PV’s Playhouse – Strategy and Tactics


I’m currently in San Jose with the rest of Team Channelfireball, practicing for the GP and the PT. My days have mostly been divided between playing Modern, playing drafts, eating, and reading a book on Clausewitz’s On War for a school assignment. After reading it, I realized many of the concepts could actually be applied for a game of Magic in some form or another, so I decided to write this article about strategy and planning.


A while ago, someone asked on Twitter how many turns I usually plan ahead. The ideal answer is obviously, “all of them, duh,” but in practice, the answer is one full cycle—you try to see what they’re going to do on their turn to react to what you did, and then what you’re going to do to answer that. Sometimes, you have to plan many more turns ahead, and sometimes you can’t really do it or it doesn’t help to do it, because your next play is going to depend completely on what happens next. Regardless of how far ahead you plan for each particular play, though, you should always have a plan and a strategy before you play your first card.

It’s important to see that a plan is basically a goal, a purpose that will guide you throughout the entire match. Obviously “win the game” is the major goal here, but how you win the game should be a goal in itself—it could be, for example, “surviving until I hit six mana,” or “killing all of my opponent’s creatures in the early game,” or “going off before turn three.”

Once you have a strategy, it will be your guideline—not a hard set of rules that you must abide by, but it will give you a general direction to follow with all of your actions. If you do not know what the game is about, then you will have to rethink the situation every time something new happens. If you have a direction, then you just include the new factors in that model, making it much easier to analyze the game at all times. For example, if you decide your general plan is “burn them out before they can kill you,” and they have a 3/3 attacking, you probably don’t want to spend your newly drawn [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] on it—it goes against the “burn them out” plan.

[draft]Wild nacatl
lightning bolt[/draft]

If your plan is to “survive until I play Nicol Bolas,” though, then you are much more likely to want to burn the attacker, and you save time and brain cells if you don’t have to think everything through every time.


Once we have a goal, we need to execute it. Take, for example, Carlos Romão’s showing in 2002 with Psychatog at the World Championship. In that tournament, Carlos had one goal for ‘Tog mirrors, which was to resolve [card]Upheaval[/card]. Was that the reason he won? No, it wasn’t—every Psychatog player had the same goal, and they were all sculpting their game plans towards that same goal. The difference was in how they got there—their tactics.


Carlos’s tactic for resolving an Upheaval was saving his counterspells for those battles alone, placing less value on card drawing than his opponents would, because he reasoned that as long as that particular battle was won, nothing else would matter. It’s irrelevant if you have drawn 10 extra cards, you’re dead if I [card]Mana Short[/card] you and then Upheaval + ‘Tog. Not only that, but he also built his deck with that in mind—he didn’t have [card]Force Spike[/card]s, for example, because they wouldn’t be good in that particular fight, whereas other players still had them.

It’s impractical to talk of purpose without considering means—the things you use to accomplish your goal. There is a kind of purpose-means interdependence, where your means will dictate your purposes, and then those purposes will tell you how to direct the means—having a purpose you can’t achieve only works against you. I could have the goal of becoming the ruler of the planet, but that’s not a very useful goal to have, because I don’t have the means to do it (at least short term—we’ll see about it in the future). At the same time, I could punch this wall in front of me right now—I certainly have the means to do it—but I don’t punch it, because it doesn’t serve any particular purpose.

Taking that to Magic—if I’m playing a control deck, for example, the plan can’t be to “kill them before they combo off,” and if I’m playing mono-green, the plan can’t be “kill all of my opponent’s creatures”—I have to find an alternative, or change decks. If Carlos’s deck had [card]Force Spike[/card]s and removal over counterspells, then perhaps he wouldn’t even have the means to execute his particular strategy, and would instead have to hope to get his opponent by countering his card drawing spells.

At the same time, if I’m playing mono-red burn, the plan could very easily be “kill my opponent’s creatures”—I have the tools to do that—but that doesn’t follow any meaningful purpose, because, with mono-red burn, I should burn my opponent. You see that a lot when people play Limited, especially if they are beginners—they just play whatever spells they can, because they can, with no thought as to whether it advances a particular goal or not. At the prerelease, I saw a person play [card]Stab Wound[/card] on his opponent’s 1/1, when he was at 18 life and had an 0/2 in play—that clearly serves no purpose, so why would you do it? Don’t do things just because you can.

