Magic: the Gathering is one of the most complicated games out there. Every turn is layered with hundreds of decision points. But somehow, we play seamlessly. Ignore the obviously incorrect plays. Zone in on the important decisions. How? Well, it is a skill that we continually develop throughout our lives: Problem solving. And the better you get at it, the more success you’ll achieve in Magic and pretty much everything else you do.
Regarding the higher complexity decisions and puzzles, discerning a solution can be quite unintuitive. When solving a particularly difficult problem, having a process is important. You have to break down the problem, reduce it to rubble and rebuild it in a fashion that yields a near-optimal solution. But, sometimes, one of these steps requires extremely abstract thinking, a logical jump that, to the untrained eye, looks like magic! My goal today is to teach you how to think like a magician.
Unfortunately, you can’t just start with the hard tricks. You have to learn some simple card tricks before you pull a rabbit out of your hat. First thing’s first, we need a problem to solve. In general, we want to solve the most complex problem to a game of Magic: how to win. The magnitude of this problem is immense. You can get a general idea how to win. A path to victory. But a true solution is hard to come by. What you can do easily is approach the game in a different manner. The best way to solve such a complex problem is to treat it as a collection of simpler sub-problems. Playing Magic with this in mind will open your eyes to devices that provide a better understanding on how to emerge victorious.
Magic: the Gathering is a marathon of problem solving with respect to you and your opponent. Everything each player does creates the next player’s puzzle. This is exactly why tapping all your lands can be such a big deal. It simplifies every single problem that your opponent must solve for the next turn cycle by reducing uncertainty. This does not mean that tapping out is bad practice. In fact, efficiently using your mana is correct a lot of the time, but it is important to understand when and why tapping out can be bad. When you tap out, the ways in which you can react become notably small. By decreasing your potential decisions in the coming turn, without also decreasing your opponent’s, you provide your opponent with the opportunity to have a greater impact than they otherwise would.
This introduces a trick you can put up your sleeve: minimize your opponent’s options. If both you and your opponent are trying to optimize these sub-games, limiting their decisions effectively limits their impact on the game. Consider the card Mind Rot. Casting this card presents your opponent with the puzzle of discovering which cards in their hand are currently the worst, or the least needed. With the understanding that the fewer options your opponent has the better, Mind Rot is at its most potent when they have only two cards in hand, and is much worse when they have five.
Plenty of these types of problems are woven throughout every game of Magic. Below are the basic five problems in the game.
The 5 Most Common Problems to Solve in Magic
- Mulligan decisions
- How to attack
- How to block
- Sequencing of spells
- Sequencing of mana
These are puzzles that we are all familiar with. I will not go into how to “solve” these here, but you should be familiar with how to approach them. The key to remember is that the solutions are deck and matchup dependent. For example, understanding that you are “the beatdown” will lead you to mulligan a hand without early action, and attack and bluff more aggressively.
Knowing that your opponent will not explode out of the gate can lead you to play your Prophetic Prism before Consulate Skygate in order to have more cards to look at and better mana. Having a complete understanding of where your cards lie against your opponent’s cards will guide you towards the more optimal solution. These problems are about the small percentage points. The little advantages that add up over time because these puzzles are present at every turn of the game. The rest of the puzzles are where this becomes difficult to generalize. Every game is unique, and hence have different problems to solve. You cannot prepare for everything.
Another aspect of Magic: the Gathering that often goes unrecognized is that the game has distinct stages. Comparable to Chess, Magic has a developmental stage, a mid-game, and an end-game, where the meat of the game exists in the mid-game. Different decks have different plans in each of these stages. An aggressive deck wants to end the game just before the mid-game starts. This means the problems that you are solving in the developmental stage are crucial to the plan of your aggro deck.
A more midrange deck has the philosophy of powerful cards: survive development by developing a solid board presence, then outclass your opponent’s cards for the rest of the game. This introduces the important fact that not all puzzles are created equal. A small slip-up from the aggro deck on turn three can be game-deciding, while a similar misplay from the midrange deck is unlikely to have such a high impact on the outcome of the game. It is true that we want to win the war, not the battle, but some battles are more important than others. Discerning this is a skill of utmost importance.
You are now ready to understand how Houdini became a master, an Escape Artist. The trick is in the identification of the important puzzles, the crux of the game. Learning how to identify a turning point, and solving that problem as optimally as possible. So how do we achieve this? Clearly if we can deduce and solve the problems of utmost importance, we should win. Hence, this is the puzzle that has the highest probability of resulting in a victory.
