Swingin’ on a Star (with a big stick)
So, you do play this game to win, right?
I watch people play on Magic: Online, in stores, and in the living room of Mr. Jeff Zandi. People shuffle cards around and I watch games develop and inevitably start comparing them to other styles of play, including my own. I observe what happens through games, and I almost always end up asking the same question.
“Why aren’t they attacking?”
I was at PT-Boston a couple of years ago and was listening to a conversation between Andrew Johnson and Adrian Sayers, a couple of players from Texas who have quite a bit of high-level experience in tournament Magic. Andrew was discussing (facetiously) setting up a two-week Magic Camp for people to come and learn how to play. The first day would involve playing creatures and attacking. Fast-effects and instants would come over the next couple of days, followed by useful sorceries later in the first week.
And blocking? Not until the last days of the camp.
When you are watching people play Magic, you will see two mistakes more than anything else. First, you will see people tapping and playing mana incorrectly; this leads to more issues during a game than anything, as they’ll be unable to cast the appropriate instants during their opponent’s turn, or they won’t be able to play their two-drop on turn two because they failed to play the correct land on turn one for no good reason. In more subtle cases, leaving mana open to bluff spells can be as important as actually having the spell to cast; this is especially true the better your opponent is, as they’ll be aware of what you might be bluffing.
It takes a pretty fair amount of discipline and awareness to keep up with this throughout a match: you have to know which of your two-drops have double of a particular color of mana, which spells you might have played in a previous game so your opponent has to worry whether or not you can play them, what abilities your creatures have that need mana, which of your creatures might have affinity for a certain land-type, etc. Basically, it involves paying a lot of attention to what’s going on, both in the game and in your deck.
The second mistake, a problem that is almost as common, and sometimes more relevant to the results of a game, is a failure to attack correctly. I complained in one of my previous articles about playing too passively in a game, holding creatures back when I could have been attacking for the win. I simply failed to win that game, when I could have very possibly been able to push through enough damage for a victory if I’d been more aggressive.
It comes down to recognizing when you can take control of tempo. When you have the opportunity to push through damage in exchange for your creatures, sometimes you just have to take it. You don’t win the game because you put creatures into play, you win because you use them to attack and kill your opponent. Why are you sitting and admiring all the monsters in play if you aren’t going to let them do their jobs? You (hopefully) didn’t put the creatures in your deck because you thought they were pretty, right?
Let’s take a look at a situation that occurs commonly, both online and in real Magic. You and your opponent both play nothing on turns one or two. Turn three, they play a Gray Ogre. On your turn three, you play a Troll Ascetic. What happens on turn four? The opponent fails to attack, playing a Hill Giant and passing the turn, holding the Ogre back for….what?
There were two missed opportunities here. One, the possibility of getting in for two damage with the Ogre is certainly something that needs to be noted; you really do have to take *every* opportunity to punch through damage that you can get. You might say, “It’s only two damage,” but there’s really no excuse not to take every point you can get. You take them from 20 to zero, you don’t dawdle about it.
Someone might ask, “Why wouldn’t they block?” This leads to the second missed opportunity, albeit a highly unlikely one. Troll Ascetic is obviously a far superior card to the Ogre that should have attacked; in the (very strange) case where the player does block, you have the opportunity to trade a Gray Ogre for a Troll Ascetic; obviously, this is an absolutely fantastic trade to make, and one you should make happily while cheering and doing a victory lap around the table.
The opportunity that is really missed here is the opportunity to cause your opponent to make a mistake, like blocking. By failing to attack, the controller of the Ogre is making the mistake and giving the opponent an opportunity to capitalize on the situation. By attacking, you either come out ahead by doing damage or by causing your opponent to perform a highly unfavorable trade. There is everything to be gained by attacking, and absolutely nothing to be gained through holding back in this circumstance. Anyone who tries to justify keeping their Ogre back so it won’t die in combat is going to follow that up by attempting to sell you a really nice bridge in Brooklyn.
Sometimes, it’s all just a matter of doing math. I know, it’s not so easy for some folks, but it just has to be done. Another common situation is that you control four of the ubiquitous Gray Ogres and your opponent controls a single Hill Giant. It is absolutely amazing how many times those Ogres will sit back on their heels while the opponent is able to sit and wait to draw out of their predicament. At 20 life, this might be acceptable; if your opponent is at 12 or less, or you have cards that can continue to apply pressure, you simply can’t allow them to sit back. Get those guys in there, get some pressure on that opponent, force them to do something about it; sit back and wait, and something bad will happen.
Obviously, this is an oversimplified view of creature interactions in combat, but there is a point to be made in this. You can not allow yourself to lose games simply because you fail to try to win. When I asked that very same Adrian Sayers (mentioned above) if I should draw a match in the finals of a cash tournament a few years back his response was, “Don’t you want to just win?” This is a philosophy that you need to adopt if you are planning on having some success playing in any sort of tournament, be it on Magic: Online or at your local store. It’s one thing to just play the game and accept whatever you get back, but it’s definitely another to demand better results from yourself, and that only comes from knowing how to make the right choices. Sometimes, you really just need to simplify the entire process and stop worrying about everything so much; just attack. It's almost always the right choice, anyway.
Copyright 2001 Pojo.com
Gathering is a Registered Trademark of Wizards of the Coast.
This site is not affiliated with Wizards of the Coast and is not an Official Site.