Winning Less by Trying to "Win More"

Posted in NEWS on April 20, 2015

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.

There are only two possible outcomes for every game of Magic you play. Either you win or you lose.

This may seem like an obvious concept, but it's remarkably easy to lose sight of. After all, Magic is complicated. Thousands of decisions spring from the cards each player has chosen to use, how they combine together, and how they match up against the opposing strategy.

Your decisions come in many different forms. Should you put Wild Slash or Lightning Strike in your deck? Should you mulligan your five-land hand? Should you attack with your Siege Rhino, or leave it back to block? Although very different, however, all of these decisions should be made based on the same simple question.

What gives you the best chance to change a loss into a win?

That's all there is to it. If you were going to win either way, it doesn't matter. If you were going to lose either way, it doesn't matter. The winning player's life total, the number of creatures in play, how many spells you each cast—at the end of the game, none of it matters.

So what gives you the best chance to change a loss into a win?

The problem is that this question is often very difficult to answer. We use concepts like card advantage, tempo, inevitability, and investment to break things down into smaller, easier to understand pieces. However, it's crucial to remember the not-so-simple "simple question" that underlies it all.

Turn the Tide | Art by Jason Felix

Win-More Cards

There's no such thing as "too large an advantage," but there does come a point where you're no longer being rewarded for your hard work. For example, where's the value in casting Crater's Claws for 50 when your opponent is at 20? Why attack with ten creatures when four creatures will do the trick?

At a certain point, your advantage in a certain aspect of the game will be large enough that your opponent can't overcome it. You'll either win the game, or you'll lose the game on a different front. Devoting resources to overkill is wasteful.

You should evaluate your cards in the same way you evaluate your in-game decisions. How often will having this card change a loss into a win? A win-more card is one whose effect falls largely in the territory of overkill. Win-more cards are relatively unlikely to change your losses into wins.

Win-more cards are a trap. What makes them especially deadly is the fact that they can feel quite powerful when you play with them. They often do exciting things and can be impressive in their power level or efficiency. This is why it's important to make level-headed evaluations and always return to that key question. You may be winning games by more, but are you winning more games?

Let's consider some examples:

Dragon-themed cards really catch the eye since the release of Dragons of Tarkir. There's a seemingly endless number of constructed-quality Dragons and the rewards for building a Dragon Deck could possibly be quite high.

It's easy to imagine Crucible of Fire adding 9 or 12 power to your side of the table in some games, making for a truly impressive flying onslaught. Four Dragons, each attacking for 7 makes for 28 damage!

As you can see, Crucible of Fire is offering quite an impressive rate. Nobody would turn down four mana for 12 power and toughness under normal circumstances. But consider the reality of the situation. Even without Crucible of Fire, your four dragons are still going to attack for 16 flying damage. Shouldn't that be enough? Is Crucible of Fire likely to win you a game that you couldn't win by—say—casting one more Dragon instead?

Crucible of Fire is only effective in games where you successfully cast three or more Dragons. In such games, you ought to be able to find a way to win without Crucible. It's an example of a win-more card.

Dragon Tempest is very similar. It scales in power level with the number of Dragons you can put into play. However, you should be planning for the games where you're struggling, not the games where everything is going perfectly. Will Dragon Tempest help you when your opponent has a turn-four kill? Will it help you when they kill every Dragon the moment you cast it? Will it help you if you don't draw enough lands? What if you draw far too many lands?

It should be relatively easy to see why a bunch of giant dragons don't need much help to win games of Magic. Now let's challenge ourselves and look for win-more cards that have actually shown up in highly successful standard decks.

Interpret the Signs is an appealing card-draw spell for decks featuring Dig Through Time; Ugin, the Spirit Dragon; or anything of the like. The thought of revealing an eight-mana spell to refuel their hand can make players giddy. But it's an embarrassment of riches! Their gas tank is overflowing! It's a win-more card.

At the stage in the game where a control deck is casting a six-mana spell and putting a Dig Through Time into its hand, does it really matter whether it's drawing three more cards beyond that or seven? The outcome is overwhelmingly likely to be the same—the control deck will win if it survives until its next turn.

In the vast majority of situations, Jace's Ingenuity or Dragonlord's Prerogative will get the job done exactly like Interpret the Signs will, except that these cards can be cast at instant speed. Perhaps more importantly, you can still count on them even when you're not fortunate enough to have a Dig Through Time near the top of your library.

Narset Transcendent was one of the most hyped cards from Dragons of Tarkir, but has yet to catch on as a tournament staple. One could argue that it's because Narset's abilities lend themselves to winning games by more instead of winning more games.

Games where you can untap with a Planeswalker at a high loyalty and have a powerful instant or sorcery to cast are ones where things are going well for you. The dream is to use Narset to rebound a spell like Dig Through Time, but how often is that really necessary? Shouldn't a single Dig Through Time and a few turns of Planeswalker activations be enough to win you most games?

Lose-Less Cards

If win-more cards only help you in games that you're likely to win anyway, lose-less cards help you in games where you're effectively doomed no matter what.

When you're facing down that Crucible of Fire and army of Dragons, what is a Resupply going to do? Well, it's going to help you lose the game at -11 life instead of at -17 life….

A more realistic example would be a black-based aggressive deck (Abzan Aggro for example) sideboarding Bile Blight to beat Hornet Queen and Elspeth, Sun's Champion.

These cards are absolutely devastating for an aggressive deck that's trying to punch through with a small number of resilient attackers. It's tempting to want some card to mitigate the damage that something like a Hornet Queen can do.

The problem is that Bile Blight only partially undoes the damage of these cards. Worse yet, decks that play with Elspeth and Hornet Queen are almost invariably control decks that have strong late games, so even if Bile Blight helps you fight through the first one, a second copy (or another card that's similarly devastating) might follow in its wake.

Even if you successfully Bile Blight the hornet tokens, the Queen herself will still trade with your best creature, and buy a lot of time for the control player. Sure, there might—once in a while—be a game where you can use Bile Blight to win the turn that Hornet Queen comes down. There might be a few more games where the opponent casts Hornet Queen, but has no follow up play and you can fight through. However, your most likely route to victory is probably just winning the game before your opponent reaches seven mana. Having an ineffective removal spell clog up your hand for the whole game will do you more harm than good.

Stick to the Plan

Lose-less cards tend to appear when a player is playing into his or her opponent's game plan. In the case of the black aggro deck, sideboarding in Bile Blight represents an intention to slog through the control player's late-game threats. This is usually something that an aggressive deck simply does not have the tools to do.

It would be like sideboarding Divination against a Blue-Black Control deck. After all, you lost to your control opponent because they drew more cards than you, so you should try to draw more cards to keep up, right?

No! To do so would mean that you're playing the exact game that your opponent wants to play. You don't want to slow down and fight them on their level, you want to be fast and focus on your own strategy!

Typically, the best way to win more games is to focus on your "Plan A" strategy. Most decks are built to win the games where they can successfully enact their game plan, and to lose the rest.

So don't worry about making your strategy more powerful than it needs to be. That's win-more thinking! Don't worry about having Plan B and Plan C for when Plan A gets shut down. That's lose-less thinking! Instead, put your resources toward having the greatest possible chance of succeeding in your Plan A game plan.

What gives you the best chance to change a loss into a win? You don't score bonus points for winning in a landslide, and losing by 1 life is no different than losing by 20. Tournament success is merely about the number of games that you win and lose. If you can always keep that simple question in mind, you'll win more games instead of simply winning games by more than you need to.