Not His Last Gasp

Posted in Feature on October 12, 2005

By Zvi Mowshowitz

Second-guessing yourself is important. If you don't second-guess yourself, you won't learn what you did wrong and how you can avoid making the same mistake in the future. What many players forget is that the right play is not necessarily the one that would have won the game. People have a natural tendency to let the outcome of the game taint their outlook on their decisions. Mistakes that don't matter are disregarded, while weeks later you're still beating yourself up over correct decisions that turned out to lose you the game. In the tournament where I made my first Pro Tour top eight, I only remember one mistake – because that's the one that might have knocked me out.

With that in mind, here's today's first situation submitted by Jason Allen:

Dear Zvi Mowshowitz,

I would like to submit for your evaluation and potential use a play scenario from the Ravnica Prerelease a few weekends ago. It involves a middle- game decision that I was confronted with during a Sealed Deck flight. I feel I made the wrong decision within the game, but I'd like to see what your thoughts are on the subject.

It is your precombat main phase.

Opponent (16 life):

In Play
2 Forests (tapped)
2 Swamps (tapped)
1 Plains (tapped)
1 Vulturous Zombie (Sick)
1 Stinkweed Imp (tapped)
1 Greater Mossdog

Hand: 3 unknown cards

Graveyard: Shambling Shell

Me (16 Life):

In Play
2 Forests
3 Swamps
1 Dimir Guildmage
1 Centaur Safeguard
Hand:
Moroii
Telling Time
Farseek
Last Gasp
Forest
Graveyard:
Elves of Deep Shadow

Your deck has three spells that can kill the Vulturous Zombie outright no matter how big it is, plus a Trophy Hunter.

Where do you go from here?

Vulturous Zombie is a huge threat that is only going to get bigger. If it stays on the table, you're almost certainly going to lose. Your opponent is tapped out, and you have Last Gasp in your hand. Right now only Gather Courage can save the Zombie, and if you cast the Farseek that you desperately need to cast then you can't kill the Zombie at all. Kill him while you still can! There seems to be little question that you will cast Last Gasp on the Vulturous Zombie before you cast Farseek.

That's exactly what he did, but alas it did not work:

I decided that my number one priority was to get rid of the Vulturous Zombie. I played the Forest, and seeing that my opponent was tapped out, I cast Last Gasp targeting the Zombie. Unfortunately, my opponent tapped the Zombie in response to Convoke out a Gather Courage, targeting the Zombie. My ineffective Last Gasp hit the graveyard, making the Zombie a 3/3 again.

Jason feels in retrospect that this decision was a mistake, saying this about it:

Of course, the original plan seemed viable too until that Gather Courage showed up. That's the true lesson of this story... beware the Gather Courage! There was more to the situation of course than just the Zombie that made me act in the way I did. I was well aware of the Shell in my opponent's graveyard that was sure to cause trouble. I thus decided to nip the growing Zombie in the butt before it got out of hand. Unfortunately, things didn't work quite the way I had planned.

Could he be right?

I intentionally didn't go into greater detail before making my decision because I didn't when I first saw it. I saw the situation and wondered why Jason felt it was worth thinking about. Now that we know it didn't work, let the second-guessing begin. Were there any signs that using your Last Gasp would only make things worse?

There are two possible ways that you could improve on this play. Possibility one is to read your opponent so confidently for the exact card in his hand – Gather Courage – that you try to kill the Vulturous Zombie another way or use the Last Gasp as the final blow on it a few turns down the line. You better be damn confident that you're right, because this puts you in a much worse position if you're wrong and might well not be enough if you are right. To do that in limited, where you don't even know that Gather Courage was in his initial card pool, you need strong evidence. The only decision that might tip his hand is that Greater Mossdog did not attack. If he's saving an untapped green creature, this could be the reason. The problem with that line of thought is that he has no reason to attack with Greater Mossdog into your Centaur Safeguard. From his perspective, trading damage at this point of the game is bad.

