Threats and Answers

Posted in Level One on September 8, 2014

By Reid Duke

Over the span of the last nineteen years, since he was five years old, Reid has been a player, a deck builder, a collector, and a lover of the Magic world. Today, he’s a full-time professional Magic player and writer.

Murderous Cut | Art by Yohann Schepacz

Magic is a game of threats and answers. Mana, card advantage, and other fundamental concepts are in the background of every game of Magic, but threats—like creatures and Planeswalkers—are what win games. A well-placed answer card—like a removal spell—can swing a game in your favor, and the lack of one can mean watching things slip away from you.

Today's preview is an efficient and reliable removal spell from Khans of Tarkir. To fully appreciate its value, it's helpful to first understand the importance of both threats and answers in a game of Magic. It can be difficult to compare the values of these very different types of cards, but the key is to strike a sensible balance between threats and answers.

Being Proactive

At any given moment, a player is playing in one of two ways: either being proactive (deploying threats, attacking, or otherwise progressing his or her own game plan), or else being reactive (defending, trying to answer the opponent's threats). In the Magic world, the word "proactive" has a positive connotation—it's good to be proactive.

There's a famous saying first voiced by Dave Price, a pro player from the early days of Magic who, to this day, is known as "the King of Beatdown." It goes like this: "While there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats."

In other words, when you draw a threat, one of two things can happen: either your opponent does not have the right answer and your threat sets you on a course toward winning the game; or your opponent does have an answer and you've made a (usually) neutral exchange. There's little risk when you fill your deck with lots of potent creatures.

Drawing an answer (a reactive card) is very different. Your opponent may not even have a threat, in which case your answer card is not particularly useful. In the best case, you can answer a threat and undo one of your opponent's actions—again, a (usually) neutral exchange. However, there's a third case that can be disastrous, which is when your answer does not match up correctly against your opponent's threat, as in the case of Pillar of Light against a 3/3 creature.

This is not to say that answer cards are useless; there are plenty of situations where you need them to survive! However, while filling your deck with answers can buy you time, it will not actually contribute to winning the game. Generally speaking, the player proactively deploying threats has an easier route to victory than the player reactively trying to answer them.

Another advantage of being proactive is that you're not at the mercy of your opponent's strategy. In the course of a long tournament, you can face ten different opponents with ten different decks. You might not know exactly what strategy all ten of them are using. You certainly cannot tailor your deck to be perfect against all ten of them at the same time! However, if you're employing a proactive strategy, focusing on executing your own game plan, you have a fighting chance even against a strategy that you weren't specifically prepared for.

Threats

Threats are what win games. You can win a game easily by catching your opponent unprepared for a particular threat. You can win quickly by deploying more threats than your opponent can answer in a timely fashion. Alternatively, you can take your time and win in a longer game with a resilient threat, which may not be particularly easy to answer. No matter what form a game of Magic might take, threats are going to play a central role.

Let's take a look at some different types of threats, and what advantages they bring to the table.

Quick Threats

A tried-and-true strategy is to deploy a lot of cheap creatures and try to win the game before your opponent can answer them all or have time to cast more powerful spells. While plenty of creatures cost only one or two mana, the vast majority of answer cards are more expensive than that.

Last week, we previewed End Hostilities, which is likely to be one of the commonly played answer cards from Khans of Tarkir. It costs five mana! A one-mana creature has a good chance of attacking four or more times before End Hostilities can remove it from the battlefield.

Similarly, many of the commonly played one-for-one removal spells, like Hero's Downfall, cost three mana. If you're on the play and cast a creature on turn one, turn two, and turn three, your opponent has a tough battle ahead if he or she wants to get back into the game using expensive answer cards. As your opponent is trying to battle back, you can be playing more creatures as fast as they are answered, and attacking all the while!

One catch is that if your creatures are all 1/1s and 2/2s, it will either take a lot of time or a lot of creatures in order to kill your opponent from 20 life.

Potent Single Threats

Alternatively, you can employ more powerful creatures as your threats, such as the monstrosity creatures of Theros block.

In this case, you give up the option of outpacing your opponent's answer cards, but in exchange, any single one of your threats, if it does go unanswered, will win the game in short order. High-impact cards like these have the potential to provide virtual card advantage and run away with a game.

Remember, "While there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats." By playing with potent single threats, you put yourself in the best possible position to take advantage of this concept. You put your opponent through maximum punishment if his or her answer comes at the wrong time or in the wrong form.

Resilient Threats

Alternatively, you can employ threats that dodge many of the common removal spells. In this way, you maximize the chance of your opponent having a "wrong answer."

Examples include Prognostic Sphinx or any other hexproof creature. The best example from recent times is Ætherling.

