I'm not sure if Cedric Phillips is an addict or just a glutton for punishment. Based on these text messages and conversations over the last two weeks you decide:
(Yes this is two PTQs in thirty-six hours plus a Legacy tournament. The store owner laughed but allowed Cedric to bring his laptop to the table. Cedric's opponents struck by the novelty of someone double-queuing live had no objections either.)
(Cedric lost in the finals of the PTQ)
(Actually he just shrugged and said that he should have mulliganed in game three — but story value people story value.)
You see shortly after quitting Magic Cedric got bored one night and ported the Standard Mythic deck into Extended where he started “beating the hell out of everyone in comical fashion.” After Worlds most people were either playing Four-Color Control which was a good matchup for Mythic or poorly-tuned brews of their own design. Mythic was strong against all of these and Cedric more or less cruised his way to the finals of the PTQ where he was quickly dismantled by Faeries.
Cedric Steven and I all thought that Mythic was still an excellent deck despite Cedric's loss. After all Cedric had beaten another Faeries player in the quarterfinals and he'd beaten Faeries in the Swiss as well. We were all confident that we just needed to grind out a bunch of games to figure out the right plan for the matchup.
I beat him convincingly winning eight of ten games. Steven was running bad and had missed on a few opportunities to peel on me but it still felt to both of us that Faeries was a solid favorite. Worse we had no real idea what to do about it; Mythic is a deck that operates at sorcery speed and Faeries is designed to prey on sorcery-speed decks. Jund has Bloodbraid Elf along with access to potent Faeries hosers Volcanic Fallout and Great Sable Stag to overcome being “all sorceries all the time.” Mythic can play Stag sure — but Stag is just Trained Armodon if Mythic doesn't have anything else going on. Steven and I just sort of shrugged and started tuning Faeries lists. I called Cedric and let him know what happened and we agreed to test at Cedric's soon.
I got to Cedric's house early. James Nguyen another partner in crime was slated to arrive later but Cedric and I battled for a while until James appeared. Again I played Faeries against Cedric's Mythic.
The games went... poorly. I wasn't getting demolished or anything; I think I was only down one game after playing for a little over an hour. But I was totally lost and I knew it. I didn't have a handle on which cards were important and how those cards changed over the course of the game or based on what's in my hand.
In some games Cedric's Lotus Cobras were huge must-counter threats; in others they were blanks. Frustratingly I couldn't tell the difference until a turn or two after I'd made a wrong decision – and even with the knowledge that I'd punted it was difficult to pin down a specific reason why his Cobra was a threat this time when all it had done was trade with a Bitterblossom token last game.
There were other less subtle mistakes. There were some games that I didn't recognize would come down to races; I lost a game because I didn't attack with Mutavault on turn 3. I gave Cedric a window to hit me for an extra eleven damage for no real reason other than I forgot to play around Sovereigns of Lost Alara and he took it. Typical punts.
Finally James arrived.
Cedric offered us to play against him in the style of a Two-Headed Giant where James and I could discuss tricky lines of play. I've found though that I learn better by watching people play Magic and asking questions rather than by sitting and spinning my wheels for a while.
Now it's very useful to play a lot of games and make a lot of mistakes when you can go back and analyze what you're doing wrong. I was definitely losing some games to Cedric because I was making simple tactical errors. However those tactical errors were occurring because I had no idea how I should approach the matchup strategically. I could recognize some of the mistakes I was making but I was losing games I felt I should win.
I just didn't see where my mistakes were. And you can't fix mistakes until you find them.
So I sat down to watch James pilot Faeries.
No two people play the same game of Magic the same way. With so many branching decision paths over so many turns in each game it's inevitable that those two people will eventually make different plays. My experience is that plays start to branch around turn 3 or 4; this is when players start having the most options available to them. There's not usually much debate over whether or which one-drop you should play and picking which land to play is rarely a controversial decision.
...So it was awkward when James fanned open a hand of Secluded Glen Disfigure Bitterblossom Spellstutter Sprite and some other cards I don't recall. Seemed simple: if Cedric has a one-drop we want to kill it with Disfigure. To do that we need to play Glen untapped. Play Glen show him Blossom go. Revealing the Bitterblossom we're going to play on turn 2 isn't giving up much information. James played Secluded Glen untapped...
Then James showed Cedric his Spellstutter Sprite.
