In Development – Ya Gotta Have a Plan

Years ago, someone posted a “generic tournament report” to one of the Magic-related Usenet groups. This was during the Neolithic era of early Magic, when tournament reports were, themselves, a nascent art. Although I was unable to turn up the original, it went something like this:

I hung out with my friends until 4am, and then remembered I had to be in Charlotte the next day for the tournament. So I crashed for an hour, then when I got up I realized I didn’t have a deck, so I had to skip breakfast and call my friend Joe to see if he had the right cards. We were already half an hour late, so we gunned it down the freeway and just barely made it in under the wire.

It went on from there. The point of the satire was that it really did feel like every single tournament report highlighted the utter unpreparedness of the author for the tournament they were attending.

The Internet has changed this equation a great deal, of course. I can find last week’s top decks and new tech from MTGO and a host of major tournaments just by checking a couple bookmarks (or my RSS reader, which is how I handle it. I can even order the cards I need online and have them waiting for me at the store when I show up to game.

Regardless, I can also still poke around for a little bit and find someone, somewhere, telling the story of how they had to speed to the tournament, or didn’t know a matchup, or ended up having to guess about how to play a game and hope that they “got there.”

We hate planning. Books like Koch’s The 80/20 Principle and McConnell’s Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art emphasize how reliably we fail to do the kind of planning we ought to do to ensure success. We hate planning because it feels like doing nothing, even though in reality, it’s often the most important thing we can do to contribute to our ability to succeed.

Today, I’m going to discuss the concept of planning. I’ll offer a few examples of planning ahead of the game and planning during the game, as well as suggesting a surprisingly simple exercise in planning that may help you shore up this part of your game without wanting to claw your eyes out.

The concept of planning

“You gotta have a plan” is not the most actionable advice in the world. I’ve jokingly used the construction “Bloodbraid, Vengevine, profit” to describe the generic game plan for Naya Shaman and other Vengevine decks. Is that a plan?

Not really.

So what is a plan, and what’s the best path to making one?

Something you can say out loud

I have a super-simple definition of a plan:

That probably seemed totally obvious until you got to the last part of the sentence, so let’s take that definition apart in reverse.

I emphasize the ability to say your plan out loud because this protects you against places where you’ve glossed over gigantic, horrible flaws in your plan. There’s a well-known phenomenon when humans read (for example) where we plug in words that are missing and edit out mistakes, experiencing what we think should be there instead of what is there. We do the same thing in envisioning matchups, gliding blithely past gigantic flaws that we’d stumble on if we had to hear ourselves say them out loud.

Or write them down. I’m not picky.

If you’re playing aggro and you find yourself writing this:

As long as they don’t hit a Wall of Omens, the UW Control matchup is fine.

…then being forced to stare at that might give you a little pause, and make you rethink your plan. I actually heard a similar statement from a player at a recent ChannelFireball 1K, where they insisted that the UW Control could contain [card]Vengevine[/card]s just fine with Path. We asked him how many he had in his deck.



So the first part of this definition involves making your plan visible to yourself, one way or another, so your own BS detector can have a go at it.

The second part, “step by step,” means that the single sentence I wrote above isn’t actually a plan. It’s just part of a plan. A real plan needs to have steps because that’s how you learn whether the plan you’re proposing is feasible or not. If I just told you “Eggs, milk, flour, sugar, pancakes!” you might, reasonably enough, have some questions for me about things like skillets, heat, and cooking times.

It’s this “step by step” aspect of having a plan that steers us away from detrimental shortcuts like “EOTFOFYL?” and about 90% of sentences that include the phrase “get there.” It also keep us from being the guy who brings his [card]Aluren[/card] deck to the next Legacy tournament only to have his opponent say, “Sure, play it out” whereupon he discovers he doesn’t actually know how to combo off properly.

Kinds of planning

“Planning” covers a lot of ground.

Playtesting and deck selection are obviously each a kind of planning. They naturally come in ahead of the match, and ideally ahead of the tournament.

