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Careful Consideration – Not Taking the Bait

Hello. I’m very excited to be writing my first article on channelfireball.com!

Okay, so this isn’t my first, but it feels that way. For those who aren’t familiar with me and/or started reading channelfireball.com in the last six months or so, I was a weekly writer from the site’s inception until around March of this year, and I’ve been editor of the site (along with LSV) since November of last year. My quick resume is PTQ grinder, recently played in PT Amsterdam, didn’t make Day 2, learned infinite from the people I prepared with, discovered that I love Magic, and may love the people involved with Magic even more.

My writing petered out a bit when the Standard season started this spring, and I just didn’t feel like I had a good enough theoretical understanding of the format to write anything meaningful about it. My understanding of how to construct the best Jund deck for a given tournament eluded me, I wasn’t sure what the plan was against Mythic, and everything seemed really swingy. The subsequent M11 Limited format wasn’t particularly nuanced, but I’ll share my M11 insights with you anyway:

1. Crystal Ball was the most overrated card in M11 draft.
2. Necrotic Plague was criminally underrated in M11 draft. Even in the last week before Scars of Mirrodin came out on Magic Online, I was seeing 5th pick Necrotic Plagues in 8-4 draft queues. Come on, folks. When during the draft videos LSV or Conley say things like, “why is this card still in the pack, it’s basically Wrath of God,” they’re not exaggerating. It’s as if people have protection from words.

Oh, you wanted something for a format that’s not dead? Fine. You’re so high-maintenance. I’m not even going to share my Lorwyn set review with you now.

But since you presumably came here for (applicable, useful) Magic content, here’s a situation that comes up with some frequency in a format that’s a little more current:

It’s Scars of Mirrodin draft and you’re on the play. It’s game one, round one, and you mulliganed to six, then played Swamp, Plains, Gold Myr. Your opponent kept his seven card hand.

Your opponent plays Swamp, Fume Spitter on turn one. On turn two, he plays a Mountain, then attacks with Fume Spitter.

Your hand is:

 

Assume that you are running 17 lands in your deck and you know nothing about your opponent (he’s just some random name on Magic Online). What do you do here?

You have two five-drops and two four-drops in your hand, but no fourth mana source. If you miss your next land drop, you’re in trouble, since your hand is pretty clogged with things that cost four or more.

You’re in a bad situation anyway, since he has a Fume Spitter on the board and it’s likely going to kill your [card]Gold Myr[/card], choking you on mana even further. But your opponent doesn’t know you don’t have a land in hand. Maybe you let it through, go to 19, and hope that he passes the turn without killing the Myr. Your opponent not killing the Myr (even if the opponent thinks you do have a land in hand) is almost certainly a mistake, but people make mistakes all the time.

So this line of play has you sacrificing one point of life, but puts you in a situation where if you draw a land, your hand is turned on and you’ll be in substantially better shape. You’re already in a bad spot anyway and you need something to happen in order to catch up, so it’s worth risking the one point of life, because if you give your opponent a chance to make a mistake, you give yourself a chance to substantially improve your chances of winning.

The problem is that he’s never going let the Myr live. You’re giving away that point of life for no gain virtually every single time they attack Fume Spitter into Myr.

(I’ve got a sick read.)

How can I be so sure?

Let’s look at a different example where they opponent is much more likely to make a mistake:

A contrasting scenario

You have a Necropede in play and no other creatures. Necropede is in your deck as a defensive guy, since your deck is slow but has a powerful late game. Your deck is also not poison-based, and you have no proliferate cards in your deck (like Contagion Clasp), so giving them an early poison counter and proliferating for the win is not going to happen, either. You’re never going to poison anyone to death, since Necropede is the only infect creature in your deck. It’s game three, and your opponent should know you’re not poisoning anyone. Your opponent has a Myrsmith out. In your hand is a Dispense Justice.

Attacking here and passing is a play you could consider; if he blocks with Myrsmith, you get to kill it, which is good for you. He’s probably not going to block, since that block is pretty awful for him. If you leave Necropede back to block, then Myrsmith is definitely not going to attack into your Necropede.

But if you remove Necropede as a potential blocker, if he then attacks with the Myrsmith, (hopefully before playing any artifact spells to trigger the Myrsmith), then you can dispense some sweet delicious justice and get the Myrsmith off the table, which is what you want.

A better player might read you as having the Dispense Justice (Why else would you attack with the Necropede and then pass with three mana up? He knows you’re not poisoning him.) and might pass the turn without attacking back. But if you think you can’t beat an active Myrsmith, then attacking with Necropede to bait the counterattack with Myrsmith is a reasonable line of play. There’s a decent chance he makes the mistake and does exactly what you want him to do, increasing your chances of winning.

So in the second scenario, you can reasonably expect an unknown opponent to make a mistake some of the time. Why is that not the case in the first?

(Note that there are other lines of play you might want to take in order to disguise the Dispense Justice, but the point of this second scenario isn’t to be exhausive; it’s merely here to serve as a contrasting scenario to illustrate when it is correct to bait a mistake out versus when it’s not correct to bait.)

Revisiting the scenarios from their perspective

There are several differences between the two situations. Let’s start with the Necropede into Dispense Justice one, then think about what the opponent might be thinking.

One possibility is that they aren’t. They aren’t thinking about what you could have, or why you’re passing with three mana up. This is a pretty common mistake, especially when the format’s new. At a prerelease, you can pretty much bank on people not knowing what to play around, and that’s understandable. (I remember at the Zendikar prerelease I played two guys thinking, “if there’s an Infest/Pyroclasm effect, I’m fine – if everything dies, I can still recover based on what’s in my hand. Then he played a kicked Marsh Casualties. Wait. That’s a card?! I did not win that game.)

