Our day to day lives are filled with opportunities to do things we know we shouldn't. Don't be loud around a sleeping baby. Don't bring up politics around the dinner table with your extended family. Don't give out Game of Thrones spoilers in an unsecured area right after the episode's release. We don't have to be told not to do these things each time these scenarios occur -- we have painstakingly learned not to do them throughout our lives, prompted by their terrible consequences. The baby wakes up and wails uncontrollably for half an hour. The ensuing political argument ruins the holiday and sends everyone storming home. You die.
These situations are all examples of real world implicit restrictions. Restrictions because they limit your pool of possible behaviors, and implicit because the situation does not come with a warning label telling you not to engage in some behaviors. Just like life, Magic is chock full of implicit restrictions. One of the most important outcomes of playtesting is getting a good idea of what the implicit restrictions are in each matchup. Knowing which plays provide much less benefit than risk due to the strength of the opponent's counterplay is one of the building blocks of technically sound play. Today I will be going over some of the major players in Standard and the implicit restrictions that each of them create.
As an aside before we begin, the concept of implicit restrictions is what most often gives rise to the absurd salt complaint of "I only lost because my opponent was terrible." Often, claims like this have their foundations in the fact that less skilled players are more likely to not respect the implicit restrictions of a matchup. Understanding the implicit restrictions of all the matchups of the deck you are piloting is some of the biggest level-up knowledge you can learn, so it makes sense that players with less skill don't have this knowledge. Respect for these restrictions is born out of experience, and some players just don't have that experience. In the long term, not respecting appropriate implicit restrictions will reflect negatively in a player's win rate. Variance being what it is, sometimes in the short term failing to respect them will pay dividends. Most implicit restrictions are due to the strength of the potential counters, not the lack of strength of the play -- so if someone plays into a counter and you don't have it, they come out ahead. This is part of the reason why it is important to use your read on your opponent's level to influence your play decisions. Overall, just know that finding and respecting implicit restrictions will benefit you in the long term. Don't be upset if your opponent doesn't share your hard earned knowledge; after all, that's where your edge comes from.
We'll begin with the most powerful implied restriction in this Standard format: Temur Battle Rage plus Become Immense / Titan's Strength. This powerful two-card combo is the lynchpin of both Atarka Red and Red/Green Landfall, and is the fundamental texturing agent of all of the deck's matchups. Once the game reaches a certain (relatively early) stage, the player staring down a Red/Green Aggro deck must keep in mind that they could just die on any given turn. As such, they are restricted in their options -- they can never tap out. They can never go shields down, or they are fairly likely to be dead. Even wiping the Red/Green Aggro board at sorcery speed isn't good enough, as the decks play enough cheap haste creatures to enable consistently comboing from an empty board.
This restriction is particularly interesting to me because it puts a unique spin on typical red matchup play patterns for this Standard format. Normally against red decks, the game plan at the beginning is to gain control of the board as soon as possible by deploying as much as you can to the board as quickly as you can. In practice, this means you are tapping out as much as possible during this stage of the game. After the board is stabilized, the game enters a new stage where the red player seeks to sneak in its reach via a combination of haste creatures and burn spells before dying. In this second stage, the non-red player has to play scared, seeking to kill the red player as quickly as possible while always being defensive enough to ensure they can't die. They tap out much less often here, leaving spells up to mitigate the risk of red's reach. This stage is where the implicit restrictions come into play. They key difference in historical red matchups and this Standard's is that the transition between these stages is now dictated by the resources available to red, not the damage they have dealt and the current board state. Once red/green has enough mana and/or cards in graveyard to go all in on Battle Rage combo, the opposition must immediately enter the second stage. The effect of this change is to make the second stage the dominant one, which greatly affects the dynamics of the red matchups.
From the Red/Green Aggro side, putting this implicit restriction on your opponent is a strong advantage, but one that works in very subtle ways. Often, the effect is to drain two mana a turn from your opponent, as they can't safely tap out and must leave some mana up. Understand that this is a strong advantage, and you shouldn't relinquish it by comboing into their open mana. Instead, use that mana advantage to develop your board past theirs, and win on the back of your board advantage. The threat of your combo can be just as powerful as the combo itself.
As the opposition, the most important thing is to be intimately familiar with the mechanical details of the combo. Your game plan is to tap out whenever you can and play careful whenever you have to, so it is critically important to be able to tell which is which. Keep an eye on their total mana and cards in yard, and think through how much damage each permutation of their combo is worth. Most of the time, any risk that is less than losing on the spot is not worth playing around at the cost of failing to develop your board. Respect the restriction as much as possible, but know that with restrictions this tight, sometimes the highest value play is to ignore the restriction and hope that they don't have it (that's a good general rule: the tighter the implicit restriction, the more often it is correct to ignore it).
