You won the die roll. Do you play first or draw first?

For most people the default is to always click 'play first' without giving the matter much thought. While this is certainly the safer of the two defaults to have, there are times when your chances of winning are higher if you choose to draw first.

Today I will show you how to identify when it is correct to draw first. I will also address some common scenarios in which players incorrectly choose to draw first.

Let's start with the times it is correct to draw first.

1. When you (or your opponent) want eight cards in hand on turn one

There have been a handful of decks in Magic history that wanted to F6 their first turn and move straight to the discard step. Old School Reanimator strategies would often employ this strategy in order to get a large creature into the graveyard before spending the following turn casting Reanimate on it. The reasoning was that using the eight-card/max hand size as a natural discard outlet was more valuable than taking their first turn.

Some decks built around the dredge mechanic also benefit from being on the draw for the same reason. Discarding Golgari Grave-Troll is a fine plan for a manaless dredge deck. It also gives the deck one more chance to hit Lion's Eye Diamond for the optimal first turn play, but it chooses to draw first primarily to give itself a strong default plan of moving straight to the end step to get the dredging going.

The old UB Nether-Go mirror matches would also advantage the player on the draw because neither player had a good answer to an opposing Nether Spirit, the deck's only win condition, and so moving straight to the end step to get it into your graveyard was the best possible opening for the matchup (so you could return it to the battlefield on your next turn).

If you're playing a deck that contains Library of Alexandria, whether a Cube Draft or a Vintage deck, you likely only have one copy and hence it is probably not correct to draw first. But it does tip the scale a little closer to draw first. If you have other reasons to do so, they might collectively make it correct.

2. When you gain an advantage from the opponent acting first

Some cards are especially well-suited to react to what the opponent does. If your deck contains enough of those cards or is based around one of them, it is often correct to draw first.

Gemstone Caverns is the most straightforward example of a card that is better on the draw. If it's in your opening hand on the draw, then you essentially got to play first by putting it into play with a luck counter on it. Oftentimes a deck that plays the Cavern, however, does so because it highly values tempo, in which case it's still often correct to play first despite having Caverns in your deck. They are just there to make it only a little worse to be on the draw.

Some cards that actually want you to be on the draw if they're in your deck include: Land Tax, Tithe, Innocent Blood, Pox, and Small Pox. With the first two, they don't get turned on until the opponent has more lands in play than you do. So they are an ideal first turn play when on the draw and little more than an awkward clunky opening when on the play. Innocent Blood, Small Pox, and Pox are similar in that they want the opponent to commit cards to the board in order to gain maximum value out of their effect. If you are a deck built around a strategy involving one of these five cards (or something similarly reactive), you likely want to draw first.

3. Aggro mirrors when removal is cheap

This can be true in Limited or in Constructed. If you have cheap and efficient removal spells for the opponent's threats, then the cost of being on the draw is very small. The benefit is only an extra card, which is not terribly significant, but in this case it is greater than the risk of getting out-tempo'd. For instance, let's say you and your opponent each have a deck full of Lightning Bolts, Shocks, Swords to Plowshares, and Lightning Helixes and all the threats die to any of these removal spells. The chance of gaining a tempo advantage from playing first is very small since you are each going to be killing each other's threats on the spot. So the game will most likely come down to a late game attrition fight in which case having the extra card will be of more benefit than merely being the first one to have their creature killed.

Contrast this scenario with some of the aggro decks in current standard. If the removal spells in a Monoblack Aggro mirror are Hero's Downfall and Bile Blight while the threats mostly cost one mana (Gnarled Scarhide, Tormented Hero, and Bloodsoaked Champion), then being the reactive player comes at a significant cost. Since the threats are cheaper than the removal spells, you will have to resort to blocking to Stave Off an opposing offense, at which point a removal spell on your potential blocker can bury you into a pretty big tempo hole. You would much rather be the aggressor in such a matchup.

4. When the match revolves around finding a key card

Some matchups are all about finding certain key cards. Caleb Durward offered a good example of this. In a five-color zoo mirror post-board you each have tons of removal spells that could easily answer the opposing threats, including Lightning Helix which would incidentally keep you well out of burn range. The games would come down to who could find Geist of Saint Traft or Thrun, the Last Troll. These hexproof threats could not be answered by anything the opponent has and whoever could find one of these two cards first would take over the game. In this case being on the draw is better because it gets you one card closer to finding the only card that matters in the matchup. This same principle can be used in other matchups as well. For instance, some combo matchups are filled with disruption and come down to who can re-find their combo first, at which point the extra card could be worth more than the tempo of playing first.

5. In slow Limited formats

From 1996 to 2001 it was generally correct to draw first in Sealed deck. Mirage, Tempest, Mercadian Masques, and Invasion blocks each had fairly slow and weak creatures and also had cheap and efficient removal spells. You could draft a faster deck that would be better off on the play, but in Sealed it was the good player's "secret" to start on the draw. This was especially true in Invasion Block where, in addition to the abovementioned factors, you also had multicolor decks with bad mana. Hence just about every sign pointed to drawing first in that format, even in draft!

M14 was the closest set in recent memory to incentivize drawing first, mostly because the cheap creatures quickly got outclassed by midrange creatures and were subsequently not even worth including in your deck a lot of the time. It was not uncommon for a deck to play no two-drops and just start the game on the third turn. Games would usually come down to Opportunity drawing four cards or one player finding their Titan first. If the format is such that the games go long and the risk of getting punished by early pressure is minimal, it is usually correct to draw first.

