The Story So Far...
Our turn four.
Awkward-ish Temple / Temple / Temple start.
Rakdos Cackler and Ash Zealot down. Rip...Mountain.
Five goodies in hand:● Burning-Tree Emissary● Lightning Strike● Chandra's Phoenix● Fanatic of Mogis● (and the Mountain)
Opponent: Esper, now on a saccharine-sweet sixteen.
Mix and mingle Temple of Enlightenment and Azorius Guildgate to start; turn three Island.
Seven in hand.
"Fanatic is a big payout, if I wanted to go down that road it would probably look something like this."
-Celebrity Guest and Red Deck master Patrick Sullivan
What to do?
Patrick has a well-reasoned answer:
"The most obvious play here is 'Phoenix, attack'. You get in a bunch of damage this turn, and even if it gets countered or hit with Supreme Verdict the following turn, you have a Lightning Strike to get it back somewhere down the line. This was also my instinct when I saw the presented board. But I think that play is incorrect; I would start the turn by just attacking.
"The first question we're trying to answer here is 'What are we playing around here?' Your opponent could have Last Breath, a Charm, or a counter. However, we have pretty strong evidence we shouldn't be playing around the first two things—the order in which our opponent played their lands. If Last Breath or Charm was their interaction, they probably would have lead Temple—Island—Guildgate (to interact on the second turn) instead of the order presented here. "Maybe they drew one of those cards last turn, but it's extremely unlikely they were in hand prior to this. And unless our opponent kept a hand that couldn't interact on the first three turns, we're probably looking at a Dissolve or Syncopate in hand (most likely Dissolve as Syncopate is also two mana interaction and would warrant ordering the lands differently, but possibly not depending on what our opponent is trying to play around).
"Running anything, even a Phoenix, into a Dissolve here is a disaster. Our hand is powerful enough that we can probably play around counters the entire game (as our opponent will have to regularly tap out for Jace, Supreme Verdict, and Detention Sphere to have any hope of catching up), and allowing our opponent to scry is rough. Even that Lightning Strike isn't total insurance—we don't have a fifth mana source in hand, so there's no promise of Lightning Strike plus Phoenix the following turn, our mana might be tied up doing other things, and our Lightning Strike could get countered down the line as well.
"This all changes if our opponent uses any removal spell inside of combat. If our opponent has Supreme Verdict and a fourth land in hand, they're almost certainly not using a removal spell here. So if we can rule out Verdict, I like playing Burning-Tree Emissary and Fanatic of Mogis after combat and trying to end the game ASAP.
"This is a really tough play, and I'm not 100% sold that my line of play is the correct one. But to me, the evidence is so strong that Dissolve is in hand that I would prefer to avoid casting any spells this turn if possible, and our hand gives us so many workarounds to other threatening cards (like Jace and Supreme Verdict) that we aren't forced to run into the likely counter here."
Patrick Sullivan's Solution: Just attack (then see what happens next).
Three springs ago I won a TCGplayer $5K (though on this here website it is referred to as a "WWS Big Apple") with Splinter Twin.
I made the Top 16 cut by the skin of my teeth after a Round Two loss, then got lucky to win a pseudo-mirror; at which point I was playing a deadly trio of Top 8 opponents.
My quarterfinals matchup was Dave Shiels with Caw-Blade. 2-0. Then Reid Duke (but before he was "#2 Reid Duke" of the Peach Garden Oath). 2-0. At this point Reid wasn't a superstar yet and I didn't properly appreciate the fact that Dave had just one month earlier won a Grand Prix whose Top 8 featured thirty-two copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and thirty-two copies of Preordain (i.e. probably the highest skill event in the history of the game). Me? I was worried about my finals opponent Edgar Flores, who at the time was a Caw-Blade machine I was reading about every weekend. 2-0 BTW.
So I'm super high on [Magic] life -- and high on Splinter Twin -- and decided to play it in the StarCity Invitational immediately after. With a fair amount of money on the line I'm in a Day Two same-decks rematch with Shiels. Dave gets me in a grindy game one; I dagger him with an on-curve Spell Pierce in game two; and game three is this insanely long and decision-intensive battle of odd angles and found opportunities.
I bait Dave into a rare spot where he can Tectonic Edge my Tectonic Edge (which he takes). This sets me up for a big turn where I can play my sixth land and either 1) run a Jace, the Mind Sculptor with Mana Leak open or 2) tap out for Consecrated Sphinx. I know Jace is the cleaner play against Dave's Batterskull, but I literally can't imagine a situation where I didn't end up way ahead.
