Today I am going to share with you five things you can do to improve your win rate at Magic, including examples and explanations to better understand how and why each lesson will improve your game.
This is one of the most common mistakes I see people make. It usually only gives up a very small edge, but these edges add up quickly over time since the mistake is repeated multiple times every single game that you play. Correcting this mistake will fix the leak and save you all those lost percentage points.
The reason to play your land post-combat is to minimize the amount of information you give to the opponent. You want to force the opponent to make their decisions regarding combat with as little information as possible. For instance, if you attack with your White Knight and the opponent is holding Lightning Bolt, you want them to decide whether to kill it before knowing gaining the knowledge that you have a third land to potentially cast a creature they would rather use the Lightning Bolt on, such as Mirran Crusader.
There are some exceptions. One would be if it is a haste creature you plan to attack with or a Benalish Marshal-type card that pumps your other attacking creatures. There are also some corner-case scenarios where you don't have a three-drop creature but want to induce the opponent to take the damage in combat. For instance, if all you have is another White Knight on turn three, you might want to play the third land to show you have it.
I often see people give away information simply by thinking at the wrong times. For instance, if I attack with my Llanowar Elves and you block with your Savannah Lions and then I pause to think, I have already given away that I am holding Giant Growth and deciding whether to cast it.
What you should do instead is plan for the most likely scenarios in advance. In this case you have three scenarios to thinking about before making the attack: (1) what will I do if the opponent blocks, (2) what will I do if the opponent does not block, and (3) what will I do if the opponent uses a damage based removal spell on my attacker that I could save with the Giant Growth?
By thinking about these scenarios in advance, you can react immediately in cases where you choose not to cast the Giant Growth. This will prevent the opponent from knowing about your Giant Growth in hand.
With the auto land tap function on MTG Arena, many players are choosing to give up this edge for the sake of improved gameplay experience. That is a reasonable decision to make, but realize you are giving up percentage points when you roll the dice instead of consciously making the correct land tap decision.
As a general rule, you want to tap your dual lands last because they afford you the most flexibility in terms of what they allow you to cast. For instance, of I have a Plains and a Temple Garden on the battlefield and I am casting Legion's Landing, I should tap the Plains and leave the Temple Garden untapped.
And even if you have nothing to cast, the dual land allows you to represent the most things. In other words, the opponent doesn't know what you do or do not have in hand, so having the available mana might cause the opponent to try and play around a card even though you don't have it in hand.
This is where things start to get slightly more complex, so if you find these next two suggestions a bit difficult to grasp and employ, keep at them until they become second nature.
Putting yourself in your opponent's shoes means trying to see things from their perspective. In a game of Magic it means trying to understand their decisions and piece together the information that led to those decisions.
For instance, if your opponent casts Disenchant on your Aura of Silence instead of on your Juggernaut, it means they very likely have an artifact or enchantment in hand that they deem to be more important than your Juggernaut. For example, this information might give you the read that they are likely holding a card like Moat or Ensnaring Bridge that will stop the Juggernaut from attacking anyway while also providing the additional value of preventing any future ground creature from attacking.
The reason it is important to constantly think from your opponent's perspective is because it gives you the most information with which to base your decisions. For instance, if you attack with your Shalai, Voice of Plenty and your opponent takes the damage, they likely are not holding a removal spell. So it is safe to deploy your best creature (unless you suspect they have a board sweeper such as Cleansing Nova).
Once you are well-versed in the previous strategy, you can add another layer of depth by putting your opponent in your shoes. So instead of just asking "what information caused the opponent to make their decision?" you ask "what information does the opponent likely believe led to me making my decision?"
This assumes the opponent is employing the tactic described in the previous point, but unless you are competing at the more casual level, it is safe to assume the opponent is thinking on that level. We talked about tapping mana correctly to represent things you could have, regardless of whether or not you actually have it. This is just fundamentally sound strategy, but the reason for it being so is because it represents things you could have. This next level adds another twist and is where some of the most effective bluffs gain their efficacy. To illustrate, I will share a story about one of my favorite games of Magic I've ever played.
It was at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir where I had a feature match against Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Paulo was at the time and still is one of the very best players to play the game, as his resume proves. He is also one on of the most in-depth thinkers in the game, as the quality of his strategy articles prove. He usually beats me when we play and quite likely does so because he generally plays at a higher level than me. This one particular match, though, I won because I played better by employing the strategy I am describing here – namely, I put him in my shoes.
