This weekend I played Modern at Grand Prix Dallas, sporting the White-Black Eldrazi Taxes deck I wrote about last week, with only a few minor changes. Going forward I would play the same list I ran at the Grand Prix except I would replace the Kor Firewalker in the sideboard with a fourth Rest in Peace. Since I already covered the deck in detail, today I want to talk in depth about two particular plays that came up over the course of the weekend. Each was captured in a video feature match. In order to get the most out of each example, read through my description of the board state and then pause and think about what play you would make from my position and why you would make it. Then continue reading to see what I would do and why. The purpose of this article is to walk you through a pair of very difficult plays in order to equip you with the reasoning necessary to solve future difficult plays on your own.

The first was against the eventual finalist of the tournament.

Round 8 Feature Match vs Corey Burkhart – What's the play?

The video of the match against Corey Burkhart can be found here and starts at 09:04:00. I'm playing White-Black Eldrazi Taxes and Corey is playing Grixis Control.

In game one Corey suspends Ancestral Vision with two Islands on the battlefield. I play Leonin Arbiter and then Ghost Quarter one of his Islands. On his turn he fails to draw a land and is ready to move to discard with eight cards in hand and only a lone Island on the battlefield and an Ancestral Vision with two suspend counters on it.

On my side of the board I have Concealed Courtyard, Shambling Vent, Swamp, Leonin Arbiter, and an Aether Vial on three counters. I'm at 20 life and Corey is at 18 life. My hand consists of: Wasteland Strangler, Thought-Knot Seer, and Path to Exile. We're on Corey's end step and I have priority before he discards down to hand size. What is the play and why?

Think carefully about your answer then continue reading.

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William Jensen and Marshall Sutcliffe are commentating on the match and Jensen believes the correct play is to just let Corey discard to hand size. Then untap, add a fourth counter to Aether Vial. Then activate Aether Vial to put Thought-Knot Seer onto the battlefield. Then after that resolves, cast Wasteland Strangler, targeting the Thought-Knot Seer with the -3/-3 ability and processing the suspended Ancestral Vision, moving it from exile to the graveyard so it never comes off suspend. In order to process the Ancestral Vision, the Wasteland Strangler must give a creature -3/-3, so the 4/4 body from Thought-Knot Seer is a necessary piece to the puzzle of processing the Ancestral Vision without having to lose either my Leonin Arbiter or Wasteland Strangler in the process.

This line that Jensen suggested yields the most card advantage and puts me in a commanding position to win the game, but is it the best one? Sometimes a really powerful and flashy play is still only the second best line. I believe this to be one of those cases. Here's the play I made: I activated the Aether Vial on Corey's end step, putting Wasteland Strangler onto the battlefield and choosing not to process the Ancestral Vision. Why did I make this play and why do I believe it was the best line?

Ok, so Corey is at 18 life and stuck on a single Island and I will have two full turns before Ancestral Vision comes off suspend. Corey already has a hand full of cards, so I want the game to end sooner rather than later. If I flash the Wasteland Strangler onto the board on Corey's end step, I have five power on the board, representing an attack the following turn that will put Corey down to 13 life. I will tick my Aether Vial up to four counters and activate it to add Thought-Knot Seer to the board on the following turn while Ancestral Vision still has one more turn before it comes off suspend. This means I'll be able to attack for another nine damage the following turn, putting Corey down to just four life when the Ancestral Vision finally comes off suspend. I also have a Path to Exile to clear out any potential blocker.

While these factors are enough to make the play close, there is another factor that led me to decisively choose the play I made over the one Jensen suggested, namely that I have 14 untapped lands in my library, any of which would allow me to attack with Shambling Vent on each of my next two turns. This would put Corey down to exactly zero life the turn before his Ancestral Vision would come off suspend. And since I'm activating the Aether Vial to put the Thought-Knot Seer onto the battlefield, I have full access to all my mana for the Shambling Vent. And even if I draw one of my five tapped lands, it means I can still put Corey down to just two life the following turn, likely leaving him with nothing he could possibly draw to stay alive. Or if I draw any one of my 26 creatures to add to the board the following turn it accomplishes the same effect. So between the 26 creatures and 19 lands, I have 45 live draws out of 51 cards in my library that leave Corey either dead or drawing dead. The only other cards I could potentially draw are three Aether Vial or three Path to Exile. And even if that scenario occurs, I will have forced through enough damage such that he'll be treading water to stay alive and won't able to deal himself any damage from his lands.

The upside of my line over the one Jensen suggested is that I guarantee three extra damage but then also have mana available the following turn to cast another threat if I draw a threat or activate and attack with Shambling Vent if I draw an untapped land. So processing the Ancestral Vision would cost me approximately five damage on average. Given that Corey is choked on mana and not on cards in hand, I valued the tempo provided by the five damage higher than the card advantage provided by processing the Ancestral Vision and I stand by my play as being correct. After the match I asked Corey about that specific play and he agreed with my line. The lesson to be learned is that even though a powerful line of play is available to you, there is sometimes an even more powerful line, even though in this case it is much less flashy.

