"He who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot, will be victorious."
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
As Mike Flores once told me, "If you want to increase your chances of a Magic theory piece sounding correct, just quote Sun Tzu." So, that seemed like a fitting way to start this off.
Today, we're going to talk about one major technique I use to think about how to build decks, what play you should make in a game of Magic, and understanding who's winning—plus how you can still win the game even from a rough spot. It can be useful not just in Magic, but in any game you ever play—and even in how you think about approaching pieces of your day-to-day life.
Interested? Let's begin.
The Arenas of Battle
Close your eyes and imagine . . . err, well, actually open your eyes. You're going to need to read this article. Metaphorically close your eyes, perhaps.
Anyway, imagine that from where you stand you can see three distinct combat arenas.
One of them is the "cards" combat arena, with mages locked in a mental battle of wits.
Another is the "board" combat arena, where creatures and other threats are amassed to crash into each other.
And finally, there is the "life" combat arena, a scoreboard where you can see how far away each player's life total is from 0, and as it creeps closer to 0, it begins to flash red.
These are the three fields of battle, and your goal is to win them. These are each based on different kinds of advantages—cards, board, and life advantages—you might use to win a normal game of Magic. If you are winning all three battles, then chances are you are going to win the game. If you are losing all three, then you are probably going to lose the game.
But, of course, it's seldom that simple. Most games of Magic are going to end up somewhere in the middle.
Let me explain each of them.
Which kinds of cards matter here? Cards in hand!
In general, the person with more cards in his or her hand has the long-game advantage. This means that if you are falling behind in the cards arena, you either need to catch up or focus on winning quickly because you aren't going to be able to out-resource your opponent.
In a way, you can think of this as the same kind of thing as card advantage.
The board arena is focused on what's on the battlefield. Who is winning on board? If you have ten creatures to your opponent's zero, then you are winning the board arena.
I also like to think of the board arena as a very tempo-focused arena. If you have two ready-to-attack creatures to your opponent's zero, then you have the initiative in a tempo situation.
In a way, you can think of this as the same kind of thing as board advantage.
The life arena is somewhat self-explanatory: how far is someone's life total from 0?
This arena is most relevant when a player is getting low on life. That distinction is important because this does not really speak to gaining a high amount of life; it's mostly relevant as your life total starts dwindling toward 0. After all, if you're aiming to win, what matters most is almost always getting your opponent's life total down to 0. Keeping this arena in mind can still lead to victory even when all other arenas are failing. In a way, you can think of this as the same kind of thing as life advantage.
So, what does all this mean, anyway?
I've ran you through three different primary arenas. (Or, if you prefer to think about them in more abstract terms, the advantages.) How can these be used?
These are a guide to what matters and what should be focused on in any given game of Magic.
It follows this basic premise: if you let a player gain the advantage and don't either match their advantage or gain your own advantage in another arena, you will lose.
Let me use a very simple example.
Your opponent plays a Glory Seeker. They are now ahead in the board arena. If they start attacking you, they will be ahead on the life arena. If you do nothing, you will eventually lose.
If you play a Glory Seeker of your own, suddenly you have equalized the board arena. If you took any damage, you would be behind in the life arena.
How can this be applied to deck building and playing? Let's discuss.
Knowing Where to Fight
This is perhaps the most important part of this entire discussion. If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this section.
Knowing which arenas to fight in—and which to leave behind—is crucial.
Let's say you've been challenged to a fight in the real world. As in, actual fisticuffs. Uh oh! And to make matters worse, the other person is way stronger than you. What are you going to do?
If you try to fight them punch-for-punch, you're just going to lose. You aren't going to beat them on raw strength. But instead, you might be able to use another axis to win on. Maybe you're faster and can run around them. Maybe you're great at dodging and can plan to exhaust them by dodging a lot of blows.
Let's go to another, more realistic (I hope!) real-world example.
You're applying for a job that will need to do thing X, Y, and Z. However, while you're quite good at thing Y and Z, you think you're going to be less skilled at doing X than a lot of other candidates. If you try and compete with other candidates on X by talking about your proficiency at it, you're just going to look worse. Instead, if you play up how good you are at Y and Z, that's where you can outshine other candidates.
Now let's take a step back into Magic.
Your opponent is at 6 and playing a green midrange deck. You're at 20 and playing a low-curve red burn deck. Unfortunately, though, your opponent just cast three 3/3 creatures all in one turn.
You draw Lightning Strike for your turn. What do you do with it?
Sure, you can cast it on a creature—but that doesn't really help you that much. You're still behind against two 3/3 creatures. But where you are currently winning is on the life axis: you are one more Lightning Strike away from closing the game. In this situation, it's a lot better to press your advantage on the life arena than to try and reclaim the board arena.
Let's try another example.
You're playing a midrange deck against a control deck. It's the midgame, and your opponent just resolved Kefnet, which is going to give them dominance in the card advantage arena. At this point, unless your deck has a good Kefnet answer, you have to shift and try and succeed in the other arenas or you are just going to lose to Kefnet's card-arena dominating inevitability.
