In a game of Magic, you often transition between several different modes. Identifying which mode you should be in and when can be difficult. As we wait to see what kind of support cards all our favorite decks will get in Eldritch Moon, today I'd like to talk about eight important modes and knowing how to identify when you should be operating in that mode. Much like it's important to choose the correct mode on your command, it's similarly important to choose the right mode in your approach to a match of Magic at any given moment.
Author Note: Sorry some of the images are blurry. Working on fixing the resolution. Click to see a larger version!
You're on the play with Abzan Control against G/W Tokens post-board. You keep a two-land hand with Swamp, Canopy Vista, Sylvan Advocate, Declaration in Stone, Languish, Seasons Past, and Virulent Plague. You play a second-turn Sylvan Advocate after drawing Read the Bones. The opponent plays a second turn Lambholt Pacifist. You untap and draw Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet for the turn. The only castable card in your hand is the Declaration in Stone. Do you cast it or do you wait?
The appeal to waiting is that you have Languish in hand and you would really like to kill the Lambholt Pacifist with Languish (along with the rest of their creatures by that point) and you don't want to waste your most versatile removal spell in the matchup ( Declaration in Stone) on a creature that isn't even very good against your deck. With that said, it is absolutely correct to cast the Declaration in Stone in this spot and here's why:
It's about to transform into a 4/4 and we have no good answer to it anytime soon, so might as well use it immediately and attack for two points of damage with the Sylvan Advocate. Whenever we find our third land, we will want to pay 2 life to cast Read the Bones in hopes of finding more lands. This means we would take another hit from the 4/4, in addition to paying 2 life from Read the Bones. The way the game is shaping up, life is about to be our most precious resource and so we want to conserve our life total as much as possible, even though we're still at 20 life. Casting Declaration in Stone at this point is likely save us at least 8 to 12 damage!
The lesson here is that when something has gone wrong (you miss your third land drop and/or opponent gets a very fast start), you need to go into survival mode and try to stem the bleeding as much as possible in order to maximize the amount of time you have to draw out of the situation. In this case we even have a plan to work toward. All we need is time to draw two more lands to cast Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet / Languish to catch back up. Read the Bones will likely get us there as long as we have time to cast it whenever we finally draw that third land. Declaration in Stone will buy us time.
We're not yet desperate or on the brink of death, but if we let Lambholt Pacifist transform, get hit by it, and the opponent keeps applying more pressure, we will soon find ourselves under too much pressure to come back from and we will die with a hand full of cards and not enough time to find the lands to cast them. Things would get worse and survival mode would turn into desperation mode.
Consider this scenario: You're at eight life with five lands and an Accursed Witch. The opponent has a 2/1 flyer, a 4/5 flyer, and a pair of Zombie Tokens, and is at 20 life. It's your first main phase and you have no removal spells in hand. You're facing the prospect of taking six damage from the flyers next turn, going to two life, and leaving yourself drawing dead on the final turn. At this point the game is entirely out of reach if the opponent plays correctly, so your best chance to win the game is to throw a hail mary by attacking with the Accursed Witch and hoping the opponent blocks Accursed Witch with their Mindwrack Demon. If the opponent blocks with the demon, you cast Uncaged Fury to kill it and then play your 2/2 to trade with a zombie on the next attack, going to four life and having two turns to draw an answer to the 2/1 flyer.
Sometimes, when things look grim, your best chance to win is giving your opponent a chance to mess up. This is one of those spots. Desperation means you have nothing to lose. If the desperation play doesn't work, the outcome is the same as if you never tried – you lose. It's a Last-Ditch Effort when all roads lead to dead ends except one very unlikely scenario in which the opponent makes a grave mistake. Who knows what the opponent will think? I've won many games of Magic on the back of a desperation play; they work and are worth making.
The opposite of desperation mode is kill mode. It's when you have the kill in focus and just need to make sure everything is lined up perfectly, considering what could go wrong, weighing the risks and rewards of going for it.
Oftentimes, when in kill mode, the key is making sure not to make the play that lets the opponent get back into the game. Sometimes that means playing conservatively and not opening yourself up to getting blown out by a trump card. Other times it involves seizing the moment and going for it while the window is open because that window is about to narrow or close if the game progresses the way it's going. Consider the following scenario:
The opponent is Sultai and has delirium turned on. Their board is a vanilla 3/4, Kindly Stranger, an Island, a Forest, and three tapped lands. Your board is: Mad Prophet, Ravenous Bloodseeker, Vampire Noble, five lands, Call the Bloodline, and an Asylum Visitor tapped down by Sleep Paralysis. You're at 20 and the opponent is at eight life. You have Uncaged Fury and a land as your two cards in hand. The opponent has four unknown cards in hand. It's your pre-combat main phase. What's your play and why?
