Wait For It...

Posted in Learning Curve on January 29, 2003

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

I like to watch.

That is to say, I like watching people play Magic. I think it helps my game and it also provides fodder for my column. In fact, I was watching my friends Don and Mike play a match a few weeks ago that provided me with the inspiration for today’s installment about waiting.

I don’t remember much about the early game, only that Mike was playing a deck with "fear" creatures and red "ping" effects. He had a Sparksmith and a non-Wizard with Lavamancer's Skill as well as two tapped Severed Legions that promised to deal lethal damage to Don on his next turn. Don shrugged and attacked Mike with his six 1/1 Insect tokens even though Mike was at 12. Mike assumed that this meant Don had some kind of trick to boost his guys so he blocked two guys with the Sparksmith and the enchanted creature. Before damage went on the stack he used the Sparksmith to kill one of the unblocked tokens. After that resolved he used his other pinger to shoot another token. Don played Tribal Unity for 3 in response and won the game with his three 4/4 insects dealing exactly 12 damage.

Do you see what Mike had to do to win this game?


He had to wait until the last possible moment to use his pingers. He should have waited for Don—the active player—to pass him priority. Once Don passed priority to Mike he could have simply put damage on the stack—taking four—and then swung back with his Severed Legions, winning the game with a generous eight life points to spare.

If Don chose not to pass priority before stacking damage, perhaps to cast Tribal Unity, then Mike could still have responded to that spell with his two pingers and only eight points of damage would get through. If Mike had waited to the last possible moment to use his creatures he would have won.

So what is so interesting about this endgame that I would be prompted to write about it? Or more to the point; what is the lesson we can derive from it?

I think that one of the most basic elements of Magic that eludes newer players (and more experienced players—both Mike and Don have been playing for many years!) is waiting until the last possible moment to use your resources. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about pingers, tappers, mana, or board sweeping cards like Pernicious Deed.

Today's Lesson:
Knowing when to wait.

One of the most common mistakes made in the history of Magic is the turn-one play of Mountain… Lightning Bolt you… go. I can’t even begin to guess at how many times I have seen games lost on that exact sequence when the player's opponent subsequently made a turn-one Hypnotic Specter off of a Dark Ritual. Unless the hasty red player had another burn spell, his hand was going to be ripped apart over the next few turns. Had the player waited on the red instant until his opponent’s end of turn—the best time to cast instants—he could have killed the Specter. If the opponent did not play anything he would still have the opportunity to aim the Bolt at his opponent instead.

Of course, knowing when to wait also means when knowing not to wait. If the black player went first and ritualed out a Specter, then the correct play for the red player is to play a mountain and burn that flying monstrosity as soon as possible. Since he would want to kill the Specter no matter what, it is better to do it while his opponent is tapped out. The last thing he want to see happen is for the black player turn out to be blue/black and Spell Blast, Mana Leak, or even Memory Lapse his Lightning Bolt. In my first example, if Don had cast Tribal Unity before the attack phase (as opposed to waiting) he probably would have won regardless of what Mike did. Mike could not have used his pingers in response and had them available as blockers and would have actually taken 16 damage instead of 12. So waiting is a double-edge sword.

To pump or not to pump? Activating the Rootwalla means risking a Shock from the opponent.

Activating Creatures

But in most instances, it is better to play the waiting game. Basking Rootwalla is a great card to use for the purposes of illustration. If you attack with a 1/1 Rootwalla and your opponent Shocks it you can respond by pumping it. If you are not content to put one damage on the stack and opt to pump your Rootwalla, you give the momentum of the turn to your opponent who can now kill it in response with—heck he could use a Lava Dart at this point! This is why most Rootwallas only deal one damage when the opponent has untapped Mountains. If you don't think your opponent has instants that can kill the Rootwalla, though, feel free to pump away.

