Ten Rules of Reaction
1. A Defensive Spell Must be As Fast or Faster Than the Threat it Intends to Intercept.
This is the first and most important rule when it comes to selecting reactive spells. Almost every brainstorming sideboarding session I have ever done with players of all skill levels comes down to this simple statement:
Is the defense fast enough?
I think my proudest contribution to someone else's work ever was the sideboard to Patrick Chapin's winning Korlash deck from Regionals 2007. Pat had Tendrils of Corruption already — which at four mana could produce dramatic impact — but Pat's difficult matchup was Gruul.
The problem was getting beaten up by Kird Apes and Scab-Clan Maulers (believe it or not not everyone had Tarmogoyfs yet). Sure you could gain four life with a Tendrils on turn 4 — or significantly more later — but what was the point of that if you got hit for six before you pulled it off? Worse yet what about getting attacked by multiple creatures when your reactive spell cost all your mana? The solution I presented to Pat was Last Gasps and Volcanic Hammers which cost only two mana. You could fight Kird Ape and Scab-Clan Mauler with the same speed that they hit the battlefield; though you wouldn't have the amazing upside of the Tendrils you'd need it less since the opponent hadn't smashed you for six already.
For Reference: Korlash.dec
Generally speaking it is more important for a defensive spell to be fast than for it to generate card advantage. Back around the third (?) Grudge Match championship I brewed a R/W Beatdown deck with Don Lim (of Replenish fame!) and the Reverend Toby Wachter. The big decks at the time were Fires of Yavimaya and U/G Saproling Opposition.
One of the cards that R/W had (newly) available was Orim's Thunder. On its face Orim's Thunder was exactly what we might want: it could destroy both a Chimeric Idol and a Saproling Burst or a Saproling Burst and a Birds of Paradise. Against Saproling Opposition you could take out Opposition or Static Orb (and a little guy) or just that key artifact or enchantment... you didn't have to pay four.
Turns out you didn't have to pay three.
Despite the opportunity to go for self-contained card advantage we ultimately chose to play Disenchant. In fact when we went to a zillion artifact and enchantment kill options after sideboarding we decided to play Seal of Cleansing. Against a combination of permission and lockdown mana control we needed to either invest in our “removal” card before we had lost or leave ourselves enough room to keep fighting even if we missed.
The deck ended up being awesome and everyone who played it made Top 8... Except for YT :(
For Reference: The Great White Hope
2. Beyond Mana Cost the Most Important Consideration for Reactive Cards is Timing.
Closely related to the previous rule this one requires defensive cards to be fast enough to preempt / deal with the threat-before-the-real-threat or at least show up before something catastrophic happens.
Consider Magic in the age when spells like Flashfires were legal. Flashfires was a wicked one-sided Armageddon. And for that matter Armageddon was a hell of an Armageddon. As powerful as a Flashfires might be it could be blanked — and worse — by a Sacred Ground. A Sacred Ground was only two mana so faster by far than the four-mana Armageddon or Flashfires. It was also reliable... As long as it showed up.
There was nothing so sad as topdecking a Sacred Ground the turn after the opponent blew up all your lands.
Part of the problem with playing a black deck in the age when Fires of Yavimaya ruled Standard was the speed of Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves. Zvi's G/R Fires deck circa Kai's Chicago had Assault / Battery but non-Green decks couldn't really play that substandard Shock. And at the time Shock itself was... so underwhelming. A Ghitu Fire with X=1 or a Scorching Lava (which had crossover value against a Nether Spirit) would be too slow when the opponent was on the play.
We can see parallels today as control players struggle to deal with Avenger of Zendikar. A Pyroclasm or Slagstorm is theoretically fast enough with a big enough pop to deal with the Saproling tokens... Except when they're not. 0/1 tokens yes. Play a Mountain for three damage after the Avenger of Zendikar? Still yes. Terramorphic Expanse instead? You'll be out of Pyroclasm range.
