The Hex of the Two Heads

Posted in Serious Fun on March 14, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

Q: So what the hell are you doing here, Alongi?

A: It's swap week here at magicthegathering.com. That means if you want to read Zvi, you have to go to the Serious Fun column. He'll be discussing casual Magic there.

Q: You're joking, right? You're going to do this column?

A: That's right, Meat. And we won't be doing any weak-ass duels in our analysis. We're injecting some hard-core team strategy into this puppy.

Q: And Zvi's off doing some non-sanctioned ridiculousness! That means I don't get my fix for serious strategy! What a rip-off!

A: Ennnnh! That's not a question, Meat. Try to keep up, here. You'll never get the tough questions right if you're getting stuck on syntax before I crack 125 words.

Q: So what's the right play for me here: abandon this article right now; or read on and sacrifice my sanity for the sake of maturity?

A: The correct play is to STAY, Meat. You know you want to.

Q: So how faithful are you going to be to Zvi's format?

A: Hey, I'm hiding all these answers, aren't I? Making you click multiple times to get the information you want, forcing you to beg for each morsel…that's right! Press the button, my little rats! Get the pellet! Get the pellet!

Q: Cute. So when do you actually start earning your pay?

A: Eh, now's as good a time as any.

I asked our play group to come up with a real-world scenario from a team format. What follows is a recreation of an interesting Two-Headed Giant showdown, with only very minor changes to fill in some last-second information gaps. I have no idea how well graphics is going to handle all these permanents; but since when did Zvi worry about that sort of thing?

On one side of the table: Laura and Mike. On the other: Andy and Paul. It's Team 1's 14th turn.

 

Laura (Team 1, 14 life)
Lands: 1 Scrubland; 1 Godless Shrine; 2 Urza's Tower; 2 Urza's Power Plant; 1 Urza's Mine
Creatures: None
In Hand: Hex; 2 Vindicate; Angel of Despair; Maga, Traitor to Mortals
In Graveyard: Nothing
Removed from Game: Nothing

Mike (Team 1, 14 life)
Lands: 2 Temple Garden; 2 Selesnya Sanctuary; 1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree; 1 Forest
Creatures: 6 Saproling Tokens (green 1/1)
In Hand: Seed Spark, Scion of the Wild, Selesnya Guildmage
In Graveyard: Seed Spark, Scatter the Seeds, Selesnya Guildmage
Removed from Game: Nothing

Andy (Team 2, 32 life)
Lands: 3 Swamp; 4 Plains
Creatures: Teysa, Orzhov Scion; 2 Blind Hunter; Souls of the Faultless; Agent of Masks; Putrid Warrior
In Hand: Nothing
In Library: 40 cards
In Graveyard: Nothing
Removed from Game: Blind Hunter (haunting one of the two other Blind Hunters in play)

Paul (Team 2, 32 life)
Lands: 2 Barren Moor; 5 Swamp
Creatures: None
In Hand: 2 cards (unknown)
In Library: 40 cards
In Graveyard: Consume Spirit, Portcullis
Removed from Game: Nothing

In this case, where you see no cards in graveyard, you're really seeing "no relevant" cards in graveyard. I recognize that after thirteen turns, you should see more cards accounted for up there. I'm just showing you the stuff that matters.

Q: How close is this game to over, and why?

A: Two-Headed Giant games can be notoriously long, but this thing looks pretty close to a finish from Team 1's perspective – one way or the other. With correct plays over the next turn or two, Laura and Mike can absolutely neutralize the small, pinging effects that Andy and Paul have used effectively so far – and then Mike and Laura can bring in some pretty heavy hitters, pretty fast (mana draws willing).

But if they play incorrectly, Andy and Paul have enough on the board to do 14 over the next few turns. Andy and Paul are card light, but Paul's already shown Consume Spirit, so it's not just up to a bunch of 2/2 bats.

Q: What is the biggest threat Laura and Mike face?

A: There are three reasonable choices to start: (a) Teysa, (b) the Blind Hunters, or (c) the second Consume Spirit that Paul may be holding. It's also possible Paul's holding something worse, since he hasn't played much this game. (Neither has Laura, and look what she's holding! So Paul may be following a similar strategy.)