Possibility two is that you can play around Gather Courage, which would mean teasing out the Gather Courage without putting any cards in your graveyard. That means not casting any spells, which means it has to be this turn. There is only one action you can take, and that is to attack with Centaur Safeguard. What happens if you do attack? Without knowing his hand, my instinct is that chances are he will block because he can return the Greater Mossdog to his hand with dredge and trading off makes his Vulturous Zombie bigger. An even stronger argument is that he attacked with Stinkweed Imp, which seems inconsistent with not blocking. If he doesn't block, you're happy because he was probably going to bring back the Shambling Shell and make it impossible for you to block the Greater Mossdog.

The question is, what will happen if you attack and he blocks?

If he doesn't cast Gather Courage, both creatures will die. Once that happens, the Vulturous Zombie will trigger because your Centaur Safeguard went to the graveyard. In response to that, you can cast Last Gasp to kill the Vulturous Zombie. He can still cast Gather Courage, but you still have a better board position than if you hadn’t attacked. If he casts Greater Courage on the Greater Mossdog (how great is that!) then you can respond with Last Gasp on the Vulturous Zombie. He keeps the Greater Mossdog, but you kill the creature that needs killing.

Therefore attacking leads to one of two results. Either he blocks and you’re happier than if you hadn’t attacked, or he doesn't block and you get three damage in. Again, you’re happier than if you didn’t attack. If for some bizarre reason he blocks with the Vulturous Zombie, you're ecstatic. This option is strictly better than casting Last Gasp first, so even though it only matters if you're up against Gather Courage there is no question that you should attack first.

Now suppose that you attack with the Centaur Safeguard and he does not block. Do you still cast Last Gasp?

If he doesn't block, should alarm bells go off in your head? As I said before, chances are that he will block if he doesn't have Gather Courage. If he does have it, suddenly not blocking makes a lot more sense because he can now protect his Vulturous Zombie. That’s what I thought at first, because I made the mistake of not realizing that the Vulturous Zombie was green. However, it is green, so there’s no way for Gather Courage to be shut off, which means that your opponent hasn’t given you any reason at all to worry about it – there’s no way that he would have acted any differently if he didn’t have it. It is ironic that this ends up having no effect on what your correct play is, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a mistake. It is a mistake to do the right thing for the wrong reason. When that happens, you’re just lucky that the mistake didn’t matter. Playing correctly is even harder than it looks, because to truly play correctly you don’t just have to make the right decisions but use the right reasoning to make them.

Either way, the trade you offered him by attacking is not all that great. The reason he might take it is that he can bring back the Greater Mossdog with dredge, but by taking the damage he can bring back the Shambling Shell instead and render the Centaur Safeguard largely moot. This play makes perfect sense even if he doesn't have Gather Courage.

If you think you can see that Gather Courage in his hand, you are seeing ghosts. Yes, it could be in his hand. Yes, it could cost you the game. No, you can't know he has it. The only reason you've gotten this far is that you know that he did have the Gather Courage in his hand. That doesn't mean you can't refine your strategy to give you a chance to play around Gather Courage – there's no question that he might have it. It is a common after all. But if you do more than that, you are seeing ghosts.

At this point, you need to try and salvage the game as best you can. There are three outs left in your deck, as Jason points out when the game resumes:

From there, I decided my best bet was to try to draw into one of the several kill spells in my deck to take care of the Zombie. I still had a Brainspoil and 2 Disembowels as well as a Trophy Hunter that could combine with the Moroii to take down the Zombie.

Unfortunately, I hadn't drawn any source of blue mana yet, so I had to use the Farseek to fetch an Island. That made the Zombie even bigger, and I realized I was on a rather quick clock. On his turn, he dredged back the Shambling Shell (putting a Swamp, Forest, and Lurking Informant into his graveyard), cast it, and attacked for 6 in the air (5 from the Zombie and 1 from the Imp). I went down to 10 and he passed the turn.

 

Telling Time
On my turn I drew Crown of Convergence, played Telling Time to reveal Island, Birds of Paradise, and Golgari Germination. I took the Birds to my hand, put the Island on top and the Germination on the bottom. I then played the Birds and passed the turn.

On his next turn, he did nothing during his first main phase and entered his attack. He swung with the Imp, the Zombie, and the Shell. I blocked the Zombie with the Birds, the Shell with my Centaur, and took the Imp. He stacked damage and sacked the Shell to put a counter on the Zombie. I went to 9 from the Imp but then up to 12 from the Centaur's triggered ability.

