I'm Jeremy Neeman and this is my very first article for your fabulous local website StarCityGames.com. If you're as excited about this as I am you'll immediately head over to their online shop and start buying expensive things you don't need. Chuck Norris approves.
Alright. Where are we at? Shameless plug check. Article full of useful information and valuable strategy insights? Oh right that. Coming right up.
The Risks You Should Be Taking
Chances are you're playing too conservatively.
Don't feel bad about it. Risk is a very difficult thing to estimate. Financial institutions pay people with fancy degrees and letters after their names tens of millions of dollars to estimate risk and look how good a job they do of it. Should it be any surprise that Magic players are no better? We're only human; we evolved to eat bananas not do complicated statistical analyses in our head.
People are subject to what is called the narrative fallacy. What this means is we don't think in statistics; we think in stories. We don't compute "he has an 8.6% chance of drawing either Devil's Play or Brimstone Volley here either of which would win him the game with 95.4% certainty." We think "gosh I sure hope he doesn't draw that Devil's Play." Practically this means we overestimate the risks that are easily imaginable and underestimate risks that don't spring to mind so readily.
Let's take a look at Joe Average over here. His opponent mulliganed to five and got a bit flooded and Joe's beating down with his assortment of ground dorks. Joe knows he's winning but he could lose to a Fireball off the top so he's going to be worried. The chance of the opponent topdecking Fireball is very real. Joe can easily visualize it and he doesn't want to let that happen—so he plays around it. Joe burns a probably superfluous Unsummon on a non-lethal attack. "I'm such a pro!" he thinks. "A lesser player would have totally forgotten about that possibility." Then his opponent rips the much less impressive Siege Mastodon and Joe realizes that thanks to the play he made—that did stop Fireball from killing him that turn—he's not necessarily winning the game anymore. It goes back and forth for a few turns; Joe draws a couple land; his opponent draws a flier beats Joe low and eventually does draw that Fireball for the final seven.
So did Joe do something wrong? Absolutely! The chance of his opponent ripping Fireball there is much much lower than the chance of him drawing any random creature. Joe wasn't in a position to play around Fireball because he couldn't safely ignore a Siege Mastodon. This phrase "in a position to play around" gets thrown around a lot and now you know what it means. A lot of the time you'll have to accept that although you beat random dorks + lands you do lose to the big threats. If he draws that Fireball or that Overrun or that Devil's Play you will lose the game. It's only when you're far enough ahead that Devil's Play is his only live draw that you can afford to for example not Dissipate that Bloodline Keeper.
On Hippos and Bears
Let's get into some specifics. The scene is Australian Nationals 2010; it's round nine and you're playing for 9-0 in your last round of M11 draft to lock up a spot in the top eight. You've drafted an okay controlling R/G/u deck splashing for Foresees and you're playing against a more aggressive R/G deck. It's game two and you've both been beating each other up with unblockable Volcanic Strengthed creatures. Your board is: a Sylvan Ranger enchanted with Volcanic Strength a Stone Golem and an Awakener Druid animating a Forest (all tapped). You're at ten. His board is a Garruk's Companion enchanted with Volcanic Strength (also tapped) and he's at six. He has two cards in hand; you both have six lands of appropriate colors. It's your post-combat main phase. Your hand is Pyroclasm Pyroclasm Berserkers of Blood Ridge. What do you do?
This is an example of a board state where you're miles ahead and the game boils down to one question: Lava Axe Fireball or no? It might seem crazy to suggest double Pyroclasming here as the right play considering it trades six of your cards for two of his but if he's holding an Axe it's the only way you're going to avoid losing the game. If you play a Berserkers you'll certainly kill him next turn if he doesn't have anything—but is that a risk you're willing to take? Double Pyroclasming still leaves you with a Berserkers in hand which is likely bigger than anything on the top of his deck.
I posed this question in my Nationals report last year and the answers I got surprised me. There weren't just a few people who were off—the majority of readers were sufficiently worried about the possibility of an Axe ending their top eight aspirations that they chose to Pyroclasm the board away. I believe this play is completely wrong and here's why:
1. You don't know that he has Lava Axe in his deck let alone his hand.
Lava Axe is a common but it's not a card like Chandra's Outrage that any red player would play no matter what. Plenty of red decks have Lava Axe in their sideboard because it simply isn't warranted—the deck isn't aggressive enough. This was particularly true back in the slower days of M11. Let's be generous and assume the probability our opponent both has and is playing a Lava Axe is 50%. Given he's seen maybe a quarter of his deck his odds of having it in hand are 12.5%. If you include Fireball you get a slightly higher number but bear in mind that Fireball is very bad for you anyway—if he's not killing you he can kill your Berserkers and leave you with no gas whatsoever.
Lesson one: Be realistic. Don't play around Mountain Blasphemous Act out of the UW deck. Well you can if the situation warrants it but bear in mind the chances of that happening are substantially less than 1%.
2. You can't afford to. Playing around Lava Axe lets you lose to a whole host of cards you could otherwise ignore.
You have a Berserkers of Blood Ridge. Your opponent has two cards in hand. They could be Yavimaya Wurm Spined Wurm or they could be Grizzly Bears Giant Growth. They could even be Forest Mountain but the top card of their deck is a Yavimaya Wurm and following that are three creatures that are going to beat you up while you rip lands. The set of cards that beat a 4/4 when its controller is on ten is much much bigger than the set of cards that beat two 4/4s a 1/1 a 4/5 and a 3/3 mountainwalk when their controller is on five. When considering what your opponent might be holding in Limited in the absence of plays that indicate specific cards always default to "random assortment of dorks" as the most likely option.
