We've talked a lot about what to do in a game of Magic. However, just as important as what you do is how you do it. Sequencing refers to the order and the manner in which you take your actions in a game. Proper sequencing will make the game as easy as possible for you and as difficult as possible for your opponent.
Sometimes, discussing sequencing might seem like nit-picking—like it's an aspect of gameplay that's unlikely to make a big difference. Trust me when I say that this is not the case. The fact is that you never really know when something that seems small might be important to the outcome of the game. It's best to develop good habits and to give yourself the best possible chance to take the advantages that come from proper sequencing.
A Golden Rule
I'll begin with the single most valuable piece of concrete advice that I can offer to another Magic player.
Think through your entire turn before you do anything.
Untap your permanents, address any relevant upkeep effects, draw your card, and stop. At this point in each and every one of your turns you should take ten or twenty seconds to think through everything you intend to do this turn. Will you play a land? Which one? Will you attack? With what? Will you play a spell? What spell, and what will you do with it? You'll need a list in your head of what you're going to do before you can consider the best way to do it. This is a key to proper sequencing.
Along the same lines, you should consider any predictable actions of your opponent, and how you'll react to them. For example, imagine you start your turn with a 2/2 creature and Awaken the Bear in your hand. Your opponent has a 3/3 creature untapped. If you attack, there are two predictable actions that your opponent could take: either to block or to not block. Will you cast Awaken the Bear if your opponent blocks? Will you cast it if he or she doesn't block? The answer to these questions will help you decide whether or not you really want to attack in the first place. The whole thought process should take place at the start of your turn, before you do anything rash. There's no reason to find yourself in the middle of a hairy combat phase only to realize that you would've really preferred to use your mana to cast a creature instead of Awaken the Bear!
You can avoid unfavorable situations by thinking everything through at once instead of facing your decisions one at a time.
Developing this habit will make you a better player. You'll make fewer mistakes, you'll have a better grasp of what's going on in the game, and you'll be able to sequence your plays better. You'll also give away less information to your opponent because he or she won't know exactly what you're considering when you pause to think. If you attack and then stop to think when your opponent blocks, he or she is going to think, "I wonder if my opponent has Awaken the Bear?" If you think everything through at the start of the turn, your opponent is far less likely to guess what you have.
As Sun Tzu said, "Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt."
A small caveat is just to be careful not to play too slowly. Slow-play rules and timed rounds are important aspects of tournament Magic (which will be covered in more detail in a future article). Taking twenty seconds to think through each turn is a great idea, but taking several minutes on each turn is too much in a tournament. Thankfully, taking time to think at the beginning of your turn will allow you to take your actions quickly and efficiently once you decide what you're going to do.
Types of Actions
Once you've decided everything that you're going to do on your turn, you can begin to consider the best way to sequence your plays. There are four categories of plays that are important for understanding proper sequencing. Every play you make in a game of Magic fits into one or more of these categories.
Actions That Give You More Information: Some actions allow you to see cards in zones that are normally hidden, such as your opponent's hand, or the top of either player's library. Anything that draws you more cards also gives you more information. Anytime your opponent takes an action, it gives you more information. You have the least information on turn one because you haven't drawn very many cards yet, and therefore don't know every tool you'll have to work with later in the game. You also might not know much about your opponent's deck or what he or she will be doing in the game. You have more information as things drag on, and the important aspects of the game reveal themselves.
Actions That Give Your Opponent More Information: Technically, everything you do falls into this category. When you cast a spell, not only have you revealed it to your opponent, but you've also shown him or her when and how you intend to cast it, and that you now have one fewer card in your hand. The key is simply to gauge how important different information might be to your opponent. Playing your land on turn three is very unlikely to affect your opponent's decisions. However, playing your bomb creature might change your opponent's decisions quite dramatically. Once you show your Brutal Hordechief, you can no longer trick your opponent into using Reach of Shadows on a weaker creature!
Actions That Force You to Make Decisions: When you attack your 2/2 into the untapped 3/3, you'll soon be forced to decide whether or not to use Awaken the Bear. When you cast Bitter Revelation, you don't know which four cards you're going to see, and you'll have to choose on the fly which two to put into your hand.
Actions That Force Your Opponent to Make Decisions: When you attack your 2/2 into the untapped 3/3, you force your opponent to decide whether or not to block. When you cast Rakshasa's Secret, you force your opponent to decide which two cards to discard.
The key to proper sequencing is that you want the most possible information when you make your decisions and you want your opponent to have the least possible information when he or she makes decisions. Therefore, actions that give you more information and actions that force your opponent to make decisions should be undertaken as early as possible in a turn while actions that give your opponent more information and actions that force you to make decisions should be done afterwards whenever possible.