Round 11 Feature Match vs Sam Black – What's the play?

The video of the match against Sam Black can be found here and the play in question starts at 09:52:00. I'm playing White-Black Eldrazi Taxes and Sam is playing Death's Shadow Aggro.

We are deep into game three and Sam has seven lands on the battlefield (including a Verdant Catacombs) along with a Mishra's Bauble and a Street Wraith. His hand is exactly two copies of Temur Battle Rage and I know this from having cast Tidehollow Sculler the previous turn. Sam is at 11 life and has seven cards in his graveyard and a Death's Shadow in his exile zone from a previous Path to Exile.

I am at 20 life with a Tidehollow Sculler on Sam's Dismember and four lands on the battlefield: Plains, Caves of Koilos, Eldrazi Temple, and Shambling Vent. My hand is: Path to Exile, Blessed Alliance, and two Wasteland Stranglers. I draw Ghost Quarter for my turn. What is the play and why?

Think carefully about your answer then continue reading.

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The play I made was to play the Ghost Quarter and tap out to cast both Wasteland Stranglers, each targeting Sam's Street Wraith, processing the Dismember from underneath the Tidehollow Sculler and the Death's Shadow that had previously been exiled by Path to Exile. This killed the Street Wraith and incidentally brought me to 19 life from a Caves of Koilos damage for the second black mana. I then attacked with Tidehollow Sculler to put Sam to nine life, representing lethal the following turn from my Tidehollow Sculler and two Wasteland Stranglers plus an activated Shambling Vent.

In hindsight, I think everything about my line was correct except for the attack with the Tidehollow Sculler. I did the math and saw that an attack with the Tidehollow Sculler would be enough to make my attack the following turn lethal, but I failed to adequately consider the possible combination of cards I could lose to the following turn.

Here, let me explain. At the end of my turn, Sam will sacrifice Mishra's Bauble to target himself. If he doesn't like the card he can shuffle it away by sacrificing Verdant Catacombs. Otherwise he can keep it on top. He then gets to draw a card on his upkeep from the Mishra's Bauble and another for his draw step. If these two cards are exactly Monastery Swiftspear and Gitaxian Probe, he can cast the Swiftspear and then cycle Gitaxian Probe. If he finds another Gitaxian Probe and cycles that to find Become Immense, he can cast both copies of Temur Battle Rage on the Swiftspear and the Become Immense. That gives him a total of five prowess triggers and six extra power from the Become Immense, making it 12 power, double strike, and trample. I would only have four toughness worth of blockers, allowing Sam to attack for lethal on his turn through my two Wasteland Stranglers.

Obviously the likelihood of this happening is very low, but if I hold back the Tidehollow Sculler he would have to draw three Gitaxian Probes in a row instead of just two to attack for lethal. As slim as his chances are of drawing exactly the four cards he needs in the order he needs them, the odds of him drawing yet another Gitaxian Probe in addition are considerably lower.

The reason my play of attacking with Tidehollow Sculler was a mistake is because there is basically no combination of cards that can get him out of this situation if I untap with Path to Exile and Blessed Alliance in hand and four attackers on board. The two damage from the Tidehollow Sculler attack will basically never be relevant whereas opening the door to getting runner-runnered to lose a game I could have won might have meant the difference between a win and a loss.

The lesson to be learned from this example is that sometimes giving the opponent an extra draw step is worth it instead of presenting lethal for the following attack. In this case it would have been worth it since we have two removal spells in hand and an overwhelming board advantage. The only way we possibly lose this game is if we open the door to getting combo'd out. I think we had to take that risk by tapping out to kill the Street Wraith with the two Wasteland Stranglers since we had to start presenting a clock so as not to let him slowly get back into the game, but the additional Tidehollow Sculler attack to give us lethal the following turn came at a cost that was not worth paying. Fortunately I was not punished this time, but those are the kinds of spots in which entire matches can hinge, especially against opponents as formidable as Sam Black.

Concluding Remarks

Magic is a very complicated game and even the best players in the world will miss a few things and consequently give up a few edges over the course of a long tournament. Everyone has room for improvement and hopefully today's in-depth examples have provided you with some insight on how to tackle the game's most difficult challenges. Tight play wins close matches.

As a final note, wasn't the commentary for this Grand Prix amazing? I thought LSV and Gaby worked great together as did Huey and Marshall. Such high level commentary invites the type of dialogue presented in this article surrounding various complex board states. They were also very entertaining! I look forward to seeing more of this group of commentators in the future.

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life