You've gone first.
It's turn 2, and your opponent plays his second land and taps both for a Tarmogoyf.
You ask yourself for a moment if you care so much about the Tarmogoyf. It's really just a guy, claims the little red-horned hubris on your left shoulder. What are the chances this thing is really going to matter?
After a brief argument with your better angels, you take a second and realize that you aren't going to do anything else with your mana this turn anyway. Plus, you have two different cards that can answer the Tarmogoyf right now. There's nothing worse than dying with a counterspell in your hand, even if it's to "just a guy." You decide to do something. Your options include:
- Mana Leak
- Spell Snare
So, genius, which one do you play?
I realize that it's not like I've given you some exhaustive amount of information. What format are you playing? What else have you got in hand? What deck do you think he's playing? Surely these kinds of questions might inform your next move in reality. But bear with me.
A small decision like this—a decision that will likely have the same short-term result whichever path you take—is the kind of decision that really good players make quickly and with confidence. But players still on the way up (you maybe?) might go the wrong way, costing them later. Later in the game. In the long term.
Here's what I'd think about:
- Mana Leak can counter all kinds of stuff. Maybe it's better to use the Spell Snare on a two-drop? The last thing you want is to have the Spell Snare in hand when he plays a Kitchen Finks next turn. Spell Snare!
- That said, Mana Leak diminishes in efficacy over time. Am I U/W Control? If the game is going to go a long time, Spell Snare is going to be equally effective against his tenth-turn Tarmogoyf or follow-up Dark Confidant, whereas he's just going to be able to pay for a Mana Leak later. Mana Leak!
Here's what I would NOT think about (or at least try not to):
Part of what makes Spell Snare useful at all is that it by nature always trades up mana-a-mana. But I already told you that part of the reason you decided to counter the stupid Tarmogoyf was that you weren't doing anything else with your lands this turn. If you're not getting any extra value on your untapped land, the difference between one and two mana here is insignificant.
I think I'd try to decide based mostly around what I thought was in the rest of my opponent's deck. Is this Modern? Am I going to have to contend with Liliana of the Veil next turn? That might be a double-whammy. Not only is there a non-two threat a-comin', but it might come well before Mana Leak hangs loose and needs a trim. Or is this Legacy? Is his deck going to be nothing but two-drops for the next several turns?
Most Magic players at a certain level play to tap out every turn; all other things held equal, they pick which cards they play based on how tightly they can LEGO their mana taps to their land availability. If you have a one-drop in your hand, chances are you're going to play it. Champion of the Parish on turn 1, after all, seems tailor made for Gather the Townsfolk on turn 2. To be clear: this is a fine baseline (maybe even the best rudder you can have if you're only going to use one source of direction).
On a recent podcast, Brian David-Marshall alerted me to the preternatural patience of relatively recently anointed Pro Tour Top 8 competitor David Ochoa. When reading an opponent for Pillar of Flame, rather than the scripted Champion of the Parish on turn 1 / Gather the Townsfolk on turn 2, he might play both spells on turn three, exposing his Champion of the Parish to his opponent only when it was already 3/3.
… Which of course reminded me of One of the Ten Greatest Battles of All Time:
[T]he matchup was the worst possible for Junk, with Becker somehow able to split the first two games. The opponent had sided in Scorching Lava, usually there for Nether Spirit but equally effective against Ramosian Sergeant and that annoying Snake, River Boa.
I remember glancing over Jon's shoulder and wondering why when he passed his first turn there was still a Sergeant in his hand... It was only after his second turn, when the opponent untapped and gleefully sent a main phase Scorching Lava at the "helpless" 1/1, did Becker's plan become obvious. He responded with Wax / Wane and had just gone a long way in winning a difficult matchup.
Much like Kai Budde figures out how to beat even the toughest matchups (admittedly by drawing his last Donate off the top of his deck at times), Becker had figured out he would never win if that Sergeant traveled the bin. Just as his opponent overvauled a draw with a sideboard card in hand, Becker went with the best plan to pull out the game...
It was enough.
In both cases, you see a player [correctly] slow playing a one-drop in order to increase its durability against a specific source of two-point red removal. Could Ochoa have won with "just" his two 1/1s on turn 2 instead of five total power the next? Two 1/1s is pretty good! Would Becker have pulled it out if the Sergeant had died? (Probs not.) Becker's play was in particular nice because he couldn't search with the Sergeant until turn 3 anyway, so all he lost was one point of damage... Though he was able to steal mana and probably reconfigure the opponent's hand evaluation with the decision.
An important thing to consider is what you might be giving up to play a bit slower. There's a reason that players of a certain level play by default at a particular default speed. But if you can de facto wipe out the opponent's proposed line of play, invalidating his strategy? That has to be worth more than a mana tap or so or a couple of life.
There are numerous reasons one might want to play more slowly. My friend Paul Jordan once told me that one of the big leaps he had made as a Limited player was coming to realize that he had a limited amount of removal and that in certain matchups he would have long-run better results if he held that removal for the opponent's key threats. Spells want to be cast. Especially when we have the right mana to cast one of them. You almost have to restrain yourself from hurling a piece of removal you can cast at whatever happens to be in the way so that you can get in next turn with your [Grizzly Bear] (or whatever). I've seen Paul succeed many times over leaning on this not-cast discipline, even if it took him more time to finish a game. As an additional payoff over just winning, you also get to look at the expression on your opponent's face as his first pick dies.
Now this might have some readers in fits, but a seemingly opposite sequence of behaviors can also be helpful. Emphasis on "seemingly." I have said on numerous occasions that over the course of the thousands of games of Magic I have observed, the greatest skill is the ability to shave a turn off of the opponent—killing him in five instead of six, say.