Mulligans are a kind of planning, too. Learning how to mulligan properly with a deck is folded into playtesting, but the act of choosing whether to mulligan or not during your match is also a kind of planning.

If we check in with the now-defunct Alara-Zendikar Standard environment, we see the cascade mechanic, which is an excellent example of something that is seemingly tremendously random but which is intrinsically all about planning.

All of these involve a step-by-step explanation of your path to a goal. Thus, planning.

Planning in Action

There are areas where “having a plan” is more intuitive, and those where it’s less so. We’ll tackle them in that order here, starting with deck design and selection, and moving on through matchups and into planning on the fly.

Deck design and selection

Clearly, picking a deck involves planning – unless your pal ships you one on the day of the tournament because you had no idea what to play.

The first article I wrote here introduced the idea of having a “high concept” for your deck. I won’t dwell on it too long here, but essentially it means having a movie-ad-style one-sentence explanation for how your deck wins.

“Win via attrition by playing a continuous stream of high-value, card-advantage-generating creatures and spells” might describe Jund, for example.

This high concept is a distillation of your deck’s plan. A more extensive understanding of it will, naturally, involve more words.

“Nearly every card in my Jund deck is intrinsically a two-for-one. The cards that are not two-for-ones are highly efficient, being more powerful than most other competing cards with the same CMC. The deck typically wins games by casting the same number of spells as the opponent’s deck, but each spell is either worth multiple spells or supplies more raw offensive or removal power than the opponent’s equivalent spells. Over the course of five to eight turns, this means the Jund deck will pull ahead in an attrition war and eventually develop either an overwhelming board position or have dealt enough damage to make the opponent vulnerable to the reach cards in the deck.”

You should at least be able to bust out a description like that, which leaves no doubt about how your deck wins games, generally. Of course, it goes beyond that.

Figuring out your matchups

I like this Gindy example because it highlights something that you’d notice by doing this next step.

In planning for a matchup, it can be helpful to take a step beyond the high concept and summary and go actually write down a narrative, “it could happen like this” play-by-play of what the game might look like against a specific opponent.

In Gindy’s case, that narrative might go something like, “Turn one, cast Llanowar Elves. Turn two, cast a 0/1 Tarmogoyf. Turn three…hm. Goyf isn’t getting bigger, is it?”

Zvi recognized that the Reveillark deck wouldn’t really put anything much into the graveyard until that fateful turn when it put everything into the graveyard, and this meant that Tarmogoyf would be tiny right up until it didn’t matter anymore.

In developing an actual plan for a given matchup, we don’t want to stop at raw ideas like, “Card X is good against deck Y.” This kind of thinking is what leads us to put in a few copies of Manabarbs and then wonder what the heck is going on as Valakut kills us anyway.

Instead, it’s better to walk through a narrative of your game plan, step-by-step. Obviously, playtesting covers this ground, but if we’re in the deck construction stage, this helps rule out a lot of bad ideas before we ever burn time shuffling cards.

Continuing our Jund example from above, we might say:

“Turn one – play a tapped Savage Lands.”

“Opponent’s turn one – play a tapped Sejiri Refuge.”

“Turn two – play an untapped Swamp and cast Putrid Leech.”

“Opponent’s turn two – play an untapped Island.”

“Turn three – attack with Leech. If Leech eats a Celestial Purge, consider hitting opponent with Blightning.”

That’s one potential game narrative for a Jund versus UW Control game. The point is not to run every look-forward scenario like some crazy chess computer. Instead, the idea is that we want to catch those obviously flawed plans that will leave us attacking for 4 twice with Leech while our opponent combos us out with Pyromancer Ascension.

…and, as always, it alerts us to those times when we genuinely don’t understand how our deck works.

This kind of step-by-step narrative is fertile ground for the “no plan survives” fallacy. You’ll hear this if you start talking “plans” at tournaments. It takes the famous von Moltke quote that we paraphrase as “no plan survives contact with the enemy” and runs with it as an excuse for not planning. Naturally, von Moltke wasn’t telling people to forget about planning – he just meant to caution his peers in the military that sometimes when you get involved in the Balkans, you accidentally start World War I.

