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Taking the Gamble

11.29.04  I've watched a lot of games of Magic of the years.  Honestly, I can say that number is probably in the tens of thousands.  Seriously.  That's numbers not unreal considering I judge tournaments every week and I own a store that I watch people play in all the time.  Often times, when a game is over, I want to try and help the players get better.
Instead of just walking over and telling them what was wrong with a particular play, I generally try to find out why they made the play that they did.  I ask this, because the player may have had some other information that I wasn't privy to originally.  Sometimes, looking on in passing, may not give me all the information I need to figure out what the proper play is.  More often than not I hear a set of common phrases that tend to bug me, but often lead to a poor play.
There are time to gamble and times NOT to gamble. 
"I thought..."
I usually here these two words followed by a statement of fact that was obviously incorrect.  What's worse is that many times this comes after the player has honestly set there and thought about the situation for a second.  Now, how can a player sit and think for a full minute and still make the wrong play?  Easily.  It comes down to overthinking yourself.
There is a reason that you hear the good players discuss getting together to play a particular matchup for a full day.  Practice like that stops you from being able to overthink yourself.  If you lack confidence in your deck or decision making, it just opens the doors to more bad plays.  If you understand the matchup, you will know the percentages on what plays work and what plays don't.  You won't even think about it.  Many of them will be second nature to you after a while.  Part of that also comes down to you simply being familiar with the deck that you are playing as well.  The more knowledge you have, the more comfortable you are, and in turn less mistakes will be made.
"I had to deal with that creature right then!"
In place of the word creature, you could fill in enchantment, artifact, or even land.  This statement usually comes out because I caught a player wasting a card that potentially wins them the game.  This is caused because of a couple of different reasons though.
The first is simple intimidation.  Sometimes, a situation can develop where you are lead to THINK that a particular card is going to shift the game in your opponent's favor.  Often times, a really good player can create a "mysticism" about a card that draws attention to it.  So, it's good to take in the situation a little more to ensure that you aren't just wasting a card.
Other times, players have bad history against a particular.  Then, when that card comes up in a game, they are so paranoid about it, their whole game plan begins to focus on killing that card.  One of the interesting things about most Magic decks is that the same card doesn't always win for you.  Keep that in mind.  Just because a card is scary one time doesn't mean that it's scary ALL the time. 
Let's say that I have an Altar's Light in hand.  My opponent has a Darksteel Colossus in play.  I can use my card right then to get rid of the Colossus, but why?  My opponent may decide to cast Might of Oaks on it, then I can get two for one.  What other creatures does he have out?  What life am I at?  If you can suffer an attack and still be at seven life, why not use that Altar's Light the next turn to get rid of his Platinum Angel and then attack with everything.
This seems like a very simple play, but it often times gets missed.
"I countered it because I didn't want him to have any creatures"
I'm sure most of you can guess where this one is headed.  I can sum this one up with one statement, "You don't need to counter everything."  First of all, playing slower control decks and playing against them, requires a lot of decision making.  You know this going in, so don't get trigger happy with the spell counters.
Countering everything isn't how you win games.  Counter critical cards and managing your resources is.  When I'm sitting across from a player with the "itchy trigger finger" I will toss junk spells in front of them just to watch the counters fly.  Why not?  When your opponent knows you are going to counter everything, they will just toss spells that are irrelevant out there just to draw them out.  Then when you run out of counters, that's when the problem cards will begin to hit the table.
Look at a card for what it truly is before countering it.  If it's a creature, why worry about it, if you have a Terror or Wrath of God in hand?  If it's an enchantment, look at what it does.  OK, so he wants to play a Fertile Ground.  He's already got 12 mana in play, what's one more going to do to you? 
"I thought he had..."
This is another situation that's caused by players overthinking themselves.  I've watched too many players take defeat right out of the jaws of victory (and yes I did word that correctly).  It's usually because they allow themselves to get sidetracked with an irrelevant thought.
If you are in a position to go for the win, go for it.  I generally try to pin it to a margin of error.  If the odds are against you having whatever card it is that you need to have to prevent the win, I'll go for it.  If the odds are higher than 20%, then I may sit back and wait another turn to try whatever it is I'm going to do. 
Let me better explain that.  If a player needs to have a Shrapnel Blast to kill a particular creature to stop me from attack for the win and he has two cards in hand and three copies of Shrapnel Blast in his graveyard, the odds are pretty low that he doesn't have one in hand.  This warrants me swinging for the win.  Conversely, if that same player has been sitting on two cards and hasn't seen a Shrapnel Blast all game, I need to be a little more wary.
There are a ton of context clues to look at.  Take them all into account.  There are even times that the clock is against you in the round and you need to rush to a third a game and you are forced with making tough decisions.  Sometimes, you know the odds are 50/50, but you have to cross your fingers and go for it.
"I didn't know what life he was at."
I'm ending with the one I should absolutely NEVER hear from a player.  Read that statement again.  Think about how silly that sounds.  Your opponent is no more than three feet from you, yet you can't be bothered to ask them what their life total is at?  Honestly, you should be keeping track of both players life totals anyway.
Any obvious game state information should always be checked if it is relevant to a game play.  I've often seen a player not attack because he was unaware that he could attack for the win.  I've seen players use a burn spell to kill a creature, not realizing that it would have won the game.  The only thing worse than this, would be to realize how bad the play was a few turns down the road.
Well, today wasn't about anything super secret or revolutionary.  It was simply to be an eye opener to many players.  Some players need to speed up their play so they have less time to think themselves out of a games.  Others need to slow just to be able to see the right play more often.  Just figure out what fits your playstyle. 
Next time you lose a game, sit back and observe your play open and honestly.  You'll be surprised what you can learn from yourself.  You just have to be willing to see it and improve upon it.  Hopefully these will be the first steps to making many play less of a gamble for you to make. 





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