Keep in mind that timing-dependent answer cards tend to lose value at a steep rate when they show up late. Not every answer is as bad as a Sacred Ground closing the gate a turn after the horses have all galloped out but Memoricide still looks pretty weak once the opponent already has a Primeval Titan in play.
3. Thou Shalt Exchange Counterspells with Consideration to Time
One of the biggest gaps between rookie and experienced tournament players is how they spend their interaction. When Jan-Moritz Merkel won Pro Tour: Kobe the announce team marveled at his insistence at trading a Clockwork Hydra in combat rather than building it up over time; but turns later Merkel's confident decision to attack ended up being the difference between a tight victory and certain defeat at the hands of Willy Edel.
What will probably come up at least in a repeatable fashion for most players is what to counter with and whether to counter at all.
Which do you spend?
A lot of players will scream “Snap! Spell Snare!” After all Spell Snare costs only one and trading it for Tarmogoyf is ostensibly a tempo-positive play whereas a Mana Leak is neutral. If you already have a Sensei's Divining Top in play Spell Snare might be the right play (especially if you don't have a third land in play).
But all other things held equal? I think that most players needlessly ignore the possibility of using the Mana Leak.
If a game goes long a Mana Leak is going to lose value. In a game that goes five or more games a Mana Leak is no longer going to be able to Counterspell a Tarmogoyf. On balance if you think the opponent has a lot of two-mana spells in his deck say Counterbalance or Thopter Foundry or more Tarmogoyfs... Spell Snare remains a sure thing when Mana Leak isn't.
There are all different algorithms that players can use to spend their Counterspells. One not-awful (but probably not-optimal) method is to “counter everything” so long as card drawing is available. Literally! Just counter it! Draw two cards! Counter again! I mean you can run out of Counterspells but this isn't the worst method especially when mana and cards are both flowing.
Another way is to figure out what is relevant or most relevant and play stingily with Counterspells using them only when absolutely necessary as you build up more and more of a battlefield.
I think the cagiest players are those who pay attention to the holes in their own mana. They may have a baseline Counterspell algorithm but they are willing to break the rules based on when mana is available. For example if you know you are going to tap out for Jace the Mind Sculptor and a land that enters the battlefield tapped and then tap out again for a big Titan on turns 5 and 6 it is usually advisable to Counterspell whatever the opponent cast on turn 4. Anything! Whatever! Your mana for the next two turns is spoken for. If you don't spend it now you may never have the opportunity. When your Counterspell is Mana Leak it will probably just suck by the time you have free lands anyway.
4. Play Creature Removal Any Time but the Combat Phase When Possible.
Too many players play reactive cards during combat “because they can.” This is more or less the worst time you can play them. There is nothing like running a Lightning Bolt into a Giant Growth (or a Vines of the Vastwood or whatever).
Obviously combat gives you opportunities that you don't otherwise have (for example hitting a Raging Ravine) and there are times you have to use removal during combat (you activate Creeping Tar Pit to block and tap it for the black you need to cast Disfigure on another creature) but combat is when you expose yourself to the most risk.
Pump spells are the biggest problem but another issue is just information. For example if you use your removal spell during the opponent's upkeep (where he may have to commit mana prior to drawing a fresh card for the turn) you can at least make an informed block if some kind of shenanigans occur.
My personal preference is to use removal on my own turn even when it's instant speed unless I can successfully play it at the end of my opponent's turn. Either of these options will halve the efficacy of pump spells or similar effects.
5. Gains on the Battlefield Outweigh Any Other Incremental Considerations.
The biggest problem I've seen with defensive spell selection is the willingness to overpay in order to achieve card advantage. For example when Gerard Fabiano called me from the cab on the way to Grand Prix: Mexico City about playing Critical Mass I insisted he play Wear Away (two mana)... and he went with Rending Vines (three mana) anyway. Argh! Still Top 8.
That said not all card advantage is created equal. A card in hand is not worth two additional mana. Case in point: Slice in Twain. This ability is only worth one mana (the retail value on Nature's Claim)... If you were to tack on a Divination (a substandard if playable “draw two”) it would still smell like a bad deal.