Planning is about risks and mitigations. You walk through the step-by-step plan because it lets you rule out bad or broken plans. This leaves you with plans that have some basic structural integrity. Although these plans won’t remain pristine on contact with your opponent, they also won’t implode horribly, which is the point.

Consider that cascade tree again. If you’ve given up on planning, it’s “the cascade lottery.” But if you’re on top of your plan, then you know that in its main deck configuration, you’re 78% likely to hit something that impacts the board, 34% likely to hit removal, and 22% likely to hit a [card]Blightning[/card].

You also know that by manipulating your cascade targets, you can alter these likelihoods, and even though you don’t know what the exact result will be, you can tune it so it is highly likely to fit your needs.

Planning on the fly

The corollary to von Moltke’s “no plan survives” quote is that you’re going to have to revise the plan once you’re actually playing the game.

By “revise the plan” we don’t mean “start with your plan, and then react to whatever happens once things change.” Instead, revising a plan means actually taking a bit of a time out to reconsider, run a quick “step-by-step” in your head, and then plug yourself back into the game.

You may recognize “playing to your outs” as a subset of “planning on the fly.” On that note, here’s one of my favorite standout examples of coming up with a new game plan based on a change in circumstances:

Interestingly enough, this finals match from PT Yokohoma 2007 also features a glaring example of sticking to a plan despite a change in circumstance:

In the first example, Wafo-Tapa is placed into a position from which most players would probably scoop – BDM says that he would. Wafo-Tapa, however, takes a brief mental time out, reconsiders the situation, and generates a new plan that lets him have one untap step, during which me might be able to draw an out and then return to something resembling his original game plan.

In sharp contrast, Mitamura continues to get himself two-for-oned despite convincing evidence that Wafo-Tapa will blow an entire [card]Damnation[/card] on killing a single creature. He came up with a game plan that involved playing out multiple creatures, and did not deviate from it even when it became clear that it was a suboptimal approach.

It’s nice to talk about planning on the fly, but there are two important questions that turn it from a nice idea into an actionable one.

How do I recognize the need?

Where do I find the time?

Recognizing the need

In answering the first question, I’ll direct you back to an earlier piece, Observer, Orient, Decide, Act. I recommend just reading it if you haven’t, but it can be briefly summarized as “Here’s a method for making sure you don’t miss important parts of the game.”

Using that method or some other one that works for you, you need to make sure you’ve put yourself into the habit of not just registering the game state, but also evaluating it. Let me give you a real-world example where I failed to do that.

I went into last week’s ChannelFireball 5K with far too little sleep, making it a bit of a fiesta of cognitive lapses. In my third round I faced Pyromancer Ascension. I won the first game. In the second, things were going as expected until he cast Spawning Breath, pinging me for one and making an Eldrazi Spawn. “That’s weird,” I thought as I tapped out for my next play. Then Emrakul killed me.

Had I been more on top of my normal cognitive loop (and function, really), the “That’s weird” moment would have been a signal to stop right then and there and to think for a good twenty or thirty seconds about exactly why I was getting smacked by a wacky Limited card. Even if I didn’t have the concept of the transformative Polymorph sideboard plan for Ascension at the top of my mental queue, I knew about it. The Grafensteiner brothers played it at German Nationals, and Mike Flores wrote about it on the mothership.

If we’re running a good, solid “observate and evaluate” loop while we play, we’re going to hear a giant mental record scratch whenever we don’t understand an opponent’s play…and that, in turn, gives lets us recognize the need to plan.

Finding the time

The other pressure that pushes us into autopilot and onto an unvarying game plan is time. Whether it’s your MTGO play clock or time on the round in a PTQ, time is a resource on your way to victory, and it can feel wrong to spend it on “just thinking.” We’ll all find our own answers to this question, but there are three suggestions that I think can help.

