You're playing a game of Kaladesh-Aether Revolt Limited. You're still in early turns of Game 1, facing off with your green-white deck against your opponent's white-black deck. You both have five lands on the battlefield.
Your opponent, Sylvia, spends two of her mana to kill off your creature. Then, with the other three, she casts Mind Rot, targeting you.
This is your hand:
What do you discard?
Think about it for a second. I'll wait.
And yes, I know you'd ideally want more information—what's in your deck, what's been played, whether your opponent looks confident or not, and so on—but consider this situation on its own. Given what you know, what would you do here?
When you have your answer, let's continue on.
This is a kind of scenario you will encounter again and again in games of Magic. For as long as the game has been around, there have been discard spells. And whether you're staring down your opponent's looming Limited Edition (Alpha) Disrupting Scepter or mulling over a well-timed Mind Rot today, coming out with the best answer you can is crucial.
Keeping the right cards in your hand when faced with a discard decision can quite often be the difference between winning and losing the game.
So, how should you choose what to keep and what to pitch?
Let's go over the steps that go into making this decision.
1. Evaluate Each Card Right Now
The first thing to do is to look at each card in your hand and think of its value in a vacuum to you right now. How strong is each of these cards at the present moment? There's more to it (and we'll get to that in a moment), but it's important to have a baseline understanding of how good any particular card is on its own.
Assuming you draw absolutely nothing helpful, how strong is each card in your hand right now?
Looking back to the situation at hand, there's one card that can assuredly have an impact right now: Riparian Tiger. You can also play the Plains, though that doesn't immediately do anything for you. But the Tiger you are guaranteed to be able to cast on your next turn.
Prey Upon doesn't immediately do anything, since there's nothing to fight. The Archangel is a couple land drops away still.
Now, that doesn't mean just think in the present tense here—but it's a factor to include into your decision. Keeping the Tiger means you have a great play lined up for your next turn.
2. Look Ahead
Evaluating the present can be easy: look around, see what is possible, and go from there. Where things start getting trickier is evaluating everything that could be.
What does each of these cards do for you in the future of this game?
To figure this out, you need to think about what's going to matter in this game as a whole, as well as ask some questions about what you know of your own deck. There's both the potentiality of what will be strong in this game, as well as what might be strong given your deck.
Going through each card:
The Plains allows you to cast any six-drops you might draw. If your deck is heavy on the high end of the mana curve, you may need this land.
The Riparian Tiger allows you to keep attacking, turn after turn, and apply pressure. If your opponent doesn't have a good follow-up play, the 6/6 attack from the Tiger will likely be enough to punch through anything your opponent's black-red deck can muster.
Presumably, your opponent is going to play creatures at some point. Prey Upon, while not doing anything right now, is a great removal spell that will probably allow your creatures to beat up most of what your opponent throws down.
Finally, the Archangel has the potential to be an absolute game-ender. As a 5/5 flier, Exquisite Archangel will likely just win you the game if your opponent doesn't have a removal spell. The risk here, of course, is that you're still two lands away from being able to cast it. If you don't find the lands you need to cast it, it's going to be a dead card. However, you aren't exactly under any pressure at all.
3. Consider Combinations
Up until this point, we've mostly been evaluating each card on its own. But, of course, provided you're keeping two or more cards in your hand when on the receiving end of a discard spell, you should always take into account what kind of synergy or play style will emerge from keeping each set of cards.
Let's look at some of the ones in this example.
Two that jump out right away are keeping the Tiger and the Prey Upon, or the Angel and the Plains.
If we keep Tiger and Prey Upon, that gives us a creature—and one which can be quite large at that—to use with Prey Upon. And while that's also true of the Archangel, the Archangel is many turns away and, when we finally could can slam it onto the table, we won't have any extra mana for casting Prey Upon. With the Tiger, we can be guaranteed to cast it next turn and then have Prey Upon available on our untap step as long as the Tiger still draws breath.
On the other hand, the Angel plus the Plains puts you one step closer toward casting the Angel. You don't necessarily have anything to do in the short term if you keep these two, but if you draw a land in your next two turns you can cast it.
Now, I'm not saying you should necessarily keep one of these pairs, but the extra boost from keeping a pair can be worth it in some cases. Essentially, the synergy from keeping a weaker set of two cards needs to overcome the raw power of keeping the two "best" cards to make this the correct thing to do.
4. Contextual Clues
Next, there's an entire layer of things to think about that aren't on the board. These are things you can't know from just looking at the scenario in the vacuum—but I'd certainly be thinking about them right now if I were in this game state.
For one, I'd think about my deck. How valuable is Prey Upon as a removal spell? In green-white, you don't traditionally have a lot of removal. If this is the only way to kill off creatures in my entire deck, I might value it highly. How many lands am I playing? If I have an unusually low curve, I'm less likely to find the lands I need for Archangel.
And then there's your opponent. Black-white, and currently has no board presence. Cards like Mind Rot are in her deck. This probably means she is playing a slower deck, and the game will go on for a while. This gives you less reason to keep the Plains because you want a density of threats to fight through a slower deck, and the game is also more likely to get to a point where you naturally draw seven lands over time. This leans you toward keeping the two threats.
And then, of course, there's what you could draw.
If your deck contains a bunch more energy cards, then the Tiger becomes more attractive. If your deck contains a bunch of plays that you can cast next turn, then needing to keep the Tiger becomes less pressing. Taking into account what you know about your deck (and your opponent's, if you're in a subsequent game and have seen more of their deck) can be incredibly informative. You don't want to base too much around what could happen, but it's a good element to factor in.
5. Bringing it All Together
Finally, it's time to bring this all together and weigh all the factors as a group.
Let's look at what we know.
There's no pressure from your opponent on the board, and that makes me not feel rushed to play out the Archangel if I do keep it. You'll find two more lands eventually. The Plains isn't a necessary component with either Prey Upon or the Tiger. That means we don't need the Plains.
Keeping the Tiger is very enticing here because it's a play you can make right away and adds pressure to the board. It makes sure you don't fall behind against the black-white deck, which likely has a good long game that it can use to leverage any kind of delay in your play.
Given that we want to keep the Tiger, which other card do we want to pair it with? This is the crux of the question to me.
Prey Upon and the Tiger are the best inherent combination. There are some game states for which I would keep this, especially if my opponent was poised to beat me down.
However, given the context, I would keep the Angel and the Tiger.
You can pick up your card for next turn, cast the Tiger, and likely find a spell in the next two cards to keep pressure on—and if you keep the Archangel, seeing two lands is still fine. Additionally, the game is likely to go on for a while, and you should find two more lands at some point.
My answer: the Angel and the Tiger.
One Discard at a Time
This process may take just a few seconds in your head, but walking through each of these steps and evaluating your discard from each axis will give you a great basis to go off of—whether you're being Mind Rotted, Fugued, or even just forced to discard to hand size.
There are plenty of interesting variations on this question. For example, what if you only have four lands instead of five. Do you want to keep the Plains and the Tiger then? Do you want to chance it? Is the Archangel too far away? The next time you are forced to discard a card of your choice, remember the options. Discuss it with others. I'd even love to see it; send it my way! There's so much to discuss, and it really can make a huge difference.
Speaking of sending things to me, you can always reach me on Twitter, Tumblr, or by sending me an e-mail at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com. Feel free to send me your questions, discard-related or otherwise.
Have a great week, and may your discards be the right ones. Speaking of discarding, there will be plenty of opportunities to discard in Amonkhet, right around the corner. Don't miss next week as previews for Amonkhet kick off! You won't want to miss them.
Talk with you again then,