What They Think You're Thinking

Posted in Limited Information on August 18, 2009

By Steve Sadin

When you're trying to figure out your attacks for the turn, you need to consider what your opponent is capable of doing not just on this turn, but on subsequent turns. If your opponent is tapped out, it's pretty easy for you to figure out everything that he or she is capable of doing on this turn as you only have to consider a finite number of potential blockers and activated abilities.

But once your opponent untaps, any number of things can happen.

Your opponent might have a really good spell, or might have nothing. A huge blocker might come down that would make your subsequent attacks quite difficult, or a counterattack and a Lava Axe might immediately end the game.

If, however, you know that your opponent is seriously backpedaling, you want to make the plays that will minimize the effectiveness of his or her subsequent plays and draws.

This might mean that you want to make plays that will kill your opponent as quickly as possible. Sure a Shivan Dragon is better than a Runeclaw Bear, but if you have two Runeclaw Bears, your opponent has said Shivan Dragon as a lone blocker and is on a mere 2 life, then it doesn't matter how much better the Dragon is than your vanilla 2/2. Barring a trick, your opponent is still going to die on your attack.

Or it might mean that you can afford to make very conservative plays that allow you to play around Earthquake, Overrun, and Harm's Way, all while putting your opponent on a three turn clock.

But if you're trying to attack in a game where things are fairly even or you are behind, your considerations are very different. No matter where you are in the game, you will want to minimize the effectiveness of your opponent's subsequent plays. But if you are behind, you will often have to leave yourself very exposed to all sorts of thing in an effort to get yourself back into the game.

And if things are roughly even, you might find that it's in your best interest to leave yourself somewhat exposed to things now, in order to minimize the effectiveness of cards that would otherwise be devastating later. For example, you might minimize the effectiveness of a Windstorm by only playing out one flier at a time or by trading one of your fliers with a "less powerful" ground creature, or you might minimize the effectiveness of an Overrun by killing your opponent before he or she draws it.

The types of plays that you choose to make hinge dramatically on what your opponent's life total is. If you have two 4/4 creatures staring down your opponent's Darksteel Colossus, you might attack and you might not. If your opponent is tapped out and is about to die from your attack, then your should probably make the play that will cause you to immediately win the game.

But if your opponent isn't going to die right then and there, you'll have an interesting decision on your hand when trying to decide what your attacks are going to be ....

    Time to Get Our Hands Greasy

You're playing a game of Magic 2010 Limited. It's your turn, and you are at 20 life.

Your board:
Plains, Plains, Plains, Plains, Forest, Forest, Swamp (all untapped)
Veteran Armorsmith, Rhox Pikemaster, Undead Slayer (all untapped)

Your hand: Divine Verdict, Plains, Plains

Your opponent's board:
Forest, Forest, Forest, Forest, Mountain, Mountain, Mountain, Mountain (all tapped)
Elvish Visionary, Elvish Visionary, Inferno Elemental (all untapped)

Your opponent's hand: one unknown card

    Your opponent is on 2 life. What do you do?

This is a fairly straightforward situation. If you attack with all three of your creatures, your opponent has to chump-block two of them and then block the third with Inferno Elemental.

If your opponent blocks your 3/4 Rhox Pikemaster with Inferno Elemental, then a Divine Verdict will kill the 4/4 at no cost to you and, barring two Pyroclasms, a Bogardan Hellkite or Howl of the Night Pack, you will almost certainly win on the next turn as you will have three creatures to your opponent's zero with only one card in hand.

If your opponent blocks your Veteran Armorsmith or your Undead Slayer with Inferno Elemental, then you will not be able to Divine Verdict the Inferno Elemental to save your creature. Its ability triggers and destroys your creature before you get a chance to resolve Divine Verdict.

Assuming your opponent makes what is, from your perspective at least, the best block—putting Inferno Elemental on Veteran Armorsmith or Undead Slayer—and you use your Divine Verdict after blockers, your opponent will need to have answers for both of your remaining creatures.

With only one unknown card and a draw step, this is quite a tall order for your opponent to fill.

Conclusion: Attack with all three creatures.

    Your opponent is on 3 life. What do you do?

On 3 life your opponent actually has a little bit of breathing space. In the event of an all-out attack, your opponent can let one of your creatures through and still live to untap. If you attack with everyone, your opponent would ask him- or herself "Can my opponent attack without a trick? Can my opponent attack without any follow-up play? What if the only play is a follow-up creature?"

If your opponent played assuming that you had no trick, then he or she would probably block Inferno Elemental on Rhox Pikemaster and two Elvish Visionaries on Undead Slayer. But anything from a Glorious Charge to a Harm's Way to a Divine Verdict will leave your opponent reeling. However, if your opponent tries to play around a trick and you do have it, things don't turn out all that much better for him or her anyway.

Pretty much the only trick that your opponent can try to play around profitably is the Divine Verdict that so happens to be in your hand. But even then, you're going to be in really good shape barring some sort of fantastic follow-up play.

If your opponent tries to play around Divine Verdict, by blocking Inferno Elemental on Veteran Armorsmith and chump-blocking Rhox Pikemaster with an Elvish Visionary, you're still going to end the turn with two creatures and your opponent on 1 life with only an Elvish Visionary.

And that's a pretty good place to be.

Conclusion: Attack with all three creatures.

    Your opponent is on 5 life. What do you do?

On 5 life your opponent might want to play around a Giant Growth, but can he or she do so profitably?

In order to best play around Giant Growth, your opponent would have to block Inferno Elemental on Undead Slayer, and an Elvish Visionary on each of your Soldiers. If you had a Giant Growth, you would probably then use it on your Undead Slayer to trade with your opponent's Inferno Elemental.

This would leave you with 5 power worth of first strikers to your opponent's board of nothing on 5 life. Unless your opponent has something very interesting in his or her hand, it doesn't seem at all profitable for him or her to "play around" Giant Growth. But what if your opponent is trying to play around Divine Verdict?

If you attacked with all three of your creatures, the best block that your opponent could put together would probably be both Elvish Visionaries on Undead Slayer and Inferno Elemental on Veteran Armorsmith, taking 3 from the Rhox Pikemaster.

Note that this is significantly stronger than the blocks that your opponent could have made in the example where he or she was on 3 life. However, this is still a very good spot for you to be in.

On 2 life with no permanents to your 3/3, it's going to be very difficult for your opponent to go on the offensive. Even if your opponent Lightning Bolts your creatures and plops down a Shivan Dragon on his or her next turn, a single Runeclaw Bear will be enough to force your opponent to keep his or her Dragon on defense.

Conclusion: Attack with all three creatures.

    Your opponent is on 7 life. What do you do?

Now let's check to see if your opponent can respect a Giant Growth.

Assuming you have the Giant Growth, your opponent has to block at least two of your creatures or else he or she will take lethal damage from an all-out attack. Your opponent could block Inferno Elemental on Undead Slayer and an Elvish Visionary on Rhox Pikemaster, taking 2 and likely forcing you to use your Giant Growth on your Undead Slayer.

If your opponent has another large blocker in hand, that could be a very good block. Note that this block plays around Divine Verdict and Glorious Charge as well as is possible given that your opponent is on 7 life. But barring any particularly good spells for your opponent, you are going to be in a great position to win the game moving forward.

If you attacked with just the Rhox Pikemaster, your opponent would almost certainly chump-block it with a 1/1 or take 3 damage. Is this better for you than getting in for 2 damage and trading a Divine Verdict and an Undead Slayer for an Inferno Elemental and an Elvish Visionary?

Unless you have some special knowledge about your opponent's hand, I would say that it is not. Knocking your opponent to 5 and leaving him or her with only a 1/1 while you have 5 power worth of first strikers is a better position to be in than one where you leave your opponent with an Inferno Elemental while you are holding a Divine Verdict.

Just think about how much more devastating that Inferno Elemental becomes if your opponent has a Lightning Bolt to kill your Veteran Armorsmith on the next turn. It certainly isn't pretty.

Conclusion: Attack with all three creatures.