Your best chance to win is by attacking with your three creatures. If the opponent doesn't block the 1/3 or the 3/2, you win the game since you can make either creature into a four-power double striker. And if they block both, you trade one of your creatures and both cards in your hand for both their creatures. Either way, this puts you in the best spot possible. You basically die to a bounce spell if they have it, but I don't think waiting is an option since the opponent can untap and transform Kindly Stranger to kill your Mad Prophet and leave you in bad shape.
This is a scenario where there are certainly risks involved in going for it, but those risks are lower than the risks of not going for it. Some kill scenarios involve perfect information and it's all about making the correct attacks or blocks. Others are about correctly deducing the final card in the opponent's hand and playing around it. In any case, identifying when you should be in kill mode is very important.
This mode is often referred to as "turning the corner" or "racing." It's the time when you become the aggressor and start going for the throat. You're not quite in kill mode yet, but when you're in attack mode it usually means kill mode is close on the horizon, unless of course the game takes an unexpected turn.
Aggressive decks tend to begin the game in attack mode and never pump the brakes. Other decks begin in a more defensive or setup posture and then turn the corner. Faeries is the classic example of a deck that started out playing a more controlling game and then flip a switch in the midgame and become the aggressor. Zoo decks usually start out as the aggressor then pump the brakes in the midgame, spending their turns using spells to neutralize what the opponent is doing, and then move back into acceleration mode. Knowing when to become the aggressor is important, but so is knowing when to ease off the gas pedal.
Defense mode is the opposite of attack mode. Control decks spend most of the game in defense mode, using removal spells to stave off opposing threats and then eventually reloading or finding a way to take over and actually win the game. Other decks transition between attack mode and defense mode, especially midrange decks.
The interesting aspect of defense mode is knowing who is supposed to be in attack mode when both players seem to think they should be the aggressor. If you're playing a landfall mirror where the cards in both decks are terrible on defense and great on offense, it may be correct for both players to be in attack mode simultaneously, but more often than not whoever was on the play should be in attack mode and whoever drew first should be in defense mode, at least in the early turns.
If you have a trump card for the damage race, such as a life-gain effect or a pump spell that skews the math in your favor, then you are often supposed to be the aggressor; engaging in a race situation is advantageous because you're holding the trump card for the damage race situation. If you don't have such a card and the opponent isn't relenting, that often means they have the trump card for the race situation, and it's better to play cautiously and enter into defense mode by trading in combat and using removal spells to kill opposing creatures. This of course assumes your deck and your draw are capable of playing defense well.
In a game of attrition, there comes a point where both players' hands are nearly exhausted of resources and it's time to reload. Sometimes the reload button is Seasons Past. Other times it's Sphinx's Revelation or even Read the Bones. In general you want to reload whenever there is a Lull in the pressure and the opponent doesn't have a threat that immediately needs to be dealt with. That's the time to take a turn off to invest in future turns. Recognizing when it's time to reload is only one aspect of setup mode though.
Another time to enter setup mode is when you are playing a combo deck. The whole game is usually spent in setup mode, constructing a hand and board state that enables you to transition directly into kill mode with your assembled combo. Setup mode sometimes involves drawing cards, searching the library for cards, or even casting Gitaxian Probe or Duress to gain information vital for knowing when to go for the kill.
Setup mode is often matchup-dependent. If you are the control deck against a hyper-aggressive deck, oftentimes setup mode in the early turns revolves around finding your board sweeper. For instance, W/B Control enters setup mode against Mono-White Humans when it casts Read the Bones on turn three to try and set up a fourth-turn Languish, whether it's trying to find the Languish or the untapped fourth land.
Most games begin in setup mode, and the decisions made in these early turns dictate the direction the game goes. The harder-to-identify times are the ones where it's not obvious whether you are supposed to remain in setup mode or to enter attack mode. For instance, consider the following scenario:
The opponent, sunburned from his trip to Costa Rica, is on the play and leads with Oath of Nissa into Sylvan Advocate into Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. It's game three, and you know he's playing a R/G Tokens deck with lots of thopters. You led with Oath of Nissa into Hangarback Walker and it is your third turn. Your hand is three lands, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and another Hangarback Walker. What's your third turn play and why?
The ideal opening for W/G Tokens is usually turn three Nissa, Voice of Zendikar into turn four Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but in this case, the better line is to lead with the second Hangarback Walker and threaten to pump the other one. Your Planeswalkers are excellent on the play but pretty mediocre on the draw when faced with pressure from the opponent.
By playing the second Hangarback Walker, if the opponent attacks with Sylvan Advocate, you double-block and pump the non-summonging sick Hangarback Walker to 2/2, trading it for Sylvan Advocate and getting two thopters that you can then pump with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to pressure the opponent's Nissa, Voice of Zendikar.
