Magic is a wonderful game. One reason is that while there is a large component of skill, a newer player, a less practiced, a less equipped—shall we say greener—player almost always has at least a chance to best even a Pro Tour champion. Big things, little things, individual card choices, and dumb luck can all help the little guy.
Following are 27 ways that you can play [differently] that can give you an edge you might not currently be utilizing, especially for the purposes of beating players who are better than you are. As with any advice in Magic, the suggestions made herein are driven contextually and assume a pinch of good faith and good sense. For example, if I say you can gain some percentage by playing threats rather than answers, that is not necessarily an endorsement of can only attack Bojuka Brigand over fundamentally reactive Mana Drain.
I really wanted to do 100 ways, but I am sure that there will be at least some readers who deem this one TL;DR. If you like it, perhaps we will revisit another 73 or so techniques.
Without further ado, the 27 Ways:
1. Play Active Cards and Decks
2. Play New Cards
3. Anticipate the Play of New Cards
4. Minimize Cost and Color Requirements
5. Add a Color
6. Count Your Opponent's Deck
7. Fill Mana Holes
8. Play Cheap Cantrips
9. Mark the Top of Your Library to Avoid Missing Upkeep Triggers
10. Play Multicolored Cards
11. Attack with Everything
12. Use Life as a Resource
13. Pick the Right Tool for the Job
14. Present the Unbeatable Opening Hand
15. Increase Volatility When Losing
16. Don't Over-Sideboard
17. Reposition / Transform
18. Win Anyway
19. Know Your Quarterfinal Match
20. Play a Combo Deck
21. Concede for Time (+EV)
22. Hate Draft When Little Is on the Line
23. Take a Lesson From George
24. Cut Land
25. Mana Screw
26. When in Doubt, Burn 'Em Out
27. Avoid Playing the Deck to Beat
Play Active Cards and Decks
"People like control because they think it shows that they're good Magic players. Active decks, on the other hand, produce threats, and control decks must have the right answer to the right threat. If not, they're in trouble...while there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats."
This first one is pretty simple. Among other things, it takes less work to be effective playing threats than it is playing answers; for answers to work, you need at the very least to be playing the correct answers. In 2013 more than in most previous years, you also need to have a fast enough answer. On the other hand, if your opponent doesn't have an answer, he not just might but will eventually bite it to even the lowliest threat.
Play New Cards
Utilize new cards in a proactive manner / average opponent's deck may be untuned / mana base imperfect.
Magic is a game that starts with the likelihood of one deck beating another but where any game's conclusion is largely a result of good play or catastrophic blunders. Whole schools of thought in this game (anything rogue, most mental game theory) are predicated on doing something to cause your opponent to blunder. New cards by their very nature can drive the opponent in that direction.
They aren't ready, they make a mistake, and you win an extra game. Tiebreaker.
Anticipate the Play of New Cards
"Even back then, I was a 'Net monkey. I had heard about this 'Geeba' deck, and I didn't want to get hit by Ball Lightning. Back then the trample rules were different, so Repentant Blacksmith was a beating against red."
Opposite number of the previous. When Odyssey block was brand new on the Pro Tour, two legendary teams both built graveyard-based decks. Both teams dominated day 1. For one team, the success ended there; they had a great deck, but the other team not only had graveyard-based advantages but anti-graveyard sideboard cards. The latter team put multiple Hall of Famers into the Top 8.
Minimize Cost and Color Requirements
"Minimize mana requirements. That means that as many of your spells should be the lowest casting cost possible AND that as little colored mana should be required."
As we said last week, minimizing colors makes mulligan decisions easier; you can save the mental energy you might otherwise be spending on, say, fetch land decisions. You take less damage from cards like Price of Progress (or your own shock duals), and more than anything else, if you have the requisite mana count, you can probably cast your spells.
Add a Color
Success in Magic, like running a sports franchise, is largely about correct pricing. In the early part of Moneyball,the Oakland A's didn't care about defense because they had figured out on base percentage. Later, the small market team went to the defense well because the market caught on to on base percentage and suddenly was underpricing defense.
While you can gain a large advantage by minimizing colors, the adept metagamer will see when adding a color does more work.
Take the case of US National champion Trevor Blackwell's Fires deck:
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blastoderm
- 3 Flametongue Kavu
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 2 Shivan Wurm
- 3 Thornscape Battlemage
- 2 Thunderscape Battlemage
- 3 Yavimaya Barbarian
There was no "one" Fires of Yavimaya deck, but the iconic one we probably think of is Zvi Mowshowitz's straight G/R deck with Two-Headed Dragon and tons of land. Blackwell's black splash allowed him to play Slay, a card that could kill tertiary big threat Shivan Wurm.
