Magic is as complex a game as any. The plethora of interactions and different game states in any given game is mind boggling. While the aspect of drawing a card every turn makes for some randomization, a large majority of games come down to ability to correctly evaluate the position, and what position might occur in any number of turns. Much like chess, it is important to plan out scenarios and sculpt out routes to take along your game. While every match is largely dependent on the quality of cards you play, the board state and how you assess it also makes a very large impact.
In this article I hope to go over a few key aspects of any game; specifically limited, but it can also apply to constructed as well. By going through a few of the important decisions made in the strategic course of a game, my wish is that you will broaden your play style and not get too caught up in a linear thought process. The points to be covered include 1.) Removal and Combat 2.) Life as a resource, and 3.) Optimal resource management.
Removal and Combat
You let loose an audible ‘sigh’ as you draw your card and look at what it is, another land. Casually glancing at the Brimstone Volley in your graveyard, and the dumb Orchard Spirit in your opponent’s, you wonder what might have been had you saved it for that pesky Mayor of Avabruck that had now dominated the game. To be fair, you had a four drop that you were going to cast and you wanted to use your mana efficiently by killing the spirit at the end of your opponents turn.
Was that really the correct play though?
While the evasion on the Orchard Spirit probably meant it was going to get in a good two or three times before you could deal with it, you were so caught up in the fact that it was going to deal damage that you needlessly used premium removal to get rid of it. Now you’re at 12 life, a product of the spirit’s doing, but you are also staring down an ever-increasing army of wolves – one that you have no outs to. You find no solace in the guru land you have just drawn, and quickly pick up your cards.
Looking back at the game, you realize you would have easily won had you only bided your time. Mumbling a terse “gg”, you leave the playing area and promise yourself to never carelessly throw away removal so quickly.
Guess what you do next match? Carelessly throw away removal.
Many Magic players, and I include myself in this group, have the tendency of both using their removal too early as well as not using their life as a valuable resource, (these tend to go hand-in-hand – more on this later). People have the propensity to be hasty in their evaluation of the board position – worrying about the very first threat their opponent plays. It does not matter if the ‘threat’ is relatively innocuous or not, (such as the case of the Orchard Spirit), many people think only about the current state of things, basing all decisions on a small pool of information. Careless use of removal can easily cost you the game.
Side note: I am not saying that you should always sandbag removal. There are plenty of scenarios in which it is warranted and, indeed, necessary to use your removal. For example, in M12 or Zendikar block drafts it was often correct to use removal at the earliest convenience because of how fast and aggressive those formats were. Games have slowed down with Innistrad block, but it can still be a very fast.
With the addition of Dark Ascension, how and when you use your removal becomes even more important. Whether it be a sealed deck or draft, the addition of undying and even more morbid abilities make the importance of using your removal that much greater. In similar vein, trading creatures in combat can also be hazardous, especially in what circumstances you do it in.
Consider the following:
You are playing in game one of a draft match against an opponent with an unknown deck. On turn two your opponent, who is on the play, lays down a Silverchase Fox and passes the turn. Your turn rolls around and you also play a Silverchase Fox before passing back. On your opponent’s turn three, he lays down a Forest before attacking in with his fox. You casually shove your fox in front of his and they trade. Post-combat he then plays an Ulvenwald Bears. It is now a 4/4. Has this, or something similar, every happened to you? Perhaps not since Dark Ascension was released very recently – but seeing as how the bears are common it will probably occur at one point or another. Anyways, sirens should have been sounding off in your head before you made that block. Not only was your opponent representing any number of countless tricks but there was seemingly zero need to trade when you both were still at twenty life! This is why trading creatures when it is not your turn can have devastating consequences – especially in this new limited environment. They allow your opponent to lay threats during their second mainphase that could potentially get buffed by morbid. Of course there are situations where trading is necessary, but in the given scenario there was no need to. With life totals still completely intact, why not just let through the two damage? This brings me to my next topic; using your life as a resource.
