Four Lessons I Wish I Learned Years Earlier

Everything we absorb has to hit us at the right time in order to have a real impact, whether it’s an album that seems like shit until your fourth listen or a sick play that we don’t quite understand until we see it in the right context. A lot of these lessons might seem super obvious, but I remember a time when they weren’t that clear to me, and I wish I had gotten wind of them earlier.

I still see a lot of players making these mistakes, and in my worst moments, I still make them too. That said, they’re important things to learn and remember, whether you’re an endboss or an ambitious pawn.

If you can’t play around it, don’t play around it. (AKA, sometimes you have to die for your dragon)

Man, realizing that there was a time I didn’t do this is kind of embarrassing.

The day I learned this lesson was at a 4-man cube draft in my apartment in Ames. I’m pretty sure the other three people were Matt Hansen, Scott Bielick, and Nick Crumpton. During one of our games, I didn’t want to attack with one of my guys because I was dead to a swing back if my opponent had a removal spell. Matt pointed out to me that my opponent was mono-red, and since I were at two life, if they had a removal spell we were dead no matter what! Of course!

There are a lot of situations where you just can’t win no matter what you do if your opponent hits a bonfire, or has an abrupt decay, or a mind control for your dragon, or one of any other thousand things. If you can’t beat those cards, just erase them from the equation and make your game plan into killing them before they hit. Of course, if there is a game plan that beats something you think they might have, it’s almost always the right choice, but we’ll get to that much later.

Dying for your dragon is the same thing. Lets say you have a counterspell in hand, and your opponent is trying to kill your dragon (choose your favorite dragon, they all work). In your mind, you don’t want to counter the removal spell because your opponent might have a big threat in hand. Unfortunately, your deck is short on win conditions, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time digging for another way to win. If you can’t reasonably win the game without that dragon, counter the spell! That dragon might be your only hope of killing them, so sometimes you have to take a chance and accept that you might have to die to protect him. He’d do it for you.

Just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it.

HOLY CRAP do I see this one a lot from inexperienced players.

Unsummon your opponent’s guy on turn two to save a little damage. Seven turns later your best threat is locked under a pacifism and you just can’t figure out how you lost the game. This one is especially popular with newer players, who just love slamming spells (and really, who can blame them? Doing stuff is the best!) and haven’t quite figured out that, just like in real life, long-term gains are much more impactful than short-term.

I learned this one by watching one of the best matches of all time. The finals of Pro Tour Kyoto in 2009. LSV vs. Nassif. This match has about a hundred sweet plays, some of which pan out over dozens of turns with incredible setups and amazing bluffs. And all of it was way over my head when I watched it on the live stream.

What I did catch was something much simpler. There’s a turn when LSV attacks with a few tokens. Nassif has a Volcanic Fallout in hand, but he immediately passes priority, taking a couple of damage. I was so confused. . . why would Nassif not just kill his team and take nothing from the creatures? Post-combat, LSV makes a few more tokens and Nassif sweeps up his entire army, effectively negating LSV’s entire turn for just a few points of life.

My mind was blown. Nassif knew that something else was coming, but how did he know this?

It was easy – something else is ALWAYS coming! Instead of just spending his removal spell because it was convenient, he planned ahead, kept his options open, and pulled the trigger when it was a huge blowout instead of a one-for-one trade.

We know that life is a resource, and that cards are a resource, but having options is also a resource. When Nassif casts that Fallout, that’s it. He never has the option to cast it again. When he doesn’t cast it, he enters another phase where he once again has the option. The longer he keeps it, the more options he will have.

Of course, it’s not always right to just keep your cards forever. You should probably bolt the turn one llanowar elves, and you should probably tragic slip that champion of the parish, but that’s because we can anticipate how those games will play out, and we know that against the most aggressive decks, those life points have a much bigger impact on the amount of options we have. When we have zero life, we also have zero options.

Don’t assume your opponent is an idiot until you have proof.

I used to do this all the time. I’d just look at the board and see a play that was really sick if my opponent messed up. Recognizing when this will work is an important skill, but it’s not something you should just assume will happen. Nowadays I just do my best to play as though my opponent will make the right moves until I have some proof that they won’t.

Maybe they’ve forgotten about a piece of equipment that’s been shoved off to the side of the table, or maybe we’ve seen that they’re willing to chump block on turn two just to save two life. Either way, you need to know exactly how their mind works before you start playing mind games.

Once that happens you can go all-in, but constantly making the second-best play because it’s better if your opponent is worse than you is a good way to prove that they’re not.

I don’t think there was a single moment when I learned not to make that mistake, but it was something that I just had to pick up after dozens of failures.

If you think your opponent might have a card, there’s a good chance that they do.

It’s mid-game and you’re ready to move to blocks. In the back of your head, you wonder what’s going to happen if they have a Ghor Clan Rampager. Nah, there’s no way they have that, you think, and make a block that puts you far behind if they’re lucky enough to have one in hand.

Of course, they do have it. They’re so lucky. Every time you think they might have it, they do.

Well guess what? The reason you think they might have it is because they’re playing in a way that telegraphs the card. Even though you may not be actively noticing it, you’re picking up on context clues that tell you what cards are likely in their hand. If you suddenly think “oh no, what if he has it?” it’s likely because he’s been setting it up for a while now and you’ve finally assembled enough evidence to put the puzzle together.

If a card pops into your head, start thinking back to the last few turns. Was there a better time than now that they could have used it? If not, it’s time to start playing around it if you haven’t done so already.

I don’t remember exactly what the moment was that I learned this one, but i’m pretty sure I got it from Scheel, who is so good at knowing what’s on the next page of your book because he was always paying attention throughout the last chapter.

That’s it for now!

(I put a video link in my first post, and I think i’m going to keep doing it. Here’s what I’m listening to today: )


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