In some cases, even if the format is not slow, your deck has some holes that are better patched on the draw. For instance, let's say you draft a four-color monstrosity with bad mana but lots of powerful cards that allow you to catch back up such as Pyroclasm, Nyx-Fleece Ram, and Day of Judgment. If your deck is able to get to the long game and also win the long game but has shaky mana, choosing to draw first will improve your chances of winning.

The above five situations are not meant to be exhaustive but should give you some things to look out for concerning when to draw first. Now let's consider some common misconceptions so you don't make an incorrect decision to draw first.


Misconceptions

1. Control / Midrange mirrors

The reasoning is that games go long and come down to an attrition fight in which whoever has the final trump will win the match. This is flawed reasoning, given the cards in control and midrange decks these days.

In a control matchup each player is playing cards like Sign in Blood or Divination, cards that are great on the play but much worse on the draw since you would have eight cards in hand and have to discard if you played it as your first spell. Control decks also play planeswalkers nowadays and getting to activate your planeswalker first will often generate a bigger advantage than the extra draw step generates.

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The situation is similar for midranges matches. Getting your Courser of Kruphix (or planeswalker) on the battlefield first basically means you are going to Recoup that first draw step pretty quickly and the initiative gained by being on the play will be more important than the extra card from being on the draw.

Yes, the matchups go long and come down to an attrition fight, but initiative can Recoup the card disadvantage much more easily than the card advantage can Recoup initiative.

2. Sealed Deck

Many of the more experienced players who played back in the late 1990s remember the "secret" that drawing first was so much better in sealed deck than playing first and so they continue to employ it today despite the factors no longer being present that made drawing first correct.

Back in the 90s the creatures were slow, the removal was cheap and efficient, and the mana was often bad. Today mostly the opposite is true and hence the new "secret" ought to be that drawing first is an old player's trap. Just as in the beginning creatures were embarrassing compared to the removal and card draw spells, today the opposite is true and hence it is important to re-evaluate your decision to draw first given the radically different context.

3. Against an inferior opponent

You sit down across from your prerelease opponent and they tell you this is their first Magic tournament. You think to yourself "the only way I lose is if I get severely mana screwed." Based on this logic, you choose to draw first.

Five turns later you find yourself buried under an efficient curve of Elvish Mystic into Centaur Courser into Obstinate Baloth into Scaled Wurm. You have some creatures and removal spells in hand but you just don't have enough time to deploy them quickly enough. The end result is, by choosing to draw first, you lost to someone you would have beaten had you chosen to play first.

Magic has variance. The best player in the world sometimes loses to a beginner. Don't let your pride make you short-sighted. Sure, by drawing first you lessen the chance of losing to mana problems, but you increase your chances of losing to getting out-tempo'd. If it's correct to play first against an experienced player then it's also correct to play first against a new player.

4. When you need an edge in a terrible matchup

Sometimes you are matched up against a much better player with a more powerful deck and the matchup is abysmal. You're maybe 20% to win at best. You figure your best chance to win is for the opponent mulligan a bunch and to get mana screwed, so you choose to draw first in order to increase the likelihood that this dream scenario takes place. This is faulty logic.

You might be 20% to win the matchup, but 30% when on the play and only 10% when on the draw. Is the opponent getting mana screwed really the best game plan to bank on? Usually not. If you curve out with the right amount of pressure and disruption, you can probably beat their average draw. The matchup is already tough, so don't handicap yourself even further by turning a 30% matchup into a 10% matchup. You won the die roll – that was step one; don't throw that advantage away by drawing first!

5. If your opponent chose to draw first in a previous game

Oftentimes, especially in Sealed deck, people are unsure about whether they should play first or draw first. They remember how it used to always be correct to draw first, yet they have heard that in recent formats it's more often correct to play first but not always.

Now let's say your deck is not especially aggressive, so you can see either way potentially being correct. The opponent then wins the die roll and chooses to draw first. Later in the match you are confronted with the decision to play or draw. Which do you choose?

If you answered "draw first" then you made a mistake. Even if you're correct, you made a mistake by basing your decision on the wrong factor. What you want to keep an eye out for during the game is why the opponent chose to draw first. Are they five colors with shaky mana? If so, then choose to put them on the play for that reason. Are they, in contrast, a two-color aggro deck? If so, why in the world did you choose to draw first against them? The opponent made a mistake by choosing to draw first and instead of capitalizing on it you made the same mistake right back. Use the information in this article to your advantage. Punish them for making a poor decision. Let them draw first all three games with their two-color aggro deck. That will maximize your chances of beating them.


Conclusions

Although I gave five scenarios in which it is correct to draw first and five where it is incorrect to draw first, do not make the mistake of thinking it is about 50/50 whether to play or draw. It is in fact correct to play first much more often than it is to draw first. The scenarios mentioned occur probably less than 20% of the time. Furthermore, if you choose to play first when it was actually correct to draw first, you're usually only giving up a small amount of value. On the other hand, if you choose to draw first when it was correct to play first, then you likely gave up a lot of value. So all things considered, play first should be your default. Only choose to draw first when it is clear to you that doing so is advantageous.

Hopefully the discussion in the first half of today's article helps you to identify those situations when it is correct to draw first, and likewise the second half of the article keeps you from drawing first when it is better to play first.

I will leave you with the two most popular responses to our question:

When is it correct to draw first?

@PVDDR @Nacatls4Life Pretty sure you want to draw only in spots where you want to show disrespect for your opponent.

— Andrew Cuneo (@AndrewCuneo) December 11, 2014

Thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion on Facebook and on Twitter, especially Paulo Vitor Dama da Rosa for his keen insight!

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter