This week I finally put a project that's been in the works for a few months into practice. I've been trying to come up with a plan that would allow me to provide one-on-one feedback to help players improve at Magic. The model I decided on was to have players record a match on Magic Online and send it to me. I would then respond with feedback about mistakes they made in the match and how to correct them. I did a few practice trial runs with some friends of mine, most notably Michael Simon, and the results were encouraging. Simon made Top 8 at Grand Prix Albuquerque, qualifying for Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in Sydney (which was his stated goal). So I finally made a Facebook post earlier this week offering the same tutorial service to anyone interested at a nominal fee. I have since spent much of this week watching videos, critiquing plays, and uncovering patterns of mistakes. Today I'm going to share with you some of the patterns I've noticed in hopes that you too can benefit from the lessons and improve your game just as the players I am tutoring have.
If you have a play that gives you access to information (card draw spell, discard spell, etc), resolve that effect first before making any other decisions. For instance, if you have a Gitaxian Probe in hand that you are going to cast this turn, cast it before playing a land. This gives you knowledge of your opponent's hand and the card you draw off the Gitaxian Probe and you can then use those pieces of information to better inform your decisions, including which land to play for the turn. All too often I see people playing their land first or resolving some other effect first and then find themselves handcuffed and unable to make a superior play because they prematurely played their land or resolved another ability before gaining all relevant information.
The one exception is if making the other play has a specific purpose. For instance, you might be playing around an opposing Daze or you Anticipate the opponent will respond to your Duress by casting a Terminate on your Tarmogoyf and you need to keep Spell Pierce mana open just in case. But let these cases by the exceptions rather than the norm. Your default should be to gain full information first and then make your other plays with full information.
People often try to play around cards the opponent might have or might draw, and if you can do this, then you should! For instance, if the opponent is at two life with no cards in hand and you have three creatures on the battlefield that are each lethal, there is no need to play a fourth creature — it's better to save it and play around them drawing a sweeper. This is a luxury though; if you're not far ahead, you likely have to take some risks.
Oftentimes people try to play around a card the opponent might have and by doing so end up losing to the cards they know the opponent definitely has (such as their creatures on board or a card in hand that they have previously saw from a Duress or an activated Duskwatch Recruiter or whatever). Don't make this mistake! Step one should always be to beat the cards you have full knowledge of. If you can manage this while also playing around a card they might have or might draw, go for it, but not if it means losing to what you know they have.
A more subtle example: you have Vapor Snag and Vendilion Clique but only two blue mana, and the opponent has two cards in hand and is beating you down with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. If you have no way to beat the Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, you have to Vapor Snag it on the opponent's end step and then cast the Vendilion Clique at some point before they can recast the Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet — on your turn, on their upkeep, or on their draw step — so you can take it with Vendilion Clique. Sure, you'll likely lose if they have a counter or another Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, but you're losing to that anyway. Your best hope is to answer the Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in the only way you have before it kills you and to hope that is enough. You don't have the luxury of trying to win any other way.
Here is another example. You know from a previous Dark Confidant trigger that the opponent is holding Spell Snare, so you don't play your Tarmogoyf into their open blue mana. So far so good, but if the opponent for whatever reason taps out (say, to cast Snapcaster Mage flashing back a Terminate mid-combat), you want to take advantage of this opportunity to resolve your Tarmogoyf. Sure, it's possible they have Damnation, but it's better to play around the card you know they have (Spell Snare) than to play into it by trying to play around a card they might have (Damnation). After all, so what if they have the Damnation? The Tarmogoyf still won't help you because they still have that Spell Snare in hand. Beat the cards you can beat that you know they have first.
This should be obvious, but oftentimes it's important to be aware of lesser used functions of your cards. Sometimes putting a land onto the battlefield with Atarka's Command is the best mode. Sometimes targeting yourself with Thoughtseize is what needs to happen. Sometimes the game-winning play involves targeting your opponent with Time Warp.
Other times it's a strange timing issue. For instance, maybe the opponent is holding Bone Splinters but doesn't have any creatures on the battlefield and you have a really important creature they need to kill. The opponent draws and plays a relatively expendable creature, but once it resolves, they have priority again and can sacrifice it to Bone Splinters without you ever having a chance to kill it with your instant speed removal spell. But if you have an Auriok Champion on the battlefield, the creature entering the battlefield causes the Auriok Champion's life gain ability to trigger. You can then respond to that trigger by killing the creature before the opponent has an opportunity to cast their sorcery spell. It's a corner-case situation that you'll miss if you're not vigilant about the more obscure ways your cards can help you.
Knowing what the opponent's cards do is likewise important so you know what things the opponent is capable of doing with their cards and you don't accidentally play into it. For instance, it doesn't often come up, but knowing they can use Golgari Charm to make their own creature small enough to survive a Valorous Stance or Selesnya Charm can sometimes be the difference between victory and defeat.
Pretend you are playing Bant Human Company and the opponent is playing Blulamog. While Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger (and to a lesser extent, Drowner of Hope) are must-answer threats, they are each slow, and by the time they come down, if the opponent isn't already on the brink of death, you are going to lose whether you have the removal spell or not. So it's best to just rely on your creatures such as Reflector Mage and Eldrazi Displacer to buy you that final turn to attack for lethal the turn after the opponent plays one of these creatures instead of trying to play the long game with removal spells such as Declaration in Stone.