What is more likely is the second Hangarback Walker halts his attack, which is also good. By entering setup mode and spending your turns playing and pumping the Hangarback Walkers, you're putting yourself in a position to play better defense. If your Hangarback Walkers die in combat, then you can use your Planeswalkers as anthems to pump the Thopter Tokens. If the Hangarback Walkers live, then by the time your Planeswalker come down they can start making tokens and be better defended. If instead of playing the second Hangarback Walker and pumping the first one, you play Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and then Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, you'll just be chump blocking attackers to prevent your Planeswalkers from dying. This doesn't really advance our board and leaves us vulnerable to opposing Thopter Tokens that can easily pressure our Planeswalkers.
The Planeswalkers in W/G Tokens are great on offense and mediocre on defense, so given that you're on the draw against an aggressive start, I would go the route of playing out my Hangarback Walkers and trying to turn the corner with thopters and anthems. The opponent isn't white, so it's not like you could get punished by Declaration in Stone or anything for going all-in on the double Hangarback Walker plan.
We all know that feeling when the opponent does something strange that you did not expect, causing you to pause and try to figure out what's going on. I call this red flag mode. For instance, let's say the opponent makes a super-suspicious attack with everything. You shouldn't just snap make the obvious blocks and think to yourself "N00b is about to get pwned!" If you assume your opponent is an idiot, you'll likely be the one who ends up pwned. Instead you should try and rationalize what it would take for this peculiar attack (or other line of play) to make sense. Consider the following attack from a white weenie deck into your G/W Tokens board:
Both life totals are high. Opponent has three untapped Plains and attacks a 3/2 Dragon Hunter, 3/3 Thalia's Lieutenant, 2/2 Knight of the White Orchid, and 1/1 Town Gossipmonger into your 2/3 Sylvan Advocate, 3/3 Lambholt Pacifist, and 1/2 Thraben Inspecter. The obvious block is to put your Thraben Inspecter in front of the Town Gossipmonger, your Lambholt Pacifist in front of their Knight of the White Orchid, and your Sylvan Advocate in front of their Dragon Hunter (or maybe switch the Sylvan Advocate and Lambholt Pacifist depending on which you deem more valuable). But it makes no sense for the opponent to lose three of their creatures just to deal three damage to us in combat. The most likely scenario is that the opponent has some combat trick in hand that they can punish us with if we make the obvious blocks, so the goal is then to solve the puzzle and figure out what card they are representing and then to play around it in the best way possible. By this I mean mitigating its effectiveness. In general the best way to punish an opponent once you figure out what they have is to defend in such a way that forces them to use their trick but only for minimal value, or completely stranding the trick for the rest of the game if that is possible.
For this combat situation, don't get wrecked by Make a Stand, a card that Yuuya Watanabe played two copies of in his Mono-White Humans deck at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. The lesson to be learned is to study decklists and know what fringe cards people are playing in each archetype. That way you don't end up walking face-first into a trick like this one. This tends to come up more with sideboard cards but in this case it was a maindeck Make a Stand.
The last mode I want to talk about is turbo mode. It's not so much dictated by the board as it is by the clock. If you're playing on Magic Online and your clock is getting low or it's a control mirror that you know is going to take forever to finish, don't squander your clock time. Play faster than normal. It's better to make the second-best play quickly than to spend extra time thinking to figure out the slightly better play. If your clock runs out, you lose. So at least give yourself a chance to win by playing quickly, even if it means taking a suboptimal line or two.
In real life you would also want to enter turbo mode if the clock is running down in the match. Draws are usually bad in a tournament and you want to try and avoid them as much as possible. It's much better to complete the match than to end up in that awkward position at the end of the match where one of the two players is close to winning but needs more time.
Another scenario where you should enter turbo mode is when the game is almost assuredly decided in one player's favor but not to such an extent where conceding is merited. For instance, the opponent casts Day of Judgment, wiping your board and leaving you with no cards in hand or any offense. Draw your card for the turn and quickly play your creature and pass the turn. Attack, go. Play land, go. It's possible that you muster a comeback but unlikely and if a few turns down the road the opponent shows you a hand of removal spells and has an active planeswalker, just pack it in and go to sideboarding. Similarly, if you are the one in control of the game with three Planeswalkers on the battlefield and multiple removal spells in hand against an empty board, don't sit there going back and forth about whether to scry the card to the top or bottom with your Jace, Unraveler of Secrets. Quickly activate all your Planeswalkers, draw all your cards, and progress the game. It's even okay to show your opponent your hand to speed things up in this spot. The point is: don't waste time when your decisions make no real functional difference.