The format was Standard and he was playing Esper Dragons whereas I was playing my Bant Ojutai deck. Both were new decks being showcased for the first time, so neither of us new exactly what was in the opponent's deck. I had beaten his teammate Josh Utter-Leyton in a previous round, so he knew some things about my deck for talking to Josh, but he did not know everything.
I started off with some early creatures that got in some quick damage, and then played Surrak, the Hunt Caller to attack for five points of haste damage. He then tapped out to cast Dragonlord Ojutai. This is the turn when I employed all the lessons described in this article.
First, I considered what scenarios were most likely to develop. When I attacked with Surrak and he took the damage, I figured Crux of Fate is the most likely reason why. I was holding Valorous Stance, so I considered in advance whether I would use it to make Surrak indestructible. If I had waited until after he cast Crux of Fate, then this would tip him off that I have it. So it was better to plan it in advance.
I then put myself in his position as to whether he would attack with Dragonlord Ojutai after resolving Crux of Fate. Even if it connects once it is worth it because of the triggered ability that would find him another good card, so the only reason to leave it back would be to not risk losing it to an instant-speed removal spell in combat. The only reasonable removal spell I could potentially have is Valorous Stance, which not played in the typical Green-White Devotion lists that my deck was based off. So unless Josh specifically told him I play that card, it might not even be on his radar.
Given all this, I put together a plan. I left up my dual lands, including a blue-producing land and a white-producing land. This was to represent Disdainful Stroke but also be able to cast Valorous Stance. I made the decision in advance that if he casts Crux of Fate that I would immediately pick up all my creatures and put them in the graveyard without hesitation so as not to reveal that I was holding Valorous Stance. This would essentially bait him into making his decision as to whether to attack with Ojutai on misleading information. When he puts himself in my shoes, it would appear I don't have the Valorous Stance in hand because I would have at least briefly considered the possibility of using it save my Surrak.
So then on his turn he cast Crux of Fate, to which I immediately picked up all my creatures and put them into the graveyard. Then he put his hand on Ojutai and began turning it sideways, to which I began motioning toward my pen as if I were about to mark the life total change from the attack. But instead of completely turning Ojutai sideways and attacking, he abruptly paused and untapped it, at which point I stopped my brief flinch toward my pen and sat motionless and expressionless. He was doing all this to gauge whether I had the answer in hand because he is a master few other players in the history of the game can even compare.
So, at this point all my chips were down and it was up to Paulo to weigh all the evidence and determine whether to attack with Ojutai or to hold back. If I have the Valorous Stance it is way better to hold back, but if I do not then it is way better to attack. He had to determine the relative likelihood of each scenario based on all the evidence gathered to this point, so I will walk you through that evidence here.
Evidence 1: When he cast Crux of Fate, I did not hesitate. If I had hesitated, it would have provided evidence that I may have been holding Valorous Stance and deciding whether to use it to save Surrak.
Evidence 2: When he started to turn Ojutai sideways, I motioned toward my pen, indicating that I didn't have it and was about to take the damage. This is an old hollywood tactic known as the "pen trick," which by itself would not carry much weight but in conjunction with the first piece of evidence, it distilled Paulo's decision tree down to exactly two possibilities:
Possibility 1: Craig is actually holding Valorous Stance and planned in advance that he would not use it to save Surrak and so immediately binned his creatures in order to sell the idea that he doesn't have it, and then when I pump faked the attack with the Ojutai he reinforced the bluff by motioning toward his pen.
Possibility 2: Or Craig just doesn't have it and might not even be playing it in his deck.
After some deliberation he chose to attack and I killed it with Valorous Stance and ended up winning a game I otherwise would have lost had that turn not gone exactly the way I planned for it to go. Afterwards, he said he should not have attacked and would have won if he hadn't. It was one of the most satisfying plays I've ever made in my career because I had to execute everything flawlessly for it to work, and I did and it did and it won me the game.
I ended up finishing in 10th place in that Pro Tour, narrowly missing Top 8 on tie-breakers. I may never beat Paulo again, but it goes to show that if you employ these principles at a high enough level, they could make the difference between winning and losing, even against the very best in the world.