When I was a kid, my younger sister used to tell our family all about what her life was going to be like when she grew up. She knew what her job was going to be, how many children she was going to have, and what ages she was going to have them at. She had her wedding details fully planned—how many bridesmaids and groomsmen there would be, how many people she wanted to invite, and how everything would be arranged. She had even figured out what the theme of her wedding was going to be.
Imagine my disdain when she got married last year and I found out the bad news that she was no longer willing to carry through with the Aladdin themed wedding. I was just hammering out the final details for my Genie costume, too. I could only envision the guests' surprise when I popped out of the cake during a lull in the action, painted completely blue, and yelled out in my best Robin Williams impression: "Aaaaauughhhh! Oiiii! Ten thousand seconds will give you SUCH a CRICK in the NECK!" What a letdown.
While my sister may not have exhibited a willingness to follow through, there's no doubt that she was fully versed in the details of long-term planning.
On the other hand, I could barely figure out what I was going to do in three days. When I was struggling my way through college, I got asked the questions "what are you going to do when you get out?" and "where do you see yourself in five years?" roughly seventeen million times. My answer was always "I don't know" followed by some generic potential line of work to hopefully appease the person asking the question. If that didn't work, then I kind of stammered out some unintelligible phrases for a while, hoping they would take pity on my poor soul. If that didn't work, I began convulsing uncontrollably until the subject was changed. That always worked.
I had no clue what the future held for me, and my mind kind of just melted down when I tried to think seriously about it.
Thankfully, in a much more controlled environment—say a good old game of Magic: The Gathering—I was able to do a bit better in coming up with some long-term plans. Coming up with a plan is something that doesn't get touched on that often, but I believe it is one of the most important skills for a Magic player to have and one that a lot of players simply don't even think about.
Why Does It Matter?
I've heard the following way too often from players: "Magic is just a game of luck. Both players just play whatever cards they draw, and whoever draws the best wins." Those same players are often just going to cast any spell they draw whenever they draw it without any serious thought about the ramifications of their actions. They might draw an Ultimate Price at a reasonable life total, cast it on a lone Beast token, and then end up losing to the Angel of Serenity that is drawn the following turn.
"I got unlucky. He lucksacked an Angel of Serenity, and I flooded out."
In reality, if they had held the Ultimate Price to use on the Angel of Serenity with its enters the battlefield trigger on the stack, they could have easily won the game. The player didn't think ahead and consider what the game was going to look like in a few turns and instead just played their card based on what the current board state looked like.
In chess, you are forced to think not only of what moves you want to make but of what moves you believe your opponent is going to make in response to your moves. Chess masters are able to think multiple moves ahead and see exactly what the game is going to look like a number of turns later assuming each player makes optimal plays. For that reason, a lot of moves may seem bad to the untrained eye, but if you examine them closer they are actually brilliant lines of play. They offer up what may seem an appealing trade, but in actuality it is a trap.
When I was in high school, I cared a lot about chess. I was captain of the chess team. I went home from school and played chess online. My mother once punished me by saying I wasn't allowed to play chess online for a week. I actually cried. Our chess coach gave us all commemorative pocket protectors as a fun joke when we finally won our regional championship my senior year.
Yeah. I was one of the cool kids. You jealous?
I wore that pocket protector to the National Honor Society formal dinner my senior year as a joke. I ended up forgetting to take the pocket protector and pens out of my shirt when I washed it. The ink from the pens leaked out, but miraculously the pocket protector actually absorbed all of it and protected my clothing. You may not believe it, but those things really do work. Pocket successfully protected.
I didn't just play chess, though. I studied the game. I bought chess books and read them cover to cover multiple times. I studied board positions and tried to figure out exactly why the plays they made were right.
One of the things I discovered in one of those books was something called the Legal's Mate.* After a fairly ordinary series of opening moves, White offers the queen up as a sacrifice. If Black accepts the sacrifice, they lose the game two turns later. Legal's opponent failed to read the fine print.**
This game demonstrates the value of having a long-term plan. Legal offered up his most powerful piece for a paltry Bishop. If you take the game purely at face value, it seems like a huge blunder. In other words, if you only consider the move on its own merit and not as part of a larger collection of moves that make up the game, then it seems awful. But it was actually part of a much larger long-term plan that secured a victory.