Lesson two: Make the percentage plays. The chances that a 4/4 plus the top of your deck beats two unknown cards plus the top of his deck is not a lot better than 50/50. The chances that he doesn't have a specific card to just kill you if you go for the 4/4 now? Much better. As mentioned above if you play into Lava Axe you have probably a 90% chance of winning the game on the spot.
So this all seems very reasonable. Why then do a lot people choose the wrong play? Because they're ignoring lesson three: Man up! Yes it's scary to think that you might lose the game on the spot because of a decision you made. Your friends might laugh at you or say that you played badly or ask "how could you not see that Lava Axe coming??" It's because we're conditioned to fear things that are right around the corner. Your ancestors in prehistoric times didn't have time to worry about the bears that might be attacking them next week; they had to deal with the hippo just outside their cave that had already mauled Andy. Similarly when playing a game of Magic your reflex response is to consider the powerful spell that could kill you right now not the unimpressive assortment of dorks that might get you in seven turns. We worry too much about the hippos and totally ignore the bears.
(As a random aside to illustrate my point a lot of people fear terrorism more than say diabetes. Your chance of dying due to diabetes is several thousand times higher than your chance of dying in a terrorist attack. That's because terrorism is a hippo—it's rare immediate and kills you dead just like that. Diabetes is a bear much more common and less immediately dangerous but in the long run causes vastly more deaths.)
I Don't Wanna Die!
Back before Innistrad and the Standard rotation I played a lot of U/R Exarch-Twin combo online. I remember one game in particular where I was playing against Caw-Blade and I'd seen my opponent's hand with Gitaxian Probe. He had Hero of Bladehold two Flashfreezes and some other cards that weren't very relevant (Wraths and Gideons possibly). Fortunately for me he was stuck on three lands and I managed to land a Jace Beleren and start drawing a fistful of extra cards. Unfortunately my hand was full but it was full of junk. I had multiple Splinter Twins way too many lands and no Deceiver Exarch or even a Mana Leak in sight. A fourth land off the top for him landing a Hero would be very tough to beat.
He drew played the fourth land and... said go! I couldn't have been happier. Drawing two cards per turn with the help of Jace I pulled further and further ahead. Eventually two Deceiver Exarches tapped him low and I went off with the help of a timely Mana Leak.
What was going on with my opponent's play? Well Exarch-Twin is a deck that packs some mean hippos. Tapping out against them on any turn where they have three mana open is a huge risk. I mean come on their deck is constructed to kill people who do that. So my opponent was afraid of losing the game—but he made the play that traded a fairly high chance of losing immediately for a near-certain chance of losing in the long run. He can't really expect to beat an active Jace Beleren if he's missing land drops has no pressure on the board and can't ever tap out. I'm gradually going to find the cards I need get the lands I need and go off through whatever disruption he can even cast.
In that situation for the Caw-Blade player the game is going to the bears! Five turns from now you're almost guaranteed to be in a worse position than you are now. You have to take your chances now while you still can and tap out to cast that Hero of Bladehold. Granted that means wading right into the hippo watering hole. But there's a chance you'll get to untap with Hero in play and that puts you in the driver's seat with an excellent shot at putting the game away.
Not Losing is Like Winning Right?
The final anecdote about risk I want to leave you with is a very recent story from personal experience about dodging the hippo's tusk only to find myself in a bear hug. It was triple Innistrad draft; I'd ended up with a very solid aggressive G/W deck and found myself in the final facing a U/R opponent. Despite missing a few land drops he'd started off strong with a Delver of Secrets that flipped and picked up a Spectral Flight. I'd found myself at two before I rallied to get back in the game with a couple two-power fliers that could double block and trade for his 5/4.
Eventually we got to the point where all he had was three Islands in play along with his Insectile beatstick. I had Villagers of Estwald Silverchase Fox Voiceless Spirit and Chapel Geist. He was on ten to my two but I had quite a bit of gas in hand—Festerhide Boar Avacynian Priest a second Chapel Geist and a Mausoleum Guard although with only four lands in play.
At this point I was pretty confident that the outcome of the game would be in my favor and all I had to do was not lose. (If you've noticed a theme running through this article it's that avoiding risks is too often the play that “doesn't lose” which makes taking risks the play that “wins.”) One play I conceived of that could kill me was Mountain off the top into Nightbird's Clutches preventing my two fliers from blocking and coming over for the final damage. Certainly a sound hippo-ing. So I chose to only attack with my Villagers of Estwald and add a third Chapel Geist to the board. “Now I can only lose to Mountain + Brimstone Volley!” I thought. “I've halved his possible outs. Aren't I great.”
My opponent did rip Mountain then he added a bear I'd never considered—Mindshrieker. Suddenly my attacks were shut down. I couldn't risk him milling a spell and eating one of my creatures for free and now I had to leave back even more guys to play around the possibility of an inconvenient removal spell. Avacynian Priest kept the pressure on but now he was drawing into land and playing more fliers and my board advantage was eroding by the second. I did eventually win the game but not before he nearly blew me out with Lost in the Mist. Did I think I could lose to Lost in the Mist when he was stuck on three lands and had one creature to my five? Not a chance. Also despite my playing around it I would've lost to Nightbird's Clutches plenty of times anyway. In fact more so because I gave him many more turns to find it.
If I could sum up this article in one sentence I would say this:
Worry about what's most likely—not what's most scary!
(And don't let those bears get your honey.)
Until next time