An interesting strategy misconception happened when I was watching the SCG Invitational. Todd Anderson was playing RUG against a guy whose name I do not recall playing UW. Todd had two Delvers in play, but only one land. His opponent had like four lands, but needed to find a way to stop the Delvers. At some point, Todd drew and played [card]Brainstorm[/card]. His opponent thought for a while and played [card]Force of Will[/card], which is somewhat logical since Todd was stuck on one land and clearly hoping that the Brainstorm would get him out of it. Then, the following turn, he finally found a sweeper—a [card]Terminus[/card] or maybe an [card]Engineered Explosives[/card]—but Todd had the Force of Will, and the guy died without Todd having ever played a second land.

[draft]delver of secrets

In this scenario, it’s clear that the guy got too excited because he had the means to do something—his opponent was searching for lands, and he could stop it. He didn’t have a reason to stop it, though—it was not part of his overall plan to prevent his opponent from finding extra lands. The plan was to stay alive, and countering that Brainstorm didn’t do anything to advance that, whereas saving the Force of Will to fight through a sweeper clearly would. It’s interesting to note that Todd had a Force of Will of his own that he could have used to force through the Brainstorm, but he chose not to do it. Even though he had the means to find his second land, that didn’t serve his particular purpose, so he decided not to do it and as a result he won the game.

The trick is finding the purpose that I want and can actually accomplish with the means I have, and, if I can’t have both, then I must either change my goal to match my means or change my means to match my goal. In Magic, both approaches work. In my experience, people will generally set a goal, and then try to change means to accommodate it. For example, the goal in the normal Jund versus combo matchup is to disrupt them so that they can’t go off, and then kill them before they recover from disruption. If that isn’t working very well, then people will add more disruption. If even with plenty of disruption you still can’t kill them before they recover, then you will try to be faster, so that they have less time to recover. If even after that you still can’t win, then it’s no longer a problem of means—it’s a problem of purpose, because you’re trying to do something that you can’t. You should, then, change the goal. It could be, for example, to land a single permanent that they can’t beat, such as a [card]Leyline of the Void[/card] if they are graveyard based.

Understanding your limitations is essential to formulating a good strategy. I remember that during our testing for San Francisco, we were working under the assumption that big Zoo would beat small Zoo. When we first played, it was indeed the case, but as we learned the matchup, we found out that small Zoo could actually win. Our mistake, at first, was that we were trying to fight them on their grounds—we would kill creatures and achieve superiority on board, because that’s how you generally win Zoo mirrors—the whole “last man standing” and whatnot. Once we realized that we didn’t have the means to win this fight (because they’d just go bigger), we changed our purpose, which was then to burn them out.

[draft]lightning helix
lightning bolt
tribal flames[/draft]

Between their fetchlands damage, the early hits, [card lightning bolt]Bolt[/card], [card lightning helix]Helix[/card], [card]Tribal Flames[/card], and [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card], it was something we could actually do, and we’d often win the game even though the opponent would have a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] and a 5/5 [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] in play.

Another example: a while ago, I read an article on a Brazilian website by Edb in which he explained his thought process behind a Legacy UW deck. He explained that, after playing over and over against [card]Show and Tell[/card] – [card]Omniscience[/card], he simply couldn’t successfully counter it most of the time. [card]Force of Will[/card]s, [card]Pyroblast[/card]s and [card]Overmaster[/card]s were way too much to fight through, and he usually ended up losing that fight and the game as a result.

force of will[/draft]

So, though the ideal strategy would be to never let Show and Tell resolve, because they can’t win if it doesn’t, he did not have the means to stop it. As such, it was useless as a purpose. He then had to change his goal—he decided that he’d try to win through a resolved Show and Tell with cards like [card]Oblivion Ring[/card]. Thus, he adjusted his means to match his new purpose, and found out that this was one he could actually accomplish a reasonable amount of the time.

In the end, it’s almost impossible for a deck to have the same plan in all matchups, or even throughout the same match. Even the most proactive deck, such as Zoo, will change plan from time to time—against other Zoo decks, for example, you might want to play the control game. In general, the important factors will be matchup and your opening hand—if it’s a hand with [card steppe lynx]Lynxes[/card] and [card lightning bolt]Bolts[/card], then you generally want to be aggressive, whereas if it’s [card knight of the reliquary]Knights of the Reliquary[/card] and [card tarmogoyf]Goyfs[/card], then you should probably be the one on defense. Something as simple as being on the play or the draw can change your plan radically, and you should pay attention to those things. If you don’t have a clue what your plan should be, then watching your opponent and trying to do the opposite is not a bad strategy—if he is suiciding guys to deal some points of damage, then you probably want to suicide guys of your own to prevent that from happening. Whatever happens, though, don’t just throw random cards in play—if you aren’t sure what your goal should be, try to come up with one! It might be wrong, but doing things with no direction will also likely be wrong anyway.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!


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