The Instances for Instants

Posted in Beyond the Basics on June 8, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Near the end of every article, I list how you can reach me to suggest ideas (as a reminder, it's Twitter, Tumblr, or BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com)—and every now and then players out there take to doing just that! Today, I want to cover a great topic that was sent in via email by Jonathan Whitefield. Jonathan writes, in part:

"I tend to play a lot of spells on the end step. However, I've seen players play instants on upkeep. . . . I'd be interested to see your take on when it is right to play on the end step, upkeep, main phase, or anything in between."

An excellent question, Jonathan. And to properly answer, let's first step back a bit and set the stage.

In Magic, instants have one big advantage over sorceries: you can play them any time you want. This brings your chances to play them from basically two windows a turn to over ten—at minimum—on each of your turns and each of your opponent's turns.

And knowing when to cast your instant? Well, that can be the difference between winning and losing the game.

In general, there's one big general rule of thumb which governs all instants. And that thing is . . .

Waiting as Long as Possible

Magic is a game with many facets—but above most of them, it is a game of information.

The longer you can wait to tell your opponent something, the more opportunity there is for them to make a play they wouldn't have made if you had played that card earlier.

For example, let's say you have Final Reward in your hand.

You are at 3 life. Your opponent has two Hyena Packs and you have a Colossapede.

If you cast that Final Reward now, your opponent isn't going to run that Pack into your Colossapede.

But what if you hold onto it?

If you hold onto the Reward and use it at instant speed, your opponent will likely attack with both, you'll remove one and block the other, essentially netting you a two-for-one. And all it took was a little bit of waiting.

This example can be shown time and time again throughout Magic. You might hold onto a flash creature to wait to cast until their turn, or leave three mana untapped to bluff Cancel when really you're holding Gale Strike. A good rule of thumb that many Magic players learn early is to wait on their instants. (And if you already knew all this, hang in there for just a couple more sections, to where I get to the core of Jonathan's question.)

And then of course, there's . . .

Casting Spells During Your Opponent's End Step

It's turn two. You have Anticipate in your hand.

You know you're going to cast it this turn. It's your only two-mana card. You could just cast it during your turn . . .

. . . But instead you pass, and plan to cast it in your opponent's end step.

As you may or may not know, at the end of each turn is the end step. This little oasis is where either player can still cast instants, but your opponent is past the point of casting more creatures or sorceries. And, furthermore, it's right before you untap. So, if you do something in your opponent's end step, it's kind of "free" since you untap right away afterward.

And think of all the information you've gained. I mean, just look at the Anticipate scenario:

  • You left two mana untapped, so your opponent had to play around countermagic or removal.
  • You were able to pick a card off of Anticipate knowing what your opponent did on turn two.
  • There need to be three bullet points, because Anticipate sees three cards.

That's three (okay, two) excellent reasons for waiting just a little bit longer. Not to mention, if you actually did have another two-mana instant, you could wait and see if you needed to cast your other card instead.

Now, there are reasons not to wait all the way until end of turn. For example, maybe you want to, as per the previous example, cast Final Reward inside the combat step. But with effects like card draw, it makes a lot of sense to wait until the end of turn.

So those are the two core fundamentals. The two rules of thumb to base your instant decisions around are giving your opponent as little information as possible and playing instants in your opponent's end step.

Got it? Good. Because now I'm going to ask you to . . . 

Ignore All of That

If you aren't used to casting instants on your opponent's turn or using the end step, then these general rules are going to be great habits to get into. Learning to just cast instants on your opponent's turn will go a long way toward improving your game if you aren't doing it already.

But for everybody who already is doing it: forget those rules of thumb entirely.

Because here's the deal. Like any play in Magic, your goal is to cast something when it gives you the best chance of winning the game. And with shocking regularity, casting an instant on your opponent's turn is actually the wrong time to do it. You need to be proactively thinking of the best time to cast a spell, not just reactively going by some general rule in your head.

And here is where we get into the heart of Jonathan's question.

To do that, I want to go somewhere you may have not expected: Time Spiral Block Constructed.

Many years ago, I was playing in this Time Spiral block PTQ. I was navigating the tables pretty well, and had notched a few wins under my belt. I was playing a control deck, loaded up with removal spells. It's early in the format, and the popular decks are still a bit of a mystery.

About halfway through the event, I was facing off against this green aggressive deck. Sitting at 7 life against my opponent's 3/3, with a grip full of removal, I felt pretty confident about my chances.

And, well . . . if you played Time Spiral Block Constructed, you probably know where this is going.

I passed the turn. My opponent attacked. I cast a removal spell on it, knowing I could fire off another if I needed to. And he showed me this:

Well, that didn't go as planned.

Now, there aren't as many combat tricks on the blowout level of the uncounterable, unrespondable, +5/+5 and shroud variety these days. But the lesson has lingered on. If I had just thought about what cards were in the format and what could happen, I would have removed his creature on my turn and easily gone on to win the game.

Next PTQ, I would play a green deck with Stonewood Invocation. And not only did I make Top 8, but I did the same exact thing to numerous opponents I played against. (Sometimes twice in the same match!) It really felt like they were playing on autopilot with instants.

Don't. Play. On. Autopilot.

Use your instants when it makes the most sense to use them. Sometimes, if you want to make sure something is dead, the best time to do it is on your turn.

Let's talk about five very common scenarios where it's right to cast an instant at an unusual time.