The first I saw this was by eventual Magic Online boss Worth Wollpert; when we were kids there were G/R Erhnam and Burn 'Em decks and G/W ErhnamGeddon decks. Worth dazzled his way to a PTQ win by playing both G/R and G/W cards.
I can't tell you how many cheapo PTQ Top 8s I made with this one; the number of times I have beaten a Grand Prix champion by counting his deck? One. Once. I got lucky to beat an "unwinnable" matchup game 1 (opponent stumbled), and then I combo killed him by counting his deck in game 2. Use every part of the buffalo!
Fill Mana Holes
"By the way, looking back at this page from 1996 is like finding out that the Ancient Egyptians had jet airplanes. Jay Schneider's idea of the mana curve and utility creatures in the Sligh deck was incredibly advanced for its time.
A mana hole is when the mana curve goes bad. A mana hole happens whenever you have unused mana. An aggressive deck should not have very many mana holes in it."
It took until Brad Nelson in 2011 for Magic theory to realize the quality of beatdown hands that had a one-drop versus ones that didn't make a play until turn 2. I mean, we knew about mana curve and everything, but I think Brad was the first one to actually try to measure these disparate qualities of hands.
While there are certainly times when it is not correct to do so, if no one ever told you it was better in general to tap all your mana every turn, now someone is.
Play Cheap Cantrips
"Don't cast Preordain until you need to.
This is the most important thing to take away from the article. Preordain generates more value the longer you wait to cast it. A late game Preordain is usually game winning, while an early game Preordain is little more than a cantrip. As an example, let's say you have an average hand with two or three lands, a removal spell, and a counterspell. How does a turn 1 Preordain help you here? A few turns later you will have drawn more cards and can use Preordain to find any specific piece you are missing."
Nick's article isn't actually about why you should play Preordain; rather, it assumes you are playing Preordain and tries to get you to play it better. It is one of the best Magic theory articles ever written—a truly paradigm changing article—and I think you should read it if you haven't.
It is shocking to me that there was ever a debate over whether to play Preordain in Standard or not. Preordain was approximately the second best card in Standard throughout its period of legality, and it overlapped with Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Stoneforge Mystic; Spreading Seas; Dismember; etc.
Cheap one-to-two cost cantrips do multiple things for you. For one, they allow you to play fewer lands. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Alan Comer argued you could cut two lands for every four cantrips—many notable decks are built with this guideline arming them. What is very exciting is that cantrips help you to draw lands early, but as Nick pointed out really good ones allow you to break open a stalemate situation later in the game. Anyone who has followed the career of Delver of Secrets knows how reliant that wannabe Insectile Aberration was on playmate Ponder in Standard.
Mark Top of Your Library to Avoid Missing Upkeep Triggers
"In the Top 8, I noticed that Mike made an adjustment of keeping his pen in his hand during his opponent's turn. He kept it in his right hand, which is the same hand he draws a card with. He physically forced himself to either right down a life gain or actively put the pen down before drawing a card. With that small change, he consciously allowed himself to concentrate even more on the game while still gaining the benefit of Firemane Angel's optional upkeep effect."
Yes, Paul was writing about YT in that case, but his article is actually brilliant top-to-bottom—just a great example of the art of the tournament report.
Anyway, I wanted to point out a strategy that some writers have called "bush league" which is to somehow mark the top of your deck so that you don't go and do something silly like missing an upkeep trigger. As I keep track of the game with pen and paper rather than dice or some sort of stones game on a playmat, I tend to just lean my pen on the top of my deck, though you can put a nickel on top or whatever.
Multiple Pro Tour Top 8 competitor George Baxter famously wrote "USE ME" on a scrap piece of paper and put it on top of his Kjeldoran Outpost after missing an end-of-turn activation back in 1996; I don't think that was exactly a legal play back then, but dropping yourself the odd nickel is quite allowed in 2013. I think that this kind of shortcut is something that many players don't even think about accessing, but they would win much more if they did.
The alternative, of course, is just playing against quality human being Kenji Tsumura; Kenji will not allow you to lose to your own Pact, stopping you from drawing before that happens. On the flip side, your opponent is Kenji Tsumura, so just because you didn't lose to your Pact doesn't mean that you aren't going to lose. :(
Play Multicolored Cards
While minimizing color requirements is a potential path to additional value, especially when "everyone" else is playing three-to-four colors, once you are going to run whatever Karplusan Forests and Dimir Guildgates the format is offering, you might as well jam as many gold cards as possible.
