One of the most important questions to ask yourself during a game of Magic is, should you cast your spell this turn, or wait for a better opportunity?
You carefully consider the question, and you answer it to the best of your abilities, but even now you're far from done! Any time the answer is, "Yes, I'd like to cast my spell this turn," another important question inevitably follows:
When is the best time to cast your spell?
Timing can be everything. In the case of an instant, you might cast it at the end of your opponent's turn, or you might cast it during combat, in your main phase, in the upkeep, or at any of a dozen different points! How can you be sure what's best?
Timing is one aspect of sequencing, and information management is an important consideration for both. However, when it comes to timing, there's a lot more to consider. You also have to think about minimizing risk, maximizing opportunity, and making things as difficult and inconvenient as possible for your opponent.
Your Default Course of Action
All things equal, it's best to wait until the last possible moment to cast your spells. In this way, you have the most information available when you cast your spell, and you conceal information from your opponent for as long as possible. Not only will your opponent remain unaware of the spell you're casting, but your mana will remain untapped for longer, which multiplies the number of possibilities that your opponent must consider, and might make him or her play more conservatively than they otherwise would.
That said, it's very dangerous to become locked into the pattern of always waiting until the last moment to cast your spells. It's fine as a default option, but it's not always best.
There are two main sets of circumstances where it can be in your best interest to cast your spells earlier than you otherwise would.
The first is if the spell can help you gather information to inform another important decision.
The second is if you fear a certain reaction from your opponent. In particular, look for times where all of your opponent's lands are tapped. There are plenty of spells which you'll want to cast at any safe opportunity, even if it means casting an instant at sorcery-speed.
Let's go over some examples of such situations, and the categories of spells for which proper timing is particularly valuable.
The Types of Spells
We discussed combat tricks when we covered attacking and blocking. Knowing the fine details of the combat phase is important, and will give you an advantage in complicated situations where both players might have instants to cast.
Like most spells, you should normally cast your combat tricks at your final opportunity (after blockers have been declared, but before damage has been dealt). However, sometimes you ought to deviate from that pattern.
One example arises when you strongly suspect that your opponent has an action to take. Perhaps they have an activated ability on the board, like Anointer of Champions, or you just have a gut feeling that they're going to cast a combat trick of their own.
It's always an advantage to act last, so if you're sure that your opponent is going to do something, you might as well wait. This comes up most often when you're the one attacking. Recall that the attacking player (the active player) normally acts first. However, if the blocking player (the nonactive player) takes an action, the attacking player will get another chance. Consider the following example:
On turn four, you attack with Shambling Ghoul and Timberpack Wolf, and you have Titanic Growth in your hand. Your opponent blocks each one with a Cleric of the Forward Order, and has two Plains untapped. You consider casting Titanic Growth on Timberpack Wolf, so that it will survive combat against the Cleric of the Forward Order. However, in this particular case it's in your best interest to wait. Why would your opponent block your 2/3 Shambling Ghoul with a 2/2 Cleric when he or she is still at a high life total? Something is fishy! Instead, you do nothing (you pass priority), and your opponent casts Mighty Leap on the Cleric blocking Shambling Ghoul. Now you cast Titanic Growth on Shambling Ghoul, trumping the Mighty Leap and leaving your opponent with nothing on the board. Patience and proper timing has allowed you to get the most out of this exchange!
Now consider a case where one of your future actions depends on the success or failure of your combat trick.
Your opponent attacks his or her Watercourser into your Timberpack Wolf with three Islands untapped. You want to block and cast Titanic Growth, but fear things might go wrong. If you suspect that your opponent has Negate or Calculated Dismissal, you should cast Titanic Growth before you block. If you block first, and your Titanic Growth gets countered, you will also lose your creature. If you cast Titanic Growth first, and your opponent counters it, you can decline to block with Timberpack Wolf, since taking two damage is a small price to pay for keeping your creature in play.
Timing is very important when using instant-speed removal spells. When you wait, you can gather extra information, or you might even be able to goad your opponent into investing mana or an extra spell (like an Aura) into their creature before you kill it. However, waiting can also open the door to disaster.
One nightmarish scenario can arise with damage-based removal like Fiery Impulse. These spells can be trumped by combat tricks, so there's danger in waiting until your opponent's turn to cast them.
You pass the turn, and after your opponent untaps, you cast Fiery Impulse on his or her Charging Griffin. They respond with Titanic Growth, and not only does the Charging Griffin live, but you take 7 damage to boot!
Things can go wrong with "unconditional" removal, like Ultimate Price, as well. Sometimes, it's simply best to cast your removal spells right away, before your opponent can untap their mana. That way, a permission spell or a "protection spell" like Feat of Resistance can't ruin your day.
This category could actually encompass any card that's generally progressing your game plan. Dragonlord's Prerogative and Dig Through Time are good examples, but so is casting Collected Company, using Abzan Charm to put two +1/+1 counters on your creature, or pointing a Lightning Strike at your opponent.