“Wait what?” I asked. “Why are we showing him a counterspell?”
James shrugged. “I want to see how he plays knowing that we're holding a counter.”
After the game I still didn't understand. After all isn't the fact that your opponent never knows whether or not you have it one of the best things about playing with permission?
“No” James explained to me. “If he knows that I have a counterspell he's not going to just run out his best threat into it. So when he still had a couple of cards left and he played Jace the Mind Sculptor into my Sprite I knew that he still had more ammunition back probably Sovereigns of Lost Alara.”
James also pointed out some other benefits he could get by revealing a counterspell. “If my hand is a little slow or whatever and it needs some time to develop I can show him a counterspell and force him to put the brakes on a little bit.”
I never thought of that.
You always hear about the importance of inference in games of hidden information like Magic. You don't know exactly what the other guy has in his hand but you know that he played this and not that on turn 2; how do you use that to figure out what else he has in his hand? Your Jund opponent used Lightning Bolt to kill your creature on turn 2 and did nothing on turn 3? Sounds like he has Bloodbraid Elf. With enough practice this starts becoming second nature.
The obvious corollary to the importance of inferring information is that it's important to conceal as much information as possible. This is why you mix the card you draw in with the rest of your hand before you do so much as play a land for the turn; you don't want your opponent to know if you're drawing a land or a spell every turn.
Finally Cedric told me what I was doing wrong. “You're taking your turns too quickly. You need to just sit there and think about everything that might happen on every turn.”
James was doing that. James knew that if he played Secluded Glen and showed Cedric a Spellstutter Cedric would likely play in a way that would give James some extra information.
I wasn't doing that. I was viewing each turn individually trying to get value on individual interactions assuming that if I was ahead by enough cards or mana my advantage would snowball into a win automatically. That's not how Magic works.
When Cedric starts his turns he starts out by figuring out the worst thing that could happen to him on that turn. Then he takes steps to ensure that the worst doesn't happen. For example it's quite the beating when Faeries uses Mistbind Clique in combat to Mana Short you and kill an attacker. So Cedric casts a lot of spells in his first main phase if Faeries has Mistbind mana up. Sometimes yeah Cryptic Command counters Cedric's spell and taps his team — but unless Cedric is actively racing losing one attack step isn't the end of the world. Losing his entire turn and a creature however is lights out.
What I needed to be doing was analyzing my hand and figuring out what the worst thing Cedric could do to me was. For example once Cedric gets to six mana he's going to be able to threaten Sovereigns of Lost Alara; I need to play in such a way that when Cedric gets to six mana I'm able to withstand Sovereigns. And by extension I need to ensure that when Cedric is at eight mana I can handle Sovereigns plus a Mana Leak.
Sovereigns of Lost Alara is not Mythic's only threat. You have to iterate this decision making process every turn. “If I counter his Dauntless Escort with this Mana Leak what am I going to do if he plays Jace on his next turn? But if I Doom Blade it what if he waits a turn and plays Knight of the Reliquary with enough mana to pay for Mana Leak? Can I afford to take some hits from Escort? If I do how will I race it?”
Or if you have Cryptic Command: “Should I Dismiss here? Am I going to need to bounce Celestial Colonnade or some other threat later? Are we going to get into a race that I'm going to need to steal a turn to win?”
As it turns out Faeries vs. Mythic is just a very close matchup. The player who has the tightest technical play is the favorite — but tight play in the matchup requires understanding the implications of every potential play you can make. The matchup is not a matchup where you can just “have a plan.” Sure Mythic's basic strategy is “resolve large animals and attack with them” but you have to understand which creatures you want to resolve and how to force your Faeries opponent to trade his removal and counterspells for the creatures you don't value highly while still presenting a serious clock. Focus on what matters.
The tricky thing is “what matters” changes significantly from game to game. In some games Mythic will be racing Bitterblossom and Vendilion Clique with Creeping Tar Pit lurking in the background. Those games aren't attrition fights so Jace isn't a powerful threat for Mythic; indeed Jace matters very little in such games. In other games Faeries has no Bitterblossom no Vendilion and is all one-for-one removal and counterspells. In those games Jace is huge and Mythic should take extra steps to ensure it resolves.
You come to understand what matters by understanding the ramifications of every possible action you and your opponent can take. You just need to be willing to consider all of your options.
max dot mccall at gmail dot com