I'm often reminded of the cinema classic Back to the Future: Part 2. In it Marty McFly gets a sports almanac from the future and is going to use it to accurately predict upcoming sporting events for personal gain. Dr. Emmit Brown - played magnificently by Sir Anthony Hopkins - tells Marty that it is wrong to know the future, and certainly wrong to use it for your personal ends. Well my friends, Dr. Brown was wrong. It is not wrong, and it's very powerful.
Ever play someone in a game and they're just shocked by a play? Some move your opponent didn't see coming just blindsided the fellow, and now he's confused and reeling. Worse, he's losing. Being surprised is perhaps a necessary evil in the game once in a while, perhaps. Yet without a doubt, a lot of "hidden" information really isn't that secretive. Using logic, foresight, and experience, you have the tools to determine exactly what your opponent is doing before he or she does it. Better still, you can set yourself up to take advantage; no more surprise. This not an inconsequential advantage. Seeing moves and turns ahead is a fundamental part of high-level play.
I'm certain most readers use these kind of skills all the time. Take driving, for instance. You're watching the road ahead and see some vehicle two cars up hit the brakes. You know the car in front of you will (now) have to brake as well, or get in a serious accident. Thus, now you know what's going to happen! In the future! You have the choice of waiting until things get tricky a little bit down the road, or being proactive and slowing down/changing lanes. What a visionary!
Doing that with Magic is like that fortune cookie game where you add in bed to everything: "You will make a good financial decision in bed", or "You will have sexual intercourse in bed" etc. The card game is similar, except you add or they lose to your predictions. "My opponent will pay the upkeep on Masticore this turn or they lose." etc.
There are two key paths when trying to see turns ahead. The first is seeing moves specifically and the second is seeing the game generally. Neither is more useful than the other, and having both down will probably do wonders for your win %. Game specific predictions are slightly tougher to pull off, however there is often a lot of overlap, as we'll see.
At any point in a game, it's in your best interest to figure out the best case scenario and the worst-case scenario for a given turn. Usually the actual result is going to fall somewhere in between, but knowing your extremes is going to help immensely. Most of the time the best-case scenario is them doing nothing. I think we can safely dismiss ludicrous stuff like mana burning or Terminating their own people. The worst-case stuff is a little more daunting, but it's not actually as tough as you might think. 99% of the time, you can get it down pretty well by counting up their mana or cards in hand or life points or some other limiting factor.
Those limiting factors are essential for any kind of knowledge about what can and will happen, and they require experience with a given format. For example, all the true Wrath effects in CBS draft cost double of a color. Blue doesn't have one at all and Green's can only get fliers. Black's can only get two toughness creatures or they have to have a lot of mana and a lot of cards in hand (Kagemaro). So you know if you're playing a G/B mirror that another Moss Kami is a safe play, because they only have four cards in hand. It might die but if it does the other two will kill your opponent. Against a White or Red deck, it's a thornier situation and might not be worth the risk.
These limiting factors come in a few different manners, but they all revolve around resources. The resource of mana is the most common, but don't disregard cards in hand, life points, cards in the environment, or any other aspect of whatever you happen to be playing.
The truth of the matter is, your opponent rarely has 6 cards in hand, with 15 life and 8 mana. If you're doing your job, he's being restricted in some zone. Those restrictions let you know what can and should happen next.
I was playing in another CBS draft one time, the R/G mirror. On my opponent's turn 1 and 2 he slapped me with Glitterfang. I played an Orochi Ranger, but this did not deter my opponent from attacking with Glitterfang each turn he could, which was up until 3 where he then played Brutal Deceiver. On his fourth turn, he laid a land and attacks with just the Deceiver, and not the (uncast) Glitterfang. Now what this tells me is that he didn't play Glitterfang because he couldn't, and he couldn't because he wants to use his mana for something else this turn. So knowing that he wants to play a four-mana creature, I blocked his Deceiver with my Orochi. Normally a poor play, however these circumstances made it reasonable. I could lose my guy to first strike but if he even attempts it, then no fatty comes down. The best of both worlds is if he tries a reveal and fails, but that's greedy. I was fully expecting the dumb snake to take down the Deceiver, and that's what happened.
Racing is another way where foresight comes in handy, especially in Limited where it happens so often. In a race, you look at your hand, look at your board, and determine the rest of the game. In a recent 9th draft, my opponent played an early Hunted Wumpus, which allowed me to slip out Craw Wurm. On my turn, with him at 20 and me at less, the circumstances suggested it was racing time. I put a Treetop Bracers on the Craw Wurm and swing for 1/3 of my opponent's life. I had two creatures left in my hand which were relegated to chump duty. My opponent could play another threat or he could kill the blockers, but he couldn't do both. As expected, I went down to 4 life before he went down to dead. (To tell the truth, I wasn't wholly certain it was wise to get in a race like that because I had no idea if there was some card in 9th that could turn things around. Know the environment!)
