But you're here reading a strategy article, so I don't need to convince you that there's skill in Magic. However, I probably need to haggle with you over the number of unwinnable games we should expect to play. I can't deny that some games are completely and utterly unwinnable. But I don't believe those games happen very often. Figuring out how to win games that look desperate is a daunting proposition. When faced with these games in high-pressure tournament situations, my brain will often effectively shut down. Nothing I can do looks like it will make a difference and lowkey panic starts to make clear thought difficult at the worst possible time.
Take a deep breath Jadine – it's time to do the VAB.
Card advantage. Tempo. Mana efficiency. These concepts and many others are the fundamentals of Magic. Mastering them allows you to deftly navigate games of Magic based on the cards in your hand and on your board and is the bare minimum required to achieve basic competency as a Magic player. The first step in going further and becoming a good player is learning to navigate games based on the cards you could draw but haven't yet. You've probably heard references to the idea of "playing to your outs" before. Whenever you throw away material to force through a small amount of damage in order to give yourself the chance to draw a burn spell and win a game you otherwise couldn't, you are playing to your outs. You've realized the cards you have aren't good enough to win the game – you need a burn spell to be on top of your library to win this game.
Most competitive players can play to a simple one-card out like a burn spell or a wrath effect. To win the truly desperate games, we need to do more than this. One card isn't going to be enough to turn the tables on our opponent this time. Maybe what we need isn't a card or even a series of cards but a mistake from our opponent. Whatever it is we need, the first step in getting it is knowing what it is. We need to be able to visualize a possible scenario where we somehow win this game. The word possible is key here – our visualization must include all the elements of the hopeless game we are currently in, but somehow twisted to our advantage.
Visualizing like this requires two things: imagination and experience. Without enough matchup knowledge to understand the general dynamics and potential directions of the match we find ourselves in, we will never be able to achieve a realistic visualization. Without imagination, we will never be able to tailor our general experience to the highly specific situation we find ourselves in. It sounds hard, and it is, but it is also critically important. Ask any Magic player you respect what separates them from the herd and you will hear some variation on the theme of having a plan. They can visualize a version of any game that they win, no matter how desperate.
The good news is that this is something you can learn how to do. Whenever you feel behind in a game, take a second and think about what a version of this game that you win looks like. If you're not practiced at this, don't feel bad if it's hard and the visualizations you come up with don't seem realistic. If you keep at it and always make sure you know what the game you want to play looks like, with practice your visualizations will become more and more realistic and easier and easier to see.
The key element in this example is our opponent's life total. Our plan is to surprise our opponent with a quick burst of damage from a single card and thus win a game we have no business winning. Working backwards from the play we have visualized as our out will help us figure out what the game must look like prior to us ending it. Here, our opponent must be at a life total less than Avacyn's power, have no flying blockers and not be able to cast an instant speed removal spell on the turn we deploy our Avacyn. Forget everything you know about card advantage and generalized good play – for the rest of this hopeless game, concepts like these matter not at all next to the conditions that must be met for you to steal the game.
Here's the first problem: our early game aggression has left our opponent on five life, not four. We either need to find an extra point of damage before pulling the trigger on our Avacyn or increase Avacyn's power on that final turn. With a stock Flash list either can actually work, as we can plan on making an emblem with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to make our Archangel Avacyn a five power creature. Next, we turn our attention on how to ensure our opponent has no flying blockers back on the last turn. Clearly we should prioritize trading with our opponent's air troops whenever possible and make them the targets of whatever removal spells we may cast. As far as beating an opponent's removal spell, there's only so much we can do. If our opponent is holding a Stasis Snare and is dead set on leaving mana up to cast it every turn, we probably can't win the game the way we are trying to. Forget Stasis Snare then and consider removal spells we can beat. Revolutionary Rebuff, for instance, is completely beatable if we wait until we have seven mana to go for our Avacyn.
Last but not least, in any hopeless looking game there is always a hidden additional condition you must keep in mind while planning how to best maneuver to a victory – you have to stay alive long enough to see your plans come to fruition. Staying alive for the sake of staying alive is something a lot of players default to when they find themselves in losing situations, but this is a very dangerous habit. Maximizing the number of draw steps you get before the game ends is important, but not at the cost of material you need to hold on to in order to squeeze out a victory. Our goal should always be to maximize our win percentage, not our draw steps. After all, there's no spot on a match slip to record draw steps taken.
Here's the real trick: you have to believe in yourself and the plays you're making. Very often, the plays you need to make to win a lost game are going to look weird. Worse than weird, sometimes they are going to look downright bad. If you are not confident in yourself and the reasoning behind what you're doing, you will find yourself faltering when it comes time to make a play that you know will make you look stupid to your opponent and any onlookers. The social element of this game we play cannot be overstated, and many of us Magic players have a burning desire to be respected by our peers. As such, it's pretty awkward that to earn that respect you have to disregard the desire to obtain it completely – just remember that worrying about what your opponents think about your game will only make it harder to make the plays you need to make.
But there's more to the believe step than some anime-esque "believe in yourself" rhetoric. Hopeless games are hopeless because with perfect play from our opponent, we can virtually never hope to win. Fortunately, not even our most skilled opponents are capable of perfection. By considering how the game looks to our opponent we can often manipulate their beliefs about the game to our advantage and get them to make the mistakes we need them to make. Often, our main tool in controlling what our opponents believe in these hopeless games is the order in which we do things. When playing from behind, many of the things that need to happen for us to win are scripted – we can't not do them. The power we have lies in what order we choose to do them in.
Consider the White-Blue Flash mirror example from earlier. Let's say your hand is Plains, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Archangel Avacyn with a meager board and six lands in play after already playing your land for this turn.
The best play here is to pass the turn without casting Gideon and to not even cast Avacyn in their end step. We previously identified Revolutionary Rebuff as a card we intend to play around, so we need to wait until next turn to cast the Avacyn. The Gideon needs to immediately ultimate the turn it comes into play as we don't want to risk losing the Gideon without making our much-needed emblem. Mana efficiency would tell us to cast it and emblem on the turn we have six lands and no other play.
But who cares about mana efficiency when we only intend to cast two more spells this game? Making the emblem in the main phase after we cast Avacyn disguises our plan and will make our opponent feel safer than they are. From their perspective, they are dead to only exactly Avacyn and Gideon out of our three-card hand – maybe they will convince themselves that they don't need to leave a blocker back to play around what they view as an unlikely two-card combination. Little do they know, that combo is exactly what we have been playing to all along.
Thanks for reading,