Plan during mulligans

First of all, you really should be thinking about your game plan as you mulligan anyway. The world has served you up a set of cards, and you need to decide if they (1) fit your plan, (2) don’t fit your plan and need to be tossed, or (3) fit a new plan that is also pretty good. Second, consider this quote from Paulo about his thirteenth round at PT Austin 2009 (edited down to the essentials):

I open my first hand and see something that is pretty close to perfection…I agonize over my opening hand, because I don’t know what sequence of plays I’m going to make. I’m obviously going to keep, but I don’t want to say “Keep” and then think for five minutes as he is then going to know what I’m thinking about.

The official word on time sent mulliganing is that it should be completed in a “timely manner.” You are not obligated to rush through this process – and, at least in my experience, your opponents will tolerate a “slow” mulligan decision significantly more than slow play once the game starts.

Plan during your opponent’s turn

Hopefully this isn’t news to most of you, but if your brain is disengaged during your opponent’s turn, you’re probably doing it wrong.

However, what may be conceptually new to you is the idea that you don’t need to pay detailed attention to what your opponent is doing. There’s a lot of procedural nonsense during any turn of Magic – your opponent cracks a Scalding Tarn, they shuffle their deck, you shuffle their deck, etc, etc. As long as you can simultaneously think and keep eyes on them so they don’t do anything sketchy, you can take your mental “time out” while your opponent is handling procedure.

Play faster

Playing faster buys you time to plan, either in a very literal sense on MTGO, or in a more metaphorical manner in live tournaments by buying you opponent patience and more time in the round..

But this isn’t a recommendation to do everything faster. If you force yourself to think and process plays, you’re going to screw yourself up. Instead, it’s about making sure that your own procedural nonsense goes as quickly as possible. I won’t go on at length here, but will instead point you toward Tom LaPille’s essay on the topic.

The short version is that the time you spend slooooowly drawing your opening hand one card at a time could be better spent looking at the cards and thinking about them.

Two simple, uncomfortable exercises

We opened on the idea that people hate planning, and that won’t have changed in the last couple thousand words. But adding a little deliberation into your game is going to buy you massive dividends in avoiding mistakes and in being able to adapt to change, whether that’s change in the metagame or change in your opponent’s immediate game plan.

Here are two exercises that can get us in a plannin’ mood.

Tell me a story

I did a quick run-through of this idea above. Write a simple, line-by-line story of what a theoretical game between your deck of choice and one of its likely matchups is. As I said before, this isn’t meant to be some massive, branching-tree, look-forward analysis, but rather just a little examination of the flow of your deck versus the flow of the opposing deck.

Once you’ve done that, put it aside for a minute, go get a drink of water, and come back.

For each turn you’ve written out in your narrative, go back and figure out how likely the cards involved are. Does your “typical” game that lets you win the Valakut matchup involve runner-runner-runner of your key card?

This is your opportunity to dispel your inner [card]Doom Blade[/card] Guy and ship the narrative back if it requires a series of improbable events for you to win.

This exercise should go quickly, and will help you build likelihoods into your planning, so that your plans generate something that aligns reasonably well with reality.

Pause and plan

This one plugs well into actual playtesting.

Pause at a random point during the game. With no time pressure, evaluate your hand, the board state, and anything else that seems relevant, and then write out a few sentences describing your plan to win from your current position.

Then fold that sucker up, set it aside, and play out the rest of the game. Afterward, return to your paper. Did you carry out your plan? If so, how did it work? If not, was it because you had to alter it to deal with changes in the game situation? Or did you just forget the plan once you got into the swing of things again?

For bonus educational value, write down your reasoning and what you think your opponent’s plan is, then discuss it with them afterward. Once they’re done laughing, they can fill you in on their real plan.

Bringing the plan home

All of these ideas boil down into the simple concept of making sure you have actual reasons for what you do, and that you don’t let your mind gloss over the uncomfortable bits on its way to dragging you down for a loss.

Each of us has our own “best practice” for keeping our mind in the game, and these exercises and concepts may not work well for you. But whatever you do, the act of asking yourself “does this make sense” will go a long way toward bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Scroll to Top