You have to pick your battles and know where to fight—and where not to fight.
Getting Back into An Arena
While the previous section discussed knowing when to abandon arenas, that doesn't mean it's always the right call—it's just a crucial concept, so I wanted to explain it first. There are plenty of times you can try and get back into an arena.
Let's say your opponent plays a 5/5 creature. Well, if you don't play a big creature, or enough small creatures to fight off their big creature, then that's going to be a problem. Fortunately, you can mitigate this by having your own creature (or creatures), and then you're right back into the board arena.
Sometimes it's a bit more nuanced. Let's take Sphinx's Revelation as a popular example.
This quite powerful card, as you might notice, surges you ahead in both the cards and life arenas. Let's say your opponent resolves one of these where X equals five in a control mirror.
The cards arena is very important in a control mirror. You need to get back into that arena quickly or you will lose. At this point, the game becomes about equalizing yourself in this arena. Can you resolve your own Revelation, an Opportunity, or some other card like that? If you can't, you are likely to lose.
You probably don't need to worry as much about the life they gained in a control mirror, though. Why? Well . . .
Which Arenas Matter
Different decks and matchups will care about different arenas. In Limited, all three arenas will often matter. But in Constructed, where often decks are very well tuned and have a singular focus, sometimes arenas will cease being important or pick up extra importance. This can be particularly true in mirror matches.
For example, in the aforementioned Sphinx's Revelation example, the life gain probably doesn't matter. Why? Because control decks traditionally don't attack each other very meaningfully in the life arena until the game is fundamentally over.
Conversely, the card arena matters a lot. If you are losing out in the card arena, you better have something strong on the board that you are banking on because you are going to find the game quickly slipping out of your hands otherwise.
How can you tell which arenas matter in a matchup? Well, some of it is just by playtesting, but with traditional archetypes, you probably have an idea just from the nature of the decks. In control mirrors, cards are important. Against a burn deck, preserving your life total is important, and so on.
If you are ahead in one arena but behind on another, you should often feel free to trade resources from one to try and shore up your weaknesses in another.
For an extreme example, let's say you're at 1 life but have fifteen 0/1 Plant tokens. You are going to be trading your large board arena presence for protection in your fragile life arena.
For something a bit more reasonable, let's say you are playing a blue-red control deck and are far ahead on the card arena, having six cards in hand to your opponent's zero. However, you are far behind on the board arena.
If your hand is full of burn spells that target creatures in this scenario, you can consider 2-for-1ing yourself to kill off creatures. It's okay to trade your two Shocks for your opponent's Heart of Kiran because even though it's an unfavorable trade from a number-of-cards-used perspective, you are so far ahead on cards in your hand that you should be leveraging them to help even out the situation.
Entire decks are built upon this idea. For example, tempo decks (full of cheap creatures and spells that slightly set your opponent back) regularly trade resources from the cards arena for being ahead on the board arena. Cards like Unsummon are great examples of this.
In short: you should feel okay leveraging your strength in one arena to aid another, weaker arena.
Deck Building with Arenas
This can even go outside just playing and move into deck building as well. It is very important to know what axis and what arena your deck is going to operate around. Odds are your deck isn't evenly focused on all three arenas.
For example, what arenas does a traditional control deck care the most about? Let's look at two examples mentioned a few times in this article already.
A control deck thrives in the cards arena, attempting to draw many cards and gain the advantage simply by having the most cards over time. It is traditionally not strong at either the board arena or the life arena, using removal and board sweepers to reset the board arena until it is eventually time to win.
A burn deck is quite the opposite. It doesn't care about the cards arena at all or really even the board arena. It is solely focused on the life arena and expending everything it has toward controlling that.
When you are building either of these decks, you want to keep the arena you're operating in mind. For example, if you're playing a control deck, then Lava Spike isn't really a good card for your deck: it doesn't operate in an arena you care about.
Finally, you might be wondering about certain matchups. What about, say, combo decks? Those don't tend to care about anything except assembling their combo, and they'll sacrifice being behind on cards, board, and life all in an effort to do it!
That's true. And while life, board, and card are the three primary arenas for the building blocks of Magic, you can imagine all different kinds of arenas.
For example, against a combo deck, perhaps you want to imagine being in a disruption arena, where it's your disruption versus their combo pieces. In a ramp mirror, you might be thinking about mana advantage and who can do the most things. There are all kinds of different advantages you can take.
Thinking about the game in terms of areas of battle, rather than just one game you are trying to win or lose all at once, has helped me out a lot. While they're all interconnected and eventually produce a winner and loser, knowing the building blocks can be crucial to knowing what kind of play to make when.
I hope you find this as helpful as I have! Curious about anything or have any questions? Please reach out to me! You can reach me by sending off a tweet, asking me a question on my Tumblr, or sending me an e-mail (in English, please) at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.
I'll be back next week with more Beyond the Basics. Talk with you again then!