If you read a decent amount of Magic articles, you will at some point have been confronted with the idea that in order to be good at the game it is not enough to make the right play, you have to know why it is the right play. The foundation behind this idea is solid -- if you don't know why the best plays are the best plays, even if you happen to make them, in reality you are just guessing. The problem is that among competitive players the ubiquity of this idea has created a culture in which any play must be backed up with a detailed reason.
In a perfect world, this would not be a problem. In the world in which we live, the overwhelming majority of players are less than perfect and do not always fully understand the reasoning behind their plays. And yet, the underlying culture mandates that if you make a play and are later questioned about it you must have a reason to give them, whether you actually understand why your play was right (or wrong) or not. This conundrum has given way to a number of Magic 'reasons' that are worth less than the time taken to give them. Today, I will be discussing the top reasons for plays we should stop using.
"I had nothing better to do."
I have noticed a tendency among players to explain their plays by saying that it was the best option among the cards in their hand that they could cast. That is, they will tell me that they cast their Fleecemane Lion on turn two because it was the only thing that they could cast -- or maybe because it was clearly better than Ultimate Pricing their opponent's Foundry Street Denizen. In either case, the problem with this reason is that it neglects to justify casting the spell in question over passing the turn without doing anything at all.
During Innistrad/Return to Ravnica Standard, I found myself at 5-0 in an Open for the first time ever. I was not very good back then, and was absolutely ecstatic to be at such a solid position in a big tournament. I was playing a somewhat rogue Naya midrange deck at this tournament, and in round six found myself facing down Jund. If you played Standard during this time period you probably recall the Jund deck -- Rampant Growth into Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk, backed up by a healthy dose of efficient removal. My plan against this deck was centered in my five-drop slot -- I had found that Zealous Conscripts and Thundermaw Hellkite took enough advantage of the Jund deck's sorcery speed removal to be very good in the matchup. On the draw in game three, I kept a hand with three lands and multiple copies of the five-drops I pinned my hopes on. On turn three I deployed a Loxodon Smiter as my first spell and the only CMC three or less card in hand -- and lost the game because I chose to play it instead of doing nothing at all. I consider this game one of the pivotal level-up moments in my Magic history and find myself constantly looking back at it as the first time I realized just how deep this game really is.
How casting that Loxodon Smiter cost me that game is slightly complex (it enabled my opponent to use a previously dead Dreadbore and increase the power of his Scavenging Ooze to three, drastically increasing his clock) but the takeaway message here is that at any decision point in a game of Magic, one of the options is to simply do nothing. Doing nothing isn't often the right play, but it is sometimes. The problem is that it is easy and convenient to just assume that doing something is better than doing nothing and in making that assumption you miss the times when doing nothing is the best choice.
There's tons of situations where doing nothing is the best thing to do. At this point, most of us are familiar with the idea of holding back creatures to avoid overextending into sweeper effects and are comfortable with passing instead of deploying additional threats onto boards where you are already far ahead. This is far from the only time that doing nothing is the best play. I will seriously consider simply shipping the turn any time the board is at parity or better for me and I think both me and my opponent wasting mana favors me.
To summarize: stop giving reasons for your plays in terms of how they are the best of the given options. Always remember the hidden additional option of doing nothing.
"I couldn't win if they had it anyway."
This reason is given a lot when discussing a play that immediately loses the game if the opponent has a certain card. For instance, committing the last threat in your hand to the board, only for it to be promptly swept away. "I couldn't beat Supreme Verdict anyway."
The tricky thing with this reason is that, on its face, it is sound logic. The idea behind it is that if your opponent has card X, they will win the game regardless of what line you take. Commit your creature, hold it in hand, whatever. They will still win. So you maximize your chances in the game by playing as if they don't have card X since, if they do, nothing you do matters anyway. This logic is great and makes total sense in simple scenarios -- if you are at three, you probably shouldn't be playing around Lightning Strike.
So then, what is my problem with this reason, if I'm willing to go ahead and say that the logic behind it is solid? Well, my experience is that we are way too willing to go ahead and say that we can't beat a card. In the Lightning Strike example, how we lose to a copy of Lightning Strike is clear and obvious and can't really be argued against. However, in the Supreme Verdict example, the fact that we lose to a Supreme Verdict is much more in question -- the game will be continuing for several turns post-Verdict, and maybe with the right combination of draw steps and that extra threat still in hand the game could be won.
