Play mistakes are an inescapable part of Magic: The Gathering. I make my fair share, and in tournament matches, streams, and video replays I have seen elite players make their share of blunders. One common cause of blunders is the lack of a mental flowchart of how to play your cards. I like to think of this as the “default” line of play, which the player can reject in favor of an alternative when circumstances warrant but absent specific information should be followed. In some cases this information can be conveyed in a logical tree that could be displayed as a flowchart, but often it will be a rule of thumb or insight into play-style that is conveyed in other ways.
Some Historical Examples
One common flowchart-like sequence of decisions is the mulligan process for Vintage Dredge. The logic is something like this: if you have Bazaar of Baghdad in hand, or have exactly 1 card in hand, keep. Otherwise, if you have Serum Powder, use Serum Powder. Otherwise, mulligan. An experienced player will identify scenarios where it is optimal to deviate from this sequence, but the basic logic is correct the overwhelming majority of the time.
Another way that default play information is encoded is in deck names. Decks will often be named after the key cards or combos, as in Living End, or Hexmage Depths (for Vampire Hexmage + Dark Depths). Decks will also frequently be named after the optimal style of play. The infamous Draw-Go blue control deck was named after the key line of play in most turns of the game. Deck names like “Combo Elves” give players key information about what the deck is most often seeking to accomplish.
Finally, Magic contains many rules of thumb that guide play decisions. “The first person to do X wins the mirror match” is a common type of advice in many formats. “In this draft format you should force black” is another common type of advice. In Vintage, “Cast Gush on your own main phase when you can play a land but have no lands in hand” is a rule of thumb that Stephen Menendian has shared many times in different venues and should be familiar to any Gush player. I want to explore these rules of thumb and how they come to be formed, so that you can make your own rules of thumb and understand when to deviate from them.
Two Methods for Building Rules of Thumb
There are only two ways that I am aware of to make new rules of thumb: predictive and reflective. The simpler method is the reflective method.
Reflective rules of thumb are the result of play experience and testing. When you make a play mistake, you should try to identify what the mistake was, and whether it was a judgement call or simply an unmitigated error. Judgement calls can often be mistakes, but they rarely yield rules of thumb. Pure errors, where one line of play is always at least as good as another, and sometimes better, tend to produce good default lines of play.
A simple example to illuminate what I mean: your opponent cast Tinker as the first spell of the turn with 3 lands untapped. You have a Pyroblast and a Flusterstorm in play, and know that if the Tinker resolves you will lose the match. For obvious reasons, you cast Pyroblast on the Tinker. Your opponent responds with a Mental Misstep on the Pyroblast. You cast Flusterstorm – but what to target? If you target the Mental Misstep, any answer to Pyroblast OR Flusterstorm will win the game for the opponent. If you target the Tinker, however, only an answer to Flusterstorm will win the game. Should you make the wrong decision and later reflect on your line of play, this would be a candidate to formulate a rule of thumb or default line of play. To wit: when you are fighting to stop an opponent’s threat on the stack, if you can address the threat rather than an intermediate answer, you give your opponent fewer options. It should be incorporated automatically into your play, and only if you are thinking of deviating from this default should it require considerable mental energy. To be fair, there are situations where it is ideal to deviate. Perhaps you need to resolve a Mana Drain to produce mana, or a Remand for its card draw effect. In that kind of case it may be better to protect your counterspell rather than simply stop the threat directly. Nonetheless, the default should be to stop the threat. Only in special circumstances – provided in this case by the additional effects associated with these particular spells – should you deviate from the default. When you analyze play mistakes, you should be attempting to discern whether a new or changed default line of play is warranted.
The other kind of default is more difficult to formulate. This is the predictive default – you realize that one option is strictly better than another by virtue of the cards involved, and therefore commit yourself to adopting the better option unless other factors influence your decision.
A good example of the predictive default is the sequencing of the Urza “Tron” set of lands: Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Mine, and Urza’s Power Plant. Mine and Power Plant are virtually identical, and other than choosing the one that completes your “set” or playing duplicates to avoid land destruction effects like Stone Rain, they are not subject to strong defaults or rules of thumb that differentiate between the two. However, Urza’s Tower is not fundamentally identical and as such there is a good default line of play to be aware of. The line is this: when playing out the Urza lands, your default should be to play Tower last. You can deviate from this default to play around land destruction, hand disruption, or other effects, but absent specific reasons Tower should be played last. The reason for this is that prior to completing the set, all the lands are identical, but after completing the set Tower taps for more mana than the others. As a result, the sequencing between the different Tron lands is only impactful when playing around opposing disruption or on the turn that the Tron set is completed. If you have to tap any Tron lands on the turn that you complete your Tron set, you will have more total mana if Tower is played last, completing the set and then tapping for 3, than if another land is played last to complete the set and only tap for 2 mana. This is predictive in that I have not had a specific play mistake that caused me to come to this conclusion, but in that I examined the Tron lands analytically and came to my conclusion. Hopefully the predictive default has saved me from the kind of play mistakes that would cause this to be a reflective default.