When I think of the Green/White decks in this Standard, I'm thinking of mainly Green/White Megamorph and Abzan. To me, these are both fairly straightforward aggressive decks powered by Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Dromoka's Command. Fittingly, those are the same two cards that are the backbone of the primary implicit restrictions that the archetype creates. First, let's discuss Gideon. Gideon was the first superstar to come out of Battle for Zendikar, the first card from the set whose high power level we came to understand. His power is very Brute Force, so it makes sense that he was the first card of the set to make waves. Similarly, the restriction Gideon implies is not very subtle: you need to do something, or you will be crushed.
Admittedly, that restriction is currently pretty vaguely worded. This is because it does different things in different matchups. The General idea is that, against green/white decks, the first four turns of the game for both sides are more or less just gearing up to fight a Gideon battle. If you are playing a ground-based midrange deck or faster, and have minimal board presence when Gideon comes down, things are not going to end well for you. This is a restriction that affects sequencing (higher priority to deploying early threats), post-board mulligan decisions (more prone to mulliganing slow to start hands), and, to some extent, deck construction (card choices made with winning these battles in mind). Decks with fliers ignore this restriction to some extent, as do decks whose plan is either to not let Gideon resolve or to drastically overpower Gideon decks in the late game.
Dromoka's Command is where subtlety comes back into play. The implicit restriction created by this Command (and, to be frank, most of the command cycle) is one of fear. Dromoka's Command can be a backbreaking tempo play out of the green/white deck and it is very important to limit your exposure to plays like those. Thus, the restriction. The problem is that, with highly modal cards like Dromoka's Command, to completely eliminate your exposure to the card, you basically can't do anything at all. If you don't cast any creatures or enchantments, their Dromoka's Command is likely to rot in their hand, but you have absolutely no chance of winning. So playing against Dromoka's Command is like walking a tightrope, managing casting the spells you need to cast while making sure nothing you do puts you into a scenario where Dromoka's Command is particularly devastating. The main situation to avoid is having both an enchantment and an important fightable creature at the same time, but staying out of situations where the counter-fight mode puts you in a huge tempo hole is also important.
The Dromoka's Command implied restriction is a lot to juggle and is super complex. You want to avoid being under that restriction as much as possible (liberty is beautiful). This is a good time for a brief discussion on how long you should be respecting these implicit restrictions. I tend to start ignoring restrictions implied by individual cards after the second decent opportunity to cast said card goes by without it being deployed. You may decide that you will always respect the first copy, but after it is played, you will never respect the second copy. Different thresholds work for different restrictions, based on how powerful the counterplay the restriction avoids is. Experiment with your respect thresholds for each implicit restriction you want to respect, and find what works best for you.
Jace, Telepath Unbound
One last implied restriction to discuss before calling it: the chess-like restrictions implied by Jace, Telepath Unbound. I say chess-like because the behaviors you are restricted from are dictated by the board state. Or, more specifically, the graveyard state. Jace, of course, lets your opponent flashback any of the spells that they have in their graveyard (and thus, that they have probably already cast once this game). The restriction(s), then, is to not play too heavily into any of the spells they can flashback. You also want them to flashback less important spells so that you can better attack Jace, so you are incentivized to create scenarios that look like juicy opportunities but really are just middling ones. This may seem obvious, but it plays out really interestingly.
The problem with chess-like restrictions is that thinking entirely through them can take up a lot of your time. When a Jace flips, you should never need to pick up their graveyard and leaf through it, thinking about what each of the spells you find there can do. Instead, against decks that you know play Jace, think about each spell your opponent casts throughout the entire game and what board states you will want to avoid being in with a flipped Jace on the table. This will save you from having to go deep into the tank when Jace makes his appearance and is exceedingly unlikely to be wasted thought.
Pre-board, this restriction is often minimal. This is due to the fact that none of the spells in the main are likely to be particularly devastating against any given deck. That changes post-board. Sideboard haymakers gaining flashback is one of the scariest things implied by Jace, Telepath Unbound, and is where this restriction really gets interesting. Consider Radiant Flames against a deck vulnerable to sweepers (realistically, the only time Radiant Flames gets brought in). Your Jeskai Black opponent got one Radiant Flames off and, with Jace, they are threatening another as soon as the opportunity is ripe. The effect of Jace here is to Magnify the implied restriction of Radiant Flames -- no longer can you start not respecting the restrictions of Radiant Flames the instant they cast the first. Having your plays restricted by spells that have already been cast is not a typical play pattern for Magic games, and is one of the reasons that Jace has such a profound effect on the games he's in.
The implied restrictions discussed above are all broad restrictions, in that they are relevant very close to 100% of the time in the appropriate match-ups. I chose to discuss broader implied restrictions because they are more universally applicable. Maybe everything in this article was known to you, maybe most of it was, and maybe it was all new to you. It doesn't really matter. The take-away moral is the thought lens of implied restrictions. The truth is that the most important implied restrictions are the super narrow ones that Sprout up when specific cards interact. There are too many of these for me to comprehensively discuss them, but be on the lookout in your playtesting. Having a good grasp on how every card they have and could have interacts with the cards you have to restrict your sequencing will make you a better player.
Thanks for reading,