Saying that we can't beat a card is just such a tempting shortcut. Sometimes we find ourselves in spots that look really bad for us if our opponent happens to have a certain nightmare card. People note the similarity of their situation to the logic in the Lightning Strike situation and start playing as if their opponent does not have that nightmare card. It is so much easier to shortcut really bad situations to clear losses, even if in reality we are maybe 5-10% to win. But Magic is all about small edges and we should not be giving up win percentage because the thinking involved is difficult.
And in reality, it's often not all that difficult. Sometimes, you know your opponent has the nightmare card. If your control opponent has cast Dig Through Time three times in the last two turns and can only win if they have Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, they have it. When you are in situations where your opponent is playing as if they have the nightmare card or have used plenty of card selection and are extremely favored to have the card, play as if they have it. Sounds like they are 100% to have the card and you aren't 100% to lose to it, so play on. Personally, I refuse to allow myself to apply the "lose no matter what if they have it" reasoning to any situation where the given card doesn't kill me on the spot.
"It didn't matter; I mulliganed to five in a bad matchup. Of course I lost."
Your friend is having a bad day at the tournament. He's 2-2, on tilt, and battling on mostly because he has nothing else to do. You finish your round early and get to watch the end of his match. He makes a lot of plays that you consider questionable, and when you ask him about it afterwards he just expounds on all the unfortunate things that happened to him that match. It was a bad-match up, no one plays that deck, he mulliganed to five in games one and three, etc. Because you're a socially conscious human, you let it go -- he's in no mood to listen right now, and not unreasonably so.
His reasons are, of course, not reasons at all. If you are extremely frustrated with the way variance is breaking on a day or in a single game and decide that nothing you do matters, you are going to lose some games that are winnable. This is a very dangerous state of mind. We can always make decisions that are correct and raise our win percentage, even if we are only raising it from 10% to win to 15% to win. Tilt decisions are bad decisions, but they happen to all of us. Just make sure not to try and justify your poor plays -- recognize them for what they are and do better in the future.
The logic people often give in situations like these is that they "needed to get lucky." The form of this argument that is reasonable is playing to your outs -- the idea that, in some situations, you need something specific to happen (a certain card in your next draw step, your opponent to make a mistake, etc.) and if that thing does not happen, you can't win. So you play as if that thing will happen, because if it doesn't you are just losing anyway. This is just exactly the "I can't beat X card" logic but in reverse.
Before you start deciding that you need to play to a specific out, you need to be very sure that that out is really the only way you can win. This logic is generalized even more aggressively than the "I can't beat X card" reasoning, to the point where I have seen players keep abysmal sevens because it was a bad matchup and they needed to get lucky anyway. In a recent match on Magic Online, my opponent tapped out for a Liliana Vess and made me discard a card. My hand was Stoke the Flames and Stormbreath Dragon, and I had four land in play. I needed to kill the Lili next turn, and had a Soulfire Grandmaster in play vs. no blockers. Either Stoke or Stormbreath Dragon would kill Lili. The decision was if I wanted to play to get lucky by drawing a land, or discard the Dragon and use the Stoke to kill Lili, guaranteed. I felt super behind, and it was really tempting to assume that I couldn't win unless I got lucky. I stayed strong (this time) and discarded the Dragon, knowing that the game would go on for a while and I had winning chances in every case where the Lili died in the next turn. I, of course, drew the mountain and had to shame Stoke Lili, but I still won the game.
The moral: don't assume you have to get lucky to win just because the game is complex and things look bad. Make the best decision you can at every point, and you will win more than you would by always aiming to get lucky.
Magic is super complex and forces us to make a staggeringly large number of decisions every game. Sometimes we make a play without really knowing why we think it is the best option. Some things we do on autopilot, some things we do on instinct or intuition. But if asked about such a play, we feel compelled to produce a reason for it. These reasons we come up with after the fact to explain a play are often not really reasons -- they are justifications.
For me, the primary difference between a reason and a justification is that justifications cannot be applied to future circumstances. They were created to explain a certain play, and are useless outside of that context. Reasons are based on fundamental principles and, if well-understood, will help you again and again in future games.
The danger with justifications is that they look a lot like reasons. If you justify all the plays you make that you made on instinct so that you don't look bad, you never have to look for the reasons. Something guided your intuition to that decision, and figuring out what that reason was will greatly hasten your Magical improvement. If the reasoning was bad, by knowing what it was you can train your intuition to stop using it. If it was good, by knowing it you can consciously employ it in confusing circumstances. Either way, you get better.
Having reasons for your plays is good and a hallmark of great players. But their reasons are good and valid -- imitating them by always having a reason, good or bad, will hurt your growth. Seek out the good reasons and don't be afraid to admit to yourself (and others) when you don't know why a play was right. Use it as an opportunity for growth, and figure the reasons out.
Thanks for reading,