When you try and play the long game against decks like this, you'll have Declaration in Stones stranded in your hand when what you really needed was more pressure. Then when Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger finally arrives, you'll have the removal spell at the ready, but the opponent will have already taken control of the game and the removal spell won't be enough. It would have been much better to have more threats or Negates to keep the pressure going so you can kill the opponent before they get to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger mana. Understanding your role is vital to sideboarding correctly and I think misevaluating your role is one of the costliest mistakes people make.
As a general rule, wait to crack your fetches until the opponent's end step unless you are going to use the mana right away. You want to leave yourself with options as long as possible. For instance, if you crack Scalding Tarn to find an untapped Steam Vents because you have Terminate and Mana Leak in hand but your opponent doesn't play anything on their next turn, you took two unnecessary points of damage. In this scenario you should have fetched it tapped on their end step instead. It doesn't cost you anything to wait (unless they have Stifle or Shadow of Doubt), and you can always sacrifice it in response to their spell if you need to cast your Mana Leak or Terminate or whatever.
Another reason people sacrifice their fetchlands is to thin their library. This mathematically makes sense in the abstract, but the advantage is so small that in most cases, other factors actually override it. For instance, if you run Courser of Kruphix, Tireless Tracker, Brainstorm, or Delver of Secrets in your deck, leaving the fetch land uncracked on the board is more valuable as a deck manipulation tool than the slight decrease in chances of drawing a land by searching one out with the fetch land. And even if you have nothing in your deck that is improved by an uncracked fetch, it plays around a potential Fulminator Mage, Blood Moon, Ghost Quarter, or World Breaker from the opponent.
Even assuming that the best thing to do with your fetchland is to thin your library, you still want to stop and ask yourself if sacrificing actually thins your library. There are plenty of times where it doesn't. Did you scry a land to the bottom of your library at the beginning of the game and then activate Duskwatch Recruiter, putting two lands on the bottom of your library, a few turns later? If you haven't shuffled since then, you know that three lands are on the bottom of your library. If you activated your fetchland, you actually increased your chances of drawing a land instead of decreasing it since you took one land out but shuffled three back in that had otherwise been sitting on the bottom of your library.
Before cracking a fetch, make a habit of stopping to consider for a moment why and when you should crack your fetch and you will be much better off.
All too often opponents wait until my turn to cast their removal spell on my creature. This is often correct because it opens the possibility of getting a 2-for-1 (for instance, if I cast Rancor on my creature pre-combat and you kill it in response). Either that or it means I have to tap mana on my turn to protect it from the removal spell, which is better than if you cast it on your turn and I was able to untap with all my mana again. But if I'm tapped out and you definitely want to kill my creature before I attack you with it, then you want to kill it on your own turn when the coast is clear. There is no need to let me untap and potentially protect my creature. Take advantage of the window to kill my creature while it's there (i.e. on your turn while I'm tapped out).
Another thing I see people do is kill my creature before attackers are declared or after without first correctly assessing which time is preferable. For instance, if raid is a relevant mechanic of the format, you want to kill my creature before attackers are declared so I don't get a free 3/4 flying Bird Token when I play Wingmate Roc post-combat.
In formats where raid or even something like battle cry is not a concern, it's generally better to wait for the creature to attack (and usually best to wait until after I pass priority after blockers in case I want to use a pump spell to try and get in extra damage). This is especially true if the creature has an activated ability. For instance, I might just want to attack with Grim Lavamancer this turn, but if you kill it before I attack with it, it's untapped and I can activate it in response. That's two damage I would've otherwise been unable to deal if you'd waited till I attacked. Or, if I activate my Shambling Vent and you try to kill it before it attacks, I might tap it for mana to activate my other Shambling Vent and attack you with that one instead. Wait until the creature is tapped and declared as an attacker before using the removal spell on it. Don't give the opponent options for no reason.
Sometimes you'll see a play that looks good, but a better play is available and you miss it because you are too focused on making the play you were already planning to make. For instance, let's say you have a 2/4, a 2/2 flier, and a 3/1 Saddleback Lagac. You draw Pulse of Murasa and your plan is to chump block the opponent's 4/2 first striker with your Saddleback Lagac so you can gain 6 life, rebuy the Saddleback Lagac, and then replay it the following turn and distribute a counter to each of your creatures. The opponent then attacks with his creature and you carry out your plan successfully.
But why didn't you double block the 4/2 first-striker with your 2/4 and your 3/1? If the opponent has a trick, they'll use it to kill your relatively unimportant creature, and if they don't, then you successfully traded your 2/4 (or 3/1) for their 4/2 first striker. Either way you're in great shape because of the Pulse of Murasa, but in this scenario your opponent doesn't have the 4/2 first striker (or the removal spell in hand) while in the scenario of chump blocking with the Saddleback Lagac they still do.
Another example that might be more straightforward is you're at 1 life and your opponent attacks you with their 2/2 Zombie Token, their 3/3 Precursor Golem, and their pair of 3/3 Golem Tokens. You have no cards in hand and in a desperate last-ditch effort you sacrifice your Horizon Canopy and draw Snapcaster Mage. You play the Snapcaster Mage, flashing back Lightning Bolt targeting one of the golems, which copies the bolt to target all the golems (because of Precursor Golem's ability), and you block the Zombie Token with Snapcaster Mage. Phew! You successfully staved off death in miraculous fashion! But wait, what life total is the opponent at? Three?! Oh no! If you had targeted the opponent with Lightning Bolt instead of the golem you would have won the game on the spot! Sometimes even when everything looks like it lines up perfectly, there is an even better play if you stop and consider the bigger picture for a moment.