On my turn, I drew the Island, played it, and activated the Guildmage to draw the Trophy Hunter. Unfortunately, the Zombie had grown too large at this point to use the Hunter effectively, so I played the Moroii as a blocker and passed the turn.

As expected, he dredged back the Shell again, (putting an Elves of Deep Shadow, Plains, and Transluminant into the graveyard) played the Shell, and attacked with the Imp, Mossdog, and Zombie. I blocked the Zombie with the Moroii and took the Imp and Mossdog down to 8. He passed the turn.

I drew a Swamp, played it, and then used the Guildmage to draw another Forest. Even though it was meaningless at this point, I used the Guildmage again to draw the Brainspoil I'd been waiting for. Of course, I didn't have enough mana to cast it, so I had to pass the turn.

He drew and Alpha Striked to put me out of my misery.

In retrospect, I think I could have won this game if I had played the Farseek instead of the Last Gasp. I would have then been able to play the Moroii on the following turn to trade with the Zombie. That course of action would have left me with the Last Gasp in hand, so I would have been able to use that in response to any Gather Courage shenanigans.

All right, that's what happened. Was this loss inevitable, or could Jason have turned things around?

Jason's overall plan of finding a removal spell is certainly correct. A removal spell is his only chance. The execution of that plan can be improved. The first mistake comes on the second turn when resolving Telling Time. Jason should have chosen Island. Telling Time only costs two mana, so he could have played the Island and activated Dimir Guildmage to draw an extra card. With seven lands out, he could then still play Birds of Paradise off the top of his library, putting him a full card ahead.

The next mistake came when he blocked with Birds of Paradise. The Vulturous Zombie gets bigger every time one of your cards hits your graveyard, so you end up at a higher life total by letting it through and then chump blocking then by chump blocking and then letting it through. The mana from the Birds is also potentially relevant. The Zombie is going to be big, but it's not all that big yet. Once you let it through, you end up at seven after gaining three life from Centaur Safeguard.

On the next turn, you have Birds of Paradise and seven lands. The first card you draw is Trophy Hunter. As he noted, the Trophy Hunter is no longer going to be fast enough to get you out of this position. You have eight mana left, so you can use four of it to draw a card while saving four to play Moroii. You draw Swamp, which you play along with Moroii. You are now two cards ahead of where Jason was.

Your opponent attacks you. You have Moroii and Birds of Paradise to block with. If you block with Birds then you need to draw a land if you want the ability to cast Brainspoil and draw a card with the Guildmage. Moroii can't trade off with the Mossdog anymore; all it can do is force him to sacrifice the Shambling Shell. That's not nothing, but it's not what you want to happen. Either way, Moroii must die because if you let either creature through Moroii will kill you. In fact, you're going to need to force him to sacrifice his Shambling Shell in order to let you keep your Guildmage and the Guildmage is your ticket to potentially get back into this game. Therefore Moroii blocks Greater Mossdog while Birds of Paradise blocks the Zombie. You take one damage, down to six.

At this point, you untap and draw Brainspoil. Neat! You're at seven and your opponent has a 5/5 that isn't getting any smaller in addition to the Stinkweed Imp. An efficient use of your mana is to cast Brainspoil and Trophy Hunter, or you can decide you're sufficiently behind enough that you are willing to use the Guildmage and try to spike a land off the top of your deck.

At this point we don't know what would have happened, but that's not the point here anyway. The real point is to look back and see what other possibilities there were, what other things could possibly have been done better. Getting the details right makes a big difference, saving you a full two cards. It is easy to spend your time second-guessing your earlier decision in a game like this rather than concentrating on the best way to try and save the game. You need to stay focused on what matters, and then after the game make an objective assessment of whether you made the wrong decision. These games can be saved more often than players think.

As always, if you have a situation you want to submit, please take a look at the guidelines. (Thank you to Jason for doing such a good job getting all the important information in!) For now, I'd like to continue to encourage the submission of situations where neither player is in any immediate danger. Next week magicthegathering.com won't have new content (Wizards of the Coast is moving to a new building) but I'll be back the week after that with an interlude strategy article on a topic that I'm surprised nobody has covered much yet. After that we'll get back to the scenarios, so please take a moment to send one in if you've got a good one.

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