For today's article I'm doing something fun. I've taken a series of thirteen axioms from The Art of War by Sun Tzu (with appropriate parenthetical citation for each axiom) and applied them each to Magic strategy. I also matched up each axiom with a prominent female warrior character in Magic that I feel embodies the spirit and flavor of the axiom, and I changed the gender pronouns in the axioms to feminine in order to better capture this flavor. Why am I doing this? Because these characters are awesome and I feel like highlighting them in a cool way. Hopefully this little foray into ancient literature mixed with Magic strategy will be both entertaining and instructive for all types of Magic players, whether competitive, casual, or anywhere in between.
"In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns." (2.19) – Wild Nacatl
There is a misconception commonly held by many experienced tournament players that control decks are inherently stronger than aggressive decks. A control deck with the right mix of removal, card advantage, and ability to generate inevitability can certainly be the best deck for a tournament, and often is, but just as often an aggressive or midrange or combo deck is the best deck. Don't set out to only find the best control deck. Instead set out to find the best deck. Period. The goal is to arise victoriously, whether that involves burning the opponent out on turn four, assembling your lethal combo on turn five with counter backup, jamming creatures sideways, or in some cases controlling the game for several turns before eventually finding a way to finish the game. Be careful not to be overly enamored by the prolonged feeling of control offered by the control deck when it is establishing inevitability. It would be good to remember equally the times when you get run over before you can set up or when you are have all card draw spells and wrong answers. The goal is to win; whether it takes three turns or 15 turns is inconsequential.
"Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength." (4.6) – Ash Zealot
When the opponent is on the offensive and you're behind in the race, in most cases you cannot afford to attack. The plan is instead to try and stabilize the board through blocking until you're able to turn the corner and start going on the offensive. In contrast, when you're ahead in the race and you have the opponent on the back foot trying to stabilize the board, you're in a position of strength and can afford to continue pressing your advantage by attacking. By attacking with a (non-vigilant) creature, you give up a potential blocker and thus leave yourself vulnerable to a counterattack. If you're in a position of strength, you can afford such vulnerability. If not, then you must play defense in an attempt to increase your strength against the opposing offense.
"Hence the skillful fighter puts herself into a position which makes Defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy." (4.14) – Baneslayer Angel
This is what's often referred to as the hard lock: when the opponent is drawing dead and no possible combination of opposing cards can keep you from victory. This is essentially the goal of every game of Magic, though in most cases Defeat is only improbable rather than impossible. You want to continually put yourself in the best position possible, the one that minimizes the probability of Defeat while maximizing the probability of defeating the opponent.
"The general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and she is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack." (6.8) – Wren's Run Packmaster
There is advantage in playing a rogue deck that is under the radar. Everyone has played against the Tier 1 decks and knows what to expect at every turn of the game. When you show up with a deck that hasn't been seen before, the opponent is guessing which cards are key and which cards to play around. If you are rogue and they are not, then you have full information of what to expect in a game whereas they do not. A successful rogue deck also often has threats that are chosen specifically to dodge the common removal spells played in the format. For instance, if the format is full of efficient point removal spells, then play hexproof or token threats that match up well against point removal. Or if the popular removal spells are sorcery speed board sweepers, then play recursive creatures like Deathmist Raptor or dash creatures that line up well against the opposing strategy.
"Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances." (6.28) - Zealous Conscripts
If you prepare hard for a tournament and have success because your deck was well-positioned for the metagame that week, then you should employ that same method to figure out what deck to play for the following week rather than simply replaying the same deck. The metagame will be different week to week and you want to continually adapt to it in the best way possible. For instance, at GP Toronto earlier this year the metagame consisted mostly of Red Aggro, Esper Dragons, and Abzan Aggro. GW Collected Company matched up great against those three decks and was hence an excellent choice for that weekend (and resulted in me making the Top 8). A month later the metagame consisted primarily of GR Devotion, Mardu Dragons, and Abzan Megamorph, none of which were great matchups for GW CoCo. In order to maximize your chances of winning, don't just find a deck you win with and then stick with that deck forever. Instead find a method for finding the best deck each week and then stick to that method forever. Always adapt to the constantly changing and infinite variety of circumstances that comprise the metagame.
"She who can modify her tactics in relation to her opponent and thereby succeed in winning may be called a heaven-born captain" (6.33) – Captain Sisay
Sideboarding is an underappreciated skill in Magic. A maindeck and sideboard should be built in close relation to each other and with the expected metagame in mind. How many cards do you want to board out in each of the major matchups? What cards exist that would maximally improve a given matchup? How effective are the more versatile sideboard options versus the more narrow options? For example, Nature's Claim might be useful against a wider array of decks in Modern but Stony Silence has a much more potent impact on the Affinity matchup. So would you rather have the extra advantage against Affinity with that sideboard slot or a card that slightly improves a greater number of matchups? Either way, the important point is to have a coherent plan. Sometimes you can board in a bunch of cheap removal spells and become the controlling deck in a given matchup. Other times you can side out your combo and become a strategy that your opponent is not equipped to handle. Successful sideboarding involves modifying your strategy in a way that improves your chances of winning, whether that modification involves a fifteen card transformation or a simple swap of your two worst cards for two cards that are better in the matchup.
