We are one week out from the official release of Oath of the Gatewatch, one day out from the prerelease, and time in the multiverse has never moved slower. Well, except for right before Battle for Zendikar came out. And before Magic Origins. And...well, you get the idea. Point is, the Magic world tends to slow to a crawl in the weeks before each new set is released. The same Standard that captured our attention for months now seems wholly lackluster as we think ahead to the unreleased riches soon to be ours. No matter how much Magic I play during this time, I always feel like nothing is happening, like Magic itself is in a holding pattern.
To celebrate the end of this holding pattern and the impending return of a vibrant post-release Magic world, today I want to talk about the kind of doing nothing I'm all about. Formally, that would be the points within a game of Magic where making no play whatsoever is the best available strategic option. Snippets of this concept have been included in a few of my past articles when relevant to the main topic, but they have never been anywhere near comprehensive. Today, by popular demand, we will dive deeper into the world of getting ahead by doing nothing at all.
The Classical Style
For a lot of people, the idea of doing nothing being the best play evokes mental images of the old Draw-Go control decks that used to consistently dominate Magic. These decks were built to be highly reactive and, as such, engineered to always pass their turn so as to have mana free on their opponent's turns to use the instant speed interaction that their deck is chock full of. This kind of strategy is, as far as I'm aware, the earliest consistent use of doing nothing to gain an advantage in Magic. By largely removing all of the sorcery speed style cards from these Draw-Go decks, the cost of doing nothing was removed from gameplay via deckbuilding, leaving only all of the advantages.
I refer to these decks in the past tense because we don't see that style of deck very often anymore. This is largely due to the fact that Magic in recent years has pumped a lot more power into its sorcery speed effects (creatures and Planeswalkers), making this style of deck far less viable than in previous years. I bring them up not to try and convince you to go out and build similar decks (you shouldn't) but to analyze what advantage they consistently got from doing nothing, and how we can apply that to our modern era Magic games. For these decks, doing nothing was necessary to allow flexibility. Their cards were all reactive, and as such flexibility was absolutely key in being able to use them effectively.
Draw-Go had it easy. Back then, doing nothing wasn't a question, it was the default. Of course they weren't going to tap-out in their mainphase -- they had nothing to tap out for, even if they wanted to. Nowadays, it's tougher. Reactive cards are still good and powerful and played (how many midrange decks exist that play no removal spells?), but now they are played alongside powerful sorcery speed effects. Now we have to choose between developing our board further or doing nothing and staying flexible to deal with whatever our opponent has up their sleeve. Draw-Go's success proves that staying flexible is a powerful strategic advantage, but in modern Magic you can't succeed without tapping out a good amount of the time. How do we know when to do nothing and when to do something?
Nothing Trumping Nothing
A brief anecdote: a couple of years ago, I was playing a testing match with trusty Monoblack Devotion against a fringe Young Pyromancer / Chord of Calling deck that had just emerged. I found myself behind on board in the midgame, and had the option of either tapping out for Desecration Demon or doing nothing to leave my Hero's Downfall up. I ended up doing nothing, passing, and in my end step my opponent went for Chord of Calling into Polukranos, World Eater. Had I played Desecration Demon, I would have died to this play, as it was, I got to Downfall and then go on to win the game handily.
But here's the thing: from a pure mechanics viewpoint, I made the wrong play. Once I elected to pass the turn, my opponent should have just untapped, swung, and passed the turn again. Next turn I would be in the exact same situation, down a few life points, without having done anything to get myself out of the hole that I am in. His creatures were just some leftover Young Pyromancer tokens and a Xenagos, the Reveler Satyr Token, nothing worth Hero's Downfalling in his end step, although I would likely feel priced in to doing so anyway at that point. In which case, I would promptly lose to Polukranos. Or maybe next turn I feel like now I have to cast the Desecration Demon -- in which case I lose to Polukranos. I won the game we played by doing nothing, staying flexible, and thus having the removal spell ready when he went for his bomb. If played optimally, my opponent would instead have countered my nothing with his own nothing, and gone on to win the game. Since I wasn't 100% sure he had a Chord of Calling, but I was 100% sure he could just take his untap step without doing anything, I 'should' have played my Desecration Demon. Sometimes though, the only way to find a win is to induce a mistake.
The Who's-Ahead Litmus Test
The moral of this story is that my opponent could have trumped my nothing with his own. The reason his nothing was more powerful than mine is simple: he was ahead on board. When you get into a situation where whoever blinks first loses, the person who is currently ahead is going to find themselves further and further ahead the longer the stare-off lasts, as their board advantage makes significant inroads on the opponent's life total. The person who is ahead is the one who can afford to do nothing, to stare at you with an unblinking gaze. If you find yourself behind in a stare-off situation you need to blink right away and get it over with, the longer you wait the worse things will get for you. If you don't think it's possible to recover from blinking you can do like I did and refuse to blink while hoping your opponent doesn't understand the situation and makes a mistake, but I wouldn't count on it.
The exception to this rule is when you are close to being able to do two things in one turn. If I had been on six lands in the story above, I would have been right to just pass there, take my lumps from his next attack, and then next turn, with seven lands, be able to both play Desecration Demon and hold up Hero's Downfall. When you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure to figure out how much damage you would take while waiting for enough mana to make both plays in one turn and then decide if that is an acceptable amount of damage to take to not have to lose the stare-off.
Lastly before we move on, there's one other important aspect to that story: none of the cards mentioned are blue. I think there's a pretty common misconception in the Magic community that flexibility, and thus doing nothing, are things that blue is interested in, and that other colors aren't really into that kind of thing. This misconception stems from Draw-Go, a very blue strategy. The truth is, in today's world, every color and nearly every deck has to deal with these questions about when it is appropriate to do nothing and when it is not. If you take nothing else from this article, take the fact that doing nothing is a viable option you should be considering with every deck.
Other Reasons to Do Nothing
So, we know that one of the main reasons we might want to do nothing are to stay flexible, but this is something we can only effectively pull off when we are ahead. If we're feeling clever, we might realize that when we are ahead and our opponent decides to do nothing, it is often right for us to trump their nothing with our nothing, depending of course on the exact board state. These are all flexibility reasons to do nothing, times when the desire to be flexible is what motivates us to not use our mana. However, as we might expect from a game as deep and complex as Magic, flexibility reasons to do nothing are not the only ones that exist.
Magic is a game of resources -- cards, mana, and life, for the most part. As a game of resources, Magic is thus a game of scarcity. Most often in modern era Magic, the scarcest resource is mana. This is why concepts like mana efficiency are so deeply ingrained in the Magic player collective conscious, more often than not, they are what determine the outcome of a game. Doing nothing flies in the face of mana efficiency in a very direct way. Instead of using your mana, you're not. That's not very efficient. Flexibility motivated do-nothing plays don't really violate mana efficiency as you do have every intention of using your mana before your next turn, just not right now. But when we do nothing with no intention of doing something on our opponent's turn, we really need a good reason for it to be worth losing that mana efficiency.
I didn't always play Magic. I learned competitive card gaming in a different world, a world without an equivalent to mana. In my world, card advantage was king. I think that's why I have become drawn to doing nothing and always seek to explore the boundaries of what doing nothing can and can't do -- because, as it turns out, when you aren't doing nothing for a flexibility reason, you're doing it through the lens of card efficiency. Card efficiency is to card advantage what mana efficiency is to mana; that is, being card efficient seeks to maximize the card advantage you get from every one of your spells, just as being mana efficient seeks to maximize the mana you use from each of your lands. Card efficiency becomes pivotal when match-ups are about card advantage, not mana advantage.
Like I alluded to earlier, it is a fairly rare state of affairs when mana advantage isn't what drives a matchup. It does happen, but to really move all-in on being card efficient and doing nothing where appropriate, you have to be very sure of your matchup knowledge. In current Standard, the matchup I have most been applying card efficiency concepts to lately has been the Jeskai Black mirror. That matchup very often tends to go down a path where every card matters, despite both players having access to multiple Painful Truths. The most common mistake I see people make is casting their Tasigur, the Golden Fang too early, before they can also activate his ability. Every card matters, and your Tasigur will die on sight a very large percentage of the time. Waiting until you can cast him and activate his ability is critical, and yet still late in the game I see people bring Tasigur back with a Kolaghan's Command, play a Crackling Doom, and then cast the Tasigur with their last mana. Mana efficiency habits are hard to break.
Zero Sum Mana Efficiency
So doing nothing is not only important in letting us be flexible, it is an important tool in converting mana efficiency to card efficiency when card advantage is critical in a matchup. By holding our cards until they can have more impact, sometimes we do nothing at all now in order to be able to do more later. This is a clear trade of resources, mana for cards, and it makes sense that sometimes that trade is good and sometimes it is bad. What is somewhat less clear is how doing nothing -- the very tool that we have decided flies in the face of mana efficiency -- can help us win mana efficiency battles.
Competitive Magic is two-player, and thus zero sum. If something is good for me, it is bad for you, and vice versa. When a matchup comes down to mana advantage, we tend to Simplify the truth and say that both players need to try and be as mana efficient as possible. The truth is that the winner will be the player with the highest mana efficiency relative to their opponent. If mana efficiency could be measured and you found that it was possible to cost yourself two units of mana efficiency in order to cost your opponent three units of mana efficiency, you would take that trade every time because you come out ahead in relative mana efficiency. Doing nothing, at times, helps us make trades like this.
By doing nothing at the right time we can strand our opponent's reactive cards in their hand when they wanted to cast them, gaining relative mana efficiency if the mana we chose not to use was less than what our opponent was unable to use. Having an intimate understanding of your opponent's potential reactive spells is critical to employing this strategy effectively. Further, having a good grasp of what their curve looks like is vital. Save your prime Utter End target for when they have exactly six mana, forcing them to Utter End on six and leave two mana wasted. Understand what reactive spells they can and can't chain together and present your threats in a way to make their spell deployment as awkward and mana inefficient as possible. Sometimes this just involves good sequencing from you, and other times it will involve doing nothing on a turn so that you can present that particular threat later, when it will be much more awkward for your opponent to deal with.
Properly doing nothing is one of the hardest things in Magic to learn, if only because when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. Nonetheless, it is my absolute favorite thing to do in this game. The counter intuitiveness of the concept really appeals to me and I have found seeking out opportunities to do nothing to be very rewarding.
Thanks for reading,