Wild Mongrel also presents challenges for the impatient. Imagine a situation where a Mongrel and a Patrol Hound are in a dogfight. If the controller of the Hound discards a card to give it first strike what is the correct play for the Mongrel player?

The answer is to do nothing.

Nothing, that is, until the first strike damage is on the stack, locking it in at two. Now you can make your guy a 3/3 by discarding a card to the Wild Mongrel before first strike damage resolves. Your Mongrel will live and deal 3 to the Hound, killing it once you go to regular damage. Let’s say you did not wait for damage to go on the stack and immediately discarded a card to make your Mongrel a 3/3. Now your opponent will regain priority and can Giant Growth his hound and then put five points of first strike on the stack, costing you either a Wild Mongrel or a heck of a lot of cards in hand.

Using Tappers

Master Decoy

Tappers, such as Whipcorder and Master Decoy, are an often misunderstood tool for the beginning Magic player. By using your tapper on your opponent’s turn when he declares his attack step, you negate his best attacker and force him to decide whether or not he wants to send any of his creatures. Plus, on your turn the creature will still be tapped negating that creature for both halves of the turn. When players use tappers on their own turns to force through attackers, they allow their opponents to untap the creatures that were tapped, meaning the creatures are tied up for only one of the two halves of each turn—a rather inefficient use of the tapper. As with the previous example there are going to be times when tapping your opponent’s blockers and attacking them is going to be the right play. Those times will probably come when you have used your tapper efficiently on your opponent’s turn throughout the game and can untap and use it again on your turn. By using that resource in the most efficient manner you will have been able to negate two creatures as blockers when you make your all out attack for the win.


Instants vs. Sorceries

There was a time when Rout and Wrath of God were legal in Standard at the same time. Despite the fact that Wrath cost only four mana to Rout’s seven mana (if you played it as an instant—five otherwise) there were many players who put an additional Rout in their decks where they could have played with another Wrath. The reason? The ability to sweep the board at your opponent’s end of turn was worth the three extra mana. Instead of tapping mana to cast Wrath and letting your opponent untap and play new threats for you to deal with, you could kill everything at the end of the turn and untap and have all of your mana available to play threats of your own or counter additional threats form across the table.

Starstorm is probably a better mass removal spell for red than Earthquake for the same reason—although Earthquake damages players which might appeal to the red player attempting to kill his opponents with burn. Tapping out at the end of your opponent’s turn and having your spell countered is infinitely better than having it happen when you tap out during your turn and you remain tapped out through your opponent’s turn as well. You can even use a powerful instant to draw out a counter at the end of your opponent’s turn so you can untap and cast something else that you want to be sure will resolve.

I could go on and on with specific examples all day long but at the end of the day if you apply the ideas we have talked about today to your game you will probably find that you are able to swing the momentum of the game to your side of the table.

  • Wait for your opponent to make the first move and then react. The player that gets to use his resources the latest in the sequence will usually emerge on top.
  • Don’t tap out to cast instants during your turn that can be cast at the end of your opponent’s turn. You will have more options and all of your mana on your next turn.
  • Lock in damage totals with the stack and save your creatures after it is too late for your opponent’s creatures to deal additional damage.
  • Tappers and pingers used during your opponent’s turns will allow you to get an extra use out of them at the end of the game on your turn.
  • If you tap things on your turn they are only tapped for half a turn. If you tap things on your opponent’s turn they are tapped for an entire turn.
  • If you have an option between an instant and a sorcery that have similar effects you should consider playing with the instant even if it costs a little more or has a slightly less powerful effect.
  • Instants can be used a the end of your opponent’s turn to force their hand with a Counterspell to get another spell to resolve on your turn.
  • Know when to wait, and know when not to wait.

Basically what I am trying to suggest is that normally you wait. Even if you are just waiting a moment to think about what will happen if tap out to cast a spell. Or wait until next Wednesday when I throw you another Learning Curve.

Brian may be reached at brian@fightlikeapes.com.

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