Life as a Resource
As I’ve alluded to earlier in this article, your life should be treated as a tool. While you should always be wary of what your current life total is, it does not necessarily mean you have to protect it in the early stages of the game. Though there are certainly strategies that employ getting a person from twenty to zero in the quickest possible fashion, taking a few hits will not cripple you. No longer do you have to worry about opponents ramming all of their creatures into you, hoping to enable Bloodlust, as was prevalent in M12. Now you have to worry about them ramming all their creatures into you in hopes of turning on Morbid.
Twenty life is a lot. I commonly allow my opponent to hit me a few times before I pull the trigger on removal or in blocking for a trade. This allows me to view more options and build a better picture of how I want the game to progress and what my route to victory is. AJ Sacher recently told me, “Remember, you aren’t trying to win the fastest way possible. Instead, you are trying to make it so that you win the greatest percentage of the time”. Sure, sometime that does mean going all out, balls-to-the-wall. I am guessing that a larger portion of the time that means making decisions based on the largest amount of information you can gather.
This new limited environment is one that actually fosters the use of using your life. With the addition of Fateful Hour, games can easily be decided by effects or abilities that get buffed when you are at five or less life. Interestingly enough, when enabled, almost all of the Fateful Hour cards have an immediate profound impact on the game. Whether that be the addition of five soldiers (Gather the Townsfolk), giving you and your team protection from a color (Faith’s Shield), or effectively buying yourself another few turns with a Sleep/Fog variant (Clinging Mists), there are now a surplus of reasons why you actively want to take some damage. With that being said, you want to make sure you aren’t carelessly throwing away life – or anything else for that matter. Making sure you are using all your resources in the most advantageous fashion is another key to winning.
Optimal Resource Management
Optimal resource management is more of the all-encompassing description of what I have been relating to in this article. Removal and combat, and life as a resource are just two of the particular facets that I have decided to touch on thus far. Here I will go over some broader things when it comes to game play – especially in the post Dark Ascension limited format.
When I hear the phrase ‘optimal resource management’, I immediately think of how I am using my mana and how I am planning out my mana for the following turns. Using your mana efficiently is obviously not the only way you can use your resources well, seeing as how mana isn’t the only resource you have! Cards in hand, deck size, life, and what you have in play on the battlefield, all of these also contribute to the resources you have available to you. While you might not actually be able to manipulate or interact with specific ones at a given point in time, the fact that they exist should always be lingering in the back of your mind. I won’t get into the specifics of each one at the current, but I will go over some general resource plays.
Imagine it is your turn three of a sealed match. You’ve played your land for the turn and now have the option of either casting a Gatstaf Shepherd or a Reap the Seagraf. Instincts would certainly point to casting of the Shepherd, it is a better creature after all, but that might not actually be the best play.
Let’s assume you did play the Gatstaf Shepherd instead of the Reap the Seagraf. Your opponent plays something on their turn and passes back. Now, on your turn four, you draw a two drop. Awkward. Had you used your mana more efficiently instead of playing a slightly higher quality card, you would have been able to develop your board much more significantly. Now you are at the position of have four mana and a two and three drop in hand. This might seem like a corner-case scenario but I assure you it happens much more frequently than you think. Making sure to plan out your mana, and trying to use it to maximum effect, is going to allow you to have a better board presence. This obviously does not hold true for all cases, for example if you have a bomb that costs less mana than some other random card, but there are a multitude of scenarios where playing something a little less impactful is going to reward you in the long run.
Anyways, I hope that you might have taken something away from this article, even if it was just something small. I realize that many of you might already intuitively go through these steps when progressing through a game, especially limited, but it is usually a good thing to have a refresher course as well. Magic is a complicated game. A game that will continue to evolve and create new and exciting scenarios every time you play. By going through a few simple steps throughout the course of play, you can dramatically improve the way that you play. I understand for limited formats that a majority of the skill lies in drafting/building your deck from the given resources, but it stands to reason that without good game mechanics you will lose many winnable games.
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Until next time, this is Kenji – signing out