Magic is not any different than chess in that regard. It's important to plan for how the game is going to progress over the next few turns. Much like chess, you have to think not only about what moves you want to make but also what plays you think your opponent is going to make. Then you plan for them. A match of Magic isn't just a series of unrelated plays. Each play relates to and builds off the previous plays, and if you lack a concrete plan for how you're going to build those blocks, then you may find yourself on the losing end of the match slip sign-off quite frequently.
The question becomes: how do you develop a long-term plan?
Coming Up With a Plan
Before you even start playing a game of Magic, you should have a plan for how you intend to win. This applies to both Limited and Constructed. Maybe your plan is to kill every creature your opponent ever plays and then mill them out with Nephalia Drownyard. Maybe your plan is to end the game before they can cast Supreme Verdict. Maybe your plan is simply to Acidic Slime the **** out of your opponent over and over and over again. Whatever it is, it's important that you know what it is you're aiming to do exactly in the course of the game.
In Limited, perhaps your plan is to play a bunch of fliers and use defenders and removal spells to not die to fat ground pounders in the meantime. Perhaps your plan is to play creatures that are simply fatter than your opponent's. Maybe you have a unique strategy that wins unconventionally, which your opponents won't expect. Last weekend, at the Team Sealed Open in Somerset, NJ, I had an opponent deal eighteen damage to me in one turn with a Flux Charger, Martial Glory, and Armed // Dangerous. I could have cast Devour Flesh the previous turn to deal with it, but I opted to play a five-drop and develop my board instead. I didn't even consider that eighteen damage was something that could happen, and as a result I didn't make the right choice to play around it.
As soon as your opponent leads with their first land, you should immediately begin making alterations to that plan. If you're playing G/B/W Reanimator and your opponent leads with a Stomping Ground and an Experiment One, your plan immediately alters to finding as many Thragtusks and Fiend Hunters as you can. However, if they lead with a tapped Watery Grave instead, your new plan is to dig for Sin Collectors and Acidic Slimes.
So you come up with an initial plan and then make alterations to that plan as the game progresses. That's all good in theory, but how does one actually do something like that in a real, practical situation?
Hopefully this patented and fully reliable four-step process will help answer that. I've gone 1-2 at enough PTQs employing this method to know that it simply cannot fail.
Step 1: Envision the End of the Game
Alternatively, Step 1 can be "Cut a Hole in the Box" depending on what your long-term plans actually are. Gotta keep your options open.
The first thing you want to do is to envision what you think the game will look like on the turn when you win it. That might sound a bit arrogant, but it's hard to win a game when you aren't planning for it. To do this, you have to think about the cards in your deck, the cards in your opponent's deck, and the current board state to come up with a plausible state that the game would look like on the final turn.
For example, if you're playing Jund and your opponent is playing Naya Blitz, you're probably envisioning a board state where you're attacking with a flipped Huntmaster of the Fells and a Wolf token while your opponent doesn't have any creatures in play and is sucking on their thumb. If you're playing Jund against G/B/W Reanimator, you might instead imagine a board state where Olivia is a 7/7 flying Juggernaut and has stolen both a number of creatures and the will to continue playing from the G/B/W Reanimator player.
When a matchup is really good, you can typically think of a large number of potential board states that contribute to you winning the game. For the G/B/W Reanimator versus Esper Control matchup, in post-board games especially, I can think of a veritable myriad of possible endgame states that could result from G/B/W Reanimator winning the game.
There could be a number of Sin Collectors in play that prevented a Supreme Verdict. There could be an active Garruk Relentless that decided to "go HAM" as the cool kids say.*** Perhaps Acidic Slimes and Restoration Angels made it so your opponent could conceivably cast Drown in Filth to kill that Worldspine Wurm you were sandbagging. It's even possible that just Obzedat, Ghost Council by himself was able to do the kinds of things he specializes in, specifically draining em' and brain...err winning the game. [Editor's Note: What did I say about drain em' and brain em' last week Brian!?]
In bad matchups, the opposite holds. Let's consider the reverse scenario: Esper Control versus G/B/W Reanimator. For the Esper player, there are really only two game states that I can envision a game commonly ending with that results in an Esper victory. One is an unanswered Jace, Memory Adept that finishes it quickly, and the other is an untouched Rest in Peace along with Dissipates and Sphinx's Revelations. Both of those game plans can be flimsy. Jace, Memory Adept is a scary card to rely on when your opponent's deck functions off the graveyard, and Rest in Peace is only a stopgap against a horde of Acidic Slimes, not an actual game-ending trump card.
