To Rift or not to Rift, that is the question.
Are you watching Game Knights?
Game Knights is a YouTube series hosted by Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai. Josh and Jimmy came to prominence in the Magic community for their podcasting series, the Command Zone. Both are avid Commander players who turned their regular Commander podcast into the most popular Commander podcast out there.
Just over a year ago, they started the YouTube series. Game Knights features a game or two of Magic, mostly Commander games, with spectacular graphics and editing. The episodes tend to run about 40 minutes and are simply the best Magic content available. Even if you don't play Commander, you should be watching Game Knights!
On the most recent episode of Game Knights, Josh and Jimmy are playing a Commander game with Mel and Craig. Josh is presented with an interesting choice. At about the 20 minute mark of the episode, the game had reached a point where Josh had ten 11/11 Vampire Tokens with lifelink, and his opponents had no blockers. One of his opponents, Mel, had Crawlspace on the battlefield, but there were no other relevant permanents. Each of his opponents had between 25 and 30 life. Right before Josh's turn, Jimmy counted off the mana needed to cast Cyclonic Rift, overloaded, then passed the turn.
What should Josh do?
To know what Josh should do, you need to know the relevant considerations.
Josh's deck. Josh was running a new Elenda, the Dusk Rose deck.
He has described it as a deck that doesn't have a lot of resilience. Once you commit to exploding on the battlefield, you are committing. For the deck to truly go off, he needs to put Elenda in the graveyard, which means he then needs to find a way to get her out to do it again. He didn't have that in hand when he put Elenda into the graveyard, so if this play doesn't work, it will be a while before he would be ready to try again.
The Cyclonic Rift. Jimmy was suggesting he had it, but that was his only option. If Josh attacked him and he didn't have it, he was dead. He knew that. His only play was to suggest that he had it in the hopes that Josh would not attack him. If he did have it, he wanted it to be clear to Josh that he had it. It would be in his best interest to have Josh eliminate or at least practically eliminate the opponents. He could then cast Cyclonic Rift to save himself and leave Josh wide open. His deck would recover faster than Josh's deck and give him a better chance at the win.
I've heard several people respond with all sorts of options, so I thought I would go through a few.
Attack no one. This wasn't a popular option and for good reason. Giving your opponents another turn to find an answer to your attack is foolish at best. If Josh chose not to attack at all because Jimmy might have a Cyclonic Rift, then he would be unlikely to ever attack, since there is always some threat that may weaken your position.
Attack just Craig and Mel. Many people refer to this as the safe play. The expectation is that Jimmy would be less likely to use the Cyclonic Rift if he was not dying, This means that Josh could swing with everything at Craig and Mel. It would leave Mel at a very low life total, Craig would be eliminated and Josh would gain up to 100 life, depending on how many creatures he decided to use in the attack.
Jimmy may decide not to use the Cyclonic Rift until the next turn, meaning that he would have wasted the mana. He could decide to use the mana at the end of Josh's turn to eliminate Josh's tokens, but Josh would have gained a lot of life, giving him time to draw more cards and hopefully find a solution before Jimmy can kill him.
I appreciate the value of 100 life, but there are a couple of things to consider. This option assumes Jimmy has Cyclonic Rift. If Jimmy doesn't have the Rift, then there is no reason not to attack him, since you can eliminate him. If you are assuming he has Cyclonic Rift, you should also assume he'll use it at the time that makes the most sense for him. That means he either would be okay with Josh gaining 100 life, or he would use the Rift before Josh could gain the life. If 100 life is something Jimmy couldn't handle, he would have cast the Rift before Josh could deal the damage, no matter who he was swinging at.
The other concern with this option is that it would mean that Josh would be doing a lot of work for Jimmy, all while Jimmy holds the Rift and has to do nothing. Attacking just the two players means that Jimmy has far less work to do to win the game. Josh should be trying to win the game, not make it easy for Jimmy to win the game.
Attack everyone. Attacking everyone means the game is over unless Jimmy has the Rift. While Mel would survive, she would be on a very low life total and Josh would be well over 100 life with ten 11/11 creature tokens. So what are the odds that Jimmy has the Rift? He had drawn several cards over the course of the game, but I don't think he had seen half of his deck yet. This means the odds of actually having the Rift was less than 50%.
Those who don't like this option will argue that this means that there is a good chance that Jimmy has the Rift! If the odds are that good, then why attack Jimmy? It will take away any chance of gaining the life needed to win the game! Josh's opportunity to eliminate two opponents will be gone! Having 10 massive creature tokens will mean nothing since they will be completely wasted.
In spite of all this, Josh still attacked everyone. Jimmy did have the Cyclonic Rift. Jimmy won the game.
Josh still made the correct choice.
Half the time, Jimmy isn't even going to have the Rift. Half of the time, the end result is that you win the game. Even if the other half of the time Josh is guaranteed to lose, getting the win half of the time is a pretty good incentive. In this scenario, Josh isn't guaranteed to lose if he attacks everyone and Jimmy has the Rift. The odds are against him to win, but they aren't zero. Not attacking doesn't necessarily improve or worsen his odds appreciably so going for the win makes sense.
However, the real reason Josh's choice makes sense isn't the 50% chance – it is something I mentioned early but needs elaboration: the importance of eliminating Jimmy's choice. Not attacking Jimmy makes Jimmy's Cyclonic Rift even more powerful. Consider a slightly different scenario. If I have an untapped Nevinyrral's Disk on the battlefield, what should you do? If no one attacks me, I have no reason to use the Disk, so your board state will stay. You can just attack others and accumulate cards, preparing for the moment when I use the Disk.
However, I'm doing the same thing, and I also know when I'm going to use the Disk. While I will use it if you attack me, I may or may not use it if you don't. I'm going to watch the board and determine when it is best for me to activate. Since you don't know what cards I'm holding in my hand, you can't know when I'm going to activate the Disk, so you can't know if you should develop your battlefield, attack other opponents or just sit and draw cards. You gave me the choice and I'm going to choose the best option. Given all that, it makes sense that your default choice should be to attack me immediately. There are certainly times when not attacking makes sense, but the default has to be the choice that limits the effectiveness of the Disk.
This logic applies to Josh's situation. Not attacking Jimmy means that Jimmy gets to play the Rift when it suits him the best. He can use it right away if he doesn't like the idea of Josh gaining all the life, or he can wait if he thinks Josh with a bunch of life and two dead opponents is better. You can't give your opponents these kinds of choices. We work out the fastest way to kill an opponent because we don't want them to draw more cards and get more options. We should be playing the same way as well.
In the end, Jimmy won the game, but it wasn't won because of Josh's choice, it was won in spite of Josh's choice. If Jimmy doesn't have the Rift, Josh wins. If he does, you take away the choice. Attacking Jimmy is the correct play, whether he has the Cyclonic Rift or not.