Some Default Lines for Vintage Dredge
One default sequencing decision that often confuses new players is the insistence on using Bazaar of Baghdad to dredge in the upkeep rather than in the main phase or some other part of the turn. The main reason for this is to move discard effects earlier in the turn sequence, and therefore have the opportunity to re-use strong Dredgers multiple times in a turn, or to find fodder for Ichorid to remove. With a Golgari Grave-Troll in the graveyard, an upkeep dredge allows the player to dredge the Troll, discard it to Bazaar’s ability, and then dredge the same Troll again in the draw step. If the player simply dredges the Troll in the draw step, the Troll will be stranded in hand until after another discard and cannot be re-used as quickly. While you will eventually be forced to take an actual draw if you don’t hit a third card with the Dredge mechanic, the upkeep dredge allows you to get deeper into your deck before that event and gives you better odds of avoid that terrible fate. There are good reasons you might deviate from this default, such as if every card in your hand is matchup-relevant disruption and you want to dredge a card into hand before taking additional discards. Nonetheless, it is a default for good reason and promotes successful play.
Cabal Therapy has a number of default lines of play that promote strategic success. One is: if you can’t imagine what your opponent could possibly have that is good enough to beat you, name Ravenous Trap. I name Ravenous Trap all the time, probably averaging more than once per event. I almost never hit against Trap, but I almost never lose to it either. Because you can return Ichorid or Bloodghast without dredging, and Ravenous Trap must remain in hand until its entire effect is used, Cabal Therapy is uniquely strong against this card. When I am way ahead in a match I almost always play around Ravenous Trap. Another default, which will be more familiar to dredge players, is that if you intend to win the same turn as a Therapy you should name Force of Will. Force of Will is frequently the only card besides Ravenous Trap that could buy the opposing player additional time (by countering Dread Return), and therefore a frequent target. I think the appropriate default is to prioritize naming Ravenous Trap when you are very far ahead, and only name Force of Will when you need to end the game that turn or you otherwise cannot afford to play around Trap. This same line of reasoning can be extended further, naming cards like Time Walk and Yawgmoth’s Will in some situations, and even naming the humble Preordain in some cases. Ultimately, the player must understand the matchup and the situation to name intelligently with a blind Cabal Therapy. The default mentality will only go so far, but it will help the player understand what the best options commonly are.
With Pitch Dredge in particular, a very important kind of default has changed in my own mind over time. While I have been playing a deck that almost exactly resembles what I was playing two years ago, this default has drastically changed how the deck plays within each match. I am referring to sideboarding strategy. When I first started playing Pitch Dredge in June 2014, there was virtually no Swords to Plowshares seeing play, and the format contained relatively little Wasteland and Strip Mine, which were primarily confined to Mishra’s Workshop MUD decks. Monastery Mentor had not been printed, and blue-white decks were a rarity. The format was also generally slower than it is at present, and Library of Alexandria was a much stronger play both pre- and post-board.
In this environment, I frequently cut the entire graveyard plan (or as much as I could) in favor of the Dark Depths combos. In the current environment, I still value the Dark Depths plan highly and believe it is somewhat better than a hate destruction sideboard, but I recognize that there have been drastic changes in the format. Decks that previously had little ability to defeat the Dark Depths plan, like UR Delver and Fenton Oath, have all but vanished, and in their stead have risen a wide range of decks that have good answers to this powerful combo. My default has changed from a full transformation into a hybrid. In virtually every matchup, I believe the best plan is to incorporate some or all of the sideboard cards as well as a substantial ability to win via the Dredge mechanic. This hybridization is especially threatening for decks that lack library manipulation. It is difficult for an opponent to present answers to the graveyard and the Dark Depths combo in the same game, and hybridization stretches the reactive capacity of even a well-positioned, well-prepared opponent. It was a slow process for me to realize that the hybrid plan is generally superior to a complete transformation in the present environment, which combined both reflection on piloting mistakes, as well as an analytical understanding of the format. The reward has been that even in a format full of answers to graveyards, lands, and large creatures, I maintain a successful win-rate. A well-tuned default, never immune from reflection but nonetheless guiding your play, can help you achieve success as well.
Until next time, may your default help you make the best play.