The two key points in the example above are basic math skills and those limiting factors. The math is simple enough, although of course very important. The far more interesting area was the suppression my offense was able to put down to put my opponent in the struggling side. If he had 100 life or double the lands, I have no doubt I would have gotten creamed. Unfortunately he simply did not have the resources to make a realistic counter-attack, as planned.
The second part of working turns ahead is reacting to the game state in a general manner. What this means is knowing the most likely way the game will develop, and planning things out in advance. This can be far in advance i.e. before the game even starts.
For example, let's say in a Kamigawa Block tournament, two G/W Legend decks are matched up against each other. Now, Player A gets off to a quick offense and has lots of action going. Some weird Day of Destiny thing, I guess. Player B will cast Final Judgment soon (or die). Player A, knowing B's outs, proactively casts Time of Need for Hokori. B will cast Judgment, A will cast Hokori and it's all over but the tears.
Or for the drafting inclined, try this one. On turn 1 you lay a swamp and your opponent lays a land. On your next turn you play Forest, and have to choose between Humble Budoka or Nezumi Cutthroat. What's the better turn 2 drop? Props if you said it depends on what land they laid down first. If they played a Forest, Plains, or Island first, the Humble is the right play. Swamp or Mountain means Cutthroat. Why? Well it's a question of what play nets the most damage. Cutthroat is always good against the G/W/U crowd, where as Budoka gets outclassed pretty soon. On the other hand, Cutthroat loses his chance to deal damage when big Black creatures come down or burn becomes plentiful. The fact that your opponent did not go turn 1 Frostling is also good incentive. Furthermore, Humble Budoka can be a relevant card even into the later game against Black or Red's weaker creature base.
True story: Once upon a time we were playing a 3v3 money draft with straight Urza's Saga. For some reason I had a U/W deck, and even more inexplicably, so did one of my opponents. Now Saga draft was not known for its stall factor, what with bombs and Pestilence running around, yet in the mirror that's exactly what happened. We each had a ton of Sanctum Custodians and Pendral Drakes. There simply was no getting through, and as my opponent had 41 cards to my 40, I was decked out of game 1.
Now nothing in my sideboard could break through the inevitable stall, but what about the sideboard itself? Figuring the decking was inevitable, I sided up to 45 cards and my opponent went to a mere 43. I won game 2 on the back of those extra two cards.
Well of course we knew where this was going for finale. I went up to 47 cards and my opponent to a grand 51. He then proceeded to get totally mana screwed and got crushed. Go team!
When you play a game for the first time, or have played a matchup repeatedly, consider how the win or loss took place. Was there a certain progression of actions that led to the outcome? What can you do to recreate that situation if you win, or hijack the process if you lose? It's a good bet your opponent is going to try to do the same thing in reverse, which you can also account for. Being aware of what could happen and what should happen is such a terrific advantage, yet so many players simply play the hand they're dealt. Don't be the player that gets tossed about. Make some waves!
Next week, a report on the big 9th Edition tournament via Magic Online and the real story on 9th limited. Index free! Until then, good luck.
Noastic on Magic Online
Recently on Wizards.com, some well-meaning soul asked about Walls and their place in Magic. Brady Dommermuth answered that walls made little sense. Apparently, the creature only works thematically if they're on gigantic slabs that can be rolled around the battlefield. Well pardon me MISTER Dommermuth, but isn't Magic supposed to be about casters?
------------------------------------Bonus: The Long Game(s)------------------------------------
I've got thank my pal Christian Robertsen for these twin beauties. Got some time on your hands? That's great cause game #1 is going to take months and #2 is going to take about twenty years.
Game #1: Should you be done with your StarCityGames surfing and want some more internet fun, check out http://www.deathball.net/notpron It calls itself the hardest riddles on the internet and it's not too far off. It's fun but your brain might hurt after a while. Personally I suck at this kind of stuff anyway so perhaps more ingenuous souls can do it better and/or faster.
Game #2: Omni-Plate. This one's simple enough, although it does have a thousand levels. When you're in a car and driving around, look at other license plates. Specifically, look for a plate with the numbers 000-xxx, or xxx-000. Yay, you made it to the next level! Now look for 001. And so on. We'll probably run out of oil before anyone gets to 999, but we can dream. Convicts are prohibited from playing.