    Your opponent is on 8 life. What do you do?

On 8 life, Giant Growth is now a completely reasonable card for your opponent to play around. If he or she wants to ....

In the event of an all out attack, your opponent now has enough of a life buffer to block only your Rhox Pikemaster. If your opponent's card in hand is a Lightning Bolt a Seismic Strike or some other devastating trick, that might be just what your opponent would choose to do.

Or not ....

On 8, your opponent doesn't have enough of a life buffer to try to play around everything. Especially not Giant Growth.

If you attacked with everything, the best block for him is probably still Inferno Elemental on Undead Slayer and an Elvish Visionary on a Rhox Pikemaster. But there is also some value to putting the Inferno Elemental on the Veteran Armorsmith and the two Elvish Visionaries on Undead Slayer.

Note that even if your opponent is holding a good trick, he or she does not have enough life to block the two Elvish Visionaries on Undead Slayer and take 5 from your first-striking soldiers.

Conclusion: Attack with all three creatures.

    Your opponent is on 20 life. What do you do?

On a comfy 20 life, your opponent can play around anything he or she wants to on this turn, including Giant Growth, Divine Verdict, and to some extent even cards like Planar Cleansing, Overrun, and Harm's Way. If you attacked with all three of your creatures, it is reasonably likely* that your opponent would block your Undead Slayer with Inferno Elemental and take 5 damage. That is the block that best plays around the common tricks Glorious Charge, Giant Growth and Divine Verdict.

* (The likelihood of these blocks could change if your opponent has some sort of knowledge that isn't clear through this snapshot of the game state. This might be a result of previous spells cast or knowledge of your deck from previous games.)

But that's only if your opponent has something in the works. If your opponent doesn't have anything too good (or has something really, really good), then he or she would probably block Inferno Elemental on Veteran Armorsmith and the two Elvish Visionaries on Undead Slayer. Or your opponent might not block with the Elvish Visionaries at all, fearing a gigantic creature such as a Kalonian Behemoth.

However, it's likely enough that your opponent will put Inferno Elemental on one of your smaller creatures if you attack with everything that you probably don't want to do it.

Because of that, I would either attack with Rhox Pikemaster or nothing. Unless I had a good reason for saving the Divine Verdict, I would attack with the Rhox Pikemaster because, in the event of a block, I would have 7 points of power to my opponent's negligible board. If my opponent didn't block, I would have gotten in a free attack for three damage.

Seeing as I'm probably going to end up Divine Verdicting that Inferno Elemental in the near future anyway, there's pretty much no reason why I shouldn't try to do it now.

Conclusion: Attack with just Rhox Pikemaster unless you have a particularly good reason not to. (Many Giant Growths, Oakenforms, Shivan Dragons, and such all count as good reasons.)

    I Think I Know What You Think I'm Thinking

Even though the answers are the same for all the questions when your opponent is on a single-digit life total, the ways that the solutions are derived are different.

In all of them you must look at what your opponent has to do, and what he or she can do. You can figure this out by imagining what your opponent is thinking, a large part of which is figuring out what your opponent thinks you are thinking.

If you make a strange play, your opponent will look to understand why you did it, just as you would look to understand what would motivate any of your opponent's plays.

    Missing Information

It's important to note that these decisions were derived from only the information that this snapshot provides. When you are playing a real game you have to take into account things such as what cards you've already seen from your opponent, what cards your opponent has been representing this game, what high-impact cards are still in your deck, etc.

However, in some spots, such as the versions of this question where your opponent is on 2 or 3 life, you don't need any information outside of what is given to you in this snapshot. The correct play is clear and cannot be changed unless you have extremely specific knowledge, such a Bogardan Hellkite in your opponent's hand or somesuch.

And even then ....

    Bonus Exercise

Your are playing in Game 1, Round 1 of an M10 draft with the following deck:

M10 Draft Deck

Download Arena Decklist

You are on the play, and you draw the following hand:

Sparkmage Apprentice
Mind Rot
Zombie Goliath
Zombie Goliath

Do you keep or mulligan?

What if you are on the draw?

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