If you want to improve at Magic, this might be the most important article you’ll read this month.
Now, I’ve always been a little full of myself, so take that with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the subject of this week’s article is something tremendously important for in-game decision-making, both in Magic and in practically any zero-sum game. It’s also something that I personally struggle with at times.
The point of this article is to help you build a framework for making decisions between options. Some decisions, such as “on turn four, do I hold up Cryptic Command for next turn or cast Splinter Twin on my Deceiver Exarch while my non-black opponent is tapped out?” are pretty obvious, provided you have a general sense of what your cards do, but many decisions are less so. With Standard Abzan, do you play Siege Rhino or Gideon on turn four? When building your removal suite in Modern Jund, should you play 4 Terminate and 1 Abrupt Decay or 3 and 2? There are benefits and detriments to each choice.
And even with the scenario I gave that I said was obvious, notice how much context I needed to provide. The opponent is tapped out AND they aren’t playing black, so you don’t have to worry about any removal spell, even Slaughter Pact. But if the opponent has a single mana up, or they are playing black and you have reason to suspect a Slaughter Pact, the decision could be different. And if it’s turn five, you could have Dispel or Spell Snare up, which makes the decision to play Twin more likely even if your opponent does have untapped mana.
The bottom line is that, like any well-designed game, Magic is extremely context-dependent, so there’s never one universal right answer. If there were, the game would be much less interesting. What I can do for you, however, is provide you with a framework that you can use to make better decisions based on the context of each individual situation. It’s not necessarily easy and it’s definitely not foolproof, but if you can build and use this framework, you will see a significant increase in your skill.
I should throw in a caveat: this framework is not designed to be used by players unfamiliar with the format or who don’t have at least a solid grasp of the fundamentals. It’s for players who know how decks are generally supposed to match up and know which cards they need to play around but aren’t entirely sure how to execute their plans properly.
With that in mind, where do we start with building this framework? Well, the entire framework revolves around asking yourself a single question: “What am I trying to accomplish?” Assuming you play Magic competitively, the answer to that question is almost always going to be “win,” although in some situations it will be “draw” if you don’t have enough time on the clock to win.
The problem here is that “win” is too broad of an answer to be useful, so let’s narrow it down. You want to win the match at hand, which means winning two out of three games. Because the result of each game is independent of the results of the other games in a match, we should focus on winning one game at a time. But even winning a game is too broad, because it doesn’t lay out a clear pathway from your current situation to your goal unless you’re able to attack for lethal this turn. So let’s say that our more immediate goal is “generate as large and as relevant of an advantage as possible.” Great, how do we do that? It’s still too abstract. What defines an advantage, anyway?
The most functionally useful definition of an advantage I’ve heard is “having a higher number of productive options or having more potent productive options than your opponent.” This can be accomplished in one of two ways: by broadening your options and reducing your opponent’s options. Eventually, though, the goal is to reduce your opponent’s options down to zero by taking away their most fundamental option: the option to play the game. Even drawing cards or playing creatures is indirectly reducing your opponent’s options; more cards mean more ways to remove their creatures or deal them damage, and more creatures in play means a shorter clock, which means fewer turns your opponent gets to play.
So the default universal answer to the question “what am I trying to accomplish?” is “reduce my opponent’s options.” We can’t get any narrower than that without becoming dependent on context, so that should be your first answer when you ask yourself the question.
Once you’ve determined what you’re trying to accomplish, the next step is how to accomplish it. So we have another question: “How do I most effectively reduce my opponent’s options?” This is where knowing your deck and the matchup comes into play, but there are a few constants, and it all comes down to who has inevitability. If you’re the one that has inevitability, you’re trying to reduce your opponent’s options in a direct way: prevent them from being able to attack by killing their creatures, prevent their spells from taking effect by countering them or discarding them as they are cast, et cetera. If you’re the one that doesn’t have inevitability, you’re trying to deny your opponent options by reducing the number of turns they have to play the game.
The primary way that you deny your opponent options when you have inevitability is by lining up your answers and their threats and then drawing cards or invalidating multiple threats with one answer in order to eventually run your opponent out of things to do. One of the most common answers to “how do I most effectively reduce my opponent’s options” is “stay alive until I can run them out of options,” which begs the question “how do I stay alive long enough that my inevitability takes over?” The answer to this question is, again, very context-dependent, and should serve to provide you with a good sense of your medium-term plan in a given matchup. For example, in the Jund versus Affinity matchup, you reduce your opponent’s options to kill you most effectively by focusing on stopping their payoff cards: Arcbound Ravager, Steel Overseer, and Cranial Plating. In the Jund versus Burn matchup, you reduce your opponent’s options to kill you most effectively by taking steps to maximize your life total (fetching conservatively, blocking aggressively with Dark Confidant, et cetera).
The primary way that you deny your opponent options when you don’t have inevitability is to make their cards ineffective or uncastable. The way to do that is to play threats that demand specific answers, play around board wipes, and kill your opponent before they can cast all of the cards in their hand. For example, in the GW Megamorph versus Esper Dragons matchup, Hangarback Walker can only be answered cleanly by Complete Disregard and Utter End, and cards like Hangarback, Nissa, and Deathmist Raptor give you built-in resistance to board wipes. In the Atarka Red versus Jeskai matchup, haste creatures like Zurgo and Swiftspear help you get under their removal and bottleneck their mana so that they can’t cast all their answers, and the Become Immense/Temur Battle Rage combo allows you to kill them from a staggering life total.
So you’ve asked yourself “what am I trying to accomplish?” and determined that you are trying to reduce your opponent’s options as much as possible, and eventually to zero. Then you asked yourself “how can I most effectively reduce my opponent’s options” and found a medium-term plan for the way you want the game to play out based on who has inevitability. Now you have all of the information you need to make the specific decision necessary to execute that plan. Wondering whether to play Siege Rhino or Gideon when your opponent has inevitability? That depends on if you’re trying to play around board wipes, or a counterspell, or nothing. Wondering whether to max out on Terminate? That depends on how many noncreature permanents you’re expecting in the metagame compared to Delve creatures, and what your plan is against those specific decks.
What are you trying to accomplish?
How can you accomplish it most effectively?
Repeat as necessary.
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