When considering two cards on the basis of effect versus total casting cost, gold cards consistently humiliate single color cards in terms of how much mana you have to spend versus how awesome the effect of the card is.
Because just adding haste wouldn't have been a fine enough point to put on it. You'll just have to trust me that Silt Crawler was a Constructed staple thirteen years ago.
Volcanic Hammer has been a staple up to and including Extended Top 8s. I am guessing if Standard didn't have so many powerful haste creatures with three toughness (specifically Hellrider when Searing Spear first started seeing play), Volcanic Hammer would have been more-or-less as played had it replaced Lightning Bolt instead of the new card.
How about something a bit more explicitly here-and-now?
People play a Murder fairly often in Standard today. Putrefy was just unveiled in Dragon's Maze. I don't know that Putrefy will blank all the Murders (players like Conley Woods are going to minimize their color requirements, and not every B/x deck that wants this effect for three mana is going to be B/G necessarily), but this pair pretty clearly illustrates the efficacy of multicolored cards vs. single color cards head-to-head (in general).
Don't even get me started on Wear // Tear. It's better than Shatter and Erase (both of which have been important Constructed cards at various times), but gluing them together gives you a near Rack and Ruin (monster sideboard card in some formats).
Attack with Everything
"Not Attacking Enough: ...this [is] the number one mistake newer players make.
"Turian's advice? Attack with everything every turn!"
Similarly, Mike Long used to teach that when you didn't know what to do, you should just attack with everything and see what happens. Again, just another arrow in your quiver next to Glue Arrow, Boxing Glove Arrow, and Kryptonite Arrow (like that one sees a lot of use). No one is telling you to attack with everything every turn or anything.
I mean other than Hellraiser Goblin.
Use Life as a Resource
"In short, life is your margin. If you are at three life and your opponent Bolts you, you have no choice but to counter it or try to prevent it. If you're at four life, you have an additional choice: to take the damage. It is always better to have options."
Again, an underused option. While card advantage and tapping lots of mana are as universally known as they are for a reason, life points relative to cards (or mana) are typically mispriced by most players, and you can gain an advantage by borrowing a point relative to its actual value in a game.
To borrow (and update) some examples from Bevand, if you have a Dissipate in your hand and three life and your opponent casts a Searing Spear at you, you pretty much have to use the Dissipate. But what about at four life? At five? Now all of a sudden you have a decision to make; the better decision isn't just going to take cards into consideration but your relationship to those using your life points. For instance, if my opponent has a Cavern of Souls in play, I am much more likely to use the Dissipate because I might not be able to stop what is coming next with a counterspell.
Pick the Right Tool for the Job
The example that resonates with me the most is preparing for a Pro Tour when Replenish was a thing. We didn't have Rest in Peace back then, and there certainly weren't Magic Online and StarCityGames.com events every day / week to feed us more and more information, so we had to do a lot of the thinking for ourselves.
The "obvious" anti-graveyard choice was going to be Headstone. Headstone!
I eventually successfully argued that Ebony Charm would be better because it was cheaper. "If I am about to lose to a graveyard combo, I doubt that I care that I am going to draw a card next turn more than the fact that my answer costs half as much" was my argument.
Recently, I spent an article on graveyard hate against G/B/W Reanimator in Standard. Some commenters asked about Purify the Grave. Why hadn't I included that? I actually did a Gatherer search and ended up adding a "-flashback" filter because everything graveyard included all the flashback cards. I accidentally filtered it out!
Anyway, I tested out Purify the Grave and quite like it. While lacking the raw power of Rest in Peace, it can steal a turn Time Walk style against Unburial Rites, but it is still kind of woeful against a hard cast Angel of Glory's Rise. Still, I think I like it better than Rest in Peace in general for much the same reason I favored Ebony Charm over Headstone way back when.
Generally, I would recommend going cheaper when comparing card against card (especially answer cards), which is consistent with at least two other suggestions already listed. :)
Present the Unbeatable Opening Hand
Better players tend to gain advantages the more choices you let them make. Close out quickly and you can remove some of those advantages.
At a recent SCG Legacy Open, I played U/R Delver and just missed out on Top 8. In both of my losses, I lost on the first turn on the draw. In at least one of those losses, I had the card Daze in my hand. Something to chew on (though I would be the first to say Josh Ravitz, who first turned me on camera, is at this point a mite better than his onetime sensei).