I am very hesitant to call most spells unplayable but I would be very wary about playing Slice in Twain as my first line of defense against artifacts and enchantments were I going to get myself into a punching match.
Compare with Oxidda Scrapmelter. Both cards cost four mana. One of them flips a random card into your hand (which is 40% likely to be a land by the by at a time when you already have at least four mana) the other gives you the certainty of a 3/3 creature on the battlefield.
Now I'm not saying that you should go out and buy up all the Oxidda Scrapmelters just pointing out that — considering the sub-genre of “four-mana anti-artifact reactive spells” only — once the dust clears even if you drew something that could have an effect on the battlefield off of your Slice in Twain you'd still have to play whatever that was whereas the 3/3 can start smacking by itself.
A corollary is that discard spells can't keep the opponent from topdecking. That is the curse that all black mages know. No matter how many cards you rip out of the other guy's hand — even if it's all of them — you can't keep him from drawing better than you. Blow up all his lands? That's a different sort of disruption altogether being about the battlefield.
Consider by contrast the simple Kor Firewalker. What a miser! Cheap fast enough to fight basically any of the default Mono-Red beatdown creatures and absolute hell on future burn spells. It is next to unkillable (in context) and being an investment to the battlefield a long-term and persistent arrow pointing to tangible gain.
6. A Reactive Spell That Costs Four or More Mana Must be Accompanied by a Dramatic Gain in Tempo.
Now here's a hard-and-fast rule for you.
Personally I abhor expensive defensive spells in general but some of them can be very good. Those tend to be the ones that flip the battlefield from one side to the other with one big wave of the oogie-boogie arms. The classic example would be Flametongue Kavu. It kills anything shy of a Blastoderm and is big enough to leave a mark itself.
I was sad that the second time we had Faceless Butcher did so little the second time he was available.
The first time around the Torment common — can you believe this piece was common? — ended up being about the best creature in Extended. Extended! Until the U/G decks started splashing for Flametongue Kavu Faceless Butcher was having its way with everything from Visara the Dreadful to the seemingly unstoppable (if not un-slow-down-able) Spiritmonger.
Wrath of God and its many descendants are the perhaps even more iconic. Over the history of Standard there has been no more consistent Get Out of Jail Free Card.
By contrast think about the Leylines various.
- Free - Awesome!
- Four mana - Way too slow.
- Free - Ha ha I only have to deal with half your cards now.
- Four mana - What do you mean “Take nine in response?”
7. Nothing Tastes as Good as Forcing the Opponent to Commit Four or More Mana Feels.
They seem like very different cards — but as with many dichotomies in Magic much is determined by context.
The deck was one of the first Blightning Beatdown builds and Josh accused me of having too many cards against control. So I was going to cut one of them. There were no combo decks in the format at the time — and both Thoughtseize and Guttural Response were there primarily to mess with Faeries decks attempting to play Cryptic Command.
I opted for Guttural Response.
Having actually done quite a bit of testing for the format I found that it was pretty easy to put pressure on a blue deck and get them into a position where they had to play Cryptic Command — tapping most of their mana — in order to just stay alive.
When the opponent ran this play he would invest so much into that spell. Not just his best card not just four mana (a.k.a. the amount of mana above which according to Mowshowitz “a card must be able to win the game by itself”) but all his hopes and dreams for future turns.
There was nothing like proclaiming “Gutterball!” in that spot.
From a more practical perspective what if the opponent had two copies of Cryptic Command? Who wants to deal two to himself when he might be in a Scion of Oona race?
Careerwise I have a not-good percentage against Faeries. But Blightning was one deck where I held my percentages against the boogeyman.
Speaking generally you want the opponent to make the proactive mana taps if you know what they are for and when he is going to make them. It's just another way of waging war: You are still controlling the conflict and even dictating the field of battle but the other guy is saddled with a false sense of agency.