To bring it back to the original point: the first thing you always want to do is figure out what the end of the game is probably going to look like. It is exceptionally rare that there is actually no series of draws and plays that can be made that will lead to a victory. The key thing is to envision what that victory might look like.
Step 2: Figure Out the Path to That Endgame
Once you've determined what the end of the game is going to look like, the next step is to actually map out the path you are going to take to achieve that endgame.
Take a moment and look at the cards in your hand. Which cards help push the game to a point where your end result is achieved? Which cards don't? Any card that doesn't actually do anything toward you winning the game has little value. For that reason, you should be looking to get rid of those cards or get some use out of them while you can. Any card that is integral to your plan of winning the game should be preserved and utilized only in a fashion that actually directly pushes you toward that endgame.
Let's say that you drafted a deck that plans on winning with flying creatures. In this scenario, you can be very liberal with how you use your ground creatures. They aren't actually part of your plan for winning the game, and thus they become expendable to help facilitate your endgame of unmitigated air strikes. The endgame you envision is where you are attacking for lethal with two or three creatures your opponent cannot block. Your path to victory is to preserve your life total as much as you can from their ground assault and use your removal on any creature they may have that can interfere with your plan or effectively race you.
Normally speaking, it's extremely poor value to chump block a 3/3 with a 2/3 creature. You're throwing away a creature that is nearly as good as theirs simply to gain three points of life. It's usually a very bad tradeoff. However, it may often be the correct play in a deck like this because keeping your life total high enough to survive is actually an important aspect to winning.
However, it's important to stay flexible as the game progresses. As each new play is made, it's important to revise the plan to account for that play. What if your opponent plays too many early creatures and you realize you won't be able to actually race them like you had originally planned—what happens then?
It's time for a new plan. First up, you have to envision a new endgame. Now, instead of one where you are killing them with a few unblocked fliers as they struggle to mount an effective enough ground force, your new plan is one where you've traded off your fliers for their ground creatures and you are able to win the resulting topdeck war.
That Ascended Lawmage that was going to start attacking for three a turn is now tasked with trading with their attacking 3/3 Centaur token.
But what if your opponent has other ideas?
Step 3: Figure Out How Your Opponent Can Thwart Your Plans
All it takes is three Islands and a little elbow grease.
If you've ever listened to the opening speeches judges give at the beginning of big tournaments, you've probably heard the following phrase: "Your opponent does not have your best interests at heart."
What scumbags. All I want is to win a few matches of Magic here and there, and these so-called opponents are out to ruin my fun? Lame.
Unfortunately, winning a game of Magic isn't as easy as just coming up with an end result and then mapping the path to that end result. Sometimes the map takes you on a wrong turn, and sometimes there is just a huge boulder blocking your path.
For many, that boulder usually looks like a pretty shaggy 5/3 Beast, but I digress.
The thing is that your opponent ALSO has a plan, and they also have mapped out how they are going to achieve that plan. Their plan and your plan don't exactly mesh. That's why it's important to take their plan into consideration when formulating your own.
You know what you want the end of the game to look like, and you know what cards are important for you to achieve that end result. Now you have to consider what cards your opponent has to stop you from doing this. Not only that, but you have to consider what each player can potentially draw in the next few draw steps to alter those plans.
For example, consider G/B/W Reanimator against U/W/R Flash in Standard. The G/B/W Reanimator player's game plan is to present more threats than U/W/R is prepared to answer and eventually grind out a win. The envisioned endgame is one where the U/W/R player has no cards in hand and G/B/W Reanimator is attacking with whatever few creatures are left on the battlefield for lethal.
The path to that victory is simply to keep putting threats in play.
The next step is to consider what U/W/R is looking to do to stop your plan and then building your plan to work around it. U/W/R's script to beat you is to use removal to keep you off of threats, draw cards with Sphinx's Revelation to gain card advantage, and then eventually kill you with whatever random creatures they have remaining afterward.
So how does Reanimator build a scheme that takes this into account? Their plan revolves around two key things: drawing cards and removing creatures. Your plan involves putting constant threats into play.
The key for Reanimator then becomes putting threats into play that dodge their removal, match their card advantage, or stifle their ability to generate card advantage. Knowing this, you now have a revised game plan for how to attack them that takes their cards into account:
Keep putting the right threats into play.
A card like Thragtusk, while good, isn't actually the right threat to play against them. It dies to their most commonly played removal spell, Searing Spear, and it doesn't actually combat their main source of card advantage, Sphinx's Revelation.