Many cards fit into multiple categories. Bitter Revelation and Diplomacy of the Wastes both give you more information and force you to make a decision. In such cases, you ought to consider both aspects of the cards. Should you cast Diplomacy of the Wastes sooner in order to gain information for another decision, or should you take other actions first, allowing you to make the most informed decision possible when you finally see your opponent's hand? It all depends on the circumstances.
Let's return to the example involving Awaken the Bear. You've untapped, drawn your card, and face the following board state.
Before doing anything, you should think through your entire turn, as well as any predictable responses from your opponent (in this case, either blocking or not blocking). Let's say you decide you want to attack and you want to cast Awaken the Bear if your opponent blocks, but not if he or she doesn't block. If you don't cast Awaken the Bear then you want to cast Bitter Revelation. You also want to play a land this turn.
So now you have in your head a list of actions you want to take this turn, and it's time to decide how best to sequence them. The only remaining decision you'll have to make is which cards to choose if you wind up casting Bitter Revelation.
Your opponent will have the decision of whether or not to block with Longshot Squad. You want to force your opponent to make this decision with the least amount of information possible.
In this particular case, it's obvious that you should attack before casting Bitter Revelation because you'll need your mana for Awaken the Bear. However, even if you had seven mana available, you'd be better off attacking first both in order to conceal information from your opponent before he or she makes a decision and also to gather more information before you make your own decision. (You'll know whether or not your opponent blocked and whether or not you had to cast Awaken the Bear before you decide what cards to take with Bitter Revelation.)
Playing a land should be the last thing you do on this turn for several reasons. First, it's an action that gives your opponent more information, and therefore should not be done before you force your opponent to decide whether or not to block. Second, Bitter Revelation is an action that gives you more information and therefore could possibly change your decision. What if you choose a land that enters the battlefield tapped? What if you choose Dark Deal and decide that you don't want to play a land at all? Finally, if you cast Bitter Revelation before playing your land, it also keeps the door open (from your opponent's perspective) that you might've chosen a land from Bitter Revelation. Again, this conceals information from your opponent.
If the opponent blocks, cast Awaken the Bear.
If the opponent doesn't block, cast Bitter Revelation.
Play a land.
Consider a slightly different situation.
First, let's come up with your list of actions for the turn. You'll want to play a land, play Rakshasa's Secret, and attack. If your opponent blocks, you'll want to cast Awaken the Bear and if he or she does not, then you won't. Now, what about sequencing?
This turn, you won't have any new decisions based on new information. Your goal is to force your opponent to make his or her decisions with the least amount of information possible. Your opponent's biggest decision will be what to discard to Rakshasa's Secret, since he or she has three cards in hand.
Cast Rakshasa's Secret.
If the opponent blocks, cast Awaken the Bear. If the opponent doesn't block, end your turn.
Whether to Act Before or After Combat
Under ordinary circumstances, attacking should be the first thing you do on a turn. If it doesn't have haste or a relevant ability, there's no reason to cast a creature before you attack. If your opponent is facing the decision of blocking or using a removal spell, all you've done is given him or her more information with which to make the decision.
One possible exception is playing a land. As in the example above, sometimes you'll need to play your land in order to enable the option of a combat trick, in which case it's fairly obvious that you should play your land before attacking. If you have no combat trick, your goal becomes to conceal information for as long as possible.
However, since players sometimes play a land precombat to enable a combat trick, what follows is the fact that playing your land precombat is sometimes actually the best way to conceal information! If you attack with your Ainok Guide before playing your third land, you're demonstrating that you cannot cast Awaken the Bear. If you attack into a 3/3 creature before playing your fourth land, you're hinting that you might have specifically Awaken the Bear, but not Dragonscale Boon.
Perhaps the best examples come from morphs. If you have four lands in play and attack a morph into another 2/2 creature, you're hinting that you either have a spell to cast or want to trade creatures. But if you play your fifth land before attacking, the possibilities multiply! Now, from your opponent's perspective, your morph could be a Snowhorn Rider, a Glacial Stalker, or any of a dozen different things. By increasing the possibilities of what might happen during combat, you've concealed information from your opponent.
Playing a land before combat also helps you prepare for the unexpected. You might hold a land to conceal information, but open yourself up to disaster if your opponent casts Stubborn Denial on your combat trick!
I recommend the general habit of playing your lands before you attack, particularly in Khans of Tarkir Limited. On the other hand, you should typically play most creatures and sorceries after you attack. However, you should be willing to deviate from this policy when circumstances call for it. In Example #1, where you might cast Bitter Revelation after combat, it's certainly best to wait before playing your land.
Proper sequencing is all about managing information. Play in such a way that you have the maximum amount of information before making your important decisions. Conceal information from your opponent for as long as possible, particularly when you can present him or her with a difficult decision.
In many of these examples, the sequencing might seem rather small and unimportant, but in Magic, the small things add up. If even one game out of a hundred you lead your opponent into making a wrong, uninformed decision, you'll be a better player for it. Proper sequencing is absolutely worth your effort.