But the fact is, with only a few turns to go, and no discard to play, Laura and Mike have to run with the assumption that what's on the board is more worthy of their attention than what may come. Recall Zvi's column from two weeks ago – right now, Laura and Mike need to ask themselves, "how can I win this game?" Because if they do nothing to affect the board soon, they'll lose.

That leaves the Blind Hunters or Teysa. The Blind Hunters are not as much of a joke as I may have implied above: with Teysa's ability available, they represent quickly sackable "seals of siphoning" worth six more life loss (remember, one's already removed from game), along with a six life gain to Andy and Paul's side. So even if the bats never swing again, Laura and Mike are down to 8 life. If Paul's got a Consume Spirit, they're down to 3 life (or worse) before Team 1 untaps for Turn 15…while Team 2 will be comfortably above 40 again.

But the Blind Hunters are only that effective right now because they're easy to sack (as would be the creatures they'll haunt). Which brings us to Teysa.

Teysa is the focal point of Team 1's nightmare. She allows for instant-speed life loss, generates white flyers, and can (with some difficulty) remove a major threat from Team 1's side of the table. She has to go.

Q: What are all of the known ways for this threat to disappear?

A: Again, we'll be as complete as possible in exploring options – even a few obviously unrealistic ones. Teysa can die a bunch of different ways: (a) Andy can sacrifice her to herself; (b) She can enter combat and suffer lethal damage at the hands of a suddenly large saproling; (c) Paul can use incredibly twisted logic to destroy Teysa with creature removal (e.g., Consume Spirit); (d) Laura can hit Teysa with Vindicate; (e) Laura can hit Teysa and five other creatures with Hex.

Q: Which of these is the most likely to happen? And what does that have to do with Laura's most logical play?

A: This is a bit of a trick question. No matter what a player tries to do, Andy will always have the option of sacrificing three white creatures – including Teysa – to remove a creature (a saproling, in this case) from the game. So targeting Teysa with Vindicate, Hex, or anything else may be doable – but whether the spell resolves is up for grabs. Teysa sacrificing herself is more likely than it may seem at first – certainly more likely than (b) or (c), and possibly more likely than (d) or (e).

This may sound like semantics, but it's actually the crux of the strategic issue. Laura needs to figure out how willing Andy is to lose just Teysa – and how willing he is to lose other creatures as well.

Given that Hex and Vindicate are Laura's most reasonable options, she should work through this question before making her next play.

Q: Okay. So of the two reasonable options for Laura, which is the better one?

A: Play out Andy's most likely reaction to each.

If Laura plays Hex, she only has six realistic targets – Andy's six creatures. Andy's going to lose his army, but it won't go quietly. He'll time the sacrifice of bats and other creatures to Teysa so that he can trigger all the necessary haunt effects and put Team 1 to 8 life. He's also going to get rid of two saprolings (which may not seem like such a big deal, but Mike does have a Scion that may be useful later), and he's going to get five white 1/1 spirit tokens with flying. Even if Paul has nothing, that gives Laura and Mike two turns – which is the same as their current clock.

If Laura plays Vindicate, she'll be playing it on Teysa. (We already narrowed her down as the most logical target.) Andy now has a more difficult decision, since it's not a given that he's about to lose his entire army. Does he just let Teysa go and gain nothing? Does he sack her and two more creatures, and if so which two? The bats could do four a turn if they stay alive – but if Andy leaves them alive (say, along with the Agent of Masks), what will they usefully haunt if they die the next turn?

Of course, Laura knows that what Andy saves won't matter. If he just sacks Teysa, fine – the other five creatures die next turn (along with one of Mike's saprolings, for Hex's sake). If he sacks Teysa and two creatures (gaining two spirit tokens), he loses two spirit tokens and the other three original creatures the following turn, with no additional tokens since Teysa's long dead. If he sacks everything (gaining five spirit tokens), he loses all of his spirit tokens the following turn to Hex.