"After that comes tactical maneuvering, than which there is nothing more difficult." (7.3) – Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
One of the hardest parts of Magic is finding the hidden tactical line that wins a close and complicated game. There are general rules of thumb for maneuvering into a winning board position: gaining card advantage or tempo, establishing inevitability or preventing the opponent from establishing inevitability, playing to your outs while playing around your opponent's outs, and using probability to determine which competing line maximizes your likelihood to win. Knowing how and when to apply these rules of thumb is often what separates the good players from the truly great. Sometimes it's correct to sacrifice tempo for card advantage while other times the reverse is correct. The overarching question you want to constantly ask yourself each turn as you adapt your plan to the changing landscape of the game is "What is my optimal route to victory?" Everything else is a subordinate tool in helping you to deduce the correct answer to this question. And it is this very question that should dictate each of your tactical decisions in a game of Magic.
"We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country – its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps." (7.13) – Rubblebelt Raiders
Before entering a tournament you should understand each of the major decks that comprise the metagame that week. You should likewise know your own deck and what its plan is against the major decks in the metagame. Are you the aggressor or do you have inevitability against Esper? Do you board out your removal or leave it in against Mardu? Are you playing the right mix of threats and removal for the current metagame or should you make some specific changes to your deck to adapt to a recent shakeup from last week's major tournament? Familiarity with your deck and its matchups will give you a major edge over everyone who does not have such familiarity.
"Ponder and deliberate before you make a move." (7.21) – Azami, Lady of Scrolls
A common mistake people make is that they don't think through their play before making a game action. For instance, they draw a land and have no other lands in hand, so they immediately play it before thinking about the rest of their play, as if to say, "Well, this is the obvious part of my plan." But why needlessly give away the information that you don't have another land in hand? Why not instead think through your play before playing the land and casting your spell? It accomplishes the same end without giving away free information your opponent can use against you. Another advantage in thinking through your whole line of play before executing part of it (even the "easy" part) is that once you make a play there is no going back. So let's say you play your fourth land and then start thinking about your play and decide you'd rather cast Courser of Kruphix than Siege Rhino. Well, if you play the Courser it is way better to not have played your land first in case there is a land on top of your library that you could have played off the centaur and also because at minimum you miss gaining a life from the land off the centaur. This is a more pronounced example of how acting before thinking can needlessly hurt you. In general though it's a good habit to think through your whole plan at the beginning and then once you determine your plan, execute it all at once.
"She who exercises no forethought but makes light of her opponents is sure to be captured by them." (9.41) – Amber Prison
Never underestimate an opponent or an opposing deck. Think you Crush Monored? You won't if you keep skimping on life gain and cheap removal spells. Your opponent is playing a white weenie deck with Judge's Familiar and Civic Saber? Be careful, that might be the next Pro Tour Champion. Think your Affinity, Bogle, or Infect matchup is still good after you cut all your sideboard hate? Think again. Tragic Arrogance can lead to unnecessary losses. It is wise to give adequate respect to your opponents and to the decks in the metagame.
"The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect her country and do good service for her sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom." (10.24) – Den Protector
You always want to make the calculated play that maximizes your chances of winning. Some players get scared and try to play too conservatively when doing so actually increases their chances of losing the game. Sure, if you attack all out the opponent could draw Stoke the Flames to win the game, but if you don't then you're giving your opponent an extra draw step to draw a pair of cheaper burn spells to kill you. Similarly, some players see an opening to win the game and try to force it prematurely. Sure, if you attack with everything and the opponent just has lands in hand, then you win the game this turn; but if they have any removal spell or way to survive the attack then are you in danger of losing to the counterattack? Is it worth the risk? If they only have lands in hand, are you going to win anyway? Don't be overly hasty to end the game prematurely or too conservative to prolong a game when doing so decreases your chances of winning. Instead always strive to make the mathematically optimal play that maximizes your chances of winning the game.
"Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will Stand Firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight." (11.24) - Hero of Bladehold
Sometimes you find yourself in a desperate situation. You're on the back foot and your chances of winning the game are almost zero. Dig deep and come up with a plan, even if it requires your opponent making a mistake and you drawing the exact sequence of cards you need to draw to win. Any plan, no matter how unlikely, is better than no plan. Do you need your opponent to miss an on board lethal and then you have to untap and draw the one card in your deck that wins you the game? If that's the only way to win, then play as if that is exactly what is going to happen. The correct play is sometimes a farfetched desperate play, but when it pans out you will look like a genius and it will be an amazing comeback story to remember for a long time. Don't give up if there is still hope. Fight to the bitter end and you might just arise victoriously!
"If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in." (11.65) – Radha, Heir to Keld
If there is a deck that is especially well-positioned in the metagame, then play it! There are usually holes in the metagame that can be exploited, so be ready to exploit them each week. Is everyone skimping on graveyard hate? Then play dredge! Is no one playing Force of Will? Then play Goblin Charbelcher! Similarly if an opponent takes the turn off to play a card draw spell like Read the Bones, then don't hesitate to punish them by establishing a strong tempo advantage. Play another threat and attack! In Magic there are always opportunities to gain an advantage. The best players are constantly looking for ways to gain an advantage, whether that is playing a well-positioned deck, adapting your sideboard plans to a recent change in the metagame, or simply taking a complex line of play during a game that gains you a tactical advantage over the opponent. Each opponent is the enemy and there will always be doors left open. Find these open doors and rush in through them to Conquer the match and the tournament!
Hopefully I can successfully employ these tactics at Pro Tour Origins this weekend to earn a spot in the World Championship!
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter