Better Late Than Never

Posted in Feature on November 2, 2005

By Zvi Mowshowitz

John White writes in:

I am the tournament organizer for the local tournaments. Last week in a triple Ravnica draft, time ended in the round with one match still being played. The match was at 1-1 and time was out, so the extra 5 turns had started. On turn two (after the draw phase) the game looked like this:

Opponent (15 life):

in play:
1 Elves of Deep Shadow
2 Gate Hound
1 Selesnya Evangel
3 Saproling Tokens
4 Forest
4 Plains
(all were tapped in order to summon...)
Autochthon Wurm

in hand:
0 cards in hand

Player (18 life):

in play:
1 Elvish Skysweeper
1 Selesnya Guildmage
1 Screeching Griffin
1 Nightguard Patrol
1 Birds of Paradise
1 Saproling Token
2 Forest
3 Plains

in hand:
1 Devouring Light
1 Faith's Fetters
1 Seed Spark
1 Forest
1 Chord of Calling

in deck:
1 Razia, Boros Archangel

What is the BEST decision? Use the Devouring Light, Chord of Calling, Faith's Fetters or attack all out (giving all creatures +1/+1 with the Guildmage), take the damage and win with the Griffin in the air the next turn?


Autochthon Wurm
You have this turn and next turn to kill your opponent and he has no cards in his hand. You've won this game easily if you have a few more minutes on the clock and you aren't in extra turns yet, since you have multiple answers to the Wurm, but you don't have that kind of time. Instead, you need to finish your opponent off next turn. For now, let's assume that to win the tournament you must win the round.

Your opponent doesn't have much going on other than the Wurm, but he will have an abundance of chump blockers on the ground on your final turn. He has no defense against flyers unless he draws one off the top of his deck. You need to find fifteen damage, and a quick check shows that you can't win this turn. The Griffin can do four, so you'll need eleven more. If you attack on the ground, he will block Selesnya Guildmage with the Wurm if you let him. The other creatures will get in for four additional damage, and together with the Birds of Paradise that gives you a potential five creatures that could be pumped by the Guildmage. This play hits him for eleven, putting him at four, but leaves you no way to finish him off so that won't work. A variant is to take the Wurm out and then attack, which also is a lot safer. You can use Fetters, in which case you get through for eight but can't pump, leaving your opponent at seven. A third option is to let it block and use Devouring Light, but that costs you more damage than you get in exchange. The last option is to go get Razia, which also does eight damage but leaves the Wurm active. You can cast Chord of Calling on your upkeep next turn to protect yourself from just drawing Razia. The problem with this option is that you will have less mana on your next turn and you won't have Fetters to get an enemy flyer out of the way. If he plays a flyer, you could be in trouble.

Getting Razia now does just as much damage and gives you a better attack next turn. Therefore the only question you need to ask here is, could I potentially die if I go for Razia and leave the Wurm in place?

If Razia comes out and swings together with the Griffin, it will be your only defender and you'll want to keep it safe. You are at eighteen and your opponent is representing sixteen damage. With an effective toughness of six, Razia can stop one point with no worries by blocking so that leaves your opponent only three points short. Seeds of Strength can kill you, and it is common. So that would be a yes. However, you are forcing your opponent to have outright removal for Razia off the top, kill you or lose the game.

So what's the best play?

If you have a second blocker in addition to Razia, you no longer have mana on your next turn and you're counting on Selesnya Guildmage to get you the last points of damage. No matter how you look at it there's no way to kill your opponent in time through a flying creature without exposing yourself to Seeds of Strength. That means you have to decide which is more likely, a flyer or Seeds of Strength (and all other pump spells that give a similar boost). Since white has a lot of flyers that will consistently make the cut, it seems clear to me that you are better off losing to Seeds of Strength and going for Razia.

So what ended up happening? As it turns out, after about 5 minutes of considering, the player used the Chord of Calling to find Razia, and the opponent conceded for lack of flying creatures. Any play capable of killing the opponent would have worked.

Here's a question though: what would the correct play be if you were not in extra turns and had some time to work with?

With plenty of time, there's no reason not to play it safe. The Wurm needs to be dealt with, but you have two good answers sitting in your hand. The play is clearly to cast Faith's Fetters or Devouring Light on the Wurm and attack in the air, confident that you can bring out Razia later. Without the tools to do much damage, it will be very hard for your opponent to threaten you.

But which spell should you use?

Faith's Fetters solves your problem, but there's a chance that the solution is not permanent. At any time, your opponent could cast an enchantment removal spell or a protection spell (or a bounce spell) and get his Wurm back. Many scenarios will force you to immediately deal with an attacking 9/14 creature, and you might not be able to use Devouring Light right away – or you might have already used it on something else. A far better play is to use Devouring Light when he attacks you, holding Faith's Fetters in reserve. Chord of Calling is an instant as well, so if he decides not to attack you then you can cast Chord of Calling at the end of his turn. With your extra creature you can and should hit him in the head with your Griffin.

Now for another question. Given the game was in extra turns, was your opponent correct to cast Autochthon Wurm?

Your opponent probably knows full well that it is highly unlikely that he can win the game in only two more turns. Even if you don't have much of a hand, he has to come over for a full eighteen, especially without risking a lethal counterattack on your last turn. He'll need quite the trick to be able to hit you that hard before time runs out. In the meantime, casting the Wurm makes him far more vulnerable to a counterattack. If you didn't have Chord of Calling, you would have no way to win this game in time if he decided to hang back and save his creatures to use them as blockers, and there aren't many cards like Chord of Calling that can get the job done in time.

The flip side of that is that the Wurm gives him the possibility of a counterattack. If he doesn't cast the Wurm you can attack with all your creatures without worrying about a counterattack, as he doesn't have enough power on the table to cause any serious trouble. If he does attack, he makes your next attack that much more likely to succeed. The way that the Wurm might make sense is if the threat of that attack is as effective or more effective than holding back a bunch of lousy blockers. At that point, he is hoping you can't deal with his giant threat and will accept the draw rather than gamble without a way to deal enough damage in time.

This seems like a horrible deal. He is greatly increasing the chance that he loses without giving him much of a chance to win – he essentially has to trick you into an alpha strike and then topdeck a pump spell to finish you off. If he has three copies of Seeds of Strength, that could make it a gamble worth taking. But what is the other factor at work here?

It is fitting that this was sent in by the tournament organizer, because the right decision depends on the status of the tournament! Who has to win this game, and who only needs a draw? Playing the Wurm only makes sense if he has to win this game to have a shot at winning the tournament or achieving whatever he has set as his goal for today. In that case, even a small chance to win is worth risking a much bigger chance that he will lose. A draw for the match might knock him out, or he might be down one game to none, in which case he's unlikely to be able to convince you to alpha strike. You have to ask yourself the same questions. If a draw in this game is as good as a win for you based on your current standing within the event, there's little question that you play defensively rather than going for the win. Yes, you can almost certainly win this game, but there are reasons why it might be even better to make sure that you draw it – you might be up a game, or a draw might be as good as a win with respect to making top eight or some other key cutoff.

The key thing to take away is that Finkel's mantra of “focus only on what matters” applies not only to the current game but beyond it to the structure of the tournament. You need to treat the end of the five turns as the end of the game and act accordingly. There is nothing wrong with changing your actions in extra turns to adjust for how good or bad it is for the game not to finish. Figure out what you need to accomplish and then give yourself the best chance of success that you can.

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