Fiend Hunter is bad because it only attacks their creatures, which isn't at all part of their plan to beat you.
Instead, a card like Obzedat, Ghost Council is good because it avoids their removal. Acidic Slime is good because it attacks their mana, which reduces their Sphinx's Revelations. Deathrite Shaman is good because it attacks their card advantage by shutting out Snapcaster Mage. Sin Collector attacks their card advantage because it removes their Sphinx's Revelations.
Being able to update your plan based on how you expect your opponent to attack your plan drastically improves your ability to reach your desired endgame. Thragtusk may be one of the strongest creatures in a vacuum, but when you consider how your opponent is planning on winning, it becomes less powerful in context. By taking the time to come up with this plan and reevaluate it based on how your opponent plans to thwart it, you might end up taking Acidic Slime with your Grisly Salvage instead of Thragtusk. That could end up being the difference between winning and losing the game. Without a plan, you might just take the generally stronger creature in Thragtusk, and it may be a mistake.
Step 4: Plan for Each Draw Step
There's more to developing a long-term plan than just evaluating what cards are in your hand and what your opponent is currently up to. By the time you reach your desired endgame, each player will have drawn a number of new cards along the way. How do those cards affect your plan?
Oftentimes you have to rely on drawing the right card or right series of cards along the way to reach the winning situation you envision. Sometimes the only way you can conceive of yourself winning a game is to draw specific cards on specific turns. If that's the case, then your plan needs to include you drawing those cards on those turns. Play to your outs.
Likewise, you should plan for what cards your opponent might draw along the way. Sometimes your opponent might only have one card in their deck that can possibly beat you. If you have the luxury of playing around that card, you should. If you have lethal in play and the only card your opponent can possibly draw to stop you from killing them is Bonfire of the Damned, then there is no need to run another creature out into play. You might as well save it to play after the worst-case scenario of them hitting a miracle.
To provide another example, consider the following theoretical board state in a game of Return to Ravnica Block Limited:
You have an Ascended Lawmage and a Trostani, Selesnya's Voice in play, and your opponent is at six life. He has a pair of Golgari Longlegs in play, and you're at sixteen life. Neither player has any cards in hand. Your opponent attacks you with both Golgari Longlegs. Do you block?
The first step is to construct the endgame where you win: your opponent at zero life, dead to your attacking Ascended Lawmage.
The second step is to map the path to that endgame: attacking twice in the air and staving off your opponent's assault in the meantime.
The third step is to consider how your opponent can thwart the plan: your opponent's plan is to beat you with their ten power of ground creatures before you kill them with your hexproof flier.
The final step is to consider what cards can be drawn: is there anything they can draw to stop your plan? Well, yes, actually. Your opponent can draw a flying creature to block your Ascended Lawmage. In that case, you're going to lose anyway unless you then also draw a removal spell. The other possibility is that they draw a removal spell to kill your Trostani and prevent her from blocking.
You can't play around their flying creature, but you can play around the possibility of them drawing a removal spell the following turn by blocking now rather than waiting until later.
In a vacuum, Trostani is the most powerful creature on the board. She can gain a ridiculous amount of life and generate a massive army. By waiting to block with Trostani, you open up the possibility that you draw a creature and can gain some life. However, Trostani doesn't fit your plan for winning the game. By developing a long-term plan for winning the game, it becomes clear that Trostani is expendable. By developing that plan with your opponent's potential draw steps in mind, it becomes apparent that she should block one of their Golgari Longlegs now so that if they draw a removal spell the following turn you won't die.
I want to close out the article with two recent examples that are fresh in my mind where developing a long-term plan led to some untraditional lines of play in an attempt to maximize the chance of achieving the envisioned endgame of victory. Both come from Return to Ravnica Block Limited matches.
The first is a Draft match between me and Gerry Thompson. Gerry is playing an Esper deck featuring a lot of fliers, extort, and removal spells. I am playing a big creature deck that has Armada Wurm, a couple of Trostani's Summoners, and a few ramp and removal spells to bridge that gap.
The board state is the following:
The first thing I did was examine how I could see myself winning the game. The endgame I envisioned involved me barely winning the race against his fliers with Armada Wurm and Trostani's Summoner. My path to victory was to draw the lands I needed to cast those cards and soak up enough damage to ensure I could kill him before his fliers killed me.
