Foundations, Part 2:
Playing the Game

Posted in Limited Information on December 12, 2012

By Steve Sadin

Editor's Note: Although Mike and I have only been working directly with Steve for the past year of his five-year tenure, we are very sad to see him go. I've read his articles for years and have appreciated the lessons he's shared about learning and improving as a Limited player. His contributions to as a weekly columnist will be missed.

As Steve notes below, we will be tasking Pro Tour commentator and Magic podcaster Marshall Sutcliffe with the inimitable task of following in Steve's footsteps and helping to teach the art of Limited—a task I am certain he is up for.

//Trick Jarrett

A nearly five years, my run as the columnist for Limited Information has come to an end. I'll be passing the torch on to the more-than-capable hands of Marshall Sutcliffe (who many of you probably already know from his video coverage at Pro Tours and Grand Prix, as well as his podcast Limited Resources ).

I know Marshall's going to be great (even if he doesn't yet understand that Judge's Familiar is actually a one-mana Lava Axe), and I'm already looking forward to tuning in every Wednesday to read what he has to say.

But before Marshall takes the reins, I've still got some important things to go over.

Last week, I walked you through what I think about when I'm drafting and building my deck. This week, I'm going to go over what I think about when I actually sit down to play.

Always Have a Plan

When you're playing a game of Magic (or drafting/building your deck), it's absolutely crucial for you to have a clear idea of what needs to happen for you to win.

Inspiration | Art by Izzy

Without a plan, you will inevitably get yourself into a lot of trouble (good tactical decisions mean little without an overarching plan). But with a plan you'll find ways to win countless games that would have been completely out of reach had you been playing haphazardly.


When a hand is missing a piece to become functional, you better be in great shape if you draw that piece.
—From "Mulling it Over."

Games of Magic are frequently won and lost before so much as a single spell has been cast. If you keep a bad hand, or you mulligan a hand that actually had a very good chance of paying off for you, your chances of winning can go down by a significant margin.

It should be easy for you to recognize a really good hand or a really bad hand—but how do you know if an imperfect hand is worth keeping?

As I further explained in "How Much Better Do You Need It to Get?"...

The hardest mulligan hands tend to have five lands and two spells or five spells and two lands. Four-land, three-spell and three-land, four-spell hands are usually keepable unless they have a tragic flaw (the flaw could be no action, missing a key color of mana, not fast enough, etc.). One-land, six-spell hands can be a bit tricky, but they are very rarely worth keeping. And I've never heard of a one-spell, no-spell, or seven-spell hand that I'd consider keeping in Limited.

In order to keep a five-land hand (or a three-land, Borderpost, Obelisk hand) you're going to need to have some very good spells. If the hand in question had a Sharding Sphinx or a Tower Gargoyle instead of a Jhessian Zombies, then I would say keep it in a heartbeat. But when your spells are slow, and ultimately comparable to two- and three-drops, then your hand really isn't cutting the mustard.

If a hand has two lands in it, then you have very different questions to ask yourself. Questions like: Are my spells worth it? What happens if I don't draw a land by turn three? What happens if I don't get to four mana until turn six? Are the spells in my hand actually good if I can't play them in a timely fashion? What happens if I do draw my third land by turn three? What happens if ...?

If you discover that your hand isn't that great if you draw what you need, and you're in big trouble if you don't, then that's a pretty sure sign that you should be taking a trip down to six. If your hand is very good if you draw what you need on time, but kind of terrible if you don't, then you've got a tough decision on your hands.

Always ask yourself whether you can recover if you stumble a bit. Well, that depends on your hand and, just as importantly, on your deck.

Always Look to the Future

I've seen players cost themselves countless games because they didn't want to trade a "good card" for an opponent's "bad card"—or because they threw away a (normally ineffective) resource that could have won them the game outright.

Fortunately, this doesn't have to happen to you. As originally mentioned in "Card Advantage: A Brief Overview," as long as you remember that...

It doesn't matter where a card (or a token) came from; once it is in your hand or on your board, you should treat it with just as much respect as you would give to any other resource.'ll be able to properly evaluate the game state as it actually is, instead of as you think it should be.

Ask Questions!

About a year into writing this column, I wrote an article called "Some Questions You Should Be Asking" that (unsurprisingly) went over the types of questions you should be asking yourself when you're playing a game.

I would strongly recommend for you to read the whole article, but for now, let's just take a look at an excerpt:

"Is it right to attack this turn?" "Should I use my Giant Growth here?"
"Should I take the Terror or the Pacifism?"
"Should I main deck my Naturalize?"
"Should I landcycle this turn or play my two-drop?"
"Should I Shock my opponent's Llanowar Elves?"
"Should I sacrifice all my artifacts to Thopter Foundry to try to kill my opponent next turn?"

I'm sure you both hear and ask yourself questions like these all the time when you play Limited. Why am I sure? Because every one of these questions needs to be answered in order for your game (or draft, or deck construction) to progress.

But these types of questions don't actually mean anything.

To put it in non-card terms, if someone asked you "Should I drop out of Harvard three weeks before graduation?" It would be very easy to say "no" immediately. But if the person is considering dropping out of school to star in Transformers 3, then the question becomes much more interesting.

These questions are questions about what you must choose to do, not why you should make decision A or decision B (or perhaps a non-obvious decision C).

In order to make proper decisions, you need to ask the right questions. So, instead of asking yourself "Should I Giant Growth here?" you should ask yourself things like "Is there a better time for me to cast this Giant Growth?" and "What happens if my opponent also has a trick?"

Playing Around Tricks

When you're deciding how to attack or block, and your opponent has mana untapped and cards in hand, you're going to need to respect the fact that your opponent could have a combat trick or a removal spell in his or her hand. Once you've taken that possibility into account, you can figure out whether or not you actually care. As I originally talked about in "Sealed Deck Decisions"...

Does my opponent have a trick? Do I even care?

You have a Sentinel Spider and your opponent's only creature is a Knight of Glory. Your opponent is playing white, so you know he or she might have Show of Valor—but how much should that fact ultimately affect your play?

If you have a trick of your own, like a Searing Spear or a Titanic Growth, then you might hope your opponent has a Show of Valor so you can two-for-one by casting your own trick in response.

Searing Spear
Titanic Growth

But if you don't have your own trick, you're going to need to figure out if it's worth it for you to play around the possibility that your opponent could have the pump spell (or removal spell) you're concerned about.

  • Do I want to get the trick out of my opponent's hand?

If the answer is "yes," either because you have a more valuable creature you want to protect or because attempting to play around it will have a more deleterious effect on your game than your opponent actually casting it would, then play into it!

  • Am I ever going to be able to play around this trick?

If a given trick is going to be just as good next turn—and the turn after, and the turn after that, as it is right now—then you might as well play into it. Even if your opponent does have it, you won't be losing any value.

  • Do I think there's a good chance my opponent doesn't have the trick?

If you doubt your opponent has a given combat trick, then you shouldn't be too concerned about playing into it (of course, if you can afford to play around a given trick without giving up too much then that's usually going to be better for you).

Figuring Out When to Use Your Removal

Creature-removal spells are a precious commodity when you're playing Limited. If used properly, they're invaluable. If used improperly, however, they can become a burden.

Going back to "Sealed Deck Decisions" again:

So before you cast your removal spell, stop to ask yourself:

  • Am I likely to win quickly if I kill my opponent's creature now?
  • Am I in danger of dying soon if I don't kill my opponent's creature?

Of course, there are a lot of follow-up questions that are worth asking (such as: "Am I likely to get a better opportunity to use my removal spell later?")—but if the answer to both of these questions is "no," then you should probably hold your removal spell.

Defusing Bombs

One of the reasons why it's so important to hold on to your removal spells is because you don't want to lose immediately if your opponent happens to have an exceptionally strong creature in his or her deck.

And if you know for a fact that your opponent has a great card, or worse yet, several great cards, you may need to adjust the way you play in a fairly severe manner. From "Defusing Bombs"...

Make it Quick (If Possible)

If your opponent's deck has Overrun, and you don't have a Cancel, a Safe Passage, or a Fog, then you are probably going to lose if the game devolves into a cluttered stalemate.


It doesn't matter if you are playing a white-blue deck that you thought was going to beat people by stalling up the ground and then flying in for the kill late, late in the game. If your opponent has an Overrun, everything changes.

You are going to have to play aggressively.

When you know that your opponent's deck has a card, or several cards, that you cannot reasonably deal with, you are going to want to try to end the game as quickly as possible. By ending the game quickly, you minimize the chance that your opponent will be able to cast his or her game-breakers.

So if you have the chance to make reasonable attacks against your opponent's Overrun deck, you must do so. If all goes according to plan, you will be able to kill your opponent before he or she is able to cast a lethal Overrun, and even if you are not able to kill your opponent that quickly you might be able to force him or her to trade enough creatures with you that by the time your opponent draws Overrun he or she won't have enough creatures for it to be lethal.

Admittedly, this is an easier task for some decks than others. And it might turn out that your white-blue deck does not have any profitable ways to get aggressive. In that case you have to play your deck the way it was intended to be played and hope for the best.

Don't Play Around a Bomb if You Can't Afford To

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with an opponent who has a bomb is not to let the bomb beat you when your opponent hasn't even drawn it.

Your opponent might have an Ant Queen in his or her deck that you absolutely cannot beat if it remains active, but that doesn't mean that you don't want to Deathmark the Stampeding Rhino that he or she cast on turn five.

If that Stampeding Rhino is going to clock you over the head for (at least) 8 damage before you can do anything about it, you better just Deathmark it then and there. Sure, your opponent might plop down an Ant Queen on the next turn, but if you were going to lose to the Stampeding Rhino anyway, your cost-benefit doesn't work out at all.

Sometimes you have to put yourself into a position where you will lose to your opponent's bomb. It's much better than putting yourself into a position where you will lose even if your opponent doesn't have said bomb.

Beware of Fancy Play Syndrome!

Oh, and before I go, I need to remind you about the dangers of "Fancy Play Syndrome!"

Fancy Play Syndrome occurs when you make plays, draft picks, or deck building decisions that are too complicated for the level of opposition you are facing, or when you come up with overly creative solutions for a problem when a straightforward approach would be far more effective.

If you try to bluff a novice opponent by attacking your Jade Mage into Sengir Vampire, then you will probably induce a block and a chuckle from your opponent (who is quite amused by the fact that you would attack your littler creature into a bigger creature).

But if you make that same attack against a seasoned veteran, that player will understand that there is a strong possibility that you have a Titanic Growth (or at the very least a burn spell) and will carefully consider that information when deciding whether or not to block. While this more experienced and more skilled opponent might still choose to block, you can sleep easy knowing that there was at least a reasonable chance that you would have been able to steal 2 points of damage with your bluff (which might be hugely important if your plan is to end the game quickly).

If you try to force Mono-Green at a Pro Tour, when you are surrounded by players who you suspect have a huge distaste for green, then you could end up with a particularly awesome deck while your neighbors fight over the other four colors. But if you try to force a Mono-Green deck at a draft full of relatively inexperienced players who don't have a great understanding of the format, or strong color preferences, then you will probably end up with a disaster on your hands (when you would have been able to put together an excellent deck if you had just sat back and paid attention to what color(s) seemed to be open).

A tendency to overestimate your opponents, and/or a temptation do cool things (simply because they are cool, for your own amusement, or to impress others) can allow you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as easily as the most boneheaded of mistakes.

Farewell, For Now!

I'll still be doing coverage at events, drafting on Magic Online constantly, and tweeting about Magic (@SteveSadin). So if you want to know what I'm up to, follow me on Twitter. Heck, now that I'm done with the column, maybe I'll even do a draft walkthrough! :)

And remember: as long as you have a plan, constantly ask yourself (the right kinds of) questions, and remain aware of Fancy Play Syndrome, you should be able to win (and learn) a lot when you play.

Happy Holidrafts,
Steve Sadin

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