Increase Volatility When Losing
The best example of this I can think of was losing to Mike Turian in a win-and-in in some ancient Standard Grand Prix (EDT won, Patrick Chapin came in second). We were playing a RUG Opposition mirror. Mike played all Birds and Elves, but I cut those (atrocious against Fire / Ice) and played Static Orb main.
Static Orb was kind of bad in the mirror; I sided it out.
Over the course of a long game 2, I finally resolved something... And then Mike untapped and crushed me with a sided-in Static Orb.
I was pretty surprised. Static Orb is symmetrical, and either of us could break symmetry.
Mike explained that I was "supposed" to win. My deck had every advantage on paper. If we were going to go through the usual motions, I was going to beat him the majority of the time. In such cases—i.e., in most cases where you are playing against a superior player—you actually want to increase volatility! Whatever you can do to turn it into a luck game is good, at least when you are likely to lose when it is a skill game.
"Even though I went overboard, there's a lesson here: don't over-sideboard. Keep synergies intact. Don't dilute your main game plan. Ask yourself whether or not a sideboard card is truly an improvement. For a highly focused deck like Naya Blitz, sideboarding can do more harm than good."
Having too many tools in your sideboard (especially for specific matchups) is a common problem, especially for new format decks or less experienced players.
You might not want to have no sideboard (like Frank did), but if you figure out what you want in—and more importantly out—in common matchups beforehand, you will prevent some decision fatigue and be able to approach many opponents with a greater likelihood of success.
Reposition / Transform
"... I remember someone saying Finkel had creatures in his board when he plays his Erhnam. Game 3, I lose."
-Former Canadian National Champion Peter Radonjic, from his 1997 Pro Tour Chicago tournament report
Repositioning and Transformation are two sideboarding techniques that rely a mite on Game Theory. Basically, your opponent thinks you are going to be at A, you show up at B, and all his carefully chosen sideboard / answer cards stink.
The first time someone really pulled this off masterfully and on the big stage was Jon Finkel at Chicago 1997; he played an all-artifacts / no-animals lock deck. His opponents all over-sideboarded against his Icy Manipulators to the point that they had no answers for his big four-drops. Finkel's first PT Top 8.
This technique is most successful in combo decks where particular sideboard cards are going to be both common and troublesome and where you can get an advantage from surprise value. That said, nuancing another strategy (say adding something a la Izzet Staticaster in an otherwise straightforward deck) can similarly leave an opponent without options for interaction.
"Seth's deck had what we call Strategy Superiority over the Decks to Beat. If Seth's deck operated normally and either Necropotence or Oath of Druids operated normally, Seth's deck would win because his baseline strategy could operate while simultaneously stymieing the baseline strategies of his opponents. He doesn't have to do anything special in order to make life difficult for Necropotence and Oath."
Nothing's better than letting the opponent do whatever he wants and then winning anyway.
Generally, you are going to want to know what he wants and then formulate a plan that allows you to not only do something that matters but go bigger regardless.
My all-time favorite example is MBC vs. U/G with Compost. U/G wanted to make the removal-heavy MBC play an attrition game that it could almost by definition never win against Compost. The successful strategy was to make it a game about life total, burning U/G out with Corrupt and Laquatus's Champion while repositioning removal not in the attrition context but only as time management. How many cards have you got? Seven, huh? How many life points now? :)
Know Your Quarterfinal Match
"I always got enough sleep, and I generally tested at least my quarterfinal a lot."
Any quote by Kai Budde might be mislaid in the context of this article, but I included it because knowing your QF matchup (versus any other) gives you disproportionate leverage. You are always going to play against that one, so know how to win it. You might play one of the other six, etc.
Play a Combo Deck
Ever notice how lots of super successful big tournament winners are playing combo decks?
Denying the opponent interactivity—at least in game 1—gives you leverage you might not have otherwise. Combo decks can present the unbeatable opening hand, set you up for future transformation and repositioning, etc.
Concede for Time (+EV)
You have a good shot and put yourself on "winning" even. One-drop, two-drop, and all that.
He miracles a Terminus and sticks a little Sphinx's Revelation...into a bigger Sphinx's Revelation. With tons of mana in play he Supreme Verdicts, plays an Elixir of Immortality, and passes with seven in grip.
You look at the Temple Garden in your hand, gaze up at the clock, and...
What do you do?
I don't think most players even consider immediately conceding for time.
You are going to need both of the next two games, whereas he can just sit there and eventually deck you with that Elixir. Trying to pull this one out is unlikely to be your most likely route to winning.