My imagination fails me here.
Dave taps for Into the Roil + kicker to bounce my Consecrated Sphinx before his draw... Denying me ALL THE CARDS.
I kind of have no choice but to run the Jace the next turn (to bounce his Germ Token) because I am under so much damage pressure from earlier in the game I might just lose to his germ. He ends up smashing my Jace to death with Inkmoth Nexus attacks, then -- after a long, drawn out, series of main phase mana taps -- kills me with multiple Inkmoth Nexus-wearing-Batterskull poison attacks.
The end of the game was pretty unbelievable (I mean Inkmoth Nexus plus Batterskull come on) but we probably never would have gotten there if I hadn't lowered the shields on my Tectonic Edge ("got what I wanted") so I could tap out for my Consecrated Sphinx... Probably would have won (if less flashy) with the Jace line.
Patrick Chapin was watching the whole time. He knew what point the game turned sour.
"Mike," Chapin said, "after all this time you still pretty much just look at the most expensive thing you can do with your hand and just do that. God bless you."
That game three with Shiels is something I think about quite often. Not in a negative light or anything (you win some / you lose some and nothing good comes from dwelling on past shortcomings); rather, the notion of how much of our destinies is rooted in the crucible of just one decision -- entirely under our control -- I find empowering and is actually largely the inspiration for Make the Play Monday / Flores Rewards Friday.
I must confess I made "the most obvious play" in this hypothetical, which was to play my Mountain and play the Chandra's Phoenix. My thinking here was that I could accept a Dissolve; like Patrick Sullivan, I read the opponent for a Dissolve. However I had played him a few times before (he kept sparking for rematches, thinking erroneously that his Esper deck should have been winning); and I knew he overvalued Supreme Verdict in-matchup. Ergo, he would be loathe to engage in a straight trade if he could three-for-one me on a Verdict.
After consulting with red master Sullivan...I realize this isn't the best way to go.
My Chandra's Phoenix line -- which I know a lot of you chose -- is rooted in the same imp of the perverse that convinced me to summon a Consecrated Sphinx instead of playing Jace, the Mind Sculptor with permission backup. I knew of, and evaluated, all the different lines but could not bring myself to not tap [tons of] mana.
While it is empowering to know about mana curve -- and mana curve is especially a useful tool for new players to acquire -- I think one of the best, and toughest, skills for more experienced players is patience; reserve; not playing and tapping all that mana.
As Sullivan says, any permission spell here is a disaster because we can probably play in a way that strands his permission for the rest of the game. We don't need to invite him to Counterspell us (even if he overvalues Supreme Verdict, so won't). That is a failure of imagination like I had with the Consecrated Sphinx.
The best move is of course to just swing. Either he does nothing or he pulls the trigger on a one-for-one like Last Breath. Getting Last Breath out of his hand with Chandra's Phoenix in ours is like winning the lottery. He'll be down two-thirds of his mana and we can slam Burning-Tree Emissary + Fanatic of Mogis. If he has Supreme Verdict he is going to have to spend it on these two 2/2s; which is, of course, highly acceptable.
If he has Jace, Architect of Thought we can just set up with the Lightning Strike, then probably play the Phoenix next turn.
So hopefully you can learn from my mistake here; because my "solution" (IRL) was to play Mountain and Chandra's Phoenix. Sullivan's solution is better.
Mike's solution: Play Mountain and Chandra's Phoenix, attack for six.
The lucky do-nothing who agreed with Patrick Sullivan is Bryant Wong. Congrats on your $25!
Meanwhile Kai Schafroth gets his bad behavior reinforced by $25 for agreeing with YT. Congratulations and Condolences Kai Schafroth.
Make sure you send a message to our Facebook page - MTGatTCGplayer - to claim your prizes! Thanks to everyone who played.
The first time I played Patrick Sullivan he had two 2/1 White Weenie creatures and a Phyrexian Negator in play while I had a Masticore... that I forgot to pay upkeep on. The beatdown specialist has not been one whit kinder to opponents in the ensuing fourteen years.
A Red Deck specialist with numerous Open, Invitational, and Grand Prix Top 8s, Patrick is currently a designer at StoneBlade Entertainment working on their flagship, Solforge; he is also a full time Magic commentator for StarCity Games, covering their Open Series and Invitationals. You can follow Patrick on Twitter at @basicmountain.