Put it all together, and the clear answer for Laura is to play Vindicate on Teysa, and let Andy make any one of three "wrong" decisions.

From there, victory is not guaranteed – but it is increasingly likely, since Team 1 already has strong card advantage, newly improved board position, and a Scion on the way. And that's if Laura doesn't play anything else!

Q: In how many ways does the team format impact this scenario – put another way, what new considerations arise in the move from duel to 2HG?

A. At first glance, this scenario may look like a simple duel between Laura and Andy. But it's more than that, even with Mike helpless and Paul apparently out of fuel. There are at least three considerations Laura must make, that she wouldn't have to make in a duel:

  1. The combined cards in hand. When one player has card advantage over one opponent, that's good. When two players have card advantage over both opponents, that's tremendous. It makes the right play much more devastating, because recovery for Team 2 in time is far less likely, even with Team 1 low on life.
  2. The army in waiting. Mike has an army "ready to go", as soon as Laura can clear the way properly. In a duel, clearing the board would only be half the battle for her. She's not showing the mana to play her closers just yet, and it could take anywhere from one to four or more turns for her to get the path to victory on the table. But with Mike's saprolings and Scion pretty much ready to go, Team 2 will see their life total come down much faster. As with the card advantage consideration, this doesn't necessarily affect the calculations Laura had to make – but it does raise the stakes of making the right decision, since a correct play will reward her more richly (read: quickly).
  3. The unknown information advantage. In a duel, the chances of tricking or confusing an opponent may be low – but it still happens all the time. (Some duelists call this the "Jedi Mind Trick".) All the information an opponent needs to make a good decision is in front of them – they must make a mistake. In Two-Headed Giant, it's harder to trick or confuse an opponent, because that opponent has free communication with another brain and pair of eyes.

So with your chances of gaining advantage through "known information" even lower than usual, it becomes more important than ever to take advantage of the "unknown information" gap – that is, the information you have that an opponent doesn't.

Here, Laura knows that after she spends a Vindicate, she still has a Hex (and another Vindicate, and an Angel of Despair!). Andy does not know this. Laura can consult with Mike, think through this information gap, and (quietly!) discuss options. Andy can turn to Paul and ask him what he thinks of the BoSox's chances in this year's pennant race. Sure, it's just idle speculation – the same kind he'll be engaging in if he tries to figure out what Laura's up to.

Information advantage is usually an extension of card advantage. (There are times when it can come from other sources – e.g., Sensei's Divining Top.) However, unlike card advantage, it's not just a nice bonus you earn if you make the right decision. It's something you already have, before you make a decision at all.

Laura should use Mike, and the information advantage they have, to make the right choice. Mike, in fact, should insist on talking it through with her. If she makes the right decision, they are both better for it. If she makes the wrong decision, they're both to blame.

In Two-Headed Giant, there is no "he screwed up" or "she did well" or "you screwed up" or "I did well". There is only "they screwed up" or "we did well".

Q: So what really happened?

A: They screwed up.

Q: You're kidding. This was so easy!

A: Yes, you're a real sharp cookie, Meat. A genius, in fact. Who else could possibly come up with the right answer as an Internet column spoon-feeds them all the relevant information while sounding the literary equivalent of a blaring siren to be on the lookout for clues?

Laura and Mike are terrific players. They just messed up a single play in an extremely casual game of Magic, surrounded by impatient friends who wanted them to hurry up so they could start up an eight-player Emperor draft. This is life in the multiplayer trenches, my friend. It's grueling stuff. Why, because they made the wrong decision, they lost – well, they lost a game. And they got over it. I hear they still make tons of money in their day jobs, and their families still love them.

Q: Enough of this life-perspective nonsense. Zvi's coming back soon, right?

A: Calm down, Meat. He'll be back next Tuesday. Thanks to readers for tolerating the brief switch, and to Zvi for looking after my column for a short while.

Anthony Alongi either works for Wizards or he doesn't. We're not sure anymore – hey, Zvi, was it you who wrote that JENNIFER SCALES series with his wife? And Anthony, why aren't you in the office today?

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