  1. To Beat Combat Tricks

When you're using damage-based removal, like Electrify, running into a combat trick can be disastrous.

Let's say your opponent has a Hyena Pack you want to kill, and you have an Electrify in your hand.

The rules of thumb above would indicate pass the turn, wait for your opponent to attack, and then cast Electrify. No problem, right?

Except for when they lay down this in response.

They just traded Brute Strength for your removal spell—and made you take 6 damage in the process!

Realistically, waiting didn't gain you that much. Your opponent is probably going to attack first and cast spells in their second main phase. So, the only time Electrifying during your main phase here is going to cause problems for you is if your opponent would do something before attacking that would change your decision. For example, if they have a haste creature you'd rather Electrify, then you don't have that opportunity.

It's certainly a tradeoff; you're going to feel silly if you Electrify on your turn and then your opponent untaps and casts Glorybringer. But that's a risk you take to make the play that is better in more situations.

And it's not just damage-based removal. The same can be said for playing against bounce spells (they can return their own creature in response), spells that give them hexproof, and so on.

Watch out for combat tricks.

  1. To Dodge Countermagic

If you think your opponent might have a counterspell, casting instants on your turn makes a lot of sense.

Let's say your blue opponent is tapped out of mana. Well, now might be the right time to cast that instant. You could wait, but what are the advantages? It varies situation to situation. But every time, you have to ask yourself the question, "What if they have a counterspell?"

If it's not going to make a big difference whose turn you cast it on, and you don't want your spell to get countered, go ahead and cast it now. (Of course, if you'd be happy trading that spell for a Cancel, then maybe wait anyway.)

But what if your opponent does have mana untapped in their blue deck? Well, in that case . . .

  1. To Force Them to Counter on Their Turn

If you think your opponent might have the counterspell, and they do have mana untapped, the upkeep step is where you want to be.

Why? Well, there are two important reasons: your opponent hasn't drawn their card for the turn yet (meaning they have nothing new to fight off your instant with, such as a counterspell), and if your opponent does counter your spell, it'll be on their turn, which means they tap mana.

In short: if your opponent is going to Cancel your spell, at least make them lose access to three mana on their turn to do it.

Now this isn't without risks. You could get crushed by, say, a Brute Strength (once again) if it's damage removal on a creature you're targeting. But especially in Constructed, where you often know your opponent's rough deck composition, this is a great window.

Classically, this is a popular time to cast spells to fight over in control mirror matches. Why? Well, let's say I cast Torrential Gearhulk in my opponent's upkeep.

They try and counter it. I counter back. They counter back once more. Well, maybe my Gearhulk didn't resolve . . . but they probably tapped a bunch of mana to do it! This means that on my turn I'll have all my mana untapped, while they still have a bunch of countermagic mana tapped. And then it's a perfect time for me to try and land the threat I really wanted to punch through!

  1. To Hit Something Larger

This one is actually a bit different than the others. It involves waiting longer than normal to make your choice!

Let's say you have a Final Reward in your hand, and your opponent once again has that Hyena Pack. (Your opponent really likes playing Hyena Pack, I guess.)

Your opponent attacks. And, for whatever reason, you're tempted to give that Hyena Pack its Reward.

Well, another option would be to wait.

If you take the 3 damage here, then you can still cast Final Reward in your opponent's end step. There's a chance you'll have taken that damage for nothing. But if they're about to cast a much larger creature, you can Final Reward that instead!

Essentially, the question to ask becomes: "Is taking the damage from this creature worth having the option to kill the next thing your opponent plays?"

Sometimes that answer will be yes. Sometimes that answer will be no. But a lot of the time, I find it pretty worthwhile to wait. Then you get to answer their large threat, untap and cast whatever your big threat was, and suddenly have the tempo back in your favor.

  1. To Find Spells Through Card Draw

You have Spring // Mind in your graveyard and nine lands.

It's pretty easy to pass the turn here, cast Mind at the end of your opponent's turn, draw your two cards, and untap. That's a default play.

But often, unless you have something else you want to do in your hand, you should just play it in your main phase.

If you draw a land, you can play it for the turn. If you draw a creature you can cast, you can play it. That's pretty worthwhile!

While waiting with card draw can be correct in a lot of matchups—especially if you want to leave up removal or counterspells—if you don't think you're going to do anything else and have cards you can draw that you can cast this turn, feel free to fire it off right away.

The Perfect Instants

Instant speed is an advantage—but if you try and get to clever, it can be a detriment. Remember: you can play it on your opponent's turn, you don't have to play it on your opponent's turn.

There are also plenty of other unusual times to cast things in Magic. Making your opponent discard in their draw step. Playing your removal spell at the beginning of combat so your opponent doesn't get an attack trigger with their creatures. You can even do some really weird things like, one of my personal favorites, cast Vendilion Clique in response to your opponent activating a fetch land like Flooded Strand, so you can take whatever they were about to play.

But whatever your timing, just think it through. Consider the upsides and downsides. Be active. As long as you think through the possibilities, you should be able to cast instants with the best of players.

And, if you learned nothing else today, remember this: never give your opponent a chance to use Stonewood Invocation on you in Time Spiral Block Constructed.

Thanks to Jonathan for submitting such an excellent question. Do you have similar topic suggestions? Send them my way! You can reach me, as always, on Twitter, Tumblr, or by sending an email (in English, please) to BeyondBasicsMagic@Gmail.com.

Talk with you again next week!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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