were able to stick around long enough to draw out of it just in time; and you came back and won! If you had gotten angry and closed modo, all you would have done was Deprive yourself an opportunity to make a great comeback. Why would you do that to yourself?

Ok, I promise: less metaphors in the last examples.

Finding the Best Path to Victory

Consider scenario 6, which I've modified for the purpose of this exercise - Sealed Deck. The opponent is playing the Red/Black removal-heavy deck with a green splash for Elder of Laurels from the third example, and you're the same Blue/White deck. You're in turn 5 of extra turns, so even though things look inevitable that you would win if you had a few more turns, you only have this one turn remaining to kill the opponent. Can you do it? What's the play and why?

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One line, if you've learned anything from the nonlinear thinking example, is to play Thraben Heretic and counter it with Lost in the Mist so that you can bounce the opponent's Screeching Bat. This would allow you to attack for lethal. This line may work, but remember, the opponent has 3 lands untapped and 3 cards in hand. So if at all possible, we'd like to try and find a better line - but if we can't, then this will be our default play.

Another option is to cast Faith's Shield on the Stormbound Geist (naming Black). Since Elder of Laurels doesn't have flying, protection from black on the Geist means each of his creatures can only block a 1-power creature. This allow us to sneak 4 damage through instead of 3, which would be exactly lethal. And the advantage this play has over the previous one is that we still have Lost in the Mist to counter any kind of removal spell the opponent may be holding to try and stay alive. This then forces him to have two removal spells. It's still possible (Tragic Slip and Geistflame), but forcing him to have two instead of just one increasing our odds of winning drastically. So this second line is clearly the correct one.

Just because you've found a potential path to victory doesn't mean it's necessarily the best line. Sometimes there is an even better path.

Stepping Back from the Game

Consider the final scenario 7 - Booster Draft. You're playing Blue/White, as you've grown accustomed to doing after learning from me. Your opponent is Red/White and has managed to stay alive just long enough to get one final activation from his Heretic's Punishment. He's clearly dead on board on your next turn if he doesn't hit a card that costs six or more mana when he flips the top 3 cards. So what's the correct play and why?

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Well, there's no reason to bounce your Lantern Spirit or cast your Feeling of Dread or activate Moorland Haunt. There's literally nothing you can do here except hope that he does not hit. So this is a trick question, right? No, actually it isn't.

In example 5 I talked about the importance of maintaining your composure and focusing on the things that are within your control in order to give yourself a chance to barely win a game despite experiencing some pretty heavy negative variance. This example is similar, but unlike the previous example the strategic dimension of the game has essentially drawn to a conclusion. You and your opponent both know the game is over one way or the other depending on whether he or she hits on the Heretic's Punishment activation. So I ask again, what is the correct play?

The correct play is to be thinking about how you will respond in either of the two scenarios. If the opponent hits, he or she will likely be very happy and excited. If the opponent doesn't hit, they will likely be let down to some extent. What is on the line? Is this game 5 of the finals of the Pro Tour? Is it playing for top 8 of a PTQ? Is it a side draft where you're each just playing for a couple booster packs?

No matter what the prize, your reputation is always on the line. And despite the outcome of the game now being completely out of your control, how you conduct yourself is still very much within your control. Many people often get caught up in the game and tend to lose sight of these very important points. Winning is important, but winning while exhibiting good sportsmanship is even more so. If you look at the top pros in the game, you'll see they do more than just win.

I'd say the majority of Magic players exhibit good sportsmanship, perhaps with the occasional slip up. It's the sort of thing a person best arrives at through self-examination. We've all experienced poor sportsmanship from an opponent at one time or another, so we each know firsthand the tangible difference between playing against a polite and respectful opponent compared to one who is not. Hopefully there is at least one person reading this right now that knows his or her sportsmanship could use improvement and who will take what I am saying to heart and will make a conscious effort to exhibit better sportsmanship.

In any case, if one of your goals is to elevate your game to the next level, I'd recommend not only playing like a pro but also conducting yourself as one. It will make things much more enjoyable for yourself and everyone else.

Hopefully this article will have helped you to become, in one sense or another, a better Magic player.

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter