A question such as "What am I supposed to do here?" is a mere placeholder for the real questions that you need to ask in order to determine the correct play. This article by no means contains all the questions you should ask, but I feel that it does a good job of demonstrating what types of questions to look for.
Once you start asking the right questions, you can start figuring out the right answers. And once you start figuring out the right answers, you can start doing a lot more winning.
This article originally ran on June 30, 2009.
"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?"
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?"
So join me for a stroll down Abstract Lane, and hopefully you'll see some new ways to look at game situations.
Questions in Deck Building
You're playing in the Booster Draft Top 8 of a Grand Prix–Boston Trial. The pack prizes don't really matter for you; ultimately you are just concerned with winning the event and getting those three coveted byes.
You drafted a very good Jund deck, but while doing so you passed an excellent Esper deck to the player to your left. The player to your left is good, so you're pretty sure that if you make it to the Finals you're going to have to play against her.
Knowing this, should you main-deck your Naturalize?
Maybe yes, maybe no. There's still a lot more that you need to ask yourself before you can make an educated decision.
The most obvious question to ask is "What would I be running this Naturalize over?" If the answer is something marginal (marginal within the context of your deck, that is), then you probably already have your answer.
But if you have a normal deck that is neither particularly strong or weak against Esper and you have to choose between an unimpressive, but still relevant, card such as a Cylian Elf in a deck that's slightly lacking in early drops, or the Naturalize, then you've got a very interesting question on your hands.
You need to decide if it's worth having a card that might not be particularly relevant against most of your opponents, but will be excellent against your probable finals opponent, or a card that will always be mediocre.
If you passed a lot of Borderposts, that might tip the balance in Naturalize's favor because it will have blowout potential against a good portion of your opponents (can you imagine how far behind your opponent would be if you Naturalized their Borderpost and then played a three-drop when they had a mere one land in play? Ouch!). If you get passed a ton of good Jund cards really late, that also might tip the balance in Naturalize's favor as it suggests that there are probably a number of blue and white drafters at the table, colors that are known for having above-average amounts of artifacts in Shards of Alara Block Limited.
But, if your deck has someone questionable mana, then that might tip the balance in Cylian Elf's favor, as you have a greater need for early drops that will help you get to the late game where your mana comes together and your superior card quality can lead you to victory.
"Should I Use my Giant Growth Here?"
Whenever you are considering using a combat trick, you have to ask yourself "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and "Is it actually even that good for me if my opponent has nothing?"
If it turns out that you get destroyed if your opponent has a trick of his or her own, then there'd better be a pretty good reason why you're taking on all that additional risk. If it turns out that your risk outweighs your reward, then you shouldn't be using your combat trick in that spot. It's that simple.
Only it isn't. The hard part is calculating your risk and reward.
If you have two 2/2 creatures blocking a 5/4, then you would almost never want to use a Giant Growth even if you were almost positive that your opponent didn't have a trick of his or her own.
Because even if everything goes well, and your opponent does not have a trick to destroy you with, then it's not even clear that anything good has happened to you. In most mid- to late-game situations, a Giant Growth is worth more than a 2/2. So this is a clear example of a situation where the risk outweighs the reward.
In a situation like that you probably wouldn't have to spend much time thinking about whether or not you wanted to use a Giant Growth, but what if you're presented with a more difficult question?
Imagine that you can use a Giant Growth on your unblocked creature to kill your opponent, but if he or she has a removal spell, then you will almost certainly lose the game. If your opponent has the removal spell and you don't cast the Giant Growth, then you would be about 50/50 to win the game.
What do you do?
There's no one right answer to this type of question, especially when it's as abstract as the one that I've just posed.
The important thing in these types of situations is not what you do, so much as why you're doing it. If you think that your opponent is getting ready to cast a Predator Dragon that will immediately kill you, then you should probably take your chances with that Giant Growth. If you think that your opponent is sitting on next to nothing, but might have a removal spell, then you probably want to hold that Giant Growth.
The stakes don't always have to be that high, but the same principle holds true. If your 3/3 is blocking your opponent's 3/3, you'd better be pretty confident that your opponent doesn't have a removal spell before you even consider casting that Giant Growth. It's not that great for you if your opponent doesn't have anything, and if he or she does it could be pretty devastating.
