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August 25, 2017

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Going for the Gold: Making the Optimal Play

Welcome back to our mini-series on improving your Magic Game.

Magic tends to draw some of the most competitive people to the game. As people who strive for perfection, we tend to be obsessed with making the “right play”. I use air quotes because with few exceptions, the right play is usually very subjective.

That begs the question, how do you figure out what the right play is?

Weren’t you just listening? It’s subjective…sheesh, some people!

However, if you’re still following, the optimal play is not as subjective.

We tend to use any one of the following resources to win the game:

  • Life Total
  • Permanents (Creatures, Artifacts, Enchantments, Planeswalkers, Lands)
  • Cards in Hand
  • Cards in Deck
  • Cards in Graveyard
  • Poison Counters

As long as you’re above 0 life and don’t have more than nine poison counters, you can still play the game. You can have nothing else and still be in the game. However, winning the game from this point is a whole different animal.

Every resource you have can be traded to further your game plan or prevent your opponent from furthering theirs. While there’s so much talk about card advantage, it can often be the optimal play to use a card to prevent your opponent from putting you in a spot where having 10 more cards than them won’t help you. Let’s use examples to illustrate:

Example 1:

You are in your opponent’s pre-combat mainphase and they are attempting to declare attackers. They have all of their lands untapped (three Mountains and three Forests) and one card in hand. You have won game one where you saw them cycle an Inferno Jet. You do not have any life gain in your deck.

Your Opponent (20 life): Bitterbow Sharpshooters, Ahn-Crop Crasher

You (12 life): 2 Plains untapped, 3 Mountains untapped.

Your hand has Angel of the God-Pharaoh, Djeru’s Renunciation, Hour of Revelation, Puncturing Blow, one Plains, Manticore Eternal

What do you do here? (and why do you have so many expensive spells in your hand?)

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I would strongly advise casting Djeru’s Renunciation here. The main reason is that if your opponent can connect with both creatures, you’ll then be in range of Inferno Jet. Even if they don’t have it, the moment they draw it you lose the game on the spot, despite having such a strong hand. Even though you’re losing “card advantage” by using the Renunciation, you trade it for the ability to use the rest of your hand to win the game.

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Example 2:

You have just attacked with your Bitterbow Sharpshooters and your tapped out opponent, who is at 12 life, has double blocked with two Defiant Khenra in his GR deck. You look at your hand which contains a Final Reward, Bitterbow Sharpshooters, Colossapede. Seeing as you have three Forests and two Swamps to your disposal this turn, what is your play?

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Well, if you went directly from the presumed playbook it would suggest getting a two for one by casting Final Reward on my opponent’s Defiant Khenra. However, the Defiant Khenras aren’t really relevant anymore since they’re outclassed by the bigger threats in the deck. One of the fastest ways to lose this game is to cast Final Reward and have your opponent play a bomb such as a God that you can no longer deal with.

Now, the creature that you play depends on your opponent’s board as well as the cards that they can cast. If you know your opponent has a removal spell, you should play the card that you would rather die first. If they are playing flyers, you want the Colossapede to die because it is more replaceable than the Bitterbow Sharpshooters. If they’re playing 4/4s, you want the Colossapede to survive. If you know your opponent has Electrify instead of Puncturing Blow, it’s better to cast Colossapede so that it is harder for them to use their mana next turn. This is why it is so important to keep track of the spells your opponents play.

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So as you can see, making the optimal play requires you to have a lot more information about what your opponent’s game plan is, and the cards they have access to. From now onward, let’s make a deal. You do the following and I guarantee that your win rate will increase:

Write down every card that your opponent plays.

This is important because once you know what your opponent has, you’ll be able to line up your cards in such a way that your opponent’s cards do not interact with them favourably. You saw this in the example above in how you decide what creature to play.

This is more profound in Limited, when you want to play around combat tricks and removal, so you can have them staring you in the face when your opponent declares attackers or blockers.

This also has the upside that you are able to deduce how many unique singular cards are in their deck. For example, if you have written down a total of 20 cards between the first two games, then you know that the odds of certain cards still being in their deck decreases dramatically.

Finally, it really does improve the quality of your sideboarding. For example if you write every card down, maybe you’ll notice that they have six one-toughness creatures making that Blazing Volley in the sideboard a very good option.

Think “outside the box”.

Going on autopilot is very dangerous in Magic. We should never assume that certain things are just the way they are. Instead, always think about how you can further your game plan while interfering with your opponents. After all, someone’s plan is always second best.

The next time you can get a two for one, think about if that interaction is really going to help you win the game. Sometimes you need to save your best removal spells for cards that you cannot answer. A common mistake newer players make is using a flexible removal spell like Cast Out on a creature that they can trade with and then not have an answer for a problematic Planeswalker.

Strive to learn from every game.

This is the most important lesson. No one is born the perfect Magic player, and even the best in the world will tell you that they make mistakes in each game. But instead of walking away with a loss or a win and taking that as a metric of how well you played, consider what you could have done differently regardless of the outcome. Over time, this will help you get better and is really the only way that one can make it to the highest levels of the game and stay there.

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I hope you enjoyed this section on Making the Optimal Play. Next time we’ll have a recap of how GP Indianapolis went. It’s going to be great to play in a Grand Prix again after the month long break.

Post in the comments below or tweet at me (@SammyTMTG). And, if you want to keep up with my articles and happenings, please make sure you hit the follow button for Twitter @ SammyTMTG. I’ll see you next week for another article on improving your magical skills! Until then, have a great weekend!

Sammy T