If you're careful to leave blue mana available at all times, there's virtually nothing that can permanently remove Ætherling from the battlefield! Resilient threats like these can be especially good choices if your deck only has a small number of threats, since in such a case you can't easily afford to have them killed.

Threats That Provide Guaranteed Value

Sometimes, you can get something out of your threat even if your opponent does have the right answer. Examples can include creatures with enters-the-battlefield triggers and haste creatures. The best examples, though, are Planeswalkers, since you can activate them immediately—as soon as you cast them.

For example, say you cast Nissa, Worldwaker and make your Forest a 4/4 Elemental. Even if your opponent destroys Nissa with Hero's Downfall, you're left with a 4/4 creature permanently. Either your opponent will need an additional answer for your Elemental (which essentially means card advantage for you), or else it will stick around and might contribute to you winning the game.

Answers

Despite the truth and wisdom behind Mr. Price's words, answers are, in fact, also tremendously important. After all, your opponents are going to have threats as well, and being caught without an answer at the wrong time can mean defeat. You need answers, such as removal spells, for when things aren't going well. If your deck is all threats and no answers, you're likely to have a very hard time coming back from behind.

While the word "proactive" tends to have a positive connotation, the word "reactive" is not necessarily negative. Some reactive strategies are very effective. More importantly, situations come up where any player, with any deck, will be forced to be reactive in order to have a chance in the game.

Those potent single threats (like Polukranos, World Eater) will dominate a game if they go unanswered. Therefore, it's very valuable to have access to at least a small number of answers in order to have a fighting chance against them.

Even if you're employing a fast strategy that's trying to win the game before more expensive and powerful creatures can enter the equation, you're still at risk of being "shut down" by a blocking creature or other defensive card. In this case, your opponent's "threats" might not be attacking you directly, but they are neutralizing your game plan and will eventually cause you to lose. Having access to some sort of answer can actually be a valuable part of your proactive game plan. Take a look at this deck, for example:

Tom Ross's Rabble Red

Tom Ross's Rabble Red deck is an example of a very proactive, threat-based deck. However, even this type of strategy benefits from some carefully chosen answers. Notice first that this is a deck focusing on quick threats. It intends to deploy a lot of small creatures as fast as possible. With so many small creatures, the deck is at risk of being "shut down" by a blocking creature.

However, this deck does have its own form of answer cards, including Stoke the Flames, Lightning Strike, and even Firefist Striker and Rubblebelt Maaka. Since the most dangerous "threats" to the deck are blocking creatures, all of the answers are tailored to removing them. You can burn them with Stoke the Flames and then attack (a direct answer), you can kill them in combat by using the bloodrush of Rubblebelt Maaka (a situational answer), or you can take away their ability to block with Firefist Striker (a temporary answer).

The beauty of Rabble Red's answer cards is that they can never really be "wrong answers." Even in the worst-case scenario, you can always cash them in for damage on your opponent!

So even one of the fastest strategies possible employs its own form of answer cards. Generally speaking, the slower your strategy, the more answer cards you're going to need, and the more directly they should answer your opponent's threats.

Today's Khans of Tarkir preview card is exciting in its simplicity and its directness. It's a clean and reliable answer card.

In the context of threats and answers, the effect of Murderous Cut is exactly what you want in an answer card. If you need to answer a creature, Murderous Cut will rarely fail you. It can kill anything from a Firedrinker Satyr all the way to a Polukranos, World Eater. It can take out an attacker that's threatening your life total, or it can take out a blocker that's trying to shut you down.

Its secondary ability, delve, is related to its mana cost and its efficiency. On paper, Murderous Cut costs five mana. It is true that you're unlikely to be able to cast it in the first couple turns of the game, before you have a lot of cards in your graveyard. However, on a later turn of the game, you might use the delve ability and cast Murderous Cut on the cheap, giving you the crucial ability to cast it and another spell in the same turn.

Delve is a powerful ability, and it's possible to build your deck to make very good use of it. Imagine, for example, a deck that features cards like Satyr Wayfinder and Necromancer's Assistant. Those cards ensure that there are always plenty of extra cards in the graveyard. In a deck like that, Murderous Cut will often cost only one mana once you're ready to cast it!

However, you don't need to do anything special to make delve a useful ability. Even in an ordinary deck, creatures, lands, and spells will wind up in the graveyard over the course of a long game, and the ability to use delve to make Murderous Cut cheaper will come up often, and be quite valuable.

Khans of Tarkir is sure to have a number of powerful threats for us to make use of. It looks as though Murderous Cut and End Hostilities will be at the head of a wide variety of answer cards as well. Over the coming months, we'll all be trying to learn how to choose our answers to line up well against our opponents' threats. And how to make our threats get the better of our opponents' answers.

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