You might cast these spells right away, on your own turn, if they can help you find another helpful play. For example, you can cast Jace's Ingenuity to try to hit your land drop, or you can cast Collected Company to try to hit a haste creature and attack.
You might also need to cast these spells in order to inform your decisions. If you miss on Collected Company, for example, will you need to hold back additional blockers? If you can Dig Through Time and find Clash of Wills, perhaps you'll play an Island instead of an Opulent Palace this turn.
Finally, as always, there's the danger of your opponent having a particular reaction to your spell. If you don't want your instant to get countered, cast it when your opponent is tapped out! A little bit later, we'll cover some of the common types of responses that you ought to be thinking about when deciding how to time your spells.
This includes all spells that you have to cast at sorcery speed. If you cast a creature before combat and your opponent counters it, their mana will be tapped and you might have more flexibility during your attack.
Putting your Fleecemane Lion into play might give you more options for using Dromoka's Command during combat. Alternatively, it might make your opponent think you have Dromoka's Command when you really don't!
The theory behind timing each of these types of spells is the same. Simply think clearly about the consequences of the spell, and about the common ways your opponent might react to it.
The Types of Responses
Perhaps the most natural fear, when casting a spell, is that it will somehow fail to resolve! Timing is particularly important against opponents with the capability of countering your spells.
Time your spells in a way that minimizes the risk associated with them being countered. In other words, don't risk other aspects of your game plan on your spell resolving if you don't have to. Recall the example of Titanic Growthing your Timberpack Wolf before you block the Watercourser.
Another example would arise if you have both Ultimate Price and Languish against a Jhessian Thief. You'd prefer to use Ultimate Price, and save Languish for later, but your top priority is to not take a hit from the Thief. Maybe you should Price the Thief right away, and if your opponent counters it, you'll know to cast your Languish as a follow-up.
Next, think about how you can most inconvenience your opponent. Imagine that your opponent is at three life and you have Lightning Strike. You're not sure whether he or she has a permission spell in their hand, but you certainly don't want to give them any extra draw steps to find one. Here, a nice option to consider is casting Lightning Strike during your opponent's upkeep. If he or she doesn't have the counter, you win either way. If he or she does, you at least force them to spend mana on their own turn (possibly opening a window to resolve another burn spell if you draw one).
We already covered the dangerous interaction between damage-based removal and pump spells. What about the interaction between a "minus/minus" effect, like Bile Blight, and a pump spell.
Let's say you want to Bile Blight your opponent's Swordwise Centaur, but you're worried about Aspect of Hydra. Should you Bile Blight on your own turn or your opponent's? Well, it can literally depend on how much devotion to green your opponent has. If Aspect of Hydra represents exactly +2/+2, the Centaur will survive the Bile Blight either way. However, if you wait until your opponent attacks, now you'll only take damage from a 2/1 instead of a 3/2. On the other hand, if your opponent has a devotion to green of five, now the Aspect of Hydra will greatly outclass the Bile Blight, and you'll wind up taking additional damage if you wait until your opponent's turn.
So far, we've been planning for the worst-case scenario, but you should also think about the best-case scenario! Maybe if you wait on your removal spell, your opponent might jump the gun and cast his or her pump spell, allowing you two kill two birds with one stone.
Timing your removal spells in the face of a possible pump spell is about minimizing risk, maximizing your potential for value, and making things inconvenient for your opponent.
Protection spells, like Center Soul, are similar to pump spells, except that they don't necessarily come with the risk of dealing you extra damage. Alternatively, they're like permission spells that can only counter removal spells.
All of the above concepts still apply. Sometimes you can make things inconvenient for your opponent by forcing them to spend mana on their own turn. However, be careful about giving your opponent an extra draw step, or allowing all of your plans to be undone if your opponent can save his or her creature.
Timing Your Spell in the Face of Uncertainty
Things would be relatively simple if you always knew for sure how your opponent would react to your spells. Things are much more complicated in practice, when you don't know if, when, and how your opponent is going to act.
The best you can do is to be present in the moment, and consider all of the possibilities. Sometimes you'll have to make an educated guess, and you'll guess wrong. That's okay! What you really want to avoid is being blindsided by a protection spell because you simply hadn't considered the possibility that your removal spell might fail to kill its target.
Consider the possibilities, weigh the likelihood of each one, and time your removal spells the best you can. Here are a few questions that you can ask yourself to inform your decisions:
- Is there a risk of your spell failing?
- How can time your spell to make it most likely to succeed?
- Can you gain relevant information by timing your spell in a particular way?
- Can you gain additional value by timing your spell in a particular way?
- How can you most inconvenience your opponent if he or she does have a response?
It's impossible for me to cover all of the countless questions of timing that might come up in a game of Magic. However, hopefully the examples from this article have offered an idea of some of the factors you ought to have in mind as you cast your spells.
Remember, deciding to cast your spell is only the first step. Take great care in timing your spells, in order to make them as effective as possible and minimize the risk that anything will go terribly wrong.