Another possibility is that they don’t care if you Dispense Justice their Myrsmith for whatever reason. They have (correctly or incorrectly, likely incorrectly) decided that they are essentially willing to trade their Myrsmith for your Dispense Justice. Maybe they have a Molten-Tail Masticore in their hand and they know that since the game’s going to go long, they want to be able to beat down with Masticore without it getting Justiced. It’s probably still wrong to attack with Myrsmith there, since they can just sit back and get more value by generating 1/1s that will also help get to the long game. Attacking with a 1/1 and a Masticore (or two creatures and a Masticore if you have metalcraft active) later in the game is also a potential way to play around Dispense Justice if that’s really what they’re worried about.

There are lots of lines of play for our opponent that we can construct here that are likely suboptimal and it’s not particularly important to go into them with any real degree of depth. Rather, we just need to note that each of these lines makes at least some sort of logical sense for taking that line of play, even if that logic isn’t totally correct.

Now let’s look at what they are likely thinking when they attack their Fume Spitter into your mana Myr:

If they don’t want the Fume Spitter to die, it means they don’t want to make the trade. If, for example, they are holding Spitter back to kill a future Myrsmith or Embersmith or a similarly threatening x/1 creature, then they want to hold the Fume Spitter for future turns.

If they want the Fume Spitter to be around for future turns, then there’s no reason why they would attack. If they are attacking, it’s essentially saying, “I am willing to trade my creature for yours.” But even if you don’t block, they still have the option of making that trade postcombat. But that option was already taken when they decided to attack in the first place. When they make the active choice to turn the Fume Spitter sideways, they’re saying, “my guy is trading for yours no matter what you do.” In addition, if they attack and you don’t block, you cannot telegraph to them any clearer that you want your Myr to live, which gives them even more incentive to kill the mana producer.

However, people make dumb mistakes all the time. They miss onboard kills, or click through their attack steps, or forget to play a land. Their brain short-circuits. But the difference is that when someone forgets to play a land, they just forgot to do something. They didn’t see the on-board kill because they forgot to check life totals, or the board was too complicated. Almost all of the “short-circuit” mistakes are when someone fails to take an action. But when they attack Fume Spitter into a mana Myr, they’ve made a conscious decision to do something. Don’t underestimate the importance of them making the active decision to turn their creature sideways versus the passive decision of not attacking for the win (or not playing a land, or so on).

Board complexity is also not a factor here. The board is very simple. They have a 1/1 and you have a 1/1, and you are also tapped out. There isn’t a lot to clutter up their decision-making, or complex combat math, or them playing around a pump spell, or anything like that.

When people take actions, they have a reason for doing so. Even if that reason isn’t 100% correct, very few people just take random actions for no reasoning behind them. Here, even the most rudimentary line of reasoning results in the Fume Spitter trading with the Myr. If they don’t want the trade, they won’t attack – even if it’s correct to make the trade (maybe they undervalue mana Myr; the value of the Myr is actually irrelevant. If the creature was a Sylvan Ranger or a Memnite, the decision-making on their part is the same. A very similar thought process occurred when Mogg Fanatic and Llanowar Elves were in the same Standard/Limited format semi-recently).

The only time they would attack with Fume Spitter and they do not want to trade, but make the attack anyway, is if they have a pump spell in hand, but that situation is quite rare and you would have to be really darn sure that that’s what’s going on – that’s a very complex and specific read, and falls more in the category of “soul-reading mumbo-jumbo” than anything else. Because in order for you not to block the Spitter and have it be correct, you have to put them on:

1 – Having a pump spell in hand,
2 – Being willing to trade a pump spell for your Myr,
3 – Them coming to the conclusion that they want to save their Fume Spitter for something else later in the game.

Good luck deducing all of that with any degree of certainty on turn two.

There is another situation where they would make the attack but don’t want to trade, and that’s the bottom category of extremely unskilled players. If someone presents you a 58 card deck in a Limited format, they probably are very new to Magic and are still working out the mechanics of combat. In that situation, you might get enough value out of not blocking. But we’re talking about the very very very bottom of the player pool, skillwise. However, against an unknown opponent, I’m going to assume some base level of competence, and I don’t see any reason why they would ever make that attack unless the Myr was going to die anyway.

The bottom line is that when you don’t block with the Myr, all you’re really doing is starting the game at 19. You’re actually giving away a point of life for no reason. It’s tempting to look at your hand of four- and five-drops and think, “but if he doesn’t sacrifice the Spitter, I have a chance of getting back in to this game!” The number of games you lose by giving away a free point of damage is going to far outweigh the number of games you win because you get to untap with your Myr in play, because they are going to kill your Myr in an overwhelming majority of the games. In addition, your hand is slow, so that extra point of life is even more important because you’re likely to take more damage early on in the game.

Baiting your opponent into making mistakes is a part of the game, and nobody plays perfectly, so your opponent is going to make mistakes. Even LSV made mistakes when he was 16-0ing the Swiss at a Pro Tour. So doing things that put them in a position to give you an edge is usually good.

However, you also have to think about what they are thinking. If it doesn’t make any logical sense for someone to do something, they probably aren’t going to do it. Imperfect decisions are the result of imperfect logic. They are almost never the result of no logic. Relying on the kind of “loose wiring” mistakes to steal games is so far-fetched that while it might happen once in a blue moon, giving up resources (like a point of life, especially when you have such a slow hand) in the hopes that you win the lottery is going to lose you more games than it wins.

Yours snap-blockingly,
-Zaiem
zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter

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