More or less the dream.
For Reference: Blightning Beatdown
The absolute best position to be in in Magic is when the opponent has space space enough to spend his mana and hope for victory... but you can script all of his plays you know everywhere he wants to go a turn before he gets there and have both the strategy and certainty to ensure victory.
Did I mention “Gutterball!”?
8. Given Sufficient Time He Who Has the Most Trumps Wins.
Some matchups can be played into a corner over a great number of turns. These matchups typically involve control of one or two key threats. Almost all skill-based mirror matches fall under this umbrella.
For example Patrick Sullivan's amazing lifetime record in Boros / RDW mirrors can be attributed to his ability to evaluate what is relevant amidst what is supposed to be a blistering draw-dependant head-to-head. When in fact most of the cards are cheap and almost all the cards are about as powerful as one another. A player in Patrick's position can utilize the base terms — the mana costs the power levels the ability to interact before you get killed — to customize and adapt via superior pre-tournament planning.
An example of going a little bit bigger might be the Saito / Coimbra upgrade to Rubin Zoo from Worlds 2009:
For Reference: Saito Bant
Saito identified that the breaker in the Zoo mirrors following Kibler's win was Baneslayer Angel. Kibler's deck had three.
The first move was to up that number to the full four.
The next move was to greatly increase the number of proxy Baneslayer Angels in the deck. Presumably the Saito list would have a +1 Baneslayer Angel advantage to begin with but both decks were likely to have the full four copies of Path to Exile. Could either player bait the other into blowing a Path to Exile?
More than these Saito played four copies of Bant Charm!
They made the entire matchup about Baneslayer Angel and approached that fight with an amazing four-to-one edge. Coimbra played against the Kibler / Rubin Zoo and beat it and got some splash damage on a pre-GerryT Dark Depths deck as well where Bant Charm again proved valuable (“Hexmage Depths must be the best matchup ever.”)
This is of course like a 2009 update to the Rebels / White Mirror rules that came out of Masques Block Constructed — which was all about maximizing the impact and frequency of controlling Mageta the Lion.
The matchups and core defensive cards that govern this rule typically allow for plentiful mana and tons of time to jockey for development if a fairly narrow window until defeat once the initiative has been lost.
9. The Best Defense is a Good Offense.
I have often said that this is my favorite sideboard of all time:
Of these the most dramatic card was Fortune Thief.
How fast was Fortune Thief? Fast enough.
You could flip him on turn 4 or hard-cast him with a Signet. Few decks were fast enough to win in that window and the ones against which we sided Fortune Thief typically couldn't remove it.
A great opportunity for value is playing a threat card that is fast enough to intercept or pre-empt the opponent's threats. Transformational sideboards would all fall under this category — though they are for the most part not actually reactive.
10. Remember that Interaction Goes Both Ways
They say that the most memorable thing is what you say last and the next most memorable is what you say first and everything else falls somewhere in the middle.
So first we said to pay attention to speed — because it's actually the most important thing. However the next-most important thing which we mean to be the most memorable is to remember that “reaction customization and interaction” are tools available to the opponent as well.
When the other guy sees your spoiler coming — say a Kor Firewalker if he's playing Mono-Red — don't be surprised if he can't respond with a Ratchet Bomb. The last thing you want is to vastly overvalue a hand based on so-called trumps that don't actually hold up.
The inspiration for this point comes from watching careful play against Ravenous Trap against Survival of the Fittest. Do you know the opponent can — gasp — slow-play his Vengevine combo? What if he just puts one or two Vengevines into his graveyard each turn? All of a sudden your Traps aren't so Ravenous especially when you're in a color that can't cast them.
Some questions you might want to ask yourself:
- Is this card always good or only when I catch my opponent unawares?
- Does this card swing wildly in effectiveness as in extremely effective when my opponent a doof and terrible when my opponent is paying attention?
- Do I have more consistent or otherwise better options for what I want to do?
- Could I do something proactive instead?