Some matchups in the current Standard format revolve around resolving Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. If the casting of that powerful planeswalker will be the crux of the game, playing it is only the first step. The true magic reveals itself in the plays after the fact. You see, when a Gideon hits the board in those matchups, a sub-game begins. The game no longer revolves around all the resources we know and love. You’ll win if your Gideon sticks around, so it becomes your priority to protect it, as well as your opponent’s priority to destroy it. Winning the sub-game, well, wins the game. And If you lose the sub-game, then the prior game of Magic resumes. What we all understand is that these crucial moments exist. But, what a true magician does is create them. Consider the following example:
Apply That to This Example
We are playing a game of Kaladesh Limited with the deck displayed below. We can overrun our opponent if we draw a good curve of green creatures, but there is not much top end and our usual plan is to win the long game. We can chip in for damage with fliers, out-value our opponent with Fabrication Module, maybe even steal a game with Saheeli’s Artistry or the Whirler Virtuoso + Era of Innovation (+ Decoction Module) combo. There is a lot going on, and it is a solid Limited deck overall.
We need to understand where we stand in respect to our opponent. As game one progresses, our play should change based on our perception of their deck. And for the rest of the match, we should keep in mind what we have seen. They are playing a Sultai control deck overloaded with lots of fliers and top end bombs; specifically multiple copies of Gearseeker Serpent, which are very hard for us to beat.
The first step towards the identification of this puzzle of importance is discerning how both decks line up with the following questions:
- How do we start winning?
- How do we start losing?
These questions help us recognize turning points in the game. It is more than a simple “how do I win?” Recognizing the catalyst for winning is what does the most for identifying the turning point in the game because, once you take the turn, you are winning. So you need to know when and how to take that turn.
At the beginning of (and throughout) every game, you should ask yourself these questions. There may be a significant number of answers, but if you consider the potential situations, there will be something concrete to both fight for and against. With our example match-up, what follows is how we should answer the questions.
How do we start winning?
Because of Servant of the Conduit, there are situations where we can play above curve creatures and attack. If we can do this, then we avoid the situations where our cards become outclasses by our opponent’s better bombs. The other option is to assemble the combo. Forge an army of thopters and end the game quicker than our opponent can, since their deck is quite slow. This tells me that we are the beatdown deck in this matchup.
Now, more aggressive hands look appealing, and our mulligan decisions change. Do we have sideboard cards that help with this aggression? Maybe Hightide Hermit or Glassblower’s Puzzleknot should be replaced by faster options if possible? Maybe it is best to keep the Puzzleknot because it helps find the combo? Our gameplay will also change now that we better understand our role in the matchup. We understand what our goals are and we can solve the puzzles with this in mind, and increase our chances of conjuring up a situation where we are likely to win. See how much information we gleaned by asking that one question! What about the second question?
How do we start losing?
A board stall is the answer to this quesiton. Given the amount of evasion in their deck, it is more likely that they can attack when we can’t. In fact, this just accentuated what we learned from the previous question. We want to be attacking. But this also puts a spotlight on the combo in our deck. It identifies our “out”, our way to turn things around from losing. It is unlikely we will be able to push through a board stall given the cards we have.
There will come a point where attacks are no longer profitable. When this happens, every single card we scry with Glassblower’s Puzzleknot or Aether Theorist should be put on the bottom of our library unless it is Whirler Virtuoso or Era of Innovation (or Decoction Module if we are low on energy). It doesn’t matter that Saheeli’s Artistry can copy their Gearseeker Serpent. They attack first and win the race. As enticing as it looks, it might not be the proper way to win the game.
Combining the approach to the game of solving sub-problems with the insight gained from asking these questions will allow you to play from a different angle, capitalize on percentage points, zone in on important decisions. And, most importantly, understand what to look for and what situations to create in order to win the entire game.
A Sad Goodbye
Sadly, this is my last article for Spellsnare.com. I have really enjoyed producing content for all of you, and hopefully I have been able to teach you a thing or two about Limited strategy and theory in this article or my others. But, it’s not all bad news! Starting this week, I will begin writing Magic articles for Starcitygames.com! So, if you’ve enjoyed my articles here on Spellsnare.com, look out for me on Starcitygames.com, and stay tuned on this site for more articles from other writers.
Thanks for reading! ~ Ryan
It’s been a pleasure getting to work with you here on Spellsnare.com. Your articles were of an outstanding quality from the first, all the way to this one, and your professionalism and passion for Magic and writing was infectious. Everyone here knows that you’ll crush it at Starcitygames.com, and we’re all eagerly awaiting the first article! Good luck, we’re rooting for you!
Andrew and Jonah (co-founders of Spellsnare.com)