In a different Limited game, let's imagine the opponent is down to five cards in his library, you are "winning," but he has a Fireball of some stripe. You had really best kill him as quickly as you can! Winning a turn quicker is of particular interest when every additional turn you give him is not just "a turn" or "a card" but a 20% chance to kill you on the spot. Get to it!
Restraint in Limited? Racing now? What gives!
You really shouldn't be.
The strategies and motivations to win each Limited game are actually the same. In both cases, the opponent has something dangerous for you, whether it's a topdecked Rakdos's Return for your life total or the Pack Rat that everyone is having a great time blaming for their troubles. The skill acquisitions come from 1) identifying the problem card (or remembering having seen it in a previous game) and then 2) deciding on the appropriate action. The appropriate action in the "possibly hold my removal" universe might well be to play as quickly as possible as well... But you might not be able to legitimately execute at speed if you and your opponent both have relatively defensive Limited decks. Unlikely, if you have no Fireball defense, are you going to play it slow in a correctly categorized x-spell universe.
The "playing faster" skill system is perhaps at its best use in Constructed combo decks. Around the time he first made Top 8 with Mind's Desire, Osyp Lebedowicz claimed that the biggest chunk of win percentage that lower tier combo players were leaving on the table came from games they didn't try to win or try to win quickly enough. A player might evaluate a hand and say to himself, No, I am not SURE I can win this turn...so he wouldn't try. In fact, the right thing to say in some of these situations was, "If I give my opponent another turn, I might never have the chance to win at all!"
It might be right, therefore, to slam down only two or three accelerators or enablers and roll the storm dice with no certainty of immediate victory. You might fizzle, you might fail... But ultimately, you'd still lose the game if you didn't try to win, so your end result would be the same. Even in failing you might lose nothing, but in your attempt, you'd have a puncher's chance...which over the course of a tournament, a season, or a career would add up to many more wins than the needlessly conservative players.
No one is saying you have to work really hard to win every game, put yourself on a ledge when you have a perfectly good helicopter waiting. Again, stretching yourself into the non-guaranteed go off is driven by context. The strength of many combo decks is in their speed or their ability to win without substantially putting the opponent on the ropes any time earlier. Trying to go off when the outcome is not certain (maybe even not likely) is a horizon progressing combo players must learn to explore in order to win some games, even if it's not the preferred MO for "most" games.
A related strategy is one that Stanislav Cifka and his Eggs deck reminded the world of most recently in Seattle. After the Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, parties various on Twitter and other social media argued the merits of somehow "banning Eggs," though most agreed that Eggs was not necessarily "broken" or even the best deck. Probably, most of them have forgotten they had these discussions at this point and have gone on to thinking about Jund decks splashing for Lingering Souls.
Here's an arbitrary guideline for strategically banning combo decks I just came up with: a deck should not be able to "go off," fail, and then leave itself in a better position than it was previously. If it does, ban the bejeezus out of it. Such was the hallmark of High Tide at its height, when High Tide was more-or-less the most hated deck in the history of Magic (having been later overtaken by the Rishadan Ports of Fires of Yavimaya, Skullclamp Affinity, and others since). You don't want to have decks that can blow several resources, Thaw out a ton more lands, go, Go, GO some more, keep going, then decide against it and pass...with a full hand, all their lands up, and way more materil than they started with.
But of course, if WotC is going to let you play a deck like that, you might as well acquire this last play faster skill:
The Value Fizzle!
One thing that Cifka did well in Seattle was to go off, fail to win, but leave himself in a better position than he started so he could be better set up to win the next turn. The jury is out as to whether he was actually trying to win many of these games on those turns. Hmmm... What happens if I try this here Reshape...
Cifka might get himself a Lotus Bloom, which obviously implies the mana to cast a Second Sunrise, maybe with a Bauble or two already on board. Depending on the velocity of his hand, he might be able to run out a couple of more ones or even Ghost Quarter himself once or twice before deciding he isn't going to win. And what might be lost? The ones in the Eggs deck all replace themselves fundamentally, so using them once (and reloading with even just one Second Sunrise) might put him in essentially the same position he started the turn with but with more lands in play and having given himself access to (or mana consumption for) several incremental Eggs. He might not win that turn, but the difference would be like trying to steal home from second base (remote but not impossible) versus trying to steal home from third base the next turn (substantially more likely, though the other team will HEAR IT FROM THEIR COACH next practice).
And really? What is the other guy going to do after your Value Fizzle? Make you discard a card of your choice with his hard cast Liliana of the Veil?
A common theme you will hear from me these days is that skill acquisition in Magic is about putting together a diverse set of tools. Those tools can look like anything and everything from big turns to progressive card advantage; one big fatty or a dozen little tokens; patience to seeming impatience! From holding back to putting it all out there. The best players have many, many tools in their Druidic Satchels borne from wider horizons and more expansive maps of experience. But like choosing a screwdriver versus an iPad, a big part of success comes from being able to pick when to use which skill or tool.
When the short-term outcome doesn't change, what drives your decision on which card to use? Probably you should pick the spell that leaves you the most options later...which requires predicting what the opponent might still have.
Though driven by respect for a key card in either case, the line between keeping your cool and boiling over with red-hot murder might be drawn by what kind of card you are respecting and expecting.
And while, in practice, you have taught yourself it's not how fast you can go off, it's how fast you can go off successfully, that only wins you the games you are "supposed" to win and race by the books. If you want to win the games you aren't winning yet? You're going to have to expand your definition of what might get you to a successful go off.
And hey, sometimes it might not cost you anything!
Point being that every player at a certain level can play at exactly the speed proscribed by the top right corner of their cards or the scripted pace of their deck; choosing to deviate—and identifying when you gain value by doing so—is one dark corner where the extra games might be hiding.