There are tons of times when you gain value from conceding. If you are very unlikely to win game 1 but could drag it out for twenty minutes (but then have to win the next two), you might just want to concede game 1.
Brian Hacker was known for conceding games—and even matches—he was unlikely to win just go save mental energy for future rounds.
Hate Draft When Little Is on the Line
Cooperative drafting is generally overrated.
If you know what you want, I think you should just take those cards. If you just draft "what comes," I think you are generally letting the guy to your right dictate your future. Not a hard-and-fast "never draft cooperatively," but something to think about.
On that note, you can dagger someone late in a pack when you don't have anything (or only a low value pick) to take—it will probably never bite you in the butt.
Take a Lesson From George
There is a Seinfeld episode called "The Opposite" where perpetual loser George Costanza throws up his arms and decides to just do the opposite of everything loser-ly he usually does. He ends up having a great day and even lands a job with the New York Yankees.
I was thinking about this once when dissatisfied with my in-game play. I liked how I drafted but didn't like my results overmuch.
So one day, having squeaked into day 2 of a GP, I decided to just do the opposite of what I would normally do at every decision point. I was rewarded with a 3-0 / 6-0 at a tough table of GP and Masters champions.
I went into the final draft needing 2-1 for Top 8 newly invigorated and confident.
Newly invigorated and confident, I immediately forgot to keep doing "the opposite" and went 1-2 instead.
"I removed six basic lands and added six Diamonds, two of each color."
Comer, who invented cantrip / mana theory, thought many classes of players played too much land.
When you are playing against a better deck, especially in Limited, consider cutting land. You might not be very likely to win a game "fairly," whereas presenting an additional threat (even a not very good one) might be exactly what you need.
It is a fundamental principle in Magic that we need our lands to cast our spells. Good players gain value from more decisions and gain options with increasingly complex mana bases (which can for instance allow them to play more gold cards). One of the classic ways weaker players can beat up on stronger ones is mana screw!
Even Bob Maher, Jr. playing the most powerful deck in the history of Standard (Academy) managed to lose in the finals of the 1999 Wisconsin State Championship to Stone Rain, Wildfire, and Lightning Dragon.
When in Doubt, Burn 'Em Out
Adding a non-interactive element to an otherwise fair deck is a sure way to make life difficult for your opponents. I remember (and here is an example of hybridizing two of this article's "ways") the first PTQ where Profane Command was legal. I made a big play with my Decree of Justice, only to lose to the reach offered by Profane Command—never getting to attack with my Angels.
And even today we see decks like The Aristocrats embracing the Blasphemous Act partnership with Boros Reckoner. The aggressive The Aristocrats and Act 2 now change a race to twenty to a smaller race to thirteen. Adding such a non- (or shall we say "less") interactive element allows your beatdown deck to act more like a combo deck.
Avoid Playing the Deck to Beat
All of these things together paint an overall picture that was probably obvious to some but not explicit until this last point.
Adrian Sullivan used to say that he didn't advocate different because different is different (like most people thought) but because different wins. Playing cards—or playing cards in different ways—allows you beat opponents who are not thinking on their feet, who have the wrong tools to answer your proactive strategies, new cards, and non-center-stage attempts at mana screw.
That's half of it.
The other is this: let's assume you are not the best player in the room. For all but one player in any given room, this is true.
Do you really think you have the best shot at unhorsing the best player, playing The Deck to Beat, in all his "best player" level of mastery? I think it can be summed up like this...
In the summer of 2011, I was very happy to play my Exarch Twin deck; I had just won a $5K and was preparing for the SCG Invitational. I talked to my friend Patrick Chapin about both formats. Patrick laid out the basics for what would grow up to be Innovator Breakfast, and we discussed which configurations would win the most free games versus where we wanted which cards for the most "surprise!" games.
For Standard, I of course was trying to get Patrick to play MY deck for once. He instead went with mastering Caw-Blade (someone else's deck entirely). His thinking was brilliant. Exarch Twin might have had the advantage over Caw-Blade (say 60/40), but Caw-Blade was a deck where if you were the better player, you might have a 70/30 edge—massive.
Any time I have ever won a big tournament—a PTQ, a big cash tournament, done well in a GP—never once have I looked to my left and looked to my right near the end of the day and concluded that I was the strongest pure player in the room. Any time I have been successful, it was by relying on something else. The element of surprise, misdirection, another layer of technology.
Surely you can master all manner of skills in your pursuit of greater heights in Magic: The Gathering, and I encourage you to use every part of the buffalo. But some give the not best player in the room more leverage than others. Hopefully you learned about some here.