“Spells don’t have haste.”
-Jarvis Yu, Grand Prix Champion
One of the first things a new player learns when they decide to start getting a little more serious about their FNM is that instants are instants for a reason. Giant Growth is best played mid-combat and Sphinx’s Revelation is best cast on your opponent’s End Step. Why then, do I see so many turn one Brainstorms and so many Lightning Bolts aimed blindly at the first creature to hit the board?
My aim is to take you one step beyond “play instants at the last minute” into the realm of when it’s appropriate to wait for a better opportunity. Sure, there are decks that cannot win without mana efficiency. Waiting on your one drop in a deck with a very rigid curve can mean dying with that one drop still in hand. In Legacy, however, that is rarely the case. Each of your spells needs to do so much that wasting a spell at the wrong time in the name of mana efficiency can lose you the game.
To start with a classic example, it is almost never correct to cast a Brainstorm at your opponent’s first End Step. For example, you are playing Grixis Delver and keep this seven:
You play Volcanic Island, go. Your opponent plays Volcanic Island, Ponder, and passes. Mana efficiency here seems to dictate that you cast the Brainstorm. Next turn you are likely casting Young Pyromancer and Gitaxian Probe and you won’t be able to cast that Brainstorm if you want to advance the board. Unfortunately, Brainstorm is basically Reach Through Mists here. You draw three cards, put two back, and go right to your Draw Step to draw one of those two. You already have a plan for Turn Two, so you’ve only stowed one card back on top of your deck which, unless Brainstorm draws you a fetchland, you will just be drawing on Turn Three. In comparison, a mid or late game Brainstorm once you know more about your opponent’s deck and how your hand is shaping up is much more powerful. In order to get maximum value out of your Brainstorm, be patient and accept that our hand is good enough without needing an extra look at your next Draw Step.
Let’s look at another scenario with the same deck, on the play Game Two in the mirror:
Turn One, you cast Delver of Secrets off of a Volcanic Island, go. Your opponent takes a draw and plays Delver of Secrets off of their own Volcanic Island. Do you Force here? The mirror is less about mana efficiency as it is about both card advantage and having the right spell at the right time. Throwing away two cards, one of which is a powerful card selection tool you can cast next turn to fetch away some dead cards, to answer Delver probably isn’t right here. When evaluating your spells, ask yourself where this spell is best. Where is Force best in this matchup and what else can you use to answer the Delver? More importantly, what can’t you beat? Between Lightning Bolt and just blocking with your Delver, you have multiple ways of beating Delver of Secrets. By comparison, you are weak to an opposing Gurmag Angler, Deathrite Shaman, or Young Pyromancer. Delver of Secrets is your opponent’s least worrying threat and you should let it resolve so that you can counter a more important threat or removal spell later.
In the same situation, do you spend the Bolt on their Delver? Is that the best use of Lightning Bolt in this matchup, or can you afford to take 3, Brainstorm, flip your delver with the Gitaxian Probe you draw and stow back on top, fetch it away before Draw Step, and take a blind draw into a much better hand with a hand full of action and a blocker for their only threat? This is a tougher question to answer. Your Gurmag Angler matches up very poorly against a Young Pyromancer. You will need to have a plan for how to land and protect your Angler if you trade away your Delver, but you’ll never connect again if your opponent is allowed to untap with a Young Pyromancer in play and a few cards in hand.
Switching to Shardless BUG, you have a midgame hand of:
into a parity Tarmogoyf/Tarmogoyf board against RUG Delver with two cards in hand. You have never drawn a Shardless Agent and they have not been applying significant pressure. You are both at comfortable life totals with four lands each.
Do you suspend the Ancestral Vision? Taking this line puts you in a position of having exactly one answer to anything they do to try to tip the game in their favor while you wait for your Vision to tick down. Shardless doesn’t run many blue cards and so it’s likely you’ll be pitching Brainstorm to the Force of Will. It seems inevitable you will need to run out Force at some point in the next few turns either to stay on parity while you tick down your Vision or to protect it when it goes off. Now you are locked into the line of “Hope to not die while Forcing every threat and Dismember.”
Another line here is to cast Brainstorm and try to steal back the tempo. You still have Force and Vision in case of movement on RUG’s part, plus you get three more looks to try to find a powerful spell. There is even an unlikely case where you hit a Shardless Agent get to stow Vision back on top to cascade into. This is a powerful line, but it relies on chance heavily. As there is no pressure to speak of, patience is prudent. Your top decks are nearly all relevant in this board and accelerating those looks at the cost of a very powerful part of your engine is somewhat loose.
The best line here in a vacuum is to sit and pass. It’s possible you’ll get punished for your patience, but Brainstorm and Ancestral are both too powerful to not want to see your next draw step. Nearly every top deck sets you up for a great next turn. Removal kills Tarmogoyf, discard destroys their hand, any creature or planeswalker takes the board advantage, cantrips give you looks without sacrificing the ability to Force, and a land means you can hardcast Force. Taking one turn to multiply your powerful lines and your spell utility will win you more games than will immediately casting every spell with a target.
Whether it’s waiting a few turns to cast Gamble for Exploration into a hand with some padding or letting your opponent Wasteland your Taiga while you have a Crop Rotation in hand in Lands or it’s just waiting for your fourth land to jam a Sulfuric Vortex against a Daze deck in Burn, patience with your spells is rewarded in Legacy. Every spell needs to be so impactful that consistently, the player who waits for the right time to cast every spell is the player who wins. Life is a resource. Don’t be afraid to take a hit off of a Delver if it means you can cast your Lightning Bolt with a land upright to pay for Daze. Don’t Force of Will that Chain Lightning when you’re dead to a Price of Progress. Every deck is different, but bring a little patience to the party and you’ll see significant gains in your Legacy play.
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