But what if you have a 4/4 blocking your opponent's 4/4? Then you probably feel sufficiently incentivized to try and save your creature ....
Just be sure to think about these types of questions on a case-by-case basis.
Even if you really want to save your Rakeclaw Gargantuan that's blocking your opponent's Rakeclaw Gargantuan, if you're going to be in a particularly dire situation if your opponent has the Resounding Thunder, then you might want to hold back that Resounding Roar for later.
"Should I Take the Terror or the Pacifism First Pick, First Pack?"
Interestingly enough, this question is a lot harder to address in the abstract than most game decision questions. Terror and Pacifism are both premium removal spells. In most formats there is very little quality difference between the two of them. Instead you have to make your decision based on the contents of the pack and personal preference.
If you have a strong preference for drafting either white or black, and the pack isn't particularly heavy in the color that you prefer, then you should just follow your preference.
Let's say you don't really have any preference between the two (your preferred decks to draft might be blue-white and blue-black) then you should look at the pack to know which way you should go with your pick. Pay particular attention to what the third best card in the pack is. If the third best card in the pack is white, then you should almost certainly take the Terror as it's likely that the person two to your left will take the other white card.
But without a clear indicator, this pick could definitely go either way. But even when it's this close, just make sure you know why you're taking what you're taking.
When Statistics Don't Matter
You can calculate the odds of whether or not your opponent has his or her only Volcanic Fallout. But the odds themselves don't always matter. If your opponent is playing like he or she has Volcanic Fallout, then you need to respect that.
One of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself is "Why would my opponent do that?" This question is particularly important if your opponent has made a play that makes him or her particularly vulnerable. Now, the answer to the question could be "My opponent screwed up." Or "My opponent didn't think I had XYZ." Or it could be "because my opponent has exactly the card that will destroy me here if I make the obvious play and he or she is trying to lure me into doing just that."
It doesn't matter that it's "statistically improbable" that your opponent could have that card. At a certain point either he has it, or he doesn't, and nothing else really matters. If the only way your opponent can not lose is if he or she has the Angelsong, then you'd better do your best to respect that Angelsong. If you decide that you have to play into it, that's fine. Your opponent probably doesn't have it. That is, unless he or she has played in such a way that he or she would have to have it for those plays to make sense. If your opponent's plays are terrible unless he or she has the Angelsong, then your opponent probably has that Angelsong and you should do your best to try not to walk into it.
I'll come back to the idea of orchestrating plays soon, but you should always be sure to ask "Why would my opponent do that?"
Focus on What Really Matters
You can take your analysis of a Magic question to pretty much any level, but that doesn't mean you should.
If you had an unlimited amount of time to break down each of your decisions, you would probably be able to figure out the plays that have the highest expected payout at every step of the way.
In tournaments there are strict time limits that prevent people from being able to run through every permutation in their head, so you don't have the time to work out every situation perfectly. And even if you're just playing a casual game with your friend, if you spend 2 minutes trying to figure out each and every one of your plays, your friend is probably going to start looking for someone else to play with.
What you have to do is figure out what really matters, and then act appropriately.
As soon as you've identified what really matters for your question (such as the fact that the third best card in your Terror / Pacifism pack is white), then you can go ahead and make your decision confidently. If it turns out that you had misidentified what really mattered in that situation, then take note of what happened and why you thought what you did.
Let's say you took the Pacifism instead of the Terror because there were more playable black cards than white cards in the pack. Then you would probably have made a mistake because you had thought that what mattered was how many people at the table would be encouraged to draft a certain color by your pack. When what really matters in this situation is what your immediate neighbors are likely to do.
If anything, a depth of black cards in the pack is a good thing as it means that you might get one of them when the pack comes back 9th pick.
Honing your Reflexes and Thinking about Them
With enough experience, you will be able to answer many of these questions automatically. For example, when combat damage went on the stack, you would know without blinking that the best time to sacrifice creatures to your Scarland Thrinax would be after damage stacked and right before they were going to die.
But not always. Sometimes there are much better plays, such as sacrificing all of your other creatures before damage to kill your tapped-out opponent.
Be careful not to rely on your instincts too much. If you do, you could easily slip into autopilot mode. And if you're on autopilot, you're going to find yourself asking the wrong questions a lot.