Almost any good card he has will beat me, so there isn't much I can play around in that regard. The one thing is that I don't want him to add any creatures to the board, especially a flier, or else my chances of racing him become slim. I have to just try to execute my plan and hope he doesn't have anything to stop me.
As a result, I blocked his Tower Drake with my Runewing and his Hussar Patrol with my Seller of Songbirds. Neither of these cards fit into my long-term plan for winning the game. By blocking with the Runewing, I both draw a card, which can help me hit the lands I need to cast my fatties, and force him to pay two mana to keep his Tower Drake alive, which might prevent him from having the resources to deploy another threat.
Seller of Songbirds is going to be an irrelevant creature once Armada Wurm hits play. It will never be able to attack through his Hussar Patrol or Basilica Screecher, and his Hussar Patrol won't be able to attack into my board of huge creatures once I start playing them, so having it back to block won't be relevant later either.
As it turned out, I did draw the land I needed to cast Armada Wurm, but Gerry had Far and Away his best card for the situation and was able to easily deal with both halves of my literal ground pounder. What a ****move.
While I ended up losing the game anyway, coming up with a long-term plan led me to make a move that was pretty untraditional—throwing away two creatures for no value—but one that I felt gave me an actual chance to win the game. If I didn't stop to think of a plan for winning and simply made what seemed like the best play at the time, I would have ended up taking four damage and have no chance of successfully racing his two fliers and extort with my Armada Wurm.
The other situation comes from the Team Sealed Open in Somerset, NJ last weekend. It's game 3 of Chris VanMeter's match against his opponent, and our round hinges on the result of this game. Chris is playing a Bant deck with very little removal and has sided into Supreme Verdict. His opponent is playing a very aggressive Boros deck.
His opponent attacks for three with Daring Skyjek. Do you cast Serve?
It seems like barely a consideration. The obvious answer is no. Why waste a card that has a chance to be a blowout in combat simply to protect three life? It's turning a potential two-for-one into a zero-for-one.
First, though, consider what Chris's plan is to win the game. The easiest endgame to envision is one where he draws his Supreme Verdict and is at a high enough life total to cast the Supreme Verdict and not die shortly after to any follow up creature. The other endgame is one where he draws a steady stream of creatures and is able to start chipping away for damage and effectively race the Daring Skyjek's ability to potentially clock him in the air.
What are the paths he needs to take to achieve those endgames? In the first, he should cast the Serve immediately so that when he does draw the Supreme Verdict he is at a high enough life total to survive the aftermath. In the second, he is drawing a creature every turn and is going to be tapping out to cast those. When is he going to have a chance to cast the Protect // Serve?
By coming up with a long-term plan and mapping out how to achieve that plan, it became clear to us both that he should make the non-intuitive play and just cast the Serve right then and there to effectively gain three life.
As it turned out, Chris's next draw was the Supreme Verdict. His opponent curved Daring Skyjek into Warmind Infantry into Viashino Fangtail and put Chris at nine life before the Supreme Verdict. His opponent's follow up play was Steeple Roc. By virtue of being at nine life instead of six life, Chris was able to apply enough pressure with Bronzebeak Moa, Miming Slime, and Hussar Patrol to put himself in a position to race the Steeple Roc.
As it turned out, a topdecked Punish the Enemy and a blunder on my part meant that he lost the game anyway. While he didn't win that game and we didn't win that match, coming up with a long-term plan and executing it still gave us the best chances of winning.
That's all I got for today. I think we can all benefit from taking the time to consider how we plan on winning each game we play instead of living a life of constant plan defiance. Hopefully this helps achieve that.
Thanks for reading,
BBD on Magic Online
@BraunDuinIt on Twitter
*Also see the Immortal Game where Adolf Anderssen gives up a bishop, then a rook, then another rook, then his lunch money and car keys, and finally his queen before checkmating his opponent with just his remaining pieces. His opponent was rumored to have left the match scratching his head and also eating a delicious sandwich.
**I'd like to make a product called the "Legal pad." It looks like a normal legal pad, but it is actually designed for optimal notation of chess games. The one design flaw is it only notates games out through the first eight moves (which should be all you need). If you're interested, let me know. I don't accept cash or major credit cards. I only accept...check.
***Personally, I've been pushing for the term "Going Roast Beef" to replace "Going HAM," but it hasn't caught on...yet. I'm still waiting for Arby's to return my call about a sick new marketing campaign opportunity.
Special thanks to Ray Dill for the board state graphics!